The Celtic Mysteries?

So-called ‘mystery religions’ were at the core of paganism in ancient Europe. Many ‘gods’ were used to illustrate the fundamental ideas of commonly-shared philosophies, ideals and empirical observations of nature and existence among ancient Europeans. Their ‘mysteries’ were a method of communicating the dynamic interplay of such forces through the participation of suppliants in story, ritual, drama and ceremony, often through means of ‘initiation’, usually followed by ongoing participation. This communicated higher knowledge and understanding in an intimate personal manner which could not ordinarily be achieved simply by listening to or reading stories. As many of these mystery religions existed within the Hellenic and Roman polities of Europe, North Africa and the Near East we know at least a little about them from archaeology, art and literature which has survived from the Iron Age, Classical and Late Classical eras (8thC BCE to 5thC CE). Because the exact nature of the mysteries was secretive, we are often left guessing about exact details of ritual and ideology. However, we have even less information about the indigenous mystery religions among the Atlantic Europeans or ‘Celts’ whose independent cultural direction was largely crushed or assimilated by the Roman Republic and Empire between the 2ndC BCE and 2ndC CE.

To be an ‘initiate’ in these old European mysteries usually involved submitting oneself to its priests or guardians at a site sacred to the cult. Once there, one would subsume one’s mundane identity into that of an initiate and participate in a number of dramatic performances designed to illustrate the principles of the cult in an atmosphere of mystery, awe and (eventually) revelatory ecstasy. The initiations would be designed to impress a set of ideas onto the initiate which would have a profound influence upon their worldview, while leaving them with questions only partly answered by the immediate experience in order to encourage further participation in the cult, or encourage dialectic philosophical exegesis of the epiphany the initiate had experienced. At the height of their popularity, initiates would come from nearly every walk of life, from slaves up to Emperors and Kings. The great Augustus himself – inheritor of Julius Caesar’s posthumously-declared empire took a particular interest in the mysteries of Eleusis which, as we shall see in the light of Caesar’s commentaries on Celtic religion, is somwhat interesting.

The mysteries were generally secretive, so apart from external observations and some archaeological paraphernalia and written ephemera, we actually have a very limited idea of what they involved or exactly what they were trying to communicate. We don’t know exactly what happened at the convocations of the various mystery cults at the various stages in their existence, but we do now that they had an influential effect upon the societies they operated in.

Literary evidence for ‘Celtic Mysteries’?

After Julius Caesar had completed the task of conquering Gaul, it is apparent that he was keen to portray it an as attempt to civilise a barbarian nation in the grips of a powerful, savage and mysterious religious cult, led by a sect of hierophants called Druids who he had suppressed. He further claimed Gauls said they were descended from a cthonic deity he called ‘Dis Pater’, and that they worshipped ‘Mercury’ (the conductor of departed souls, prime divine Daimôn and god of trade) above their other gods, who he again equated ‘interpretatio romanum’ (See: De Bello Gallico, Book 6). Although he professed no indication of a mystery religion, he certainly alluded to the secretive nature of what was taught by the Druids, who committed none of their teachings to writing, in consequence of which their training was a dedicated and laborious process lasting many years. Nevertheless, he indicates that this instruction was common to the youth of Gaulish society, which may imply an aspect of their religion as a mystery cult with a high degree of social organisation:

“… The Druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. Induced by such great advantages, many embrace this profession of their own accord, and are sent to it by their parents and relations. They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory. They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded. They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods…” (Book 6, Ch. 14; Trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)

It is hard to determine from Caesar’s account if Druidism was indeed a ‘mystery cult’ in the Greek or Roman sense, or a highly advanced system of education and cultural indoctrination. Caesar talks of ‘the Gauls’ as a unified whole, and many of them certainly unified to fight him in the 1stC BCE. However, Celtic culture seems to have been historically riven and even driven by intertribal warfare so we must be cautious about his opinions. What does strike me as relevant to the Mediterranean mystery cults is the pre-eminence he accords to cthonic and psychopompic deities and the idea of reincarnation. This suggests Gaulish/Celtic religion shared similarities with the Greek mysteries, and could conceivably have shared common origin with them.

