Mythological Event Horizons Part 2: The Greco-Persian Wars

The ascendancy of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty in the 6thC BC and the subsequent Greco-Persian wars provides another ‘event horizon’ which impacts deeply upon our abilities to make a clear analysis of Europe’s ancient pagan history. The reason this so is not because Persian armies eventually reached Europe (they invaded the Balkans and Greece) but because of the negative and dismissive reaction it fostered in Greek opinion towards Persian and Mesopotamian ideas and civilisation from the 6th BC onwards. In view of the dark turns of current affairs in the Middle East involving campaigns of savage aggression towards the modern remnants of ancient Persian and Mesopotamian civilisation (focussed on Kurds, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Shia muslims and Iranians as well as actual archaeological sites), I thought it a noble cause worth examining.

Ancient Mesopotamian and Persian civilisations have rightly been placed as the cradle of civilisation, credited with creating the first cities, the first writing, and leading the world in technologies of agriculture, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. These innovations were supported by and developed alongside a pervasive cosmological and religious philosophy which has made these civilisations a byword for mystery and ancient wisdom, from a  long before the time Europeans could claim any such plaudits for their own religious, cultural and intellectual achievements.

Our story involving the Greeks starts with the collapse of the Indo-European Hatusa (Hittite) Empire of Asia Minor at the close of the 2nd millennium BC. This was a period of increasing colonisation and influence by Ionian and Aeolian peoples and culture (possibly those whom the Egyptians called the ‘Sea Peoples’) spreading from the east coast of Greece and from the region around the Gulf of Corinth (Homer’s Achaea) and out through the archipelagos of the Aegean. Their cultural influence spread and established itself in what would become known as the Troas, Lydia and Caria along the west coast of Asia Minor. By the 6th BC these cultures had grown powerful and wealthy through trade and industry and would have developed close mercantile and cultural ties to the Persian (Mede), Semitic (Phoenician) and Mesopotamian (Assyria and Babylonia) cultures of the Near East.


An example of their cultural affinity to easterners is illustrated by the fact that mainland Greeks frequently characterised the Ionians by their ‘long robes’ – a style influenced by a succession of pre-Hellenic Anatolian cultures including the civilisation of the Hatti or ‘Hittites’, the Lydians, the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia and the Indo-Iranian Medes. The Phrygians – like the Celts – wore breeches.

“… Many are your temples and wooded groves, and all peaks and towering bluffs of lofty mountains and rivers flowing to the sea are dear to you, Phoebus, yet in Delos do you most delight your heart; for there the long robed Ionians gather in your honor with their children and shy wives…” Homeric Hymn to Apollo, c.522BC.


The collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the 7th and 6thC BC was a catalyst for growth and expansion of those nations it had formerly held in check. The empire of the Indo-Iranian Medes (Media) expanded to occupy eastern Asia Minor, Scythia (as far as the Caucasus) and northern Mesopotamia (Syria). In Eastern Anatolia, the Ionic-Anatolian kingdom of Lydia gradually expanded its power and influence until it controlled most of western Asia minor and began to push eastwards against the Medes. Lydia’s proverbially wealthy king, Croesus, became politically and economically powerful due to his empire’s innovations in trade and industry (particularly cloth making, dyeing and metallurgy) and the development of gold coinage as an exchange medium.

The Lydians were particularly friendly with Ionian Greeks (who claimed to be descendants of the solar God Apollo), and in 560BC, says Herodotus, Croesus came to the oracle of Delphi, bestowing it with great wealth. In simultaneously demonstrating his affinity to the Greeks and to Apollo, Croesus was no doubt looking for support to push his empire eastwards against Median ruler Astyages.

By the time he had crossed into the Median lands in 547BC, Atyages had been deposed by the western Persian leader Cyrus, who defeated Croesus and used his treasury to fund his efforts establishing the new Persian Empire, which by 540BC had conquered or formed treaties with the coastal Ionians. Cyrus was an enlightened man who no doubt valued the Ionic values of statesmanship and philosophy, and preferred to work with the Ionians against the Lydians and their neighbours. For starters, they had ships and naval experience that he and his son would call upon, as they built and consolidated their Empire. Having secured Lydia, Cyrus’ had the finances needed to conquer Babylon in 539BC. He died in 530BC campaigning against the Scythians of central Asia and was replaced by his reputedly mentally unstable son, Cambyses II, who took Egypt in 525BC before his death followed by the succession of Darius in 522BC, during which there was a period of instability and fracture at the Empire’s roots.

Some Ionians, such as the colonies Samos of Miletus, became – for almost 50 years – trusted allies, power-brokers and advisors of the Persians and maintained a degree of independence that colonies such as Ephesus and Colophon could not. Likewise the Dorian colony of Halicarnassus on the Carian coast to the south of Ionia served a similar special purpose to the Persians. Under Cambyses successor, Darius I, the Empire stretched from Thrace to the Indus valley.

So, having consolidated their empire, was the scene really set for the invasion of Greece? Let’s just ‘stop the tape’ for a minute and discuss a few issues and clear up a few misconceptions about the Persians and the Greeks.

Poster for the 2007 movie '300: Birth of an Empire'. Those scary Persians!

Poster for the 2014 movie ‘300: Rise of an Empire’, directed by Noam Murro. Those scary Persians!

Anyone who has seen the movies ‘300’ and ‘300: Birth of an Empire’ (based on the Frank Miller comics) will know that the Achaemenid empire was a brutal, tyrannical, sexually debauched, scary and ill-disciplined alien horde, right? They must also know that when these apes swept into Greece they had their backsides kicked by a bunch of noble, well-oiled, disciplined man-loving hoplites, who then united to make Greece a glorious democracy as well?

This certainly fits with the ‘barbarian’ image of the Persians that the ancient Greeks came to entertain of them. Curious to the movie industry, charged as it is with the ideological politics of its impresarios and wealthy financiers, the story of the ‘300’ films and their imagery also appears to have functioned on an explicit allegorical level related the modern middle eastern conflict, presenting the Persians (whose army in the film are made consciously to look like Arabs) as some kind of dark twisted enemy of ‘Grecian’ light.

The demonisation of Xerxes in '300' fitted a very modern narrative. Were the opinions of the ancient Greeks to blame?

The magical ‘demonisation’ of Xerxes in the ‘300’ movie franchises fitted a very modern narrative. Were the opinions of the ancient Greeks ultimately to blame?

