St Latiaran of Cullen (Cuillinn)

Cullen or Cullin is a small village about four miles south of the Kerry border, near the town of Millstreet in the old Barony of Dulhallow, Co. Cork. It is home to an old ‘holy well’ dedicated to an Irish female saint known as ‘Latiaran’ or ‘Laitiaran’ (sometimes spelled ‘Lateerin’ in older english books), also known as ‘Laserian’. This last version has an interesting concordance with another supposed early male saint, associated with smithily-named St Gobban of Leighlin (Co. Carlow): This was his brother ‘St Molaise’ (St Molashog), also known as ‘St Laserian’. Whether hearking from Cullen or the bosom of Gobban, all of these saints have a curious set of accretions to do with blacksmiths. Latiaran herself is stranger still as she (and her sisters) do not seem to have an official place in Ireland’s various historic calendars of saints, and have all the trappings of Christianised aspects of a/the feminine triple-deity. 

The popular story about Laitiaran of Cullen, recorded by travellers there in the early 19thC was that the saint once lived in the village, from where she would regularly travel across the old bog-causeways to visit her two holy sisters. Such was her piety, she refused to keep her hearth-fire burning in continuity (a pagan custom/superstition), but would instead go daily to the blacksmith’s forge in the village to get a ‘seed’ for the fire, which she carried home in her apron or cloak, and which miraculously did not burn it. However, one day, she let her sanctity slip a little when the blacksmith complemented her on her shapely legs or feet, and a lapse into vanity caused her to take a peek and see if he was indeed right. The ember burned through her apron and singed her ankle, the result being that she cursed the smith, to the effect that ‘there never was a blacksmith in Cullin thereafter’.

This is yet another striking example of the christianisation of an important part of the original Gaelic pagan mythos. The name, Cuillin, is that of the legendary blacksmith from whom Cuchullain was named, and with whom I have suggested a strong etymological and legendary link to the Germanic character Weland/Wayland. The imposition of a female saint into such a tale involving this character is also seen at Slieve Gullion in Armagh. You might recall the the pagan Brighid was associated with ‘smithcraft’. But what more about ‘Lateerin’?

She is one of three regional sister-saints : Laiser, Inghean Buidhe and Latiaran, sometimes also given as Craobh/Crobh Dearg, Latiaran, and Gobnait. Assuming craobh dearg is the original meaning, ‘red branch’ – something the local legends of Cullen would disapprove of! Gobnait’s name is redolent of gobban (blacksmith), and her feast day in the Martyrology of Oengus is 11th February (Imbolc). This is really fascinating. The mystery deepens when we realise that Latiarin’s pattern day was/is held at the well on July 25th, or the nearest Sunday (or both!) corresponding to the pagan festival of Lughnasa, as detailed in Maire MacNeil‘s amazing book, ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’. The pattern of Ingean (or ‘Ineen’) Bhuidhe was (unsurprisingly) celebrated near the start of May at the local settlement at ‘Bull Ridge’ of Dromtariff, while that at the well of Cill Lasaer (who presumably is identical with Gobnait) was at the ‘start of spring’ (early February, Imbolc), and was held at Boherbue (Bóthar Buí = Yellow Road).  

The anglophone part of her name, ‘-teer-‘, appears to be from the Gaelic word saor/tsaoir, meaning ‘smith’ or ‘craftsman’, and ‘teerin’ could therefore quite conceivably signify the ‘smith’s daughter’. Laitiaran is the modern Irish orthographic spelling, which perhaps belies the name’s true origins as an attempt to obfuscate a piece of important Irish pagan lore… Astute readers might recognise that the names ‘Lasaer’ /’Lasair’ and ‘Lateer’ are pretty much the same, derived from the prefix ‘La-‘ and the Irish word for blacksmith – saor . Bui, is also a name of the Cailleach Bera in the famous ‘Lament’ poem, not to mention part of the name of Boherbue/Boherboy nearby.

