Wayland Revisited: A Pan-European God?

The enigmatic fairy-smith ‘Wayland‘ is famed in the legends of the pagan north Europeans, particularly among the speakers of the Scandinavian and Germanic language groups. What is less understood is that his influence is far more widespread – from Ireland in the west, to Russia in the east, and down into the Balkans, whose old regional name almost invokes the god of smithcraft, goldsmithing, weapons and armour – a skill for which these regions (for example , Thracia) and the Eurasian Caucausus were famous for from at least the 5thC BCE. In this essay, I will try and explore and unfold the nature of this ancient pan-European (and Eurasian) conceptual mythological figure who seemed to have a foot in the worlds of both gods and men, and in so-doing unified peoples’ conceptions of their gods and their land. 

You can familiarise yourself with the ‘Lay of Volund’ here.

Germanic and Scandinavian Wayland:

The fairy-smith’s name has been encountered in a number of regional spelling-variants, including Wayland or Weyland (English) and Wêland (Old English), Völundr and Velent (Icelandic/Norse Poetic Edda and sagas), Wiolant (Old High German) and Gallant or Galans (France). In the medieval Latin of Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was spelled Guielandus.

His earliest most complete surviving legend is found in the Völundarkviða (‘Poem/Lay of Volund’) of the 13thC Icelandic ‘Poetic Edda’ texts, which were derived from older oral traditions transmitted through the Atlantic archipelago (mainly Britain and Ireland) from Scandinavia and the Baltic provinces – all then part of northern Europe’s most dynamic ocean trade route, connecting via the Volga and the Black Sea to Byzantium. In this telling he is described as a ‘prince of elves’ and ‘one of the elves’ skilled in crafting jewels, weapons and armour with magical qualities.

Wayland is recognisable from the tale of Völundarkviða on the on the images depicted on the 8thC ‘Franks Casket’, currently in the British Museum.

Wayland depicted on the front panel of the 8thC 'Franks Casket'.

The ‘Franks Casket’. The scene compares the heathen vision of Wayland (on the left) creating life from death with that of the Christian nativity. The two religious ideas were probably considered ‘one and the same’ to the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon peoples of the day.

The early 10thC Anglo-Saxon poem Deor (from the Exeter Book manuscript collection) refers to the details of the Völundarkviða story of Weland, also confirming this later telling was common in earlier Anglo-Saxon England. The fairy-smith is also mentioned (as ‘Weland’) in the 10thC  Old English epic poem, Beowulf, as the creator of the hero’s chest armour.

He appears as ‘Velent’ in a side-story to a 13thC Scandinavian retelling of the popular Germanic saga of the life of the Gothic hero-king Theoderic (Dietrich) the Great (Þiðrekssaga/Thidrekssaga). This is itself another version of the story in Völundarkviða albeit different in a number of minor details. For instance, it states that Wayland learned smithcraft under the tutelage of Mimer (possibly the same as Mimir, whose well is to be found among the cthonic roots of the world tree, Yggdrasil) and the dwarves. He presents himself at the court of the King, this time called Nithung, and kills the king’s blacksmith. For this, he is crippled by Nithung and enslaved.

In fact, Wayland is mentioned briefly in all manner of medieval north European texts as a creator of special jewels, weapons and armour. There are also locations throughout northern Europe named after him.

The ‘Celtic’ connection:

Perhaps the most fascinating and generally unrecognised mythological incarnation of Weland is from the ‘Ulster Cycle’ of Irish legends which were written down in Irish and Latin from the 7thC onwards, but emanated from older oral traditions. This is the smith-king Cuillean or ‘Guillean’ – creator of magical weapons and armour for Ulster kings and heroes, and namesake for the famous Irish hero Cuchullain. 19thC Irish mythographer Nicholas O’Kearney had this to say about him in the context of Ireland’s old gods:

“… Aine, or Aighne, as the name is sometimes written, was a being of
great note in the olden times, as may be seen from the evidences
which I shall adduce, and generally supposed to have been possessed
of extraordinary or supernatural powers, having an affinity to the at-
tributes of a Pagan deity. This Aine was the sister of Milucradh of
Sliabh Guillean, better known among the peasantry as the Cailleach
Biorar (i.e. the old woman who frequents the water) of Loch Dag-
ruadh, on that mountain, and daughter of Cuillean, or Guillean, from
whom the mountain is supposed to have derived its name. But
before any further notice is given of Aine, it is necessary to give a
short sketch of Guillean himself, in order to show his connexion with
the ancient mythology of Ireland, and lead to the inference that his
daughter, too, was connected with the Pagan worship of our ancestors.
Cuillean, or Guillean, himself was a very famous being that once re-
sided in the Isle of Man, and of so long-lived or mythic a nature, as
to be found living in all ages of Pagan history ; at all events he is re-
presented to have lived at the time when Conchubar Mac Nessa, after-
wards king of Ulster, was a young man, who possessed little pros-
pects of aggrandisement, except what he might win by his sword.
Conchubar, being of an ambitious and enterprising nature, consulted
the oracle of Clochor, and was informed that he should proceed to the
Isle of Man, and get Cuillean, or Guillean, a noted ceard, or worker
in iron, to make a sword, spear, and shield for him ; and that the
buadha (supernatural power) possessed by them would be instrumental
in gaining for him the sovereignty of Ulster… ” Nicholas O’Kearney, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 2, 1855 (p.32)

Although described in Irish legends as a blacksmith who creates magical weaponry, the connection between Cuillean and the germanic ‘Weland’ is not immediately apparent until you consider the tendency for the ‘Celtic’ languages of ‘lenition‘ (softening) or ‘fortition‘ (hardening) of initial and terminal consonantal sounds. I have discussed this connection previously here. This essentially means that ‘Cuillean’ was often pronounced ‘whallin’ or ‘wellin’ as occurs in the placenames associated with Cuillean in the Isle of Man, where his smithy was supposed in some Irish stories to have been located. In fact there are many more placenames in Ireland associated with Cuillean, although a bit of digging will probably find him in Scotland, Wales and England (where he is referred to as Wayland). If you employ a lenition of the primary consonant, and a fortition of the terminal consonant of the name ‘Cuillean’ you could phonetically pronounce it ‘Wolund‘. Probatum est!

It is of course possible that the character of Cuillean was introduced to the Irish poetic traditions during the Anglo-Saxon era, but this seems unlikely given that the Irish tales have little in common with the narrative of the 13thC Icelandic version of Völundarkviða, which we have fairly good reason to believe was the same myth known in 10thC England and was probably transmitted to Iceland via the ancient sea-routes between Norway, the Isle of Man and Dublin. Of course, this does not preclude the donation of the name of Weland to the myths of a legendary Irish blacksmith during this period of cultural interaction. Obviously, the most likely native character is Gobán Saor, an artificer-architect credited with building of many fabulous architectural structures, usually ecclesiastic. The word gobban actually means ‘blacksmith’, and the euhemerist Irish christians created a number of saints out of the character, known as ‘St Gobban’ or ‘Gobbanus’. As early christian churches were made of wood and stone rather than iron, the Gobán Saor remains a curious figure chosen to erect such structures…

It has also been suggested that the legendary Tuatha Dé Danaan blacksmith-hospitaller Goibniu is the same character, and he does indeed demonstrate the legendary attributes ascribed in the Germanic language legends to Wayland. The Gauls in the Roman period worshipped a god called Gobbanos as well as a hammer-wielding god known as Sucellus, although these may both be epithets of the same deity. The Romano-Britons appear to have incorporated the worship of Vulcan into native religious cults, and Scots and Hebridean folklore makes references to ‘Bolcan Smith’. Mad king Suibne (‘Sweeney’) of Irish folklore eventually settled in ‘Glenn Bolcain’. The ancient settlement of Govan, now a part of Glasgow’s metropolitan district, appears to be named after him and the official legends of their local saint,  Mungo (Kentigern) incorporate material from the Cuillean/Weland legends, as well as aspects of Greco-Roman legends of Hephaistos and Vulcan.

Of interest, Kentigern’s famous hagiography compiled by Jocelyn of Furness also borrows details of the tale of the flying wizard Merlin, also used by his friend and contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who latinised Wayland’s name as Guielandus.  Jocelyn used the flying wizard ‘Melinus’ as St Patrick’s adversary in the Isle of Man, redolent of King Suibne of Glen Bolcain, who also flew through the air. Lenition of ‘m’ to a ‘w’ sound is common in Gaelic (samhain = ‘sa-win’) so it can be seen how easily we go from ‘Melinus’ to ‘Welinus’. That crafty wizard – it would make sense for the name of the island where Geoffrey claimed King Arthur’s sword Caliburn was forged – ‘Insula Avalonis’ – could have been derived from a corrupted form of the Gaelic ‘Hy Guiellean’ (pronounced close to ‘A Wulan’ – ‘Isle of Wayland’).

Just what Cuillean was doing in the Isle of Man was anyone’s guess. Perhaps he was sojourning with Manannan, that other great traveller between the worlds and donator of arms and armour…. The deeper you dig, the more intriguing the link becomes!

The Greco-Roman connection:

Greco-Roman culture had a very important influence upon many indigenous north European legends and traditions. Not only was this culture partially-transmitted and deliberately syncretised into the zones of Roman occupation in north Europe, but continued to be used among the literate latin scholars of the early christian church whose literary understanding of paganism was largely based upon Greek and Roman mythology. Given the persistence of much older written and artistic depictions of these gods from mediterranean Europe, it is easy to assume that the Europeans (late-comers as they were to the idea of writing and iconic imagery) borrowed from the southern traditions, but this is not necessarily the case! Many of the Greek and Roman gods and myths are equally likely to have diffused down from northern Europe during the Bronze Age.

One good example of a striking similarity between the legend of Wayland and that of Hephaistos (know to the Romans as Vulcan, and to the Etruscans as Sethlans or Velchanus) is that (apart from being blacksmiths) they are both imagined as being somehow deformed or disabled. In Weland’s case, he is hamstrung by his captors, and in the case of the Greek god, he is said variously to have been born lame, or is injured when he is thrown down from Olympos by Zeus, when he tries to defend his mother Hera (the motif which appears in the 12thC hagiography of St Kentigern). It is of note that in both cases, the crippling precludes re-admission to the world of the divine.

Both Weland and Hephaistos supply legendary heroes and gods with their weapons, armour and tools. Both are wily and cunning and trick and ensnare their adversaries. Both are exiled from their divine right, only to return in triumph. In some Greek myths, the god is liberated from his earthly exile and returned to heaven by Dionysos who places him astride an ass and leads him back to Olympos.


