Celtic Belenos and Balto-Slavic Veles

There is a certain difficulty encountered in equating ‘Celtic’ with ‘Slavic’ gods, particularly because the two ethno-cultural denominations are largely historically and archaeologically independent. A similar problem – perhaps more political – arises from the distinction between ‘Balts’ and ‘Slavs’. Some of the interpretation of the paleology and ethnology of the lands of the peoples who today call themselves ‘Balts‘ and ‘Slavs’ is still coloured by 19th and 20thC academic work beset with ideological political bias framed through artificial ethno-nationalist constructs. These were largely designed to support a federalised atheist communist Empire whose western borders desired such a buttress against western European identity. Nonetheless, in the era of the European Iron-Age, there was much more in common and the cultures and religious practices of peoples of this region would have been less determinately ‘Slavic’ or even ‘Germanic’ as the terms would be understood today…

Perun and Veles - aspects of the 'Thracian Horseman' and 'Phrygian Sabazios'?

Croatian depiction of ?Perun and Veles – it demonstrates aspects of the ‘Thracian Horseman’ and ‘Phrygian Sabazios’

Although the pagan mythology of the Slavs is known to us from relatively late (medieval) accounts congruent with some of the pagan Scandinavian cultures, it contains a number of important characters for whom there is reasonable evidence to posit a link to western Europe’s older system of deities. The 12thC ‘Primary Chronicle’ of the Kievan Rus mentions Volos and Perun as the principle gods worshipped by Slavs and Russ before their late conversion during the Viking era:

“…Thus tsars Leo and Alexander made peace with Oleg. After agreeing upon the tribute, they bound themselves by mutual oaths. The tsars kissed the cross, while Oleg and his men took oaths in accordance with Russian law, swearing by their weapons and by their god Perun as well as by Volos, the god of cattle…” (trans. Samuel Cross)

The same Oleg is recorded as visiting sorcerors – the word for which is given as Volkhi. These tell him that he must abandon his favourite horse as it will cause his death, which he assents to and turns it to pasture. The story given is that he then goes to visit it and is told it died, and on visiting its bones a snake emerges from its skull and bites him, causing his death… The relationship between Volkhi, the Scandinavian Volva and the god Volos might be worth mulling over!

Another reference in the Chronicle to Volos and Perun (again in relation to oaths) is a record of a treaty and oath given by the pagan prince Svyatoslav of allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor:

” … And even as I have given oath to the Greek Emperors in company with my boyars and all my subjects, so may we preserve this treaty inviolate. But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, either I or my companions, or my subjects, may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons… ” (trans. Samuel Cross)

Interestingly, Cross translates ‘may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe’ implying the original sense was a singular god with two aspects: Perun and Volos. In fact, later folklore frequently conflates attributes of the two, suggesting this sense may be true.

Baltic Veles:

Marija Gimbutas examined the surviving 19thC Lithuanian and Latvian folklore attached to the spirits of the dead, who were there referred to as vėlės and to whom was attached a ‘leader’ known as Vélnias, Vélinas, or Véls – also used as a synonym for ‘devil’. In fact, an early dictionary of Lithuanian written by an ecclesiastic (Dictionarium Trium Linguarum by Konstanty Szyrwid, 1629) equates Velnias with ‘Piktis‘, another Baltic god-name associated with the ‘devil’, also known as ‘Pikùlas‘, ‘Peckols’ (Prussia) and ‘Patollo‘. These might be an example of the curious and widespread ‘Puck‘ hypostasis, possibly associated with local versions of Perun-Pirkons. The folkloric Vélnias was – like Odin/Wotan – one-eyed and led the troops of vėlės across the skies, causing storms and whirlwinds. He – like Veles – was also linked to herds. The vėlės themselves were – like Gaelic fairies – seen to troop between cemeteries and along their own special ‘paths’. Vélinas was explicitly a god of the hosts of the dead. Gimbutas notes the prevalence of placenames incorporating the name Vélnias that relate to bogs, pools, rivers, fields and forest clearings, suggesting the importance of such places to the local Otherworld mythology.

‘Velchanos’ in Crete:

The ancient Cretan/Minoan god Velchanos has been suggested as the origin for the Roman ‘Vulcan’. The Veles-Perun hypostasis mentioned in the Primary Chronicle of the Kievan Rus seems like it could link to this, particularly if the Weland link is correct. In Crete, he was also known as Zeus-Velchanos. The Latin words for thunderbolt, fulmen and fulgur, seem to have close etymological links to the Vul- prefix of the name Vulcan.

‘Vayl’ in the Isle of Man:

Vaayl‘ or ‘Vael occurs commonly in the Isle of Man (situated between Britain and Ireland) as a local word for ‘Michael’ (the thunder-voiced military archangel, leader of the heavenly hosts). For instance, there is a pagan burial mound referred to as ‘Carn Vael’, situated near the coastal village of Kirk Michael (Keeill Vaayl) – home to some of the syncretic Christian-pagan-era stone crosses and monuments. It is entirely possible that this name was introduced by Baltic settlers in the Viking Age, although convention usually holds to majority being Norwegians. A custom common to Lithuania, Latvia and the Isle of Man was the rolling down hills of burning wheels at Beltain or Midsummer (Manx source: Harold ‘Dusty’ Miller ‘It’s a Fact’). I have discussed the connection between St Michael the Archangel and Belenos elsewhere…

Etymological concordances:

The most obvious etymological link to the Celtic god Belenos is the ‘V’ of ‘Volos’ – a letter seemingly interchangeable with ‘B’ in the ‘Indo-European’ languages. This would suggest Bolos or Beles as a reasonable pronunciation variant of the Slavic divinity. Other versions of the name seem also to appear to in the 9th/10thC CE Old High German ‘Second Meresburg Incantation’:

“… Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza. Du uuart demo balderes uolon sin uuoz birenkit. Thu biguol en sinthgunt, sunna era suister; Thu biguol en friia, uolla era suister; Thu biguol en uuodan, so he uuola conda: Sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki: Ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda, Lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin! … ““… Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods, and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained. So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it. And Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it. And Wodan conjured it, as well he could: Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain, so joint-sprain: Bone to bone, blood to blood, joints to joints, so may they be glued! … “

The names ‘Phol‘ and ‘Volla‘ (uolla, rhymed with uuolla = ‘well’) have sufficient similarity to be considered potentially related. Indeed, the English word for a young horse – ‘foal‘ – has in this context interesting connotations for the Iron Age Celtic coins’ equine/solar imagery, combined with the military sun-child head of Alexander they apparently used to represent Belenos. Going deeper into etymology, the Latin word for a lightly-armoured cavalry skirmisher (a notable form of Celto-Roman auxillary fighter) was Veles, no doubt having a link to the Roman word for warfare: Bellum. The horsemanship of the Dacians (Getae), Thracians, Macedonians and Anatolian peoples was legendary in ancient Europe. In fact, the religious iconography of the Thracian and Phrygian peoples was notable for their depiction of the dragon-slaying horseman figure who would later become incorporated in the image of St George the Dragonslayer, popular among the Slavs.

