Beltane – Nature and the Secret Blacksmith

The implicit spiritual idea of blacksmiths in the pagan world was an expression of the reforging of nature each year as part of the annual cycle. In the temperate regions of Atlantic Europe this was so explicit that it became a core part of the religion and was celebrated through a cycle of annual festivals personifying this process. It was also an important part of the mythos of southern Europe and was also a key part of the mysteries of Eleusis, Orphism and the Dionysiac rites of ancient Greco-Roman religion. As with the southern forms of paganism, the northern forms portrayed the year as the life-cycle of a woman – the producer/guardian of developing life and human continuity. As each year progressed, so she aged – only to born again after each final ‘death’!

The Gaelic words ‘Caillin’ (Young Woman) and the name ‘Cuillin’ (a legendary ‘blacksmith’) have such an interesting concordance in Gaelic and Norse mythology that it is time for European pagans to start examining this in greater detail…

Who was she? I will leave this answer to a medieval Irish sage named Cormac:

BRIGIT i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit, the female sage, or woman of wisdom. i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician, woman of leechcraft. Brigit the female smith, woman of smithwork, from whose names with all Irishmen, a goddess was called Brigit.

(p.23 of 1868 Whitley Stokes edition of John O’Donovan’s translation) 



Similarities in Greco-Roman and Gaelic myth

Although the mythology of the material and intellectual cultures we know as 'Greco-Roman' is Europe's oldest inscribed tradition, that of Ireland and the 'insular Celts' must come next, albeit the written form of it is from a much later date. In particular, it often excels and exceeds the Greek material by its apparent strangeness and stylised 'otherness', yet as a source of pagan myth it needs – like the Norse sagas and Edda texts – to be treated very carefully as it is told by christians, unlike the Greek and Roman material which comes from pagans.

Nonetheless, the Christians did not have much in the way of myth to call their own, except for the 'Old Testament' materials and the early saints' lives, many of which were based on pagan tales, in their style and often in their narrative content: These were essential to pad out its own religious narratives and replace (or at least displace) the contents of the potent oral-transmission culture with a literature-based alternative.

It is worth noting a number of things about southern-European pagan religious culture, however, before framing a debate of paganism vs christianity in terms of oral transmission culture vs. literary culture: Firstly, it is worth remembering that – since the advent of the Hellenistic era in the 5thC BCE – that literary culture became an important stalwart of Greco-Roman societies, and seems to have become a primary mode by which people came to understand their religion. There were certainly traditional aspects to the culture to a late period, but by the advent of christianity, this was being displaced. The role of the priesthood and attendants in many of the most important temples was generally fulfilled as a fixed term civil office by the worthies of Greek and Roman society, so – unlike the traditional and esoteric forms of learning that Gaul (and Britain's) professional priesthood had to undergo, these offices were losing their mystery. Mystery remained the province of cult-centres such as Eleusis, Delphi and the island of Samothrace, and the discourse-communities of the Philosophers – the Neo-Platonists, Hermeticists and Gnostics who thrived in the late-classical world after the advent of Christianity and who pre-figured its rise. It is telling that classical paganism's most complete and (in scope) extensive theogonic text – the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Persepolis in Egypt – was written by an author whose output later included a commentary on the christian Gospel of John. To understand this is to understand where the impetus for Christianisation was focussed in the less-literate climes of northwest Europe, such as Ireland, in the 5th/6thC CE.

Whereas some of our oldest surviving literature from the pagan world is religious, this aspect of the genre was in mortal decline in parallel to the rise in interest in philosophy and the 'mysteries' from the advent of the Hellenic period. By placing literacy in the hands of a few – a trained elite (after the model perhaps of the barbarian, Egyptian and Eastern peoples) – christianity would place itself at the heart of the new models of kingship appearing in the 'barbarian' world following the collapse of the Roman franchise in the west.

There are many similarities between the written medieval Irish myths and Greek legends. The reasons for this might be fourfold:

1. That the Irish believed in a shared widely-known and ancient cosmic worldview, populated with similar characters and themes to those of ancient Greece and southern Europe, and the Christian authors recorded this from traditional orally-transmitted narratives.

2. That literate monks used Greek and Roman (or Romano-British) myths to flesh out a written Irish narrative which did not otherwise exist – a kind of 'new age' eclecticism.

3. That Irish and Greek myths developed separately, yet shared similarities determined by (a) the culture and traditions/techniques of storytelling and (b) empirical reactions to natural phenomena.

4. A synthesis of points 1-3.

Obviously, the most likely answer is point 4 – we simply do not have enough evidence to support points 1-3 independently, but we have good evidence that all of them have been contributing explanations. I shall now present a number of Irish myths/mythic characters and their apparent Greco-Roman counterparts and let you decide for yourselves:

Cú Chulainn:

The archetypal indefatigable warrior super-hero of the 'Ulster Cycle' stories – Cú Chulainn – seems to have a particular similarity to Herakles or Hercules: He is the son of a god, associated with blacksmith-craftsmen (Cullain). Cullain seems to relate to the Greek 'earth-born' proto-blacksmiths known as the (Idaean) Dactyls, of whom Herakles was sometimes considered one. was a supreme warrior, a lover of goddesses (Fand, wife of Manannán mac Lir) and his nemesis is a goddess (the Morrigan). He is a performer of fantastic tricks and sporting feats, yet forever tied to the whims of his king and his gods. He lives fast and dies young – a true aspect of the Celtic warrior ideal. is also a 'king's champion' warrior archetype – a dog on a leash, as befits his name. He sometimes comes across as bombastic, brash, sometimes clumsy and insensitive – a bit of a lummox at times, and then at others, clever and dextrous, and light on his feet. Like Herakles, he travels to far-off islands and does battle with the weird as well as the mundane, performing 'feats' along the way.

One way in which Cú Chullain differs from Herakles is that Herakles was a folk-hero responsible for taming and conquering the wild and chaotic forces for the good of humanity. In the 'Ulster Cycle', Cú Chullain typically acts on behalf of the interests of his liege lord – like the other famous Greek warrior-strongman Achilles. This perhaps reflects the fact that these Irish legends (like their later French and British 'Arthurian' traditions) were often designed for telling at the courts of elite rulers, and therefore suited the value-system of this milieu. In folk-myths, Fionn and Cú Chullain often take on much more gigantic proportions and attributes.

The Battle of Maige Tuired:

This is the 'showdown' scene of the Irish mythological cycle stories in which the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians are pitted against one another for supremacy of Ireland. The Fomoire are usually described as a race of sea giants in Irish mythology, and the Manx word Foawr (from 'Fomor') means 'Giant'. They seem similar to the aquatic Titans of Greek myth and the Cath Maige Tuired is like an Irish version of the Greek Titanomachy – the battle and overthrow of the Titans by the Olympian Gods, with whom the TDD share a certain similarity. Similar legends exist from Norse myth – the primal giants here are the Frost Giants: Titans at -40 Celsius! Of course, the bizarre cannibalistic and incestuous Greek narratives of the Titans are absent from the CMT and the 'Book of Invasions' stories which present more of a heroic pseudo-historical dynastic struggle. Tolkein borrowed heavily from the imagery of the battles of Maige Tuired in constructing his battle scenes in Lord of the Rings.

Giants and primordial helpers:

The landscape of Atlantic Europe – particularly those regions where Greco-Roman and later christian culture was slow to assert itself – is riddled with ancient mythology of primordial giants who supposedly played some important roles in determining the shape of the landscape – mountains, fjords, rivers, lakes, plains and great rocks. The same was true of the mythology of the Archaic period and Bronze Age of southern Europe – in particular the mythologies of ancient Greece, but we can discount these as playing a late originating role in the folklore of northern and northwestern legends due to the lack of impact of these material and cultural civilisations in these zones.

