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….





Apollo and the Hyperboreans

“…Of the fairest glories that mortals may attain, to him is given to sail to the furthest bound. Yet neither ship nor marching feet may find the wondrous way to the gatherings of the Hyperborean people.Yet was it with these that Perseus the warrior chief once feasted, entering their homes, and chanced upon their sacrifices unto the god, those famous offerings of hecatombs of asses; for in their banquets and rich praise Apollon greatly delights, and laughs to see the rampant lewdness of those brutish beasts. Nor is the Mousa (Muse) a stranger to their life, but on all sides the feet of maidens dancing, the full tones of the lyre and pealing flutes are all astir; with leaves of gleaming laurel bound upon their hair, they throng with happy hearts to join the revel. Illness and wasting old age visit not this hallowed race, but far from toil and battle they dwell secure from fate’s remorseless vengeance…”Pindar: Pythian Ode 10. 27 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.)

Once a year, Apollo – the solar son and youthful aspect of Zeus – was believed by the Greeks to leave Hellas and go far to the north to visit a place they called Hyperborea. Like the departure of Persephone/Kore, this probably represented the darkest month, and at Delphi, Pythian Apollo’s oracle closed down for this period, the god being believed absent and away travelling.

Remains of the temple of Apollo at Delphi - note the passing resemblance to northern European (ie - Hyperborean) 'stone circles'...

Remains of the temple of Apollo at Delphi – note the passing resemblance to northern European (ie – Hyperborean) ‘stone circles’…

This land of Hyperborea was believed by the ancient Greeks to lie for all intents and purposes due north on the far shores of world-encircling Okeanos, so it was therefore a place where strange and ancient things might be discovered and glimpses of purer and holier ancient ways of life might be had. By the same association it lay in closer proximity to the aether or spiritual world among which the dead and the divine spirits dwelled. In some Greek legends (e.g. – Perseus) it was a place you had to pass through in order to reach the most remote spacially and temporally remote ‘Cronian’ regions, the lands of giants, gorgons and harpies, far away in the time before memory, after the world had just begun. As pretty much all peoples north of Macedonia were referred to as ‘barbarians’ by the ancient Greeks, it is fair to say that far alien Hyperborea sometimes functioned as a narrative form for an ‘acceptable’ face of barbarism: Like Plato’s Atlantis and Plutarch and Homer’s Ogygia, it provided a hypostasis of man’s universal exotic barbarian past, portrayed as living by higher philosophical ideals more akin to an idealised theocratic Athenian society. Contrast this with the often violent reality of interactions with ‘barbarians’ closer to home: Hyperboreans were an ancient form of ‘noble savages’.

Stonehenge. Photograph: Jason Hawkes/Getty

Stonehenge. Photograph: Jason Hawkes/Getty

The solar god Apollo was deemed (as with many of his kind) to have a place of resort far away which he retreated to in winter, as befits the seasonal drama of. Such a belief demonstrates that the cult of Apollon engendered a seperate mythos to the agrarian-chthonic drama of Demeter-Hades-Persephone-Dionysus. Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 4. 32 – 36 : 4thC BCE) explains the connection between Hyperborea and Hellas (more specifically the island of Delos, said to be Apollo’s birthplace):

