Weland, the Swan Children and The Knight of the Swan

Emerging from the mythic and symbolic courtly story traditions of  12th century Europe, a popular and mysterious set of tales were told of children transformed into swans one of whom grows up to become the ‘Chevalier au Cygne’, or ‘Knight of the Swan’ – a questing knight who is conveyed in a boat drawn by a mysterious Swan which feeds him and guides him to his unknown destinations.

The earliest written  rescension of  the origin tale of the knight and his swan-kin comes from the late 12thC text ‘Dolopathos sive de Rege et Septem Sapientibus‘, by the monk Jean de Hauteseille. This was a latin version of a popular eastern story tradition known as ‘The Seven Wise Masters’, possibly acquired through contact with the Muslim empires. The birth of the swan children and the ‘Chevalier au Cygne’ tales merged with the Chansons de Geste traditions dealing with Godfrey de Bouillon, first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and popular icon of the First Crusade. These portrayed Godfrey as an ancestor of the Swan Knight, Elias, who had originally gained the Duchy of Bouillon after a swan arrived with a boat which conveyed him from his island home to protect the beleaguered Duchess of Bouillon, who then offered he hand in marriage. Further life was given to the legend in Wolfram Von Eschenbach‘s 13thC Arthurian epic, Parzifal, and versions of the story were retold into the 16thC (for example, Robert Copland’s English translation of the French versions in 1512).

Story of the Swan Children:

The essence of the Dolopathos account of the genesis of the swan-children is this: A knight wanders into a mysterious forest while hunting a white stag, where he discovers a mysterious woman by natural spring (an otherworld woman). They fall for each other and make love, and the knight takes her back to his castle where she eventually gives birth to seven children with gold chains around their necks. The knight’s mother is jealous and orders the children to be swapped in the birthing chamber for a litter of puppies, and has a servant take the children to the forest to kill them, where he decides to simply abandon them. The knight is angry that his wife gave birth to puppies and condemns her to buried up to the neck in the earth for seven years. However, the knight then finds that the children are alive and living in the forest and sends a servant to retrieve them. The servant finds the seven children – six boys and one girl – at a lake in the forest. The boys have taken off their gold chains and are swimming on the lake in the form of swans, while their sister – still in human form (wearing her chain) guards their chains. The servant decides to steal the chains and makes off with his loot to have them melted down by a goldsmith. The girl goes back to the castle to seek bread with which to feed her brothers who are now trapped in swan form, and eventually meets her father who has her tell the tale of what happened. The knight retrieves the chains and the boys can regain their human forms, except for one whose chain was broken by the goldsmith. He goes on to serve (or becomes – the source is unclear) the mysterious hero, the Knight of the Swan.

The story of the swan children is a curious bit of imagery, resonating strongly with the pagan mythical story traditions of Ireland (The Children of Lir, The Sickbed of Cuchullain). These feature birds (explicitly swans in the case of Lir’s children) who are bound with chains. However, the motif occurs in not just Irish and French legendary traditions – in the Norse Icelandic Völundarkviða (Poetic Edda), Völundr (Weland) and his two brothers meet and make love to swan-maidens (Valkyries) bathing  in a lake in the forest while hunting. The implication in the genesis story of the Swan Knight is that the ‘Lady of the Fountain’ is herself of an avian aspect, much like Manannan’s wife, Fand, in the Serglige Con Culainn, in which she briefly becomes Cuchullain’s lover and tormentor. The Norse goddess Freyja was attributed with a ‘feather cape’ in the Eddas, and as receiver of ‘half of the slain’ she may herself have been a or the Valkyrie. The greatest similarity with the Knight of the Swan entrée, however, is the Irish tale Clann Lir (‘Children of Lir’): It shares many features with minor differences – in the Irish tale, there are four children (three boys, one girl). Their mother dies and their stepmother is jealous of them and orders a servant to kill them. However, the servant refuses and the stepmother transforms the children into swans by magic. The swans are connected to each other by silver chains. They wander the earth for 900 years until (depending on the version) their deaths are caused when their chains are broken off by a marauder causing them to immediately age and die, or when they hear the tolling of a church bell or are blessed by a priest.

The tale of children turned into birds is actually a widespread folktale motif (Grimm collected a ‘Six Swans’ tale from Germany) and therefore has an Aarne-Thompson classification of type 451. However, the theme of the chains is not so frequent. Obviously, these stories are widely divergent, but what is the underlying significance?