Of course, the ‘300’ franchise was really just a brutal fantasy, based partly on the memoirs of Herodotus and partly on the prejudices of the 21st century. In reality, the Achaemenids were far from how they were depicted in these films. For starters, Cyrus the Great had established his empire promoting a policy of tolerance and respect for the religions and administrative structures of the countries he invaded, ensuring that rebellion was relatively rare, and his territories easier to govern. When George Bush Jr invaded Babylon, he himself might have taken a leaf out of Cyrus’ book, but instead chose (deliberately it would seem) to set the nation of Iraq on a path to factionalism and chaos. Cyrus famously liberated the Jews of Babylon and helped them (re)build the temple at Jerusalem. Xenophon of Athens (a student of Socrates) declared of him in the 4th BC:

“… And those who were subject to him, he treated with esteem and regard, as if they were his own children, while his subjects themselves respected Cyrus as their ‘Father’…” (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, trans. Bohn)

Indeed, it appears that Cyrus was not considered a great threat to Greek interests. His successor and son Cambyses II likewise showed no particular interest and even allied with the Ionian and Dorian Greeks in his conquest of Egypt, even exploiting the Greeks’ good relations with the Egyptians during this period. Cambyses died in 522BC, supposedly by his own hand, although an assassination by his successor Darius (also implicated in the killing of Cyrus’ other son Bardiya) has been proposed as likely. Whatever the truth, Darius’ accession to the imperial throne was certainly marked by a period of dissatisfaction and unrest, and the Emperor was obliged to exercise harshness in putting down revolts across the Empire. This included the assassination of Samian tyrant Polycrates by the satrap of Lydia, Oroetus, at Sardis, which was then followed by the final conquest of the island, and a hurried exit or ejection for Pythagoras and other likely agitators of the Ionic cause.

In 499BC an open rebellion broke out among the Ionian city-states of Asia Minor, led by Miletus and backed by a military force from Athens. This pushed inland and sacked Sardis in 498 in an act which appears in the wider context of revolt within Darius’ Empire to be more an act of challenge and aggression by Athens than one in support of the interests of Ionia or Lydia. The scene was therefore set for Darius and his successor Xerxes to take punitive action against the Athenians as well as to try and take advantage of the Greek tendency to infighting.


Democracy – far from being the noble ideal of the ‘300’ films and modern political polemic – was used as a weapon imposed by Darius on the Ionian states: he saw it as a tool by which to weaken resistance – an enabler of empires. Think about this for a minute, in the light of modern world politics!


Although the combined power of the (nearly) united Greeks eventually and famously defeated Xerxes’ huge invading army, Greek opinion of Persian culture (and Athenian opinion in particular) was never to recover, and would spark a chain of developments which ultimately lie behind a change in the course of religion in Europe and the Near East, with a focus increasingly based upon human power.

Greek opinion of Persians after the War:

One of the earliest accounts of Athenian Greek jingoism (or at least tragedian schadenfreude) following the defeat of Xerxes at the Battle of Salamis in 479BC is  playwright Aeschylus’ The Persians, which was performed at the City Dionysia in spring of 472BC. The play deals with the return and despair of Xerxes to Persia, and is essentially a chance for the Greeks to wallow in the glory of their victory, and to portray the vanity of working against the will of the gods. Aeschylus’ words – the delight of his Athenian audiences – were later to ring hollow with the internicene chaos of Hellenic civil wars which closed the 6thC:

“…Ah, what a boundless sea of woe hath burst on Persia, and the whole barbaric race…”

Of course, not all Greeks opposed Xerxes’ invasion – the Carians under Queen Artemisia and the Ionians and Aeolians provided critical naval support. This may be why Herodotus of Halicarnassus was more or less sympathetic to the Persian cause in his account of the war. The Dorians of the Peloponnese (Sparta and Argos, for instance) were later sponsored by the Persians in the Peloponnesian Wars which occupied the closing third of the 5th BC. Athens was not popular with everyone.

Before the War – Ionian philosophers and the influence of Persia and Mesopotamia:

The period both immediately before and after the Persian conquest of Lydia and Ionia had been one during which the Ionians experienced a flowering of religious philosophy, almost certainly under the influence of their eastern neighbours and eventual conquerors.  The colony at Miletus was a particularly influential case in point, being home to the philosophical school of Thales (born c.624BC) and his successors Anaximander (born c. 611BC), Anaximenes and then Anaxagoras. Further to this, Miletus’ main Ionian sparring partner, the island of Samos, could (under the rule of Persian ally, Polykrates) boast of Pythagoras (born c.570BC) and his school. Out in the Cycladic gulf south of Delos, was the famous Pherekydes (born c.584BC) on the island of Syros, who is known to have corresponded with Thales. Coming slightly later we have Xenophanes of Colophon (born c.570BC) , and Herakleitos of Ephesus (born c.535BC). These are credited as formulating the doctrines underpinning the Classical Era philosophy and cosmology expressed by Plato and his successors, often termed the ‘fathers’ of western philosophy. The Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras (died c.428BC) was credited with bringing philosophy to Athens, but how far could the ideas of the ‘pre-socratics’ be truly be considered ‘western’? I would argue ‘not many’:

Persian and Assyrian religion:

Unlike the Greeks, the Persians (according to Herodotus) did not idolise their gods or god with imagery. Their’s was a religion that seemed to mirror divine principles, founded in the supreme divinity Ahura Mazda, a god of ethereal light and goodness who challenged the forces of evil or chaos. Ahura Mazda, appears to be a Persian development of the ancient Assyrian and Hurrian sky god – Ashura or Assura – in whose name the kingdoms were theophorically titled. They are part of an continuum, tied up with the ancient mythology of ancient Sumer and Akkad, and to Egypt further to the south. The innovation in the time of the Persian Empire appears to have been a vigorous refining of the Assyrian and Persian religion into what would become known as Zoroastrianism, possibly evolving during the reign of Darius.

As such, compared to the often confusing imagery supporting the Greek pantheon of gods it was philosophically attractive, especially to those who wished to promote an empire whose leader was personified as the logos or divine utterance of Ahura Mazda. Ahura/Ashura was no doubt the archetype upon which the Phrygian ‘Attis’ was based. He would have been the god of the Hittites (‘Hatusa’). The love of the Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian colonists of Asia Minor (not to mention king Croesus of Lydia) for the god Apollo was no doubt heavily influenced by this ancient Indo-Iranian divinity who celebrated intellect and the mind.

Here are a selection of comparisons between Persian and East Semitic religion and the philosophies of the Ionian pre-socratics.

Principle of the waters as ‘first cause’:

Attributed by Aristotle to Thales of Miletos in his Metaphysics is the concept of water as the ‘first principle’ of creation, eternal and itself uncreated. The Aeolian rhapsode-theologian, Hesiod (8th/7thC BC), attributed the first cause to ‘chaos’.

Pherekydes of Syros shared this viewpoint – his primal triad: Chronus (‘eternal time’), Zas (Zeus – the creative expression of ethereal light or pure water) and Chthonie (the feminine receiving principle equated with Anahita, Persian divinity of the salty waters) was very congruent with Persian and Babylonian religion. ‘Zas’ is probably a Hellenisation of ‘Ashura’ or ‘Ahura’, accomplished by the addition of the prefixal ‘Z’.

Herakleitos opined: “…For it is death to souls to become water, and death to water to become earth. But water comes from earth; and from water, soul…”, and: “…it is pleasure to souls to become moist…”, to which he qualified: “…The dry soul is the wisest and best…”

He saw water as a lower more primal form of development transcended by fire – that holy principle of the Persians. The Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian mythology placed the waters at the root of creation, and fire with the heavens and the divine – long before the Greeks became interested in the idea.

