The Celtic Mysteries?

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

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

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

Literary evidence for ‘Celtic Mysteries’?

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

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

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

Greek and Roman attitudes to Barbarian culture and The Mysteries:

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

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

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism -influenced by Augustus?

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism – influenced by Augustus?

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

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

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

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

The Fisher King: Belenos in the Arthurian tales?

Panel from the 8thC Anglo-Saxon 'Franks' Casket' depicting the juxtaposition of pagan mythology and Christian. On the left - the injured smith-king Weyland receives a visit from three (Valkyrie) women. On the right, Mary and the baby Jesus receive the three male Magi. Note the items carries by the Magi and consider the court of the Fisher King...

Panel from the 8thC Anglo-Saxon 'Franks' Casket' (British Museum) depicting the juxtaposition of pagan mythology and Christian. On the left - the injured smith-king Weyland makes a cup for three ?Valkyrie-women. On the right, Mary and the baby Jesus receive the three male Magi. Note the items carries by the Magi: a ?weapon, a torch and a cup...

 

The Arthurian tales and fairy lays of the 12th-15thC centuries are curious amalgams of contemporary chivalric and courtly Christian culture with much older pagan themes, with which they seem to abound. Those that survive as an identifiable part of the medieval corpus (starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth) were written down between the 12th and 15th centuries, and formed a tradition that was added to, re-versified, modified and expanded. That they were based upon themes and characters from indigenous folk-traditions of the post-Roman, pre-Christian European world is certain, although they would form a very contemporary tradition in their time, and their allegories were equally at home in the fevered era of the crusades and chivalry as they would have been in the 1stC BC before Rome crashed militarily and culturally into the heady and otherworldly domains of the peoples who identified themselves with the term 'Belgae', and from among whom these legends appear to have grown in oral traditions. As in Ireland, the Christian imperative in Britain and northern Europe was to assail these potent bastions of bardic culture in which the spiritual and philosophical worldview of late Iron Age celts were encoded, and convert them to a literary or suitably contemporary oral-narrative form which suited Christian culture – especially in the warlike post-Roman, post-Carolingian world which had evolved from the 'Belgic' culture.

Although mentions of 'Arthur' (and his older variant names) exist before the 1100's, it is during the 12thC that a tradition of written tales begins to coalesce around him and a cast of recognisable supporting characters that takes shape as what we recognise as 'Arthurian' legends. The cultural crucible was stoked by the influence of Troubadour culture (possibly an extension or development of older celtic bardic traditions) from Occitania in the more Romanised south of France, and the militarised chivalric and pious culture in the north of France centred on Normandy, which had developed among settlements of lately-Christianised Danes (warlike post-Belgic pagans until the 10thC). The Troubadours' lyrical traditions of courtly love emphasised feminine power and mystery in an era in which this had long been suppressed, and although it probably did little to change womens' position in life it suited the era during which reformed monasticism was promoting increased veneration of Mary, mother of Jesus, and portraying her allegorically as a fountain of rejuvenation. The Lady of the Lake, the Lady of the Fountain and similar otherworldly females all appear in the Arthurian tales and fairy 'Lays' of this era, and seem to correspond to such contemporary 'Maryology' – a heady mix of pagan goddess veneration and Christian euhemerisation and appropriation of powerful indigenous narratives.

The authors and redactors of the medieval romances and lays in the Arthurian literary tradition wrote across a period spanning some 400 years, and almost wholly for a learned elite audience. Oral tradition would have been part of the cultural pillar supporting and uniting communities and reinforcing a sense of tribal identity and connection to traditional lands. In the Arthurian tales, this was invoked by the elites so as to reinforce their sense of shared-origin and common-purpose with their subjects. Such a connection was important in places like Britain which had seen successive waves of invasion and settlement by neighbouring peoples, most notably that of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Normans. As with all invading cultures, these appropriated and modified indigenous traditions to suit their claims to legitimacy, hence the style of Arthurian literature. As a result of this and active processes among the religious to 'euhemerise' and consign pagan ideas to a pseudo-historical or literary tradition, the old gods of Europe changed their faces and names as the traditions developed.