This intrigued MacNeil deeply, although she did not make the linguistic association of ‘Latiaran’ with blacksmiths. She did however notice the possible connection between the triad of divine females and the passage from the Book of Leinster which describes Badb, Macha and Anand, from the last of whom it says the nearby Paps of Anu were named… She also wondered if the nearby Lughnasa hill of Taur might have been the lost ‘Tara’ of Munster, Teamhair Luachra. This theory is especially intriguing given the fire-kindling, Bealtaine associations of the other Royal Teamhair.

What are the other local links with blacksmiths and fire?

 The old Barony of Duhallow in northern Cork contains the aforementioned villages of Boherbue and Cullen, but is also notable for some of its other placenames such as Banteer, whose name contains an overt suggestion of ‘Female Smith’ (‘Bean tSaor’). In fact, County Cork itself has a fair share of legends regarding a famous hallowed Blacksmith-Builder-Craftsman, the Gobban Saor.  

 

Völundr, Wayland, Weland and the Irish Cuillean

Just a quick philological and etymological interlude:

Has anyone noticed the the similarities between the names of the Germanic/Norse Völundr or Wayland and the mystical Manx/Irish blacksmith known as Cuillean, Gullion, Culann or Chullain?

Gutturalisation of the primary consonant in words beginning with a ‘W’ is a historically common form of pronunciation in some parts of Scotland, Mannin, Ireland and Wales. For example, a Hebridean island guest house owner might ask you: “C’when c’will you c’want your c’weetabix?”

‘Cuillean’ or ‘Culann’ can therefore be considered a gutturalisation of the first syllable of ‘Wuillean’ or ‘Wulann’ which sounds very much like a variant of ‘Wayland’! The hill of Slieve Gullion in Armagh, N. Ireland, has its equivalent in the Isle of Man with its ‘Slieau Whallian’, which towers over the historic Thing-field and Thing-hill in the village of St. John’s – still a living, breathing aspect of the island’s Hiberno-Norse heritage. Ireland too had contact with pagan Norse cultural influence, but the mythology of Cuillean appears to predate this contact.

There are in fact quite a few hills named after Cuillean who plays a prominent role in the Ulster Cycle myths as an ally and creator of weapons for king Conchobar mac Nessa, and after whom Cuchullain (‘Hound of Cuillean’) is named. The Cuillin Hills in Scotland are prime candidates, and there are a number of other individual hills with similar names dotted around Britain and Ireland. In the English Cotswolds is an ancient village called Colerne, situated near an Iron Age hillfort, so the name is not just seen in Goidelic language regions. In Wales, there is a tradition of hilltop fairies called Gwyllion… The tough hill-loving tree known in english as ‘Holly’ (OE Holegn, Manx Hollin, Irish Cuillean) has distinct connotations that it might have been forged by a blacksmith in its mythological creation: Its leaves are sharp, shiny and stiff, and it endures (as if ‘man-made’) where others wither in the annual cycle. It is also credited in folklore as a lightning conductor, adding to its ‘metallic’ reputation.

In fact, the transition of the name of Weland to the gutturalised Cuillean can be traced through France, where references in medieval writings to the fabulous weaponsmith ‘Galant’, such as in the Romance sagas of ‘The Knight of the Swan’ (a fairytale romance), and its ‘sequel’, the more contemporary ‘Godfrey of Bouillon’, who claimed to be related to the original Knight of the Swan – an interesting link with the Swan Maidens who loved Volundr and his brothers in the Edda saga. 12thC Norman-Welsh author Geoffrey of Monmouth’s poetic account of Merlin’s madness has King Rhydderic offer Merlin jewels sculpted by ‘Guielandus’ in order to distract and settle his mind. Whether this represents the Irish Cuillean or the continental version is debateable, although given Geoffrey’s cultural milieu, the continental origin seems more likely.

The connection between the ‘Germanic’ Wayland/Volund and an apparently identical Brythonic/Goidelic (or ‘Celtic’) mythological character offers us the prospect that the ‘Germanic’ and ‘Celtic’ indigenous pagan cosmologies were/are closer than we have given them credit for. ‘Germanic’ is, after all, an exonym invented by the Romans,  and Celtic Halstatt and La Téne style culture is identifiable in the archaeology of areas beyond the Rhine which Romans typified as ‘Germania’.

 

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’