The excellent Balkan Celts blog by Brendan MacGonagle is well worth following if you have any interest whatsoever in Celtic Studies and late Iron Age archaeology, in particular that of the Balkans, Greece and Anatolia between the 4thC BC and 3rd CE.
(This is the first in an occasional series of posts dealing with the use of mythology to revise history)
The emergence of powerful new cultures is often accompanied by the rise of powerful new religious narratives, with which leaders seek unify their domain under a spiritual foundation sympathetic and congruent to their regime. In times of crisis, this narrative may further evolve and gain accretions.
Establishing a mythological basis for a culture is an ancient technique designed to place that culture’s origins back in a place called ‘mythic time’ – in an unassailable period of timeless ‘fact’ lying somewhere beyond the horizon of verifiable history. This mythology provides a justificatory provenance which supports the new order, but the phenomena is one which – after great periods of time – continually confounds enquirers seeking to untangle the truth behind the history of cultures and their mythological aspects.
In the case of the ancient city state of Rome, its different phases of cultural development (economic, military and religious) demanded establishment of and refinement of a popular founding myth. In so doing, its leaders were calling upon the traditions borrowed from the oldest and most glorious city states, of which Babylon (established circa 2800BCE) is a particular example. Largely following in the footsteps of Greek and Phoenician examples, Rome required a founder who existed in a time when men and gods walked the earth together – the mythical ‘bridging age’ of demigods, around which most legends evolved. Mere historical truths could be easily revised by fact, but in the popular imagination the divine was more unassailable.
The Roman Kingdom and Republic:
With cultural change and revolution, comes a re-mythologizing of the past in the image of the present. As most of the histories of Rome’s past come to us from the late Republican era at the earliest, we are at a loss to determine fact from mythology and invention.
The Roman Republic was said by later histories to have commenced with the overthrow of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in 509BCE. It is hard to say for sure if this founding event (albeit later trumpeted as such) actually occurred or if that king was indeed real. It may have been an historical invention by a culture struggling to trace its faltering early steps from ‘barbarity’ into the era’s idealised Hellenic models of power and polity.
Tribalism, chieftains and tyrants were a typical Greco-Roman shibboleth for the majority of Europeans whom they considered Barabarians – Celts, Thracians and those living north of the Danube and the Rhine who had not assumed the trappings of Hellenic and Middle Eastern cultures. We might add the class of ‘Romans’ to those whom Greeks considered also considered ‘barbarian’.
The distinction between social classes during the era of the Roman Republic was a typical dialectic split between the aristocratic dynasties of landed gentry (the ‘Patrician’ class) who typically traced their family pedigrees back into the city’s supposed and actual Regal Era, and the more ordinary ‘Plebians’ – families (gens) without historic aristocratic pedigree, but keen on building their own modern dynasties. It can be considered a typical Old Money/New Money dialectic – absolute power was held by neither, yet strived for by both. As such both groups had different needs in using mythology to bolster or establish their claims to rights and power.
Since the Roman Republic (which cam to an end in 27BCE) is the first era from which we have definite supporting history and archaeology, Rome’s Regal Age (Romulus, Numa, the Tarquinians etc) must therefore constitute its first mythological ‘event horizon’.
It was from this age that was generated the archetypal image of a ‘good king’, Numa Pompilius (said to have ruled 715 – 673 BC), who was so lauded by Rome’s first Patrician Emperors. Numa was said to have instituted peace, wealth, economic growth and the structure of Roman religion and its calendar of observances. By the Augustan era (after 27BCE) Numa therefore served as an idealised ‘historic’ founding father for Rome’s new aristocratic Imperium. The city’s ultimate supposed founder, the fratricidal Romulus, was more of a ‘mythic’ founder. This was the narrative later employed by Livy and his literary compatriots of that New Order.
The Second Punic War and further re-mythologizing:
Rome’s earliest autocthonus history that we know of is that of Quintus Fabius Pictor a soldier-statesman of the ancient patrician Gens Fabii who participated both militarily and diplomatically in the Roman Republic’s greatest crisis before the 1stC BCE: the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC). This war was an attempted conquest of Rome by a combined force of Celts, Numidians and even some Italians, led by the Carthaginian Gens Barca dynasts Hasdrubal and his brother Hannibal.
Fabius’ lost history of Rome was later cited by Livy (Ab Urbe Condita Librii) as the source for its founding myth of Romulus and Remus, as heirs of Aeneas of Troy, and the line of pre-Republic kings who ruled after them. It was written in Greek and would have served as a brilliant piece of contemporary propaganda designed to garner support for Rome from among the Greek world (itself no lover of the Celts) in the wake of the Punic crisis, through citing a common Greco-Roman origin.
This supposed ethno-cultural connection with the Greeks was very popular in the more deeply Hellenised patrician classes, many of whom spoke Greek and studied Greek culture as a high cultural ideal. The stories of Aeneas, the kings of Alba Longa, Romulus and Numa, were however, not necessarily a Roman idea: the Grecophile Fabius had borrowed the story of Rome’s earliest kings from an earlier Greek historian: Diocles of Peparethus, whose lost works included histories of the Persian Empire, the significance of which becomes more important as we delve further into the myth of Romulus. It stands as a good example of how mythology, posing as history, can respond to a state of crisis.
In stark opposition to the Grecophile attitudes of patricians such as Fabius was the brooding, brilliant, energetic and deeply conservative Marcus Porcius Cato (‘Cato the Elder’). Cato was from a well-established plebeian gens of wealthy agriculturalists, who was outspoken against the ingress of Greek, Phoenician or more oriental cultures. To him has been credited the first Latin history of Rome (perhaps written in opposition to Fabius’ patrician-oriented Greek language history of Rome), which survives only in fragments quoted by later writers. Cato rose to the highest public offices and strove throughout his life to act as a ballast of traditional Roman values, and felt no shame in wearing the Greek label of ‘barbarian’. You can imagine his horror with the perceived degeneracy of the recently imported festivities of the Bacchanalia at Rome, especially in light of threat from Carthage. His apoplexy must have been acute when the patricians of the senate took the advice of the (Greek) Cumaean Sibyl and the Delphic Oracle and decided to bring a foreign god into Rome’s official pantheon in response to the Hannibalic War:
Magna Mater – and the introduction of Greek mystery cults:
A more overt consequence of the second Punic War upon Roman state religion was its importation of the worship of Magna Mater/Cybele from Phrygia in Magna Graecia, which was not just the donation of a goddess and her cult, but actually involved the translocation of its principle idol and priesthood from Mount Ida in the Troad (the district in which ancient Troy was supposedly located). The Greeks equated Cybele with Rhea (associated with the similarly-named Mount Ida in Crete), and the name of the legendary mother of Romulus and Remus from the Roman histories – Rhea Silvia – seems simply to be a Romanised metathesis of ‘Rhea Cyvele‘. This suggests the possibility that the history of Fabius and the introduction of Magna Mater were possibly part of a concerted conscious effort of state cultural and religious propaganda.
As it happened, Cato’s political rival Scipio, was victorious over Hannibal and occupied Carthage after a series of decisive and stunning military engagements in Hispania and in North Africa, making these into Roman provinces. Soon after, Rome was to conquer the Achaean league and take Greece itself – its religious and social makeup would be forever changed, much to Cato’s dismay.
Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire:
The late Roman Republican era culminated in the city’s stunning territorial expansion, driven by the twin threats of incursion of the Celts from the north and the sequelae of the opportunity caused by the fractious instability of the eastern military Empire founded by Alexander the Great. This opportunity culminated in both stunning conquests (Caesar’s taking of Gaul and Pompey’s campaigns in Africa and the Middle East) and Rome’s next great period of crisis in which militarised internal factionalism and power struggles threatened the root and stability Rome’s establishment. It was a period of chaos, civil war and a controversial de facto regicide in the case of Julius Caesar.
The man who eventually established peace and a new era of stability was Octavian, who became Rome’s first Emperor – Caesar Augustus – in 27BCE, founding a dynastic line of subsequent emperors.
The ‘Augustan Period’ (27BCE-14CE) marked another important milestone in Rome’s deliberate efforts at significant cultural re-invention and re-mythologizing. There was an explosion in the expression of ideas about Rome’s past in literature, almost certainly engineered by Augustus himself. Of these, the works of Livy with his new history of Rome: Ab Urbe Condita Librii, and the epic poetic equivalent represented by Vergil’s Aeneid served to concrete the past in the image of Octavian’s new order. Both borrowed from newly translated Latin versions of Fabius’ History. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses‘ provided the Greek world with ample evidence of Rome’s superior abilities in the poetic and mythological arts.
Vergil, Ovid and Livy’s works spanned a dialectic between popular culture (the mythology and poetics of the Aeneid) and serious historical scholarship (Livy) and were runaway hits that succeeded in promoting the new Empire’s ideals. As usual a certain amount of licence was taken with facts in order to portray a seemingly cogent, continuous and ordered rise from Rome’s noble but humble origins in the 8thC BCE to the greatness of Augustan Rome, which in the era cited for its founding myth was probably no more than a small and insignificant village on the Tiber. The reality of Rome’s growth was probably very different and more chaotic than historians of the Empire would have us believe.
In his preface to the history of the age of the Roman kings, Livy sums up the spirit of his Imperial benefactor’s ambition:
” … the fates, I suppose, demanded the founding of this great city, and the first establishment of an empire, which is now, in power, next to the immortal gods … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii – Book 1)
The earliest part of the book is probably entirely mythological, and is thought to be based on Fabius (3rdC BCE) who based his work on Diocles (4th/3rdC BCE). Both of these works are lost. Livy’s account places the founding of Rome as part of the dynastic succession struggles of the Kings of Alba Longa – said to be heirs and successors of Aeneas of Troy, who settled with his people in Italy, after that Homeric idealised prototype city-state‘s fall.