Strife as an life-giving factor for the universe:

Herakleitos said: “…Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away…”. This is an expression of

The Mazdean (Persian, Zurvan, Zoroastrian) concept was that life came about because of a necessity for conflict of opposites.

The Universal Soul and the circle:

Herakleitos said: “…You will not find the boundaries of soul by travelling in any direction, so deep is the measure of it…”

Thales was said by Aristotle to have proclaimed that “…all things are full of gods…”

Again, the Persian and Mesopotamian philosophies attributed a connecting divine fire to the root of all existence in pure water – the mystical transformation through annihilation, and the Greeks were evidently borrowing this idea. The circle was a prominent part of the winged symbol used to represent the divine emanation in Babylonian and Persian symbolism. Likewise the mysterious cycle of the waters from mountain to river to sea, back to mountain. This geometry was at the heart of Persian and Babylonian thought.

The mixed elements of water and earth imply destruction:

Xenophanes is quoted as saying: “…All things are earth and water that are come into being and grow…”. This was an expression of the Persian/Mesopotamian idea of the creative aspect of salty fluids, including the sea which was made of fresh water and the land mingled:

Hippolytus, quoting Theophrastus said: “… Xenophanes said that a mixture of the earth with the sea is taking place, and that it is being gradually dissolved by the moisture. He says that he has the following proofs of this. Shells are found in midland districts and on hills, and he says in the quarries at Syracuse has been found the imprint of a fish and of seaweed … These, he says, were produced when all things were formerly mud, and the outlines were dried in the mud…”

Pherekydes claimed that the generative act of Zeus (Zas) was bestowing a wedding blanket upon Chthonie made of earth and water, thus causing her to be fertile.

The legends of Enki (pure waters) and Tiamat (salt water of the abyss) expressed the same in Babylonian/Assyrian culture.

The Athenian ‘aftermath’ of eastern philosophy:

Considering the immense similarities between Ionian ‘Pre-Socratic’ and much more ancient Persian and Mesopotamian philosophies, we must presume that the Athenian schools of the lineage of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were simply trying to put a Hellenic spin on ideas that were not originally their own, but part of a much older pagan mythology of the ancient Indo-Europeans, which epitomised morality in its emphasis of virtues of goodness over evil: a ‘rationality’ that Greeks might find it hard to identify with ease in their own 1st millennium BC religion. Theirs was an ‘event horizon’ imposed by the victors of warfare and cultural dominance which denied the old and remodelled it in their own image.

Ancient connections between the Greeks and Indo-Persian peoples:

Many Greek myths are set deep within the Indo-European world. The most striking of these is the most ancient tales of Phrixus and of Iason/Jason and the Argonauts and their adventures in the Scythian kingdom of Colchis/Aia in the Caucasus. The recovery of the ‘golden fleece’ from the sanctuary of Ares (god of violent destruction), guarded by a dragon and beguiled by a lovely sorceress is an exploration of the heart of Indo-Aryan myth. Likewise, the oriental arrival of Dionysus follows in the footsteps of a people whose sacraments of intoxication (called Haoma in the Zoroastrian Avesta and Soma in the Rigveda) and may have underpinned the mysteries of ancient cults and oracles at Eleusis and Delphi.

  Placing ancient mystical ideas in the mouths and written words of philosophers, and of prophets and emperors, rather than in the mouths of poets and Magi, created a direct and legalistic expression of the divine, which was to fundamentally change religion.

It combined to form a religious and temporal model of authority which seeks today to destroy and enslave the ancient pagan seeds of tolerance and diversity which gave birth to mankind and her greatest achievements.

279BC and the ‘Sons of Tuireann’.

279BC marked the zenith of the Celtic ‘La Tene’ cultural period and the warlike seemingly pan-Celtic ‘Belgic’ religious-cultural movement which had rocked Europe to its core and provided Europe’s first verifiable highly mobile elite mercenary fighting forces. It was the year that combined Celtic (‘Gaulish’) armies, having began an invasion and settlement of the Balkans some years previously, surged down through Macedonia and northern Greece and sacked of the holy city of Delphi – home to the shrine of Apollo and the Pythean Oracle. It was ancient Greece’s most sacred (and wealthy) religious site and was internationally famous. Rumours of fantastical treasure hordes carried off from these conquests back into the Celtic world persisted for centuries afterwards (e.g. ‘The Gold of Tolosa’), and it is highly likely that the stunning victories became the stuff of legends and stories for an even longer period to come. A more interesting aspect of the episode is that it fundamentally changed opinions in the Greek and Roman worlds about Celtic power: The combination of 279BCE with the earlier 4thC BCE sack of Rome by another warlord called Brennus, and the various Punic Wars in which significant Celtic mercenary forces fought for Carthage, ultimately ensured that Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasts were determined to smash independent Celtic power and culture in its seats across western and northern Europe.

It has always intrigued me how tales of this stellar 3rdC BC event might have filtered back to Britain and (in particular) to Ireland, and influenced the medieval story traditions that have survived down to this day. An example I would like to share with you is a story known as Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann (‘The Tragedy of the Sons of Tuireann’), which was translated to English under the name ‘The Fate of the Children of Tuireann’ by Eugene O’Curry and first published in ‘The Atlantis’ (Volume IV, 1863) alongside the equally important ‘Fate of the Children of Lir’.

The earliest surviving manuscript of the tale is of a late period (16th/17thC) and is written in Early Modern Irish. However, the story has some features of great antiquity to it, and the narrative is in the tradition of the ‘Mythological Cycle’ discussing the war between the Fomorians and the Tuatha De Danann: an imaginative and magical period of prehistory. The tale seeks to illustrate the inevitabilty of how acts against gods will ultimately ensure the demise of the proud and vainglorious, and as such mirrors the typical tragedean approach of ancient Greek myths.

The Tragedy, Fate or Violent Death of the Sons of Tuireann: 

First, take a look at the story, here at the Celtic Literature Collective website. O’Curry’s translation can be found here, with extra notes.

The story is essentially about a group of three warrior brothers: Brian (the leader), Iuchar and Iucharba . On account of a blood-feud, they kill Cian of the Tuatha De Danann, inviting the wrath of his son – the solar warrior and champion leader of the Tuatha De Danann knights: Lugh Lamhfada (‘Long Arm’).

Lugh sets an erec (compensation fee) that at first seems lenient, but it transpires that Lugh has tricked them, and the warriors must engage in a wild and violent chase across Europe and the Middle East in order to gain what turns out to be the magical treasures of foreign kings, treasures that Lugh will require in order to win the final Battle of Magh Tureadh against the Fomorians. Tuireann’s sons achieve their goal, but ultimately meet their demise in so doing, sealing Lugh’s revenge with blood.