The Greek giants and Titans were 'Earth-Born' (Gygas – after Ge/Gaia, the personified Earth). The pagan Norse word used for giants in the middle ages was Gygr – existing into the more modern periods in the Scots Gyre and Faroese Gyro. The Manx equivalent of the Scots Brownie, Uirisk and Grogach legend was the Phynnodderee, 'Dooiney Oie' ('Night Man') or Glashtin – a being considered gigantic, primitive, coarse and animalistic in appearance who helped householders and warmed himself by the hearth at night when humans slept. His local legends seem, curiously, to conflate him with both Fionn mac Cumhaill and even Cú Chullain and, when not explicitly named, with the activities ascribed elsewhere in the Atlantic world to other giants – specified or unspecified. This is a representation of the archetypal earth-born ancestor, and is a particularly important and wide-ranging link between northern and southern pagan mythology which appears to have a commonality stretching way back into the Bronze Age. Herakles was also an aspect of this.

The Otherworld:

Both Greek and Irish myths portray the Otherworld as a location reachable by a westward journey over the great ocean. The legendary Greek islands of Elysium, the Hesperides/Erytheia and Ogygia, and the 'Islands of the Blessed' or 'Fortunate Isles' have their Irish equivalents in the many names of Gaelic mythology's magical western islands which were also considered the resort of departed souls: Mag Mell, Tír na nÓg, Tír na mBeo, Tír Tairngire, Tír fo Thuinn, Ildathach , Hy Brasil, Tech Duinn and Emain Ablach. These places are sometimes explicitly islands, sometimes under the sea, sometimes of a hybrid type that emerges (and just as soon disappears) from the sea.

Like in the Greek legends, the otherworld is also represented as a chthonic realm – beneath the earth. Like the Greeks, the Irish seem to have believed that the rivers of the world joined a 'world river', and that it re-manifested from the otherworld by piercing back though the earth as springs of water. Like the Greeks and Latins of southern Europe, and their fellow Bronze Age and Iron Age era 'Celtic' peoples further north and west they considered springs of water to be important and holy – no doubt for this reason. Sidhe mounds or Fairy Hills were the traditional 'home' of Irish (and to a lesser extent, Manx and Scottish fairies). They were sometimes considered to be the sources of rivers returning from the otherworld. Mountains and artificial mounds had similar associations in Ireland. In a flat landscape, a mound is something akin to an island – a consideration when addressing the 'otherworld inversion' belief that permeates Atlantic European folklore.

An interesting aspect of the Greco-Roman myth is how there seems to be a plasticity in portraying the otherworld 'places' (Elysium, for example) as both meadows or gardens and simultaneously as islands bordering Okeanos. This same conflation appears to represented quite strongly in the old Irish story 'The Voyage of Bran mac Febail' where he is conveyed to the otherworld islands over a sea which gradually appears to become a meadow.

Mermaids and Sirens:

The idea of female (and male) entities who lured men to stay with them in the watery or otherworld realms are common to both Greek and Gaelic myths. The 'Sirens' occur in Greek myths such as Homer's Odyssey and the Argonautica ('Jason/Iason and the Argonauts'). They were sometimes depicted as half-bird, half-female inhabiting islands surrounded by huge rocks and high cliffs, luring sailors to their deaths on the treacherous shores with their beautiful songs. Calypso, the daughter of Atlas on Ogygia also fits the enchanting-island maiden archetype, and although was not considered one of the Sirenai, seems part of the same mythos. Even the Gorgons tempted brave Perseus to their realm, and from his 'killing' of Medusa there was a magical birth (of Pegasus and Chrysaor).

In Atlantic Celtic mythology, this function was the province of alluring beautiful mermaids – usually half-human, half-fish in their conception but sometimes 'seal people' (e.g. – Selkies). The Isle of Man's version of the Cailleach – Caillagh y Groamagh was supposed to fly in from the sea in the form of a bird at Imbolc/La'a Bride, and she may be another aspect of the beautiful fairy maiden called 'Tehi-Tegi' who in Manx legends lures men into the sea or a river to drown them, before flying away in the form of a wren (sometimes a bat!). The Gaelic (Irish/Gallovidian) Merrow was sometimes known as Suire which sounds very much like a version of 'Siren' although this may be in reference to known Greek myths, and this type of mermaid was associated with a feather hat or cape. Crofton Croker's 'Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland' is worth reading for a summary on the Merrows.

Harpies and Sidhe Gaoithe:

There was an explicit belief in former times in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man that sudden gusts of wind were caused by the actions of spirits and fairies. Indeed, this was a feature of the demonology of medieval Christian Europe, and may well link back to the ancient Greek beliefs that the Harpies were responsible for the same. They were depicted (again) as half-woman, half bird or as winged female entities and were personifications of storm-winds. The Cailleach Bheara of the Scottish Highlands and Islands had a similar association, and was sometimes considered a female-avian who flapped her wings to make the winter storms. In the Isle of Man, the (not uncommon) tornados were sometimes supposed to be caused by a fairy known as Yn Gilley Vooar ny Gheay – 'Big Boy O' the Wind'.

River Nymphs and Sea Nymphs:

Perhaps subjoined to the mermaid legends, it is notable that the Greeks and the Irish personified their rivers with female spirits or entities. Evidence of this comes from the Dindseanchas legends and those of the so-called 'landscape-sovereignty' goddesses, otherwise referred to as Bean Sidhe, no doubt because river-drainage areas in mountainous landscapes tend to map and define territories. Greco-Roman mythology venerated such female water deities, and this tendency was also found in the European celtic world in the late Iron Age (although much of our evidence here comes after the period of Romanisation). Again, the 'Cailleach' personification from folklore seems to combine many of these functions (Harpies, Sirens, Nymphs etc) into the form of this single protean Titaness. Likewise, the Moura Encantada of the Iberian peninsula and the Marie Morgane of Brittany as well as the 'Lady of the Fountain' (or lake) of Arthurian lays and romances.


It is apparent that ancient European paganism was a universal system of philosophy and 'science' illustrated through traditions of the arts: story, poetry, song, pictures, dances and drama. Every possible phenomenon seems to have been addressed by assigning mythology to it, and the boundary between the spiritual and the secular did not really exist – instead there was a continuum. The southern European civilisations emerging from the Bronze Age with a more oriental perspective, eventually coming to consider themselves 'better' and more 'enlightened' than their 'barbarian' cousins (and ancestors) in northeastern and northwest Europe, and due to warfare and incursions of these 'barbarians' between the 5thc BCE and the 1stC CE (and beyond), and due also to the dependence on written knowledge, a perception derived that their religious and spiritual beliefs were 'different', when in fact they had a shared root.


Careless lake ladies and mermaids – flood myths in Celtic folklore

“…There is a lake in Ulster of vast size, being thirty miles long and fifteen broad, from which a very beautiful river, called the Banna, flows into the Northern ocean. The fisher-men in this lake make more frequent complaints of the quantity of fish inclosed in their nets and breaking them than of the want of fish. In our time a fish was caught here which had not come up from the sea, but was taken descending the lake, and was in shape very like a salmon, but it was so large that it could neither be dragged out or conveyed whole, and therefore was carried through the province cut in pieces. It is reported that this lake had its origin in an extraordinary calamity. The land now covered by the lake was inhabited from the most ancient times by a tribe sunk in vice, and more especially incorrigibly addicted to the sin of carnal intercourse with beasts more than any other people of Ireland. Now there was a common proverb in the mouths of the tribe, that whenever the well-spring of that country was left uncovered (for out of reverence shown to it, from a barbarous superstition, the spring was kept covered and sealed), it would immediately overflow and inundate the whole province, drowning and destroying all the population. It happened, however, on some occasion that a young woman, who had come to the spring to draw water, after filling her pitcher, but before she had closed the well, ran in great haste to her little boy, whom she heard crying at a spot not far from the spring, where she had left him.

