Solar origins of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Christianity.

Roman era iconographic depiction of Apollo in mosaic, Tunisia. The similarity to later depictions of Jesus in both the Eastern and Western traditions is striking.

Roman era iconographic depiction of Apollo in mosaic, Tunisia. The similarity to later depictions of Jesus in both the Eastern and Western traditions is striking.

The number twelve has a strange significance in the reckoning of time:

There are twelve solar months, corresponding roughly to twelve zodiacal houses along the sun’s ecliptic path. In the Christian myth, Christ is followed by 12 apostles.

There are traditionally twelve ‘hours’ of daylight, as reckoned by sun-dials, and hence we derive our twenty four hours of daylight and night which comprise our unit of one solar ‘day’. This is known as ‘apparent solar time’, as compared to the clock-time we tend to keep in modern times, known as ‘mean solar time’.

There is a difference of roughly twelve days between the old ‘Julian’ and newer ‘Gregorian’ calendric systems in use in Europe and Asia Minor. These changes were instituted to prevent the celebration of Easter (calculated based on the Jewish Lunar calendar) from creeping further away from the Spring Equinox into summer.

There are twelve days marking the traditional European and Eastern ‘Christmas’ or ‘Yule’ festive midwinter period… These were sometimes each looked upon as representing a separate month of the solar year in many pre-modern European cultures. Yuletide began at the winter solstice (approx. 22nd December) and finished on the 3rd January, whereas Christmastide was from 25th December to 6th January (Epiphany).

Origins of Christmas Day:

The establishment of the date of the Nativity festival on the 25th December in Christianity was not in fact formally agreed upon for hundreds of years after the era of Jesus’ supposed life and death. In the late pagan Roman Empire, the 25th day of December was celebrated as Natalis Invicti – the rebirth of the deified ‘Unconquerable Sun’ – Sol Invictus. Although introduced as a late Imperial Cult under Aurelian in 274CE (250 years or so after the death of Jesus) the cult of Sol Invictus was probably in response to the profusion of mystery cults throughout the Roman Empire which employed the iconography of a youthful solar male god, seemingly derived from the older depictions of older gods such as Apollo, Adonis and Attis. Adonis, etymologically at least, appears to have a Semitic origin (compare Adonai – ‘Lord’). These had their origins in the principles of Solar godhood attached to the great ‘static’ or ‘official’ mystery cults of the 1st millennium BCE: Those of Delian Apollo, Apollo at DelphiEleusis, Samothrace and the mysteries of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia, among others. Such cults generally relied upon visitation of geographical loci – fixed cult sites – and the participation in initiatory ritual for the purposes of either receiving oracles, healing or higher knowledge. They themselves may have developed from popular extensions of the originally more closely-guarded inner mystery ritual traditions surrounding the elite classes of kings and religious hierophants of the earlier ‘palatial’ cultures (Minoan and Mycenaean), themselves copying the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, which are the oldest for which we have evidence, and were in continuity until at least the start of the 1st millennium CE.

Wars with Carthage and the great movements of the ‘barbarian’ Celts during Rome’s Late Republican Era (c.3rdC BCE) led to the importation of ‘foreign’ mystery religions such as that of Cybele and her ecstatic priests into Rome during the late Punic wars. Another popular ecstatic religious mystery cult was that of the Bacchanalia (Dionysia) from Greece. The Celtic fanaticism towards the solar god Apollo (whom they knew as Belenos) caused them to actually invade Greece and sack Delphi in 179BCE! These events, along with Rome’s increasing expansion and cultural interaction led to the surge in popularity of mystery religions in general during the late Republican era, such that by the 1stC CE  Roman Emperors were themselves visiting Eleusis and Samothrace to become initiates. These cults purported to explain the secrets of the sun, the moon, the planets and stars and the deepest mysteries of nature, death and regeneration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the life-giving Sun was a key part of this, and became part of a new ‘elementalism’ and drive towards simplification and ‘portability’ of mythology.