Attic vase painting ca. 5thC BCE. Crippled Hephaistos is led back to his mother Hera on Olympos by the god Dionysos, riding on an ass. Aficionados of Iron Age Celtic coins will recognise the ‘horse’ motif as significant. The myths of the Dioskoroi and Bellerophon also appear related. Note the similarity of the tongs to the ‘caduceus’ of Hermes…

Unlike Hephaistos however, Weland is more of an action-character and a warrior, but he also strides between the human and the spirit worlds. The Volundr Saga and the various known carvings of the Wayland legend on Anglo-Saxon and Viking age artifacts also focus upon his escape from the world of men either with a magical flying machine, upon a giant bird, or with a valkyrie. The ‘flight’ of Hephaistos, by comparison, is through the liberating agency of Dionysus, a famous loosener of the bonds between the earthly and the divine. Both represent a ‘shamanistic’ type of journey of self-discovery, implicit in the perfection of a craftsman. Freemasons take note!

The other Greek deity who travelled between the worlds and had the legendary attribution of being something of a trickster was of course Hermes, who also shared the affections of Aphrodite (and who didn’t?). Aphrodite (emotional love) herself was almost a counter-image of Athena (virgin intellect), and if Athena is the feminine principle of the uncreated idea, Hephaistos was the active principle of a creator. The complex interplay of their principles can nearly drive you mad!

Etruscan Velchans:

Also known as Sethlans, Velchans was the Etruscan progenitor of Roman Vulcan. Little is known about him, although it is likely he merged with Vulcan at some point, so what can be said of Vulcan might apply originally to Velchans. According to later Roman authors commenting upon the substratum of Etrurian religious culture important at the heart of Republican era Roman religion, he was both a god of fire (Vitruvius 1stC, BC) and lightning (Servius, 4thC CE). The Etruscan haruspices or diviners were keen observers of natural phenomena, and lightning was one of the most important and potent of these.

Bellerophon and the Dioskouroi:

Legendary ancient Greek hero, the mortal but ingenious Bellerephon (rider of Pegasus and slayer of the Chimera) is associated with a legend in which he attempts to fly to Mount Olympos on the winged horse Pegasus. Zeus sends a gadfly to bite Pegasus who unseats its rider who tumbles down into a thorn bush and lives out the rest of his earthly existence blind and crippled until Zeus decides to deify him. It will be noted that the constellation ‘Pegasus’ appears to be a falling horse, given its inverted appearance – yet another hint that many myths are star-myths related to the seasonal cycles. Yet again we see the heroic smith-god motif of a fall from grace, injury, and finally divine elevation

In the 10thC Byzantine stela on the Veroli Casket, he is apparently depicted as one of the twin equestrian heroes – the ‘Dioskoroi’, Castor and Polydeukes:

Veroli Casket - This appears to show Bellerephon as one of the Dioskuri.

Veroli Casket – This appears to show Bellerephon as one of the Dioskoroi. Note the cherub holding the ring or crown of divinity over the head of Bellerophon/Polydeukes

Bellerophon and Polydeukes represent the semi-divine gifted human, an assignation also common to Weland. The Dioskoroi were said to be children of the swan-maiden Leda, just as Weland was the wife of a swan-maiden (a valkyrie).

The Dioskouroi (literally ‘youth-gods’) seem to have been connected to the youthful cthonic deities of the Samothracian mysteries and those at Lemnos. These were the Kabeiroi, who share similarities with other Hellenised regional youthful groups of hero-deities, such as the Idaean DactylsKouretes and Corybantes. They all ultimately seem connected to the worship of a Great Mother Goddess. The Idaean Dactyls – like the Kabeiroi – were considered masters of smithcraft.

Although Bellerophon (whose cult originates in Corinth) is never explicitly linked to any of these youthful gods by ancient writers, it is evident that he fits their category of semi-divine culture hero. Such heroes are always (so the tales tell us) in need of a steed, weapons and armour in order to complete their quests, and the character of the smith is the enabler in all of these, and with time becomes conflated with the hero. The smith shoes the horses and forges the weapons.

Where the myths of Bellerophon and Pegasus have a striking similarity to those from the Celtic provinces whose saints’ legends (including those of St Patrick, Satan, St Maughold and St Milburga among others) sometimes have the the motif that their leaping horse creates springs of water when its hooves strike the soil. In ancient Greek myth, the hooves of Pegasus create the Hippocrene Well when they strike the rock of Mount Helikon.

Ericthonios of Athens:

Another character arising from the ancestor/hero-cult aspects of ancient Greek mythology is the Athenian progenitor Ericthonius. He was supposed to have had an autocthonous birth when smith-god Hephaistos spilled his semen upon the earth, during a failed attempt to rape Athena. This infers that Hephaistos had intercourse with Gaia and created the primary ancestor of Athenians. This appears to be why Athena (Minerva to the Romans) – a goddess of the mechanical creative arts – can be thought of as the divine reflex of Hephaistos’ earthly manifestation. Athena’s legendary creation was from the head of Zeus, indicating her (virgin) capacity of representing pure mind and technical creativity. Hephaistos represented the manifest earthly power behind that divine will – the passive spirit operating through active physical activity.

Ericthonios was also associated strongly with horses and the creative arts – he is said to have taught the yoking of horses, the smelting of silver, and to have invented the quadriga chariot, as well as teaching the art of ploughing. This makes him a local variant on the Korybantes/Kouretes/Dactyls traditions. He is represented among the constellations by the ‘charioteer’ constellation, Auriga, which (along with Perseus and Aries) lies west of Pegasus, Pisces, Cetus and Aquarius on the celestial ecliptic path. Other horse-related constellations in this vicinity of the sky include Equuleus and Saggitarius. Capricornus lies between both of these. Taurus is also near. The theme of heroes, monsters, horses and grazing horned animals among these constellations fits the ‘semantic field’ of the semi-divine ancestral hero myths very strongly: every city was built upon the achievements of rustic ancestors who wrought all of their needs from nature…

Weland, Donar and Thor – Baltic and Slavic connections:

(Note: For the most explicit descriptions of Baltic and Slavic gods, the reader might wish to study the works of Mireja Gimbutas and Algirdas Greimas)

The medieval Nordic/Icelandic ‘Eddaic’ legends of Thor (equivalent of the older Germanic god Donar or Thunor – literally ‘thunder’) are an interesting mythological combination of the European ‘lightning-wielding sky god’ archetype and the more typical European legendary heroes such as Perseus, Herakles and Cuchullain. His weapon or tool of choice is the hammer, with which he shatters his enemies and the earth itself – he never (at least in the Icelandic myths) plays the role of the blacksmith, which is interesting, and possibly a late revisioning of Thunor or Donar’s original function as a cthonic agricultural deity, much like Roman Mars.

The hammer is, of course, one of the symbolic indicators of smithcraft, the other being the tongs. Instead of tongs, of course, the medieval Nordic Thor possesses a pair of impervious gauntlets and typically achieves his mythological victories through great strength and devil-may-care bravery rather than outright cunning. Nevertheless, these attributes certainly appear to bring Thor directly into Weland’s semantic field, necessitating an examination of how they relate to the other North European air/fire and cthonic/water gods – the Prussian Occopirmus*/Perkons and Pekols/Pushkayts, the Slavic Perun, Veles and Svarog, Lithuanian Perkunas and Velnias, and the Finnish *Ukko (Perkele) and Ilmarinen.

In the middle ages until its acquisition by the Ottomans in 1453, Constantinople was a magnet of power and wealth that attracted north Europeans to its shores to trade and seek their fortune. Consequently, trade and influence networks extended from the Black Sea upwards into the ‘viking’ territories of the Slavs, Rus, Balts and Scandinavians. Looking at it another way, the ‘Viking Empire’ stretched from Iceland in the west to Byzantium in the East! Many of these peoples remained nominally pagan and only partly christian (or jewish) until a very late period: the Kievan Russ (Varangians) and their cousins the Scandinavians officially converted under their leaders in the 10th and 11th centuries, and the Baltic peoples began to convert during a later more indeterminate period leading up to and following the fall of Constantinople, when the influence of Orthodox christianity moved north and west consequent upon Islam’s accession to its seat of power. As a result, there are a number of contemporary written sources and later folklore records of the actual pagan religions of Lesser Russia, Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which were still being practised until relatively recently.

It is perhaps unsurprising to find that there are many similarities between the Nordic, Baltic and Slavic gods, and these – touching on the aforementioned tentative link between Donar/Thunor/Thor and Weland – can help us untangle the meaning behind the enigmatic legendary blacksmith god of the Europeans.

In the east, Perun and Veles (also called Volos) were two closely-linked gods in the Slavic pantheon, notably that of the Kievan Rus until the 10thC and these survived in the guise of the gods Perkunas and Velnias among the Lithuanians until a much later date. These better-attested Baltic counterparts were known by a number of regional names – as Perkele (Ukko) and Ilmarinen in Finland, as Perkele and Pekkols in Prussia, and also as Perkons (Latvia, Estonia). Perkunas and his variants represented the sky (elemental air and fire), whereas Velnias and his variants represented the earth (elemental earth and water). Their various legends point towards an interplay between the two states: the earth and the heavens, or the mundane and the divine. Reconstruction of the underlying theology of these gods, it must be noted, depends upon collecting together details recorded over a period of time spanning almost 1000 years from sources in various different regions.

Perun/Perkunas is a thunder-god. Like Donar/Thor he is associated with wielding a hammer or axe akin to a thunderbolt. He also (like Thor) has been portrayed as either being accompanied by a goat, riding upon a goat, or riding in a chariot pulled by a goat or goats. Devotees of Donar/Thor wore similar hammer/axe amulets to those of Perun/Perkunas. They obviously have a common cultural root.

Thor's hammer and cross-pendants were associated with worship of a heroic sky-god in pagan and early-christian Scandinavia.

Thor’s hammer and cross-pendants were associated with worship of a heroic sky-god in pagan and early-christian Scandinavia.

Slavic 'axe amulet' c.10-11thC CE (Kievan Rus peoples)

Slavic ‘axe amulet’ c.10-11thC CE (Kievan Rus peoples)

Contemporary gold casting of 'Crosh Bollan' amulet from the Isle of Man (courtesy of Celtic Gold). It is cast from the palatal bone of the Bollan Wrasse, which bears a striking similarity to 'Thor's Hammer' and the 'Slavic Axe'.

Contemporary gold casting of ‘Crosh Bollan’ amulet from the Isle of Man (courtesy of Celtic Gold). It is cast from the palatal bone of the Bollan Wrasse fish, which bears a striking similarity to ‘Thor’s Hammer’ and the ‘Slavic Axe’. The Isle of Man was once a medieval viking kingdom and was once a principle stop-over destination on the ancient sea trade-routes from the Baltic and Scandinavia.

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe.

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe. Did it originally come from the Black Sea trade routes with the north?