But the voice of the people is the voice of God ; and on her way back, she met such a flood of water from the spring that it swept off her and the boy, and the inundation was so violent that they both, and the whole tribe, with their cattle, were drowned in an hour in this partial and local deluge. The waters, having covered the whole surface of that fertile district, were converted into a permanent lake, as if the Author of nature judged the land which had been witness to such unnatural bestialities against the order of nature to be unfit for the habitation of men, either then or thereafter.

A not improbable confirmation of this occurrence is found in the fact, that the fishermen in that lake see distinctly under the water, in calm weather, ecclesiastical towers, which, according to the custom of the country, are slender and lofty, and moreover round ; and they frequently point them out to strangers travelling through those parts, who wonder what could have caused such a catastrophe.


It must, however, be observed that the river before mentioned (the Bann), which now flows out of the lake in full stream, had its source in the aforesaid spring from the time of Bartholanus, who lived soon after the flood, when it was fed also by other rivulets, and took its course through the same district, but with a far less volume of water, and it was one of the nine principal rivers of Ireland…” (Topographia Hiberniae by Gerald of Wales (12thC) – trans. Thomas Forester; From: ‘The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis’ – Pub. George Bell & Sons, London 1905)

Gerald’s tale comes from his famous account of Ireland, produced in support of the Anglo-Norman invasion of the island, and designed to support the imposition of continental christianity on this ‘barbarous’ and ‘uncivilised’ people. His sources were the monastic annals and texts of the great abbeys of Ireland. The contemporary secular literary milieu was one enchanted with the ‘Lady of the Lake’ and ‘Morgane le Fee’ and any one of a number of similar fairy themes which defined the ‘Arthurian’ Romance litereature of the 12th and 13th centuries. The following sums up one of his likely sources – from the legends of St Comgall about his apparent conversion and sanctification of a mermaid called Liban, afterwards St. Muirgen!:

“… According to a wild legend in Lebor na h-Uidri, this Liban was the daughter of Eochaidh, from whom Loch Eathach, or Lough Neagh, was named, and who was drowned in its eruption [A. D. 90], together with all his children, except his daughter Liban, and his sons Conaing and Curnan. Liban, was preserved from the waters of Lough n-Eachach for a full year, in her grianan, [palace] under the lake. After this, at her own desire, she was changed into a salmon, and continued to traverse the seas till the time of St. Comhgall of Bangor. It happened that St. Comhgall dispatched Beoan, son of Innli, of Teach-Dabeoc, to Rome, on a message to Pope Gregory [Pope, A. D. 599-604], to receive order and rule. When the crew of Beoan’s currach were at sea, they heard the celebration of angels beneath the boat. Liban, thereupon, addressed them, and stated that she had been 300 years under the sea, adding that she would proceed westward and meet Beoan, that day twelvemonths, at Inbher-Ollarbha [Larne], whither the saints of Dalaradia, with Comhgall, were to resort. Beoan, on his return, related what had occurred, and, at the stated time, the nets were set, and Liban was caught in the net of Fergus of Miliuc; upon which she was brought to land, and crowds came to witness the sight, among whom was the Chief of Ui Conaing. The right to her being disputed by Comhgall, in whose territory,-and Fergus, in whose net,-and Beoan, in promise to whom,-she was taken, they prayed for a heavenly decision; and the next day two wild oxen came down from Carn-Airend; and on their being yoked to the chariot, on which she was placed, they bore her to Teach-Dabeoc, where she was baptized by Comhgall, with the name Muirgen i.e. Born of the sea, or Muirgeilt i.e. traverser of the sea. Another name for her was Fuinchi…” (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, vol.1 – John O’Donovan, ed. and trans.,(Dublin, 1856), p.201.)

This version of the Lough Neagh tale is slightly different as it tells that the father (Eochaid – possibly a reference to the literary figure known as ‘An Dagda’) and tribe of the magical woman are drowned, but that she remained in the form of a salmon in the sea until the coming of St. Comhgall some 300 years later. . There is good evidence from the variety of traditions encountered in Ireland that much hagiography was a deliberate revision of core pagan myths and doctrines. As with many conversion-era themes from Ireland, Liban (like Eithne/Aine in Altram Tigh da Medar) becomes a Christian and is not demonised and defeated, in distinction to the Breton legend of Gradlon and his daughter Ahes (the ‘Groac’h’ or ‘Mari Morgane’). Interestingly, Liban appears as the whip-frenzied companion/double of Manannan’s wife Fand in the ‘Wasting Sickness of Cuchullain’ from the Ulster Cycle. The same legends interested noted Celticist Professor John Rhys at the turn of the 20thC, who recorded some interesting parallel tales which showed the lake-lady/mermaid legend was not just local to Lough Neagh, or for that matter, Ireland or Brittany:

“…David Jones, of Trefriw, in the Conway Valley, was a publisher and poet who wrote between 1750 and 1780. This is his story: ‘In 1735 I had a conversation with a man concerning Tegid Lake. He had heard from old people that near the middle of it there was a well opposite Llangower, and the well was called Tfynnon Gywer, ” Gower’s Well,” and at that time the town was round about the well. It was obligatory to place a lid on the well every night. (It seems that in those days somebody was aware that unless this was done it would prove the destruction of the town.) But one night it was forgotten, and by the morning, behold the town had subsided and the lake became three miles long and one mile wide. They say, moreover, that on clear days some people see the chimneys of the houses.’…”

“…Before I have done with the Irish instances I must append one in the form it was told me in the summer of 1894: I was in Meath and went to see the remarkable chambered cairns on the hill known as Sliabh na Caillighe, ‘the Hag’s Mountain,’ near Oldcastle and Lough Crew. I had as my guide a young shepherd whom I picked up on the way. He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns. As to the cairn on the hill point known as Belrath, that is called the Chair Cairn from a big stone placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round. But usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed. The hag appears to have been Cailleach Bhéara, or Caillech Bérre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare,’ that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork. Now the view from the Hag’s Mountain is very extensive, and I asked the shepherd to point out some places in the distance. Among other things we could see Lough Ramor, which he called the Virginia Water, and more to the west he identified Lough Sheelin, about which he had the following legend to tell:–A long, long time ago there was no lake there, but only a well with a flagstone kept over it, and everybody would put the flag back after taking water out of the well. But one day a woman who fetched water from it forgot to replace the stone, and the water burst forth in pursuit of the luckless woman, who fled as hard as she could before the angry flood. She continued until she had run about seven miles-the estimated length of the lake at the present day. Now at this point a man, who was busily mowing hay in the field through which she was running, saw what was happening and mowed the woman down with his scythe, whereupon the water advanced no further…” (John Rhys – Celtic Folklore – Welsh and Manx Volume 2; Ch.6; Pub. Oxford University Press 1901)

As well as Wales and Ireland, this story involving the Cailleach was widespread in the west of Scotland too, as the following account from the late 18thC shows:

“…On a high part of that ridge of hills which seperates Stralachlan from Glendarnel, there is a very large stone, remarkable for its situation. There is a descent from it on every fide. The prospect from it is very extensive. It is called Cailleach-Vear or Vera. In the dark ages of superstition, it was personified, and said to have a considerable property in cattle. Cailleach Vear makes a conspicuous figure in the marvellous tales of the country people, over great part of the West Highlands. Her residence was said to be on the highest mountains; that she could step with ease, and in a moment, from one district to another; when offended, that she caused a flood to come from the mountains, which destroyed the corns, and laid the low grounds under water; that one of these floods was the origin of Lochow, in Lorn, of Locheck, in this parish, and of many other lakes; that the people paid her a superstitious veneration, and were under dreadful apprehensions of her anger…” (The Statistical Account of Scotland: Drawn Up from the Communications of the Ministers of the Different Parishes; Ed. John Sinclair; Pub. W. Creech, 1792; pp. 559-560)