As the Roman and Greek cultural polities expanded and prospered, initiatory mystery religions became less an indulgence of the elites, and also less attached to fixed geographical locations, developing into a plethora of mobile ideological ‘franchises’ enjoyed by more ordinary persons. These almost certainly plagiarised the secrets and mythological frameworks of the older ‘official’ mysteries whose (often wealthy) initiates and suppliants were supposed to keep their secrets on pain of death or spiritual torment, and such mysteries were gradually bought out into the open and discussed and theorised over. This process was aided by the diffusion of literacy and the spread of and development of the ideas of the ‘Philosophers ‘of classical and Hellenistic era ‘Magna Graecia’ who sought to analyse the constancies and truths behind ancient orally-transmitted mythology.

A good example of such reductionist processes at their apotheosis are the ‘Hermetic’ and ‘Gnostic’ cults in Hellenized Asia Minor, Middle East and North Africa, of which Christianity was to emerge as an early branch within the fractious and millenarianist Hasmonean-era Jewish world with its significant diaspora. These employed Pythagorean, Platonic and Epicurean reductionist theories and a discourse involving the principles of the soul as a form of undying light in their prophetic religious narratives, barely hiding such ideas behind the character narratives of older mythologies.

Such explicit intellectualism was not to everyone’s taste, of course, and other more semiotic forms of mystery cults based upon ritual, myth and symbolism served the needs of those with more traditional (less orientalised) tastes. Orphism was perhaps the oldest and best-established of these traditions – possibly the ‘granddaddy’ of them all, with its origins in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE at least. Its initiates sought to ‘purify’ themselves in order to achieve a better afterlife. Mithraism was certainly the most popular of the newer cults, spreading from Asia Minor into the most northern and western extents of the Roman Empire between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the Common Era. Similar popular mystery religions centred around the Thracian god Sabazios (a regional relative of Dionysus) and European syncretic cults involving the Celtic gods, such as that of the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ involving Epona in Eastern and northern Europe, and a profusion of others more poorly understood due to paucity of material evidence. These all had the common trait of emphasising the position of the characters of ‘Sol’ and ‘Luna’ in their iconography – almost as a ‘badge’ of their ‘mystery’ status.

A Roman relief depicting the banquet of Sol, Luna and Mithras.

A Roman relief depicting the banquet of Sol, Luna and Mithras.

An exquisite example of a plaque depicting the 'Danubian Horsemen' and their central goddess... seemingly a version of Epona.

A plaque depicting the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ and their central goddess (Epona): Sol Invictus rides his quadriga at the top of the image, which deals with the imagery of the cult’s mysteries.

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

A coin of Emperor Constantine I who converted to Christianity and took the Empire with him. The depiction on the obverse is of Sol Invictus.

A coin of Emperor Constantine I who converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. The depiction on the obverse is of Sol Invictus – a vision of where things were heading?

The deified sun was conflated in this era with the older Greek  god Apollo, whose identity was favoured by the Romanised Celtic peoples from the Danube basin to the Atlantic northwest of Europe, in their own syncretic cults. Such cults throughout the Empire had displaced those of the older Capitoline and Olympian Roman and Greek deities among the general populations, although these still had a civic role to play.

Perhaps the most important, popular and long-running cult of the elder Greek gods was that of Dionysus, whose oldest festival – the Rural Dionysia – coincided with the period of the winter solstice whose Greek month was named in honour of the ancient sea god: Poseidonia. This was a festival of dressing up in the guise of the retinue of the god: men as satyrs or silenoi and women as maenads. It was also, significantly, a festival of the epiphany of Dionysus to mankind, which celebrated the god’s transubstantiation of water into wine and the mysteries of budding nature: themes obviously borrowed into later christianity. At Delphi, there was a tradition that Apollo left to live among the Hyperboreans during the month when Dionysus manifested among the people at this festival, at which there was much singing of popular songs by all classes in Greek society – a tradition surviving in the modern European Christmas singing festivities.

After the third century CE the rise of iconoclastic, literate, literalised and intellectualised religious tendencies in the Hellenized Eastern Empire and North Africa was increasingly to eclipse the western traditions of mysterious figurative mythology, which had been at the cornerstone of European religion for millennia. Apollo, Sol, Belenos, Attis, Dionysus and Adonis became ‘Logos’ – replaced by an intellectual man-god who claimed to be ‘the light of the world’, promising – in return for an oath of allegiance – ‘regeneration’ after death into a divine afterlife, safe from the confusion of life. The perfect model of benevolent Imperial power in fact…

Early Christian writers attest to the disagreement between the supposed Nativity day – one for which there is obviously no precedent in the ‘gospel’ traditions, yet which – as the temporal power of the Christian religion grew – became more important to establish, in order that the ‘church’ might exert leadership over the people and displace the pagan festivities.