Livy was using a legendary motif common to the founding of many great city dynasties – birth (rebirth) from water: This is also seen in the legends of Sargon of Akkad (originating in Bronze Age Babylonia), which would have been known to Diocles of Peperethus, who studied the Persian Empire which inherited Babylon until it was taken by Alexander in 331BCE. A founding myth of Babylon includes the following details, taken from a Babylonian inscription:
” … Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I. My mother was a <virgin priestess>, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains. In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates, my mother, the <virgin priestess>, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth. She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch, and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me. The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier. Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart, Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son, Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener. In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king, and for forty-five years I held kingly sway… ” (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, 1914 – translation of an inscription supposedly dated to the period of the founding of Babylon c.2800. Rank uses the term ‘Vestal’ for my insertion: <virgin priestess>)
This theme of the aquatic rebirth of a city-empire’s founder-hero appears to have been copied into the myth of Moses, which seems likely to have originated among the Judaean immigrants of Persian-ruled Babylonia during the Iron Age. These were to return and rule their own great city-state or kingdom with their new monotheist religion as vassals of Persians and then the Macedonian Empire of Alexander. It was then probably borrowed (‘probatum est’) into Livy’s 1stC BCE Roman history in his myth of Romulus and Remus, which goes as follows:
” … The Vestal (AR: Rhea Silvia) being deflowered by force, brought forth twins, and declared that the father of her doubtful offspring was Mars; either because she really thought so, or in hopes of extenuating the guilt of her transgression by imputing it to the act of a deity. But neither gods nor men screened her or her children from the King’s cruelty: the priestess was loaded with chains, and cast into prison, and the children were ordered to be thrown into the stream of the river. It happened providentially that the Tiber, overflowing its banks, formed itself into stagnant pools in such a manner, as that the regular channel was every where inaccessible, and those who carried the infants supposed that they would be drowned in any water, however still. Wherefore, as if thereby fulfilling the King’s order, they exposed the boys in the nearest pool, where now stands the Ruminal fig-tree, which, it is said, was formerly called Romular. Those places were at that time wild deserts. A story prevails that the retiring flood having left on dry ground the trough, hitherto floating, in which they had been exposed, a thirsty she-wolf from the neighbouring mountains, directed her course to the cries of the children, and, stooping, presented her dugs to the infants, showing so much gentleness, that the keeper of the King’s herds found her licking the boys with her tongue; and that this shepherd, whose name was Faustulus, carried them home to his wife Laurentia to be nursed. Some there are who think that this Laurentia, from her having been a prostitute, was, by the shepherds, called Lupa; and to this circumstance they ascribe the origin of this fabulous tale. Thus born, and thus educated, as soon as years supplied them with strength, they led not an inactive life at the stables, or among the cattle, but traversed the neighbouring forests in hunting. Hence acquiring vigour, both of body and mind, they soon began not only to withstand the wild beasts, but to attack robbers loaded with booty. The spoil thus acquired they divided with the shepherds; and, in company with these, the number of their young associates continually increasing, they carried on both their business, and their sports … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii. trans. George Baker)
Livy’s famous account seems very close to the myth of Sargon, used in the founding myths of the city-state of Babylon and its later clutch of Persian-Judaean whelps and their story of Moses. The twins seem very similar to the mythical Greek twins, Kastor and Polydeukes (Interpretatio Romanum: Castor and Pollux), one of whom was mortal, the other divine. The story is also echoed in the Hebrew story of Cain and Abel.
In his narrative on Romulus and Remus Livy is reflecting the importance of Kastor and Polydeukes in the myths of the Hellenic world. These were mythical sportsmen, and the games that marked the Roman festival of Lupercalia (linked to the wolf mythology of Romulus and Remus) were perhaps a reflection of an Arcadian and Attic Greek tradition attached to myths of Kastor and his brother, and involving a unifying festival of competitive sports: the Olympic games. The appropriation of Greek culture was of particular importance to Romans after the Battle of Corinth in 146BCE, which marked Rome’s effective conquest of Hellas (some might say it was more the other way around, culturally). Rome filled the footsteps of Magna Graecia and her Empire. This was no surprise: after all – Roman culture was in fact Greco-Roman culture…
(For context, I advise you to also look at my post: ‘Gods of war and agriculture’)
Rome’s ancient god Mars represents a curious religious dialectic: On the one hand, he is perhaps best known as a god of war, and on the other he has an older more mysterious incarnation as a god of agriculture and earth’s riches. He remained one the most popular gods of the state religion up until its conversion to christianity.
” … Mars enim cum saevit Gradivus dicitur, cum tranquillus est Quirinus … “
” … When furious, Mars is called Gradivus, when peaceful he is Quirinus …”
Maurus Servius Honoratus – Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil (early 5thC CE)
This dual nature was illustrated by the Romans in the god’s twin symbols of the shield (the passive or protective) and the spear (the active), represented in his (astrological) symbol, comprising of a circle and an arrow: ♂
In Livy’s great 1stC BCE/CE euhemerist (for which we might read ‘fictive’) account of Rome’s history and founding myth (Ab Urbe Condita), the culture-hero twins Romulus and Remus were said to have been born to a mother called Rhea Silvia. She was the daughter of the rightful king of the legendary founder-kingdom of Alba Longa who supposedly sired the twins with the god Mars, while being forced to serve as Vestal Virgin by the usurper, Amulius. Rhea Silvia’s identity seems to very consciously evoke the great mother-goddess of Greek myth – Rhea – whose name appears to be a metathesis of that of the other arch-goddess: Hera. In the theme-story probably borrowed into that of Rome’s legendary founding twins, Rhea gives birth to Zeus while hiding in a cave on Crete’s Mount Ida, lest her consort Kronos find and devour him. Likewise, Livy says that Romulus and Remus were rescued from destruction by the jealous Amulius who throws the twins into the Tiber, only to be thwarted when they wash ashore and are rescued by a she-wolf. A similar Greek/Cretan myth dealing parturative peril tells of the birth of Dionysus to Demeter/Persephone under similar circumstances. The other myth of that god’s birth to Semele also has the same elements, although both portray Dionysus as being destroyed and reborn. These share elements with the older Egyptian myths of Osiris and Isis, the death and dismemberment of Osiris, his reconstruction and the birth of Heru/Horus. The narrative seems to be a continuity of the idea of life coming from death – an idea at the heart of ancient paganism, one pertinent to understanding Mars. The ‘two faces’ of Mars: Mars-Gradivas and Mars-Quirinus as mentioned by the Christian author Servius, seem to have been united to Old Jupiter in the original ‘Archaic Triad’ of Rome’s principle gods: Jupiter, Mara and Quirinus. This ‘Archaic Triad’ supposedly had its own triad of Flamines Maiores said to have been appointed by legendary king, Numa Pompilus, who was supposed to have ruled in the 8th/7thC BCE. However, it was supposedly supplanted by Hellenised Etruscan influence – either of the Tarquinian kings, just before the dawn of the Roman Republic in the 6thC BCE or by a more gradual process of adoption of state cults from conquered cities. Livy, for instance, states that Juno was adopted when Rome conquered Etruscan Veii in 396BCE, although such a statement does not preclude her already being a god to whom the Romans gave Cult. This ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, copied the Etruscan triad of Tinia, Uni and Menerva, respectively. Mars was replaced with the similarly spear and shield-wielding goddess, Minerva, known to the Greeks as Athena – a principle protectoress (as Athena Polias/Pallas) of the city-state in the archaic and classical eras – Athens, in particular. Juno (Hera to the Greeks) was also a feminine representation of a vengeful force who in mythology often attempts to protect (with varying degrees of success) the bonds of her marriage to Jupiter/Zeus. Both female replacements for Mars and Quirinus represent feminine aspects of the male gods. It was noted by Macrobius in his 5thC CE book Saturnalia – that Juno was (etymologically) a female counterpart of Janus, another uniquely Latin god who was depicted with two faces. As god of beginnings and endings, he also played an important role in warfare, it being a custom (according to Plutarch and others) to keep the doors of his temple open in times of war. Janus is an interesting god to introduce to the narrative of ‘two-headed’ Mars: In the time of Augustus this god was actually referred to (by Festus and Livy) as ‘Janus-Quirinus’, implying some kind of link to Rome’s ‘Cthonic Mars’. In the case of Livy (History I.32.6-14), Janus Quirinus was supposedly invoked in the act of formally declaring war. Livy’s account of the words are probably a fanciful concoction of his own typically grandiose style, but the details still count:
“Hear thou, Jupiter, and thou, Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye terrestrial gods, and ye infernal gods, hear! I call you to witness this people – naming whatever people it is – are unjust and do not render just reparation. But regarding these matters, we will consult the elders of our fatherland, how we may aquire our due.”
In other words: ‘I’m going to go home and tell my dad, and then you’ll be sorry!’
This and the custom of opening the temple doors equates Janus resolutely to the Archaic triad of Jupiter-Mars-Quirinus under a military aspect. Why, then did Rome adopt the Capitoline triad in its place? It certainly was not averse to war – indeed, the doors of the temple of Janus were probably more often open than closed! The key to understanding the answer to this question is to be found by looking at the females behind the Capitoline triad.
Minerva was the feminine counterpart to Mars in his role as war-god, and was depicted with the same attributes: the spear and shield. However, she was also the goddess of intellect and wisdom – those crucial characteristics which avert war or guide it to its successful conclusion. It is perhaps the fundamental incompatibility between Roman Mars (who was also a chthonic agriculture-fertility deity) and the Greek conception of the war-god – Ares – who represented simply the idea of aggression and violence, devoid of the regenerative qualities implicit in Mars. Minerva herself was a ‘virgin’ goddess – an idea which did not necessarily imply chastity (in the sense so lauded by early Christians), but rather maximum fertile potential.
Juno (Uni to the Etruscans, and Hera to the Greeks) represented the maternal protective force – jealous and fiercely protective, much like the wolf who adopted Romulus and Remus as her ‘pups’ in the old Roman foundation myth. She was the ‘Capitoline’ replacement for Quirinus, who is sometimes portrayed as a deification of Romulus, Mars – like Minerva – being the younger more active version of the god. Jupiter is Juno’s husband in conventional mythology, and Jupiter was the principle god to which warfare was dedicated. Greek and Roman legends are full of the conflict with Hera/Juno caused by Zeus/Jupiter’s constant seeking for mistresses by which conceive the other gods and demi-gods who people Mediterranean myth. In these, her jealousy seeks to protect the older order – their own union. She is thus a more mature aspect of Minerva, her daughter. In Greek and Etruscan myth, she is the nurse-maid of the ‘culture-hero’ Hercules/Herakles (who bears her Greek name), allowing him access to Olympus as a divine – much like the later myth of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, allowing them to found Rome. Again, we can see how syncresis with Greek myths informed a change in the focus of Roman religion. Greeks tended to see their Roman cousins as closer to barbarians, and Romans were typically conscious of this in attempting to follow Greek religion.
