The Hag of the Mill

The ‘Hag of the Mill’ (Cailleach an Mhuilinn) is a mysterious and elusive character featured in a number of famous mythological tales from medieval Irish literature. This ‘grand dame’ appears variously as a helper, an adversary and a prophetess whose intervention determines the future outcomes of mythical narrative. Her ability to fly, leap and shape-shift marks her out as exceptional and supernatural – the very model of a goddess, in fact.

Mills were of course associated with ponds, lakes and water-courses, wind-powered mills not being known in ancient Ireland. They are therefore doubly associated with fertility and goodness, attaching a powerful aura of magical potency to them in folklore. The drudgery of hand-milling is also symbolic of the work of the lowly. Milling is both a destructive and creative act, and this is almost certainly why the Cailleach is associated with it in some Irish literary and folklore traditions.

The idea of magical females and fairies associated with mills was once apparently fairly widespread. As well as being a common theme in popular beliefs about witchcraft in the British Isles from at least the medieval period, it occurs in the Slavic myths of Baba Yaga (‘Mother Hag’), who was said to travel about with the aid of a magical mortar and pestle. The act of winnowing, hulling and grinding represents the uncovering and extraction of goodness: the revealing of what is hidden. The word ‘Cailleach’ (often translated as ‘hag’) means ‘veiled one’, and in the tales in which she appears, she often hides her inner nature, only to reveal it at critical junctures. The same can be said of Frau Holle or Holda and the Huldra figures of Germanic and Scandinavian folklore, whose name represents the same concept, demonstrating a deep and ancient conceptual link shared between Eurasian and European cultures. ‘Hulling’ is an english word for the act of removing the calyx covering a grain…

A set of 'quern' stones in a Viking era hand-mill. The grains were poured into the 'eye' of the mill and the stones rotated with a stick. Like the hearth of a house, the mill would have been associated with magical potency.

A set of ‘quern’ stones in a Viking era hand-mill. The grains were poured into the ‘eye’ of the mill and the stones rotated with a stick. Like the hearth of a house, the mill would have been associated with magical potency.

The ‘wheel’ of the millstone and the ‘wheel of the year’ share a common theme, represented in  northern Europe’s ancient Great Goddess… Perhaps the popular ‘lucky’ holed stone used as an amulet is even a remnant of former Cailleach worship?

'Lucky Stones', also called 'Hag Stones' and 'Witch Stones': They are a familiar feature of folklore from across the British Isles and Ireland. A remnant of Cailleach worship?

‘Lucky Stones’, also called ‘Hag Stones’ and ‘Witch Stones’: They are a familiar feature of folklore from across the British Isles and Ireland. A remnant of Cailleach worship?

In fact, the holed stone is also associated with the weights used on looms, and the weights used for fishing nets, so it represents a great deal of significance of nourishing and creative forces.

Holed stones and a necklace of glass beads and stones were among the grave goods of a pagan viking burial at Peel Castle in the Isle of Man.

Holed stones and a necklace of glass beads and stones were among the grave goods of a pagan viking burial at Peel Castle in the Isle of Man.

With all of this in mind, I would now like to discuss the character of the ‘Mill Hag’ in context of a number of Irish myths surviving from the medieval period:

Compert Mongáin ocus Serc Duibe-Lácha do Mongán (‘The Conception of Mongan and Dub-Lacha’s Love for Mongan’)

The English text is here.

The fateful Cailleach threads her way repeatedly through this tale which essentially deals with the sovereignty of Ireland: First, as the ‘Caillech Dub’ or ‘Black Hag’ of Lochlann, she appears as a healer of kings by donating her magical cow to save the life of Eolgarg Mor, king of Lochlan, then as an instigator of conflict between the Ulster king Fiachna mac Baetán and Eolgarg. When things are going bad for Fiachna (Eolgarg unleashes a battalion of venemous sheep upon the Irish!) the god Manannán mac Lir appears to him an offers to save Fiachna’s army from the sheep upon the condition that he can go to Ireland disguised as Fiachna and beget a magical son upon Fiachna’s wife. In this manner is begat Mongan mac Fiachnae or ‘Mongan Fionn’, who Manannán fosters in his magical island kingdom in the west, teaching him the arts of magic and shape-shifting. After a period away, Mongan returns to Ireland replete with higher mystical knowledge and magical powers – a veritable incarnation of Manannan himself.

In the tale, Mongan and Dubh Lacha fall in love. However, she is betrothed to the King of Leinster and Mongan and his companion Mac an Daibh conspire to trick the king and rescue Dubh Lacha. They go to the Cailleach an Mhuilinn and ask for her help in their ruse, to which she gladly assents.

   And in that way the year passed by, and Mongan and Mac an Daimh set out to the king of Leinster’s house. There were the nobles of Leinster going into the place, and a great feast was being prepared towards the marriage of Dubh-Lacha. And he vowed he would marry her. And they came to the green outside. ‘O Mongan,’ said Mac an Daimh, ‘in what shape shall we go?’ And as they were there, they see the hag of the mill, to wit, Cuimne. And she was a hag as tall as a weaver’s beam, and a large chain-dog with her licking the mill-stones, with a twisted rope around his neck, and Brothar was his name. And they saw a hack mare with an old pack- saddle upon her, carrying corn and flour from the mill.

And when Mongan saw them, he said to Mac an Daimh: ‘I have the shape in which we will go,’ said he, ‘and if I am destined ever to obtain my wife, I shall do so this time.’ ‘That becomes thee, O noble prince,’ [said Mac an Dairnh]. ‘And come, O Mac an Daimh, and call Cuimne of the mill out to me to converse with me.’ ‘It is three score years [said Cuimne] since any one has asked me to converse with him.’ And she came out, the dog following her, and when Mongan saw them, he laughed and said to her: ‘If thou wouldst take my advice, I would put thee into the shape of a young girl, and thou shouldst be as a wife with me or with the King of Leinster.’ ‘I will do that certainly,’ said Cuimne. And with the magic wand he gave a stroke to the dog, which became a sleek white lap­dog, the fairest that was in the world, with a silver chain around its neck and a little bell of gold on it, so that it would have fitted into the palm of a man. And he gave a stroke to the hag, who became a young girl, the fairest of form and make of the daughters of theworld,to wit, Ibhell of the Shining Cheeks, daughter of the king of Munster. And he himself assumed the shape of Aedh, son of the king of Connaught, and Mac an Daimh he put into the shape of his attendant. And he made a shining-white palfrey with crimson hair, and of the pack-saddle he made a gilded saddle with variegated gold and precious stones. And they mounted two other mares in the shape of steeds, and in that way they reached the fortress.

Mongan uses his magic wand to transform the hag into a beautiful young woman who gets the king drunk and sleeps with him. Mongan and Dubh Lacha then make off. The next morning the king is found in bed with Cuimne – now transformed back into a gnarled hag, much to the dismay of his people. The theme is one of the king wedded to the sovereignty goddess, familiar from many other Irish tales, and as used in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’. In the Mongan tale however, the beautiful maiden transforms into  the hag – usually the reverse occurs: the brave hero kisses the hag, who transforms into a young beauty.

Interestingly, as well as identifying Mongan mac Fiachna with Manannan, the corpus of ‘Mongan’ literature also identifies him with the even more famous Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the trickster hunter-warrior-leader. Fionn’s dealings with the shapeshifting Fairy Queen and goddess of the earth, the Cailleach, are dealt with in the tale of ‘The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne’:

Toruigheacht Diarmada agus Grainne (‘The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne’):

The tale is ostensibly one of the love affair between Fionn’s wife Grainne, and his strapping young protege, Diarmuid. The two fall out violently and the narrative deals with the couple’s pursuit by Fionn, and the eventual death of Diarmuid. It is a tale of split loyalties and the tragedies of betrayal in love. The Cailleach’s appearance is as Fionn’s nursemaid, in Tir Tairngire – the Otherworld homeland of the Tuatha De Danann, and realm of Manannan. She agrees to help Fionn and attacks Diarmuid and Oscar, who are staying with Angus at the Brugh na Boyne.

The next morning Diarmuid and Oscar rose, and harnessed their fair bodies in their suits of arms of valor and battle, and those two mighty heroes went their way to the place of that combat, and woe to those, either many or few, who might meet those two good warriors when in anger. Then Diarmuid and Oscar bound the rims of their shields together that they might not separate from one another in the fight. After that they proclaimed battle against Finn, and then the soldiers of the king of Alba said that they and their people would go to strive with them first. They came ashore forthwith, and rushed to meet and to encounter them, and Diarmuid passed under them, through them, and over them, as a hawk would go through small birds, or a whale through small fish, or a wolf through a large flock of sheep; and such was the dispersion and terror and scattering that those good warriors wrought upon the strangers, that not a man to tell tidings or to boast of great deeds escaped of them, but all of them fell by Diarmuid and by Oscar before the night came, and they themselves were smooth and free from hurt, having neither cut nor wound. When Finn saw that great slaughter, he and his people returned out to sea, and no tidings are told of them until they reached Tir Tairngire (fairyland), where Finn’s nurse was. Finn came to her, and she received him joyfully. Finn told the cause of his travel and of his journey to the hag from first to last, and the reason of his strife with Diarmuid, and he told her that it was to seek counsel from her that he was then come; also that no strength of a host or of a multitude could conquer Diarmuid, if perchance magic alone might not conquer him. “I will go with thee,” said the hag, “and I will practise magic against him.” Finn was joyful thereat, and he remained with the hag that night; and they resolved to depart on the morrow.