The earliest Christian authors from whom we have records and quotations make no reference to a celebration of Christ’s nativity. Origen of Alexandria (245CE) and Arnobius (303CE) both scorn the idea that holy men should have their birthdays celebrated, and imply that this is a practice of sinners.

The earliest reference  from Rome itself to a Nativity festival for Christ held on the 25th of December (the festival of the Rebirth of the Unconquered Sun) is in a document produced for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus in 354CE (‘The Calendar of Philocalus’), of which only copies survive. However, there is evidence that the main focus of the Empire in the East at Constantinople was celebrating the nativity on 6th of January at this time, and it would not be until the advent of the 5th century that the 25th of December would hold sway across all of the main Christian patriarchies (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria), in the drive for Orthodoxy which followed the establishment of the religion as a state Imperial cult, as well as the religion followed by Christianised kings who established themselves in the ruins of Rome’s collapsed western Empire in Atlantic Europe.
It is interesting why the arguments often veered between dating the nativity on the 6th of January (still favoured by the Armenian Church) or the 25th of December: Other recorded early traditions even put the nativity closer to the summer solstice, although these were roundly dismissed in favour of the midwinter dating, corresponding to the solar rebirth festivals of paganism. One must remember that early Christianity was spread across the vast Roman Empire, and was well established at centres such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and Antioch before the pagan system was rejected by the Emperors. There was no formal agreement as to the structure of festivities, except where there was literal evidence from scriptures.

Pagan Rome’s Empire and the Hellenized cultures it was enveloping generally exercised a policy of syncretism and acceptance of diversity, whereas the new literature-based Abrahamic monotheism was based upon inclusion/exclusion determined by active profession of faith and the purificatory symbolic act of baptism. Before its imposition as state religion within the Empire, Christianity was a religion of the faithful that need pay no heed to incorporating pagan ideas. As a state religion though, compromises were necessary and the religion ‘swallowed the blue pill’ in order to incorporate more peacefully with humanity and establish itself at the centre of power. Hence the use of the day of the Nativity of Sol Invictus as the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.

Solar aspects of Epiphany/Theophany:

The indecision between the significance of nativity and epiphany perhaps recognised the importance to Christians of ‘spiritual’ birth or ‘revelation of the godhead’ to the people over the material act of parturition, which after all involved vaginas, body fluids and loco-feminis – ideas considered ‘spiritually unclean’ and somewhat repulsive to patristic religions, and Abrahamic ones in particular. The ‘Epiphany’ represented the cultic dedication of the Christ child to humanity, in the form of his supposed unveiling to the ‘Magi’ in the nativity story. It was a retelling of the Greek myths of the hiding of the infant Zeus from his father Kronos who sought to destroy him, and the visiting of various divine beings to the cave which sheltered him.

Jesus’ circumcision – the Attis/Ouranos myth retold?

Another festival prior to Epiphany celebrated Christ’s initial dedication to the jealous tribal god of Judaea – Yahweh – whose introduction by the post-exilic elites of Judah to the polytheistic semitic world marked a watershed in the eventual decline in the religious diversity of the ancient world of the Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Yahweh demanded absolute obedience from birth, including the marking by genital mutilation of male children, and the circumcision of Jesus was celebrated on the 1st of January, the first day of the first month of a new solar year. This – in Jewish custom – is supposed to occur within 8 days of birth, and is usually accompanied by the child’s naming, so prefigures the development of ‘Logos’ (in the words of John: ‘…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…’ ) and the inevitable Epiphany. There are older precedents for it: in particular, the sacrifice of genitalia by a youthful solar deity was a religious theme not uncommon to more ancient mythologies: The Greeks told the story of the Titan proto-god Kronos (associated with the Roman Saturnalia festival) castrating his child-slaying father Ouranos (the personified sky) with a sickle to spare the children Ouranos had created, and the Phrygians told the myth of their male solar-God Attis castrating himself in a similarly fertile mystic self-sacrifice to the Earth goddess, Cybele. Perhaps the Greek myth of Apollon (Apollo) killing the great Python of Delphi has similar mystic origins, as do the ithyphallic Dionysian, Hermetic and Orphic traditions also popular at the time of the inception of Christianity.