Time and again we see the myths of paganism subsumed into the narratives of hagiography in the early centuries of the Christian church in northern Europe. Another prime example of this can be found in the stories about ‘St Winifred’ – an early Welsh saint with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name, whose life is ascribed to the 7thC CE.
Winifred is interesting because her life, legends and veneration are full of the indicators of a pagan origin hinting at the Gaelic great goddess, known as Brigit or Aine. She is local to north Wales in the tribal areas of the Deceangli, known by medieval times known as Tegeingl – modern Flintshire. The Deceangli were a Celtic tribal polity of the late Iron Age whose origins are supposed to lie in part in Ireland. Winifred’s father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, is supposed to have been a chieftain among these peoples.
Although relating her floruit to the 7thC CE, the earliest hagiographies (surviving in the Laud and Cottonian manuscript collections) must stem from at least the 12thC, as the work of Giraldus Cambrensis (‘An Itinerary through Wales’) from that century makes no mention of Winifred’s Well and its supposedly famous shrine. The 12thC was an important period for clerical writers who were busily remodelling the more ancient and often syncretic traditions of the past in order to suit the anti-heretical world of new Christian piety, modelled around the example of the Cistercians. The recent Christianisation of Scandinavia (whose settlers had peopled Ireland and Britain) demanded such a modern narrative in order to disguise more overt pagan themes underpinning Christian piety from the eyes of the aware.
Winifred’s tale begins, suitably, with a tale of death and rebirth: An only daughter, she decides from an early age to dedicate her life to Christ, and convinces her father to allow her holy maternal uncle, Beuno, to build a church upon his land. One day while preparing for mass, a huntsman (Caradoc, son of a local prince) emerges from the woods and attempts to rape her or convince her to marry him, but being devoted to Christ she escapes and spurns him. In a fit of rage Caradoc pursues her to the threshold of Beuno’s oratory or church and decapitates her. The head rolls down a hill, and where it comes to rest a miraculous spring bubbles up from the ground. Luckily for her, Beuno arrives, kills Caradoc (his body melts into the ground) and contrives to magically join the maiden’s head back to her body, restoring her to life in god’s name. Beuno then his benediction, proclaiming that pilgrims who honoured the well would be healed of their ailments. Winifred takes holy orders, and Beuno says he must go, but instructs her to annually place a cape of her own fashioning upon a rock in the middle of the river issuing from the spring, and it would be conveyed, dry, with the rock to where Beuno would be staying (either Wales or Ireland depending on the tradition). The spring well supposed to have been created by Winifred’s decapitation is known as St Winifred’s Well at Holywell, and was an important location for pilgrimage in the later middle ages, during which time (up until the Reformation) such sites were of great economic importance to the church.
Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:
The Christian legend about Winifred and Beuno seems wholly designed to replace a pagan narrative associated with a holy well: a typical site of Celtic worship. As such the details of the story, fantastical and grotesque as they seem, offer us a fascinating chance to understand what it was the Christians were trying to replace.
The Head: The apparent decapitation of Winifred is used here to explain the creation of the spring. That Beuno undoes the discombobulation is a narrative theme of negation typical of early Christian hagiographies – it is an act contrary to an underlying pagan narrative. This would imply that a head or something representing a head was once associated with the well, and would be removed occasionally. Similarly, the spring obviously predated Winifred’s supposed floruit, yet the narrative wishes it to start with her, rather than linking it to a pagan past.
The head was a potent symbol in the Iron Age Celtic world, depicted time and again in Celtic art and in accounts of Celtic warriors treasuring the heads of their enemies. Numerous examples of male and female carved stone heads from the Celtic era have been found throughout Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and sometimes in association with spring wells in an archaeological context.
Decapitated heads played an important part in the mythology of the Mabinogion (the head of Bendigeidfran, for instance). In the ‘Arthurian’ poem of Gawain and the Green Knight, the decapitated head of the tale’s eponymous adversary (Bertilak) – like that of Bran the Blessed – has an active life after its separation from the Knight’s body, indicating a supernatural provenance. This potent and pertinent theme of ancient Atlantic spirituality also occurs in the Ulster Cycle Irish tale Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast) in which three contesting heroes have to submit to a trial by beheading with the disguised Manannan hypostasis – Cu Roi. The idea of a beheaded female, however, is largely absent from the mythological corpus.
Mobile Stones: The idea of a moveable holy stone associated with a river and the sea in this cultural region is hinted at in a number of medieval legendary and apocryphal tales. One of these can be found in the Irish version of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ of the monk Nennius, which discusses certain wonders to be found in the Isle of Man during the early medieval period:
“…The Wonders of Manann down here:
The first wonder is a strand without a sea.
The second is a ford which is far from the sea, and which fills when the tide flows, and decreases when the tide ebbs.
The third is a stone which moves at night in Glenn Cindenn, and though it should be cast into the sea, or into a cataract, it would be found on the margin of the same valley…”
The name ‘Cindenn’ contains an element which appears to represent the Gaelic word for ‘head’, which is ‘Cin’ or in modern Manx ‘Kione’ and in Irish, ‘Ceann’. The implication might be that in the Isle of Man during the period of the text’s writing, a stone (head?) was taken from a location near to a water source in a glen (valley) and placed in the sea before being returned to its location. The name Cindenn has not survived in the modern Isle of Man, so the location is unknown. However, most tantalising and curious reference is from an ancient Manx ballad, ‘Berrey Dhone’, which makes allusions to a magical female character who steals cattle and hides out on the high mountains within rocks referred to as ‘doors’. The ballad refers to her having ‘stone of/for her head’ (the Manx phrase in the song is ‘As y lhiack er e kione’). ‘Berrey’ is pronounced ‘Beara’, leaving no doubt that the ballad is referring to the ancient ‘Cailleach’ herself.
Holy Cloaks: The curious reference in the Winifred tale to an annual gift of a cloak (at midsummer) is another tantalising glimpse of a lost pagan tradition. The ‘cloak’ or ‘veil’ is, of course, an attribute of the eponymous Cailleach, whose name (we might speculate) might mean ‘covered stone’.
Death and Rebirth at the Holy Well: Winifred’s story starts with her martyrdom – something of a change to the usual story of Christian saints. However, she is promptly brought back to life by a male saint, an aspect of the story seeming to deliberately emphasise the power of the masculine over the feminine. Rivers had female personifications in the Celtic world, with many legends associating them with magical females who stand guard over their sources – typically spring wells, which were deemed holy. It was believed that the life-giving waters of these springs flowed both to and (mystically) back from the Otherworld. I discuss this in some detail here.
Interestingly, the ‘decollation’ of St Winifride was celebrated on the summer solstice – 22nd of June, which was her original festival day before it was moved to the 3rd November (Samhain) later in the middle ages, a date more suited to ‘witches’. Proof enough that ‘Winifred’ was a reaction to goddess worship…
Gifts to the Otherworld: The idea of a former pagan belief in an Otherworld river arising from Winifred’s Well is made explicit in the part of the narrative which has Beuno advising the saint to annually express her gratitude to him by casting a gift into the stream arising from the spring, safe in the knowledge that it will mystically travel to him in Ireland. One wonders if Beuno himself as well as Winifred was a Christian hypostasis of a pagan theme, rather than solely a male Christian character imposed upon a pagan female narrative. It was once a practice (according to an 18thC account by Thomas Pennant) to dedicate calves and lambs born bearing a special mark on their ear (a slit or nick called ‘Nôd Beuno’) to the saint at his church and supposed tomb at Clynnog in north Wales.
The Irish connection:
Being in the same region as the diocese of St Asaph, Winifred’s legend and the themes of her hagiographic narrative must in some way be culturally linked to that of the water-loving St Kentigern, also called ‘Mungo’. The Glaswegian saint’s legend mentions him sojourning in North Wales with Asaph during his spiritual questing in ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ (‘The Old North’ Celtic polity of sub-Roman Britain during the early Anglo-Saxon pagan era): Northwest Britain, Southwest Scotland and North Wales were once part of a purer Celtish cultural polity connected to Ireland after the collapse of continental Roman administration.
Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:
The prefix of the name Winifred (‘Wini-‘) calls to mind the Celtic words for river: Abhain (Irish), Awin (manx) and Afon (Welsh) – all generally pronounced in a similar manner, and the ‘saint’ herself is strongly connected with the source of rivers. It has been suggested that the Irish goddess name Áine (pronounced ‘Awynya’ or ‘Awnya’) might also be connected to the word for ‘river’, as it also signifies a circle or cycle, as does the Latin word Annus, from which the goddess of the seasons, Anna Perenna was named.
Indeed, the Manx use of the name ‘Jinny the Winny’ and ‘Jinny the Witch’ (Jinny is pronounced either ‘djinny’ or ‘yinny’) for the supernatural female associated with Samhain (in Manx called ‘Hop-tu-Naa’ or Sowin) persists to this day, providing linguistic evidence of a connection between Winifred and the pagan goddess of the Gaels.
Another interesting link comes from the term ‘Awen’, familiar to students of neo-druidry and those with an interest in Welsh celtic reconstructionism. This is usually described as meaning ‘poetic inspiration’ and is indeed related to the previously mentioned Celtic word for river: it implies a flow of inspiration. If Cormac’s 10thC ‘Glossary’ is to be trusted, the triform Brigit was the pagan goddess of poetry among the Irish and she and Áine appear to be different aspects of a triple goddess of the annual cycle, represented by the Maiden (Brigit, goddess of spring), the Mother (Aine, goddess of summer) and the Crone (the Cailleach who represents winter). The multi-dimensional mystery of this triple formed goddess and her triple-formed consort must have been a core spiritual tenet of the druidic religion, now lost, but seemingly within grasping distance for us once again…
The 1st day of February (the 12th/13th by the old Julian Calendar) in Ireland is marked by two coincident ancient religious festivals – the Gaelic Celtic feast of Imbolc and the feast day if St Brigit (Bride) of Kildare.