Now it is not told how they fared until they reached the Brug upon the Boyne, and the hag threw a spell of magic about Finn and the fian, so that the men of Erin knew not that they were there. It was the day before that Oscar had parted from Diar­muid, and Diarmuid chanced to be hunting and chasing on the day that the hag concealed the fian. This was revealed to the hag, and she caused herself to fly by magic upon the leaf of a water lily, having a hole in the middle of it, in the fashion of the quern-stone of a mill, so that she rose with the blast of the pure- cold wind and came over Diarmuid, and began to aim at and strike him through the hole with deadly darts, so that she wrought the hero great hurt in the midst of his weapons and armor, and that he was unable to escape, so greatly was be oppressed; and every evil that had ever come upon him was little compared to that evil. What he thought in his own mind was, that unless he might strike the hag through the hole that was in the leaf she would cause his death upon the spot; and Diarmuid laid him upon his back having the Gae Derg in his hand, and made a triumphant cast of exceeding courage with the javelin, so that he reached the hag through the hole, and she fell dead upon the spot. Diarmuid beheaded her there and then and took her head with him to Angus of the Brug.

Although not explicitly referred to as ‘hag of the mill’, the narrative obviously invokes the ring-shaped grinding stone in its description of the curious leaf the Cailleach flies upon as she attacks Diarmuid. Another tale themes by flight and pursuit that features the Hag is:

Buile Shuibhne (‘Sweeney’s Frenzy’):

The full English text of this tale can be found here.

In the story, king Suibhne (‘Sweeney’), a 7thC pagan warlord of Dal nAraidhe, offends St Ronan Finn by tossing his psalter into a lake when the christian invader sets up a church on his lands without permission. This occurs just before the decisive Battle of Moira (Magh Ráth) of 637CE which was to mark the beginning of the ascendancy of the Uí Neill over the north of Ireland. In punishment for his anti-clerical transgressions, Suibhne is cursed by the saint with madness, and doomed to fly and leap across the landscape like a bird, never knowing the fate of his sons and kinsmen after the battle, at which the Dal nAraidhe were defeated. His final fate, Ronan tells him, is to eventually die pierced upon the point of a spear.

Suibhne subsequently lives like a bird, perching in trees and flitting from hilltop to hilltop, cursed to never wish for the comforts of settlement. His wild, bird-like condition is presented as lonely and tragic. Eventually he is captured by his kinsman Loingseachan (who is apparently also a miller), and he is restrained in chains so that he might live again among his people. With their care, his madness lifts temporarily, only to be robbed from him once more when he is entrusted one harvest-time to the care of Lonnog, the Hag of the Mill, who is described as Loingseachan’s mother in law, who challenges him to show his magical flying leaping ability, which she then reveals is also a faculty she herself posesses:

“… When Suibhne heard tidings of his only son, he fell from the yew, whereupon Loingseachan closed his arms around him and put manacles on him. He then told him that all his people lived; and he took him to the place in which the nobles of Dal Araidhe were. They brought with them locks and fetters to put on Suibhne, and he was entrusted to Loingseachan to take him with him for a fortnight and a month. He took Suibhne away, and the nobles of the province were coming and going during that time; and at the end of it his sense and memory came to him, likewise his own shape and guise. They took his bonds off him, and his kingship was manifest. Harvest-time came then, and one day Loingseachan went with his people to reap. Suibhne was put in Loingseachan’s bed-room after his bonds were taken off him, and his sense had come back to him. The bed-room was shut on him and nobody was left with him but the mill-hag, and she was enjoined not to attempt to speak to him. Nevertheless she spoke to him, asking him to tell some of his adventures while he was in a state of madness. ‘A curse on your mouth, hag!’ said Suibhne; ‘ill is what you say; God will not suffer me to go mad again.’ ‘I know well,’ said the hag, ‘that it was the outrage done to Ronan that drove you to madness.’ ‘O woman,’ said he, ‘it is hateful that you should be betraying and luring me.’ ‘It is not betrayal at all but truth,’; and Suibhne said:

Suibhne: O hag of yonder mill,
why shouldst thou set me astray?
is it not deceitful of thee that, through women,
I should be betrayed and lured?
The hag: Tis not I who betrayed thee,
O Suibhne, though fair thy fame,
but the miracles of Ronan from Heaven
which drove thee to madness among madmen.

Suibhne: Were it myself, and would it were I,
that were king of Dal Araidhe
it were a reason for a blow across a chin;
thou shalt not have a feast, O hag.
‘O hag,’ said he, ‘great are the hardships I have encountered if you but knew; many a dreadful leap have I leaped from hill to hill, from fortress to fortress, from land to land, from valley to valley.’ ‘For God’s sake,’ said the hag, ‘leap for us now one of the leaps you used to leap when you were mad.’ Thereupon he bounded over the bed-rail so that he reached the end of the bench. ‘My conscience!’ said the hag, ‘I could leap that myself,’ and in the same manner she did so. He took another leap out through the skylight of the hostel. ‘I could leap that too,’ said the hag, and straightway she leaped. This, however, is a summary of it: Suibhne travelled through five cantreds of Dal Araidhe that day until he arrived at Glenn na nEachtach in Fiodh Gaibhle, and she followed him all that time. When Suibhne rested there on the summit of a tall ivy-branch, the hag rested on another tree beside him. It was then the end of harvest-time precisely. Thereupon Suibhne heard a hunting-call of a multitude in the verge of the wood. ‘This,’ said he, ‘is the cry of a great host, and they are the Ui Faelain coming to kill me to avenge Oilill Cedach, king of the Ui Faelain, whom I slew in the battle of Magh Rath.’ …”

This leaping hag is famous in Gaelic folklore as the earth-goddess Cailleach whose legendary jumps and falls created the landscape in folktales scattered across Scotland, Mann, Britain and Ireland. Once a pervasive goddess of northern Europe, her traditions have been corrupted so that she is variously depicted in corrupt and christianised myths as a giant, the devil or a great beast, even a horse. In some of this folklore, the Cailleach herself is said to manifest as a great bird (for instance, as the ‘Gyre Carline’ of Scottish lowland repute). She appears in the narrative of Buile Suibhne as the flying/leaping ‘mistress of the wilds’ who return Suibhne to his former sylvan madness – as if he was back-sliding from christian charity into paganism, which was still apparently strong among elements of the Dal nAraidhe and Picts of the 7thC.

During his flight with the Cailleach, Suibhne hears the first horns of the start of the stag-hunting season and fears that it is he who is hunted. He then utters a lay which identifies with the stags who rule the peaks of the hills, with the trees of the forest in which he alights, and draws parallels with both, describing the antlers as akin to the branches and thorns upon which he is cursed to alight, and these with Ronan’s prophesied fate for him to eventually die upon the point of a spear. He even refers t0 the Cailleach at one point as ‘mother of this herd’:

There is the material of a plough-team 
from glen to glen: 
each stag at rest 
on the summit of the peaks.
Though many are my stags 
from glen to glen, 
not often is a ploughman’s hand 
closing round their horns.
The stag of lofty Sliabh Eibhlinne, 
the stag of sharp Sliabh Fuaid, 
the stag of Ealla, the stag of Orrery, 
the fierce stag of Loch Lein.
The stag of Seimhne, Larne’s stag, 
the stag of Line of the mantles, 
the stag of Cuailgne, the stag of Conachail, 
the stag of Bairenn of two peaks.
O mother of this herd, 
thy coat has become grey, 
there is no stag after thee 
without two score antler-points.

It is evident she (as an elder of his tribe) is showing him the fate of the stags pursued by the hunters to demonstrate to him that the ‘wild’ tribes of the pagans, attached to their hilltops and springs of water, are going to suffer the same fate. The other common folkloric motif associated with the Cailleach is as ‘mistress of herds and flocks’. Unable to bear her fatalistic taunting and her attempts to push him back into madness, he tricks the hag into leaping to her doom:

“… After that lay Suibhne came from Fiodh Gaibhle to Benn Boghaine, thence to Benn Faibhne, thence to Rath Murbuilg, but he found no refuge from the hag until he reached Dun Sobairce in Ulster. Suibhne leaped from the summit of the fort sheer down in front of the hag. She leaped quickly after him, but dropped on the cliff of Dun Sobairce, where she was broken to pieces, and fell into the sea. In that manner she found death in the wake of Suibhne …”

A similar fate came to the legendary hag Mal, who pursued the leaping Cuchullain to the Cliffs of Moher in a legend attached to Loop Head on the coast of County Clare. Evidently, the genesis of both stories lies within a more ancient pagan myth explaining how the landscape of Ireland was formed – possibly involving the chase of rutting stags, of which Cuchullain is a human representation. Patrick Weston Joyce (‘The Origin and History of Irish Names and Places’, Dublin, 1870) commented on a number of other places named after legendary leaps.

Why the ancient goddess manifests as the ‘Mill Hag’ is Buile Suibhne is still somewhat mysterious, indicating that the reader or listener was expected to know and understand why she manifests in such a rôle. Another tantalising hint at why this occurs is found in the conclusion of the story, in which Suibhne (like all good pagan heroes committed to the hands of Ireland’s christian mythographers) commits his last days to the care of Saint Mo Ling in Leinster, who was famed for his legendary water mill and whose name itself evokes the very word for Mill – Muillean – such that the anglicised version of his name is ‘Saint Mullins’. In fact, his legend states that the saint built a mile-long millrace connecting the river Barrow to his mill at Tighe Moling (now known as St Mullins). A hagiography (copied by one of the O’Clery brothers in the 17thC) contains accounts of his oratory being miraculously filled with grain, in order to pay the legendary Gobbán Saer (and his wife) who builds his houses and religious buildings at Teach Moling from the remains of the pagan Yew of Ross, said to have been felled by the Christian evangelists. Like the leaping Suibhne, Moling’s hagiography contains an episode in which he performs a series of leaps in order to confound and escape some evil spirits. How fitting, then that this saint would become the selfsame mad king’s guardian!