Perihelion and lengthening days:

The period between 1st and 6th of January marks a time when the sun begins to show a definite change in elevation in the sky and days are perceptibly longer. This is also currently the time when the Earth is closest to the Sun in its orbit – the ‘Perihelion’ – when the planet’s southern hemisphere scorches and the northern is tilted into the depths of its winter.

The Solar-Oceanic gods:

This midwinter solstice period also corresponded roughly to the sixth month of the ancient Greek calendar: Poseidonia. Poseidon was one of the oldest Greek gods, being mentioned before the inception of the Olympians in the Linear B texts surviving from the Mycenaean era of the 2nd millennium BCE. He corresponds in this sense to the ‘elder’ god Kronos, who was father of Zeus in Hesiod’s archaic-era ‘Theogony’, and who was ruler of the Golden Age typically celebrated in Rome’s winter solstice celebration: Saturnalia.  The Kronides – monstrous children of Kronos who pepper Greek myths – are the typical adversaries of ancient Greek heroes venturing to the far reaches of the encircling world-river, Okeanos, and Kronos-Poseidon corresponds incredibly closely to the ancient Gaelic Solar-Oceanic god-character Manannán in this regard. As god of the afterlife he was a perfect hypostasis of the Solar Jesus, introduced so successfully and so early among the non-Romanised pagan Gael of the Atlantic West….

 

 

 

 

The pagan roots of St Martin’s day – 11th November

A German statue of St Martin donating his cloak to the poor man.

A German statue of St Martin donating his cloak to the poor man.

In my previous post I discussed the significance of Armistice Day falling on the 11th of November, which is also St Martin’s day: St Martin of Tours (d.397 CE) was a ‘military’ saint of the early Christian church who evangelised northern Gaul, and who is celebrated as one of the more important ‘local’ saints in northern Europe, along with characters such as St Patrick. St Martin’s day falls on the ‘old’ (Julian calendar) All Saints’ Day (‘Hallowe’en’) and is therefore linked to the celebrations of the Celtish quarter-day festival knownamong the Gaels as Samhain, and which is observed in reverence to the souls of the dead.

Processions and ritual begging:

St Martin’s day (and St Martin’s Eve) customs perhaps unsurprisingly share similarities with those of Hallowe’en: In Germany, for instance, the Gripschen or Heischebrauch customs of children going from door to door begging gifts of food, sweets etc in return for songs (Martinsleid) is associated with St Martin’s day (Martinstag). In Germany – as elsewhere in Europe – this custom was also associated with the medieval ‘souling‘ traditions observed variously on All Hallows day (1st November) or All Hallows Eve (31st October) as well as All Souls’ day (2nd November). In ‘souling’ people would go door to door offering prayers for the dead in return for the gift of ‘soul cakes’. This seems to have evolved into the modern Hallowe’en ‘trick or treat’ custom, but was a feature of other festivals of the ‘winter quarter’, such as the Christmastide ‘wassailing’ and ‘guising’ tradition parties of ancient European tradition. Ritual begging was therefore an ancient and important cultural custom, and the idea of receiving divine favour in return for bestowing hospitality on the poor and needy was a key element to religious observances of the Christian and pre-Christian eras (for example, the Roman and Greek festivals of Saturnalia and Kronia).

The most popular legend of St Martin is that of him dividing his soldier’s cloak to share it with a freezing beggar (who was then revealed to him in a vision to have been Christ personified), hence the association of Martin’s festival with begging traditions. In modern Germany and other north European countries, children take part in lantern processions on St Martin’s eve and these are usually led by a man dressed as the saint – often depicted as a Roman soldier with a large cape on horseback. These processions culminate in the St Martin’s bonfires, at which people eat traditional foods and drinks (such as gluwein). Similar festivities in modern Britain occur on 5th November (divested of any Catholic trappings, and often with pyromaniac Protestant iconoclasms). In Ireland bonfire celebrations were formerly held at Samhain. It is evident that they are all based on an older seasonal tradition which has diversified with time and changes to the political and religious landscape.