It signifies the days when new life starts to become visible in the winter world – the appearance of the first flowers of the new year, the first buds on trees, and the mating and nesting of birds, and the birth of the first lambs of the year.
To the ancient Greeks, this ‘event’ of nature – new life starting push through from the dead soil – was given special significance in the very ancient myth of the maiden (Kore) Persephone who, after being abducted by the god of the dead, Hades, was allowed to make an annual return to stay with her mother – the fertile earth, personified as Demeter (literally meaning ‘mother goddess’). This myth had a central part in the ancient Greek mystery religions, most notably that at Eleusis, near Athens in Attica. It was one of the most fundamental myths of ancient Greek religion, with origins traceable into the Bronze Age.
As a mythic drama celebrating a returning junior fertility goddess, we have few clues that the old Celtic festival of Imbolc (first attested in writing in the 10thC Irish text known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’) was a goddess festival – there are no references in medieval Irish manuscripts linking a festival named Imbolc to a ‘Persephone’ themed myth. However, the early Irish Christian church created a festival of their own on this day which was an explicit celebration of a maiden – that of Brigdhe (Bride) or Brigit of Kildare, whose early hagiographic tale begins with her adoption into a christian household as a child where she immediately causes an increase in the family’s food supplies through a number of miracles. This tale echoes the practical medieval (probably much older) practice of re-hiring servants on the first quarter day of the new solar year, when farm work begins again, it having been suspended at Samhain or St Martin’s day by ancient Atlantic European tradition. The period between Samhain and Imbolc was a time of relative ease in the pre-modern empirically-minded subsistence world: harvests had been gathered and stored, animals slaughtered and their meat cured and preserved. There was little need of servants or slaves to manage the heavier manual work and they were alleviated of their duties until the restarting of the Atlantic agricultural cycle, which undertook its first ploughing of fields from the start of the Imbolc quarter. This theme is echoed in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (where slaves feasted with freemen) and at the Greek Summer Kronia (when it was too hot to work) and Winter Dionysia which was held around the same period as the Saturnalia. Nature was the book which gave the instructions!
Of course, we have little evidence that Greek religion directly influenced northern Europe’s Celtic peoples, although every reason to suspect from the galvanising cultural and military explosion of the ‘Belgic’ movement of the Celts into the Balkans and Greek territories from the 4thC BCE that they expressed some notable sympathy with certain Greek myths, and the iconography of the Eleusinian myths (pine trees and ears of corn) appears upon the coins of British kings of the Augustan period. Caesar Augustus was an Eleusinian initiate who fostered many British Celtic nobles at his court in order to acculturate them ahead of further Roman plans at expansion. The Irish did not apparently mint coins, or play much part in the Roman scheme of conquest, except during its christian phase when they rose meteorically in prominence. It appears then, that the ancient legends Irish monks enthusiastically wrote down may have shared a common root with those of the Greeks, lost in the mists of the late stone ages and their mysterious megalithic religious cultures.
Of course, Brigit was originally a pagan goddess. The author of Cormac’s Glossary (10thC) states this, and annotators of one of the surviving manuscripts (version ‘B)’ claimed that all of the Irish pagan goddesses were in fact Brigit, who had a typically celtic triple form. Here we have John O’Donovan’s translation of this:
“Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”
It was a simple step for christians to appropriate her as their most important female saint and ‘holy virgin’ who passed her apprenticeship as a cowherd, dairy maid and household servant. Because of her triple-form she was therefore characterised hailed in the hagiographies as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’. In the continental medieval biblical narrative, the ‘Three Maries’ of the Bible (the ones at the tomb of Jesus) appeared to have subsumed another pagan triplicity – a common theme in the middle ages. Legends attached to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence in the south of France claim these three Maries (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Mary Salome) landed by boat there. Southern Gaul was, of course, a Celtic province with strong early links to Greek and Roman culture. It was also important in the development and spread of christianity among the Celtic peoples.
Bride and Aine, Persephone and Demeter:
In order to draw a clearer comparison between Bride and Persephone, we need to look at Persephone’s mother: Demeter. Is there evidence of an Irish equivalent?
Demeter represented the fruitful and fertile earth, and her child was therefore an example of her own self-begetting nature, and their legend an expression of the eternal (maternal) tragedy and joy of death an rebirth. As such, she an Persephone are two phases of the same idea, and it is to this concept we must link with the the triune nature by which the Celts conceived their gods. In fact, Demeter and Persephone were actually part of a mythological triplicity, completed by a third feminine goddess, Hekate, who was the sage ‘aid-woman’ who assisted Demeter in her search for her daughter. In later Greco-Roman art, she was depicted as ‘Hecate Triformis’ after the style of the Celtic divinities. Scholars have identified the cult of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate (the Eleusinian triad) and Artemis (sister of Apollo the Healer) with religious traditions extending back to the older ‘Potnia Theron’ goddess-character depicted so frequently in the art of the Minoan and Mycenaean ages.
How could this ancient Greek triplicity be considered coterminous with the Irish Iron Age triple-goddess Brigit, as described in Cormac’s Glossary? On the surface, Cormac’s triadic goddess expresses a function of knowledge and wisdom, healing and creative dexterity – a set of values more appropriate to Athena, Artemis and the Muses, and possibly to Aphrodite as wife of Hephaistos.
Brigit the Craftswoman/Woman of Smithcraft:
To make such a connection, we must understand how the ancient Gaels viewed the ‘blacksmith’ or ‘artifex’ archetype: This was essentially as the active process involved in reforging the world of nature – the ‘hidden craftsperson’ behind the ‘seasonal drama’.
Such a character exists in a profusion of forms in Ireland’s post-Christian mythology: As the smith known variously as Chullain/Cuillin/Gullion (an important character of the Ulster Cycle), as the Gobán Saor (an archetypal ancient smith and builder credited with raising many ancient structures, sometimes enjoying a legendary plasticity with the Cailleach Bheara), the high-literary ‘god-character’ Goibniu (smith of the Tuatha De Danann) and the euhemerised saints Gobban of Leighlin, Gobnait and the related St Latiaran of Cullin.
Even though most of these smith-archetypes of Irish Christian-era myth are male, the female is ever in attendance with them. In the case of St Laitiaran of Cullen’s sister saint, Gobnait, there is an explicit link with Brigit – her feast day falls on the 11th of February (Matyrology of Oengus), within a Julian calendar’s throw of the feast of Imbolc. Laitiaran and Gobnait were legendarily associated with a third sister-saint, again completing the ‘Brigitine’ triadic form.
In the famous medieval ‘Mythological Cycle’ tales of Ireland’s god-like ancestors, the male triad Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta (the Trí Dé Dána – Three Gods of Craft) are said in the tale Immacallam in dá Thúarad to be sons of Brigit of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and she the daughter of An Dagda. In the tale Tochmarch Etaine the Trí Dé Dána are said to have instead been Dagda, Lugh and Ogma, suggesting these were possibly of an older order, before the Age of metals. Goibniu was a master of blacksmithing, Creidhne a master of jewel-making and Luchta a craftsman in wood or builder (I.e. – a user of metal tools).
Slieve Gullion in County Armagh evokes the name of the smith-king of the Ulster Cycle tales from whom the hero Cuchullain is named. His daughter Tiobhal is described as ‘Princess of the Ocean’ in some late renditions of the myths linking Gullion/Cuillean to the Isle of Man and suggesting a connection with Manannan. At Slieve Gullion, St Brigit’s fosterling and acolyte, St Moninna (a reflex of the name of the Lake Lady of Arthurian legend, Niniane), was said by tradition to have founded the abbey at Kileavy on the slopes of the mountain, during the ‘reign’ of St Patrick. According to legend, she raised a foster-son called Luger, a name reminiscent of that of Lugh. The name ‘Kileavy’ may well be a rendering of the name of the site’s former pagan temple – Kil Aoife, after one of the names of Ireland’s famous ‘Fairy Queens’. Slieve Gullion is famously associated with the legendary folk-character Cailleach Beara, as well as the Lake Lady who turns Fionn into an old man when she bids him dive into the summit lake to find her ring. It was here Cuchullain fought the armies of the Fairy Queen Medb. Curiously, there are few legends of a ‘male’ Gullion or Cuillain the smith, but more linking the named place to the aquatic otherworld female of Atlantic religious myth.
The healer and the poetess:
Whereas Brigit the Smith can be seen as a forger or re-forger and mystical renewer of life from the death processes of nature, Brigit the Healer fulfils a similar role within the world of the living – renewing from disease and allaying death. The same function is ascribed to the Delphic Greek god Apollo (often known among the ancient Celts as Belenos), brother of the ‘virgin huntress’ goddess Artemis. Artemis was herself not unlike the younger aspect of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – a ‘mistress of animals’ and herds which was appended freely to the qualities of St Brigit of Kildare. Artemis has been likened to a ‘wild’ version of the ‘agricultural’ triad of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate and in some regards can be seen as a female likeness of Dionysus.
In the Delphic myth, Apollo symbolically conquered death and decay with the mystical act of slaying Python, from whose rotting corpse arose the inspiring fumes of prophecy and the fertility of the dead. Both he and his son Asclepius (the name implying the ancient onomatopoeic Indo-European word for ‘snake’) were the Greek divinities most often associated with the semantic field of the active healing arts and prophecy. Apollo was also strongly associated with the Muses – Greek goddesses of poetic inspiration, and it can be seen that there is an apparent similitude to the semantic fields of the Brigitine Triad mentioned in Cormac, in the form Brigit, Goddess of Poets. Of course, this represents a closer similarity in many ways to the Delphic religion of Apollo than the Eleusinian religion of Demeter and Persephone, although the Irish system shows evidence of links to both.