Students of the British traditions of Merddyn/Merlin discussed by Geoffrey of Monmouth will instantly be able to identify his own madness with the fate of Suibhne in the Irish story. The sylvan state of beast-like insanity and living among swine is a potent invocation of the pagan mysteries, except that in the christian narrative of Buile Suibhne the care and fate of Suibhne becomes dependent wholly upon the charity of saints Ronan Finn and Moling. Of the characters in Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini who might answer to that of the Irish/Scots/Manx Cailleach, the briefly-mentioned Morgen or Morgan who resides in a mystic island is the most likley candidate. She actually appears in the Martyrology of Donegal as a Saint, under the name Muirgen (‘Born of the Sea’) or Liban! In the ‘Sickbed of Cuchullain’ from the Ulster Cycle tales, ‘Liban’ is the sister of Manannan’s wife, Fand. Fionn mac Cumhaill’s nursemaid, indeed. Or maybe Mongan, or perhaps Manannan? Here is a translation of the entry:

MUIRGHEIN : i.e., a woman who was in the sea, whom the Books call Liban, daughter of Eochaidh, son of Muireadh ; she was about three hundred years under the sea, till the time of the saints, when Beoan the saint took her in a net, so that she was baptized, after having told her history and her adventures.

 

Muirgen

 

 

 

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

Time and again we see the myths of paganism subsumed into the narratives of hagiography in the early centuries of the Christian church in northern Europe. Another prime example of this can be found in the stories about ‘St Winifred’ – an early Welsh saint with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name, whose life is ascribed to the 7thC CE.

Winifred is interesting because her life, legends and veneration are full of the indicators of a pagan origin hinting at the Gaelic great goddess, known as Brigit or Aine. She is local to north Wales in the tribal areas of the Deceangli, known by medieval times known as Tegeingl – modern Flintshire. The Deceangli were a Celtic tribal polity of the late Iron Age whose origins are supposed to lie in part in Ireland. Winifred’s father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, is supposed to have been a chieftain among these peoples.

Although relating her floruit to the 7thC CE, the earliest hagiographies (surviving in the Laud and Cottonian manuscript collections) must stem from at least the 12thC, as the work of Giraldus Cambrensis (‘An Itinerary through Wales’) from that century makes no mention of Winifred’s Well and its supposedly famous shrine. The 12thC was an important period for clerical writers who were busily remodelling the more ancient and often syncretic traditions of the past in order to suit the anti-heretical world of new Christian piety, modelled around the example of the Cistercians. The recent Christianisation of Scandinavia (whose settlers had peopled Ireland and Britain) demanded such a modern narrative in order to disguise more overt pagan themes underpinning Christian piety from the eyes of the aware.

Winifred’s tale begins, suitably, with a tale of death and rebirth: An only daughter, she decides from an early age to dedicate her life to Christ, and convinces her father to allow her holy maternal uncle, Beuno, to build a church upon his land. One day while preparing for mass, a huntsman (Caradoc, son of a local prince) emerges from the woods and attempts to rape her or convince her to marry him, but being devoted to Christ she escapes and spurns him. In a fit of rage Caradoc pursues her to the threshold of Beuno’s oratory or church and decapitates her. The head rolls down a hill, and where it comes to rest a miraculous spring bubbles up from the ground. Luckily for her, Beuno arrives, kills Caradoc (his body melts into the ground) and contrives to magically join the maiden’s head back to her body, restoring her to life in god’s name. Beuno then his benediction, proclaiming that pilgrims who honoured the well would be healed of their ailments. Winifred takes holy orders, and Beuno says he must go, but instructs her to annually place a cape of her own fashioning upon a rock in the middle of the river issuing from the spring, and it would be conveyed, dry, with the rock to where Beuno would be staying (either Wales or Ireland depending on the tradition). The spring well supposed to have been created by Winifred’s decapitation is known as St Winifred’s Well at Holywell, and was an important location for pilgrimage in the later middle ages, during which time (up until the Reformation) such sites were of great economic importance to the church.

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

The Christian legend about Winifred and Beuno seems wholly designed to replace a pagan narrative associated with a holy well: a typical site of Celtic worship. As such the details of the story, fantastical and grotesque as they seem, offer us a fascinating chance to understand what it was the Christians were trying to replace.

The Head: The apparent decapitation of Winifred is used here to explain the creation of the spring. That Beuno undoes the discombobulation is a narrative theme of negation typical of early Christian hagiographies – it is an act contrary to an underlying pagan narrative. This would imply that a head or something representing a head was once associated with the well, and would be removed occasionally. Similarly, the spring obviously predated Winifred’s supposed floruit, yet the narrative wishes it to start with her, rather than linking it to a pagan past.

The head was a potent symbol in the Iron Age Celtic world, depicted time and again in Celtic art and in accounts of Celtic warriors treasuring the heads of their enemies. Numerous examples of male and female carved stone heads from the Celtic era have been found throughout Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and sometimes in association with spring wells in an archaeological context.

Decapitated heads played an important part in the mythology of the Mabinogion (the head of Bendigeidfran, for instance). In the ‘Arthurian’ poem of Gawain and the Green Knight, the decapitated head of the tale’s eponymous adversary (Bertilak) – like that of Bran the Blessed – has an active life after its separation from the Knight’s body, indicating a supernatural provenance. This potent and pertinent theme of ancient Atlantic spirituality also occurs in the Ulster Cycle Irish tale Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast) in which three contesting heroes have to submit to a trial by beheading with the disguised Manannan hypostasis – Cu Roi. The idea of a beheaded female, however, is largely absent from the mythological corpus.

Mobile Stones: The idea of a moveable holy stone associated with a river and the sea in this cultural region is hinted at in a number of medieval legendary and apocryphal tales. One of these can be found in the Irish version of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ of the monk Nennius, which discusses certain wonders to be found in the Isle of Man during the early medieval period:

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

The second is a ford which is far from the sea, and which fills when the tide flows, and decreases when the tide ebbs.

The third is a stone which moves at night in Glenn Cindenn, and though it should be cast into the sea, or into a cataract, it would be found on the margin of the same valley…”

The name ‘Cindenn’ contains an element which appears to represent the Gaelic word for ‘head’, which is ‘Cin’ or in modern Manx ‘Kione’ and in Irish, ‘Ceann’. The implication might be that in the Isle of Man during the period of the text’s writing, a stone (head?) was taken from a location near to a water source in a glen (valley) and placed in the sea before being returned to its location. The name Cindenn has not survived in the modern Isle of Man, so the location is unknown. However, most tantalising and curious reference is from an ancient Manx ballad, ‘Berrey Dhone’, which makes allusions to a magical female character who steals cattle and hides out on the high mountains within rocks referred to as ‘doors’. The ballad refers to her having ‘stone of/for her head’ (the Manx phrase in the song is ‘As y lhiack er e kione’). ‘Berrey’ is pronounced ‘Beara’, leaving no doubt that the ballad is referring to the ancient ‘Cailleach’ herself.

Holy Cloaks: The curious reference in the Winifred tale to an annual gift of a cloak (at midsummer) is another tantalising glimpse of a lost pagan tradition. The ‘cloak’ or ‘veil’ is, of course, an attribute of the eponymous Cailleach, whose name (we might speculate) might mean ‘covered stone’.

Death and Rebirth at the Holy Well: Winifred’s story starts with her martyrdom – something of a change to the usual story of Christian saints. However, she is promptly brought back to life by a male saint, an aspect of the story seeming to deliberately emphasise the power of the masculine over the feminine.  Rivers had female personifications in the Celtic world, with many legends associating them with magical females who stand guard over their sources – typically spring wells, which were deemed holy. It was believed that the life-giving waters of these springs flowed both to and (mystically) back from the Otherworld. I discuss this in some detail here.

Interestingly, the ‘decollation’ of St Winifride was celebrated on the summer  solstice – 22nd of June, which was her original festival day before it was moved to the 3rd November (Samhain) later in the middle ages, a date more suited to ‘witches’. Proof enough that ‘Winifred’ was a reaction to goddess worship…

Gifts to the Otherworld: The idea of a former pagan belief in an Otherworld river arising from Winifred’s Well is made explicit in the part of the narrative which has Beuno advising the saint to annually express her gratitude to him by casting a gift into the stream arising from the spring, safe in the knowledge that it will mystically travel to him in Ireland. One wonders if Beuno himself as well as Winifred was a Christian hypostasis of a pagan theme, rather than solely a male Christian character imposed upon a pagan female narrative. It was once a practice (according to an 18thC account by Thomas Pennant) to dedicate calves and lambs born bearing a special mark on their ear (a slit or nick called ‘Nôd Beuno’) to the saint at his church and supposed tomb at Clynnog in north Wales.

The Irish connection:

Being in the same region as the diocese of St Asaph, Winifred’s legend and the themes of her hagiographic narrative must in some way be culturally linked to that of the water-loving St Kentigern, also called ‘Mungo’. The Glaswegian saint’s legend mentions him sojourning in North Wales with Asaph during his spiritual questing in ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ (‘The Old North’ Celtic polity of sub-Roman Britain during the early Anglo-Saxon pagan era): Northwest Britain, Southwest Scotland and North Wales were once part of a purer Celtish cultural polity connected to Ireland after the collapse of continental Roman administration.

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

The prefix of the name Winifred (‘Wini-‘) calls to mind the Celtic words for river: Abhain (Irish), Awin (manx) and Afon (Welsh) – all generally pronounced in a similar manner, and the ‘saint’ herself is strongly connected with the source of rivers. It has been suggested that the Irish goddess name Áine (pronounced ‘Awynya’ or ‘Awnya’) might also be connected to the word for ‘river’, as it also signifies a circle or cycle, as does the Latin word Annus, from which the goddess of the seasons, Anna Perenna was named.