The same story is borrowed and elaborated on by a later author in the following account of Loch Awe from the 19thC following on from the surge in interest in Highland legends generated by Walter Scott:

“…The Highlanders of Argyleshire possess a curious tradition regarding the origin of Lochawe, which has furnished a topic in one of the wild songs of Ossian. The circumstance is connected with the existence and death of a supernatural being, called by the country people Calliach Bhere, ” the old woman.” She is represented as having been a kind of female genie whose residence was on the highest mountains. It is said that she could step with ease and in a moment from one district to another; when offended, that she could cause the floods to descend from the mountains, and lay the whole of the low ground perpetually under water. Her race is described as having lived for an immemorial period near the summit of the vast mountain of Cruachan, and to have possessed a multitude of herds in the vale at its foot. Calliach Bhere was the last of her line, and, like that of her ancestors, her existence was blended with a fatal fountain which lay in the side of her native mountain, and had been committed to the charge of her family since its first existence. It was their duty at evening to cover the well with a large flat stone, and at morning to remove it again. This ceremony was to be performed before the setting and rising of the sun, that his last beam might not die upon the waters, and that his first ray should illuminate their bosom. If this care was neglected a fearful and untold doom was denounced to be the punishment of the omission. When the father of Calliach Bhere died, he committed the office to his daughter, and declared to her, in a solemn charge, the duty and the fatality of the sacred spring. For many years the Military woman attended it without intermission;

But on one unlucky evening, spent with the fatigues of the chase and the ascent of the mountain, she sat down to rest beside the fountain, and wait for the setting of the sun, and falling asleep did not awake until next morning. When she arose she looked abroad from the hill; the vale had vanished beneath her, and a wide and immeasurable sheet of water was all which met her sight. The neglected well had overflowed while she slept; the glen was changed into a lake; the hills into islets; and her people and her cattle had perished in the deluge. The Calliach took but one look over the ruin which she had caused: the spell which bound her existence was loosened with the waters, and she sunk and expired beside the spring. From that day the waters remained upon the vale, and formed the lake which was afterwards called Loch Awe…” (The Gazetteer of Scotland, Volume 1 By Robert Chambers, William Chambers ; Pub: Andrew Jack, Edinburgh, 1844; p.63)

The legend tells that the Cailleach disappeared into the spring – a figurative form of death shared with the Dindshenchas legends of Sinand and Boann as well as many of the others. The theme of the Cailleach and the flood was discovered in the Isle of Mull:

“…In the olden times, on the Headland of Mull, there lived a woman whom the people called Cailleach Bheur. She didn’t hail from the people of this world, since we are told that Cailleach Bheur was a yound girl when Adam and Eve were still enjoying the pleasures of the Garden of Eden. She tells us, in her own words, ‘When the ocean was a forest with its firewood, I was then a young lass.’ Let that be, as it may, and far be from us to doubt it, but it seems that Cailleach Bheurr evaded death in a way that no one was ever able to do, before or since…” (School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh Royal Celtic Society, MSS:AM/35.8 Mull)

“…Now there was only one place where Cailleach Bheurr watered her cattle-herd when she was away from Mull itself. This was a well halfway along the road she took to the headland of Kintyre. I don’t remember what its name was but, indeed, there was such a well there. And there was a great stone lid on the well and as soon as she arrived there in the morning, she would lift off the great stone so that the herd could get a drink at a time when they were thirsty. But if she didn’t place the great stone lid back on the well before the sun went down, the water would flow out of it and flood the whole world. It would pour out of this well and cover the whole world with a flood…” (School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh Royal Celtic Society, MSS:SA 1953/49/B5)

These accounts also add a tradition that the Cailleach would evade death by bathing in a magic Loch every 100 years. Of particular interest is that the quote ‘When the ocean was a forest with its firewood, I was then a young lass’ is mirrored in a folktale quoted in the following 18thC Irish account, discussing regional geology and geography around Lough Foyle:

“….There is a Rock on the side of the Mountain called the Poor Woman (in Irish, Calliagh Veerboght) who tells us when she was a Maid the Place where she stands was once Corn ground and Lough Foyl so narrow that a Lamb could skip from Magilligan Point to Green Castle which is now two Sea Miles distant and the Fairy that lived on the Tuns Banks (AR: Tonn Banks – The fairy referred to is revealed in other stories to be no less than Manannan!) that lye at the Mouth of Logh foyle (mostly formed I believe by what was worn away of this Shore) having a Carpet stole from him by one of this Parish, cursed it and threaten’d that every Year the Breadth of the Carpet should be swept away from the Land till all should be swept away. We may at least gather from such as these that in antient times this Place was losing and not gaining…” (“Miscellaneous letters on several subjects in philosophy and astronomy” – By Robert Innes to the Bishop of Cashel – William Nicolson; Pub.S. Birt, London 1732;p.5 – Letter 1)

The legends of the Cailleach and her relationship to water and herds of cows or deer seem to have been very consistent between Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Even in the 12thC Breton Lai de Graelent where she appears as a fountain-fairy in the woods, there are similar associations – the knight (like Fionn in the Irish ‘Pursuit of Slieve Gullion’) chases the white deer and finds her waiting at a spring in the woods. The lore is perhaps best summed up in this  excerpted 19thC translation of the Scottish highland ballad – Cailleach Bein y Vreich:

“Weird, weird, wife! with the long grey locks, she follows her fleet-foot stags, Noisily moving through splintered rocks, And crashing the grisly crags.

Tall wife! with the long grey hose, in haste the rough stony beach she walks; But dulse or seaweed she will not taste, nor yet the green kail stalks.

“And I will not let my herds of deer, my bonny red deer go down; I will not let them down to the shore, to feed on the sea-shells brown.

O better they live in the corrie’s recess, Or on mountain top to dwell, And feed by my side on the green green cress, That grows by the lofty well.”

“Broad Bein-y-Vreich is grisly and drear, but wherever my feet have been, the well-springs start for my darling deer, And the grass grows tender and green.

“And there high up on the calm nights clear, Beside the lofty spring, They come to my call, and I milk them there, And a weird wild song I sing.”

(Excerpt from translation of the old highland song Cailleach Bein a Vreich by John Campbell Shairp, from ‘Kilmahoe: a Highland pastoral with other poems’; Pub. Macmillan & Co, London 1864; pp.138-139)

The middle irish tale Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedón (Yellow Book of Lecan – late 14thC) recounts the legend of the boyhood of Niall (of the Nine Hostages) – son of Eochaid Mugmedon by Cairenn. It explains the origin of Ui Neill kingship. The theme is of how Niall came to be bestowed with the sovereignty of Ireland by a fairy queen at a well.  The five sons of Eochaid are sent to fosterage and then (at their appointed time) join their Fianna to gain life experience in adventure. While hunting in the woods, they realise they must find water and each in turn goes to a well to draw water, where they encounter a loathsome hag who guards it. Her condition for allowing them to draw water is that they bestow a ‘kiss’ upon her (i.e. – that they have sex with her). The first four sons (whose mother is Mongfind) refuse her, but Niall – last to go – accepts eagerly, else they all die of thirst. The hag immediately transforms into the most gorgeous young woman and announces that she is the Sovereignty of Ireland, which she bestows upon him in an act of Heiros Gamos. He returns to his father who recognizes him as the new High King.