Timeline of significant 'Arthurian' literature (by no means complete!):

12thC: Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the Kings of Britain, Life of Merlin, Prophecies of Merlin), Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Béroul, Wace, Thomas of Britain, Robert de Boron, Eilhart von Oberge, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven.

13thC: (Wolfram von Eschenbach) 'Parzifal', (Anon.) 'Lancelot-Grail cycle' (or 'Vulgate Cycle'), (Anon.) Post-Vulgate cycle.

14thC: The 'Welsh Romances' (assoc. with the Mabinogion)

 


The Fisher King:

The 'Fisher King' or 'Wounded King' from the grail series of Arthurian tales is perhaps one of the more intriguing of the otherworldly regal male characters of the traditions. His first explicit appearance is in Chrétien de Troyes' 'Perceval, the Story of the Grail' from the late 12thC, where he is the 'Grail King' of the land of Logres, keeper of a mystical lance and a grail (plate or bowl), not then identified with any form of holy Christian relic from the biblical 'Last Supper': that would come later – after the Third Crusade tried to reconquer the 'holy lands' far away in the Middle East, as well as the introduction of the principle of transubstantiation of the communion wine and host. Chretien's 'Perceval' is fragmentary and incomplete, but was sufficiently popular and valuable to have been recopied and added to by a number of subsequent authors in an attempt to 'round off' the narrative and make sense of it.

In Chretien's version, the young and inexperienced Perceval is invited to stay at the castle of a wounded and indolent fisherman-king, whose aged father (also wounded) shares the castle with him. At a banquet a mysterious procession enters bearing a number of mystical objects which are paraded in front of Perceval: a graal/grail (dish or vessel), a bleeding lance, and a candelabra (see the Franks' Casket panel above!). The performance and the meaning of it is lost on Chrétien's Perceval, who returns to Arthur's court where a prophetic/fatalistic 'loathly lady' (ie – the narrative representation of the pagan Cailleach) appears and explains that had he solved the mystery he would have healed the wounded king and his lands.

As Chretien offers no satisfactory conclusion in his own surviving work to the tale of Perceval, others expanded upon his themes – either through reference to an original oral narrative tradition or using their own creative skills – we cannot be certain which. An analogy of the tale with similar themes (although not referring directly to a 'grail' or 'Fisher King') occurs in the Middle Welsh tale Peredur son of Efrawg – a romance appended to the 'Mabinogion' tales. Robert de Boron's 12thC 'Joseph d'Arimathie' introduces the Christianised version of the Grail, placing the 'Bron the Rich Fisher' (ie – the Fisher King) as last in a line of Grail guardians originating with Joseph of Arimithea – supposed to have come to Britain with the Grail in which he was supposed to have collected Jesus' blood: This fitted the Crusader theme entirely!

The Fisher King is Belenos?

In truth, we know very little about the Celtic solar deity Belenos, so equating him with the Fisher King has its problems. However, the theme of death and rebirth underlies the Grail mystery, just as it did the religion of the ancient Europeans, and the Sun is the most explicit exemplar of the principle. The wounds of the Fisher King, and/or his father are expressions of human mortality, just as his 'healing' from the 'dolorous stroke' represents reincarnation.

Interior panel from the late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron depicting a giant warrior rejuvenating soldiers in some kind of vessel, making them into mounted  knights.

Interior panel from the late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron depicting a giant warrior rejuvenating soldiers in some kind of vessel, making them into mounted knights.

 

Other clues lie in the names given to the King: The anonymous 13thC authors of the 'Lancelot-Grail' cycle expanded upon the 'Grail' stories and added a couple of interesting name-details: the 'Fisher King', they say, was named 'Pelles' and the 'Wounded King' was called 'Pellehan' or 'Pellam'. Like the Slavic god Veles, the Lithuanian Velinas and the Germanic Weland, these names seem to contain elements of the older 'Belenos' (in this case through the other common Celtic/Indo-European language consonantal switch of the 'B' and 'P' sounds.) The slightly later 'Post-Vulgate Cycle' versions of the Grail tale (also by an un-named author) and Sir Thomas Mallory's 15thC 'Morte D'Arthur' refer to a 'Sir Balin' who was responsible for causing the wound of the Fisher King (the 'Dolorous Stroke') and hence the sickness of his land, using a lance – perhaps unsurprisingly in the Christianised legends identified with the 'Spear of Longinus', supposed to have been the one that pierced the side of 'Christ'. In Robert de Boron's late 12thC Grail epic 'Joseph d'Arimathie', the Fisher King (here called the 'Rich Fisher') is called Bron – a name which has caused some scholars to comment on the similarity with the character Bendigeidfran ('Bran the Blessed') from the Welsh Mabinogion. Bran is a giant who possesses a healing cauldron, and who is mortally injured by decapitation yet whose head continues to talk. Bran means 'raven' – a bird strongly associated with the souls of the dead and reincarnation in Celtic and Norse (ie – late Belgic culture) mythology.