It should become obvious that Wayland is an intermediary partaker of the qualities of the sky god and the terrestrial-god. In his myth he is confined on earth for a period, but longs for the sky, into which he leaps at the opportunity to escape. Perkunas seemingly represents ‘Sky Wayland’.

Perkunas: why an axe and not a hammer?

Whereas the hammer is archetypally the tool of a blacksmith or stonemason, the axe is the tool of the woodsman and the builder of wooden houses – particularly in the arboreal climes of the Baltic and Russian provinces where wooden houses have predominated, being warmer in harsh winters. Such buildings were ever at the mercy of fire, particularly that occasioned by great tree-splitting bolts of lightning. For these reasons, Perkunas is associated with an axe – he creates by dividing.

Velnias/Velinas as the ‘divine smith’:

Velnias (and his Slavic equivalent), on the other hand, has a terrestrial or subterranean association. It should be fairly clear that similarity with the Scandinavian ‘Velent’ or ‘Volund’ versions of the name of Wayland. In the ancient ‘elemental’ system of thought, Velnias represented Earth and Water – the cthonic and earth-bound forces and the dead. Perkunas represented Air and Fire – they are complimentary to one another. Velnias represents ‘Terrestrial Wayland’ who creates by forging – hammering things together.

The core aspects of the european smith-god legends – be they of Wayland or Hephaistos – represent him as the higher creative fire bound on earth. In Wayland’s tale, he and his two brothers (all elves) fall in love with three valkyries (swan-maidens), and when the swans leave them (the winter migration) Wayland becomes bereft and is captured and enslaved to the human king Nithhad where he is forced to create treasures for him. Weland does as he is bidden but in revenge kills the king’s two sons and makes their bones and teeth into jewels – a gruesome fulfillment of a promise by giving a gift that while of exquisite beauty and value is at once one of utter destruction. Further to this Wayland fulfils a ‘triple-revenge’ by raping and impregnating the king’s daughter, ensuring that the king’s sole inheritor will be of Weland’s divine seed. Upon extracting his revenge, he escapes into the sky on the back of a magical bird (the returning swan?) or in the other version on a flying machine which he himself created, thus re-entering the spiritual realm of air and fire that is the province of the alfar or elves. The allegory is one of winter and the return of vegetation from rot and decay. Weland is the ‘secret smith’ reforging nature within the earth ready for it to re-emerge in springtime. He is a killer AND a giver of life – a perfect archetype of the ‘cthonic’.

Lithuanians in the post-christianised period use the word ‘Velnias’ or ‘Velinas’ to indicate the christian devil, a fact attested in some of the earliest dictionaries translating the Lithuanian language, and it is still the devil’s name in this country. The related word veles (plural) indicated the souls of the dead, who were his ward just as Slavic Volos was described as the god of terrestrial flocks. Velnias rôle in Lithuanian mythology and folklore is as an underworld god – of earth and rivers – who contested with Perkunas, god of fire and sky.

Greimas (in ‘Of Gods and Men’) relates a number of late Lithuanian folklore-tales that he believes link the Devil (‘Velnias’) with an archetypal mythological blacksmith  referred to as Kalevelis or Kalvelis  a combination of the Lithuanian word for ‘blacksmith’ and ‘-velis’. Although there are no written references to a god called ‘Kalevelis’, an insertion in a 13thC Slavic manuscript translation of the 6thC Byzantine Malala Chronicle contains an early account of the names of Lithuania’s principle pagan gods. The insertion mentions a god called Teliavelis who forged the sun (Saulė) and threw her into the sky. The 13thC Volyn chronicle also mentions Teliavelis as a god secretly worshipped by a Lithuanian king supposed to have converted to christianity. Neither chronicles name Velnias as a god, although Perkunas is mentioned in the Malala chronicle’s marginalia.

On closer analysis, Teliavelis appears to be the same god as Velnias, lord of the souls of the dead (veles): The prefix ‘Telia-‘ may be related to the latin word for ‘the earth’ – tellus. It might also be related to the Greek word telios (which linguists believe to be a metathesis from an original PIE word kʷelios – remember the Irish ‘Cuillean’?), referring to an end-point, summation, result or termination. The suffix ‘-velis’ appears to relate to the terrestrial god Velnias. Linguistically, this implies an interface where the earthy/watery lower world of Velnias meets the firey/airy upper world of Perkunas. Both prefix and suffix agree with fortive and lenitive metathesis (sound change) seen in Wayland’s various European names.

Linguistic implications of a ‘fallen’ god?

There is something of the tragic and self-sacrificial in the legend of Wayland, a theme echoed by many other mythical heroes and gods connected with his semantic field. Within the corpus of Norse mythology, the other great tragic sacrificial character is that of Baldr, who was accidentally killed by one of his kin who threw a mistletoe dart at him, believing he was impervious to it.

‘Baldr’ is associated with the ‘Phol’ and ‘Wodan’ (a version of the mysterious Eddaic god-triad Odin, Vili and Ve?) in one of the famous 9th//10thC Merseburg Incantations, discovered in a manuscript in the collection of the cathedral chapter of Meresburg in 1841.

Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it.
and Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it.
and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
so joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
joints to joints, so may they be mended.

(Translation: Benjamin W. Fortson.)

The relationship between Phol and Baldr is partly ambiguous, but appear to be co-identified in the charm. And who, indeed, is the mysterious ‘Volla’? The B>V>Ph lenition of the initial consonant of his name demonstrates the potential connection to Volund/Weland. He is a mythological figure embodying sacrifice. The name also appears cognate with the Old Norse word for the dead (or ‘fallen’) – val or vol, seen in the name of the otherworld destination, valhalla. In Lithuanian, the spirits of the dead are known by the similar word: veles. Also similar are the Nordic words for mountain, fjall or fjell, and the English words ‘fell’ (hill) and ‘fall’, as in ‘fall down’. This brings us back again into the semantic field of ‘celtic’ spirit and creation myths, where hills were considered to be the start of many things, and the seat of fairies or ancestors. Such hills and mountains were also believed by ancient Scandinavians to be the habitations of dwarves or dark elves whose ability in smithcraft was said to have been unparalleled. Folklore often ascribed the creation of hills and mountains to the dropping or casting of great rocks by giant mythological figures, or the trampling of mythical horses ridden by giants.

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

A coin of the Gaulish/Belgic Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse was ubiquitous to coins of the Iron Age ‘celtic’ peoples. Baldr’s horse?   The Nikkr? The steed of Hephaistos, even?

The ancient European peoples practised mound-inhumation from the middle stone-age onwards, and there is a famous example of one such neolithic-era mound in England known to this day as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’. The idea that the dead sacrifice themselves so that their souls might be reforged to generate more life seems to have underpinned ancient European belief, and this idea is embodied wholly within the story of Volund or Wayland.

Other linguistic aspects – ‘Will to Power’?:

The suffixes of the names Weland and Volund could also be derived from a common Proto-Indo-European root of the latin verbs meaning ‘to fly‘ and ‘to strive or want‘ – namely volare and volo respectively. The latter gives us the Germanic word ‘will’ (vili in the Scandinavian languages). They are connected by a sense of longing and energy with intent – both ideas encapsulated in the germanic versions of the smith’s legend: In the first case (flying), it is illustrated by his association with swan-maidens (valkyries), and his eventual flight to escape King Niðhad. In the second case, Wayland is very much essentially a man who strives – in his desperate love for his swan-maiden consort, in his work forging vast numbers of items of great beauty and function, in his desire to punish and eventually in his will to be free. He is a transcendental figure who flies his earthly bonds in order to obtain his will of liberation from a terrestrial state. Wayland therefore expresses Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of ‘Will to Power’, and this is the essence of his potency as a legendary character not just among the Germanic peoples but of all of those indigenous peoples who have weathered the challenges of existing in northern Europe and western Eurasia over thousands of years.




Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

The 'Beltaine flower' Caltha Palustris (, Marsh Marigold, Lus buí Bealtaine) emerging in 'curragh' pools at Beltaine.

The ‘Beltaine flower’ Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Lus Buí Bealtaine) emerging in ‘curragh’ pools at Beltaine.

The ancient Atlantic Gaelic seasonal festival of Beltane, Beltaine or Boaldyn (usually ascribed to the 1st May/12th May) celebrates the opening of summer and the burgeoning growth and fertility of nature. Before the second half of the 19th century, it was a great cause for public and domestic celebrations and observances in many rural districts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, as well as many districts is Wales and England. Seemingly coming down from prehistory, these seasonal May celebrations were characterised by hilltop bonfire parties, cattle-saining (prior to transhumance to the summer pasturage) and the celebration of foliage, flowers, fertility and water through various customary and superstitious observances.

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

There is a popular conception that Beltane was a fire festival, not in the least reinforced by a famous early record of Beltane celebrations, found in the c.10thC Irish glossary-cum-clerical-resource-book known as Sanais Chormaic (‘Knowledge of Cormac’), which deals with Irish words, concepts and customs important to medieval religious functionaries and scholars of Irish orature and literature. Whitley Stokes’ 1868 edition of John O’Donovan’s translation contains the following two relevant entries:

“Bil from Bial i.e. an idol god, unde beltine – May day – i.e. fire of Bel.


“Belltaine… May-day i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] ‘they used to drive the cattle between them’…”

The first example is very intriguing, as it states that ‘Bil’ was an ‘idol god’, and that ‘beltine’ means ‘fire of Bel’. This is slightly at odds with the definition given for ‘Belltaine’, as ‘lucky fire’. No connection is made of the bible’s Baal, however – this would come later.

The second passage states that between the two Beltaine fires, cattle were driven. The original text and its marginalia are by no means clear as to their exact meaning: it is NOT necessarily saying that druids used to build a pair of bonfires between which cattle were led or driven! Evidence from copious historical and folkloric records confirms that Irish ‘Beltaine’ fires in Ireland were held on 1st May as well as at Midsummer day, with many traditions being interchangeable. William Robert Wilde noted this in his immediate post-famine account of lost or dying Irish traditions, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) :

“… As at the Midsummer festival so at the May fires, the boys of an adjoining bonfire often made a sudden descent and endeavoured to carry off some of the fuel from a neighbouring bonfire, and serious consequences have resulted therefrom. When all was over it was no uncommon practice in Connaught at least at the Midsummer fire to drive the cattle through the greeshagh or warm ashes as a form of purification, and a against witchcraft, fairies, murrain, blackleg, loss of milk and other misfortunes or diseases. Even the ashes which remain bear a charm or virtue and were sprinkled about like the red and yellow powders at the Hindoo festival of Hoolie …” (p.50)

Wilde supposed, like many scholars of the 18th and 19thC, that Mayday Bealtaine was the original festival, transferred to the ‘christian’ festival of midsummer during the era of primary evangelism. That both occasions (1st May and Midsummer) were ones at which the smoke and embers from the celebratory fires were used in saining people, animals, fields and properties might support this, but it is evident that midsummer celebrations were of an equal significance in traditional paganism across Europe. The interval period between La Belteine (1st May) and midsummer was one in which cattle were typically driven to summer pastures, which would otherwise be inhospitable and sparse during the winter months.