Those familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will know that his ‘Tale of the Wife of Bath’ is a facsimile of this same tale, which also occurs in various other forms in the ‘Romance’ fairy tales of the ‘Arthurian’ corpus between the 12th and 15th centuries.

When we consider the ‘Moura’ fairytales from the Iberian Peninsula, the fairytales of Brittany and France, and those of the rest of northern Europe (which I have not discussed), these all point towards an important, pervasive and powerful pagan mythology which was possibly common to all of these regions and was tied to water and the great ocean.


All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.




The Ancestral Mother

Tales of the Cailleach from throughout the Gaelic territories generally portray her as a very ancient female to whom is attributed the creation of features in the landscape, the husbandry of flocks and consequently the creation of tribes. Hills and mountains were considered parts of her body, rivers were a part of her essence. Still more mysterious was the manner in which her existence as the land itself became transmuted into the seasonal renewal cycles of the land in each solar year. She combines the consistent foundation-idea of ancient creation with that of annual renewal: as the New Year, the Blossoming Year, the Fruitful Year and the Dying Year. She was the soil that gave birth to generations of semi-divine/wild, semi-human characters in the oral culture's 'time before memory' and from which all ideas of survival-skill and nature-interaction derived down into those generations 'within memory'.

As a 'mother' goddess of nourishment and renewal she was associated with springs and rivers, and therefore the great ocean which received them. Many folk-tales exist about lakes being formed when she forgot to cap off a spring back in the mists of time when she was young. All of the world's rivers were believed by the ancients to flow into a 'world river', called Okeanos by the Greeks. At the limits of this great ocean-river was the spiritual Otherworld – ruled by Manannan in Gaelic myth. To the Greeks and Romans this was sometimes styled Elysium. It was bordered by a great river whose waters conferred forgetfulness to souls who would be reincarnated. The mysterious transition to the spiritual realm at the edge of this great ocean is a transition of water into the 'matter' state of spirit or aether, which ancients believed was the substance of the heavens and the otherworld. The ocean-river can be seen flowing in the heavens in the form of the Milky Way, on whose 'shores' the Cailleach (Orion) and her Bull (Taurus) are seen standing in the winter skies of the north. To complete its great cycle, this ocean-river was re-manifested from the cthonic recesses of the earth as fresh springs – just as spirits re-manifested from the sid mounds in old Gaelic belief. In ancient Atlantic religion throughout these parts of Europe, rivers had godesses – but as the rivers were all part of the same 'world river' these were identical, and the names effectively epithets of the 'one': Boand, Sinand, Seine, Avon, Aine… All one.

Each solar year is a triplicity of the 'three phases' of her earthly generative seasons, followed by a spiritual journey to see her consort in the Otherworld. At Imbolc she is the child (Bride), at Beltain the beautiful Maiden of golden flowers who leads the bull (Bui and Graine are some Haelic epithets), and Lunasa the productive but destructive mother – hunched (crom) like the reapers in the fields. From Samhain she goes to the sea to conduct her flock of 'children' to the next cycle of their existence in the otherworld, where the sun sets in the west. In this guise she is the 'hidden smith' reforging the world under the Earth ready for the epiphany of the new year when she comes again as Bride.

Her greatest mystery? She is a complementary reflection of Manannan in the Otherworld.


Gaelic Polytheism? (Opening a can of worms)

It has become conventional to believe that the Gaels practised a polytheistic form of religion which was partly subsumed or wholly supplanted by Christianity at the coming of St Patrick. However, there are a number of problems with such an interpretation that I would like to address.

Firstly, the contemporary sources we have about actual pagan practises in Ireland are almost non-existent, and most of what we know was written long after the establishment of the new religion. The massive efforts to convert the 4thC Roman Empire from fragmenting polytheism to ‘one-over-all’, top-down theocratic rule started with Emperor Constantine I and his immediate successors. This relied upon propaganda and arguments produced by Christian scholars and apologists operating within the polytheist Mediterranean regions of the empire over the preceding 200 years, and which functioned as a model, a ‘manual’ and a ‘road map’ for propagating Roman christianity across the reaches of its contracting Empire and – in the case of Ireland, way beyond. The spread of Christianity was achieved not by proselytizing rhetoric, but by the conversion and alliance of the church with tribal leaders and their elite inner circles. Once this was complete, the worldview of these rulers’ subjects needed to be changed by coercion, propaganda and cultural revisionism. Bearing in mind that we know that early Irish Christian missionaries travelled to the continent and to Rome to receive their instruction, we must consider how the euhemerist ‘continental’ model for replacing polytheism (operating in earnest from the time of the Emperor Theodosius onwards) influenced their reinvention of the pagan past in order to swing people to christianity. The implication that the Tuatha Dé Danann (as opposed to the síd) were believed in as gods should therefore be viewed with suspicion: The ‘Tuatha’ begin to appear in middle-medieval literature presented variously as former gods, ancestors and historic personages (albeit with a very otherworldly countenance) – much in the same way that continental Christians portrayed pagan gods as deified historic humans in order to demote them. They may well have been created as part of a ‘continental schema’ for imposing Christianity.

Secondly, the conversion of Ireland apparently occurred with surprising ease in a country that had showed little signs of being culturally Romanised. This begs the interpretation that the new religion was therefore possibly not such a titanic shift in worldview as it appeared to have been on the continent. In fact it could even have been considered a ‘paradigm-shift’ or evolution of a system to which it had certain similarities, rather than a wholesale replacement of a complicated pantheon. It certainly ‘hit the floor running’, allowing the Irish to lead with confidence in the christianisation and re-christianisation of the rest of northern Europe. If there had been a hugely ‘other’ and complex polytheistic religion in operation this might not have been so easy, especially as Ireland (so far as we know) didn’t have a religious system that – like that at the heart of the Roman empire – underwent an ‘intellectual gravitational collapse’ after absorbing too many external beliefs. Irish legends in the medieval corpus of texts frequently allude to the pagan Irish prefiguring the coming of christianity, a feature I am not aware of from other cultures.

Thirdly, there is little evidence from folk-tales and traditions supporting the theory of the Tuatha Dé Danann being the former gods. The interpretation of a passage in the presumed 5th-6thC ‘Hymn of Fiacc’ (considered to be an early primary source) may account for this:

On the land of Erin there was darkness;
The Tuatha (Peoples) adored the síd;
They believed not
In the true Deity of the true Trinity.

What exactly the síd are or were is complicated and has no satisfactory resolution from the study of  medieval literature alone. The name was later used for burial and ceremonial mounds, fairy mansions and for the fairies themselves. The TDD were ascribed síd-mounds as homes in the later written myths.

Story traditions from Ireland, Scotland and Mann, often focus on An Cailleach, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Manannan and various other giants and spirits who take on some spectacular and god-like properties in mythological accounts. These are joined by legends of their Christian successors – the saints with their often fantastical and god-like properties. Although there is ample archaeological evidence of supra-regional worldview homogeneity since the Neolithic era, the placenames with pagan origin do not back up the theory that the Tuatha Dé Danann were the gods of the Gael. Where we do have surviving traditions of gods, the most notable is Manannán mac Lir who even today is known to Manx people as ‘their’ god. Medieval literary references to the mysterious gods or idols Crom Cruach or Cenn Croithi (both sounding like epithets rather than proper names) and later folkloric ones to Crom Dubh seem to have little relevance to the literary Tuatha Dé Danann traditions, which monks and/or Christian filidh seemed to use in their suspiciously euhemerist historical revision of paganism. These names (Crom Cruach etc) are linked to assemblies at land-loci: particular plains/fields, or hilltop locations.

SO… if there is a chance that the Gaels were not polytheists, then what were they? The resolution of this question necessarily takes us back to understanding what paganism in general was, and the following is my own personal definition:

Paganism is an allegorical system of spiritual and material philosophy informing the art of survival in a given environment, expressed and transmitted through the mnemonic and dialectic mediums of story, song, aphorism, art and dramatic performance.