Indeed, the Manx use of the name ‘Jinny the Winny’ and ‘Jinny the Witch’ (Jinny is pronounced either ‘djinny’ or ‘yinny’) for the supernatural female associated with Samhain (in Manx called ‘Hop-tu-Naa’ or Sowin) persists to this day, providing linguistic evidence of a connection between Winifred and the pagan goddess of the Gaels.

Another interesting link comes from the term ‘Awen’, familiar to students of neo-druidry and those with an interest in Welsh celtic reconstructionism. This is usually described as meaning ‘poetic inspiration’ and is indeed related to the previously mentioned Celtic word for river: it implies a flow of inspiration. If Cormac’s 10thC ‘Glossary’ is to be trusted, the triform Brigit was the pagan goddess of poetry among the Irish and she and Áine appear to be different aspects of a triple goddess of the annual cycle, represented by the Maiden (Brigit, goddess of spring), the Mother (Aine, goddess of summer) and the Crone (the Cailleach who represents winter). The multi-dimensional mystery of this triple formed goddess and her triple-formed consort must have been a core spiritual tenet of the druidic religion, now lost, but seemingly within grasping distance for us once again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gods and Robbers: Sawney Bean

‘Gods and Robbers’ – an introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘SAWNEY BEAN’:

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

'Sawney Bean' and his clan sit down to supper

‘Sawney Bean’ and his clan sit down to supper

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

“… SAWNEY BEAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was pagan mythology behind the ‘Sawney Bean’ myth?

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

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

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

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

Sawney or Samhain?

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

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

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

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

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

The woman who sat by the sea…

Buried deep within the mythical consciousness of Atlantic Europe is a very particular piece of imagery of a female sat waiting at the water’s edge. In its most common guise, it corresponds to the many stories of Mermaids and Merrows, often apparently found sitting on rocks at the seashore looking for human lovers. For inland-focussed cultures, these became characters such as the Melusine, the slavic Rusalkas, and the medieval ‘Arthurian’ Lake-Ladies and Fountain Maids. Even Frau Holle/Frau Gode has this attribute in some German tales, and consequently also the related Gaelic Cailleach, the Hispanic Moura, the Breton Gro’ach, and the WelshGwrach. She is depicted in stories either as the passive focus of an otherworldly encounter by a questing human protagonist, or as – in the case of the needy mermaid – a seeker of solace in the human world who waits for her catch. Either way, she is often depicted as a shape-shifting divinity who seeks a human lover, and has the power to bestow wealth and privilege, although often with an obligation and a moral sting in the tale.

Of all the places in Europe, the Isle of Man perhaps is perhaps the place where we find the greatest evidence linking mermaid-myths with the celtic goddess of the waters:

Themes of seduction and the sea are an ancient part of pagan metaphor

Isle of Man mermaid mythology:

The Isle of Man probably had a greater number of mermaid stories and traditions in its past that many places its size and larger. Particular traditions also occur in the other parish districts, with the following being recounted to George Waldron in the early 18thC (A Description of the Isle of Man, 1731) :

“… A very beautiful mermaid, say they, became so much enamour’d of a young man who used to tend his sheep on these rocks, that she would frequently come and sit down by him, bring him pieces of coral, fine pearls, and what were yet greater curiosities, and of infinitely more value, had they fallen into the hands of a person who knew their worth, shells of various forms and figures, and so glorious in their colour and shine that they even dazzled the eye that looked upon them. Her presents were accompanied with smiles, Battings on the cheek, and all the harks of a most sincere and tender passion; but one day throwing her arms more than ordinarily eager about him, he began to be frighted that she had a design to draw him into the sea, and struggled till he disengaged himself, and then ran a good many paces from her; which behaviour she resented so highly, it seems, that she took up a stone, and after throwing it at him, glided into her more proper element, and was never seen on land again. But the poor youth, tho’ but slightly hit with the stone, felt from that moment so excessive a pain in his bowels, that the cry was never out of his mouth for seven days, at the end of which he died …” (‘An account of the Isle of Man’, 1735)

In this, the amorous sea-maiden bestows gifts upon her human lover until spurned, then throws a stone at him causing him to become chronically ill (seemingly a version of the belief that fairies inflict disease with missiles or darts). Such motifs are found in mermaid myths everywhere, and the same themes occur around the Morrigan in Irish legends.

A late 19thC Manchester-based German ethnographer, Karl Roeder, was fascinated with the Isle of Man and produced a series of folklore-related articles in Manx newspapers which were eventually published in a book, ‘Manx Notes and Queries’. He collected a great deal of folkloric material in the island including a number of mermaid traditions among which was this one from the southernmost tip of the Island, where a sound separates the main island from its ‘Calf’:

“….Between Bow Veg and Glen Wither, on the coast north the Sound, is a place called Lhiondaig Pohllinag, or the Mermaid’s Green, or Garden, and the tradition is that the mermaids haunted it and sported about, basking themselves there… “

It is obvious from his description that mermaids were not just considered singular apparitions in the Isle of Man, but members of a tribe. The unusual Manx word ‘Pohllinag‘ means something like ‘sinker’ or possibly ‘pool-dweller’ (I believe it must be a fishermen’s term) and occurs in Archibald Cregeen’s ‘A Dictionary of the Manks Language’ (Pub. Quiggin, Douglas 1835) where he says it is more properly applied to a merman, albeit also in use for mermaids. John Kelly’s earlier Manx dictionary (late 18thC, but unpublished until after Cregeen’s) also gives the even more intriguing term ‘Muiraghan’ for mermaid, which readers might recognise to be a version of the Irish Morrigan – that otherworldly femme fatale encountered by Irish legendary heroes at river crossings! Cregeen and Kelly also both give the altogether more common Manx term used for the mermaid: Ben varrey (Ir. Bean Mara – ‘sea woman’).

The fairy washerwoman:

Another aspect to the celtic mermaid mythology that links with that of the Morrigan/Badb is that of the fairy washer-woman. This archetypal water-spirit is to be found in legend near to streams and rivers, performing her ablutions – sometimes viewed as a vision of death to come, particularly if washing a shroud or armour. The Isle of Man (perhaps unsurprisingly) had its fair stock of these as well, although by the 19th century it appears that mythology had separated mermaids and the ‘Ben Niee‘ (Ir. bean nighe) into two different classes. The fairy washerwoman in the Manx peoples’ imagination haunted the banks of inland streams, was often dressed in red, carried a candle and – like every good Caillagh – wielded a sladdan, which in this case was turned to the duty of beating the washing. W.W. Gill (Third Manx Scrapbook, Pub. Arrowsmith, London 1963) says that a vision of this spirit did not necessarily foretoken death – his early 20thC respondent believed it could signify a change in the weather…

“… The fairy-washerwoman of Maughold haunted a crossing-place on the Struan-ny-Niee named Boayl-ny-Niee, ” Place of the Washing,” …. A local man, R. L., calls this spectral laundress a Liannanshee, and says she held a lighted candle in one hand while she beat the clothes, or whatever it was she had, with her sladhan held in the other. A still older native of the district, K–, whose father actually saw her, and was not frightened at all, says she was “a lil red woman, and used to have a candle stuck in the bank beside her” (which was more sensible and convenient than holding it). In both versions she came out of the river, and to see her was a sure sign of dirty weather at hand, but of nothing worse. (I enquired carefully about that.) The Washer may not have been thought to be always the same personage, or a party of fairies may sometimes have been seen, for I have heard the Boayl-ny-Niee casually alluded to as “the place where the fairies washed their clothes”. But I could meet with no more than the two accounts just given.In other places in the Island it was always in parties that they did their washing. There was a flat stone, not now discoverable with certainty, in the Rhenab river a little way below where the lodge now stands, and at this the fairies were both heard and seen at night and early in the morning, washing clothes.At the side of the Gretch river in Lonan, in a spot called “the Fairy Ground”, the fairies used to be seen washing their babies. These solicitous mothers, like the Maughold laundresses, always wore red costumes.Three other fairy washing-places, which have been mentioned in print but are not included in any volume of folk-lore, may be added here. At a river-crossing in Glen Rushen the fairies soaked, beat, and shook out their garments, and hung them on the gorse-bushes to dry. One article, a beautifully-made cap which was too small for the smallest child in the glen, was brought home by a man who saw it being put on a bush ; but his mother made him take it back, “for fear the fairies would be afther it, an’ there wouldn’ be res’ in the house on the night ” (Lioar Manninagh, iv. p.161). Again, at an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard “beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream”. In another glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry (Chambers’ Journal, 1855). Similar sights may have given its name to “Glen Nee-a-nee” in Kirk Bride, thus spelt in Quarrie’s verses. The name probably contains the same word as Boayl-ny-Niee, where the sound would be better represented by ” N’yee.”From washerwomen, either human or spectral, comes the name of the river and of the places on its banks : the Stream of the Washing and the Place of the Washing, and Chibber-ny-Niee, the Well of the Washing, at its source. Near this is a small bridge under which, traditionally, women performed ritual ablutions in order to qualify as witches. The river-name may have travelled up its course from the Place …”

The water horse and the goddess:

The other dangerous or ominous spirit associated with rivers and streams in the Isle of Man (and indeed, throughout Europe) is the water horse or Cabbyl Ushtey, also known as the Glashan or Glashtyn (‘grey-green one’). This creature was supposed to be able to steal you away down into the depths of the waters to drown, probably after taking you on a wild night-time ride about the countryside. Known elsewhere as the Nikker, Kelpie, Nixie and Bäckahästen this pan-European myth is of ancient origin, and is a remnant of the Atlantic religion’s mythological narrative of death and the transit of the soul to the Otherworld. The water horse and the various waterside humanoid spirits are often interchangeable in folklore and mythology – possibly on account of this Atlantic belief – and this is no better illustrated and preserved than in another Manx legend, that of ‘Tehi-Tegi‘, here recounted by George Waldron in his 1731 book ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’, p.75:

‘He told me that a famous enchantress sojourning in this Island, but in what year he was ignorant, had, by her diabolical arts, made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men, that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her. The passion they had for her so took up all their hearts that they entirely neglected their usual occupations; they neither Flowed nor sowed; neither built houses nor repaired them; their gardens were all overgrown with weeds, and their once fertile fields were covered with stones; their cattle died for want of pasture, their turf lay in the Bowels of the earth undug for; and every thing had the appearance of an utter desolation: even propagation ceased, for no man could have the least inclination for any woman but this universal charmer, who smiled on them, permitted them to follow and admire her, and gave every one leave to hope himself would be at last the happy he.When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.To prevent any such like accident for the future, these wise people have ordained their women to go on foot, and follow wheresoever their lords the men shall lead; and this custom is so religiously observed, as indeed all their traditions are, that if by chance a woman is before, whoever sees her, cries out immediately, Tehi-Tegi! Tehi-Tegi ! which, it seems, was the name of that enchantress which occasioned this law among them.’