The spirits of the dead were, before and after the advent of christianity, associated with a hunger for the warmth and fecundity of our world. The act of appeasing the needy and hungry can be thought of in technical terms as assuaging this ‘pull’ from the otherworld which might threaten our imminent ‘crossing over’ to join the dead.

Martin the warrior:

The legend of Martin of Tours given us by Sulpicius Severus (4th/5thC CE) says that he was originally a Danubian noble serving in a Roman cavalry outfit who, through a process of divine revelation, transitions from a physical form of warfare to the spiritual one of the Christian narrative. This in itself is illustrative of the ‘spiritual rebirth’ through which followers of his religion defined themselves – then and now. This confusion of death and life was typical of the ancient pagan European worldview about warfare and death, a view which was personified by Martin’s namesake – the Roman god Mars who (unlike his Greek counterpart Ares) represented chthonic wealth as well as war. That Martinmas comes at time when it is traditional in Europe to make a celebration of agricultural fertility and full winter stores is therefore intriguing.

In the skies, the season is marked by the prominence of the great winter ‘warrior’ (or ‘hunter’) constellation of Orion – imagined as a man holding high a sword and shield. Another interpretation might be a herdsman – cattle were generally moved from pasture into their winter stalls by Martinmas, and the ‘campaigning season’ for warfare was over. The warrior-hunter-herdsman constellation being displayed in the heavens might possibly have been viewed as an indicator that such activities on earth should cease. In Germany another old tradition used to be of herdsmen giving a ritual bundle of branches (the Martinsgerte – ‘Martin’s Switch’) to the farmer at Martinmas, which would be used the next Whitsuntide (Beltain) to drive the cattle to their summer pastures. This may represent the fact that herding was seasonal hired work, and in many places St Martin’s Day was a traditional holiday for herdsmen, who also identified with St George. Whatever the case, wands or switches crop up in many European winter folk-traditions and performances from before the modern age.

Association with horses:

Martin was said to have been of Illyrian birth – from the ‘Danubian’ provinces of the late Roman empire. Eastern Europe and Germania provided many of the elite cavalry units of the Roman army, and from the late 3rd century military men from these regions came to dominate the upper echelons of the Roman military hierarchy, even providing Emperors. This rise of the ‘Equites’ would in turn syncretise with the military traditions of the western Celtic tribes and eventually give rise to the European ‘knights’ of the middle ages. Martin bestrode both such worlds and his iconography demonstrates this. In the Gallo-Roman world he came to evangelise, as well as the Celticised Danubian provinces of the late Empire the cult of Epona – supposedly a Celtic horse-goddess – was prevalent, especially among military elites. This appears to have had a special Danubian flavour added to it in Eastern Europe, where her cult was linked to that of the ancient Greco-Roman Dioskoroi – the twin brothers who were expert horsemen, and whose legend suggested one was human and the other divine. It is possible that Martin’s father was aware of or even participated in such a cult, as he was said not to have been Christian. Mystery cults – particularly that of Mithras – were prevalent among the late Imperial military.

Martin’s figurative rejection of his military calling as one of the Equites (as told by Sulpicius Severus) can be interpreted as a rejection of the figurative cultural importance of the horse among his chosen flock, whose coins before the Roman conquest almost universally depicted the image of the horse along with a multitude of spiritually significant symbols. Severus tells a number of stories of Martin destroying the sacred groves and temples of Gaulish pagans, so the narrative of his hagiography needed to account for this. Tours was a ‘Belgic’ part of Gaul, strongly influenced by the military-spiritual late Iron Age cultural movement which appears to have stimulated the Celtic expansion of the ‘La Téne’ era of the second half of the 1st millennium BCE.