Holy Wounds and Healing Vessels:

The 'Holy Wound' apparently suffered by the Fisher King characters in Grail mythology is used as an allegory for the poor state of their lands: why else would the King catch his own food? The 'bleeding lance' theme introduced into literature by Chretien represents an injured virility, something akin to the bleeding stag with a broken antler who had lost the season's rutting combat, but will endure with hope that the next year promises dominance of the herd. The mystery of the image invoked by Chretien revolves around the question of whether the lance runs with the blood of its adversary, or if it is the lance itself that bleeds? In a solar sense, the 'wounding' of the land comes with the onset of winter, during which the sun – like the Fisher King – seems enfeebled. This invokes the necessity of death to encourage life. Interestingly, the 12th/13thC Norse Prose Edda myth of Volundr (Weyland/Weland) claims that he is wounded and cannot walk – this is confirmed by the imagery of Weyland on the earlier 8thC Franks' Casket…

 

However, it was the grail itself which took greater precedence in the later tales: the receiver of the 'sacrificial' blood of the Christian narratives, for which the 'wounded king' was to become an important allegory. The 'ladies of the fountains' of earlier tales – explicit references to the pagan goddesses we see depicted upon ancient Celtic stelae – were to merge with the 'Marian' goddess-philosophies of the more pious Christian eras. This process was reaching its height in the 12thC when the Arthurian tales were being written down.

 

However, the Arthurian 'Fisher King' is portrayed as a king down on his luck and wounded who requires redemption and healing through questing knights who seek the Grail. This means that he is never a direct analogy for Jesus, who was generally portrayed as a triumphal and all-powerful redeemer during the medieval period. In fact, the 'Fisher King' seems more akin to Shakespeare's version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'King Leir/Lear' or perhaps the wild Merddyn (Merlin) or his Irish equivalent Suibhne: slightly unhinged, somehow wounded, and a bit less than divine. The famous late-classical British/Irish Christian leader Pelagius (4th-5thC CE) seems to have shared the same opinion about Christ and rejected the idea of 'original sin', but was rebutted by his continental colleagues who expunged his doctrine that Jesus himself was somehow human! Even the name Pelagius is itself evocative of Pel- or Bel-: Celtic Christians were arch employers of the mythology of their own indigenous religious background.

Triadic nature of the Fisher King:

The Fisher King (who lives with his aged father – also wounded) is actually part of a 'triad' if one includes the redeeming young knights such as Perceval, Lancelot or Galahad who unlock the secret of Grail and the Lance, and who heal the King's wounds. These themselves are reflexes of the character who wounds the Fisher King: another knight of Arthur's court called Sir Balin, whose name is a more explicit invocation of Belenos. Galahad is the grandson of the Wounded King in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, where Pelles (the younger Fisher King) contrives to have Lancelot bed his daughter Elaine. This technically ensures his eventual healing, again demonstrating the complex themes of continuity and reincarnation. The triadic divinities of the Atlantic Europeans often incorporate a 'father-son-virgin youth' or 'crone-mother-virgin youth' type of schema, and this is witnessed with the Fisher King.

Triadic divinites: The 'Corleck Head' (National Museum of Ireland) has three faces - you can only ever see two when looking at it side-on! This is an expression of the mystery hinted at in the character of the Fisher King.

Triadic divinites: The 'Corleck Head' (National Museum of Ireland) has three faces - you can only ever see two when looking at it side-on! This is an expression of the mystery hinted at in the character of the Fisher King.

The character's important mystical nature, his association with death and renewal, his various names and triadic nature are all clues to his identity with the great solar god of the Otherworld. Manannan (son of Leir) is the same.