The Old/Middle Irish term ‘druidhe’, ‘draide‘ or ‘draithe’ in the source texts of Sanas Chormaic is the genitive plural of ‘draoi’, meaning ‘magician’, but equated generally with the Latin term druides used by Caesar and Pliny etc. This was apparently a trend started by 16/17thC Irish historian Seathrún Céitinn (d. 1644, hereafter, ‘Geoffrey Keating’) whose great account of Irish history, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, freely used the old Irish term ‘draoi‘ (pron. ‘dry’). He was effectively sealing a link in peoples’ minds behind the medieval Irish accounts of their religious/magical functionaries during the early medieval period and those of the continental and British Iron Age. Borrowing from sources such as Sanais Chormaic, and spicing things with a dash of invention, Keating (who wrote in Irish) continued the suggestion in Sanais Chormaic that ‘Bealltaine’ was a celebration of the god ‘Beil’ and fires. Here is a translation:

“… Now, when Tuathal had put these four parts together and made them into one territory called Meath, he built therein four chief fortresses, that is, a fortress in each of the portions. Accordingly he built Tlachtgha in the portion of Munster which goes with Meath; and it was there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax of a screaball, or three-pence, since the land on which Tlachtgha is belongs to the part of Munster given to Meath. On the portion he had acquired from the province of Connaught he built the second fortress, namely Uisneach, where a general meeting of the men of Ireland used to be held, which was called the Convention of Uisneach, and it was at Bealltaine that this fair took place, at which it was their custom to exchange with one another their goods, their wares, and their valuables. They also used to offer sacrifice to the chief god they adored, who was called Beil; and it was their wont to light two fires in honour of Beil in every district in Ireland, and to drive a weakling of each species of cattle that were in the district between the two fires as a preservative to shield them from all diseases during that year; and it is from that fire that was made in honour of Beil that the name of Bealltaine is given to the noble festival on which falls the day of the two Apostles, namely, Philip and James; Bealltaine, that is Beilteine, or the fire of Beil…” (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Ch.39; Translation/Edition: “The general history of Ireland … Collected by the learned Jeoffrey Keating, D.D. Faithfully translated from the original Irish language, with many curious amendments taken from the Psalters of Tara and Cashel, and other authentic Records” by Dermod O’Connor. Dublin, 1723. Sourced from CELT)

A god called ‘Beil’ and druids galore! His attitude towards fire-ceremonies and druid-savvy opinions were probably shared by a strong Irish contingent of contemporary Roman Catholic and Scots scholars exiled on the continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scots had been first off of the mark in the new National History stakes with Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527), which made free license with the history of the druids, who Boece claimed took up residence in the Isle of Man after the fall of Anglesey to the Romans in the 1stC, and became educators of the early Scots monarchs.

These ideas would certainly have been known to the continental expatriate Jesuit historian Michael Alford (Michael Griffiths d.1652) who appears to have been the first to have commented on the possible connection between the names Belinus and Baal in his Latin book Annales Ecclesiae Britannicae (finished in the 1650s, but published posthumously at Liege in 1663). Alford and Keating were both influenced by William Camden’s former use of formal history to assert national identity in a style less conjectural that Boece and his English counterpart and plagiarist, Raphael Hollinshead. Camden used numismatic evidence from old British Celtic coins to glean the names of Britain’s earliest known kings in his famous works of British history published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and Alford commented upon the names of these rulers depicted on Camden’s coins (which on bookplates in printed versions of Britannia). In particular he enlarges upon the name Belinus and equates it with the Canaanite Baal of the bible:

“… Effigies illa foemine, quae in eidem nummi facie prostat, Britanniae symbolum est, factae sub tributo. Obscurior vox illa NOVANE: nisi sorte Novantum, vel Trinobantum Urbem, Britanniae Principem, velis accipere. Quod in adversa parte visitur, Apollo cytharum pulsans, & Cunobelini nomen: devotum Regem significat illi numini, unde & nome ceperat. Enimvero quod Hebraeis, Chaldaeis, Suris & toti ferme Orienti, Baal, Bel, Belus erat : hoc idem Occidenti nostro Belinus…

Scholars of the early modern era onwards were generally fascinated by the references to ‘druids’ in Caesar, Pliny etc, and could be guaranteed to find traces of them in the medieval manuscript texts of the Irish. For Keating (himself a Catholic priest), druids could provide further prestige to Irish history, which could already unarguably lay claim to being a leading light in christianising northern Europe. Had not the Irish converted almost seamlessly from paganism to christianity? During the 16th and 17thC English literature had sought to attack and demean the Irish, and Keating provided a positive (and  Roman Catholic) narrative which he hoped would equal that of Camden.  He was writing in an era noted as much for its ahistoric ‘druid craze’ as its efforts to establish some kind of stable orthodox history which promoted a notion of continuous progress from a barbaric unchristian past into an enlightened christian present. As a Roman Catholic he was all too aware that Protestantism frequently derided Catholicism as backward and superstitious. Druids appeared to early modern man’s mind as the ideal bridge from savagery into ‘enlightened’ christianity, and the Irish manuscript narratives (in particular the traditions of Patrick and the early Irish saints portrayed as ‘taking over’ from the ‘druids’) were the ultimate form by which this might be expressed.

This association of the indigenous god (‘Bel’ or ‘Belinus’) with the Assyrian or Canaanite god continued to exert increasing influence as time went on. In 1707, Martin Martin’s ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ detailed his c.1695 tour of his native Hebrides. In it, he says the following:

“… Another God of the Britons was Belus or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian God Bel or Belus; and probably from this pagan deity comes the Scots term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practiced by the Druids in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, “He is between two fires of Bel,” which in their language they express thus, “Edir da din Veaul or Bel.” Some object that the Druids could not be in the isles because no oaks grow there. To which I answer, that in those days oaks did grow there, and to this day there be oaks growing in some of them, particularly in Sleat, the most southern part of the isle of Skye. The houses named after those Druids shall be described elsewhere… “

Martin was steadily enlarging the prevalent theme linking Beltaine with fire and fire-gods. The druid-concept came to its fuller popular fruition in the writings of another Irish author, John Toland, whose ‘A specimen of the critical history of the Celtic religion and learning, containing an account of the Druids &c’ was published shortly after his death in 1722, to much acclaim in certain circles.

Many 18thC scholars and gentry, perhaps egged on by John Toland’s writings increasingly enjoyed identifying themselves with the ‘noble’ vision of ancient druids, who offered a closer-to-home vision of their ancient elite forebears, favoured over the previous desire to show sympathy with the great classical era Greek and Roman or biblical characters. After the custom of the day, they began to create the ‘neo-druidic’ fraternal orders which sought to establish some kind of continuity with the ancient mystical past of non-Roman, pre-christian Europe. Unfortunately, in so doing, they were also effectively censoring themselves from deviating from group-held opinions on what had really been going on among the ancient ‘Celts’…. These scholars with a love of all things ‘druidic’, were often (like Keating) of a religious background – literacy being greatest among the clergy. If not, they were steeped in the religious cultures of Protestant and Roman Catholic christianity. For this reason, they tended to attempt to fuse the contending interests in the history of ancient paganism with the biblical narratives. There thus developed in the 17th and 18thC a popular theory that Beltane was a remnant of a festival worshipping the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal or Bel somehow transplanted to Britain by (presumably) Phoenicians in dim and dusty unknowable antiquity. 

When the Scottish laird James MacPherson published (in perfect English hexameter verse) his version of a supposedly lost ancient epic poem by the legendary Irish poet ‘Ossian’ (and son of Fionn Mac Cumhail), suddenly new visions of a hallowed ancient past to match those of Homer startled and galvanised the scholars and educated gentry of the European world. Anything seemed possible in an era already heady with the almost daily discoveries of science and exploration, and this led to a certain excessive credulity. The idea of Baal being worshipped at Beltane was given increasing force in the mid to late 18thC by antiquarians in Ireland, such as Charles Vallancey, who expounded a linguistic theory trying to prove that the Irish were descendents of tribes from the biblical Holy Land, who had bought Baal worship with them. Religiously, the Christian churches historically liked to portray ‘light’ coming from the East to the gloomy heathen West – part of a misguided popular narrative which believed humanity was continually bettering itself.

The exploratory and empire-building Europeans of the 16th-19th centuries frequently came across and subjugated populations whose level of technical and social development they equated with their own ‘savage’ pre-christian past. The new awareness of examples in the east of immolatory human sacrifice (Suttee), along with the fire-ceremonies and corpse-exposure practises of the Zoroastrians reminded druid-crazed Europeans of the Greco-Roman propaganda about Celtic immolatory practices. This reinforced the notion of a primitive religion being about fire-worship, and the Beltane activities seemed to prove this link to ‘barbarism’, extending also into a Protestant polemic narrative against ‘primitive’ and ‘ungodly’ Roman Catholicism.

In reality, the bonfires were not particular to Beltane in its various regional variants, and the practice of using smoke and fire to cleanse and bless is by no means specific to any one festival or religious/superstitous practice, being common across all religions throughout history. Bonfires were also special features of the other ‘quarter day’ and ‘cross-quarter day’ festivities in the traditonal and ancient Gaelic ‘wheel of the year’ celebrations. Samhain, Lammas/Lughnasadh, Imbolc and the celebrations of the Solstices and Equinoxes were also typified by fires.

Beltane is not just about fire: Forgetting the theories of Canaanite fire gods and druidic immolations, we are left with a pretty large and diverse collection of folkloric accounts of Beltane and Mayday practices from Britain, Mann and Ireland, which demonstrate it was a celebration of a complex set of natural forces. Fires were certainly an important element (as they are for any good communal feast or activity), but there is absolutely no reason from evidence to suggest that they were the core defining aspect. The collecting, carrying and displaying of foliage and flowers was a particularly important and widespread aspect of customs, which is unsurprising given that the beauty of surging vegetation is characteristic of the season. Water was also important, as was the ascending of mountains and hills, where it is likely to be found.