The legend recurs in a number of recorded tellings, although Waldron’s description of Tehi-Tegi transforming into a ‘bat’ is a misinterpretation – she turns into a wren, hence the wren-hunting traditions of the Christianised celtic world. The narrative is one of a demonised goddess, who once caused men to err, and for which they paid with their souls. The magnificent horse ridden by Tehi-Tegi is evidently the same as the Cabbyl Ushtey, the Kelpie and his continental cousins. Hannah Anne Bullock (History of the Isle of Man, Pub. Longman, London 1819) gives the more usual story (from Ch.19):

But one of the most curious ceremonies, and which, I believe, is peculiar to the Isle of Man, is, that of hunting the wren, founded on a tradition, that in former times, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she at various times seduced numbers to follow her footsteps, till, by degrees, she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended the island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knight-errant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this syren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard, by taking the form of a wren; but though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned on every succeeding New Year’s Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by a human hand. In consequence of this well authenticated legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the island (except those who have thrown off the trammels of superstition), devote the hours between sun-rise and sun-set, to the hope of extirpating the fairy, and woe be to the individual birds of this species, who shew themselves on this fatal day to the active enemies of the race: they are pure sued, pelted, fired at, and destroyed, without mercy, and their feathers preserved with religious care, it being an article of belief, that every one of the relics gathered in this laudable pursuit, is an effectual preservative from shipwreck for one year; and that fisherman would be considered as extremely foolhardy, who should enter upon his occupation without such a safeguard.

Waldron’s translator for his version of the tale (Manx was the predominant spoken language in the 1720’s) evidently conflated the ‘titmouse’ and the ‘flittermouse’ – the former being an English synonym for the wren, goldcrest or firecrest, and the latter being the bat. Either which way, the tale is an important concretion of lost myth which sheds more light on mysterious ancient Celtic symbolism, as well as offering some insight into the symbolism on the mysterious Pictish pteroglyphs of the early middle ages. The transformative aspects of horse > sea creature is evocative of the passages in the Irish ‘Voyage of Bran‘ when Manannan leads the protagonist across the ocean to the otherworld and the horses seem to become fish.

The old woman who sat by the sea:

The Tehi-Tegi legend and the tradition of wren-hunting – like the Manx mermaid traditions – tended to locate around the fishing communities of the southern and western parts of the Isle of Man. Further investigation of the folklore of this region of the island uncovers a number of other variants on the mytheme. In particular, another name emerges for the aquatic female – ‘Yoan Mooir’ or ‘Joan Mere’, whose eponymous ‘house’ and mysterious ‘well’ could once be found near the cave-riddled sea cliffs between Port St Mary and the islet at the southern tip of Mann, known as the ‘Calf’. Manxmen used to use to personify the sea as ‘Joan Gorrym’ (‘Blue-Green Joan’) and ‘Joan Mooir’ is evidently the same personage. Her ‘house’ was actually a natural freshwater spring at the place known as the ‘Chasms’ close to the sea-shore, which flooded with saltwater at high tide. It may now be lost under rock slides, but such sea-side natural springs (as well as natural springs discharging directly into main waterways) may well have once been holy sites to pagans. A local example which has survived time somewhat better is Chibber Catreeney (‘St Catherine’s Well’) on the seafront in the town of Port Erin a couple of miles away from Joan Mere’s well. ‘Catherine’ is interchangeable with ‘Caithlin‘ – a name I have previously mentioned in relation to the names of the goddess from Ireland, and who appears as an aquatic female temptress-adversary (‘Cathaleen’) in the legend of St Caomhin (Kevin) at Glendalough. She also appears as the ‘Cathach’ beast defeated by St Senan of Iniscathy/Scattery in another christianising hagiographic myth, and elsewhere the town of Enniskillen is named after her sacred island on the river there.

In the Isle of Man, the well on the beach in Port Erin was associated with a fair at which a curious ritual used to be carried out, somewhat redolent of the Tehi-Tegi wren myth and customs: A hen was killed, and given a solemn burial complete with funeral dirges, its tail feathers being saved for luck. ‘He’s plucked the hen’s tail’ would be said of a drunkard, in honour of the festive nature of the former St Catherine’s day celebrations. Perhaps the term ‘cocktail’ even has some relation to this? The ‘Cath-‘ suffix in this divine name associated with the aquatic female is redolent of the Greek word ‘Kathe’ meaning ‘seat’, from which the words ‘cat’ (a sitting beast) and ‘cathedral’ (a bishop’s seat) derive, and which is also seen in the Irish word for a ‘fort’: cathair conventionally linked to the word for battle: ‘cath’ (eg – ‘Cath Maigh Tueredh’, the ‘Battle of Moytura’). Explorers of the ancient pagan sites of Ireland and Britain will be familiar with the profusion of sites referred to as ‘chairs’ or ‘seats’ in relation to saints and other mythical personages – this here is a clue! In particular, it appears that the gaelic goddesses sat next to water…

On the western Manx coast is the Baaie Mooar (Great Bay) with its Niarbyl rocks and the former fishing-settlement of Dalby. Apart from once being a good local source of mermaid traditions,this former fishing community also laid claim to a local tradition of a mysterious Old Woman, described by Caesar Cashin in an article for Mannin magazine (Volume 5, 1915), where he explores the Dalby coastal scenery and recounts its legends:

“…But the morning is growing on, so let us continue our walk along the cliffs to the south. First we come to a little cave called Ooig ny Meill, which has three entrances facing south, west, and east. Leading to the west entrance is a little patch of white sand, the only white sand on this coast, and once when a boy I saw on it tiny footprints, no bigger than my thumb, the marks of little clogs they were, going into the cave and round the rock in the middle of it. The rock is about two feet high and it was said that the Shenn Ven Ooig ny Meill—the Old Woman of Meill Cave, often sat on it with her face to the west. I think that she must have died, or shifted to some other cave, as she has not been seen for years…”

The image of an old woman sitting on a rock in a cave looking towards the sunset in the west is potent with the resonance of the Atlantic religious myth of the earth goddess estranged from her sun-god lover!

Cashin also mentions another cave – one of the more famous fairy caves on the Island – the ‘Ooig ny Seyir‘ (‘Cave of the Crafter’) in which the fairies were latterly believed to be heard making barrels for their salt-herring. Followers of my writing might recognise the possible connection here with Bridget – ‘goddess of smithcraft’ and the Romano-Celtic goddess name ‘Sirona‘. In fact, there are other legends which link the Island to Ireland’s tradition of a legendary magical smith, and otherworldly women who haunt the sea-shore and who provides weapons for mythological heroes:

Tiobal, Princess of the Ocean – daughter of Gullinus/Lir:

In her delightful book ‘Manx Fairy Tales’ (Pub. Nutt, London, 1911), Sophia Morrison recounts a more lyrical version of an ancient Irish tradition, first translated and published by Nicholas O’Kearney in the 1852-3 Proceedings of the Kilkenny and Southeast of Ireland Archaeological Society (Vol.2 , p.34), derived from an interlineal gloss in a 12thC Irish manuscript tale known as An T’ochtar Gaedhal (‘The Eight Irishmen’).

“… Gullinus quidem Пοσειδων fuit, nam Lir Ibernicum aut Phoenicum nomen Neptuni, et idem quod mare; ideo Guillinus fuit alterum nomen pro Lir, deo maris ut Tobal maris dea fuit. Nam illa Concubaro Mac Nessa, postea regi Ulthoniae, apparuit sub specie mulieris pulcherissimae, cum in Manniam jussu oraculu cui nomen Cloch-όir – i.e. saxum solis – quod isto tempore celebrerissimum fuit his partibus, adebat ad Gullinum quendam uti daret buadha druidica clypeo et armis ejus. Gullinus imaginem Tiobal in clypeum finxit, et buadha multa invincibilaque habebat, secundum aucthores vetheres Ibernicos .. ”

“… Gullinus was indeed Poseidon, for Lir is the Irish or Phoenician name of Neptune, and the same as the sea; so Gullinus was the other name for Lir, the god of the sea, just as Tiobal was the goddess of the sea. For she appeared to Conchobar Mac Nessa, afterwards King of Ulster, in the form of a very beautiful woman, when by the decree of the oracle, whose name was clochuir, i.e., the stone of the sun, which at the time was very celebrated in these parts, he was going to Man, to a certain Gullinus, in order that he might give him druidical buadha for his shield and arms. Gullinus fashioned the image of Tiobal on his shield, and it had many buadha, according to the old Irish authors …”

The Latin author is obviously keen to address some actual Irish/Manx pagan traditions using his classical learning, and explicitly states that ‘Gullinus’ (i.e. – Cuillin, Gullion, Whallin etc) resided in the Isle of Man and was one and the same as the sea-god, Lir. Manx tradition, of course identifies this character with Manannan, ‘Son of Lir’, who functions in Irish myths as a donator of magical weapons and as lord of the Otherworld. The legend resonates with the imagery of Greek goddess Athena’s shield – the aegis – depicting the head of the monstrous island-goddess and daughter of the ancient Greek sea-god Phorcys: namely, the gorgon Medusa.