Another etymological and mythological link between Veles and the ancient ‘Germanic’ world is that to the ‘magical smith’, Weland/Wolund/Wayland/Volundr, who featured prominently in the folklore and legends common to a good number of ethnogeographical pagan cultures in ancient northern Europe. I have discussed the link between Volund, and ‘Vili’ of the Odinnic hypostasis in the Icelandic Eddas, and believe it is worth considering Slavic Veles in the same light.

Another example of this from the Baltic Lithuanians (one of the last European peoples to become officially Christianised in the 14/15thc CE) is the god or divinity called Teliavelis who was recorded in folklore as a ‘blacksmith god’, possibly identical with Vélinas. He has been compared to the Finnic Kalevala god-hero Ilmarinen,and can be linked to the Slavic smith-god referred to as Svarog in the 15thC CE Hypatian Codex. This collection of monkish ephemera claims that Svarog was father of Dažbog (‘giving god’) or the sun – the two are usually thought of as separate. However, the Serbian folklore variant Dabog or Dajbog is sometimes known as Hromi Daba (‘Lame Daba’) and depicted as a distinctly chthonic/demonic character similar to Veles/Velnias, called ‘Shepherd of Wolves’. Lameness (an inability to walk upon the earth) is a trait common to European smith-gods.


Aside from the links to St George (from the ‘Thracian Horseman’), it is widely believed that Slavic Volos/Veles was used as the model for an early Christian saint, popular in the Orthodox Christian community, called Vlas, otherwise Blaise, or Vlasius. St Vlas (whose feast day is 12th February). He is popular in eastern Europe from Macedonia up to Russia, in which regions he has been associated with protection of cattle, in accordance with the Primary Chronicle account. Linda Ivanits (‘Russian Folk Belief’ Pub: Sharpe, New York 1989) notes the tradition of hanging icons of Vlas in cow biers.

like duality seems to explain the Slavic veneration along with George and Vlas all the more. To this observation must be added another: Given the tendency of Indo-European languages to ‘aspirate’ initial consonants, it is also interesting to note how ‘Veles’ can quite easily become a solar ‘Heles‘, implied in the Greek words ‘Helios‘ (a name held by Apollo, also called Phoebus) and, of course the country: ‘Hellas’. The fact that many mountaintop sanctuaries to the Greek god Helios (i.e. – the deified sun) later became dedicated to ‘St. Elias’ (‘the thunderer’), a Christianisation of the monotheism-promoting, Baal-denigrating Hebrew prophet Elijah, invoked by observant Jews at the advent of Sunday in the Havdalah ritual terminating the Shabbat. The Macedonian town with the theophoric name Veles is the site of one such shrine, but there are others. The connection with the sun, thunder and lightning suggests that Perun/Perkunas/Taranis was another aspect of the Veles/Vélinas/Belenos, both of whom took up places in Christianity as modified saints and the devil himself.

This old Serbian Dodola/Dodole (rainmaking) song illustrates the Elijah-Perun link:

Da zarosi sitna rosa,
oj dudula mili Bože!
Oj lija daj Bože daj!
Oj Ilija moj Perune!
Daj Bože daj, daj Ilija daj!
Let fine dew drizzle,
oh dudula dear God!
Oh Elijah give us, God, give!
Oh Elijah, my Perun/Thunder!
Give us, God, give, give, Elijah, give!

Dodola/Dodole was supposed to be Perun’s wife. She is sometimes viewed as a Slavic rain-goddess. The antagonism between Perun and Veles revolved around Perun’s wife being stolen – remember that all rivers were once believed to flow to the otherworld, and the connection between Velnias and water in Lithuania 😉 Elijah functions here quite obviously as the ‘bridging’ function, representing Helios (who travels daily to the underworld in his rotations)…


– Volos, Veles and Velnias were associated with both the Underworld (realm of the dead) and with herds and hosts, including the hosts of the dead. In the Baltic, Velnias was associated with bogs and pools of water – classic Celtic routes into the Otherworld.

– Veles was closely linked to the ‘thunder god’ Perun (Perkunas or Perkons in the Baltic states) who was a ‘polar antithesis’ of him, possibly representing the forces ‘above’: sky, lightning, the up-thrust of trees, particularly the Quercus or Oak (Try switching the ‘Q’ for ‘P’ after the insular celtic style…). The two were represented in a state of mutual antagonism in some Slavic mythology.

– Veles/Volos may be related to the Germanic smith-god Weland/Volundr. The 9thC second Meresburg charm relates to horses and mentions ‘Phol’ and ‘Volla’. ‘Teliavelis‘ was the name of a Baltic smith-god, and the Slavs had ‘Svarog’ in the same role. A possible association with horses is that smith-gods tended to be crippled, and hence would have used horses to move about. The concept of reincarnation is engendered in the art of smithcraft – a secret fiery re-forging in the otherworld.

– The etymological leap from Vel to Bel is so slight that it would be remiss not to consider a link to Belenos: himself possibly a chthonic war-god, similar to Roman Mars. Likewise the link between Vel and Hel (which would be an aspirated pronunciation of ‘Vel’).