Greek and Roman attitudes to Barbarian culture and The Mysteries:

The first Roman Emperor, Augustus (ruled 27BCE-CE14), is notable for his eventual establishment of an internally stable Roman home province which would remain stable for almost 200 years. He took the reigns from his murdered adoptive ‘uncle’ Julius Caesar, who had expanded the Republic’s territories and cultural influence from Celtic Gaul to Egypt. Subsequent years would see consolidation of Roman influence over Germania west of the Rhine, the Balkan regions of Pannonia and Moesia, as well as Macedonia and Thrace. This, to the Romans, constituted a matter of great pride as they had conquered the greater continental portion of western Europe whose people were known to the Greeks and Romans as ‘barbarians’: a people at once considered to be backward, unsophisticated, frighteningly violent, and yet still mysterious.

Augustus (Octavian) is notable as being the first Roman leader recorded to have had himself initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis, whose cult centre was situated near Athens, and was considered the beating heart of Greek religious culture. He was also notable for his attempts to form alliances with British Belgic Celtic leaders, including Tasciovanus of the Catuvellauni and his son and succesor, Cunobelinos (Kymbelinus). Tasciovanus was on such good terms with the Roman Emperor that he sent his sons to be fostered and educated in Rome. Consequently the coins these British monarchs minted show some interesting Romanised features which suggest they themselves were initiates of Eleusis: specifically where they repeatedly display the icon of Demeter and the Mysteries – the ear of wheat or barley:

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism -influenced by Augustus?

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism – influenced by Augustus?

Of course, the interest of these Belgic leaders in the Greek mysteries would have been a strong statement of alliance with the worldview of Augustus and his successors. For Augustus himself, it is entirely possible that his own devotion to the Eleusinian Mysteries was designed to better understand the religious worldview of the ‘barbarians’, which the Greeks appeared to have had civilised, and who he was continuing to conquer or gain as allies for his new Empire. The implication might be that the new Emperor felt he could find common religious origin with his newly conquered peoples and allies. The Greeks certainly believed the mysteries to have originated among the barbarians, but to have been civilised in Attica.

Of course, the exposure of Celtic peoples to a cult which dealt with the mysteries of death was far greater than that experienced within the Roman culture. Caesar blamed the apparent fearlessness of Gaulish warriors on a firm belief in reincarnation, indoctrinated into them by the Druids (supposedly originating in Britain), and his successors would spend a good deal of time, money and human lives in eradicating this movement. The origins of it are to be found hundreds of years further back in time, perhaps when the great Celtic warbands formed and stamped their mark on Europe and the Near East from the start of the ‘La Téne’ period. This was the ‘Belgic’ cult which venerated the solar god Belenos as receiver of the dead and lord of the Otherworld. He was equivalent to Apollo, whose most significant shrine at Delphi was famously assaulted (and possibly thoroughly pillaged) by a Gaulish army in 279BCE.

Belenos was the god who promoted growth and decay – the sun who grows vegetation and at the same time hastens putrefaction of the dead. His domain included the lands of the daytime as well as the lands beyond the setting sun – the realm of the Celtic dead. Like the ancient Mars-Quirinus he was a god of war and chthonic fertility. Like Apollo he was a conqueror of serpentine decay and giver of oracles. Like his later development as Wodan/Odin, he was a god of battle-fury and madness – a shaper of madness into purposeful action, which is in fact the political aim of warfare. The mysteries of Belenos were never attested, but the evidence that they existed is reasonably compelling from the opinions of Caesar and the god’s replacement by Apollo in the post-Romanised era at Romanised cult-sites among the Gauls, Britons, Iberians and Germans and in the Balkans.