Upon closer analysis, this story shares many features of that of the famous 3rdC BCE invasion of Greece and sacking of Delphi. This episode, which started out as a Celtic attempt to immitate the glory of Alexander of Macedonia, as well as being motivated by greed and envy of the unstable post-Alexandrian state of the Macedonian monarchy and northern Greek alliances. It culminated in an act of religious desecration, which (in the ancient world) whilst seeming daring would have had a number of ominous consequences. The repercussions against Celtic culture (and in particular druidic culture) which were to come would have been interpreted in the light of the these events, and no doubt affected the morality expressed in poetic arts. Even the legends of Sigurd among the Germanic peoples can be interpreted in this same context.

Lugh’s first task, is to have the sons of Tuirenn plunder the apples (of immortality) from the orchard of the Hesperides, which was in ancient times believed to lie at the furthest point to the east in the world-encircling sea (river) of Okeanos. To reach it, Brian and his brothers are forced to borrow Mannanan’s boat ‘Sguabatuinne’ (‘Wave Sweeper’). Once there they take the form of birds in order to steal the apples.

It is obviously a retelling from the myth of Hercules, but with a distinct Celtic twist: the theme of distant islands and birds feature heavily in other perhaps older Irish tales and poems dealing with the Otherworld, including the Legend of St Brendan, and ‘The Voyage of Bran’. It is believed that birds were the souls of the dead, or conducted the souls of the dead to the Celtic Otherworld.

Hercules himself (as well as Pythian Apollo) was depicted on 1stC BC coins minted by Celtic tribes from the great army who settled in the Balkans, these being imitations of Greek Thasos tetradrachms:

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo - the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo – the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

It seems that the very act of going east towards the rising sun to seek the apples of immortality was an ideological theme which would have appealed greatly to the Gaulish warriors of Brennus’ army, seeking glorious immortality through heroic acts. In the 1st centuries BC and CE, Roman authors commented upon the fanatical aspects of Gaulish religion (said to have arisen in Britain) and that warriors were motivated to bravery by a belief in future reincarnation. Hercules’ defeat of the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides seems to be an alternate version of the Delphic myth of Apollo slaying Python. In our Irish tale, the leader of the adventurers is called ‘Brian’, very similar to the name Bran, and also to Brennus. All three means Raven in Celtic languages – the archetypal bird of war, and perhaps a symbol of reincarnating warriors.

After the Hesperides, the next significant target for the sons of Tuireann is the court of the Greek king, ‘Tuis’ (possibly a celticization of ‘Attis’). This seems suspiciously close to the raid on Delphi, particularly as they demand the king’s magical healing pig skin which brings men back to life. Tuis refuses but offers instead to give them as much gold as will fit on the skin, to which they acquiesce, only to whip the skin out from under the king’s nose in the treasury, kill the king and make off. The Gaulish army of 279BC famously killed the Macedonian King, Ptolemy Keraunos, before Brennus’ faction made for Delphi. Apollo (the god of Delphi) was famously a god of healing, and a need for healing is a theme which crops up again and again in Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann.

Next, the brothers go to Persia to obtain the king’s magically potent spear, killing the Persian king into the bargain. This may be a reference to the elements of Brennus’ army who settled in Anatolia and became known as Galatians. They were notorious as making their living as a mercenary fighting force among the Seleucid Kingdoms and were deployed across the middle east, perhaps as far as Persia, in fighting their wars. Another interpretation could be of the spear representing the Gaulish defeat of the Macedonian kingdom, which had in turn defeated the Achaemenid Empire (represented in the Irish tale by the ‘King of Persia’).

After Persia, they go to the King of Sicily (Siguil) posing as mercenaries in order to relieve him of his chariot and team of horses. This seems to be a reference to the Pyrrhic war, which coincided with and continued after the sack of Delphi. It involved the Carthaginians and Greeks fighting over Sicily, and although we cannot be certain that Celtic mercenaries were involved in this conflict, we know that they played a major role in the Second Punic War. Another Delphi-related detail is that one of its treasures was reported to be a large golden image of a god (probably Helios) riding a chariot.

From there, the heroes go to the kingdom of’ ‘Coloman Orda’, which O’Curry translates as ‘Pillars of Gold’. The location of this is less certain, but the Lugh demands the heroes relieve the king of this place of his nine magical regenerating pigs. I would suggest that the kingdom of the Pillars of Gold, well stocked with endless pigs suggests the Iberian peninsula. Iberian and Southern Gaulish support for Carthage was a significant factor in Hannibal’s campaign during the Second Punic War, the Celts of the city of Gades (modern Cadiz) having been ancient trading partners and cultural exchangees of the Phoenicians. The pigs are recognisably similar to the magic pigs owned by Manannan Mac Lir.

The final tasks involve plundering in colder climes among places less easily identified. Ioruaidh – ‘the cold country’ – furnishes them with a hunting dog, and the congregation of women occupying the island of Inis Cenn-fhinne donate a cooking spit. Finally they give three shouts upon a hill in Lochlann (a fjord in Norway?) in order to complete Lugh’s quest, though are grievously wounded by the hill’s guardians. Upon returning to Ireland they die, sealing Lugh’s revenge. These last three tasks imply a diminution in the difficulty faced and a retreat into a colder world, where their adventures finally finish with the Sons of Tuirenn dying merely for standing upon a hill and shouting, maybe just an echo from towering Mount Parnassos and its mighty shrine to the gods. Of all their earlier victories over kings, it seems that the story seeks to trace an almost ignominious end for the warriors…

The story resonates with themes from the late Celtic iron age, tracing the descent of this golden age from the glory and immortality of the attacks on Delphi, the apparent ill-luck and kin-strife of its aftermath leading through the ill-advised mercenary alliances of the Punic Wars and finally to the destruction of independent Celtic power by the conquests of Spain, Gaul, and Britain by the Romans. These events marked the final retreat of independent Celtic power in to the far northern and northwestern climes of Europe. The story of Brennus and that of the Sons of Tuirenn are (like that of Alexander the Great) a warning against vainglory, and the corruption of men by power and money. They are an evocation of the ancient pagan European concept that no manner of power and glory will make you immune from the implacable wrath of the gods when ill-treated.

The role of Lugh in the story:

Lugh Lamhfada appears to be invested in the tale with the attributes and authority of a god, namely Manannan Mac Lir – Lord of the Otherworld. This is expressed by the simple motif of Lugh bearing the arms, armour, steed and legendary boat of the god, and through which he projects his power as chief hero, knight and leader of the cavalry of the Tuatha De Danann. As a youthful representative of Manannan’s otherworld power, Lugh seems here in many ways to embody the power of Apollo, whose shrine was desecrated in 279BC. This role was fulfilled by Thunor/Thor in Germanic paganism, and the name Tuirenn now appears to resonate a little with these, as well as the Gaulish god Taranis. How these might be linguistically linked to a word for thunder (Torran), for a disembodied soul (Taran), or the indo-european rootword from which we get ‘tyrant’ is open to conjecture…

An Early Modern Irish historical interpretation of the story:

The manuscripts of this story date at their earliest to the 16th/17thC, a period when Ireland had been subjected to invasion and settlement by the protestant Tudor and Stuart monarchies of England and Scotland, who were determined to destroy independent Gaelic power and culture, which remained conservatively Roman Catholic in its outlook. In their bids to withstand the invasion, Irish Earls were send out emmisaries across Europe in order to muster support for what would ultimately – like in the story – prove to be a doomed cause. The result was what is known as the ‘Flight of The Earls’. Although probably based on much older traditions, the themes  certainly had a contemporary resonance when they were written down in the form we have them today.