In late spring and early summer of Atlantic Europe, the combination of sunshine and rain in equal measures ensures that greenery is a potent and visible feature of the landscape, typified by the acceleration of vigourous vegetative growth in herbaceous plants, and the explosion of blossom and leaves on trees. This offered ancient peoples with a significant reliance on animal-herding in their rural economies (such as the Irish and Britons) opportunites to exploit burgeoning upland pasturage once the threat of harsh weather had receded. This coincided with better access to turbary (cutting turf/peat for fuel) and the hunting opportunities offered by movement of herds of wild deer and birds etc to the same upland pastures, as well as the movement of fish up rivers to spawn. It is perhaps no surprise that many records of older Beltane festivities involve the ascending of hills and creating of fires upon them. Of course, hills or mountains are not just good summer sources of food for man and beast, but are also often the sources of streams and rivers which proceed downwards from them and across the land and to the sea. Often saturated with rain and cloud they are great sources for the rivers which nourish the lowlands, and – excepting the morning dew – there is nothing clearer and purer than a mountain spring, just as there is nothing muddier than estuarine waters. To the ancients, mountain springs were therefore a special source of water, just as the mountains themselves attracted a special accretal of mythology, legend and spiritual importance. It is unsurprising that both dew and spring wells enjoyed a special prominence in ancient May traditions.

Wilde (Irish Popular Superstitions, 1852) noted the importance of springs, wells and water to the Irish Beltaine festivities:

“… Wells, whether blessed by saint, or consecrated by pilgrim’s rounds, or merely furnishing the healthful spring are objects of especial care and attention at May time, and in former years were frequently watched all night, particularly in pastoral districts, to ensure them against being skimmed with a wooden dish or cuppaun by some butter abducting hag as the sun rose on May morning. This was called ‘taking the flower of the well’ and the words “Come butter come” were then repeated.

Farmers drive their flocks by daybreak to the wells that they may drink there before those of their neighbours, and the greatest rivalry prevails amongst the servant girls and milkmaids as to who should first draw water from the spring well upon May morning… ” (p.54)

The idea of ‘taking the flower of the well’ echoes the English Mayday-tradition of well-dressing or ‘well-flowering’ in which wells were anciently decorated with flowers. Such collective efforts at beautifying wells and springs are believed to have an ancient pagan provenance, and removing items from such religious sites would have been associated with bad luck or an attack on the common good, as suggested by the well-skimming ‘witch’ stories common across the Gaelic world. In the same way, the removal of rags and ribbons left at ‘clootie wells’ has long been considered unlucky.

Wells and springs represent the returning of waters to the land, and waters flow in a branching manner (from branch to trunk to roots) redolent of the form of trees and vegetation whose growth is celebrated at Beltane, represented in Ireland and Britain by ‘May bushes’ and ‘May poles’. The heat of the sun is only fertile when combined with the moisture of water spouting forth from the sky and earth.

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

The Dionysian Mirror – Concepts of the Pagan Otherworld

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

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

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

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

The Dionysian Mirror:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrors and the Otherworld:

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

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

Death and the Chthonic realm:

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

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

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

Rebirth of Dionysus:

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

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

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

Gods and Robbers: Sawney Bean

‘Gods and Robbers’ – an introduction:

I shall begin this ‘Atlantic Religion miniseries’ by just recapping on some of the mythologising phenomena that have influenced formerly pagan stories and woven them into the christianised narrative framework in Europe.

A number of different polemic and propaganda techniques appear to have been employed in the medieval Christian church’s efforts to incorporate and subsume the many and deeply-rooted European pagan narrative traditions which, even by the 12thC, were apparently deemed sufficient threat to undermine the establishment of the Christian religion and its vast power structures in Europe. The violence and outright warfare of Charlemagne’s 8thC conquest and forced conversion of pagan Saxon tribes, and of the Albigensian and Northern crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries was on the more extreme end of this spectrum, however. The church and its propaganda operatives generally relied more on polemical traditions, largely developed by the early ‘church fathers’ and used by northern missionaries such as Germanus of Auxerre, Ninian, Palladius, Augustine of Britain, and Patrick during the 5thC sub-Roman/early medieval period.

The main methods used for ‘handling’ pagan traditions can be summarised as follows:

1. Demonisation and ‘Monsterisation’: Perhaps the earliest and most basic technique, based on the theories set out by the earliest Christian authors and ‘church fathers’ that all pagan gods were in fact Satan’s evil demons who had been deceiving humanity for centuries. This would have been most prone to causing conflict among the target populations of missionaries as it equated their gods with ‘evil’. A more gradual process of ‘monsterising’ was also employed, which generally de-emphasised the ‘demonic’, and promoted the pagan characters as ‘monstrous’ (and technically then within the extremes of the natural order).

2. Euhemerisation or ‘humanisation’: Slightly more sympathetic and less likely to meet with violent opposition, this techniques was based upon the tendency of pagan nations and cities to deify their ancestors and pseudo-ancestors. It therefore became a ‘softer’ early Christian polemical doctrine to teach pagans that their gods were in fact originally human ancestors who they had formerly simply worshipped  in ‘error’. By this, they ‘humanised’ rather than ‘dehumanised’ pagans and their traditions, and were able to maintain the more deep-seated affections of ancestor-veneration in a Christian context. The gods therefore simply became part of the historical tradition: For this reason, the official genealogies of fervently-Christian 10th and 11thC Anglo-Saxon kings (written down for them by Christian scribes) were therefore able to firmly claim their proto-ancestor as Wodan without any bother! Likewise, the medieval Welsh Hareliean Genealogies did the same with the pagan gods of the ancient Britons. European peoples would give up their gods before they rescinded their ties to their ancestors, so deep was this spiritual link to the past.

3. Demotion and Diminution: The significance of pagan characters from narrative traditions could be demoted while still maintaining their presence in local Christianised traditions. Gods could become more humanised in their legendary forms and abilities, they could be given human parents. Goddesses became ‘fairies’ and ‘mermaids’, or just old ladies living deep in the woods.

4. Sanctification: The pagan characters of myth were often worthy and moral, generous and helpful and it was often more fruitful to portray them under the guise of a Christian ‘saint’, thus maintaining the important moral aspects of pagan tradition which were impossible to attack with demonization or demotion. It also allowed the pagan cultic sites to be employed under the ‘Theodosian’ system of usage-conversion.

5. Marginalisation: This was the siting of pagan mythical characters and traditions outside of the centre of the communities they formerly occupied. It might involve a relocation in both time and/or space, and was often coupled to the processes of humanisation, diminution and demonization.

These techniques inevitably became a part of popular tradition-making, devolved from ecclesiastical influence. The latter process (marginalisation) appears in part to be responsible for the creation of a number of popular ‘Outlaw’ legends throughout the British and Irish islands whose origins seem to be lost deep in the mists of the medieval period, and whose persistence perhaps owes itself to their deeper and more ancient mythical provenance:


The popular notoriety and stories of the legendary Scottish cannibal-bandit ‘Sawney Bean’ still generates horror, revulsion and tourist dollars in his native homeland. The story goes that ‘Sawney’ (which is a Scots colloquialism of the name ‘Alexander’) ran away from his honest parents, joining forces with an equally evil-minded woman to live a life of crime and hideous cannibalism. They supposedly lived in a cave at Bennane on the Ayr/Galloway coast, on the Firth of Clyde, and had many children who they inculcated into their nefarious ways, sending the clan out to raid, steal and abduct and murder locals, whom they took back to their cave and cannibalised. They were evil in every way: an epitome of horror – robbery, murder, incest and rape were, as it were, their ‘bread and butter’. However, the legend goes that they were captured and taken to Edinburgh where they were tried at the behest of the King of Scotland before being mutilated and burned to death as punishment for their crimes.

'Sawney Bean' and his clan sit down to supper

‘Sawney Bean’ and his clan sit down to supper

Although the story is dressed up in an air of official historicity, an examination of evidence pertaining to it uncovers many levels of polemical intrigue with elements spanning from the medieval era down to the 18th century, and smacks strongly of the legendary, being difficult to locate to any one period in time. Sawney Bean and his tribe have been described as active in either the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries during the reign of the Stuart kings – it varies somewhat, depending on the telling. His name is sometimes given as ‘Donald Bane’ or ‘Donald Bean’ (‘Fair Donald’) – coincidentally the name of a Gallovidian monarch of the 11th century, linked to MacBeth and Mael Columb. Modern understanding of the tradition has been largely informed by popular interest during the 18thC in the broadsheet press and its often sensationalised reportage of macarbre and bloody crimes and judicial executions. Publications such as London’s popular Newgate Calendar and its derivatives became responsible for an explosion of this subgenre, causing publishers to look past the here and now and take in an interest in historical (and romanticisied) tales of gruesome murderers with which to further scandalise and amuse their readership. Consequently, there was a popular explosion of interest in the Scots legend of the Sawney Bean and his exploits, complete with popular ballads and performances based on the tradition. On account of this, the legend tended to become fixed to a time and to a geographical location in the public consciousness, even though its true provenance was somewhere indeterminate, ‘over the horizon of history’ – perhaps in the otherworld. The 1780 edition of Part 1 of the Calendar covered the years until 1740 and regaled its readers with details of famous murderers on a case-by-case basis. The inclusion of the legendary Sawney alongside more avowedly historic and contemporary characters must perhaps be viewed in the light of the prejudices projected against the Highland Scots and Irish following the Wars of Religion and Jacobite Rebellions. It derived from a number of earlier chapbooks, but as I cannot find prints of these to transcribe, I’ve included the Calendar version here (for a more detailed account of the printed origins see here):


An incredible Monster who, with his Wife, lived by Murder and
Cannibalism in a Cave. Executed at Leith with his whole Family in
the Reign of James I

THE following account, though as well attested as any historical
fact can be, is almost incredible; for the monstrous and
unparalleled barbarities that it relates; there being nothing that
we ever heard of, with the same degree of certainty, that may be
compared with it, or that shews how far a brutal temper, untamed by
education, may carry a man in such glaring and horrible colours.

Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, about eight or
nine miles eastward of the city of Edinburgh, some time in the reign
of Queen Elizabeth, whilst King James I governed only in Scotland.
His parents worked at hedging and ditching for their livelihood, and
brought up their son to the same occupation. He got his daily bread
in his youth by these means, but being very much prone to idleness,
and not caring for being confined to any honest employment, he left
his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the
country, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself.
These two took up their habitation in a cave, by the seaside on the
shore of the county of Galloway, where they lived upwards of twenty-
five years without going into any city, town, or village.