The imagery of this religion could be found inscribed on the coins and monuments of the Celts, although the latter ocurred after the advent of syncretism post-Romanisation. It is evident on the designs and decorations on personal ornaments and weaponry, and on spectacular artefacts such as the Gundestrup cauldron.

St. Kentigern – a christianised pagan tale?

Kentigern, often known as Mungo, was a saint of the early medieval Christian church who was supposed to have lived in the 6th century and to have been responsible for christianising the ancient Cumbric British Kingdom of Strathclyde, now a part of Scotland.

The region of Strathclyde forms the southern gateway to the Scottish Highlands, and is formed by the plains and foothills surrounding the great River Clyde which discharges into the Irish Sea, and was therefore an important region in the historic interplay between the various cultures of this region during the first millennium, including the peoples of the Scottic Dalriada provinces, Gallovidians, Picts, Cumbrians and peoples of Rheged and later the Anglians and Norse settlers. Its capital city of Glasgu (Glasgow) was supposedly founded by Mungo.

Most of what we know of him is dependent upon the hagiographic writing of the great 12thC Cistercian Abbott, Jocelyn of Furness, who was instrumental in assisting with the mission of the continental (Norman) church to establish dominance and the episcopal system in the northwest Atlantic provinces and who translated Gaelic hagiographical traditions into latinate ones to suit the new ‘Anglo’-Norman world. Jocelyn provided new saints’ lives for Patrick (who supposedly originated in Strathclyde) as well as Mungo/Kentigern. His patrons for the work on Patrick were John de Courcy, and probably also his ally – the King of Mann and the Isles, Godred Olafsson whose sister Auffrica had married de Courcy, and who had assisted in the Norman lord’s conquest of Ulster and the subsequent consolidation of Ireland’s religious power under a post-Gregorian reformed episcopacy. For the work on Kentigern, his sponsor was the Norman Abbott Jocelyn of Melrose who was also Bishop of Glasgow, Strathclyde’s principle town.

The coat of arms of Glasgow depicts the miracles of St Kentigern (Mungo)

The coat of arms of Glasgow depicts the miracles of St Kentigern (Mungo)

Jocelyn’s Life of Kentigern starts with an apology for the problems he encounters in interpreting the various gaelic language traditions of the saint he a had gathered in order to flesh out a text already being developed by the bishop of Glasgow. The stories he gathered were mainly from Strathclyde and from St Asaph’s in Wales: all important ports, along with Furness, in the Irish Sea region. Many of these tales he implies were improper and contained too many elements of heathenism, ‘contrary to certain doctrine and catholic faith’ to use the narrators own words. In fact, it is fairly clear from reading the Furness monk’s work that there is plenty of pagan material still within it, as well as much promoting the other seats of the new continental religious power and spirit of the Gregorian Reforms of church probity and religious rigor that underpinned the Cistercian worldview of the 12th and 13th centuries. His aim was obviously to rid the tale of aspects of what he perceived as syncretic heathenism in the Gaelic forms of Kentigern’s life so as ‘to season with Roman salt what had been ploughed by barbarians’.

Before I embark upon my commentary of the pagan aspects of this legendary text, I urge readers to take a look at a recent translation of the work by Cynthia Whiddon Green.

The first aspect I’d like to examine is the ‘origin story’: This is one of a fallen and rejected heathen woman Thaneu – fallen both in Jocelyn’s medieval Christian moral sense and fallen also in the physical sense that she was apparently thrown off a cliff at the top of Traprain Law in Lothian. The tale mirrors the biblical narrative of the Cistercians’ favourite ‘mother goddess’ – Mary,  with Mungo’s mother pregnant through an illicit extra-marital union with a nebulous and unspecified paternal donor. For such a ‘crime’ her father, the King of Lothian, has her thrown off a crag on Dumpelder (Traprain Law) but she is carried softly down to the ground, as if by wings. She is then cast adrift in the ocean in a coracle – her fate dependent upon the spirit of the seas. It so happens she drifts ashore near to an early Christian centre of learning run by St Servanus/Serf, and she builds a fire for herself on the shore and gives birth to a boy – Mungo – before being discovered by the monks.