About the Swan Knight himself:

The Knight of the Swan is named variously as Helias or Helyas in the French traditions, and as Loherangrin in Wolfram’s Parzifal. ‘Helias’ sounds a bit like the Greek name for the sun – Helios. Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s character Loherangrin has  the -angrin suffix, somewhat redolent of the Irish words an grian – the sun! As Wolfram was borrowing from Celtic story traditions, this interpretation is theoretically possible. However, there is another perhaps more likely explanation for Helyas/Helias, this being that it derives from a Celtic word for swan, which in Irish is eala. Nevertheless, the links between Weland and the Celtic solar god, Belenos, that I have discussed elsewhere may add weight to the identity of Helias with Helios.

In the Romance of Godfrey de Bouillon, Helias is born to King Oriant of Illefort (‘Strong Isle’), the introductory part of the tale being a rescension of the Swan Children tale. As the Knight of the Swan he is conveyed overseas on his quest by a swan which tows him in a small boat. The swan looks after the knight, who trusts it to take him where his bravery is needed, and where he might find his fortune, a wife and good honour in combat. This applies to both Helias and Loherengrin. The knight is under a tabu or geas that he must not reveal his name to those he meets, and when he breaks it, the swan carries him off. Other Arthurian heroes trot around on horses, but the Chevalier au Cygne stands aside as a water-bourne character. The ‘magic isle’ motif was common to the Celtic tales of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard – for instance, the Breton ‘Isle of Lok’ comes to mind. Perhaps this is the origin of the ‘Loher-‘ prefic of Loherangrin?

The stories are full of themes of captivity – a feature all too familiar to men of the crusader age, whose favoured saint became the chain-loosening St Leonard. The captivity of form in the case of the children, the captivity of knightly obligation, and the captivity of the geas or tabu. The swan – a white bird – is also an otherworldly creature with a propensity for migration and sitting on water, itself one of the gateways to the otherworld. The chains of the swan-children are like an unbreakable link with the otherworld and simultaneously evocative of the art of smithcraft, itself often equated with magic, itself a form of ‘binding’ of unseen powers. This brings us back to the question – already touched on – of the legendary (sometime captive) smith, Weland, known in Ireland as Cuillean…

Link to Weland and Cuillean:

The Poetic Edda’s ‘Lay of Weland’ (Völundarkviða) starts with Völundr (Weland – a prince of elves) and his brothers coming across three swan-maidens bathing in a lake, who they take as lovers. Swans being migratory, the girls eventually take off and Völundr’s brothers go with them leaving him alone. Like Manawydan in the Mabinogion, he takes up the life of a craftsman, which causes him to be kidnapped by King Niðhad who wishes to exploit his metalworking skills and has his hamstrings cut so he cannot run away. He extracts a terrible revenge by killing the king’s sons and making their bones into jewels which he gives the unwitting king and his queen, raping their daughter causing her to become pregnant with his child – presumably the inheritor of  Niðhad’s kingdom. Völundr then flees by flying away through the air. This brutal tale is in itself a warning not to abuse the help on offer from the otherworld’s denizens, and as such contains the same themes as the Arthurian legends and fairy romances of continental Europe during the same period.

Weland’s Wilkinasaga tradition (occurring in the Romance of Dietrich von Bern/Thidrekksaga) depicts him as the son of a character called Wade – a giant who fathers him with a mermaid (haffru). It is essentially the same tale of enslavement by the king and description of Volund’s terrible revenge and escape using wings to fly away. His Gaelic equivalent/counterpart, Cuillean, is – as has been previously suggested – identified with the sea-god, Manannan. This would make Wade and Lir coterminous, and it is evident from the continental traditions of the Knight of the Swan (Helias) that his father was the ruler of an Island and that the knight’s father – like Wade – conceived him with a fairy woman linked to water. The 12thC hagiography of St Patrick by Jocelyn of Furness has him visit the Isle of Man and defeat a flying wizard called Melinus, who I have suggested sounds like Manannan and Merlin compounded. Given the link between Manannan, Cuillean and therefore Weland, this flying aspect adds another level of intrigue.