Association with birds:

Apart from the ritualised begging and celebrations of altruism, there is another old custom associated with St Martin’s day, involving birds. This is represented in Germany by the eating of a goose (the Martinsgans) at a special meal in honour of the saint, although duck is the more favoured bird in modern times. The reason given for this custom is based on the hagiography left by Martin’s contemporary, Sulpicius Severus, who declared the saint’s modesty as one of his virtues, illustrating it by the tale that Martin hid in a goose-shed when the crowds at Tours wished to elevate him to the rank of Bishop. The geese proclaimed his presence and he was forced to accept the honour.

Irrespective of the hagiographic legends, it was traditional at this time of the ancient subsistence agriculture cycle of Europe  to slaughter geese and pigs (both of which could be salted down to be preserved for the winter). In German ethno-linguistic regions the Schlachtfest (‘Slaughter Festival’) usually coincided with Martinmas. The tradition of animal slaughter at this period might explain the former custom in parts of Ireland of the Martinmas cockerel, which used to be slaughtered on St Martin’s Eve by bleeding. Sometimes a goose was used. The custom survived well into the 20thC – blood from the bird was dripped at the boundaries, corners and portals of the homestead or farmstead in order to procure luck (or protection from the saint) for the coming year. The bird was then eaten at a special meal (meat was only ever an occasional luxury in former times). This bird-slaughtering tradition evolved into the American settlers’ ‘Thanksgiving’ festival, celebrated on the third Thursday of November. All-Hallows or Martinmas were also traditional festivals at which tithes were traditionally paid to churches, and when servants were hired or released from service, sometimes a time when rents were paid. The ‘functional’ aspects of such festivals were sometimes displaced to Michaelmas – and although not practised on Martinmas, the tradition of a goose-feast at Michaelmas (29th September) was observed in Britain. when rents and tithes were often expected. Perhaps variations in the harvest-period between regions have informed this plasticity.

In the Isle of Man the custom of slaughtering a fowl was formerly celebrated on St Catherine’s day (25th November – a closer analogue of Thanksgiving) when a female hen suffered its fate, and was committed to a ‘solemn’ burial (perhaps made less solemn by the inebriated state of the celebrants) as part of the festivities of the tiny island nation’s St Catherine’s fairs. The meaning of the Manx ‘St Catherine’s Hen’ and its ritual slaughter and burial at a public fair is obscure – it could be anything from a pagan survival to a modern form of anti-clericalism or anti-Catholicism. What is similar, however, is the better-known bird-killing ritual involving the slaughter of a wren on the same island on the 26th December (St Stephen’s Day), suggesting a pre-Christian avian tradition. In avowedly Catholic Ireland this custom also occurred and in both countries (Mannin and Ireland) there were legends suggesting the wren was the personification of a powerful female fairy, leaving us to conclude that the ritual slaughter of a bird during the winter quarter had some religious significance in the ancient Atlantic world.

Returning to St Martin (and the 11th of November), it is worth commenting on some other bird-related associations. Not in the least is the use of the name ‘Martin’ for a class of bird of the family Hirundinidae, including the Swallows, House Martins, Sand Martins etc. These are migratory birds who appear in Europe during the late spring-time, and are usually departed to their over-wintering locations by the 11th of November. Anciently it was believed that, rather than migrating, they in fact slept over winter at the bottom of ponds and rivers. This belief may be based upon the observation of these species regularly skimming down over water in order to drink while ‘on the wing’.  By the same estimation, flocks of migratory plovers coming in to roost and feed on estuarine mudflats often appear to be ‘diving’ into the water. In ancient Rhodes (so the 2ndC CE Greek poet Athenaeus tell us) were beggars known as the Chelidonistai (‘Swallow Men’) who would come around in early springtime with the arrival of the swallows and sing traditional songs in order to earn alms. He mentions another class known to him (Coronistai) who carried a dead crow or raven and also solicited alms through a song. Obviously, there is a parallel with the Christianised medieval traditions of ritualised begging, so important to the Christian narrative. These were celebrated in Swabia (Upper Bavaria) at Whitsuntide (the closest Christian festival to Beltain) by the ‘Waterbird Men’, who performed songs for alms. Frazer (‘The Golden Bough’) quotes various German authors saying how these as also going into the forests to gather oak branches and other greenery, as well as sometimes diving into water, or throwing straw effigies of a large bird into water. In medieval times a wooden bird was displayed in Bavarian churches at Whitsun, evidently to depict Jesus, but possibly part of a Christianised tradition of the pagans. Like the Manx and Irish ‘Wren Boys’ these Whitsuntide parties of young men dressed in white, and wore red sashes. Just which ‘water bird’ species (if any) was intended is unclear – it may be that the placing of the bird in water was the origin of the name. Beltain is 6 months from Samhain – at the other side of winter – and St Martin also enjoyed a more ancient midsummer feast (Martinus aestivus, 4th July). The ‘Martin’s Bird’ (Martinsvögel) in Germany might also refer to an old tradition of a bird-shaped harvest sheaf (possibly even the one once cast into the water at Whitsuntide in Swabia), and is also the name sometimes given to other bird species such as the Black or Greater Spotted Woodpecker, the goose or even the Ladybird (also associated in German legend with Frau Holle).