In this time they had a great number of children and grandchildren,
whom they brought up after their own manner, without any notions of
humanity or civil society. They never kept any company, but among
themselves, and supported themselves wholly by robbing; being,
moreover, so very cruel, that they never robbed anyone whom they did
not murder.   By this bloody method, and their living so retiredly
from the world, they continued such a long time undiscovered, there
being nobody able to guess how the people were lost that went by the
place where they lived. As soon as they had robbed and murdered any
man, woman or child, they used to carry off the carcass to the den,
where, cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled
limbs, and afterwards eat it; this being their only sustenance. And,
notwithstanding, they were at last so numerous, they commonly had
superfluity of this their abominable food; so that in the night time
they frequently threw legs and arms of the unhappy wretches they had
murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody
habitation. The limbs were often cast up by the tide in several
parts of the country, to the astonishment and terror of all the
beholders, and others who heard of it.  Persons who had gone about
their lawful occasions fell so often into their hands that it caused
a general outcry in the country round about, no man knowing what was
become of his friend or relation, if they were once seen by these
merciless cannibals.   All the people in the adjacent parts were at
last alarmed at such a common loss of their neighbours and
acquaintance; for there was no travelling in safety near the den of
these wretches. This occasioned the sending frequent spies into
these parts, many of whom never returned again, and those who did,
after the strictest search and inquiry, could not find how these
melancholy matters happened. Several honest travellers were taken up
on suspicion, and wrongfully hanged upon bare circumstances; several
innocent innkeepers were executed for no other reason than that
persons who had been thus lost were known to have lain at their
houses, which occasioned a suspicion of their being murdered by them
and their bodies privately buried in obscure places to prevent a
discovery. Thus an illplaced justice was executed with the greatest
severity imaginable, in order to prevent these frequent atrocious
deeds; so that not a few innkeepers, who lived on the Western Road
of Scotland, left off their business, for fear of being made
examples, and followed other employments. This on the other hand
occasioned many great inconveniences to travellers, who were now in
great distress for accommodation for themselves and their horses
when they were disposed to refresh themselves and their horses, or
put up for lodging at night. In a word, the whole country was almost
depopulated.   Still the King’s subjects were missing as much as
before; so that it was the admiration of the whole kingdom how such
villainies could be carried on and the perpetrators not discovered.
A great many had been executed, and not one of them all made any
confession at the gallows, but stood to it at the last that they
were perfectly innocent of the crimes for which they suffered. When
the magistrates found all was in vain, they left off these rigorous
proceedings, and trusted wholly to Providence for the bringing to
light the authors of these unparalleled barbarities, when it should
seem proper to the Divine wisdom.

Sawney’s family was at last grown very large, and every branch of
it, as soon as able, assisted in perpetrating their wicked deeds,
which they still followed with impunity.

Sometimes they would attack four, five or six foot
men together, but never more than two if they were on horseback.
They were, moreover, so careful that not one whom they set upon
should escape, that an ambuscade was placed on every side to secure
them, let them fly which way they would, provided it should ever so
happen that one or more got away from the first assailants. How was
it possible they should be detected, when not one that saw them ever
saw anybody else afterwards? The place where they inhabited was
quite solitary and lonesome; and when the tide came up, the water
went for near two hundred yards into their subterraneous habitation,
which reached almost a mile underground; so that when people, who
had been sent armed to search all the places about had passed by the
mouth of their cave, they had never taken any notice of it, not
supposing that anything human would reside in such a place of
perpetual horror and darkness.   The number of the people these
savages destroyed was never exactly known, but it was generally
computed that in the twenty-five years they continued their
butcheries they had washed their hands in the blood of a thousand,
at least, men, women and children. The manner how they were at last
discovered was as follows.   A man and his wife behind him on the
same horse coming one evening home from a fair, and falling into the
ambuscade of these merciless wretches, they fell upon them in a most
furious manner. The man, to save himself as well as he could, fought
very bravely against them with sword and pistol, riding some of them
down, by main force of his horse. In the conflict the poor woman
fell from behind him, and was instantly murdered before her
husband’s face; for the female cannibals cut her throat and fell to
sucking her blood with as great a gust as if it had been wine. This
done, they ripped up her belly and pulled out all her entrails. Such
a dreadful spectacle made the man make the more obstinate
resistance, as expecting the same fate if he fell into their hands.
It pleased Providence, while he was engaged, that twenty or thirty
from the same fair came together in a body; upon which Sawney Bean
and his bloodthirsty clan withdrew, and made the best of their way
through a thick wood to their den.   This man, who was the first
that had ever fallen in their way and came off alive, told the whole
company what had happened, and showed them the horrid spectacle of
his wife, whom the murderers had dragged to some distance, but had
not time to carry her entirely off. They were all struck with
stupefaction and amazement at what he related, took him with them to
Glasgow, and told the affair to the provost of that city, who
immediately sent to the King concerning it.   In about three or four
days after, his Majesty himself in person, with a body of about four
hundred men, set out for the place where this dismal tragedy was
acted, in order to search all the rocks and thickets, that, if possible, they
might apprehend this hellish crew, which had been so long pernicious
to all the western parts of the kingdom.   The man who had been
attacked was the guide, and care was taken to have a large number of
bloodhounds with them, that no human means might be wanting towards
their putting an entire end to these cruelties.   No sign of any
habitation was to be found for a long time, and even when they came
to the wretches’ cave they took no notice of it, but were going to
pursue their search along the seashore, the tide being then out. But
some of the bloodhounds luckily entered this Cimmerian den, and
instantly set up a most hideous barking, howling and yelping; so
that the King, with his attendants, came back, and looked into it.
They could not yet tell how to conceive that anything human could be
concealed in a place where they saw nothing but darkness. Never the
less, as the bloodhounds increased their noise, went farther in, and
refused to come back again, they began to imagine there was some
reason more than ordinary. Torches were now immediately sent for,
and a great many men ventured in through the most intricate turnings
and windings, till at last they arrived at that private recess from
all the world, which was the habitation of these monsters.   Now the
whole body, or as many of them as could, went in, and were all so
shocked at what they beheld that they were almost ready to sink into
the earth. Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and
children were hung up in rows, like dried beef. A great many limbs
lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, with
watches, rings, swords, pistols, and a large quantity of clothes,
both linen and woollen, and an infinite number of other things,
which they had taken from those whom they had murdered, were thrown
together in heaps, or hung up against the sides of the den.
Sawney’s family at this time, besides him, consisted of his wife,
eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen
granddaughters, who were all begotten in incest.   These were all
seized and pinioned by his Majesty’s order in the first place; then
they took what human flesh they found and buried it in the sands;
afterwards loading themselves with the spoils which they found, they
returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners, all the country, as they
passed along, flocking to see this cursed tribe. When they were come
to their journey’s end, the wretches were all committed to the
Tolbooth, from whence they were the next day conducted under a
strong guard to Leith, where they were all executed without any
process, it being thought needless to try creatures who were even
professed enemies to mankind. The men had their privy-members cut
off and thrown into the fire; their hands and legs were severed from
their bodies; by which amputations they bled to death in some hours.
The wife, daughters and grandchildren, having been made spectators
of this just punishment inflicted on the men, were afterwards burnt
to death in three several fires. They all in general died without
the least signs of repentance; but continued, to the very last gasp
of life cursing and venting the most dreadful imprecations upon all
around, and upon all those who were instrumental in bringing them to
such well merited punishments …”

As it happens, there are no formal records extant of such a trial, which would surely have left its impression given that the monarch, James VI/I, seemingly took great interest in the judicial processes and personally attended a number of public trials. It would appear that the dating given in the Calendar was one of convenience, perhaps designed to suit the political atmosphere and prejudices of the late 18thC. Galloway itself was – during the early 18thC – a hub of the somewhat politicised Irish Sea running trade, and French privateer frigates were given safe haven in the Western Isles during the 7 Years War during the 1750’s and 60’s, so there was good reason why such a negative character might have been depicted hiding out in caves on the Galloway coast.

The cave of Sawney and his clan is most commonly located to Bennane Head, Ayrshire, formerly being in the lands of the distinctly Gaelic Kennedy clan who had ruled over the Carrick district since at least the time of Robert the Bruce. It is certainly capable of housing a group of bandits, but does not fit the description in the Newgate Calendar tale, which forms the basis for modern recollections of the tale in Scotland. It is not in a place which would have been sufficiently remote in ancient times. The cave has sufficient early 16thC provenance and importance to appear on a 1450 writ asserting the rights of Johne Kennedy to the lands at:

“…Bennane and Dalwegene with the Manor Place and Cave of the same togidder with the office of Seargandrye of the said Earledome Carrick and that upon the said Henrye Kennedy his resignation which lands and office he had held hereditarily from James II, dated at Aire febr 13 1450 …” (See: History of the counties of Ayr and Wigton, Volume 2 p.95, by James Paterson; Pub. James Stillie, Edinburgh 1864)

They cave is on a small bay, and could have served use as a warehouse, boathouse or even a defensive shelter, hence its inclusion in the above writ. James Paterson described the remains of a masonry bulwark wall at the head of the cave that was ancient in the 1860’s as well as remains of buildings. The Kennedy clan were eventually caught up in the religious chaos and in-fighting following the Protestant reformation, and the murderous intrigues and regional instabilities between Kennedy and his neighbours only hastened the willingness of the Stuart monarchy to finally begin to break independent Clan economic, military and religious power in the region – power which they had originally fostered.  It is perhaps no surprise that Sawney’s scandalous legend would have been located within these lands for this reason, but the history of banditry, piracy and ‘out groups’ in the West Lowlands has an even older provenance beyond the history of the Pictish and Dalriada kingdoms.

So… what of Sawney Bean in all of this? Evidently, to have inhabited the Bennane (Benand) cave he would have had to have done so with the blessing of the local Kennedy lairds, to whom the cave was evidently important. This makes the legend of a real outlaw unlikely, unless he was one of the Kennedy’s himself. Some regional clans certainly practiced piracy and smuggling down to the 18thC (some might argue they were no more pirates and smugglers than the King’s navy and trade fleets). Cannibalism? It seems like too lurid a detail to be true and almost certainly originates in Scottish polemical propaganda of the intrigue-riddled Shakespearean/Renaissance Age, rather than English efforts at Scots-bashing in the 18th century. ‘Makar’ poet, William Dunbar (Dumbar), might surely have made reference to the legend of Sawney Bean had it been current and associated with the Kennedys as a whole, when flyting his insults at the bard Walter Kennedy, younger brother of the 2nd Lord, John Kennedy of Dunure, in ca. 1503. This famous performance – known as The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie was apparently performed in the court of James IV in Edinburgh at the start of the 16thC and makes no reference to cannibalistic crooks, but yet for this is perhaps one of the most delightful pieces of insult-poetry committed to writing during the Renaissance! It was preserved in the Bannatyne Manuscript. Dunbar’s approbations of Kennedy (a clergyman, as befits his ‘second son’ status) are colourful to say the least, twice referring to the priest as ‘cuntbitten’ among a barrage of similar lurid insults.  None the less, Dunbar’s derision at no point makes any reference to his clan’s supposedly cannibalistic tenants, suggesting that if they were historic and associated with Bennane, then they likely came later in the 16thC after Kennedy’s death in 1507. However, this seems highly unlikely to be the case, given the lack of corroborative evidence for what would have been a well-recorded and sensationalised case in its day. Dunbar’s taunts at Kennedy were largely based on his appearance and ‘uncouth’ Gaelic mannerisms, including not a few imputations of paganism. Given the general lack of evidence to back up their existence, the clan of ‘Sawney Bean’ must therefore be considered legendary or mythological. This in turn leaves us with the possibility that more mysterious seeds may have populated the tale…

Was pagan mythology behind the ‘Sawney Bean’ myth?