The Manx Beltane (Oie’l Voaldyn)

Beltane (which falls on either the 1st or 12th of May depending on if you use the Gregorian or the older Julian calendar) is the first day of the summer months in Atlantic Europe. It signifies the accelerating surge of vegetative plant growth, aided by warmer (and for a time wetter) climate, and stimulating the increased activity of animals and people, transhumance of agricultural animals, abundance of milk and the migrations/movement of wild grazing animals and birds such as Swallows and Golden Plover. It is therefore a significant seasonal and climatic event in the subsistence world of Europe's forebears… In the Middle Irish tale known as The Boyhood Deeds of Finn mac Cumhail (Macgnímartha Finn) the hero utters the following verses upon attaining his bardic skills:

May-day, season surpassing! Splendid is color then. Blackbirds sing a full lay, if there be a slender shaft of day.The dust-colored cuckoo calls aloud: Welcome, splendid summer! The bitterness of bad weather is past, the boughs of the wood are a thicket.Summer cuts the river down, the swift herd of horses seeks the pool, the long hair of the heather is outspread, the soft white bog-down grows.Panic startles the heart of the deer, the smooth sea runs apace-season when ocean sinks asleep-blossom covers the world.Bees with puny strength carry a goodly burden, the harvest of blossoms; up the mountain-side kine take with them mud, the ant makes a rich meal.The harp of the forest sounds music, the sail gathers-perfect peace. Color has settled on every height, haze on the lake of full waters.The corncrake, a strenuous bard, discourses; the lofty virgin waterfall sings a welcome to the warm pool; the talk of the rushes is come.Light swallows dart aloft, loud melody reaches round the hill, the soft rich mast buds, the stuttering quagmire rehearses.The peat-bog is as the raven’s coat, the loud cuckoo bids welcome, the speckled fish leaps, strong is the bound of the swift warrior.Man flourishes, the maiden buds in her fair strong pride; perfect each forest from top to ground, perfect each great stately plain.Delightful is the season’s splendor, rough winter has gone, white is every fruitful wood, a joyous peace in summer.A flock of birds settles in the midst of meadows; the green field rustles, wherein is a brawling white stream.A wild longing is on you to race horses, the ranked host is ranged around:A bright shaft has been shot into the land, so that the water-flag is gold beneath it.A timorous tiny persistent little fellow sings at the top of his voice, the lark sings clear tidings: surpassing May-day of delicate colors!

The festival was more properly celebrated as 'Beltane Eve' (starting 31st April), based upon the ancient tendency to start each new day with nightfall – a traditional practice in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man dating back to the Celtic cultures of Europe during the late Iron Age, as commented upon by Caesar in Book 6, ch. 18 of his account of the 1stC BC conquest of Gaul, known as De Bello Gallico:

“…All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night…”

Those familiar with astronomy might realise that the rising of Virgo in the south-eastern horizon is the significant sky-event that marks the sunset on Beltain eve, and the significance of a woman holding an ear of corn (as the constellation is often portrayed) can be understood when considering the fertility aspects of the festival. It is balanced by the setting of the sun in the Ram constellation of Aries (close to Taurus and other 'herd' or 'flock'-themed constellations) – a significant fertility symbol.

Important 'Celtic' folk-customs associated with Beltain have been recorded from across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and many have attempted to use them in reconstructing a celebration of these festivities. There are not many places where the ancient customs have been part of a continuous living tradition, but the Isle of Man is one of them, perhaps the best of all:

The Manx Beltane customs:

The Manx people refer to Beltain as Laa Boaldyn or Oie'l Boaldyn (pron: 'Lay Bolthane/Balthane/Boltheen' or more properly by aspirating the labial consonant from 'B' to 'V' – Voaldyn) and the current customs (many still active and living) relating to it include:

(i) The fashioning the 'Crosh Cuirn'. The Crosh Cuirn (Ir.G/Sc.G. = crios caorann/caorthann) is a cross fashioned properly from two hand-broken twigs of the Mountain Ash tree, traditionally fastened with sheeps' wool pulled from a bush, or by splitting one of the twigs and pushing the other through this aperture. No metal must be used in fashioning it. Its Manx name means either 'cross' or 'girdle' made from 'Cuirn/Keirn' (Mountain Ash or Rowan Tree). The Crosh Cuirn is/was hung over doorways of human and animal dwellings and sometimes tied to the tails of domestic beasts. It was also worn by people in the fashion of a talisman. Some people also collected Ivy boughs for their apotropaic decorations – particularly on certain farms, where modern vets still see them mounted over cow sheds from time to time. Cuirn trees growing in old graveyards/churchyards are sometimes sought out for use in fashioning the 'Crosh'. Elsewhere (such as in Scotland), the 'crios' was a simple Rowan branch, not a cross. It was considered apotropaic. Manxman John Clague in his book 'Cooinaghtyn Manninagh – Manx Reminiscences' (Pub. M.J. Blackwell, 1911) said this of the 'Crosh':

“…The right way to make a kern cross is to split one stick and put the other stick through it, and thus bind them together…”

This echoes the description of 18thC author and 'whig historian' James MacPherson (celebrated throughout Europe during the early 1700s as the 'rediscoverer' of the ancient Ossianic lays) of Scottish highlanders making a 'clip' of Beltane herbs in the cleft of a stick, which he called 'Clou-an-Bel-Tein'. Macpherson's book, 'An introduction to the history of Great Britain and Ireland' (3rd Edition, Pub. London 1773, T. Becket and T.A. De Hondt) has this to say about 18thC Beltain customs in the Scottish highlands.

“… It was a custom, till of late years, among the inhabitants of whole districts in the North of Scotland, to extinguish all their fires on the evening of the last day of April. Early on the first day of May some select persons met in a private place, and, by turning with great rapidity an augre in a dry piece of wood, extracted what they called the forced or elementary fire*. Some active young men, one from each hamlet in the district, attended at a distance, and, as soon as the forced fire was kindled, carried part of it with great expedition and joy to their respective villages. The people immediately assembled upon some rock or eminence, lighted the BEL-TEIN, and spent the day in mirth and festivity.* TEIN-EGIN, or the forced-fire. The practice of extracting the TEIN-EGIN is not yet altogether discontinued among the ignorant vulgar.The ceremonies used upon this occasion were founded upon opinions of which there is now no trace remaining in tradition. It is in vain to inquire why those ignorant persons, who are addicted to this superstition, throw into the BEL-TEIN a portion of those things upon which they regale themselves on the first of May. Neither is there any reason assigned by them for decking branches of Mountain-Ash* with wreaths of flowers and heath, which they carry, with shouts and gestures of joy, in procession three times round the fire. These branches they afterwards deposite above the doors of their respective dwellings, where they remain till they give place to others in the succeeding year.* “Clou-an-BEL-TEIN” i.e., the split-branch of the fire on the rock. Those who have ingrafted Christianity on many of the superstitions of their remotest ancestors have now converted the Clou-an-Bel-Tein into a cross…