The depiction of Weland/Volundr in the saga and German romances of Dietrich von Bern of him escaping by flying on wings seems somehow to evoke the swan children. His ability to propel himself over water in a hollowed out tree is another theme from the Dietrich saga which evokes the Knight of the Swan’s self-propelling boat, and also brings to mind the legend of Sceaf and Scylding alluded to in Anglo-Saxon mythic texts and poems.

The word ‘water’ has a linguistic link to the name of Weland’s father – ‘Wade’. This can be seen in the Polish word for water, which is wody and the Russian is the same – voda, from which ‘vodka’ is derived. ‘Wading’ is walking through water and it is even possible that ‘Wotan’ could be linked to water. The Welsh name for Manannan, ‘Manawydan’, might also by the same reckoning contain linguistic connotations of Wade. Even the eponymous relater of the Anglo-Saxon Widsith (Exeter Book ca.10thC CE) might have a relation – being so far-travelled and apparently present (Taliesin-like) at different points in history not possible for a mortal human.

Water was definitely the route by which souls and life in general was believed to transit from the Otherworld. The general belief appears to have been that souls left this world in an aerial form – as birds. It is therefore no surprise that migratory water birds such as swans would come to represent the Otherworld’s intermediary animals par-excellence.

Footnote: The Greeks – Even the ancient Greeks had a myth of the ‘Swan Maidens’ coded into the pre-Olympian mythology of their own traditions. These were the three Graeae daughters of the primal sea-god Phorcys, who appear in the myth of Perseus. They live on an island at the reaches of the world-ocean, Okeanos, (figuratively) in the ‘realm of Kronos’ on the far shores of time, close to the Otherworld itself. Far from being bathing beauties in the Perseus myth, they are aged crones who share one eye between them. They are sisters to the Gorgons, who are also counted among the Phorcydes – monstrous children of the sea, whose numbers include Scylla and Charybdis, Ladon and the Hyda among othersI suppose they were more than capable of transforming themselves into ravishing beauties, as most of the Atlantic ‘woman by the water’ deity archetypes seem to have this ability…




Concordance of Belenos, Manannan, Merlin and Wodan.

Those who follow my blog will know that I have already discussed the linguistic relationship between the Late Iron Age Celtic god, Belenos, and the Slavic, Baltic and North European divinities known from medieval times at least as Veles, Weland/Volundr, Phol, Vili and Velnias. Due to the dynamism and migration of Celtic peoples and culture from the 4thC BCE, Celtic religion (particularly that of the ‘Belgic’ cultural movement) was to stamp its impact from the Black Sea to the westernmost reaches of Iberia and Ireland, taking with it a renewed and potent militarised (possibly fanatical) vision of its gods and philosophies. So why did a separate ‘German’ and ‘Slavic’ identity develop?

Germans and Slavs ‘were’ Celts:

By the advent of the western expansion of the ‘germanic’ Goths and other eastern ‘barbarians’ in the 4thC CE, the remains of the Celtic ‘world’ had been pushed away outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire – into Ireland and Scotland. The tribes referred to by Julius Caesar in the 1stC BCE as Germani had – through the lens of Roman ideation – been somehow defined as ‘different’ to the Celtic peoples, an opinion generally considered to be forged by their cultural and geographic impenetrability and indomitability rather than from any hard evidence of actual difference. By the time of the Gothic migration era (4th-5thC CE) and the collapse of the western Roman Empire there was no longer any concept of Europeans as ‘Celts’. Increasing religious diversification following Romanisation, and then the religious concordance and intolerance emerging under christianity had overwhelmed the spiritual cultural model of Europeans, replacing it with a power-franchise focussed on the East.

Of course, this still left a good deal of non-Romanised regions without Christian influence. Although ‘Celtic’ Ireland and Scotland were evangelised early on (5th-6thC CE) northern Europe (Germania, Scandinavia, the Baltic and Russia) was much later in coming to the table – holding out in places until at least the 14thC CE. It is from these that we find the apparent ‘Belenos’ concordances in the names of some of their important divinities, as preserved in medieval literature and later folklore. These cultures (pagan Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Slavic Russ) certainly maintained a warlike ‘Belgic’ outlook – at least from the point of view of Christian observers, particularly those at the commencement of the ‘Viking’ raids (which commenced with a particular anti-Christian focus) in the 8thC CE. However, by this period, languages and the names of the divinities had evolved away from their ‘Celtic’ (let’s call them ‘Atlantic’) origins so as to make ‘Germanic’, ‘Slavic’ and ‘Celtic’ mutually exclusive cultural ideas for scholars by the modern era. Political and ethnic federalism and nationalism during the 19th and 20th centuries further demanded separate origins for these cultures.