The symbolism of migratory birds seems ideals for expressing the cycles of death and rebirth. These are best represented in European legends by species such as the Martins and Swifts, the Geese and Swans, and aquatic species such as the Plovers. St Martin was credited with bringing Christianity (which promised renewal not in this world but another one) to much of the notoriously militant, formerly barbarian Romanised cultures of north Europe. His name and military aspect seem like a fitting identity for someone who converted the Gauls from their vestiges of druidism, which taught that the soul flies from the body after death and is renewed in a far-off place before returning again in a new incarnation. Such empirical and spiritual symbolism pervades the legends and folklore of  Celtish and related European cultures, and survives the Christian era – testament to the power of the old and mysterious worldview.

Epona and the cult of the Danubian Horsemen

The Getae (Dacians) and other peoples of the Danube basin developed a fascinating religious cult some time between the 1st and 3rdC CE whose imagery seems to have been a syncresis of the worship of Epona and that of the ‘Thracian Hero’ or Sabazios. The reason we know about it is from a collection of small lead plaques and occasional stone stelae  depicting cult images. After Trajan conquered the Dacians at the start of the 2ndC CE, his admiration for them as a military fighting force and organised society led to a rapid assimilation of them into the Empire and offered Dacian warriors and nobility an opportunity to serve with honour in the Roman army – particularly the cavalry. Dacians, Dalmatians, Moesians, Sarmatians and their Thracian cousins and neighbours had a great equestrian tradition and became key recruits to Rome’s elite mounted fighting forces. As such their native religious cults often appear to have involved the horse – in particular the mounted ‘Thracian Hero’ and the more northerly ‘Danubian Horsemen’ imagery come to mind. There was also the ‘celtic’ goddess Epona, whose idea and imagery was popular not only in the Balkans and down the Danube, but among the ‘Germanic’ peoples who existed along and around the river Rhine in Germania, and even in Gaul and Rome itself.

The phenomenon referred to as the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult is perhaps of greatest interest, as appears to show elements of syncretism uniting the more western or Celtic ‘Epona’ cult and the more eastern Thracian ‘Horseman’ cult. The lead plaques which are the most common source of the Danubian imagery are typically quite small – they’d fit in the palm of your hand – and were obviously devotional objects of some kind.

An exquisite example of a plaque depicting the 'Danubian Horsemen' and their central goddess... seemingly a version of Epona.

An exquisite example of a plaque depicting the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ and their central goddess… seemingly a version of Epona.

Apart from the central goddess and her two (or four) horses – an image familiar from the Epona cult – they typically show aspects of the chthonic imagery associated with the Thracian/Phrygian deity Sabazios, and Delphic Apollo: namely the serpent or dragon. The dragon was an important and iconic aspect of Dacian symbolism, as evidenced by their legendary ‘Draco’ banners as depicted on Trajan’s column in Rome. The other essential piece of imagery associated with the cult is the sacrificial fish which appears in the image above in three forms: under the hooves of one of the horses, on the ‘altar’ surrounded by three women, and upon a sacral tripod.