The use of 'tin-egin' in the Hebrides (Uist) was first mentioned by writer Martin Martin in the late 17thC. The MacPhersons were lairds in western Scotland – an area which had deep cultural connections to the Isle of Man, Hebrides and Ireland, and whose folk-cultural memories unravelled following the Jacobite rebellions and subsequent Highland clearances. The MacPhersons were guilty of treating their own tenants badly, and James' own contempt of the 'vulgar' is obvious in his own writings. The Beltane bonnach was not recorded as a particular Manx custom, although it features both at Easter (when people would use no iron in their fire and cook a triangular bonnag directly on the hearthstone and use a branch of Keirn as a fire-poker) and at Samhain/Sauin at the other end of the year. MacPherson's description of the 'clip' of herbs seems analogous to the Manx Crosh Keirn, although there is little evidence of the Manx using other plant species. MacPherson's own account mentioned the clip had been replaced by the cross among christians. One suggestive description nearer (but not contemporary) to MacPherson's account is sadly third-hand, from the preface to the memoirs of Manx archdeacon Benjamin Philpott, who served in Andreas parish in the 1830's:

“…On the eve of St. John (AR Ed: sic – St James) the Beltane fires fling their ancient flames to heaven from the mountain sides. Everyone who does not wish to be haunted by ill-luck for a whole year must throw into the fire some object belonging to his house. In the good old days, which nobody remembers, it would probably have been a superfluous baby, but in the nineteenth century any old thing will do. On that same eve, the fairies – malign Celtic fairies, not our merry English elves – are wont to walk abroad. No one could have a stronger objection to popish practices than my grandmother, but she would never have kept a servant if she had not yearly, on St. John's Eve, allowed the house to be hung with green crosses and each child to wear a green cross round its neck. Otherwise Heaven knows what the fairies might not have done…” (Source: 'Our Centenarian Grandfather – 1790-1890' by Arthur Granville Bradley, Pub. 1922 London, John Bale, Sons and Danielsson)

The conflation of Mayday/Beltane (St James' Day) and St John's day (midsummer) seems to have been constant throughout the Gaelic territories, with much inter-changeability of customs. The wearing of herbs (in particular Artemisia vulgaris) is still a tradition in the Isle of Man on 'Old' (Julian) midsummer day, otherwise known as Tynwald festival. The 'green crosses' may well just have been made of fresh Rowan twigs, but there are a number of other interpretations: Firstly that the cross was made as per MacPherson's description, secondly that 'green' is a misunderstanding of the Manx/Gaelic word for the sun – Grian – whose yellow light makes things green! Philpott's original manuscript memoir is sadly unavailable to consult on the matter…

(ii) Strewing of yellow flowers. The picking of yellow and green flowers/plants and strewing them on the thresholds and hearth of the house: species used might include (depending upon the annual availability) Primroses and Cowslips, Marsh Marigold, Ranunculus spp., Rushes, Yellow Iris, Ivy branches and sometimes blue Dog Violets. The yellow-coloured flowers were evocative of bountiful milk and butter and were supposed to either attract or repel fairies, depending upon the interpretation of custom. Rushes were symbolic of welcoming in the Gaelic world: Originally, the Manx people wanted to placate fairies and not frighten them. They were considered 'lucky' and able to ward off 'evil' influences. The 'tax' of their god, Manannan, at the midsummer festivity was a bundle of green rushes, as detailed in an ancient Manx ballad. These are today strewn on the processional way of the national Tynwald festival, held on the Julian midsummer day. On that day, the herb of choice to wear is Mugwort/'Bollan Bane' (Artemisia vulgaris).

The Manx called the bog-loving Marsh Marigold or Kingcup by the name Bluightyn which means 'milker', reinforcing the association of Beltane with cattle fertility. The 7thC Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede recorded that the month of May was known as 'Þrimilci-mónaþ' ('thrimilci monath'), meaning 'the month/moon of three milklings' (Source: De Temporum Ratione – version: The Reckoning of Time – By Bede, Faith Wallis, Translated by Faith Wallis, Published by Liverpool University Press, 1999 – ISBN 0853236933, 9780853236931). Throughout Atlantic Europe are records of May customs involving yellow flowers in celebration of cattle fertility and richness in milking.

Marsh Marigolds are of particular significance over other May flowers because they often emerge from pools of standing water, which gives them a special mystical significance. The act of visiting spring wells early on May morning was also known in the Isle of Man, and there are wells actually named after the day – Chibbyr Baltane/Bolthane near Surby, for example.

The Tarroo Ushtey (a fairy water-bull) was said to emerge from pools (or spring wells!) on Boaldyn morning and mate with cattle, causing them to have sickly changeling calves (From: 'Shadowland in Ellan Vannin' by I.H. Leney (Mrs C.J. Russell); Pub. Elliot Stock, London 1890). The otherworld was considered a close and present danger!

(iii) Lighting of bonfires. Although no longer a practical custom in the Isle of Man, the lighting of bonfires was once part of the widespread practices of celebrating Boaldyn. It was accompanied (according to local records) with a number of other practices of interest: the blowing of horns 'in all directions' was one attested practice (See: 'Notes and Queries', August 1867 p.144: 'May Fires in the Isle of Man'). Joseph Train (1845) noted that this was often carried out 'on the mountains'. The other noise-tradition was the banging of the 'Dollan' – a frame-drum. Many of the 'bonfires' were actually burning Gorse bushes, the torching of which was the annual custom among country peoples, particularly in the upland districts. The custom (as in Ireland) has a certain confusion with celebrations held at Midsummer Eve (St. John's Eve), and the whole period from Beltane to midsummer seems to be an expression of heat, moisture and growth. The popular explanation of these fires in the Isle of Man by the 19thC was that they were to 'burn out' fairies and witches, meaning a purgation of evil influences. The Major Rogation Days of the church were designed to precede Beltane in the Isle of Man and elsewhere – these were a Christian blessing of the fields and would have employed fumigations of incense before the Protestant Reformation. The smoke of fires was considered purificatory (didn't the Manx use it to cure their kippers?). In the Isle of Man fairies were generally considered unwise to offend, and were encouraged in the household (bowls of water and food left out for them at night) – it is likely that the 18thC description of people trying to burn them is a sceptical interpretation…

The 'saining' of cattle by driving them through the smoke and flames of Beltane fires is remarked upon as being of great antiquity. Whitley Stokes' edition of John O'Donovan's translation of Sanas Cormaic ('Cormac's Glossary') – an Irish manuscript believed to date to around the 10thC – has this to say of Beltane:

“Belltaine, 'May Day' i.e., Bill-tene, i.e., lucky fire i.e., two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires. [in margin] 'they used to drive the cattle between them'…” (Sanas Chormaic: Cormac's Glossary – Trans. John O'Donovan, Ed. Whitley Stokes; Pub. Calcutta 1868)

Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating), in his famous and influential 17thC book Foras Feasa ar Éirinn ('History of Ireland') mentions the ancient festival at Uisneach as being held at Beltane, and gives similar details (translation by O'Donovan).