Strangely, Irish mythology contains other allusions to mysterious females found wondering the liminal Manx shorelines by adventurers. Tiobal (Tiobhal/’Teeval’) appears (all be it under a different name) in a version of this myth recounted in the 9thC Irish text, Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) This is the story of Prull (an old Irish word meaning’greatly/excessively’) – in which it is not Conchobar who quests to the Isle of Man in search of mysterious buadha from its shoreline denizens, but a party of the legendary Chief Ollamh of Ireland, Senchán Torpeist (who is possibly a legendary model for the Christian mythological ‘hero’ St Senan). In the tale, the Ollamh leaves Ireland with his retinue of 50 bards to visit the Isle of Man, and on his arrival it appears that he meets no less than the Shenn Ven Ooig ny Meill, or at least someone entirely like her…

(Translation and glosses by Whitley Stokes/John O’Donovan)

“… They afterwards reach Mann and leave their fleet on land. As they were on the strand, they saw the old woman (sentuinne) grey-haired, feeble, on the rock. Sentuinne i.e. an old woman [i. Cailleach], ut poeta dixit:

An old woman and old priest,

A grave-broom is their withered beard,

Provided they do not serve God’s Son,

And do not give their first fruits.

Thus was the old woman [Cailleach] on the strand, cutting sea-weed and other sea-produce. Signs of rank (were) her feet and hands, but there was not goodly raiment on her. She had the ghastliness [?] of famine. A pity was this, for she was the poetess, daughter of Ua Dulsaine of Muscraige Liac Thuill in the country of the Hi-Fhidgenti, who had gone on a circuit of Ireland and Scotland until all her people had died. Then the ceard (smith/craftsman!), her brother, son of Ua Dulsaine, was seeking her throughout Ireland, but found her not. …”

The narrative unfolds as one of the ‘loathly lady’ – a crone who is secretly a radiantly beautiful and divine personage. The implication is that the woman is one of the ancient survivors of the first race – a theme which weaves through Irish legends (Book of Invasions, Children of Lir etc). She challenges the poets to a lyrical contest by challenging them to complete verses, but none can best her save for an ugly youth who Senchan had only allowed along as an afterthought. The Cailleach recognises his abilities and Senchan returns to Ireland where the youth then assumes his own true radiant form – as another member of the lost race of Ua Dulsaine – another transformation from ugliness into beauty. ‘Ua Dulsaine’ (Dulsaine = Satire) seems also to be a play on the word ‘Dulse’ – and edible seaweed that has been a traditional staple of Irish seaside communities for millennia, so ‘Ua Dulsaine’ appears to be another reference to the solar sea-god: Lir, Manannan or Cuillin. The ‘sentuinne’ is therefore Tiobal in disguise – the bardic poetics are sheer genius! Senchan was supposed to have lived in the time of King Guaire Aidhne who in the Sanas Cormaic tale, sent him on the quest to find the children of ‘inspiration’ – children who were, in fact, Ireland’s old gods.

Caillagh y Groamagh:

The legend of the ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ is another Manx Cailleach tradition which ties the old-woman to the shoreline. Usually translated as ”Old Woman of the Gloom’, the linguistically astute might recognise that the Manx word ‘groamagh’ (pronounced with a m>w lenition as ‘gro-ach’) is the same as the name of legendary seaside female spirit in the Breton legends, the Gro’ach. This is also a metathesis of the Welsh word for ‘hag’, which is gwrach (as in ‘Gwrach y Rhybin’). Gloomy and old she might be, but in the Manx legend she was important enough to have a day named after her – ‘Caillagh y Groamgh’s Day’ which strangely enough coincides with St Bridget’s day, Imbolc, the 1st or 12th of February (depending on how you determine it).

“… Caillagh-ny-groamagh, the gloomy or sulky witch, was said to have been an Irish witch who had been thrown into the sea by the people in Ireland with the intention of drowning her. However, being a witch, she declined to be drowned, and floated easily until she came to the Isle of Man, where she landed on the morning of February 12th. It was a fine, bright day, and she set to work to gather “brasnags”—sticks to light a fire, by which she was able to dry herself. The spring that year was a wet one. It is said that every 12th February morning she still goes out to gather brasnags to make a fire by which to dry herself; that if it be fine up to noon, and she succeeds in doing so, then a wet spring will follow. But, if the morning be wet and she cannot get dry, then the spring will be a dry one …” (Yn Lioar Manninagh, Volume 1 p.223, Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1889)

Not only was she associated with collecting sticks on the beach early in February (a pastime which might also be observed among the early-nesting ravens during this period!) but she had a piece of headland named after her in Maughold: Gob ny Callee. Maughold was the legendary Manx saint who, curiously, also arrived in the Isle of Man after being cast adrift from Ireland. He was reputed to have found the key to his fetters inside a fish – a pescatological phenomenon also displayed by Pictish/Dalriada saint Kentigern (Mungo) whose mother was reputed in his hagiography (by Jocelyn of Furness, some-time Manx Abbot of Rushen Abbey) to have been cast adrift and discovered by monks on the beach as she grubbed around looking for sticks to light a fire next to which she could give birth to the saint. The story of how Mungo’s mother (note: Mungo = a codifed version of Manannan) came to be in the water was that she fell (was pushed) from a cliff – which happens by coincidence to be another property displayed by the Manx Caillagh y Groamagh. W.W. Gill explained this in relation to the folklore about a land-feature in Ballagilbert Glen in the south of the Isle of Man (‘A Manx Scrapbook’, Pub. Arrowsmith, London, 1929 ):

“… This wide, green, shallow valley, always pleasant in summer with flowing waters and unpleasant with standing waters in winter, secluded and now nearly depopulated, has retained a few place-names and scraps of lore attaching to them which deserve to be rescued. In the lane leading to Ballagilbert farmhouse on the East side of the Glen lurked a moddey dhoo (Ed: ‘black dog’ spirit), headless like that at Hango (Ed: near Castletown). Near the top of the valley is a small depression called Caillagh ny Groamagh, (“Old Woman of the Gloominess”,) into which cavity she fell – or which she scooped out by falling – when trying to step from the top of Barrule to the top of Cronk yn Irree Lhaa. The impression of her heels and her thoin are said to be distinctly visible in the soil. A similar anecdote is told of the more serious fall, resulting in a broken neck and burial, of a Caillagh or Hag who came from the North to perform a series of jumps from height to height among the Lough Crew hills in Meath. Apart from this mishap to the Manx Caillagh, she is well known for her influence over the weather, as related in Folk-lore of I.O.M. and elsewhere; in Scotland she is the actual personification of bad weather. As accounts of the Caillagh my Groamagh vary somewhat, I will include here what I have learned of her in Patrick, which at least contains one detail I believe to be fresh and is certainly striking. First, however, it should be said that her alternative name, ” Fai’ag,” is merely a pronunciation of Faihtag-the exact spelling is optional, as with so many Manx words-meaning prediction or prophecy. Another Hag or Witch, the Caillagh ny Gueshag, is, in so far as these shadowy abstractions can be classified, much the same personage. Taken as one, they seem to combine the characteristics of the Scottish Caillagh ny Bheur (sic), familiar to students of Highland, and especially Argyllshire, folk-lore, and the Irish Cailleach Bera or Bheartha, who, it may be surmised, are sisters of the Teutonic goddess-giantess Berchta or Bertha and entered Britain with the Norse via Scotland. As inghin Ghuillinn, daughter of Cuillin, she was related to the Celtic equivalent of Volundr or Weyland the Smith, who is also known in Man, and she had a house of stone on Slieve Gullion in Co. Armagh and other places …”

Identity of Gullin/Cuillin with Manannan:

In relation to the connection between Manannan and Cuillean, there is another Manx tradition, handed down verbally until it was written in the 16thC states that the people of the island annually paid tribute to the god with bundles of rushes, a practice which is still echoed in the rush-strewing upon the processional way at the annual Tynwald ceremony still held by local officials at the manmade ceremonial hill at St John’s in the shadow of Cuillin’s mountain: Slieu Whallian (the local version of ‘Slieve Gullion’). Here is part of Joseph Train’s rough literal translation of the old manuscript which was written in Manx:

If you would listen to my story,

I will pronounce my chant

As best I can;

I will, with my mouth,

Give you notice of the enchanted Island.

Who he was that had it first,

And then what happened to him;

And how St. Patrick brought in Christianity,

And how it came to Stanley.

Little Mannanan was son of Leirr,

He was the first that ever had it;

But as I can best conceive,

He himself was a heathen.

It was not with his sword he kept it,

Neither with arrows or bow,

But when he would see ships saving,

He would cover it round with a fog.

He would set a man, standing on a hill,

Appear as if he were a hundred ;

And thus did wild Mannanan protect That Island with all its booty.

The rent each landholder paid to him was,

A bunch of coarse meadow grass yearly,

And that, as their yearly tax,

They paid to him each midsummer eve.

Some would carry the grass up

To the great mountain up at Barrool;

Others would leave the grass below,

With Mannanan’s self, above Keamool.