So what about Ireland and Scotland?

Christian evangelisation of the (by modern standards) ‘typical’ Celtic regions of Ireland and Scotland probably began in at least the 4thC CE, although it is conventionally dated to the late 5thC by later literary sources – the era when ‘Patrick’ is supposed to have convinced all of Ireland’s kings to submit to Christianity. Ireland (and her eastern colonies) subsequently became early medieval Europe’s most important and vibrant intellectual powerhouse for christian religious scholarship and reinterpretation of pagan mythology. She was to send her acolytes into the former Belgic heartlands of Britannia (colonised by pagan Anglo-Saxons) and Francia – the territory of the Gallo-Germanic Franks – to assist with local efforts to impose Christianity, be it by propaganda or the sword.

This process (already discussed in some detail in the blog) meant that Ireland’s pagan mythology (written by Christians) is difficult to interpret at face value, although it is common for many to accept  it (albeit unwisely) as canonical. We know that ‘Belgic’ culture (the impetus behind the 279 BCE attack on Delphi) made it to Ireland – the stories of boastful hero-warriors such as Cuchullain and Finn, and the La Téne style of insular art seem to attest to this. Indeed, the magically and militarily powerful ‘magi’ or druids referred to in medieval accounts of the conversion period are another possible feature of this culture. We suspect that IrishTuatha Dé Danaan characters such as Lugh, Nuada and Ogma were local versions of Gaulish divinities Lugus, Nodens and Ogmios, yet we have no evidence of worship or any idea of their importance from placenames. Indeed, you are more likely to come across places named after the female ‘Cailleach’ or masculine ‘Cuillean’ than any of these continental characters.  Insular and continental evidence of actual religious beliefs and practices among the Celts is – although widespread – largely influenced by Romanisation and difficult to interpret, as we do not know for sure which names were from independent divinities and which were synonyms for individuals. These doubts add validity to following an inductive approach based on place-names, folklore and mythology (including Christian hagiography).


The reason I am taking ‘Belenos’ (Belinus) as an exemplary divinity to examine in the Gaelic context is because of his aspects as a solar god which places him at the highest apex of equivalent Indo-European dedications. He was an important enough divinity that the most important Belgic British tribe of the 1stC BCE-1stC CE – the southeastern Catuvellauni – appear to have been named after him, as were their leaders such as Cassivellaunus and Cunobelinus(‘Wolf/Hound of Bellinus’). Cassivellaunus was referred to as ‘Caswallon’ in medieval Welsh triads, and called ‘son of Beli Mawr (‘Great Beli’). Similarly theophoric names occur in the great warband of 279BCE – part of which was led by a leader called ‘Bolgios’. This attacked through the Balakans into Macedonia before part of it headed to the vastly important shrine of Pythian Apollo at Delphi, and others headed to settle Galatia in Anatolia. The Celts had a special attachment to Apollo, whose name appears to show a similar Indo-European root: A-pollo <> A-bollo. Apollo was a solar renewer as well as a hunter and warrior, and the Greek myths linked him to the mythical ‘Hyperboreans’ – the barbarians of the north who lived close to the monstrous zone, and Okeanos, the world-river. The depiction of Apollo on Greek coins of the Alexandrian age became an important influence upon the imagery depicted on the post-279 ‘Celtic age’ coins of Europe until the Roman conquests.

Although common to western Europe and Britain, the remains of ‘Belenos’ are much harder to identify in Gaelic Ireland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In the 12thC CE, the learned Cistercian abbot and noted hagiographer, Jocelyn of Furness, was commissioned to write a number of hagiographies critical to establishing the primacy of the continental Roman Catholic church over the insular churches, which other contemporary commentators such as Gerald of Wales had implied kept some heathen  or backward usages. Jocelyn was commissioned by Anglo-Norman lord John De Courcy to produce a new hagiography of St Patrick to coincide with the new Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. Perhaps as a favour to De Courcy’s friend, ally and brother-in-law King Rognvaldr of the Isle of Man, Jocelyn included traditions from the island of Patrick’s supposed visit there and defeat its ruling wizard, who he calls Melinus.