Artemis, Diana and Ireland’s Aine:
The Roman equivalent to ancient Artemis was Diana, whose name appears to be a composite of ‘Dea’ and ‘Anna’, meaning ‘Goddess of the Year’. Another Roman goddess possibly linked to her was ‘Anna Perenna’ and the Demeter-like ‘Dea Dia’, worshipped at Rome’s agricultural festival of Ambarvalia, in honour of Ceres. She was considered part of a ‘virgin triad’ of goddesses along with Minerva (Athena) and Vesta (Hestia). The name Diana has, as I have previously discussed, distinct etymological similarities with an Irish goddess: Áine (‘Awnya’) attested in both folklore and medieval written mythology, making her a figure of considerable interest to those studying ancient Irish paganism.
The name ‘Áine’ has connotations of the Irish word for ‘circle’: ain. The goddess was associated with the seasons and agriculture, and to the moon and the tides associated with them, and thus somehow to the mystical Gaelic ‘otherworld cycle’ linked to mountains, spring wells, lakes, rivers and the oceans. Apart from her similarity to the Roman Diana (whose cult was centred at Lake Nemi and supervised by the Rex Nemorensis – a priest taken from slave stock, probably Gaulish) she also was also a Gaelic fulfilment of the idea of Demeter/Ceres: The seasonal repetition of the fertility cycle. Just as Persephone was an aspect of Demeter, this makes the likelihood of Brigit relating to Áine in the same way quite high. Another aspect of Áine worth mentioning is her traditional role as a ‘sovereignty goddess’, from whom certain clans claimed ancestry – the Eoghanacht Aine, for instance: Such claims are based upon the link between the nurturing fertile land and the people – held to have been united at a far unspecifiable point in ancient history. Just like the Nile fed Egypt, the Irish (and indeed Celtic) concepts linking goddess and fertility revolved around springs and rivers, whose branching and snaking nature reflected the growth of plants. The etymology of the name of the river Shannon contains words for ‘Ancient’ and the goddess’ name – Seann Aine.
The Gaelic ‘goddesses’ of the pagan age were triform – one identity hid a multiplicity of names and aspects. The Gaels (and no doubt the wider body of Atlantic European Celtic peoples) were essentially duotheists, worshipping a male and female entity who can be identified through careful exegesis and critical appraisal of folklore, archaeology, literature and tradition, and from the names of places and land features.
In Orthodox christianity, the ancient tradition of the Sanctification of the Waters at the festival of Epiphany (5th and 6th of January) is marked throughout the world by the popular custom of ‘diving for the cross’. The festival itself celebrates not just the ‘Theophany’ of Jesus to the gentiles but in particular among Orthodox Christians, his adult baptism by John the Baptist/the holy spirit (depending on which gospel tradition you go by).
Cross-diving usually follows the Epiphany mass and involves the priest casting a crucifix into a body of water, this being the cue for a crowd of eager young men to dive in, competing to retrieve it. It obviously echoes the baptismal theme of the Christian myth, but is there more to this tradition that predates Christianity?
As previously mentioned, there are many features which Christianity has borrowed from paganism for the festivities spanning from the winter solstice to Epiphany: the festivals of Saturnalia and the Dionysia being key donor traditions. Dionysia is the closest model for Epiphany, being the annual festival of the epiphany or theophany of Dionysus to the people. In western christianity, it is also remembered in the seemingly Dionysian celebration of the ‘Miracle at Cana’ at which Jesus supposedly turns water into wine. Diving into water, however is not a particular tradition of the Dionysia.
The Nativity of Aion:
We must look into the early 1st millennium Hellenistic world, and to Alexandria in Egypt to get more of a clue as to the origins of baptism at Epiphany. Christianity evolved in the Levant and Egypt among a seething sea of syncretistic pagan ideas, which under the influence of reductionist neoplatonic philosophy began to be intellectualised, combined and refined. At multi-ethnic Alexandria in the 1st-4th centuries CE, one of the chief gods worshipped among the Hellenised Egyptians was ‘Aion’ or ‘Aeon’ – seemingly a syncretistic youthful version of Kronos, compounded with Osiris, Dionysus and Apollo, and whose nativity festival was held on the 6th of January. The Alexandrian mythos claimed he was born to the virgin goddess Kore (also known as Persephone) on the night of 5th/6th of January. In gnosticism, Aion became the name or title of the series of historically repeating godhoods, one of whom was believed to be Jesus by some gnostics. The idea of the chain of prophets leading to the Messiah was of course originally a Judaic idea, and seems to be the root of the gnostic Aions. Aion, however, was originally a pagan idea:
Epiphanius of Salamis (c.315–403CE) wrote in his book Panarion:
“… Christ was born on the sixth day of January after thirteen days of the winter solstice and of the increase of the light and day. This day the Greeks, I mean the Idolaters, celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of December, a feast called Saturnalia among the Romans, Kronia among the Egyptians, and Kikellia among the Alexandrians. For on the twenty-fifth day of December the division takes place which is the solstice, and the day begins to lengthen its light, receiving an increase, and there are thirteen days of it up to the sixth day of January, until the day of the birth of Christ (a thirtieth of an hour being added to each day), as the wise Ephraim among the Syrians bore witness by this inspired passage in his commentaries, where he says: ‘ The advent of our Lord Jesus Christ was thus appointed: His birth according to the flesh, then his perfect incarnation among men, which is called Epiphany, at a distance of thirteen days from the increase of the light; for it needs must have been that this should be a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and of His twelve disciples, who made up the number of the thirteen days of the increase of the light.’
How many other things in the past and present support and bear witness to this proposition, I mean the Resurrection birth of Christ! Indeed, the leaders of the idol-cults, filled with wiles to deceive the idol-worshippers who believe in them, in many places keep highest festival on this same night of Epiphany, so that they whose hopes are in error may not seek the truth. For instance, at Alexandria, in the Koreion as it is called – an immense temple – that is to say, the Precinct of the Virgin; after they have kept all-night vigil with songs and music, chanting to their idol, when the vigil is over, at cockcrow, they descend with lights into an underground crypt, and carry up a wooden image lying naked on a litter, with the seal of a cross made in gold on its forehead, and on either hand two other similar seals, and on both knees two others, all five seals being similarly made in gold. And they carry round the image itself, circumambulating seven times the innermost temple, to the accompaniment of pipes, tabors and hymns, and with merry-making they carry it down again underground. And if they are asked the meaning of this mystery, they answer and say: ‘To-day at this hour the Maiden, that is, the Virgin, gave birth to the Aeon.’
In the city of Petra also – the metropolis of Arabia which is called Edom in the Scriptures – the same is done, and they sing the praises of the Virgin in the Arab tongue, calling her in Arabic Chaamou, that is, Maiden, and the Virgin, and him who is born from her Dusares, that is, Alone-begotten of the Lord. This also takes place in the city of Elousa on the same night just as at Petra and at Alexandria … “
Unfortunately Epiphanius was none the wiser as to what happened in the crypt of the Koreion, and it is for us to speculate that it may have involved some form of immersion in water. This ancient Alexandrian celebration of nativity and epiphany on the 5th/6th January survives still in the most ancient Christian denomination – the Armenian Church. The prime divinity among the pre-Christian Armenians was the Persian goddess Anahit (Anahita) who was analogous to the Hellenistic ‘Kore’ and therefore to Isis. She was also linked to Ishtar, Aphrodite and Artemis. Anahita was a mountain goddess representing waters – a theme of some importance in the pagan world.
The drowned god who came back to life:
The myth of Isis and Osiris is at the core of ancient Egyptian mythology, and became influential throughout the Roman Empire from the 1stC BCE, when Isis became one of the favourite goddesses of what I call the ‘syncretic era’. The myth of the death by drowning and the resurrection of her brother and lover Osiris is intimately tied up with water. The reborn Osiris – like Phrygian Cybele’s consort, Attis – was summoned from death by the goddess and the new era (Horus) conceived by an act of mystical intercourse. The descent of the statue of Kore into the basement of the temple at the Hellenistic ?gnostic nativity festival of Aion was obviously designed to reflect the Egyptian myth, and also its Eleusinian and Dionysian counterparts. Indeed, examination of this myth demonstrates that it was a theme with vast and far-reaching provenance in ancient paganism.
So … the mysteries of Epiphany are tied up in the many older pagan legends of a dying and reborn god. There is much more that I could say about this topic which involves the Celts of Atlantic Europe, but I will save this for another post for now, except to quote from Florus’ Epitome of Roman History which suggest that the cross-diving tradition may have an older provenance in Bulgaria…
” … After the Macedonians (heaven save the mark) the Thracians, former tributaries of the Macedonians, rebelled and, not content with making incursions merely into the neighbouring provinces of Thessaly and Dalmatia, penetrated as far as the Adriatic; checked by the boundary which it formed, since nature apparently stayed their advance, they hurled their weapons against the very waters. Throughout the period of their advance they left no cruelty untried, as they vented their fury on their prisoners; they sacrificed to the gods with human blood; they drank out of human skulls; by every kind of insult inflicted by burning and fumigation they made death more foul; they even forced infants from their mothers’ wombs by torture. The cruellest of all the Thracians were the Scordisci, and to their strength was added cunning as well; their haunts among the woods and mountains harmonized well with their fierce temper… ” Lucius Annaeus Florus – The Epitome of Roman History (Trans. E.S. Forster)
The Christmas period in Europe is marked by some fairly bizarre and decidedly un-Christian traditions, although given that this has been a festive period long before christianity hit the scene these are perhaps unsurprising. Although sometimes savage and alien, they give an insight into the world of spiritual empiricism which formed ancient indigenous cultural and religious philosophies and practices. The fact that many of these traditions enjoy a plasticity and interchangeability of date and can run anywhere from Hallowe’en (31st October) through to Epiphany (6th January) demonstrates perhaps that they are first and foremost midwinter festivals, with roots seated deeply in the ancient pagan world and its beliefs about ancestors, cyclicity and divine manifestation.