The ‘Manx Traditionary Ballad’ serves as a reminder to the Isle of Man’s persistent attachment to paganism which caused it to protect and preserve so many of the ideas lost to history elsewhere. Train translates rushes (the ancient Gaelic symbol of hospitality) as ‘coarse meadow grass’. Tynwald Day is in fact old midsummer day – reckoned on the Julian calendar, and now falling 13 days after the date of current midsummer day. ‘Keamool’ means ‘stepped hill’, and is a reference to the Tynwald mound:

The Tynwald Hill in St John's, Isle of Man. Slieu Whallian is the mountain in the background - it is the terminal peak on the ridge descending from South Barrule, which is cited in Manx legend as home of the god Manannan.

 

Connections with ancient Greek mythology:

The earliest European literary citations of aquatic feminine divinities come from the legendary corpus of ancient Greek literature. These were basically inscribed versions of a vast plastic oral tradition, often with many regional variations. In Hesiod’s Theogony (ca. 700BC) he talks of Keto – daughter of the personified earth, Gaia, and her son Pontus – the sea. Keto (whose name is usually translated as ‘sea beast’) was the mother of the famous monsters who peopled the far shores of Okeanos in Greek myth – Scylla, the Graeae, Ladon (the dragon from the tree in the garden of the Hesperides) and the Gorgons among them. This makes her the primal oceanic mother of the older Greek gods. She may somehow be related to the sea monster (and constellation) known as Cetus, whom the legendary hero Perseus defeated in order to save princess Andromeda. This makes the ‘old woman of the sea’ a fundamental pagan religious archetype, linked to the chthonic and creative aspects of the serpentine and monstrous beasts of the underworld and the vast ocean.

The Sirenes or Seirenes (described in Homer’s 7thC BCE epic, the Oddyssey) were another category of challenging oceanic island-dwelling females, who perhaps give us the oldest literary mythological attestation of what we would recognise as ‘mermaids’. Rather than being half-fish, however, they (like the Gaelic goddess in her land-based form) partook of the nature of birds. Their beautiful song supposedly drew men to them, and lulled them into a trance, and and they would die of hunger among their flowery meadows . In the legend of Odysseus, they throw themselves off cliffs into the sea and die when Odysseus and his crew pass by their island, apparently unaffected by their magical song. Their name offers a tantalising linguistic link to the shoreline smith-legends of the medieval Gaelic world, as the Gaelic word tSaoire means ‘smith’, a word perhaps related to the sparks which are such a feature of metal-working: ‘Sirom’ was a Gaulish word for ‘star’ (compare Latin sidus). The Sirenoi – as inhabitors of far-off ocean shores – may well owe their literary existence to some well-travelled Greeks, to whom the Atlantic archipelago was as close as they feared get to the edge of the world and the islands of the Gorgons, the Graeae and the Hesperides, where (so the legend goes) ‘here be dragons’…

 

Frau Holle

In the mythology of the people of Hesse in Germany, perhaps the most well-known character is that of ‘Frau Holle’. Exposed to the world at large in the writings of  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century, she has remained an important and intriguing cornerstone of German folk mythology, and is generally considered to represent a demoted form of the great European goddess of old. That she appears to share such similarities to ‘An Cailleach’ of Gaelic folklore is all the more interesting given the supposed divide between the ideas of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ mythology.

‘Frau Holle’ was in fact only one of her many names – the version common in Hesse and Thuringia, from where many of her traditions are recorded. Throughout the northern German and Scandinavian regions she went by a number of other epithets, including ‘Holda’ and ‘Frau Gode’. In the southern regions of Germany she was often known as ‘Perchta’, ‘Berchta’ or ‘Bertha’. As befits the protean Great Goddess of old Europe, the names exhibit a degree of plasticity, having been preserved in oral traditions beyond the era when ‘she’ was officially accepted as a deity. However, in the face of modernisation and the rejection of old customs during the 19thC, we owe her existence in thought and memory today largely to Willhelm Grimm and his tale ‘Frau Holle – Gold Mary and Pitch Mary’, first recounted to him by a Hessian woman called Dortchen Wild on 29th September 1811. The following is the revised 1857 version of this tale:

A widow had two daughters, the one was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy. She greatly favored the ugly, lazy girl, because she was her own daughter. And the other one had to do all the work, and be the Cinderella of the house.

Every day the poor girl had to sit by a well, next to the highway, and spin so much that her fingers bled. Now it happened that one day the reel was completely bloody, so she dipped it in the well, to wash it off, but it dropped out of her hand and fell in. She cried, ran to her stepmother, and told her of the mishap. She scolded her so sharply, and was so merciless that she said, “Since you have let the reel fall in, you must fetch it out again.”

Then the girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do. Terrified, she jumped into the well to get the reel. She lost her senses. And when she awoke and came to herself again, she was in a beautiful meadow where the sun was shining, and there were many thousands of flowers. She walked across this meadow and came to an oven full of bread. The bread called out, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.” So she stepped up to it, and with a baker’s peel took everything out, one loaf after the other.

After that she walked further and came to a tree laden with apples. “Shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe.” cried the tree. So she shook the tree until the apples fell as though it were raining apples. When none were left in the tree, she gathered them into a pile, and then continued on her way.

Finally she came to a small house. An old woman was peering out from inside. She had very large teeth, which frightened the girl, and she wanted to run away. But the old woman called out to her, “Don’t be afraid, dear child. Stay here with me, and if you do my housework in an orderly fashion, it will go well with you. Only you must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world. I am Frau Holle.”

Because the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took heart, agreed, and started in her service. The girl took care of everything to Frau Holle’s satisfaction and always shook her featherbed vigorously until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. Therefore she had a good life with her: no angry words, and boiled or roast meat every day.

Now after she had been with Frau Holle for a time, she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but at last she determined that it was homesickness. Even though she was many thousands of times better off here than at home, still she had a yearning to return. Finally she said to the old woman, “I have such a longing for home, and even though I am very well off here, I cannot stay longer. I must go up again to my own people.”

Frau Holle said, “I am pleased that you long for your home again, and because you have served me so faithfully, I will take you back myself.” With that she took her by the hand and led her to a large gate.

The gate was opened, and while the girl was standing under it, an immense rain of gold fell, and all the gold stuck to her, so that she was completely covered with it. “This is yours because you have been so industrious,” said Frau Holle, and at the same time she gave her back the reel which had fallen into the well.

With that the gate was closed and the girl found herself above on earth, not far from her mother’s house. And as she entered the yard the rooster, sitting on the well, cried:

Cock-a-doodle-doo,
Our golden girl is here anew.

Then she went inside to her mother, and as she arrived all covered with gold, she was well received, both by her mother and her sister. The girl told all that had happened to her, and when the mother heard how she had come to the great wealth, she wanted to achieve the same fortune for the other, the ugly and lazy daughter. She made her go and sit by the well and spin. And to make her reel bloody, the lazy girl pricked her fingers and shoved her hand into a thorn bush. Then she threw the reel into the well, and jumped in herself.

Like the other girl, she too came to the beautiful meadow and walked along the same path. When she came to the oven, the bread cried again, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or else I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.”

But the lazy girl answered, “As if I would want to get all dirty,” and walked away.

Soon she came to the apple tree. It cried out, “Oh, shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe.”

But she answered, “Oh yes, one could fall on my head,” and with that she walked on.

When she came to Frau Holle’s house, she was not afraid, because she had already heard about her large teeth, and she immediately began to work for her. On the first day she forced herself, was industrious, and obeyed Frau Holle, when she said something to her, because she was thinking about all the gold that she would give her. But on the second day she already began to be lazy, on the third day even more so, and then she didn’t even want to get up in the morning. She did not make the bed for Frau Holle, the way she was supposed to, and she did not shake it until the feathers flew. Frau Holle soon became tired of this and dismissed her of her duties. This was just what the lazy girl wanted, for she thought that she would now get the rain of gold.

Frau Holle led her too to the gate. She stood beneath it, but instead of gold, a large kettle full of pitch spilled over her. “That is the reward for your services,” said Frau Holle, and closed the gate.

Then the lazy girl went home, entirely covered with pitch. As soon as the rooster on the well saw her, he cried out:

Cock-a-doodle-doo,
Our dirty girl is here anew.

And the pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.

The tale exhibits certain key traits that equate Frau Holle with the old European goddess: Firstly, Frau Holle’s world is reached through water into which a bloody spinning reel is dropped. She lives in a beautiful meadow or garden, where her work appears to be baking bread and growing apples. These are, as it happens, the ‘bounty’ depicted on Roman era statues of the goddess known as ‘Nehalennia’ from Zeeland in the Low Countries. She has the power to reward respect and hard work with worldly wealth, and to punish idleness in equal measure. Other traditions about her were subsequently collected and written down, inspired by the recently-recovered Icelandic Edda literature which opened peoples’ eyes to the Old Gods of the Scandinavians and Germans. People were eager to trace a link between folktales and childrens’ rhymes with these, and Frau Holle/Holda became a representative case of a recovered goddess, taken to task by the other Grimm, Jacob, in his seminal work Deutsche Mytholgie (1835).

Grimm found Holda/Perchta strongly associated with the female art of spinning, firmly connected with the traditions of Yuletide and 12th night, the rider of a wagon who was engaged to do work for farmers. She was ascribed a golden bucket from which rivers of water fell as she climbed hills. Holda/Perchta was also associated with the care of unbaptized souls (i.e. – children who died before baptism), and was portrayed as a leader of the ‘Wild Hunt’ usually associated with Woden himself. This led Grimm to make the equation of Holle/Perchta with Frigg and Freyja. She certainly fitted the type of the kind of chthonic fertility goddess we see depicted on Roman era shrines to the Matres/Matronae and Nehalennia, however Grimm had little to say about an identity between Nehalennia and Holda, who I suggest are the same. The name ‘Halen’ is derived by removing the celtic definite article Ne- and the terminal -ia. ‘Hollen’ was another of Holda’s names – associating her with the ‘Tree of the Dead’, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra).