“… Concerning the Hyperborean people, neither the Skythians nor any other inhabitants of these lands tell us anything, except perhaps the Issedones. And, I think, even they say nothing; for if they did, then the Scythians, too, would have told, just as they tell of the one-eyed men. But Hesiod speaks of Hyperboreans, and Homer too in his poem The Epigonoi, if that is truly the work of Homer.But the Delians [from Delos] say much more about them than any others do. They say that offerings wrapped in straw are brought from the Hyperboreans to Skythia; when these have passed Skythia, each nation in turn receives them from its neighbors until they are carried to the Adriatic sea, which is the most westerly limit of their journey; from there, they are brought on to the south, the people of Dodona [an important Zeus/Apollonian oracle] being the first Greeks to receive them. From Dodona they come down to the Melian gulf, and are carried across to Euboia, and one city sends them on to another until they come to Karystos; after this, Andros is left out of their journey, for Karystians carry them to Tenos, and Tenians to Delos. Thus (they say) these offerings come to Delos. But on the first journey, the Hyperboreans sent two maidens bearing the offerings, to whom the Delians give the names Hyperokhe and Laodike, and five men of their people with them as escort for safe conduct, those who are now called Perpherees and greatly honored at Delos. But when those whom they sent never returned, they took it amiss that they should be condemned always to be sending people and not getting them back, and so they carry the offerings, wrapped in straw, to their borders, and tell their neighbours to send them on from their own country to the next; and the offerings, it is said, come by this conveyance to Delos. I can say of my own knowledge that there is a custom like these offerings; namely, that when the Thrakian and Paionian women sacrifice to the Royal Artemis, they have straw with them while they sacrifice.I know that they do this. The Delian girls and boys cut their hair in honor of these Hyperborean maidens, who died at Delos; the girls before their marriage cut off a tress and lay it on the tomb, wound around a spindle (this tomb is at the foot of an olive-tree, on the left hand of the entrance of the temple of Artemis); the Delian boys twine some of their hair around a green stalk, and lay it on the tomb likewise.In this way, then, these maidens are honored by the inhabitants of Delos. These same Delians relate that two virgins, Arge and Opis, came from the Hyperboreans by way of the aforesaid peoples to Delos earlier than Hyperokhe and Laodike; these latter came to bring to Eileithyia [i.e. Artemis] the tribute which they had agreed to pay for easing child-bearing; but Arge and Opis, they say, came with the gods themselves [i.e. Apollon and Artemis], and received honors of their own from the Delians. For the women collected gifts for them, calling upon their names in the hymn made for them by Olen of Lykia; it was from Delos that the islanders and Ionians learned to sing hymns to Opis and Arge, calling upon their names and collecting gifts (this Olen, after coming from Lycia, also made the other and ancient hymns that are sung at Delos). Furthermore, they say that when the thighbones are burnt in sacrifice on the altar, the ashes are all cast on the burial-place of Opis and Arge, behind the temple of Artemis, looking east, nearest the refectory of the people of Keos.I have said this much of the Hyperboreans, and let it suffice; for I do not tell the story of that Abaris, alleged to be a Hyperborean, who carried the arrow over the whole world, fasting all the while. But if there are men beyond the north wind (Boreas), then there are others beyond the south. And I laugh to see how many have before now drawn maps of the world, not one of them reasonably; for they draw the world as round as if fashioned by compasses, encircled by the Okeanos river, and Asia and Europe of a like extent. For myself, I will in a few words indicate the extent of the two, and how each should be drawn… “

*Film buffs may recall a retelling of the story of Alexander the Great called ‘The Man who would be King’ starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery, set in the British Raj. Connery’s sergeant-major carries a golden arrow as his stick of office…

Connery, Alexander or Abaris?

Connery, Alexander or Abaris?

Callimachus (3rdC BCE) takes up the description of this relationship with Delos’ idealised state:

“… Thou [Delos] art famed as the most holy of islands, nurse of Apollon’s youth. On thee treads not Enyo nor Haides nor the horses of Ares; but every year tithes of first-fruits are sent to thee : to thee all cities lead up choirs, both those cities which have cast their lots toward the East and those toward the West and those in the South, and the Hyperboreans (peoples which have their homes above the northern shore), a very long-lived race. These first bring thee cornstalks and holy sheaves of corn-ears, which the Pelasgians of Dodona [i.e. the famous oracle of Zeus] . . . first receive, as these offerings enter their country from afar. Next they come to the Holy town and mountains of the Malian land; and thence they sail across to the goodly Lelantian plain of the Abantes [i.e. the island of Euboia]; and then not long is the voyage from Euboia, since thy havens are nigh thereto. The first to bring thee these offerings from the fair-haired Arimaspoi were Oupis and Loxo and happy Hekaerge, daughters of Boreas, and those who then were the best of the young men. And they returned no home again, but a happy fate was theirs, and they shall never be without their glory. Verily the girls of Delos, when the sweet-sounded marriage hymn affrights the maidens’ quarters, bring offerings of their maiden hair to the maidens, while the boys offer to the young men the first harvest of the down upon their cheeks… ” Callimachus, Hymn 4 to Delos 275 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.)