Irish literature and storytelling has always retained a mythical ability to address contemporary issues, a feature which is as much a testament to the subtlety of its timeless themes as to the frequent need of Irish people to express their ideas in a form disguised from the depredations of censorship and misunderstanding by church or state.

The epiphany of Bride – Delphic and Eleusinian aspects of the goddess Brigit

See my related articles here and here.

The 1st day of February (the 12th/13th by the old Julian Calendar) in Ireland is marked by two coincident ancient religious festivals – the Gaelic Celtic feast of Imbolc and the feast day if St Brigit (Bride) of Kildare.

It signifies the days when new life starts to become visible in the winter world – the appearance of the first flowers of the new year, the first buds on trees, and the mating and nesting of birds, and the birth of the first lambs of the year.

To the ancient Greeks, this ‘event’ of nature – new life starting push through from the dead soil – was given special significance in the very ancient myth of the maiden (Kore) Persephone who, after being abducted by the god of the dead, Hades, was allowed to make an annual return to stay with her mother – the fertile earth, personified as Demeter (literally meaning ‘mother goddess’). This myth had a central part in the ancient Greek mystery religions, most notably that at Eleusis, near Athens in Attica. It was one of the most fundamental myths of ancient Greek religion, with origins traceable into the Bronze Age.

As a mythic drama celebrating a returning junior fertility goddess, we have few clues that the old Celtic festival of Imbolc (first attested in writing in the 10thC Irish text known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’) was a goddess festival – there are no references in medieval Irish manuscripts linking a festival named Imbolc to a ‘Persephone’ themed myth. However, the early Irish  Christian church created a festival of their own on this day which was an explicit celebration of a maiden – that of Brigdhe (Bride) or Brigit of Kildare, whose early hagiographic tale begins with her adoption into a christian household as a child where she immediately causes an increase in the family’s food supplies through a number of miracles. This tale echoes the practical medieval (probably much older) practice of re-hiring servants on the first quarter day of the new solar year, when farm work begins again, it having been suspended at Samhain or St Martin’s day by ancient Atlantic European tradition. The period between Samhain and Imbolc was a time of relative ease in the pre-modern empirically-minded subsistence world: harvests had been gathered and stored, animals slaughtered and their meat cured and preserved. There was little need of servants or slaves to manage the heavier manual work and they were alleviated of their duties until the restarting of the Atlantic agricultural cycle, which undertook its first ploughing of fields from the start of the Imbolc quarter. This theme is echoed in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (where slaves feasted with freemen) and at the Greek Summer Kronia (when it was too hot to work) and Winter Dionysia which was held around the same period as the Saturnalia. Nature was the book which gave the instructions!

Of course, we have little evidence that Greek religion directly influenced northern Europe’s Celtic peoples, although every reason to suspect from the galvanising cultural and military explosion of the ‘Belgic’ movement of the Celts into the Balkans and Greek territories from the 4thC BCE that they expressed some notable sympathy with certain Greek myths, and the iconography of the Eleusinian myths (pine trees and ears of corn) appears upon the coins of British kings of the Augustan period. Caesar Augustus was an Eleusinian initiate who fostered many British Celtic nobles at his court in order to acculturate them ahead of further Roman plans at expansion. The Irish did not apparently mint coins, or play much part in the Roman scheme of conquest, except during its christian phase when they rose meteorically in prominence. It appears then, that the ancient legends Irish monks enthusiastically wrote down may have shared a common root with those of the Greeks, lost in the mists of the late stone ages and their mysterious megalithic religious cultures.

Of course, Brigit was originally a pagan goddess. The author of Cormac’s Glossary (10thC) states this, and annotators of one of the surviving manuscripts (version ‘B)’ claimed that all of the Irish pagan goddesses were in fact Brigit, who had a typically celtic triple form. Here we have John O’Donovan’s translation of this:

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

It was a simple step for christians to appropriate her as their most important female saint and ‘holy virgin’ who passed her apprenticeship as a cowherd, dairy maid and household servant. Because of her triple-form she was therefore characterised hailed in the hagiographies as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’. In the continental medieval biblical narrative, the ‘Three Maries’ of the Bible (the ones at the tomb of Jesus) appeared to have subsumed another pagan triplicity – a common theme in the middle ages. Legends attached to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence in the south of France claim these three Maries (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Mary Salome) landed by boat there. Southern Gaul was, of course, a Celtic province with strong early links to Greek and Roman culture. It was also important in the development and spread of christianity among the Celtic peoples.

Bride and Aine, Persephone and Demeter:

In order to draw a clearer comparison between Bride and Persephone, we need to look at Persephone’s mother: Demeter. Is there evidence of an Irish equivalent?

Demeter represented the fruitful and fertile earth, and her child was therefore an example of her own self-begetting nature, and their legend an expression of the eternal (maternal) tragedy and joy of death an rebirth. As such, she an Persephone are two phases of the same idea, and it is to this concept we must link with the the triune nature by which the Celts conceived their gods. In fact, Demeter and Persephone were actually part of a mythological triplicity, completed by a third feminine goddess, Hekate, who was the sage ‘aid-woman’ who assisted Demeter in her search for her daughter. In later Greco-Roman art, she was depicted as ‘Hecate Triformis’ after the style of the Celtic divinities. Scholars have identified the cult of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate (the Eleusinian triad) and Artemis (sister of Apollo the Healer) with religious traditions extending back to the older ‘Potnia Theron’ goddess-character depicted so frequently in the art of the Minoan and Mycenaean ages.

How could this ancient Greek triplicity be considered coterminous with the Irish Iron Age triple-goddess Brigit, as described in Cormac’s Glossary? On the surface, Cormac’s triadic goddess expresses a function of knowledge and wisdom, healing and creative dexterity – a set of values more appropriate to Athena, Artemis and the Muses, and possibly to Aphrodite as wife of Hephaistos.

Brigit the Craftswoman/Woman of Smithcraft:

To make such a connection, we must understand how the ancient Gaels viewed the ‘blacksmith’ or ‘artifex’ archetype: This was essentially as the active process involved in reforging the world of nature – the ‘hidden craftsperson’ behind the ‘seasonal drama’.

Such a character exists in a profusion of forms in Ireland’s post-Christian mythology: As the smith known variously as Chullain/Cuillin/Gullion (an important character of the Ulster Cycle), as the Gobán Saor (an archetypal ancient smith and builder credited with raising many ancient structures, sometimes enjoying a legendary plasticity with the Cailleach Bheara), the high-literary ‘god-character’ Goibniu (smith of the Tuatha De Danann) and the euhemerised saints Gobban of Leighlin, Gobnait and the related St Latiaran of Cullin.