The traditions generally involve people dressing up in wild, frightening or outlandish costumes and performing processions and plays in honour of the festive season and of mythologies connected with it. Here are a few examples:
Swarte Piet and Sinterklaas:
The ‘Christian Santa’ is based upon St Nicholas of Myra – an early Christian saint from what is now modern Turkey. His festival is attached to the 6th December on the Gregorian calendar, yet by the Julian calendar it lies on the winter solstice. That he became a popular saint all over Europe is indicative of the ability of his traditions to supplant pagan ones, and in the Low Countries he became known as ‘Sintiklaas’, from which we get the name ‘Santa Claus’, and he had an elfen helper – Swarte Piet or Black Peter, who became a character accompanying St Nicholas in the religious festival processions typifying the festival in the Netherlands. The character is immediately identifiable as he has his face blackened. Those following my blog or knowledgeable in ancient Greek history and mythology will recall that the male satyroi celebrants of the midwinter Dionysia in Greece during the 1st millennium BC would blacken their faces with wine lees at the procession of the god’s epiphany, and this appears to be a continuation of such a practice. Like the Dionysian satyrs the purpose is entertainment and the bestowal of gifts. Piet and his boss generally arrive in their processions from a far off land, by boat – another link to Saturn and Poseidon, as well as to Dionysus.
Political extremists have recently made attempts to have Piet banned, claiming that he is an ethnic parody and denigrating the importance of the ancient tradition. The medieval conception of the man with a blackened face as a ‘blackamoor’ or ‘saracen’ always associates him with luck, and no negative ethnic connotations – a phenomenon recognised from across Europe where similar traditions occur. Perhaps the older origins of the face-blackening (the Dionysia of the ancient Greco-Roman world) have been overlooked, but in the very least the character is a positive celebration rather than having any negative connotations. The same might be said of our next winter character-performance:
December 5th (St Nick’s eve) and the first two weeks in December are associated with St Nicholas in Bavaria and Austria, and as in the Netherlands the saint is accompanied in his processions by an outlandish sidekick, who is either his ‘helper’ or antithesis: Krampus.
Tradition holds that Krampus comes to punish the wicked (naughty children, in particular) and St Nicholas brings gifts for the good. It is a spectacle where children and the public in general get fun from a ‘scare’ from Krampus who brandishes chains, whips and bells and lears through his demonic and entirely terrifying mask. His northern German equivalent is Knecht Ruprecht – who plays a similar role but is of a much less terrifying persona, more human than beast, yet still with hints of ‘Robin Goodfellow’ in both name and deed. Krampus seems almost identical to the related:
Perchtenlauf processions are held just after Christmas in the period up to and including Epiphany (6th January or ‘Twelfth Night’). They occur in Southern Germany, Austria and Slovenia (where Mother Perchta is known as Pehta Baba). Like the Krampus traditions of early December, they involve the dressing up as masked characters, generally divided by their appearance and behaviour into the Schönperchten (“beautiful Perchten”) who wear mild-faced masks topped with floral or decorative crowns, and the (arguably much more popular)Schiachperchten (“ugly Perchten”) who correspond in appearance and behaviour to Krampus and delight in causing a good ‘scare’.
Badalisk and Bosinada:
Hailing from the Val Camonica region of the Italian Alps is an ‘Epiphany’ tradition corresponding to those of the Perchten further north and east. It involves a person dressing up as a wild creature called the ‘Badalisc’ or ‘Badlisk’ (i.e. – Basilisk) who is ceremonially ‘captured’ out in the countryside by a band of masked characters who parade it in the village of Andrista where it is ‘made’ to recount a rhyme containing humorous gossip and predictions for the coming year etc in return for its ‘release’ back into the wild. The event is marked by popular celebration and feasting and is an annual crowd-pleaser. It may be a remnant part of a wider regional (e.g. – Milanese) tradition of public performance or publication of satirical or excoriating rhyming poetry known as Bosinada, which offered a kind of pre-Epiphany ‘purgation’ of community woes – what might be called a ‘roast’ by contemporary American comics. Upon examination, it becomes apparent that such midwinter satire traditions appear in the ancient cultures all over Europe, and ultimately relate to the Rural Dionysia of ancient Greek culture!
The ‘Basilisk’ of Greek legend was, by its name, the ‘King of Snakes’ and represented the figurative primal serpent often encountered in ancient European mythology. The Camonica valley was a Celtic region up until it Latinised in the 1stC CE with Rome’s northward expansion.
The tradition of capturing a wren at midwinter and parading it tied to a pole is peculiar to Atlantic Europe and has been recorded in Spain, France (at Carcassone – former stronghold of Catharism) and (in particular) in Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man. The reason for this distribution is unclear, although it seemingly corresponds to historic sea-routes by which ancient cultural traits have been proven by archaeologists to have spread in this region.
The Irish ‘Wrenboys’ who lead the procession of the bird wear outlandish straw suits and masks, primitively evocative of the shaggy Perchten of Austria, although not quite so fearsome. In the Isle of Man, such costumes were not recorded, although outlandish garb of some sort was known – boys would wear black coats in the early 20th century.
The ancient Attic Greek festival known latterly as the ‘rural’ or ‘lesser’ Dionysia was celebrated – like Saturnalia and Christmas – just after the winter solstice in the second half of the Greek month of Poseidoneia which spanned December and January. The so-called ‘greater’ Dionysia festival, the Anthesteria, was a secondary development of the Greek city polities such as Athens and occurred a month or so later at the end of winter when the weather was finer. As befits its metropolitan status, it was a grander version of the rustic winter festival involving great public events, theatre, music and competitions as well as private celebrations of the Dionysian ‘mysteries’. None the less, it was otherwise effectively the same festival, its date transposed to enjoy better weather.
The ‘Rural Dionysia’ seems to have had many parallels with the Roman festival of Saturnalia which coincided with the roughly the same period, and which in the Christian era evolved into the ‘twelve days of Christmas’, culminating in the Feast of Epiphany – itself a festival almost certainly based upon the Dionysia, whose climax was the epiphany of the God Dionysus among the people. This brings us to an interesting confluence of deities: Poseidon (whose month it is), Saturn (Kronos, whose Roman name is based upon the Greek word for phallus: sâthe, as in satyr) and Dionysus.
The Dionysia – like the Saturnalia – was a time when classes came together in order to celebrate their shared origins in the natural world. Class distinctions were – to a degree – temporarily suspended and opportunities for public satire were made conducive by the wearing of masks and costumes by participants in the celebrations. It is believed that this festivity was the origin of the theatrical tradition for which Greece became so famous.
The god’s entourage at the Dionysia consisted of the male-gendered satyrs and the female maenads, although there was apparently a good deal of cross-dressing among the performers in some festivities. These accompanied the image of the god, which in its most rustic and ancient form was represented by a giant phallic pole of pine (a ‘xoanon’ image), coloured red and decorated, which was carried on a cart or on the shoulders of the phallophoroi. This made a ceremonial entry to the village or polis preceded by satyrs and maenads wearing animal skins (fawn and leopard, for example) wielding the thyrsus wand, and carrying cult objects such as jugs of wine, pithoi and krater vessels, plates of figs and a sacrificial goat.
The ithyphallic satyrs, sometimes darkened their faces with wine lees and engaging in ribald and ecstatic celebratory behaviour in honour of the god and the image of the phallus, which they wore a representation of apparently in the form of a codpiece with a leather erect penis attached to. Women (sometimes men) dressed as maenads or nymphs to complete the thiasos or retinue of the arriving god and took part in equally disinhibited behaviour and special ceremonies of their own. The maenads were a form of ‘bodyguard’ corps of the deity, and in mythology (and scandalous Roman reports) were sometimes portrayed as a maddened and frenzied bloodthirsty girl-mob who would rend and devour the flesh of men and animals. The ceremonial rending of the sacrificial goat, and even the eating of its raw flesh may be behind this opinion.
Special songs (dithyrambs) were composed and sung and, naturally, wine was drunk and sacrifices offered to Dionysus, the god of sprouting vegetation and urgent returning nature. Group-experiences, comedy, humour and jollity were the order of the day and inhibitions were temporarily cast aside.
Origins of the Christmas Tree: The Pine and the Phallus:
The display of the phallus was an important symbolic aspect of the rites of the Dionysia, as well as being prominent in the equivalent Roman festival of Liberalia (held in March near to the spring equinox). Records (including the drinking vessel pictured above) speak of the giant decorated totemic phallic pole (made of the hewn erect trunk of an evergreen pine tree) which was paraded with the ‘coming’ of the god, accompanied by men dressed as satyrs with erect phalli attached to their costumes. A pole bearing the same image (carved from fig wood) was also sported by celebrants in the thiasos. The thyrsus wand depicted as carried by Dionysus as his symbolic weapon and badge of office was also brandished by the maenads and was itself also a depiction of the phallus: it was typically made of a pine cone mounted upon a staff, sometimes wreathed with ivy.
The pine tree was (like the vine and the fig) a totem plant of Dionysus. It evokes a similitude with the androgynous castrated Phrygian god Attis, who was likewise strongly associated in myth with the pine tree. Attis was consort of the great mother goddess Cybele, identified with Kronos’ wife Rhea in Greek mythology. Kronos, of course, castrated his father Ouranos. The pine is both evergreen and erect in habitus so is a fine metaphor for the phallus – its sticky sap a metaphor for semen.
It appears that Dionysus was actually a god of the ‘sap’, ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ stimulating life. Maximus of Tyre (perhaps commenting on the phallic totem pictured above) wrote in the 2ndC CE that:
“…the peasants honour Dionysos by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue…”
Plutarch observed the contemporary belief that the god was a god of moisture – associated with life and vigour. One of the epithets of Dionysus was Dendrites – ‘of the trees’ – an indicator of his connection to branching life, and a metaphor of the familial tree of humanity. The tree was similarly a metaphor for rivers whose branching nature was morphologically similar. This links Dionysus to Poseidon who was god of waters – Okeanos (i.e. – the sea) being conceived of as a confluence of the world’s rivers.
Furthermore, the pine was a tree of the hot mountainside characterising the uplands of southern Europe, the Near and Middle East and North Africa. These wild places were a typical mythological resort of Dionysus and his retinue. The god’s birthplace was said to have been on a mountainside on the mythical Mount Nysa, nurtured by nymphs – the Hyades – whose stars form a cluster on the crown of the constellation of Taurus – the Starry Bull, representative of Asia and Europe’s wild Aurochs from which many of the world’s domestic cattle breeds are derived…
The mythical origins of mankind are often expressed in European folklore in the form of an ascent from oneness with the animal world. From the fables of Aesop (6thC BCE?) and further still into antiquity we see a tendency to illustrate the identity of humans with animals, just as in ancient Egyptian and Greek religion, the gods had a similar identity with the animal kingdom. Mythologically, the oneness occurs at the vanishing point characterised as the oldest period in a time without memory – a point firmly identifiable in ancient Greek mythology with Kronos, the Titans and Gigantes, and the ‘Golden Age’. This was an age when human heroes battled monsters in far-off realms and had no fixed era by historical reckoning, yet was typically used as a starting point in the reckoning of histories from the Classical period onwards.