Epona with two horses - note the similarity with the Danubian cult iconography

Epona with four horses – note the similarity with the Danubian cult iconography

The usual appellation of  ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult actually removes the real central figure from the religion, which is actually the seated goddess. Whereas the ‘Thracian Horseman’ images usually represent the solitary hero on his horse vanquishing a boar or similar beast, here there are two riders – somewhat akin to the Greek Dioskoroi, the famed equestrian brothers of ancient Greek religion, one of whom was mortal and one of whom was divine. Such imagery is an important aspect of the ‘divine hero’ cults which drove societies in this age: it was important that humans could aspire to the divine through identity (tribal or spiritual) with such ideas. Although Hercules was a popular image in this age, his non-equestrian nature would not have appealed so much to warriors of the Danubian region…

By the ‘Dioskorian’ interpretation of this imagery, the goddess seated between the two horsemen would have been seen as an intercessor between the divine and the mortal and therefore a goddess of death and war. The Dioskouroi – Kastor/Castor and Polydeukes/Pollux themselves represented the combination of immortal with mortal – a fact as important to their cult as their association with horses. By common European norms of the day, the owners and riders of horses held a superior cultural and social status – a feature which has endured down to the modern day. The goddess who controls horses was therefore the goddess with power over human society’s elites – perhaps explaining the importance of ‘Epona’. The ‘fertility’ aspect of Epona has often been commented on – perhaps on account of this cultural power-relationship of humans with horses. The imagery of serpents associated with the Sabazios and Danubian cults reflects the power of decay to promote fertility – an aspect reflecting the ideas of kingship and ambition which lead to wars, which in turn led to death and regeneration in Europe’s ancient societies.

Writing in the 1stC BCE, Diodorus of Sicily had this to say about the Celts of Atlantic Europe (which if he is borrowing from Herodotus :

 “…The Keltoi  who dwell along the ocean venerate the Dioskoroi above any of the gods, since they have a tradition handed down from ancient times that these gods appeared among them coming from the ocean…” Library of History 4. 56. 4 (trans. Oldfather)

This may explain the fish in the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult imagery – the Dioskouroi were also favourites among Greek and Roman fishermen and mariners, and the Danube basin was famously associated with fisheries and river trade as well as its cavalry traditions, and the river was well-stocked with fish in ancient times, including the freshwater Danube Salmon (Hucho hucho) which can grow to a huge size – as big as a man! The giant fish being trampled by the hooves of the leftmost rider on the ‘Danubian’ plaque may well be one of these. It seems a good fisherman’s alternative to the ‘Thracian Horseman’, typically portrayed trampling his porcine or leonine prey.

So why Epona and what does she signify?

The Danubian ‘Epona’ is depicted making contact with the horses of the two mounted heros, and occupies the central upper part of the plaques’ imagery associated by the usual interpretation with the spiritual or otherworld realms.  In the plaque depicted above, under the arch (which depicts the vault of the heavens) is another figure who appears to be driving a quadriga chariot yoked to four horses and with the rays of the sun coming from his head – evidently this is Helios-Apollo. Other similar plaques depict Sol and Luna (or Helios-Apollo and Artemis-Hecate-Selene, interchangeably Sabazios and Bendis) in the same position. This syncretic imagery seems to have been shared with the late classical Sabazios and Mithras cults of Thracia and Phrygia which subsequently spread throughout the Roman empire. For the solar and lunar gods to be depicted above ‘Epona’ suggests to me that the events in the drama of her mysteries in this cult happened at the gateway to the otherworld, and places this ‘Epona’ as a receiver of the dead. Not a ‘goddess of horses’… She may have been viewed as this by Romans who absorbed Epona’s cult (see: Juvenal, Satires VIII), but they also popularised the Dioscuri as gods of horses! This was evidently a mystery cult whose outward façade hid higher truths.

Some of the Danubian plaques depict Epona interacting with the horses while simultaneously cutting/sacrificing the fish on a tripod altar, sometimes a pedestal altar. Others, like the one above in particular, leave this to a trio of apparently female figures. The image in fact looks like a depiction of Shakespeare’s ‘weird sisters’ around their cauldron, although it may be a pedestal altar. This may be a depiction of a cult practice, but it might equally portray the typically Celtic ‘triple’ aspect of the divinity above, which imagery seems often to have been borrowed by the Greeks and Romans. The left-most figure is dumpy and matronly, the right-most seems lithe and young, the one in the middle is difficult to age unfortunately, but I shouldn’t be surprised if she was supposed to be a crone