“He (Tuathal) erected the second palace in that part of Meath which was taken from Connaught, viz., at Uisneach, where was held a general meeting of the men of Erin, called the meeting of Uisneach. This fair, or assembly, was held on the first day of the month of May; and they were wont to exchange and barter their cattle, jewels, and other property there. They were also accustomed to make offerings to the chief god which they worshipped, named Bel; and it was a custom with them to make two fires in honour of this Bel in every cantred of Ireland, and to drive a couple of every kind of cattle in the cantred between the two fires, as a preservation, to protect them against every disease during that year. And it was from this fire, made in honour of Bel, that the noble festival of Phillip and James (i.e., the 1st of May) is called Beilteine, i.e., the fire of Bel.”

The reference to the 'god' Bel and his fires may just be Keating's own interpretation (based on sources like the Sanas Chormaic), but are worth considering. The 'two fires' are interesting in that they may represent the two fires of summer – Beltane and Midsummer – explaining the frequent conflations between the festivals. An explanation for this may be that 'Beltane' represented the period between Mayday and midsummer…

In fact, the conflation also extends to Easter customs. Recall MacPherson's account of Beltane fires, given above: The 'Tein-Egin' – 'forced fire' or 'need fire' – was a traditional annual rekindling of the spark of the hearth-fires. This procedure was carried out at other times of the year, in response to disease or misfortune. All hearth-fires in a community were rekindled and animals driven through the smoke, in the case of murrain. In continental Europe as well as in Britain, the sacred kindling of the flame of the Paschal Candle was an Easter tradition of the Roman Catholic church. The Manx had a superstition about rekindling of their hearth fires at Easter – it was considered bad luck to 'lend the seed of the fire' (ie- to rekindle someone else's hearth fire with your own). It is evident the Paschal traditions were overlaid on pagan ones. Muirchu's 'Life of Patrick' describes him overthrowing a druid fire festival at Tara at 'easter'.

(iv) Battle of the Queen of Summer with the Queen of Winter. Now a long-dead custom, this performance was apparently once a popular expression of the seasonal drama: It was first described in print by George Waldron in his 1733 book Description of the Isle of Man:

“… In almost all the great parishes they chase from among the daughters of the most wealthy farmers a young maid, for the Queen of May. She is drest in the gayest and best manner they can, and is attended by about twenty others, who are called maids of honour: she has also a young man, who is her captain, and has under his command, a good number of inferior officers. In opposition to her, is the Queen of Winter, who is a man drest in woman's clothes, with woollen hoods, furs tippets, and loaded with the warmest and heaviest habits one upon another: in the same manner are those who represent her attendants drest, nor is she -without a captain and troop for her defence. Both being equips as proper emblems of the beauty of the spring, and the deformity of the winter, they set forth from their respective quarters; the one preceded by violins and flutes, the other with the rough musick of the tongs and cleavers. Both 'companies march till they meet on a common, and then their trains engage in a mock-battle. If the Queen of Winter's forces get the better, so far as to take the Queen of May prisoner, she is ransomed for as much as pays the expences of the day. After this ceremony, Winter and her company retire, and divert themselves in a barn, and the others remain on the green, where having danced a considerable time, they conclude the evening with a feast: the queen at one table with her maids, the captain with his troop at another… “

The portrayal of the year in feminine form is deeply intertwined with the ancient Atlantic mythology, often represented by the figures of Brighde and An Cailleach.

(v) Miscellaneous Manx Boaldyn customs:

The old ecclesiastical court documents of the Isle of Man from the 17th and 18th centuries make references to people being presented for superstitious practices carried out on May Eve. For instance, on 13th June 1730 in a church court held at Kirk Michael the following was recorded:

Pat : Corlet having reported yt he saw Bahee, the wife of John Kaighin of Skaristal, on May Day 1735 early in the morning, in the ffields, & about the houses of her neighbrs in a suspicious manner, as if she were practicing charms or sorcery…

This seems like a particularly common time for such anxieties to be reported to church courts, as there are a number of similar entries on similar subjects in the first half of the 18th century. This represented a belief also found in Ireland (as recorded by Oscar's dad, William Robert Wilde, in his fascinating post-famine book on Irish folklore called Irish Popular Superstions) that Beltane was a time when the goodness of one person's land and beasts might be transferred by acts of 'witchcraft'. Wilde talks of tales of 'well-skimming' at Beltain where 'witches' visit spring wells and 'skim' the cream from the cattle whose lands are watered by the spring. The same tales occur in the Isle of Man. Wilde also talked of the Irish 'May Bushes' and decorated May 'balls', but these are not obvious in Manx records.

The dew of May morning was believed to have special nourishing a fertile properties and 'skimming' this was viewed in the Isle of Man as a means to acquiring its potency. People might gain beauty and health by rolling in the dew on Boaldyn morning – a Manx friend of mine told me she has done this. The 18thC church courts have presentments dealing with allegations of this practice, albeit being suspected of being performed to gain the fertility of crops.

In addition to the Boaldyn bonfires and gorse-burnings, there was one more custom practiced that seems to heark back to Scandinavian customs, and was recorded by the illustrator Harold 'Dusty' Miller in his series of illustrations about Manx ephemera, folklore and history for local newspapers in the middle of the 20thC. This was the rolling of burning wheels covered in pitch-soaked straw down hillsides at Beltane – a strong solar motif, that was also apparently practiced in the Baltic region.


The Manx celebration of Beltane/Beltain/Bealtain, known locally as Yn Voaldyn, was an important part of the rural calendar that still has customs associated with it. It was a time when the fertility and safety of households was celebrated. It was an invocation of vegetation and cattle and an invocation of the heat of summer.

In the Christian era, many of its customs were conflated with those of Easter and midsummer (St John's Day). Due to the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars in the 18thC, the Manx celebrations of festivals might fall on dates of either calendrical system. In addition, the former use of a lunar calendar until the early medieval period has led to other festivals being conflated with the 1st May. The Rogation days, the major feast of the local Saint Maughold and a number of other local festivals bear witness to this.



Óðinn,Vili and Vé – Aesir, Elf and Vanir?

Óðinn, Vili and Vé are the three brothers who created the world from the body of the primordial giant Ymir in the Poetic and Prose Edda stories from 13thC Iceland – largely believed to represent the mythology and religious beliefs of the Norse/Scandinavian pagan world.