Those astute in the folklore originating from Atlantic paganism will recognise that these motifs are to be found in many of the ‘syncretic’ literary and folktales that survive from Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man etc. Conception by spirits of magical children, the leapss and falls of giants, the casting adrift of sacred children and female personages who come ashore to figuratively give birth. The narrative is one based in the seasonal drama, and passage of the sun across the sky.  The female character (Thanue) is the Earth Goddess and the male (Mungo) represents the Sun/Son – in the story, the Sun is born out of the land in the east and travels west towards the Atlantic ocean into Strathclyde. The theme of a magical character washing ashore occurs in the Isle of Man’s Caillagh y Groamagh legend attached to Bridget’s day or Imbolc as it is sometimes known. The same theme is used in the Bethu Brigdhe hagiography of Bridget which mentions the bandit-turned-saint Machaldus (Maughold) being cast into the sea and washing up in the Isle of Man. Thanue is therefore a character replacing Bride-Aine, but what of her son?

The fact that Mungo enters his floruit (recorded life) from the sea and spends an awful lot of time in water and controlling water during the rest of his hagiography is highly suggested of the solar deity motif, identifying him with reasonable certainty as a hypostasis for the shining god Manannan who strides so actually godlike among the lesser characters of many of the euhemerist legends of medieval Irish literature and later folk tradition.  Even his name seems to refer to ‘Man’ in the form of ‘Mun’, just like Mongan mac Fiachna in the Irish Manannan legends. Mungo = Manannan.

Christian narratives did their best to replace the dualist Atlantic god and goddess with a masculine counterpart, particularly after the Brigitine church period, so Mungo subsumes the roles of both in the rest of the Vita. Here is a list of some of the features of Jocelyn’s tale which illustrate the pagan legends he was trying to weave in:

1. He emerges from the sea and has power over the waters.

2. He has the power to resurrect (e.g. – the little ‘red bird’ of St Serf – either a Robin or a Wren).

3. He has a magical branch (hazel or holly – the gaelic names can be confused) with which he keeps Serf’s eternal holy flames burning.

4. He resurrects a man who describes being conveyed back from the afterlife by a man of shining fiery light.

5. He conveys the dead to their resting place (the bullock cart is an interesting celestial motif)

7. Like the Cailleach of highland legend, while living as a ‘Culdee’ he exerts control over flocks of deer and wolves, who he treats like cattle, and hitches to his plough.

8. He spends an inordinate amount of time dousing himself in water and radiating holy light. When others are asleep he is awake praying – the Otherworld Inversion.

9. He disappears from the world in winter to fast. His food is the underground parts of dormant plants.

10. He sleeps in a stone sarcophagus and wears goat skins. There are a number of references to paganism in medieval and later literature which attest to ‘saints’ or spirits living in stone sarcophagi covered in water. Brownie/Phynnodderee/Glastig was a hairy half-human.

11. He is associated with a magical white boar, a special ram, and bullocks.

12. He finds a ring in the belly of a salmon. This motif also occurs in a number of traditional ‘fairy tales’ and medieval irish otherworld literature. For example, the Irish legend of Macaldus, the English fairy tale ‘The Fish and the Ring’ and the Irish Tain Bo Fraich. The Salmon returning is a motif of the returning year and the ring also – the goddess name Aine signifies a ring as well.

There are quite a few more referenes which emerge upon careful study of Jocelyn’s work, but these are the most important! Read the text and see what you think…

Converting paganism to hagiography in the post-classical Atlantic world

After the Theodosian edicts were enacted throughout the easternn and western Roman Empire in 439 CE, the official process of re-using pagan religious sites as Christian places of worship began in earnest. As paganism was a nature-landscape-ancestor-based religion, this process necessitated the re-interpretation of the oral history associated with these sites as well seeking a Christian narrative to replace that of the pagans at each site. Consequently it must have been fairly difficult for Christian officials to implement, as the laws gave little if any guidance as to how this might be achieved, save that sites, buildings and structures ought to be preserved for use by Christians. Having made paganism illegal, the laws were designed with Christianisation in mind, intended not to alienate potential converts. They were enacted with the metropolitan Romanised lifestyles of the southern Europeans in mind, and although the metropolitan centres of the British Isles were de facto Romanised by this period, these were islands in a pagan landscape that had its roots in a religion quite different to that of the southerners.