The association of seaside caves with the mythology of the old Atlantic Religion seems to be a definite subtext in the folklore of the region. Nearly all such caves of any significance in the British and Irish Isles (not to mention Brittany and beyond) have enjoyed a connection to either saints or devils: Such a dichotomy of attribution is in itself highly suggestive of Christian polemic attempting to convert pagan legends into a form congruent with the ‘new order’. Galloway has, further south, a cave near Whithorn that was said to have been used by St Ninian and is still celebrated in association with the saint who is said to have bought christianity to this region at a very early time from Rome.

St Ninian's Cave: No mermaids here - please move along!

St Ninian’s Cave: No mermaids here – please move along!

Sea caves or caves near rivers are more often than not associated with pagan myths. The creation of caves is often related to underground rivers or springs, to which many (especially in limestone areas) owe their existence. They also represented a baser more ancient form of living – a place of resort in times of peril, and the habitation of those outside of the bounds of law and society. This made them the focus of many christianising legends designed to demote pagan ideas.

Sawney or Samhain?

The name ‘Sawney’ is usually believed to be a version of ‘Sandy’ and therefore a colloquialisation of the name ‘Alexander’. However, the name derives ultimately from the west coast of lowland Scotland, which was a predominantly Gaelic-speaking region until the 17th/18thC. This means that it is worth taking a gaelic linguistic approach to the name ‘Sawney Bean’, which contains obvious Gaelic elements (‘Bean’=’Bane’=white/fair). The first part of the name ‘Sawney’ is closest to the Gaelic festival name ‘Samhain’ (pron. ‘Saw-en’). Samhain was the festival of the dead when the souls of the departed (the Sluagh Sidhe) were near at hand, waiting to be carried off to the otherworld. The cave associated with Sawney Bean is located at a place containing aspects of his name – the Bennane‘ – also a gaelic name. ‘Ben’ is, of course, the gaelic word translating as ‘female’ (mna is ‘woman’) and is also applied to the names of mountains. You might recall from my previous posts that there is an association with mysterious aquatic female spirits with headlands and foreshores, not to mention caves all across the Atlantic world from Spain to the Slavic lands. The frightening popular figure of the ‘Halloween Witch’ is perhaps the greatest demonic archetype associated with Hallowe’en/Samhain – this originally referred to a single magical female character, not ‘witches’ in general (which were probably an innovation of the 16th/17thC witch panics). In the Isle of Man, she was called ‘Jinny the Witch’ (‘Yinny’ = Aine) and she was probably also the sorceress of Manx legend known as ‘Tehi-Tegi’ who stole the souls of men and took them into the sea, before transforming into a mystical bird – the wren. Samhain was the period when fertility had been ‘stolen’ away from the world, and the Sawney Bean was also famous for abducting souls and death. Both him and the ‘Samhain Witch’ therefore take on an equally monstrous aspect whose terrifying legends draw them closer together in the legendary consciousness… so much so that Sawney’s wife takes such a role in his legend. Of further linguistic interest, Sawney was sometimes referred to as

Written legends or traditions about ‘Sawney Bean’ are somewhat hard to come by. Most traditions available to study in literature (late 18th and 19thC) seem to have arisen from the Newgate Calendar versions of the tale, which influenced the growth of the tale in popular culture down to modern times. 19thC English author, the wealthy and well-connected politician/lawyer/novelist Robert Plumer-Ward included Sawney Bean in a romantic short story called ‘St Lawrence’ which was printed in many of the literary magazines in the early-mid part of the century. The tale is set in the fictional ‘Castle Campbell’ in Kintyre, in which the laird is forced to tell his visitors of the tale of Sawney Bean after his guests enquire why his servants are nervous of a coming storm. The laird intimates that it was a tradition of the clan is that Sawney’s soul periodically returned to cause severe storms, and that he was a supernatural personage. It is unclear if Ward was simply using literary license or quoting a tradition he had discovered through research – he was a well-connected individual who almost certainly was entertained in Scottish castles with similar stories. Here is a passage which sums up Ward’s use of Sawney in his tale:

“…’Scotland would not be Scotland,’ returned Mr Campbell, ‘if some such appendage had not been added to the tale. In truth, the whole neighbourhood believed that the storm which had closed the sea entrance had been the express work of Providence, for it never happened before. Sawney believed it too and the farmer who took him, being a Campbell who had emigrated to the north of Ireland from this place, he swore as he was led to execution that he would visit it every twenty years, and bring destruction upon all of the name’… “

The implication is that ‘Sawney’ was a spirit who haunted certain members of the widespread clan of Campbell – one of the oldest Gaelic clans, who famously claim ancestry with the tragic Fenian hero Diarmuid O’Duibne, whose legend claims he hid out in a cave with his lover (and wife of Fionn), Grainne, before dying fighting a fierce wild boar. In the Isle of Man one of the names for a mythological fairy-pig was ‘Arkan Sonney’ (Uirceann Sonney) – another hint at the older aspect of ‘Sawney’.

Summary: Sawney Bean was the name of a legendary Gaelic Scottish cannibal-outlaw supposed to have lived with his wife and family hidden in a cave on the Galloway coast. His existence has no historical veracity but his demonization myths were applied politically, both by the Scots (against the Gaelic Scots) and later by the English, to whom he provided a Scottish ‘bogeyman’ figure for the troubled Jacobite era. The name ‘Sawney’ means ‘Alexander’, and was a popular form of the name during the 18thC. However, in the gaelic tongues, ‘Sawn’ could quite reasonably be the word ‘Samhain’ – a name for the festival of the dead, associated with a latterly monstrous magical female character in the Irish sea region. This character is known variously as ‘The Witch’, ‘Cailleach’, ‘Tehi-Tegi’, ‘Jinny’, ‘Ouna/Ona/Una’, ‘Aine’ and ‘Shoney’. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to wonder if ‘Sawney Bean’ has something to do with a demonised, demoted, euhemerised and marginalised aspect of the legend of the Celtic Great Goddess…

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.


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.

Concordance of Belenos, Manannan, Merlin and Wodan.

Those who follow my blog will know that I have already discussed the linguistic relationship between the Late Iron Age Celtic god, Belenos, and the Slavic, Baltic and North European divinities known from medieval times at least as Veles, Weland/Volundr, Phol, Vili and Velnias. Due to the dynamism and migration of Celtic peoples and culture from the 4thC BCE, Celtic religion (particularly that of the ‘Belgic’ cultural movement) was to stamp its impact from the Black Sea to the westernmost reaches of Iberia and Ireland, taking with it a renewed and potent militarised (possibly fanatical) vision of its gods and philosophies. So why did a separate ‘German’ and ‘Slavic’ identity develop?

Germans and Slavs ‘were’ Celts:

By the advent of the western expansion of the ‘germanic’ Goths and other eastern ‘barbarians’ in the 4thC CE, the remains of the Celtic ‘world’ had been pushed away outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire – into Ireland and Scotland. The tribes referred to by Julius Caesar in the 1stC BCE as Germani had – through the lens of Roman ideation – been somehow defined as ‘different’ to the Celtic peoples, an opinion generally considered to be forged by their cultural and geographic impenetrability and indomitability rather than from any hard evidence of actual difference. By the time of the Gothic migration era (4th-5thC CE) and the collapse of the western Roman Empire there was no longer any concept of Europeans as ‘Celts’. Increasing religious diversification following Romanisation, and then the religious concordance and intolerance emerging under christianity had overwhelmed the spiritual cultural model of Europeans, replacing it with a power-franchise focussed on the East.

Of course, this still left a good deal of non-Romanised regions without Christian influence. Although ‘Celtic’ Ireland and Scotland were evangelised early on (5th-6thC CE) northern Europe (Germania, Scandinavia, the Baltic and Russia) was much later in coming to the table – holding out in places until at least the 14thC CE. It is from these that we find the apparent ‘Belenos’ concordances in the names of some of their important divinities, as preserved in medieval literature and later folklore. These cultures (pagan Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Slavic Russ) certainly maintained a warlike ‘Belgic’ outlook – at least from the point of view of Christian observers, particularly those at the commencement of the ‘Viking’ raids (which commenced with a particular anti-Christian focus) in the 8thC CE. However, by this period, languages and the names of the divinities had evolved away from their ‘Celtic’ (let’s call them ‘Atlantic’) origins so as to make ‘Germanic’, ‘Slavic’ and ‘Celtic’ mutually exclusive cultural ideas for scholars by the modern era. Political and ethnic federalism and nationalism during the 19th and 20th centuries further demanded separate origins for these cultures.

So what about Ireland and Scotland?

Christian evangelisation of the (by modern standards) ‘typical’ Celtic regions of Ireland and Scotland probably began in at least the 4thC CE, although it is conventionally dated to the late 5thC by later literary sources – the era when ‘Patrick’ is supposed to have convinced all of Ireland’s kings to submit to Christianity. Ireland (and her eastern colonies) subsequently became early medieval Europe’s most important and vibrant intellectual powerhouse for christian religious scholarship and reinterpretation of pagan mythology. She was to send her acolytes into the former Belgic heartlands of Britannia (colonised by pagan Anglo-Saxons) and Francia – the territory of the Gallo-Germanic Franks – to assist with local efforts to impose Christianity, be it by propaganda or the sword.

This process (already discussed in some detail in the blog) meant that Ireland’s pagan mythology (written by Christians) is difficult to interpret at face value, although it is common for many to accept  it (albeit unwisely) as canonical. We know that ‘Belgic’ culture (the impetus behind the 279 BCE attack on Delphi) made it to Ireland – the stories of boastful hero-warriors such as Cuchullain and Finn, and the La Téne style of insular art seem to attest to this. Indeed, the magically and militarily powerful ‘magi’ or druids referred to in medieval accounts of the conversion period are another possible feature of this culture. We suspect that IrishTuatha Dé Danaan characters such as Lugh, Nuada and Ogma were local versions of Gaulish divinities Lugus, Nodens and Ogmios, yet we have no evidence of worship or any idea of their importance from placenames. Indeed, you are more likely to come across places named after the female ‘Cailleach’ or masculine ‘Cuillean’ than any of these continental characters.  Insular and continental evidence of actual religious beliefs and practices among the Celts is – although widespread – largely influenced by Romanisation and difficult to interpret, as we do not know for sure which names were from independent divinities and which were synonyms for individuals. These doubts add validity to following an inductive approach based on place-names, folklore and mythology (including Christian hagiography).