Óðinn is instantly recognisable from his multiple myths and position as the supreme Norse pagan god, yet the brothers Vili and Vé seem on superficial inspection to have few attestable roles in the old religious continuum. This, however, may not be the full picture: Firstly the ‘V’ names have an interesting link to the name of the other group of Norse gods, known as the Vanir. The Vanir may be older gods, particularly if the reference of the 1stC CE Roman historian Tacitus to a god(dess) called ‘Nerthus’ (Njörðr or Jörð) and a ‘Tribe of Ingvi’ is anything to go by… In addition the ‘Celtic’ god known as Belenos/Belinus/Bel may have a similar relationship through the linguistic transformation that occurs between ‘b’ and ‘v’‘Vili’ becomes ‘Bili’, which seems very close to ‘Beli’: The character of Baldr might also be closely related.

Óðinn’ typically occurs as ‘Woden’ in the more continental Germanic dialects. This makes the triad ‘Woden, Wili, and We’. The name-triad has particular significance as it suggests the name ‘Weland’ – Germanic folklore’s cunning blacksmith.

The apparently ‘triadic’ attestation of Óðinn and his brothers from the Icelandic Edda allows us an interesting opportunity to examine some lost elements of the puzzle of what the Norse gods were originally before the differentiations caused through Christianisation and migration of ‘Germanic’ language speakers during the collapse of the late western Roman Empire. In particular, we need to consider the triad as æsir-alfar-vanir, with Óðinn as æsir, Vili (Völundr) as alfar/elf, and Vé (Ingui) as Vanir.

The triadic division of gods and mythological divinities is commonplace in Europe’s ancient pagan traditions. With regard to Norse legend, the gods often travel in triads and in the poetic Edda lay of Völundarkviða, Völundr is travelling with his two brothers. The famous 11thC account of the pagan temple at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden by Adam of Bremen mentions a triad of giant statues – Óðinn, Thor and Freyr. Thor, although one of the Aesir, has a certain similitude with the hammer-weilding blacksmith Völundr, opening up another pathway for analysing how these gods might have evolved from common origins.

The possible link between Thor and Wayland (to use his English name) is beset at the outset with a number of contradictions or contradistinctions. For starters, we have a lot more mythological evidence about Thor, which necessarily skews the comparison somewhat. In Völundarkviða, Wayland is clever and a craftsman; he is wounded and enslaved by an apparently human adversary, against whom he eventually exacts vengeance. Thor, on the other hand is portrayed as less than bright; he is an impulsively bombastic smasher of skulls – in particular those of the ancient and monstrous mythological beings who represent primal chaos. The two therefore seem very different, albeit in a complimentary fashion

In terms of similarity, we have the blacksmith’s hammer. Thor’s Mjölnir is forged by the ‘Sons of Ivaldi’ – dwarves or dark elves, of which I will say more. Although wielded by Thor as a weapon, its use as a subtle forging tool must not go unrecognised. The thought of Thor making things with Mjölnir seems laughable, yet the legendary theme of combat with primal forces is in essence one of mankind forging his survival out of the elements. The development of metalworking during the Bronze Age marked a shift in the archaeological evidence of how humans in Europe started to dispose of their dead – through cremation, underground. The cthonic realms (those of the dwarves and giants) offered up the metals and resources which were to drive radical changes in human technology and spirituality. Thor’s apparent ‘brutishness’ with monsters is in distinction to Wayland’s clever subtlety, but it can be seen that they both represent aspects of the same key idea. Goats are a similar example of exactly the same thing: goats are the most versatile domestic animals, being apparently able to feed on almost anything in order to produce meat and milk. Thor posseses two magical goats in the Edda accounts, said to pull his chariot. Both hammer-wielders are therefore responsible (spiritually) for representing the control of the elements and the creation of excellent things from base matter.

Other similarities between Wayland and Thor are that Wayland is also depicted in Völundarkviða (like Thor) as a fierce warrior and powerful hunter, capable of killing great beasts (he kills and eats a bear, for example). His human captor (a king) is ultimately powerless against him, suggesting a certain god-like power.

Another aspect of ‘Vili’ might possibly be found with the father of the characters referred to in the Snorra Edda book Skáldskaparmál as ‘Sons of Ivaldi’. These are three brothers (dwarves or dark elves) who create the mighty magical artifacts for the gods – a ring for Óðinn, a hammer for Thor and a golden boar for Freyr. The giant Thjazi (Þjazi) whose daughter Skadi marries the Vanir Njord is said to be a son of a giant called Alvaldi/Olvaldi, famous for his vast (cthonic) wealth. Thjazi’s two other brothers are Gangr and Iði, again forming a triad. Interestingly, one of Loki’s sons is called Váli (Gylfaginning) and is transformed into a wolf (symbolic of primal hunger and wildness) by the Aesir in order to kill Loki’s other son Narfi (Njord?) – the gods bind Loki with Narfi’s entrails! Also in Gylfaginning, the following is said of Odin’s sons:

“One is called Ali or Váli, son of Odin and Rindr: he is daring in fights, and a most fortunate marksman.”

Odin’s son Váli was said to have been created and grown up in a day in order to punish Baldr’s killer. The description of the gods in Gylfaginning associates him with the same qualities given to Wayland/Völundr in Völundarkviða – a daring vengeful warrior, and an excellent shot with a bow (one of Völundr’s epithets is ‘weather-eyed archer’). In fact the same is said of the Aesir Ullr – another of Odin’s sons who – like Völundr goes hunting on skis with a bow. ‘Ullr’ can be considered a linguistic transformation of Vllr, which links to both Váli and Völundr. Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum names Ullr by the latinized version ‘Ollerus’ and describes him as a wizard who ruled in Odin’s stead during his exile, which fits with the Snorri’s Icelandic Ynglinga Saga account of Vili and Vé who ruled in Odin’s stead while he was away, and took Frigg as their wife.

The other link to Odin is that there are references in Old and Middle English literature (as well as in the sagas) to Wayland’s father – Wade (Norse: Vaði) a name similar to Wotan. He is mentioned by Chaucer (e.g. – Troilus and Criseyde) and allusions are made to his wondrous boat.In the Thidrekssaga (also called Vilkinasaga), he is the son of King Vilkinus, a name redolent of Vili. Wade’s half brother is called Nordian.