If Caesar’s Gallic and British Druids were matched by the magi of the Irish, then  philosophy might be the core value at the heart of the religion, an opinion expressed by the writer on philosophers Diogenes Laertius closer to the time of Ireland’s Christian epiphany. Philosophy was to the ancient world what ‘science’ is to the modern: a technical system that described the universe in both material and allegorical/spiritual terms. Philosophy sought to delineate the indescribable, and the arts provided a non-didactic ‘fuzzy’ medium with which higher truths could be defined without the inevitable destruction that occurs with explicitness. The written word tends to ‘fix’ concepts that are otherwise plastic and ever-changing, thus limiting its conceptual usefulness in establishing doctrines. The Mediterranean approach was to assign a god or spirit to these phenomena and to make statuary images of them which expressed this nature. They also tended to write about them. Both processes produced fixed images of ‘gods’ and created the polytheistic pantheon we know so well. However, the pre-Roman Atlantic Europeans apparently shunned this approach. Their devotion was to images and wordly things (‘idola* et inmunda’) according to Patrick himself (Confessio). (*The definition of ‘idola’ being debateable, as it is a latin usage of a greek word ‘eidola’ meaning ‘image’ orapparition‘ and not necessarily meaning ‘idol’ as in ‘statue or graven image’.)

We have to somehow reconcile the folkloric remainders of what appears to be original practical aspects of Gaelic or Atlantic paganism (with its strong traditions about fairies and their leaders, second sight and the ‘evil eye’) with the literary accounts of the middle ages and evidence from archaeology, place names etc. Analysis of the propaganda techniques used to replace the traditions of the old system has revealed a veritable smorgasbord of euhemerisation, demotion, transformation, canonisation/sanctification and demonization permeating the Christian-era literature and folklore of Europe, making a recovery of the reality of the old pagan system through literature and folklore a difficult but always rewarding task.

Returning to my second point above – the apparent rapidity of conversion – it is worth lingering over the prefigurative literature which alludes to some form of continuity between the pagan and christian systems: The hagiographic legends of Patrick from the Book of Armagh and middle Irish tales such as Altrom Tige Dá Medar (from the Book of Fermoy) state that the way was laid for christianity when the druids prophesised a new order before Patrick arrived, or – in the case of ATDM, Manannán himself is the prophet! Charles MacQuarrie (‘The Waves of Manannan’) makes the case for this god as a pagan exemplar of the Bible’s Yahweh/Jehovah, albeit with a perhaps milder and more sympathetic and less judgemental disposition!

In the Isle of Man, where Manannán is still portrayed as a former king and ancestor as well as an actual current popular god we can see how this process reached its important and unfinished conclusion.

So why choose this overlord of the blessed Isles as the ‘next best’ as an exemplar to the christian god? In Altrom Tige Dá Medar he is cast as overlord of the Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) whose orders they unquestioningly follow. In spite of this, it is actually quite difficult to include him as a member of the TDD, as he seems to stand apart from them in so many ways. That he should have been chosen for such an explicit euhemerisation in Cormac’s glossary and on the Isle of Man suggests a prominence and equivalence that goes beyond that of the TDD. That a belief in him as lord of the fairy otherworld persisted in folk tradition, along with the strong otherworld ‘fairy’ and ‘second sight’ beliefs I have discussed previously, and the recurring theme of a landscape-associated ‘fairy queen’ suggests that these may well have been core parts of Gaelic paganism.

In the Isle of Man, Manannán is ascribed an immanent presence on the summit of the mountain known as South Barrule, where an ancient hilltop enclosure (‘Cashtal Manannan‘) filled with circular stone ‘beds’ or ‘hut circles’ used to be employed by trysting couples at the festival of Luanys (Lunása – 1st August) as a site for proving love, lust and fertility. The mists which frequently crown the mountain as well as shrouding the whole Island are commonly referred to by most locals as ‘Manannan’s Cloak’. It is somewhat surprising then, that there are comparatively few other places in the Isle of Man named after the god, unless you accept that the whole island itself is eponymous with him.

   Perhaps more interesting are the sneaky profusion of ancient place-names here in this special place that allude to a character of Gaelic folklore with a much more typically immanent presence and connection with the creation and husbandry of the landscape – the Cailleach (Manx: Caillagh) and her various incarnations and epithets as the Fairy Queen. From the hill of ‘Cronk y Berry’ (Eng: Hillberry, Ir: Cnoc Bheara) to the promontory of Gob ny Cally in Maughold and the ancient farm estate of Ballacallin in German the island is peppered with places whose names evoke the giant magical female characters also found in Irish and Scots as well as Welsh mythology, albeit often in ancient and corrupted forms: ‘Chibbyr Unya’ (Aine’s Well), the parish of Santan (‘Saint Anne’ = ‘Seatainne’), ‘Lhing Berrey Dhone’ (‘Pool of Ox-Bheara’, Maughold – there is an ancient Manx folksong about an Ox-stealing ‘witch’, in which it appears that the word Donn has been corrupted. She butchered the Ox in this pool by tradition). There is a ‘Caillagh’s (‘Nun’s’) Chair’ coastal feature on the MArine Drive side of Douglas Head, quite close to a mysterious cliff-cave (now bricked up). The ancient originally Brigitine nunnery of Douglas Priory lies in the shadow of the hill – a continuation of the goddess worship in a pagan guise… Another cave known as ‘Lag Eevl’ (after the Irish Fairy Queen, Aoibheal) in Kirk German, and the hill facing Cronk y Berry known as ‘Cronk y Vill’ or ‘Honey Hill’ have a similar provenance. Add to this the similarly-named hills of ‘Ardwhallin’ (pron. ‘Ardcwhullin’) and the mount of Slieu Whallian (‘Slieve Chullain’) which sits above the Tynwald assembly site and you soon get the idea that Manannan’s presence as an immanent former deity of the island might need to be challenged! The Caillagh was believed to be the Sibyl of the Island and was remembered in recorded folk traditions as late of the 20thC as the source of many prophecies, including one prefiguring the TT Races (which charge deosil around the Island’s central spine of hills). Manannan’s Cloak may once (from the profusion of places named after her) have been the ‘Veil of the Cailleach’…

All this has left me considering if the Gaelic pagan religion was in fact effectively dualistic and ancestor-based? My conclusion is that Manannán was the masculine (solar) polarity who presided over the spiritual Otherworld and the future, terminally and cyclically estranged from the Cailleach who was the elemental ancestress-Creatrix whose body is the earth/elements itself, renewed in the annual cycle. Manannán is a Sun god, NOT a Sea god! There is much circumstantial evidence to support this proposition – in fact, so much more than supports a polytheist interpretation that I find it hard to place a pantheon, except as a philosophical ‘exploding’ of the interactions of these two fundamental characters of Gaelic (and Brythonic) traditions (after the model of Plato’s Timaeus, which I will post on soon). From the Second Sight and Otherworld traditions explained by Robert Kirk, Martin Martin etc to the ancestral-creation myths involving the Cailleach and fairy queen(s) of Ireland and the various half-human wild spirits such as Brownie, Fionn, Phynodderee and Cuchullain, all point towards a binary interpretative system that does not in any way efface with a Tuatha Dé Danann ‘pantheon’.

Cronos, Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries and spirit-traditions of ancient Europe

In Greek poet Hesiod’s c.7thC BCE account of the ‘time before memory’ in the early days of creation, Cronus was the Titan ‘god’ of the ‘Golden Age’ – an idealised period after creation when a perfect race of men existed, and all was bountiful with no work or conflict nescessary:

First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven.  And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils.  When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint.  They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

But after earth had covered this generation — they are called pure spirits dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received…

Source: Hesiod ‘Works and Days’ trans H.G. Evelyn White 1912.