What evolved over subsequent centuries was a slow assimilation of the principles, histories and legends of those that frequented and relied upon them in maintaining the spiritual dimension of their lifestyles. This appears to have been achieved by the propagandistic method of coding these principles etc into popular stories about ‘saints’ – Christian antecedent heroes who were supposed to have bought this far-off religion to the peoples of Atlantic Europe. The greatest success (perhaps unsurprisingly) in re-envisioning Atlantic paganism came out of Ireland, where there had been no significant Romanisation and miscegenation, thus allowing a more sensitive and cohesive approach to the Christianisation of pagan peoples. The repercussions of the end of the western Empire meant that Ireland was to provide the stable ideological base and models for establishing the conversion of much of Atlantic Europe: This would be subtly syncretic, and whereas Kings and nobles (and their metropolitan followers) were expected to follow a pious continental model of Roman Catholic christianity and abandon the trappings of paganism, their peoples were largely to be allowed to keep their feet in both worlds, although were nominally seen as christian.

The stories of local saints’ lives that started to be generated from the 4-5th centuries onwards are therefore full of pagan details, as are various legends associated with the former pagan shrines they inherited. These were often written down for the use of clergy in establishing the canon for oral legend, which would still be the cultural mode of the vast majority (95%+) of illiterate ordinary people. Some of these have survived to modern times in written form, whereas others remain only in oral folklore. As many are realising, they contain a very significant amount of information for those seeking to recover the traditional religion of the Atlantic Europeans.

The main operators who pushed this process – and almost made it official – are the Irish monks of the 5th-6th centuries and their inheritors of the 7th-9th centuries who consolidated this approach. Of all of the names of the most significant chancellors of this new university of syncretisation, surely the most significant were those of Finnian of Clonard and his students (including the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland’) who propagated a network of Abbeys throughout Ireland. Finnian’s great British compatriot and apparent co-worker was Cadog of Llancarfan, who appears to have taken care of business on the eastern shores of the Irish Sea.  It is almost certain that the majority of these religious men were the brothers and sires of local tribal leaders if not kings themselves (Cadog was a king and Colmcille was a prince, for example) and therefore had access to the learned classes who were repositories of pagan knowledge and traditional learning. Although Finnian’s immediate fore-runners such as Patrick were often credited with Christianisation in Ireland, it was this next generation which were to provide the propaganda which pushed the Christian narrative back beyond the horizon of its advent and begin to replace paganism in earnest among ordinary people by using a concerted scheme. Although it had its origins in Britain, the Anglo-Saxon incursions and post Empire collapse of Britain pushed the emphasis of Christianisation into Ireland, Mann etc. This scheme, once established, then appears to have cascaded back outwards into Wales, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man, western Scotland and Brittany during the 5th and 6th centuries, after which time the pagan invaders and settlers were becoming influenced by the international power and benefits of the Christian church, which continued the glory of the Roman imperium, modelled on Augustine of Hippo‘s allegorical and historically aspirational treatise known as ‘The City of God‘.

The historicity of these Atlantic holy men and women is often difficult to ascertain, and many of the sources that name them are much later than the supposed dates of their ministry. In addition, the details of their lives (where recorded in manuscripts or folklore) are often so full of fantastical or pagan details that we sometimes have to wonder if their existence was only required to be legendary. All of the saints operated under assumed pseudonyms, adding to their mystery, and perhaps their effectiveness as faceless vessels of the new order….

In some of my further postings I will detail a few of these and start to bring the pieces of the jigsaw to the table…