The third member of the primal triad with Odin and Vili is Vé, who I suggest represents the Vanir aspect. The word ‘Vé’ way. It is interesting that Snorri mentions in his euhemerised account of the gods in the Ynglingasaga (Heimskringla) that Odin appointed Njord and Freyr to be the chief sacrificial priests among the Aesir, following the Aesir-Vanir war. The Vanir Njord was said by Snorri in this same text to have been the first buried under a burial mound at the temple of Uppsala in Sweden, effectively ending the (bronze age) custom of cremation urn-burial – Snorri was something of an archaeologist as well as an accomplished historian and author! The Vanir goddess Freyja was supposed to have had a hall at a place called Folkvangr which received the souls ?of women (‘half of the dead’), vangr meaning ‘field’ but with connotations of Vé.

The Isle of Man (known in its native tongue as Ellan Vannin) has a village called Glen Vine, which borders a farm called Ballafreer (next to Trollaby) at which there is a field recorded as being called ‘the devil’s field’ in the now lost Ordnance Survey namebooks. The field is – by popular tradition – said to have been cursed by St Patrick so that it might never grow barley for beer and must in Viking times have been a sacred meadow for the growing of barley for the winter ales. The same property (named after Freyr, and historically a church glebe) contains a whitewashed phallic standing stone of a type seen in Norway and Ireland, and the remains of a number of ancient buildings probably dating to the viking era (and before). The Vanir appear to have had a connection to temples and worship and cthonic bounties – as illustrated by this unique Manx example.

The Ynglingasaga account of Vili and Vé ruling while Odin was away from home runs straight into Snorri’s story of the Aesir-Vanir war, without explaining much about why this happened. In fact it occurs immediately after Odin returns to find his wife in bed with Vili and Vé, so we must assume that this is the cause! You may recall that the poetic edda lay, Grímnismál, describes Alfheim as Freyr’s ‘tooth-gift’ (generally thought to mean a teething present), associating Alfar with Vanir.

Grímnismál shares certain similarities with Völundarkviða – principally the capture and torture of a God by a king, and the resulting consequences. The star of the latter poem or lay is none other than Wayland, whereas Odin is the protagonist of Grímnismál. Wayland’s ‘tooth gift’ is somewhat more sinister – he sends his captor and torturer the teeth of his murdered sons as jewelery! As to Freyr (whose ‘tooth gift’ was Alfheim), he is also known as Yngvi-Freyr or Ingui-Freyr and the name ‘Yngvi’ can be considered to mean ‘Son of Vi’ or ‘Son of Vé’, connecting him to the Odinic triad.

Noting the apparent Elf-Vanir relationship hinted at in the sources, it is of further interest that the Ynglinga Saga (and other sources based on the poem Ynglingatal such as in the Gesta Danorum) tells of two euhemerised progenitor-kings of Sweden called Yngvi and Alf. Alf prefers (like the Elf-Prince Wayland) to stay at home, whereas Yngvi is an active fighter and traveller. Consequently, Alf’s wife Bera falls for Yngvi, and the two fall out and kill one another. Again we see echoes of the legend of the Aesir-Vanir war and the theme of kin-strife, and the seemingly-linked Wayland legend blends with that of these euhemerised historical traditions.

The appearance of another character called Bera as the lover of the character Bjorn in the 14thC Icelandic Hrólfs saga kraka is another interesting parallel to Völundarkviða: Bjorn is the son of a king who is often away campaigning. He is in love with a freeman’s only daughter, Bera. The queen (possibly his mother) desires the strong, large handsome young man and demands he has sex with her but he slaps her in disgust and tells her to go. She curses him to assume the shape of a bear, and when the king returns he hunts the bear and the queen has it served up to Bera at a feast. Although superficially dissimilar to Völundarkviða it has a number of interesting parallels: After he and his brothers ‘marry’ the Valkyries who depart after 8 years, his brothers go to hunt for them, but Völundr stays home and takes to hunting in the forest. He kills and eats a bear shortly before he is captured and enslaved by the local King – the (unstated) implication of this tragic tale seems to be that the Bear was his Valkyrie lover. In the Ynglingasaga, Bera was the wife of Alf (=Elf = Völundr). In Hrólfs saga kraka the character Bera (which means ‘bear’) loves the bear, Bjorn.

Bera is a name not lost on scholars of Gaelic folklore, and in this context it also evokes another primal (albeit male) character of the Norse Snorra Edda creation myths: Borr/Bur son of father of Odinn, Vili and Vé, by Bestla. Snorri tells us that Buri was Odin’s grandfather – licked from the salty ice of Ginnungagap by Ymir’s cow Auðumbla. This appears to be an image of a bear emerging from hibernation – perhaps an allusion to an astronomical event to do with Ursa Major, Taurus and the Milky Way.

Bears (notorious hibernators) are an explicit exemplars of the annual cycle and the returning year. Their hibernation reflects the hibernation of nature during Europe’s winter months, and the reforging of the world in springtime is an allusion represented by Wayland/Völundr and the cthnonic (dark) elves or dwarves (represented by Vili). The Vanir (represented by Vé) are therefore possibly gods of the annual cycle. These are both aspects of Óðinn.


Belenos and St Michael the Archangel?

One curiosity of Atlantic European Christianity is the existence in its collegium of venerated ‘saints’ of a figure with no earthly beginnings whatsoever: St. Michael the Archangel.

Saint Michael the Satan-slayer, as depicted by Raphael.

Saint Michael the Satan-slayer, as depicted by Raphael.

As the Taxiarch of the heavenly battle host, he occurs firstly in the Darnel-induced visions of the Hebrew Book of Daniel (Daniel 10, to be precise, where he reassures the Hebrews that they as a nation will be protected from the depredations of their Persian captors):

“…Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz: His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude…” (KJV)

Michael appears again in the equally hallucinogenic Christian Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos, and leads the War in Heaven.

“…And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon…”

It is obvious that in the late -classical period such a character would have had a certain appeal to Central and Northern Europe’s newly Christianised warrior-cultures who venerated their departed heroes religiously, and had complex story traditions recounting their deeds. If you believe St Patrick, the Irish worshipped ‘Idola’ – visions or images – and from the designs of Celtic coins, it is quite possible that Celtic religion was something of a visionary cult.

The idea of a winged, victorious warrior is by no means an invention of the Hebrews, however. The older Egyptian and Babylonian Empires were responsible for this cultural iconography which entered the western Mediterranean sphere during the Hellenistic period, from where it eventually spread into the ‘barbarian’ world of Europe’s Celts.