The myth goes on to relate the subsequent four creations of humans down to Hesiod’s ‘modern’ day (c.7thC BCE, the ‘Age of Iron’), portraying each successive race of mankind as progressively debased and further from the godly ideals. The other races who came after the Golden are the Silver, the Bronze, and penultimately and somewhat curiously – the Race of Demi-Gods: people who were great enough to enjoy a deified status or to have a half-divine parentage. To these, he assigns an eternal existence in the Blessed Isles:

But to the others father Zeus the son of Kronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the Islands of the Blessed (Nesoi Makarôn) along the shore of deep swirling Okeanos, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Kronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.”

It appears that Hesiod has made a distinction between the more ancient Golden Race and the Demigods who preceded the Men of Iron, yet the description of their existence and their ruler -Kronos/Cronos – is more or less identical, suggesting Hesiod sought to somehow change the tradition. This may well relate to Hesiod’s wish to promote the Olympian cult of Zeus which must have displaced that of Cronos, as described in his poetic narratives – Theogony and Works and Days. It is quite possible that Cronos represented a more primitive occidental god that the Greeks identified with the barbarian peoples to their north and west, and for this reason Hesiod and his contemporaries demoted him into exile on an Island far to the west…

Hesiod’s account of the race of the Golden Age is interesting in that these ‘ancestors’ who live on as helper-spirits (the original greek word is Daimôn) seem very similar to what Atlantic Europeans in the 2nd millennium CE referred to as fairies or elves in their own mythology. They certainly have aspects that we encounter in the denizens of much later ‘Celtic’ tales of the glorious otherworld – beauty, abundance, prosperity and peace.

Plato (4thC BCE) in his Socratic dialogue known as Cratylus discusses the belief that the eternal souls of virtuous humans become Daimones or Daemones (helper spirits – not the ‘evil spirits’ which Christianity later created from them) and refers to Hesiod’s Golden Race to make his point. His 4thC BCE Athenians agree that the eternal souls of virtuous men in their own time might achieve the same – not just those of the ancient mythical race of men. In Timaeus Plato expounded a common belief that souls were made of aither and the stars could be conceived of as souls of the departed (which is why demigods were placed in the sky as constellations). He has this to say of the Creator of the Universe:

….And once more into the cup in which he had previously  mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements,  and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure  as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made  it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star…

He based much of this story on Hesiod, who he references in Cratylus. He goes on to discuss reincarnation:

He who lived well during his appointed time was  to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed  and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being,  he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some  brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution  of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason  the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and  air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better  state.

The 1stC BCE Roman author Virgil was of the same opinion, being heavily influenced by Pythagorean, Platonic and Orphic doctrines which often went hand-in-hand in his day, as they were intimately concerned with the passage of the soul in former and future lives as well as the current. In this regard they were not much different to what Caesar said the Atlantic peoples of northwest Europe believed in. One of Roman society’s most popular celebrations was the Saturnalia which terminated at the Winter Solstice and celebrated the abundance of the Golden Age ruled over by Saturn (Rome’s name for Cronos), in the lead-up to the returning year. This was a festival of what I have referred to as ‘Otherworld Inversions‘ – masters would serve slaves, and the slaves could rest, for example.

So … what was Orphism and how does it relate to Cronos?

The Orphic faith has been identified from writings dated from at least the 4thC BCE onwards, though its origins are unknown and it may be partly evolved from a much older belief system – namely the Dionysian and Eleusinian mysteries with which they share much of their narrative structure. Orphism had definitely attained a consolidated (literary) existence at the advent of the Hellenic period and became one of the most influential mystery cults of the classical world, staying in existence until the late classical period. The surviving evidence for it is fragmentary and comes from literature (e.g. – the ‘Dereveni papyrus’, writings of the Neo-Platonist philosophers), art and inscriptions.

The key knowledge of the mysteries was said to have been gained by the proto-poet Orpheus in a visit to (and return from) Hades – the afterlife, which is the key aspect of the mysteries. The background story relied upon what are termed the ‘Orphic Theogonies’ (creation myths of the universe and the gods) which ultimately explained the creation of mankind the passage of the eternal soul through various states or cycles of reincarnation before it reached perfection.

The reincarnation beliefs of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries revolved around a shared dramatisation of the reincarnation of the year: The abduction of Kore (Persephone), daughter of Demeter (Rhea) by Hades, and her eventual release on the condition that she returned annually to his underworld. Zeus’ son and heir by Persephone (his daughter!) is the first incarnation of the god Dionysus – sometimes referred to in Orphism as ‘Zagreus’ and identified with Egyptian Osiris. Orphism attempted to weld aspects of older (Mycaenean and Barbarian/Thracian) religion and the high philosophies of Egyptian religion to the Olympian pantheon. In the Orphic theogonies, the young Dionysus-Zagreus is given the throne of Olympus by his father. Rhea inflames the Titans with anger at this and they dismember him after the manner of Osiris before consuming most of his body (Rhea keeps the heart). As punishment Zeus burns the Titans with lightning, turning them (and their meal) to ash and soot from which humans are created – their souls formed from the spiritual essence of Dionysus and their bodies from the soot and ash of the Titans’ bodies.

This is somewhat different from Hesiod’s ages of men, and perhaps explains the importance attained by the Cult of Dionysus or Bacchus in later antiquity: Celebrants of the cult sought to liberate themselves from their bodily limitations and experience the divine in a state of ecstasy. The Orphic and Eleusinian initiates appear to have believed that the soul passed through a number of bodies in order to purify itself from the envy and pride of the Titans of whom Cronus was the exiled leader. Dionysus represented a liminal figure whose death and rebirth (from the heart saved by Rhea) meant that he trod between the ordered realm of the Olympian gods and that of the Titans (who represented chaos, and primal forces), to whom the Olympians were ultimately subject to, in spite of their apparent besting and mastery of them in legend. Zeus and his colleagues were not omnipotent in Greek theology – they were prone to human foibles and subject to the forces of higher powers such as Fate and Chaos, as much as they were beholden to the structure of the elements and aither…

It is apparent that the theologies about Cronus, the origins of humanity, the transmigrations of the soul, and the link of this to the seasonal drama of the returning year was part of a more ancient European and Middle-Eastern religious system. Their existence is paralleled in the fairy beliefs of the Atlantic Europeans, and in the folklore of the Cailleach, Manannan,  Mag Mell and the Land of Youth, all of which are at the heart of the survivals of the Atlantic Religion in folk culture of northwest Europe.


Otherworld themes in “Aislinge Meic Con Glinne”

The Middle-Irish prose tale Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (‘The Dream-vision of MacConglinne’) is supposed – by the style of its language and themes – to have been composed and written in the late 11th or early 12th century. Two versions of it have survived to the modern day – one (‘B’ recenscion) in the 15thC manuscript collection known as An Leabhar Breac (‘The Speckled Book’ – RIA MS 1230) and the other in the manuscript TCD MS 1337 (‘H’ recescion).

You can read a translation of it here.

Set during the 8th century, it is styled in the form of a somewhat satirical prose-tale interspersed with poetic verses, and revolves around the power of a ‘dream vision’ (Aislinge) to sway the fate of the hero of the plot – a scholastic Armagh monk by the name of Aniér Mac Conglinne, saving his life and saving the kingdoms of the South of Ireland by exorcising their High King, Cathal mac Finguine of a ‘Lon Cráis’ (sometimes translated perhaps erroneously as ‘demon of gluttony’) that had taken up residence in him.