Even though most of these smith-archetypes of Irish Christian-era myth are male, the female is ever in attendance with them. In the case of St Laitiaran of Cullen’s sister saint, Gobnait, there is an explicit link with Brigit – her feast day falls on the 11th of February (Matyrology of Oengus), within a Julian calendar’s throw of the feast of Imbolc. Laitiaran and Gobnait were legendarily associated with a third sister-saint, again completing the ‘Brigitine’ triadic form.

In the famous medieval ‘Mythological Cycle’ tales of Ireland’s god-like ancestors, the male  triad Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta (the Trí Dé Dána – Three Gods of Craft) are said in the tale Immacallam in dá Thúarad to be sons of Brigit of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and she the daughter of An Dagda. In the tale Tochmarch Etaine the Trí Dé Dána are said to have instead been Dagda, Lugh and Ogma, suggesting these were possibly of an older order, before the Age of metals. Goibniu was a master of blacksmithing, Creidhne a master of jewel-making and Luchta a craftsman in wood or builder (I.e. – a user of metal tools).

Slieve Gullion in County Armagh evokes the name of the smith-king of the Ulster Cycle tales from whom the hero Cuchullain is named. His daughter Tiobhal is described as ‘Princess of the Ocean’ in some late renditions of the myths linking Gullion/Cuillean to the Isle of Man and suggesting a connection with Manannan. At Slieve Gullion, St Brigit’s fosterling and acolyte, St Moninna (a reflex of the name of the Lake Lady of Arthurian legend, Niniane), was said by tradition to have founded the abbey at Kileavy on the slopes of the mountain, during the ‘reign’ of St Patrick. According to legend, she raised a foster-son called Luger, a name reminiscent of that of Lugh. The name ‘Kileavy’ may well be a rendering of the name of the site’s former pagan temple – Kil Aoife, after one of the names of Ireland’s famous ‘Fairy Queens’. Slieve Gullion is famously associated with the legendary folk-character Cailleach Beara, as well as the Lake Lady who turns Fionn into an old man when she bids him dive into the summit lake to find her ring. It was here Cuchullain fought the armies  of the Fairy Queen Medb. Curiously, there are few legends of a ‘male’ Gullion or Cuillain the smith, but more linking the named place to the aquatic otherworld female of Atlantic religious myth.

The healer and the poetess:

Whereas Brigit the Smith can be seen as a forger or re-forger and mystical renewer of life from the death processes of nature, Brigit the Healer fulfils a similar role within the world of the living – renewing from disease and allaying death. The same function is ascribed to the Delphic Greek god Apollo (often known among the ancient Celts as Belenos), brother of the ‘virgin huntress’ goddess Artemis. Artemis was herself not unlike the younger aspect of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – a ‘mistress of animals’ and herds which was appended freely to the qualities of St Brigit of Kildare. Artemis has been likened to a ‘wild’ version of the ‘agricultural’ triad of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate and in some regards can be seen as a female likeness of Dionysus.

In the Delphic myth, Apollo symbolically conquered death and decay with the mystical act of slaying Python, from whose rotting corpse arose the inspiring fumes of prophecy and the fertility of the dead. Both he and his son Asclepius (the name implying the ancient onomatopoeic Indo-European word for ‘snake’) were the Greek divinities most often associated with the semantic field of the active healing arts and prophecy. Apollo was also strongly associated with the Muses – Greek goddesses of poetic inspiration, and it can be seen that there is an apparent similitude to the semantic fields of the Brigitine Triad mentioned in Cormac, in the form Brigit, Goddess of Poets. Of course, this represents a closer similarity in many ways to the Delphic religion of Apollo than the Eleusinian religion of Demeter and Persephone, although the Irish system shows evidence of links to both.

Artemis, Diana and Ireland’s Aine:

The Roman equivalent to ancient Artemis was Diana, whose name appears to be a composite of ‘Dea’ and ‘Anna’, meaning ‘Goddess of the Year’. Another Roman goddess possibly linked to her was ‘Anna Perenna’ and the Demeter-like ‘Dea Dia’, worshipped at Rome’s agricultural festival of Ambarvalia, in honour of Ceres. She was considered part of a ‘virgin triad’ of goddesses along with Minerva (Athena) and Vesta (Hestia). The name Diana has, as I have previously discussed, distinct etymological similarities with an Irish goddess: Áine (‘Awnya’) attested in both folklore and medieval written mythology, making her a figure of considerable interest to those studying ancient Irish paganism.

The name ‘Áine’ has connotations of the Irish word for ‘circle’: ain. The goddess was associated with the seasons and agriculture, and to the moon and the tides associated with them, and thus somehow to the mystical Gaelic ‘otherworld cycle’ linked to mountains, spring wells, lakes, rivers and the oceans. Apart from her similarity to the Roman Diana (whose cult was centred at Lake Nemi and supervised by the Rex Nemorensis – a priest taken from slave stock, probably Gaulish) she also was also a Gaelic fulfilment of the idea of Demeter/Ceres: The seasonal repetition of the fertility cycle. Just as Persephone was an aspect of Demeter, this makes the likelihood of Brigit relating to Áine in the same way quite high. Another aspect of Áine worth mentioning is her traditional role as a ‘sovereignty goddess’, from whom certain clans claimed ancestry – the Eoghanacht Aine, for instance: Such claims are based upon the link between the nurturing fertile land and the people – held to have been united at a far unspecifiable point in ancient history. Just like the Nile fed Egypt, the Irish (and indeed Celtic) concepts linking goddess and fertility revolved around springs and rivers, whose branching and snaking nature reflected the growth of plants. The etymology of the name of the river Shannon contains words for ‘Ancient’ and the goddess’ name – Seann Aine.

The Gaelic ‘goddesses’ of the pagan age were triform – one identity hid a multiplicity of names and aspects. The Gaels (and no doubt the wider body of Atlantic European Celtic peoples) were essentially duotheists, worshipping a male and female entity who can be identified through careful exegesis and critical appraisal of folklore, archaeology, literature and tradition, and from the names of places and land features.

 

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 Celtic Mysteries?

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

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

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

Literary evidence for ‘Celtic Mysteries’?

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

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

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

Greek and Roman attitudes to Barbarian culture and The Mysteries:

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

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

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism -influenced by Augustus?

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism – influenced by Augustus?

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

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

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

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

The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.

501px-Cybele_Getty_Villa_57_AA_19

The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.