“… Returning to Hibernia, he touched at the islands of the sea, one whereof, Eubonia–that is, Mannia–at that time subject unto Britain, he by his miracles and by his preaching converted unto Christ.  And among his miracles very conspicuous was this: a certain evil-doer named Melinus, like Simon the magician, asserting himself to be a god, and attempting the air with a diabolical flight, at the prayers of the saint fell headlong, and was dashed in pieces, and so perished …” (Translation from: ‘The Most Ancient Lives of St Patrick, Including the Life by Jocelin, Hitherto Unpublished in America, and His Extant Writings’ by James O’Leary; Pub. New York, 1880 P.J. Kenedy)

Melinus – by the conventions and mutations of Indo-European languages – is also pronouncable as ‘Welinus’ and therefore can become ‘Velinus’, from where we return to the name of the god, ‘Belinus’. Interestingly, the (later) Manx traditions about their pagan wizard-god refer to him as Manannan – the insular Celtic sea-god, although George Waldron (‘An Account of the Isle of Man’, 1734) says it was ‘Merlin’, which itself is very close to Melinus, while invoking the sometimes-mad wizard of the Arthurian romances gaining courtly popularity among northern Europe’s elites during Jocelyn’s era. In fact, Jocelyn’s is not the first reference to this character, whose appearance in Hiberno-Norse era Manx tradition is interesting given the Weland and Velnias traditions of the Scando-Baltic countries from which Mann’s 9thC onwards Viking visitors haled.

The name actually occurs in a couple of earlier Irish traditions linked to Christianisation: the first is the ‘Bishop Mel’ who was supposed to have invested St Brigit with her veil (‘veil’ derives from Latin velum). The other is the pagan robber-prince Mac Caille who Patrick banishes to the Isle of Man, and who eventually becomes the island’s patron saint, Maughold, who seems to have had trouble replacing Manannan in the popular mindset of the Manx people, even down to this modern day. In one of the early medieval Irish lives of Brigit, it is Mac Caille rather than Mel who gives Brigit her veil (the Greek word for which is Calyx, hence ‘Caille’). It looks like the christianisers played fast and loose with language in order to establish their order!

To compound further this mystery, I wish to return to the Norse-Germanic ‘Weland’ who I have previously noted to be identical with the Irish mythological Cuillean. A Manx legend based on the Ulster Cycle stories (and published in Ireland during the 19thC) said that ‘Cullan the Smith’ resided in the Isle of Man and was resorted to by Conchobar Mac Nessa for magic weapons. This suggested he – like Weland – was considered a blacksmith or artificer. If Weland originates in Belenos (as I have suggested) then this makes the names Cuchullain and Cunobelinos identical, as the Irish warrior-hero was named after Cuillean’s hound, who he kills (Ulster Cycle). The Manx mountain of Slieu Whallian is named after him (the ‘K’ sound is lenited), as are a number of mythologically important hills in Scotland and Ireland. In Mann, this hill stands next to the site of the ancient Tynwald hill at St John’s – the site where Manannan was supposed by a 16thC ballad to have been offered green rushes at the annual Tynwald ceremony.

Manannan himself can confidently be described as ‘Lord of the Otherworld’ in Irish mythology, and his eponymously-named islanders would agree with this. He is also portrayed in an immanent manner, rather than as a distant god, and this suggests that he must have been a manifestation of a solar god like Belenos. Like Cuillean or Weland he is a donator of weapons, and as befits a combined solar and otherworld god, his wonderings in the East and travels to the west are features of his mythology. Another important aspect of an otherworld god who travels to and from the world of the dead (reincarnates) is the idea of prophecy and delirium that underpins the oracular beliefs of the ancient world – such as the addled Pythoness who pronounced Apollo’s oracles at Delphi. The properties of amnesia and delirium are common themes of visionary ecstatic states caused by herbs such as Henbane (Hyoscyamus Niger), whose name in a number of European dialects seems to evoke Belenos: Bilsen (German), Pilsen (Czech), Beleno (Spanish). Pedanius Dioscorides (De Materia Medica – Book 4, 1stC CE) called it Herba Apollinaris, and said that the Gauls called it ‘Belenuntia’ or ‘Bilinuntias’: Perhaps this was in the Delphic wine which drove the troops of Brennus mad during their assault on the site of the famous Oracle, as he also calls it ‘Pythonion’ . This brings us to two ‘raging mad’ mythological figures of Europe’s ancient world:

Merlin and Wodin:

In the Germanic languages (Old High German and Old English) the name Wodin, Wotan or Wodan means ‘raging, mad one’. In the 11thC CE, Adam of Bremen described the god thus:  “Wodan, id est furor. ‘Raging’ was therefore an epithet of the highest god, who became known to the later medieval Scandinavians as ‘Odin’ and was (perhaps appropriately) their god of battle and of the dead. The madness implied in the name: ‘Wod’ is also applied to another character of medieval legend – the magician-sage-warrior Merlin recalled by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Arthurian romances he helped inspire. Geoffrey’s Merlin was both a prince and a madman who fled into the wilderness in a crazed fugue before his sanity was recovered. The story therefore shares elements of the tale of Odin, who is hinted in the Icelandic Edda stories to have undergone a similar tribulation as some kind of holy rite in order to receive higher knowledge. An Irish tale – of the mad king ‘Suibne Geilt’ – also has certain aspects of Geoffrey’s Merlin tale (‘Vita Merlinii’) and the battle-rages of the Ulster Cycle’s Cuchullain have something of the Odinnic Norse ‘berserker’ about them. But how does ‘Merlin’ link etymologically with Wodin or Wodan?

The Welsh name of ‘Merlin’ is Myrddin – pronounced ‘Merthin’. As ‘M’ sounds can become softened/interchanged to a ‘W’ or ‘V’ in Gaelic and other Indo-European language pronunciations (for a prime example, consider the Latin: Jupiter<>Jovis<>Jouis<>Jouuis) it is perfectly possible to see how ‘Myrddin’ and ‘Wodin’ can have concordance! Another aspect of the Merlin<>Manannan paradox suggested in Jocelyn of Furness’ Vita Patricii and later folklore emerges when we consider the Welsh equivalent of Manannan Mac Lir – Manawydan fab Llyr of the medieval Mabinogion tales. This incorporates the name -Wydan in it, which also seems close enough to ‘Wodan’ to suggest a possible concordance between Belinus, Melinus, Merlin, Manannan and Manawydan, not to mention Weland and Cuillean… Furthermore, the other middle-Welsh legendary character, Gwydion son of Dôn, has a similar name (the ‘G’ is silent).

After the establishment of literacy in Atlantic Europe, which itself followed in the traditions of Christianity, the plasticity of word-sounds became subservient to the orthodoxy and orthography of this tradition, explaining the plethora of different versions of the same name which epigraphy and literature gave to us. Some of these appeared so different that they were considered different…


Concordance in Norse/Germanic and Irish mythology

Pagan mythology evolves in response to the environment which gave birth to it, so it is perhaps unsurprising that mythology along Europe’s Atlantic climes should share much in the way of similarity. In this post, I seek to discuss some of these

Odinn and Manannan:

Legends about Odinn and Manannan demonstrate a number of obvious correlations. They are both wise. They are well-travelled. The look after the souls of those who have passed on. They are rulers of the Otherworld. They possess magical abilities and magical artifacts, which they donate to heroes in stories. They can change their appearance and are shapeshifters. They both ride a magical horse.

Odinn (whose German name Woden means madman) appears to have suffered from episodic bouts of madness or wondering, and although madness is not an explicit theme with Manannan, travel and wondering appears to be. The fact that Manannan appears to have been somewhat conflated with Merlin (who Geoffrey of Monmouth made explicitly unhinged) is of particular interest. He is described as ‘Melinus’ by Geoffrey’s euhemerist colleague-at-arms Jocelyn of Furness, and is also called ‘Merlin’ by early 18thC author George Waldron. Other famously mad tree-dwellers from Irish myth include king ‘Suibne Geilt‘, and from the Fenian mythology the interestingly love-mad Diarmuid Ui Duibne (finally caught hiding in a tree). Diarmuid is paralleled by another Fenian myth with a character who loves Fionn’s intended woman and ‘takes flight’, called Derg Corra . He, like Diarmuid is hunted down by Fionn using his (‘Odinnic’) divinatory power and finally discovered hiding in a tree, seemingly out of his mind. The Eddas refer to Odinn hanging himself from the world tree in order to get divine knowledge, which is a theme linking Fionn to another character from Germanic mythology:

Sigurd and Fionn:

The motif of the dwarf-mentor and the killing and cooking of an otherworld creature is familiar to both the Irish story known as ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ (Irish: Macgnímartha Finn) and the poetic Edda narrative known as the Völsungasaga. In the saga version, Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir and gains understanding of the language of birds when he inadvertently licks his finger while roasting Fafnir’s heart for the dwarf Regin who desires this knowledge. In the Fenian version, of course, Fionn is cooking the Salmon of Wisdom for the dwarf-druid Finnegas when he does the same. Both of these tales may represent a narrative theme popular in their day as both written texts have been located to the 12th/13thC, but then again – they may be from an older oral tradition!

Finn, Cuchullain and Thor:

Thor and his battles against giants and monsters are one of the key hero-myths of the Icelandic Eddas. Like the ancient Greek figure of Heracles, he transcends what is normally acheivable in his fight against the forces of chaos. The same role is represented in Irish mythology by the ‘larger than life’ heros Cuchullain and Fionn mac Cumhaill, although when compared to the Eddas and Greek myths, the overt ‘sacred’ nature of their narrative importance has been obscured by christianisation of their stories.

Wayland, Chullain and the Gobban Saor:

The ‘hero-smith’ narrative is widespread throughout Irish mythology and placenames, yet the legends have suffered (like those of the Cailleach) from significant demotion or erasure during the inscription of the traditional narrative tales of the pagan world. This makes them all the more intriguing! A similar problem seems to exist with the Wayland legends, in fact.

Magical wells returning water from the Otherworld:

The Icelandic Prose Edda and the Irish Dindshenchas texts from the middle ages both contain explicit references to the mysterious flow of rivers to and from the Otherworld. In the Eddaic version (Snorra Edda), the ‘Otherworld’ source of waters is from the antlers of the stag Eikthyrnir who stands over Valhalla, and whose streams flow down to the bottom of the tree into the well Hvergelmir which is the source of all the world’s rivers and nourishes the roots of the tree. In the Irish sources, the Otherworld streams flow back into secret wells in fairy mounds, emerging as the springs originating the Rivers Boyne and Shannon, which themselves flow into the ‘world-river’ which laps on the shores of the Blessed Isles. As well as being an aquatic analogy, these appear to be describing the ancient belief in the transmigration of souls! This is an important aspect of the ancient Atlantic religion.

Mystical Trees:

The Yggdrasil is the great ‘world-tree’ of Icelandic Eddaic mythology, which was based on the ancestral beliefs of the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians etc who settled in Iceland before the advent of Christianity in the Scandinavian world. It represents an abstract effigy of the idea of human generations, and nourishing rivers  – roots, trunk, branches and leaves. It also acts as an abode for the metaphorical animals representing this kind of fertility, who are strongly associated with regeneration and rivers by their appearance: stags (with their branching antlers) and serpents (whose bodies mimic the appearance of rivers and who shed their skins and are ‘reborn’). Ireland, being ‘freed’ of serpents by St Patrick, naturally also has a number of serpent legends that deal with the pre-Christian era and during the period of Christianisation, but the imagery of the tree and the river was and is important. The tendency of trees to both depict the shape of and attract lightning, no doubt explains their link to ‘thunder gods’ such as Donar/Thunor/Thor and Roman deities such as Jupiter.

A large number of ‘fairy hills’, stone circles and ‘holy wells’ in Ireland seems to be associated with an ancient thorn tree. The Rowan also has great importance in the Gaelic world (particularly Scotland and the Isle of Man) and one is featured in the Fenian myths as being a sacred possession of a giant called Searbhan in the Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne.

Ireland – like the Germanic regions pillaged by the tree-felling St Boniface – has an history of special trees, and their demise was detailed in the medieval texts. These may be figurative or actual – the truth is (as with the Boniface account) unclear. The great tree at  Maigh Adhair was recorded in the Irish annals as a sacred tree associated with the inauguration of Munster clan chiefs: Brian Bóruma and his relatives, in particular. There were others besides, including Bile Tortan, Craeb Daithi and Bile Uisneg,many of which were (like Yggdrasil) ashes…



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.