During the period of Roman expansion into the lands of the Danubian and Rhineland Celts, and thereafter into Gaul and Britannia, the coins of the Celtic kings began to pick up on the iconography of the ‘winged’ human or animal form. In particular, this can be seen in those produced by the Belgic cultures – in particular the Atrebates, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni of eastern Britain during the 1stC BCE and 1stC CE who played such a major role in the Romanisation of Britain and northern Gaul. Of particular note are the coins of Commius, Cassivellaunus, Addedomarus, Tincomarus, Tasciovanus and his son Cunobelinus, which all show signs of Roman acculturation through their use of visual motifs such as the use of imagery of Pegasus,  the winged Victoria, and the Eleusinian head of Corn. In so doing, they were copying the iconography that their sons had become accustomed to while in fosterage/hostagery in the Roman curia.

Winged icons of shining deities would find their true Renaissance in the coming Christian era, when angels as warriors of light would replace the icon of the mercurial shining warrior god so beloved of the Celts.

The appearance of places named after ‘Michael’ was already well under way by the early middle ages: In Ireland, the early southern monastic island settlement of Skellig Michael was a key place in this process. St Michaels’ Mount in Cornwall and Mont St Michel in Brittany were another two significant places with religious importance. Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the 1stC CE referred to the metal-mining and smelting heartland of Cornwall by the name Belerion, suggesting a theophoric name based on Belen(os):

“…The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion are very fond of strangers and from their intercourse with foreign merchants are civilised in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like astralgi and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Ictis…”

Ictis is believed to refer to St Michael’s Mount near Marazion.

Further to the northwest, another important metal-producing place was the Isle of Man (called Manavia Insula by Ptolemy in the 2ndC CE). Here the concept of the  ‘Angel Michael’ was – as elsewhere – introduced into the popular imagination by Christian monks and priests. To the Manx, the name was converted to ‘Vaayl’. The ‘v’ sound could represent a transition from a name starting with ‘b’ or ‘m’ in the Celtic languages. This makes us consider if the original name was in fact ‘Mel’ or ‘Bel’… The name of this Island’s prime saint, ‘Maughold’, is a version of ‘Mayl’ (referred to as ‘Mel’ in the Brigitine hagiographies). The 12thC hagiographer Jocelyn of Furness told a legend of St Patrick defeating a flying wizard called ‘Melinus’ on the Isle of Man. ‘Melyn’ is the Welsh word for ‘yellow’, and sounds something like the Latin word ‘Malin’, referring to the tide. ‘Creg Malin’ in the Isle of Man overlooks St Patrick’s Isle where Jocelyn probably portrayed his imaginary showdown between christianity and the crusty Simon-Magus imitating wizard. This legend of Melinus actually equates directly to the Manx traditions of Manannan, who they claimed was the original ruler overtunrned by Patrick.  The 18thC English writer George Waldron commented that he had been told that ‘Merlin’ was said to be the legendary wizard-ruler, echoing Jocelyn, albeit with an extra ‘r’ and it is to be noted that ‘Merlin’ and ‘Mercury’ are not too dissimilar as names... the plot thickens!

So, Merlin, ‘Melin’ and ‘Belin’ are linguistically not too far from each other. Also, the tendency of Celtic languages to switch the P/B (‘P-Celtic’) sound with the C/K/Q (‘Q-Celtic’) sound make an association of ‘Belen(us)’ with the legendary ‘Cuillean’ a distinct possibility.

‘Cuillean’ was a legendary Irish/Manx smith and metal-smelter who occurs in the legends and placename-lore of Ireland, Mann and Scotland. If we are to link this character to ‘Belenus’ then it is worth noticing the names ‘Cunobelenus’ and ‘Cuchullain’ are exactly equivalent. Also the ‘germanic’ name of the legendary smith-figure ‘Weland’, with the addition of a Gaelic ‘k’ guttural becomes ‘kWeland’ so is actually an equivalent of ‘Chuillean’, or in the Welsh – ‘Gwyllion’. Slieve Gullion in Armagh, Ireland, and Slieu Whallian and Ard Whallan in the Isle of Man are name after him – possibly also ‘Schiehallion’ in Scotland. All of these places have interesting legends attached to them. Ireland also has its share of ‘giant’ or saint-stories with the name ‘Mal’ or ‘Mel’ attached – Mal Bay in County Clare being an example that comes to mind.

So… Belenus is the same ‘person’ as the smith/wright/craftsman Cuillean/Wayland?   The association of Belenus with Mercury, Mars and Apollo in the Romano-Celtic world has a direct relationship with his identity as a craftsman. Like his various hypostases – Lugus among the continental Celts, and Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Manawydan fab Lir in the Mabinogion, he is a maker of things (shoes – like the Irish Leprachaun) – a forger with the fire of the sun and spiritual ‘fire’ of the Otherworld…

Going back to those famous Belgic rulers of ancient Britain in the 1st centuries BC and CE, an appraisal of their names (as well as their numismatic iconography) shows a deep attraction to the god Belenus. Firstly, and most obviously there is Cunobelenus – the ‘Hound/Wolf of Belenus’. Next the tribe of the Catuvellauni – ‘Seat of Belenus’ and their leader Cassivellaunus (‘Stronghold of Belenus’ – defeated by Caesar in his first invasion). The name of the tribal King Tasciovanus (1stC BCE) also had distinct connections to the name of Celtic ancestor gods that Tacitus cites in his book Germania: Tuisto/Tuisco and Mannus (hence, possibly, ‘Tuisco-Vannus’). All of these are probably related to ‘Beli’ – the bristling, bellicose Sun God of the Celts whose icon was sometimes portrayed as a Boar, the horse with its hair streaming or as the combative rutting ‘Stag-Warrior’: Cernunnos.… In fact, etymologically the word for ‘hair’ in the Indo-European languages has similarity to the word for ‘war’ and ‘beauty’. To use Latin as our example, we have Pillus, Bellum, and Bellus: When considering the imagery of Bellenus as ‘Apollo Grannus’, this relationship becomes quite clear – especially in the context of the aesthetics of a proudly adorned warrior race such as the Celts…. It is no wonder they appropriated the horned image of Alexander as ‘Amon-Ra-Apollo’ which he began to use after liberating Egypt from Persian rule while in his youthful prime.

St Michael the Archangel served as a ‘placeholder’ for the ‘folk-memory’ of this important religious figure of the Celts.

A 'solar warrior'

A ‘solar warrior’



The Celtic Sun God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conjecture I should like to raise again is this:

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