Hallucinosis, battle-fury and oracles of the divine

When the Gaulish warlord Brennus led his army through the Greek defences at Thermopylae and into a full-on assault on Delphi in 279BC, he was attacking perhaps the most important and wealthy religious centre of ancient Greece, notable for its oracular priestesses who apparently communed with the solar god Apollo in order to answer the questions of suppliants. These suppliants came from across the known world and beyond, and bought great wealth and honour to the sanctuary and its city, deep in the Greek highlands. Although there are no surviving contemporary records of this exceptional assault by the Celtic army, the 1stC Gallo-Roman author Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus of the Vocontii of Gallia Narbonensis wrote about the attack some 200 years later in his ‘Phillipic History‘ (of the Macedonian dynasty and its aftermath) which survives in a slightly later Epitome by Roman author, Justin. Given the role of southern Gauls in tne campaign (the Volcae Tectosages Belgic group settled or returned there after the event – reputedly with great wealth) it seems that Pompeius Trogus’ account is worth paying attention to, albeit embellished with the idea that those who attack holy sites pay with their lives… In Book 25 of Justin’s ‘Epitome’, we learn the following:

“… The Gauls, when the land that had produced them was unable, from their excessive increase of population, to contain them, sent out three hundred thousand men, as a sacred spring, to seek new settlements. Of these adventurers part settled in Italy, and took and burnt the city of Rome; and part penetrated into the remotest parts of Illyricum under the direction of a flight of birds (for the Gauls are skilled in augury beyond other nations) making their way amidst great slaughter of the barbarous tribes, and fixed their abode in Pannonia. They were a savage, bold, and warlike nation, and were the first after Hercules (to whom that undertaking procured great admiration for his valour, and a belief in his immortality), to pass the unconquered heights of the Alps, and places uninhabitable from excess of cold. After having subdued the Pannonians, they carried on various wars with their neighbours for many years. Success encouraging them, they betook themselves, in separate bands, some to Greece, and some to Macedonia, laying waste all before them with the sword. Such indeed was the terror of the Gallic name, that even kings, before they were attacked, purchased peace from them with large sums of money…”

He goes on to describe the defeat and death of the Macedonian king Ptolemy Keraunos and his army by the theophorically-titled Celtic warlord, Belgius. Another Gaulish chieftain, Brennus, appears to have then entered the fray to acquire his own share of the wealth of the crumbling Empire’s homelands:

“…In the meantime Brennus, under whose command a part of the Gauls had made an irruption into Greece, having heard of the success of their countrymen, who, under the leadership of Belgius, had defeated the Macedonians, and being indignant that so rich a booty, consisting of the spoils of the east, had been so lightly abandoned, assembled an army of a hundred and fifty thousand foot and fifteen thousand horse, and suddenly invaded Macedonia. As he was laying waste the fields and villages, Sosthenes met him with his army of Macedonians in full array, but being few in number, and in some consternation, they were easily overcome by the more numerous and powerful Gauls; and the defeated Macedonians retiring within the walls of their cities, the victorious Brennus, meeting with no opposition, ravaged the lands throughout the whole of Macedonia. Soon after, as if the spoils of mortals were too mean for him, he turned his thoughts to the temples of the immortal gods, saying, with a profane jest, that “the gods, being rich, ought to be liberal to men.” He suddenly, therefore, directed his march towards Delphi, regarding plunder more than religion, and caring for gold more than for the wrath of the deities, “who,” he said, “stood in no need of riches, as being accustomed rather to bestow them on mortals.”

The temple of Apollo at Delphi is situate on Mount Parnassus, on a rock steep on all sides. A concourse of people, who, collecting from the parts around, through veneration for the majesty of the god, settled on the rock, formed a city there. Thus, not walls, but precipices, not defences formed by the hand, but by nature, protect the temple and the city; so that it is utterly uncertain whether the strength of the place, or the influence of the deity residing in it, attracts more admiration. The central part of the rock falls back in the shape of an amphitheatre; and, in consequence, if ever shouts are raised, or if the noise of trumpets is mingled with them, the sound, from the rocks echoing and re-echoing to one another, is heard many times repeated, and louder than it was made at first. This effect, on those who are ignorant of its cause, and are struck with wonder at it, produces a greater awe of the power of the god. In the winding of the rock, about half way up the hill, there is a small plain, and in it a deep fissure in the ground, which is open for giving oracles; for a cold exhalation, driven upwards by some force, as it were by a wind, produces in the minds of the priestesses a certain madness, and compels them, filled with the influence of the god, to give answers to such as consult them. Hence many rich presents of kings and nations are to be seen there, which, by their magnificence, testify the grateful feelings of those that have paid their vows, and their belief in the oracles given by the deity.

Brennus, when he came within sight of the temple, deliberated for some time, whether he should at once make an attempt upon it, or should allow his soldiers, wearied with their march, a night to refresh themselves. The captains of the Emanus and Thessalorus, who had joined him for a share in the booty, advised that “no delay should be made,” while the enemy were unprovided for defence, and the alarm at their coming still fresh; that in the interval of a night, the courage of the enemy would perhaps revive, and assistance come to them; and that the approaches, which were now open, might be blocked up. But the common soldiers, when, after a long endurance of scarcity, they found a country abounding with wine and other provisions, had dispersed themselves over the fields, rejoicing as much at the plenty as if they had gained a victory, and leaving their standards deserted, wandered about to seize on everything like conquerors. This conduct gave some respite to the Delphians. At the first report that the Gauls were approaching, the countrypeople are said to have been prohibited by the oracle from carrying away their corn and wine from their houses. The salutariness of this prohibition was not understood, until, through this abundance of wine and other provisions being thrown in the way of the Gauls, as a stop to their progress, reinforcements from their neighbours had time to collect. The Delphians, accordingly, supported by the strength of their allies, secured their city before the Gauls, who clung to the wine-skins, on which they had seized, could be recalled to their standards. Brennus had sixty-five thousand infantry, selected from his whole army; of the Delphians there were not more than four thousand; in utter contempt of whom, Brennus, to rouse the courage of his men, pointed to the vast quantity of spoil before them, declaring that the statues, and four-horse chariots, of which a great number were visible at a distance, were made of solid gold, and would prove greater prices when they came to be weighed than they were in appearance.

The Gauls, animated by these assertions, and disordered, at the same time, with the wine which they had drunk the day before, rushed to battle without any fear of danger. The Delphians, on the other hand, placing more confidence in the god than in their own strength, resisted the enemy with contempt, and, from the top of the hill, repelled the Gauls as they climbed up, partly with pieces of rock, and partly with their weapons. Amidst this contest between the two, the priests of all the temples, as well as the priestesses themselves, with their hair loose, and with their decorations and fillets, rushed, trembling and frantic, into the front ranks of the combatants, exclaiming that “the god was come; that they had seen him leap down into his temple through the opening roof; that, while they were all humbly imploring aid of the deity, a youth of extraordinary beauty, far above that of mortals, and two armed virgins, coming from the neighbouring temples of Diana and Minerva, met them; that they had not only perceived them with their eyes, but had heard also the sound of a bow and the rattling of arms;” and they therefore conjured them with the strongest entreaties, “not to delay, when the gods were leading them on, to spread slaughter among the enemy, and to share the victory with the powers of heaven.” Incited by these exhortations, they all rushed eagerly to the field of battle, where they themselves also soon perceived the presence of the divinity; for a part of the mountain, broken off by an earthquake, overwhelmed a host of the Gauls and some of the densest bodies of the enemy were scattered abroad, not without wounds, and fell to the earth. A tempest then followed, which destroyed, with hail and cold, those that were suffering from bodily injuries. The general Brennus himself, unable to endure the pain of his wounds, ended his life with his dagger. The other general, after punishing the advisers of the war, made off from Greece with all expedition… “

Pausanias (Description of Greece, 2ndC CE) added greater detail to his own version of the story, claiming that the disorder that led to the apparent defeat of Brennus and his army was caused by an apparent outbreak of madness within the Gaulish camp which caused them to fight among themselves…

“… At the beginning of the fight the Gauls offered a spirited resistance, especially the company attached to Brennus, which was composed of the tallest and bravest of the Gauls, and that though they were shot at from all sides, and no less distressed by the frost, especially the wounded men. But when Brennus himself was wounded, he was carried fainting from the battle, and the barbarians, harassed on all sides by the Greeks, fell back reluctantly, putting to the sword those who, disabled by wounds or sickness, could not go with them.