It appears from these early accounts that the ‘Hyperboreans’ sent gifts of their ‘first fruits’ (apparently as or within bundles of corn/straw – the accounts vary) to Apollo’s supposed birthplace – the once-floating, formerly mobile island of Delos. This practice was going on as late as the 2ndC CE, according to Pausanias. They also state that two archery-oriented maidens accompanied the archery-oriented Artemis and Apollo to Delos when their mother Leto came pregnant fro Hyperborea: Opis (‘aim’) and Argis (‘distance’) – the Hyperboreiai. Furthermore he mentions the arrow-carrying prophet Abaris the Hyperborean: a holy man from a far-off land who preaches the word of Apollo. The arrow represented accuracy, reach and distance, yet must also have been a symbol of the northeastern steppes tribes (collectively referred to as Scythians, it seems) who were famous throughout the ancient world for their skills in archery and horsemanship. The arrow and the stalk of corn have certain morphological similarities too.

In spite of Herodotus and others’ proposed location of Hyperborea to the northeast above the Black Sea steppes, other authors such as Apollonius of Rhodes (‘Argonautica’, 3rdC BCE) suggest a more conventionally ‘Celtic’ location to the west. Here, he writes of the Argonauts’ return voyage via the lower reaches of the Hyperborean river, ‘Eridanos’:

“… Far on sped Argo under sail, and entered deep into the stream of Eridanos; where once, smitten on the breast by the blazing bolt, Phaethon half-consumed fell from the chariot of Helios into the opening of that deep lake; and even now it belcheth up heavy steam clouds from the smouldering wound. And no bird spreading its light wings can cross that water; but in mid-course it plunges into the flame, fluttering. And all around the maidens, the daughters of Helios, enclosed in tall poplars, wretchedly wail a piteous plaint; and from their eyes they shed on the ground bright drops of amber. These are dried by the sun upon the sand; but whenever the waters of the dark lake flow over the strand before the blast of the wailing wind, then they roll on in a mass into Eridanos with swelling tide. But the Keltoi (Celts) have attached this story to them, that these are the tears of Leto’s son, Apollon, that are borne along by the eddies, the countless tears that he shed aforetime when he came to the sacred race of the Hyperboreans and left shining heaven at the chiding of his father [Zeus], being in wrath concerning his son [Asklepios] whom divine Koronis bare in bright Lakereia at the mouth of Amyros. And such is the story told among these men. But no desire for food or drink seized the heroes nor were their thoughts turned to joy. But they were sorely afflicted all day, heavy and faint at heart, with the noisome stench, hard to endure, which the streams of Eridanos sent forth from Phaethon still burning; and at night they heard the piercing lament of the Heliades (daughters of Helios), wailing with shrill voice; and, as they lamented, their tears were borne on the water like drops of oil.Thence they entered the deep stream of Rhodanos [the Rhone] which flows into Eridanos; and where they meet there is a roar of mingling waters. Now that river, rising from the ends of the earth, where are the portals and mansions of Nyx (Night), on one side bursts forth upon the beach of Okeanos, at another pours into the Ionian sea, and on the third through seven mouths sends its stream to the Sardinian sea and its limitless bay. And from Rhodanos they entered stormy lakes, which spread throughout the Keltic mainland of wondrous size; and there they would have met with an inglorious calamity; for a certain branch of the river was bearing them towards a gulf of Okeanos…. “

This passage should pique the interest of scholars of Apollonian myths, as it contains distinct allusions suggesting a link between the legend of Helios’ son Phaethon (etymologically similar to ‘Python’) whose stolen sun-chariot appears to have crashed into a lake, suggested here to lie in the NW reaches of Europe, in which case it must be a reference to either Iceland or a peat bogland on the Atlantic fringe. The noxious vapours and oily waters (of cthonic-solar putrefaction) flow into ‘Eridanus’ and hence south closer to the ‘known’ world. Apollonius uses it to represent a challenge to the brave Argonauts, yet mentions the legend of the river’s nature was given by the Celts! The Stygian vapours of the rotting Python, slain by Apollo, were of course supposed to be the vapours emitted from the Omphalos at Delphi and inhaled by the Pythian oracle. See my articles on serpents and norse myth for an in-depth look at their symbolic link to rivers and regeneration – needless to say, Greek was an Indo-European language, in which the ‘P’ and ‘K’ sounds often switch: Pthon and Cthon link to this earthy putrefied origin. The river Eridanus therefore seems to be somewhat Stygian in aspect! It is interesting to speculate if the quadriga statue from Delphi was supposed to be a representation of this or simply of a racing quadriga. Phaethon may be