This is the ancient, primal and even bestial ‘vanishing point’ which Dionysus (and humanity itself) appears to emerge from and to which the god mystically returns in his annual cycles of travel among humanity. Kronos (Saturn) and even Hades may represent his more distant self – forever marooned on the far shores of time at the limits of the great world-river Okeanos, or beyond in the shady realms of Elysium and Tartaros. These were all once believed to be linked by the earth’s waters. Indeed, this aquatic existence summons to us the identity of the third god in this apparent ancient triad: Poseidon, in whose lunar month the Greeks celebrated their oldest Dionysia.
Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hades, and together they formed a triumvirate who represented the dominion of the sea, the sky and the underworld respectively. Hades was celebrated as an important divine figure in the mystery religions, in particular the Eleusinian Mysteries – as the abductor and husband of Persephone (Kore), daughter of the goddess of the fruitful earth – Demeter. The seasonal drama of nature was said to depend on her annual passage into the underworld in the depths of winter when fruitfulness and vegetation dies back.
A curious identity exists between the gods Dionysus and Hades, hinted at by the ancient ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ – a versified account of the Eleusinian myth. This states that Persephone was abducted in the ‘fields of Nysus’, from which Dionysus appears to get his name (‘God of Nysus’). Dionysus was said in other legends to have been raised on a place called Mount Nysus by the nymphs known as the Hyades, daughters of the Titan Atlas whose stars form the crown on the ‘Starry Bull’ constellation, Taurus. Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5thC BCE) also stated that Hades and Dionysus were the same – a unification of opposites: One the god of indestructible quintessence of life and the other the lord of irresistible death, from which new life mystically arises through the fertilising processes of putrefaction. It is likely this was a key secret in the mysteries of Eleusis, and is part of a similar death<>life narrative encountered again in the story of Apollo slaying Python, and Perseus slaying Medusa. All such encounters occur in the murky Stygian regions – often characterised as lying in a misty place at the far reaches of Poseidon’s realm, characterised over all by the concept of the unifying waters – Okeanos.
The mysteries of life and death link in the cult of Dionysus, and remembered in the Roman Saturnalia: Both were eventually continued in the cult of Jesus Christ and ‘Christmas’. The traditions of dressing up as beast-men, collecting together to sing songs and enjoy the communal fantasy of theatre and dramatic entertainment, as well as the public expression of satire and comedy still mark Europe’s Christmas and Epiphany festivals. The Christmas Tree also has its origins in the Dionysia.
The number twelve has a strange significance in the reckoning of time:
There are twelve solar months, corresponding roughly to twelve zodiacal houses along the sun’s ecliptic path. In the Christian myth, Christ is followed by 12 apostles.
There are traditionally twelve ‘hours’ of daylight, as reckoned by sun-dials, and hence we derive our twenty four hours of daylight and night which comprise our unit of one solar ‘day’. This is known as ‘apparent solar time’, as compared to the clock-time we tend to keep in modern times, known as ‘mean solar time’.
There is a difference of roughly twelve days between the old ‘Julian’ and newer ‘Gregorian’ calendric systems in use in Europe and Asia Minor. These changes were instituted to prevent the celebration of Easter (calculated based on the Jewish Lunar calendar) from creeping further away from the Spring Equinox into summer.
There are twelve days marking the traditional European and Eastern ‘Christmas’ or ‘Yule’ festive midwinter period… These were sometimes each looked upon as representing a separate month of the solar year in many pre-modern European cultures. Yuletide began at the winter solstice (approx. 22nd December) and finished on the 3rd January, whereas Christmastide was from 25th December to 6th January (Epiphany).
Origins of Christmas Day:
The establishment of the date of the Nativity festival on the 25th December in Christianity was not in fact formally agreed upon for hundreds of years after the era of Jesus’ supposed life and death. In the late pagan Roman Empire, the 25th day of December was celebrated as Natalis Invicti – the rebirth of the deified ‘Unconquerable Sun’ – Sol Invictus. Although introduced as a late Imperial Cult under Aurelian in 274CE (250 years or so after the death of Jesus) the cult of Sol Invictus was probably in response to the profusion of mystery cults throughout the Roman Empire which employed the iconography of a youthful solar male god, seemingly derived from the older depictions of older gods such as Apollo, Adonis and Attis. Adonis, etymologically at least, appears to have a Semitic origin (compare Adonai – ‘Lord’). These had their origins in the principles of Solar godhood attached to the great ‘static’ or ‘official’ mystery cults of the 1st millennium BCE: Those of Delian Apollo, Apollo at Delphi, Eleusis, Samothrace and the mysteries of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia, among others. Such cults generally relied upon visitation of geographical loci – fixed cult sites – and the participation in initiatory ritual for the purposes of either receiving oracles, healing or higher knowledge. They themselves may have developed from popular extensions of the originally more closely-guarded inner mystery ritual traditions surrounding the elite classes of kings and religious hierophants of the earlier ‘palatial’ cultures (Minoan and Mycenaean), themselves copying the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, which are the oldest for which we have evidence, and were in continuity until at least the start of the 1st millennium CE.
Wars with Carthage and the great movements of the ‘barbarian’ Celts during Rome’s Late Republican Era (c.3rdC BCE) led to the importation of ‘foreign’ mystery religions such as that of Cybele and her ecstatic priests into Rome during the late Punic wars. Another popular ecstatic religious mystery cult was that of the Bacchanalia (Dionysia) from Greece. The Celtic fanaticism towards the solar god Apollo (whom they knew as Belenos) caused them to actually invade Greece and sack Delphi in 179BCE! These events, along with Rome’s increasing expansion and cultural interaction led to the surge in popularity of mystery religions in general during the late Republican era, such that by the 1stC CE Roman Emperors were themselves visiting Eleusis and Samothrace to become initiates. These cults purported to explain the secrets of the sun, the moon, the planets and stars and the deepest mysteries of nature, death and regeneration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the life-giving Sun was a key part of this, and became part of a new ‘elementalism’ and drive towards simplification and ‘portability’ of mythology.
As the Roman and Greek cultural polities expanded and prospered, initiatory mystery religions became less an indulgence of the elites, and also less attached to fixed geographical locations, developing into a plethora of mobile ideological ‘franchises’ enjoyed by more ordinary persons. These almost certainly plagiarised the secrets and mythological frameworks of the older ‘official’ mysteries whose (often wealthy) initiates and suppliants were supposed to keep their secrets on pain of death or spiritual torment, and such mysteries were gradually bought out into the open and discussed and theorised over. This process was aided by the diffusion of literacy and the spread of and development of the ideas of the ‘Philosophers ‘of classical and Hellenistic era ‘Magna Graecia’ who sought to analyse the constancies and truths behind ancient orally-transmitted mythology.
A good example of such reductionist processes at their apotheosis are the ‘Hermetic’ and ‘Gnostic’ cults in Hellenized Asia Minor, Middle East and North Africa, of which Christianity was to emerge as an early branch within the fractious and millenarianist Hasmonean-era Jewish world with its significant diaspora. These employed Pythagorean, Platonic and Epicurean reductionist theories and a discourse involving the principles of the soul as a form of undying light in their prophetic religious narratives, barely hiding such ideas behind the character narratives of older mythologies.
Such explicit intellectualism was not to everyone’s taste, of course, and other more semiotic forms of mystery cults based upon ritual, myth and symbolism served the needs of those with more traditional (less orientalised) tastes. Orphism was perhaps the oldest and best-established of these traditions – possibly the ‘granddaddy’ of them all, with its origins in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE at least. Its initiates sought to ‘purify’ themselves in order to achieve a better afterlife. Mithraism was certainly the most popular of the newer cults, spreading from Asia Minor into the most northern and western extents of the Roman Empire between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the Common Era. Similar popular mystery religions centred around the Thracian god Sabazios (a regional relative of Dionysus) and European syncretic cults involving the Celtic gods, such as that of the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ involving Epona in Eastern and northern Europe, and a profusion of others more poorly understood due to paucity of material evidence. These all had the common trait of emphasising the position of the characters of ‘Sol’ and ‘Luna’ in their iconography – almost as a ‘badge’ of their ‘mystery’ status.
The deified sun was conflated in this era with the older Greek god Apollo, whose identity was favoured by the Romanised Celtic peoples from the Danube basin to the Atlantic northwest of Europe, in their own syncretic cults. Such cults throughout the Empire had displaced those of the older Capitoline and Olympian Roman and Greek deities among the general populations, although these still had a civic role to play.
Perhaps the most important, popular and long-running cult of the elder Greek gods was that of Dionysus, whose oldest festival – the Rural Dionysia – coincided with the period of the winter solstice whose Greek month was named in honour of the ancient sea god: Poseidonia. This was a festival of dressing up in the guise of the retinue of the god: men as satyrs or silenoi and women as maenads. It was also, significantly, a festival of the epiphany of Dionysus to mankind, which celebrated the god’s transubstantiation of water into wine and the mysteries of budding nature: themes obviously borrowed into later christianity. At Delphi, there was a tradition that Apollo left to live among the Hyperboreans during the month when Dionysus manifested among the people at this festival, at which there was much singing of popular songs by all classes in Greek society – a tradition surviving in the modern European Christmas singing festivities.
After the third century CE the rise of iconoclastic, literate, literalised and intellectualised religious tendencies in the Hellenized Eastern Empire and North Africa was increasingly to eclipse the western traditions of mysterious figurative mythology, which had been at the cornerstone of European religion for millennia. Apollo, Sol, Belenos, Attis, Dionysus and Adonis became ‘Logos’ – replaced by an intellectual man-god who claimed to be ‘the light of the world’, promising – in return for an oath of allegiance – ‘regeneration’ after death into a divine afterlife, safe from the confusion of life. The perfect model of benevolent Imperial power in fact…
Early Christian writers attest to the disagreement between the supposed Nativity day – one for which there is obviously no precedent in the ‘gospel’ traditions, yet which – as the temporal power of the Christian religion grew – became more important to establish, in order that the ‘church’ might exert leadership over the people and displace the pagan festivities.