The story contains a number of highly amusing and incisive aspects to its narrative. The first introduces the humourous, energetic, ever-fasting and hungry monastic hero-adventurer whose destiny is to save King Cathal and his subjects from their greedy and sinful ways. So eager and restless is he in his mission that he runs from Armagh to Cork in the space of a day or so. Upon arriving at the monastic hostel in Cork he finds their Benedictine christian values of hospitality severely wanting and sets about causing an annoyance to advertise this fact. This mortally upsets the monks who report his activities and (worse) his biting satires to Abbott Manchín who demands his arrest and has him tortured and prepared for execution. MacConglinne goes willingly to his fate, seeking to demonstrate his piety to the monks by way of example. This part of the tale is obviously an exemplar of the popular spirit of the late 11th and early 12th century ‘Gregorian Reforms’ of church probity and the monastic orders. which led to the explosion of new and disciplined monastic institutions. The character of MacConglinne – being a monk from Armagh who wears a white habit – is obviously designed to represent a forerunner of Malachy of Armagh who promoted the reformed Cistercian Order during the era of the tale’s apparent authorship. This allows him to hold no punches in castigating the lazy, fat, greedy and cruel monks of Cork and refer to them as ‘shit-hounds’ among other choice and amusing epithets!

The most amazing and amusing aspect of the tale comes when the starved MacConglinne is tied to a pillar-stone to await his execution and in delirious depths of his abject suffering and hunger, he is visited by an angel or spirit who grants him a vision of a land made of and peopled by food!

The fort we reached was beautiful,
With works of custards thick,
Beyond the loch.
New butter was the bridge in front,
The rubble dyke was wheaten white,
Bacon the palisade.

Stately, pleasantly it sat,
A compact house and strong.
Then I went in:
The door of it was dry meat,
The threshold was bare bread,
cheese-curds the sides.

Smooth pillars of old cheese,
And sappy bacon props
Alternate ranged;
Fine beams of mellow cream,
White rafters – real curds,
Kept up the house. (Trans. Kuno Meyer, 1892)

When the abbott arrives to see him executed the next day, MacConglinne relates his vision and the abbott and monks have second thoughts and refer him to King Cathal, believing that he may be tasked by god into casting out the King’s Lon Cráis. This ‘demon’ has made the King into a man who only takes food from his vassals and never distributes it, giving him an insatiable hunger.

MacConglinne dons the garb of a poet-juggler and arrives at the court of a local petty-king whom Cathal is visiting. He impresses his way in with his antics and satires and gains an audience with the king and promises to cure him, after relating his vision of a land of food. The king is so impressed by his abilities and religious piety that he begins tossing him apples (having given food to no man for many years) which the hero gladly eats, and this obviously causes MacConglinne’s powers to sally forth even further! He convinces the whole court (including Cathal) to fast overnight, and in the morning has Cathal bound with ropes and orders the most sumptuous foods be prepared which he then taunts him with while reciting a tale he himself has composed which embellishes upon the themes of his vision.

His new tale involves him being approached by a Scál (usually interpreted as a ‘phantom’, but in Irish tales always referring to an otherworld being who tests and/or instructs a hero). The scál sees he is sick with hunger and disease (or ‘original sin’) and instructs him to find (in the land of food) a magical healer or ‘fairy doctor’, known in Middle Irish as a fáthliaig (an archaic term meaning ‘vision-healer’ which survived into 19thC Manx Gaelic in the word fallog’). In MacConglinne’s telling, the fáthliaig advises him that he is sick, evoking a description of him suffering from a spiritual (and physical) inversion of King Cathal’s own predicament (which also reflected the poor traditional values of hospitatlity the monk had found in the South). This is typical of shamanic practice – the figurative/spiritual assumption of the sufferer’s disease by the healer in a dream-vision in order to combat it:

‘‘Pray for me!’ said I to him.’

‘‘In the name of cheese!’ said he to me. ‘Evil is the limp look of thy face,’ said the Wizard Doctor. ‘Alas! it is the look of disease. Thy hands are yellow, thy lips are spotted, thine eyes are grey. Thy sinews have relaxed, they have risen over thy eyes and over thy flesh, and over thy joints and nails. The three women have attacked thee, scarcity and death and famine, with sharp beaks of hunger. An eye that sains not has regarded thee.

The fáthliaig‘s prescription is, again, humorous – MacConGlinne must eat the finest foods, and be tended to by a beautiful woman while reclining upon soft animal skins in front of a roaring fire!  There follows a recitation of the delightful foods he must be fed which so inflames the ‘Lon Cráis’ in Cathal’s throat that it jumps out and hides under a cauldron in the fireplace, at which point after MacConglinne offers thanks to God and Brigit!

So… what is a Lon Cráis? There are repeated references in Gaelic folklore to a creature – often a type of lizard or newt – which can enter the mouths and throats of the unwary and cause a great unsatiated hunger or thirst. In Gaelic Scotland, Robert Kirk (17thC) spoke of possession by the spirit of a ‘great eater’. This was explicitly called the Lon Craois during the 19th century (see JG Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol.2 p.366), and in Ulster and the Isle of Man the English term for it was ‘Man-Creeper’. In both cases the cure was to tempt it out with delicious food (as with Cathal) or to eat salt and lie near a well with your mouth open (Isle of Man). In both cases it appears that the condition refers to Diabetes Mellitus, where the blood is rick with sugar but the body’s cells cannot take it in. This results in dehydration, great hunger and thirst. Kuno Meyer (1892) preferred to translate the Lon as a ‘demon’, which in the context of the characters of the narrative and their beliefs seems a correct choice, even though he knew of the Scots Gaelic term. The term does not translate literally as ‘demon’ –Lon may be the otherwise attested word Lionn, which is the Irish word for ‘humor’, meaning one of the four classical/medieval humors of the body, and an imbalance of these was believed to be the mode through which disease (and moral failings) was supposed to operate. The OI/MI word Cráes means gluttony or hunger – the latter being invoked as ‘three women’ (an implicit Cailleach reference) by the vision’s seer-leech.


The ideas of food and gluttony are explicit themes around which this whole tale revolves. The implication is that the Monk of Armagh (MacConglinne, representing both Patrick and the hegemony of Continental christianity under Malachy and the Gregorian reforms) is spiritually proper in his fasting and starvation and that having plenty of physical food and not sharing it with the poor is a form of spiritual starvation. This is another ‘Otherworld Inversion’ similar to many pervading the spirituality of the Gaels or Atlantic peoples and which were deeply influential upon early European Christians. The Lon Cráis was an ‘otherworld’ force which transformed gluttony into hunger, and MacConglinne evokes an ‘otherworld’ vision of the world of this ‘creature’ (a world of food) in which he meets a ‘fairy doctor’ or ‘seer-leech’ who details his cure by having the hero invoke an inversion of Cathals’s disease upon himself so as to defeat the spirit by evocation and provocation. By causing the spirit to escape under the pressure of his bardic or poetic genius, he fulfils his original ambition to exceed his monastic limitations, and the cure is ultimately based in Atlantic otherworld doctrines, and not purely Christian:

It is clear from this text that the hero’s poetic creation of a world and narrative made of food is the force which expels the hungry spirit, not the Christian god who (along with Brigit) gets the credit at the conclusion.

As with all Middle Irish texts and stories, this tale is beset with contradictions between a pagan and a Christian narrative. The explicit connection between fasting and spiritual purity is made in the ancient Hebrew stories collected in the 5th and 4th centuries BC into the written canon of the Hebrew Bible, from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam eventually grew, and is common to many other ancient faiths. What is interesting is how the Atlantic/Gaelic view of the Otherworld and its interaction ‘through a mirror’ with ours influenced the Christian aspects of this narrative by providing a more rational idea of spiritual balance, largely lost from continental christianity in the cultural confusion of the post-Roman period….