The Greeks certainly used the name Eridanus for the River Po, now in northern Italy and once the interface between Etruscan and Celtic tribes (such as the Boii). However, its mythical entity was connected with Hyperborea. This perhaps illustrates how the ‘barbarian horizon’ influenced Hellenic Greek thinking… Ptolemy (2nd C CE Greek geographer and astronomer) discussed the constellation of Eridanos (near to Cetus, Orion and other mythologically interesting groups associated with the Atlantic mythology): this suggests that it was a ‘sky-river’ befitting the astral ‘reality’ of northern Hyperborea. There are other mythological indications that this was the case:

For instance, Nonnos’ Dionysiaca 23. 380 ff (4thC CE) has the god Dionysos boast:

“I will drag down from heaven the fiery Eridanos whose course is among the stars, and bring him back to a new home in the Celtic land: he shall be water again, and the sky shall be bare of the river of fire.”

This no doubt reflects the old Greek association of Eridanus with the Po River, but yet again frames the legends which place Hyperborea beyond that geographical AND cultural, religiously potent and mysterious northern horizon, from beyond which geese and swans were noted to migrate in the ancient world. The swan in Europe and Eurasia is a bird strongly associated with legend, and indeed makes an appearance in the Greek mythos of Apollo’s Hyperborean servants, the Boreades – sons and daughters of the north wind (Boreas):

“… The race of the Hyperboreans and the honours there paid to Apollon are sung of by poets and are celebrated by historians, among whom is Hekataios, not of Miletos but of Abdera [Greek philosopher C4th B.C.] . . . This god has as priests the sons of Boreas (North Wind) and Khione (Snow), three in number, brothers by birth, and six cubits in height. So when at the customary time they perform the established ritual of the aforesaid god there swoop down from what are called the Rhipaion mountains swans in clouds, past numbering, and after they have circled round the temple as though they were purifying it by their flight, they descend into the precinct of the temple, an area of immense size and of surpassing beauty. Now whenever the singers sing their hymns to the god and the harpers accompany the chorus with their harmonious music, thereupon the swans also with one accord join in the chant and never once do they sing a discordant note or out of tune, but as though they had been given the key by the conductor they chant in unison with the natives who are skilled in the sacred melodies. Then when the hymn is finished the aforesaid winged choristers, so to call them, after their customary service in honour of the god and after singing and celebrating his praises all through the day, depart… ” Aelian, On Animals 11. 1 (2ndC CE)

It is worth remembering that in the myth of Perseus, the Graeae were three wyrd sisters who shared one eye and were tricked by Perseus in order to locate Medusa – they were sometimes portrayed as half-swan. Apollo’s mythological mother Leto has a name similar to Leda – the mortal woman bedded by Zeus in the form of a swan, father Castor and Polydeukes (Pollux) – the Dioskoroi or twins of ‘Gemini’. Callimachus’ hymn to Apollo refers to the swans – sacred to the Muses – who circled over his birth on Delos singing their hymns:

Callimachus, Hymn 4 to Delos 248 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
“…With music the swans, the gods’ own minstrels, left Maionian Paktolos and circled seven times round Delos, and sang over the bed of child-birth [i.e. of Apollon], the Mousai’s birds, most musical of all birds that fly. Hence that child in after days strung the lyre with just so many strings–seven strings, since seven times the swans sang over the pangs of birth. No eight time sang they : ere that the child leapt forth.”

The legend of Phaethon has a number of versions in which his friend Cygnus/Cycnus turns himself into a swan and plunges into Eridanus in grief for his death. The mournful tone of their song, the whistling noise of their wings, the association with the north and hence the far reaches of Okeanos and the otherworld made swans potent creatures in ancient European myths, as the tale of the Children of Lir from Ireland, and the descriptions of Valkyries as swan maidens from the Norse Edda myths suggest. Apollo’s annual migration to his beloved Hyperborea must have been a parallel metaphor to the migrations of the beautiful white birds…