They encamped where night overtook them in their retreat, and during the night there fell on them a “panic.” For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan. It was when evening was turning to night that the confusion fell on the army, and at first only a few became mad, and these imagined that they heard the trampling of horses at a gallop, and the attack of advancing enemies; but after a little time the delusion spread to all.

So rushing to arms they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither understanding their mother tongue nor recognizing one another’s forms or the shape of their shields. Both parties alike under the present delusion thought that their opponents were Greek, men and armour, and that the language they spoke was Greek, so that a great mutual slaughter was wrought among the Gauls by the madness sent by the god…”

gauls_fighting

Considering both accounts, we can see that Brennus’ previously highly disciplined and motivated army arrived at Delphi after a string of significant earlier victories, and plundered (or were given) some wine and subsequently fell into disarray, eventually being repelled. Both accounts agree on a certain amount of chaos breaking out, but Pausanias states that the Gauls suffered a mass outbreak of some kind of hallucinatory and delusional psychosis and paranoia. Assuming that he is not speaking figuratively of the weapons of the god Apollo (divine madness) it would appear that the Gauls were affected by the Delphian wine, which was obviously no ordinary wine…

Herba Appolinaris:

Hyoscyamus Niger

Hyoscyamus Niger

It is likely that Brennus’ army (or a significant part of it) fell prey to the effects of wine laced with the mind-bending herb Hyoscyamus Niger, known in English as Henbane, in Spanish as Beleno, and in German as Bilsenkraut. The ancients (eg – Pedanius Dioscorides (De Materia Medica, Book 4, 1stC CE, also Pliny the Elder)  knew it as Herba Appolinaristhe herb of Apollo. In fact, Dioscorides tells us of the many names for it across the known world:

It is also called dioscyamos, pythonion, adamas, adamenon, hypnoticum, emmanes, atomon, or dithiambrion; Pythagoras and Osthenes call it xeleon, Zoroastres, tephonion, the Romans, inanaoentaria, some, Apollinaris, the Magi, rhaponticum, the Egyptians, saptho, the Thuscans, phoebulonga, the Gauls, bilinuntiam, and the Dacians, dieliam.

That Dioscorides gives the Gaulish word as ‘Bilinuntiam’ is often taken as indicative of a concordance between the gods Apollo and the Celtic deity Belenos, and thus it would seem of interest to those who are intrigued by the genesis of the cultural movement of the Celtic ‘tribes’ referred to under the umbrella term Belgae who were somehow linked to the events of 279BC. Dioscorides’ reference to the name ‘pythonian’ for Hyoscyamus also appears to be a reference to this oracular usage, although the myth maintained at Delphi was that priestesses inhaled the exhalations of an ancient vent in the ground, no doubt supposed to conduct the fumes of the decaying corpse of the giant Python killed by Apollo. The fact that Henbane is also known as ‘Stinking Henbane’ due to its unpleasant odour adds to the likelihood that it was responsible for the mind-bending oracles of the Pythia.

Greek tetradrachm depicting Apollo the archer with the Python and the Delphic tripod

Greek tetradrachm depicting Apollo the archer with the Python and the Delphic tripod

Toxicity of Hyoscyamus goes from mild drunkenness to a total confusion, agitation and frenzy, and from there easily into overdosage and death. Obviously, the Pythia (priestesses of the Apollonian oracle) would have been experts at dosing themselves, and must have possessed a standardised preparation which they consumed. It is possible that they could have inhaled the vapours from burning seeds, but given the accounts of Pausanias and Pompeius Trogus/Justin about the chaos that afflicted Brennus’ army in 279BC it is just as likely that they consumed it in wine. Pausanias’ comment that Brennus died of drinking undiluted wine could well be an allusion to this, in fact. Pompeius Trogus states that the leaders at Delphi ordered that the Gauls be given free access to the wine and food of the city, so a deliberate poisoning may well have occurred…

Berserkers?:

The reputation for bravery and ferocity of some Celtic warriors was commented on by a number of Roman authors – not in the least to allow themselves to congratulate their own soldiers for defeating them. The same ferocity among ‘barbarian’ warriors next receives comment when Christian Europeans encountered the warring aspect of their pagan neighbours from the north during the ‘Viking’ era, this time in the form of the ‘Berserkr‘ (lit. ‘Bear Skin’) warriors. These were men who had dedicated themselves to Odin, their god of battle. The Anglo-Saxon equivalent was Wodan – a name recognisably connected with the Old/Middle English word ‘Wod(e)’, meaning madness or frenzy. It has been suggested that Henbane is a likely drug that could have been used to induce a visionary or frenzied state in Berserkr warriors, and evidence of Henbane seeds among possessions buried in pagan graves (eg – Fyrkat, Denmark) has been used to reinforce this suggestion (although to my mind they could equally have been used for preventing sea-sickness!). Further to this, there was a tradition in Germany and Bohemia of brewing beer using Henbane, suggesting that ‘Pilsener’ was a name fortuitously apprehended by the burghers of Plzen in Bohemia with which to brand their own pseudo-eponymous mass-produced beer in the 19thC, albeit without the ‘Pilsenkraut’ additives. Bohemia, was of course named after the Celtic Boii tribal federation who were undoubtedly involved in the Balkan, Greek and Anatolian Celtic campaigns of the 4th/3rdC BCE.

The 'visionary' man holding a torc and serpent (Gundestrup cauldron - late Celtic iron age). Compare this image to the Delphian tetradrachm above...

The ‘visionary’ man holding a torc and serpent (Gundestrup cauldron – late Celtic iron age). Compare this image to the Delphian tetradrachm above…

Bearing in mind my suggested concordances of the Celtic god Belenos with a number of medieval-era late pagan gods and mythological characters from northern and eastern Europe, the association with Apollo, and similarities between the Pythonian myth and the conception of the pagan Scandinavian universe from the Icelandic Edda texts, a picture begins to emerge of the survival and transformation of an Iron Age visionary religion which reached its height in the 3rdC BCE and which survived Romanisation in the Germanic, Slavic and Scandinavian regions…