The reason I am taking ‘Belenos’ (Belinus) as an exemplary divinity to examine in the Gaelic context is because of his aspects as a solar god which places him at the highest apex of equivalent Indo-European dedications. He was an important enough divinity that the most important Belgic British tribe of the 1stC BCE-1stC CE – the southeastern Catuvellauni – appear to have been named after him, as were their leaders such as Cassivellaunus and Cunobelinus(‘Wolf/Hound of Bellinus’). Cassivellaunus was referred to as ‘Caswallon’ in medieval Welsh triads, and called ‘son of Beli Mawr (‘Great Beli’). Similarly theophoric names occur in the great warband of 279BCE – part of which was led by a leader called ‘Bolgios’. This attacked through the Balakans into Macedonia before part of it headed to the vastly important shrine of Pythian Apollo at Delphi, and others headed to settle Galatia in Anatolia. The Celts had a special attachment to Apollo, whose name appears to show a similar Indo-European root: A-pollo <> A-bollo. Apollo was a solar renewer as well as a hunter and warrior, and the Greek myths linked him to the mythical ‘Hyperboreans’ – the barbarians of the north who lived close to the monstrous zone, and Okeanos, the world-river. The depiction of Apollo on Greek coins of the Alexandrian age became an important influence upon the imagery depicted on the post-279 ‘Celtic age’ coins of Europe until the Roman conquests.

Although common to western Europe and Britain, the remains of ‘Belenos’ are much harder to identify in Gaelic Ireland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In the 12thC CE, the learned Cistercian abbot and noted hagiographer, Jocelyn of Furness, was commissioned to write a number of hagiographies critical to establishing the primacy of the continental Roman Catholic church over the insular churches, which other contemporary commentators such as Gerald of Wales had implied kept some heathen  or backward usages. Jocelyn was commissioned by Anglo-Norman lord John De Courcy to produce a new hagiography of St Patrick to coincide with the new Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. Perhaps as a favour to De Courcy’s friend, ally and brother-in-law King Rognvaldr of the Isle of Man, Jocelyn included traditions from the island of Patrick’s supposed visit there and defeat its ruling wizard, who he calls Melinus.

“… Returning to Hibernia, he touched at the islands of the sea, one whereof, Eubonia–that is, Mannia–at that time subject unto Britain, he by his miracles and by his preaching converted unto Christ.  And among his miracles very conspicuous was this: a certain evil-doer named Melinus, like Simon the magician, asserting himself to be a god, and attempting the air with a diabolical flight, at the prayers of the saint fell headlong, and was dashed in pieces, and so perished …” (Translation from: ‘The Most Ancient Lives of St Patrick, Including the Life by Jocelin, Hitherto Unpublished in America, and His Extant Writings’ by James O’Leary; Pub. New York, 1880 P.J. Kenedy)

Melinus – by the conventions and mutations of Indo-European languages – is also pronouncable as ‘Welinus’ and therefore can become ‘Velinus’, from where we return to the name of the god, ‘Belinus’. Interestingly, the (later) Manx traditions about their pagan wizard-god refer to him as Manannan – the insular Celtic sea-god, although George Waldron (‘An Account of the Isle of Man’, 1734) says it was ‘Merlin’, which itself is very close to Melinus, while invoking the sometimes-mad wizard of the Arthurian romances gaining courtly popularity among northern Europe’s elites during Jocelyn’s era. In fact, Jocelyn’s is not the first reference to this character, whose appearance in Hiberno-Norse era Manx tradition is interesting given the Weland and Velnias traditions of the Scando-Baltic countries from which Mann’s 9thC onwards Viking visitors haled.

The name actually occurs in a couple of earlier Irish traditions linked to Christianisation: the first is the ‘Bishop Mel’ who was supposed to have invested St Brigit with her veil (‘veil’ derives from Latin velum). The other is the pagan robber-prince Mac Caille who Patrick banishes to the Isle of Man, and who eventually becomes the island’s patron saint, Maughold, who seems to have had trouble replacing Manannan in the popular mindset of the Manx people, even down to this modern day. In one of the early medieval Irish lives of Brigit, it is Mac Caille rather than Mel who gives Brigit her veil (the Greek word for which is Calyx, hence ‘Caille’). It looks like the christianisers played fast and loose with language in order to establish their order!

To compound further this mystery, I wish to return to the Norse-Germanic ‘Weland’ who I have previously noted to be identical with the Irish mythological Cuillean. A Manx legend based on the Ulster Cycle stories (and published in Ireland during the 19thC) said that ‘Cullan the Smith’ resided in the Isle of Man and was resorted to by Conchobar Mac Nessa for magic weapons. This suggested he – like Weland – was considered a blacksmith or artificer. If Weland originates in Belenos (as I have suggested) then this makes the names Cuchullain and Cunobelinos identical, as the Irish warrior-hero was named after Cuillean’s hound, who he kills (Ulster Cycle). The Manx mountain of Slieu Whallian is named after him (the ‘K’ sound is lenited), as are a number of mythologically important hills in Scotland and Ireland. In Mann, this hill stands next to the site of the ancient Tynwald hill at St John’s – the site where Manannan was supposed by a 16thC ballad to have been offered green rushes at the annual Tynwald ceremony.

Manannan himself can confidently be described as ‘Lord of the Otherworld’ in Irish mythology, and his eponymously-named islanders would agree with this. He is also portrayed in an immanent manner, rather than as a distant god, and this suggests that he must have been a manifestation of a solar god like Belenos. Like Cuillean or Weland he is a donator of weapons, and as befits a combined solar and otherworld god, his wonderings in the East and travels to the west are features of his mythology. Another important aspect of an otherworld god who travels to and from the world of the dead (reincarnates) is the idea of prophecy and delirium that underpins the oracular beliefs of the ancient world – such as the addled Pythoness who pronounced Apollo’s oracles at Delphi. The properties of amnesia and delirium are common themes of visionary ecstatic states caused by herbs such as Henbane (Hyoscyamus Niger), whose name in a number of European dialects seems to evoke Belenos: Bilsen (German), Pilsen (Czech), Beleno (Spanish). Pedanius Dioscorides (De Materia Medica – Book 4, 1stC CE) called it Herba Apollinaris, and said that the Gauls called it ‘Belenuntia’ or ‘Bilinuntias’: Perhaps this was in the Delphic wine which drove the troops of Brennus mad during their assault on the site of the famous Oracle, as he also calls it ‘Pythonion’ . This brings us to two ‘raging mad’ mythological figures of Europe’s ancient world:

Merlin and Wodin:

In the Germanic languages (Old High German and Old English) the name Wodin, Wotan or Wodan means ‘raging, mad one’. In the 11thC CE, Adam of Bremen described the god thus:  “Wodan, id est furor. ‘Raging’ was therefore an epithet of the highest god, who became known to the later medieval Scandinavians as ‘Odin’ and was (perhaps appropriately) their god of battle and of the dead. The madness implied in the name: ‘Wod’ is also applied to another character of medieval legend – the magician-sage-warrior Merlin recalled by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Arthurian romances he helped inspire. Geoffrey’s Merlin was both a prince and a madman who fled into the wilderness in a crazed fugue before his sanity was recovered. The story therefore shares elements of the tale of Odin, who is hinted in the Icelandic Edda stories to have undergone a similar tribulation as some kind of holy rite in order to receive higher knowledge. An Irish tale – of the mad king ‘Suibne Geilt’ – also has certain aspects of Geoffrey’s Merlin tale (‘Vita Merlinii’) and the battle-rages of the Ulster Cycle’s Cuchullain have something of the Odinnic Norse ‘berserker’ about them. But how does ‘Merlin’ link etymologically with Wodin or Wodan?

The Welsh name of ‘Merlin’ is Myrddin – pronounced ‘Merthin’. As ‘M’ sounds can become softened/interchanged to a ‘W’ or ‘V’ in Gaelic and other Indo-European language pronunciations (for a prime example, consider the Latin: Jupiter<>Jovis<>Jouis<>Jouuis) it is perfectly possible to see how ‘Myrddin’ and ‘Wodin’ can have concordance! Another aspect of the Merlin<>Manannan paradox suggested in Jocelyn of Furness’ Vita Patricii and later folklore emerges when we consider the Welsh equivalent of Manannan Mac Lir – Manawydan fab Llyr of the medieval Mabinogion tales. This incorporates the name -Wydan in it, which also seems close enough to ‘Wodan’ to suggest a possible concordance between Belinus, Melinus, Merlin, Manannan and Manawydan, not to mention Weland and Cuillean… Furthermore, the other middle-Welsh legendary character, Gwydion son of Dôn, has a similar name (the ‘G’ is silent).

After the establishment of literacy in Atlantic Europe, which itself followed in the traditions of Christianity, the plasticity of word-sounds became subservient to the orthodoxy and orthography of this tradition, explaining the plethora of different versions of the same name which epigraphy and literature gave to us. Some of these appeared so different that they were considered different…


Design elements of the insular ‘Celtic horse’ coins: Part 1

The 'Celtic Horse' seen on the 'primitivist' coins of the Iron Age often showed interesting design characteristics related to concentric circles and points. These became prominent elements of insular Celtic numismatic designs and rock art, such as that seen in Scotland among the 'Picts'. My design here is taken from a coin of the Dobunni (W. Britain).

The ‘Celtic Horse’ seen on the ‘primitivist’ coins of the Iron Age often showed interesting design characteristics related to concentric circles and points. These became prominent elements of insular Celtic coin designs and regional rock-art, such as that seen in Scotland among the ‘Picts’. The design here is taken from a  2000 year old coin of the Dobunni in my collection (W. Britain).

'Aberlemno 1' pictish stone (Angus, Scotland). The 'double disc' motif appears with the 'z-rod' and the mirror: symbols of rotational and reflectional symmetry. The serpent at the top demonstrates that this symbolism is expressive of the Atlantic otherworld beliefs...

‘Aberlemno 1’ pictish stone (Angus, Scotland). The ‘double disc’ motif appears with the ‘z-rod’ and the mirror: symbols of rotational and reflectional symmetry. The serpent at the top demonstrates that this symbolism is expressive of the Atlantic otherworld beliefs…

Note the rotational symmetry seen in the horse-design of this coin! Wiltshire ?Dobunni 1stC BCE.

Note the rotational symmetry seen in the horse-design of this coin! Wiltshire ?Dobunni 1stC BCE. Photo: (c) 2014 http://www.celticcoins.com – Chris Rudd