The earliest Christian authors from whom we have records and quotations make no reference to a celebration of Christ’s nativity. Origen of Alexandria (245CE) and Arnobius (303CE) both scorn the idea that holy men should have their birthdays celebrated, and imply that this is a practice of sinners.
The earliest reference from Rome itself to a Nativity festival for Christ held on the 25th of December (the festival of the Rebirth of the Unconquered Sun) is in a document produced for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus in 354CE (‘The Calendar of Philocalus’), of which only copies survive. However, there is evidence that the main focus of the Empire in the East at Constantinople was celebrating the nativity on 6th of January at this time, and it would not be until the advent of the 5th century that the 25th of December would hold sway across all of the main Christian patriarchies (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria), in the drive for Orthodoxy which followed the establishment of the religion as a state Imperial cult, as well as the religion followed by Christianised kings who established themselves in the ruins of Rome’s collapsed western Empire in Atlantic Europe.
It is interesting why the arguments often veered between dating the nativity on the 6th of January (still favoured by the Armenian Church) or the 25th of December: Other recorded early traditions even put the nativity closer to the summer solstice, although these were roundly dismissed in favour of the midwinter dating, corresponding to the solar rebirth festivals of paganism. One must remember that early Christianity was spread across the vast Roman Empire, and was well established at centres such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and Antioch before the pagan system was rejected by the Emperors. There was no formal agreement as to the structure of festivities, except where there was literal evidence from scriptures.
Pagan Rome’s Empire and the Hellenized cultures it was enveloping generally exercised a policy of syncretism and acceptance of diversity, whereas the new literature-based Abrahamic monotheism was based upon inclusion/exclusion determined by active profession of faith and the purificatory symbolic act of baptism. Before its imposition as state religion within the Empire, Christianity was a religion of the faithful that need pay no heed to incorporating pagan ideas. As a state religion though, compromises were necessary and the religion ‘swallowed the blue pill’ in order to incorporate more peacefully with humanity and establish itself at the centre of power. Hence the use of the day of the Nativity of Sol Invictus as the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.
Solar aspects of Epiphany/Theophany:
The indecision between the significance of nativity and epiphany perhaps recognised the importance to Christians of ‘spiritual’ birth or ‘revelation of the godhead’ to the people over the material act of parturition, which after all involved vaginas, body fluids and loco-feminis – ideas considered ‘spiritually unclean’ and somewhat repulsive to patristic religions, and Abrahamic ones in particular. The ‘Epiphany’ represented the cultic dedication of the Christ child to humanity, in the form of his supposed unveiling to the ‘Magi’ in the nativity story. It was a retelling of the Greek myths of the hiding of the infant Zeus from his father Kronos who sought to destroy him, and the visiting of various divine beings to the cave which sheltered him.
Jesus’ circumcision – the Attis/Ouranos myth retold?
Another festival prior to Epiphany celebrated Christ’s initial dedication to the jealous tribal god of Judaea – Yahweh – whose introduction by the post-exilic elites of Judah to the polytheistic semitic world marked a watershed in the eventual decline in the religious diversity of the ancient world of the Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Yahweh demanded absolute obedience from birth, including the marking by genital mutilation of male children, and the circumcision of Jesus was celebrated on the 1st of January, the first day of the first month of a new solar year. This – in Jewish custom – is supposed to occur within 8 days of birth, and is usually accompanied by the child’s naming, so prefigures the development of ‘Logos’ (in the words of John: ‘…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…’ ) and the inevitable Epiphany. There are older precedents for it: in particular, the sacrifice of genitalia by a youthful solar deity was a religious theme not uncommon to more ancient mythologies: The Greeks told the story of the Titan proto-god Kronos (associated with the Roman Saturnalia festival) castrating his child-slaying father Ouranos (the personified sky) with a sickle to spare the children Ouranos had created, and the Phrygians told the myth of their male solar-God Attis castrating himself in a similarly fertile mystic self-sacrifice to the Earth goddess, Cybele. Perhaps the Greek myth of Apollon (Apollo) killing the great Python of Delphi has similar mystic origins, as do the ithyphallic Dionysian, Hermetic and Orphic traditions also popular at the time of the inception of Christianity.
Perihelion and lengthening days:
The period between 1st and 6th of January marks a time when the sun begins to show a definite change in elevation in the sky and days are perceptibly longer. This is also currently the time when the Earth is closest to the Sun in its orbit – the ‘Perihelion’ – when the planet’s southern hemisphere scorches and the northern is tilted into the depths of its winter.
The Solar-Oceanic gods:
This midwinter solstice period also corresponded roughly to the sixth month of the ancient Greek calendar: Poseidonia. Poseidon was one of the oldest Greek gods, being mentioned before the inception of the Olympians in the Linear B texts surviving from the Mycenaean era of the 2nd millennium BCE. He corresponds in this sense to the ‘elder’ god Kronos, who was father of Zeus in Hesiod’s archaic-era ‘Theogony’, and who was ruler of the Golden Age typically celebrated in Rome’s winter solstice celebration: Saturnalia. The Kronides – monstrous children of Kronos who pepper Greek myths – are the typical adversaries of ancient Greek heroes venturing to the far reaches of the encircling world-river, Okeanos, and Kronos-Poseidon corresponds incredibly closely to the ancient Gaelic Solar-Oceanic god-character Manannán in this regard. As god of the afterlife he was a perfect hypostasis of the Solar Jesus, introduced so successfully and so early among the non-Romanised pagan Gael of the Atlantic West….
The familiar traditions associated with the celebration of ‘Christmas’ or the ‘Festival of the Nativity of Jesus Christ’ throughout northern Europe are far from Christian in their origin, and many of them are a direct continuation of the festivities of the Saturnalia of ancient Roman culture, which are in turn related to the equivalent ‘Kronia’ of ancient Greek culture. Both of these were introduced to Europe’s barbarian north with the diffusion of these cultures – a process beginning in the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE and culminating with the Roman conquests. Even well into the Christian era, ancient aspects of the seasonal celebration derived from the pagan era continued to be introduced between nations – the ‘Christmas tree’ (an ancient symbol of family) being an example. The essence of the Kronia and Saturnalia was a celebration of a supposed ‘golden age’ of humanity, ruled over by the titan god Kronos, who was known to the Romans as Saturn (probably meaning ‘Fertiliser’, after the Greek word Sathe). In this age, humans were said to have been virtuous and egalitarian – a state which degenerated once Kronos/Saturn was overthrown by Zeus/Jupiter who established the ‘pantheon’ of twelve Olympians to rule over the heavens and the earth. The Attic Greek Kronia was celebrated at ancient Athens around midsummer and was a festivity shared between freemen, slaves, servants and masters in honour of Kronos and the ideals of the Golden Age, and usually involved a ceremonial aspect of (albeit limited) social role-reversal at which the masters sometimes served their servants at a feast, and servants or employees sometimes took on the identity of masters for the celebration. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was held at midwinter – from the 17th December – and after a similar fashion. With time the festivity was extended to a week or more. It was a time of freedom from work, giving of gifts, the playing of games (dice, knucklebones, board-games etc), giving to the poor and feasting and high-living – a very public celebration enjoyed across all social strata, bringing them (for a short period at least) closer together. It seems, therefore, very similar to modern festivities such as Christmas and Hannukah where similar customs still prevail. Anyone who has sat down to a family midwinter banquet wearing a Christmas paper crown and maybe spun a Hannukah dreidel or two is continuing a European tradition over 2000 years old!
Saturnalia (and Kronia) was typically a festival of reversals, the custom of masters serving their servants or slaves being a typical example of this which persisted down to the modern era. Those familiar with my discussions of the ancient ‘Otherworld’ philosophy of Atlantic European cultures (particularly the ‘Celts’) will immediately recognise this as a related theme: the Otherworld was an inversion of our own peopled by the spirits of the departed looking for reincarnation once more in our realm. Where we had plenty they had little and hungered for what we possessed. By treating these spirits with respect and gifts, we might deter their hunger for our material gains. Saturnalia was a method for ceremonially redressing the imbalance implicit in human nature and satiating the needy forces which might, through jealousy (the old ‘evil eye’ concept,) detract from well-being.
“…Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table…” Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.24.22–23 (4thC CE) – trans. by Robert Kaster, Loeb Classical Library.
In ancient Rome, the celebration coincided with the Larentalia – typically observed on December 23rd – a celebration of the Lares or familial ancestral/domestic spirits, and the elder Roman goddess Acca Larentia – the Mater Larum and supposed mother of legendary twins Romulus (Mars-Quirinus) and Remus. These were characters underpinning Rome’s famous founding myths and therefore the whole ‘dark season’ was a memorial of a distant idea of humanity’s foundation and founding sparks in the dark and distant past. The mythology of Saturn is intrinsically linked to that of the far bounds of time and space where he was supposed by the ancients to have been confined in the legendary overthrow of the Titans by the Olympians. His is the dark and misty realm at the bounds of what we now call space-time, usually depicted by the European ancients as at the furthest reaches of the encircling world-river Okeanos which bordered the heavens and Elysium, and stood above Tartarus – a perilous place full of ancient monstrous beings of legend that only the bravest mythical heroes might travel to in their sacred quests. These monsters were always portrayed as children of the offspring of Kronos/Saturn – the ‘Kronides’. The dark season was a time when the departed might be closer and should be paid respect. This darkness was – as I have discussed elsewhere in this blog – a source of refertilisation to the world, and the source for returning life to the ancient Europeans who believed expressly in reincarnation, like their cultural ancestors in Asia. The return of an ancient deposed god to engender equality and celebration among humans is an irrevocable part of these seasonal celebrations which appear to defy time itself, and the continuous shifts in human culture and religion in Europe. In itself it suggests a temporary dissatisfaction with the status quo: ‘Christmas’ remains a resolutely pagan affair.