Early references:

The earliest reference to Holda by name appears to come from the pen of a 13thC Cistercian monk, known only to us as Rudolph, who noted the following custom:

“In nocte nativitatis Christi ponunt regina celi quam dominam Holdam vulgus appelat, ut eas ipsa adiuvet.”

“On the night of Christ’s nativity, they set the table in honour of the queen of heaven, commonly known as Holda”

This fits with Grimm’s observations about an association with Yuletide. The Cistercians of the 13thC were hell-bent on correcting any slippages back into heathenism, and were perhaps the greatest promoters of the cult of the Virgin Mary, who was their patron saint. The term ‘queen of heaven’ was applied to her in particular. Contemporary Cistercian authors such as Jocelyn of Furness appear to have gone out of their way to re-forge many old pagan narratives into Christian ones, as can be seen in his Life of St Kentigern. They were up against the popular courtly tales of Arthur & Co, which were almost explicit in their dealing with the goddess, as well as opposing religious sects such as the Cathars of the Pays d’Oc and Italy. In spite of adding an overlay of ‘Mariology’ to medieval Europe’s mythology, they failed to expel the memory and stories of ‘Holda’. Of particular interest to this reference by Rudolph is that the Anglo-Saxon author Bede (‘De Temporum Ratione’ – 8thC) recorded that the heathens celebrated an observance called Mōdraniht on Christmas eve: This means ‘Mothers Night’.

 

Nehalennia – the ‘Cailleach’ of Zeeland?

In 1645, storms ravaging Domberg in the Dutch coastal province of Zeeland uncovered the remains of a significant Roman-era temple sacred to the hitherto unknown goddesss Nehalennia, whose name and image was inscribed on multiple dedicatory altar-stelae. The temple is believed to have served traders at a port who would have had commerce with Gaul and Britain, and also contained dedications to Neptune, Mercury, Hercules and Jupiter, although those to the goddess were by far the most numerous. Her image depicts her wearing a tunic, shoulder mantle and cloak. Her feet are booted and she is almost always accompanied by a small, friendly-looking dog. In common with the many German images of the Matres she is usually (but not always) seated and bears a basket, patera or cornucopia loaded with fruit, suggesting she was considered benevolent.

Nehalennia

Nehalennia

 

Although a local goddess, her imagery – like much of that from between the 1st and 4thC CE is obviously culturally Romanised. Her association with fruitfulness and the dog (which appears to be of the Greyhound type) would place her somewhere between the huntress-goddess <Diana-Artemis> and the fertility goddess <Ceres-Demeter>. Her boots and shoulder-mantle render her redolent of the Roman god Mercury, who (as a god of trade, and conductor of souls to the Otherworld) was depicted wearing travelling-wear. Most Roman(ised) goddesses were depicted in sandles. The overall impression is a goddess of fruitfulness, trade and travel – a fact emphasised by a number of images which depict her standing with her foot on the prow of a ship.

Geographic origins of Nehalennia:

One of the question most often asked of her is whether she was of a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Germanic’ origin. This question itself is somewhat complicated by the issue of if there is actually a cultural distinction to made between either, as this was originally a distinction made by Romans on the basis of (i) language and (ii) conquerability! Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Zeeland lies on the Rhine estuary, and that Nehalennia is known to have been depicted as a triple-goddess making her almost indistinguishable from the more common Roman-Era images of the three Matres found in Germany and France. The Matres or Matronae were typically depicted as seated and bearing pateras and cornucopias as well as sheaves of corn etc. A further shrine with altar stones dedicated to the goddess existed near Colijnsplaat in Zeeland, where a large number of altars and statues were dredged out of the Scheldt, the original Roman settlement of Ganuenta having been lost to the sea. A couple of examples of her shrines were also found as far away as Deutz – now part of Cologne, which was a major Roman civitas on the Rhine in Germania Inferior and therefore on the trade route connecting out to Zeeland and the low countries.

Analysis of the theonym:

The name of the goddess has also attracted quite a lot of speculation. As with many names transcribed and transliterated into Roman inscriptions of this era, a degree of caution is required, as the population using the name would have been largely illiterate, so the inscriptional custom of the name may not have been an accurate interpretation. Once inscribed once, it is likely to have been copied and fixed in this form. As occurs in, for example ‘Andraste’, the ‘Ne-‘ of ‘Nehalennia’ sounds like the definite article (‘the’) of the Celtic languages. In Irish and Scots Gaelic, for example, this might be ‘an’ or ‘na’. Manx is ‘yn’ and ‘ny’ respectively. This leaves us with the suffix ‘-halennia’. The terminal ‘-ia’ is typical of a Romanised goddess (‘Dia’), leaving the word ‘-halenn-‘.  My suggestion is that this is an aspirated from of ‘Callen’ – a name familiar to followers of the ubiquitous Cailleach goddess-name of the Irish and British Isles. Modern Irish ‘Caillín’ means ‘girl’ – the word is evocative of that definitive female garment of ancient times: the veil or mantlea notable feature of Nehalennia’s statuary appearance. The Irish town of Enniskillen – another trading centre on a river – is named after a pagan goddess whose name appears the same as that behind the name ‘Nehalennia’! ‘Halenn’ may therefore also be an aspirated version of the name which could also be written as ‘Cathlin’ or ‘Ceithlin’, and the seated-goddess aspect of her would fit with the Indo-European word ‘cath’, from which that sapient sitting beast, the cat, gets its name… I’d quite like to know just how old the name Colijnsplaat is for that matter – comments welcome as to if ‘Colijn’ is a version of the name of our goddess!

Aside from Celtic considerations of the name, it may also contain the name of a very German divinity, namely ‘Frau Holle’, who answers in almost every way to the description of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’. Also known as Holda, Hulda, Huldra as well as Gode, Perchta, etc, she is a common theme in the mythology of Germany and Scandinavia. This name is also linked to that of the Norse otherworld goddess Hel, and it is worth considering that the German word for what is in English called ‘Hell’ is Hölle. The Frau Holle of folktales is generally depicted as a friendly but potentially spiteful aged matron who might be encountered deep in the woods or living on mountains. Like the Cailleach, she is deemed mythically responsible for weather phenomena such as snow, a creatrix of rivers, herder of wildlife (clouds were sometimes referred to as ‘Frau Holle’s lambs’) etc. Like the Cailleach, she possesses a magical veil or coverlet (an analogy of seasonal fertility if you think about). She – like the Cailleach – has also known to have been associated in tales with dogs. It is possible then, that ‘Nehallennia’ might equally be a version of ‘Holle’ – perhaps a ‘Frau Hallen’? As I have said before, the ‘German’ peoples were ‘Celtic’ anyway…

Nehalennia’s Dog:

The dog has an interesting symbolism in relation to both the Otherworld domain and human utility. Dogs are creatures who have followed human settlement for many an age, and have entered into a domestic relationship which is at times uneasy, as they are potentially dangerous. In fact, wolves – long portrayed as an archetype for man’s fearsome bestial adversaries are simply one end of the spectrum of ‘dog’. Wild dogs are features of the liminal boundaries of human habitations and roadways, and for this reason they have a ‘liminal’ aspect ideal for the portrayal of death and the otherworld. Death is feared, yet death is fruitful. A dog can be ‘man’s best friend’ or his incessant enemy. A dog can help the hunter, but the hunter can also be hunted by the wolf. The dog in mythology represents as essence of the dual nature of technologies – to help or to hinder – and was adopted in ancient Greek mythology as a companion of the <Artemis-Selene-Hekate> hypostasis of the mystery cults. The dog was also a symbol and companion of Apollo’s ‘son’ (or aspect), Aesculapias, god of healing. The dog therefore portrayed hunting (or harvest), death and regeneration. Its place at Nehalennia’s feet, along with baskets of apples on the stealae and statues recovered from the Netherlands seems to suggest that she represented cthonic wealth and was therefore also an otherworld goddess.

 

Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

That the sea-voyage to Britain was particularly hazardous on account of weather and its notoriously difficult shorelines no doubt also supports the assertion that Nehalennia was a death-goddess. The pagan mindset with its belief in reincarnation had no problems equating death and fertility, as death was part of nature’s cycle of regeneration. The Greek goddess Demeter (known to the Romans as Ceres), seems to have a similar aspect, from which the tale of Hades’ abduction of her ‘daughter’ aspect Persephone/Kore derives. This tale underpinned most of the mythology of the mystery cults of ancient Europe: Eleusis, Samothrace, Orphism and the Dionysian-Sabazian mysteries. In the myths, Demeter is accompanied to the underworld by Hekate. The three-headed dog Cerberus guards the approach to Hades.

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task - leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c) Theoi.com

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task – leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c) Theoi.com

And finally…

On the subject of the Zeeland shoreline and its importance to trade in ancient (and modern) Europe, it is worth remembering that this is probably the vicinity mentioned by the early Byzantine historian Procopius (6thC CE) where there was a legend of the dead departing by boat for the isle of Brittia.

“They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwales hardly a finger’s breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour’s time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands’ names.”

There can be no doubt that this is a description of a mystical rather than actual voyage to the Atlantic Otherworld, and was based on accounts heard in Constantinople from Low Countries emissaries. I think it just adds a further frisson of interest to the mystery of this otherworld goddess whose shrines dotted the shorelines in ancient times, and were eventually (perhaps fittingly) taken by the sea…

 

The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.

501px-Cybele_Getty_Villa_57_AA_19

The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.