Apollo and the Hyperboreans

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

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

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

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

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

Stonehenge. Photograph: Jason Hawkes/Getty

Stonehenge. Photograph: Jason Hawkes/Getty

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

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

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

Connery, Alexander or Abaris?

Connery, Alexander or Abaris?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chiron, the Centaurs and the Solar hunter-gods.

Chiron (Kheiron – ‘hand’) was the wise Centaur who plays the role of mentor-instructor to a number of youthful heroes of ancient Greek mythology. Unlike most Centaurs (whose nature was generally as excitable, wild and untameable as young stallions) he was often depicted in earlier Greek art with the full body of a man, having the torso and rear quarters of a horse coming from his back. This depiction is at odds with that usually associated with centaurs, who tend to be shown with all of their limbs being those of the horse:

Chiron the hunter-instructor: In his right hand he holds a youthful Achilles, and over his shoulder he carries a captured hare.

Chiron the hunter-instructor: In his right hand he holds a youthful Achilles, and over his shoulder he carries a captured hare.

Our earliest sources (eg – Hesiod c.8th-7thC BCE) suggest that Chiron was a son of Cronos (Chironos?) who was sired upon the Okeanid nymph Philyra of Mount Pelion in Thessaly. To quote the summaries on the fabulous Theoi.com:

Hesiod, Theogony 1001 (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
“Kheiron (Chiron) the son of Philyra.”

Eumelus of Corinth or Arctinus of Miletus, Titanomachia Frag 6 (from Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius 1. 554) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th or C6th B.C.) :
“The author of the War of the Giants (Gigantomakhia) says that Kronos (Cronus) took the shape of a horse and lay with Philyra, the daughter of Okeanos. Through this cause Kheiron (Chiron) was born a kentauros (centaur): his wife was Khariklo (Chariclo).”

The Okeanids were the nymphae daughters of primal Titan, Okeanos, who represented the waters just as Gaia represented the land/earth. For this reason, they represented aspects of Okeanos including rivers, clouds, lakes, streams and (as Naiades) springs of water. The Centaurs in general were supposed to have been the children of the cloud-nymph Nephele and were born on Mount Pelion. The horse-men of Greek mythology were associated with water, just as the legendary Pegasus had his name and origin derived from natural springs (Pegaoi). This origin of the divine-monstrous reflects medieval pagan tales from Scandinavia such as the legend of Sigurd and Fafnir: the dragon and his brothers also have chthonic-aquatic origins. The Greek myths show evidence of parallel colliding traditions: Tethys (wife of Okeanos) was supposed to be the mother of clouds, although not explicitly Nephele in the Olympian mythology. Readers might realise an etymological similarity between Philyra, Pelion, Nephele – even the semitic Nephilim might have similar origins, as might the 9thC CE Meresberg Incantation divinity called Phol, and even maybe the Macedonian kings who called themselves after the equine designation Phillip

The name itself, ‘Chiron’ or ‘Kheiron’ means ‘hand’ – that useful attribute which sets the average centaur aside from his equine relatives. The ‘Thracian Horseman’ god from the northern Aegaean, Sabazios, was also worshiped in Anatolian Phrygia and was associated with the slaying of dragons or serpents (a motif for the conquest of death and disease) and a hand was used as a votive effigy in his rites.

A 'Sabazios' votive hand - image from the British Museum.

A ‘Sabazios’ votive hand – image from the British Museum.

The Healing Hand:

Chiron was, by his name, the ‘hand’ that guided mythic heroes in their development. In Greek mythology, this included both Achilles (a warrior-hero-ancestor of both the Greeks and Romans) and Hercules/Herakles who was perhaps the most famous hero-forebear, who conquered the forces of chaos and monsters on behalf of mankind. As a ‘teacher-protector of the people’ a (demi) god such as Chiron was therefore (like his pupil) associated with healing and medicine, linking him in Greek mythology to the serpent-slaying solar god Apollo and his medical son Asklepios (a name which incorporates an old Indo-European word for ‘serpent’ or ‘fish’: ask/esk). Chiron taught Achilles about the eponymous wound-herb famous throughout Europe: the Achillea or Yarrow (Homer: Iliad), and was famed in myths for his skill with wild herbs. He therefore functioned as the primal empirical teacher for ancient Europeans of the Aegean.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7. 197 (trans. Rackham) (Roman encyclopedia 1stC CE) :
“[On inventions:] The science of herbs and drugs was discovered by Chiron the son of Saturnus [Kronos] and Philyra.”

As a son of Cronus (Saturn), Chiron was therefore a (half) brother of Zeus. The name of the Thracian/Phrygian god named ‘Sabazios’ might even be considered to be a derivation of ‘Salva Zeus’, meaning ‘Rescuer God’ or ‘Healer God’. Sabazios was more often affiliated with Dionysus in Greek thinking, albeit because the Greeks seem to have originally inherited the traditions of Dionysus AND Sabazios-Chiron from their northern barbarian neighbours – probably during the 2nd millennium BCE or maybe the early 1st millennium BCE. The ‘wild’ Kentauroi and the satyrs would certainly both certainly be considered fit partners for the ‘Bacchanal’ party of Dionysus, although developing perhaps from a separate tradition to that of the fauns and satyrs.

The ‘Horseman’ god known in Thrace and Phrygia Sabazios (later envisioned as St George killing the dragon) seems, as mentioned, to be in many ways equivalent to the solar dragon/snake-slayer god, Apollo of Delphi. In Greek myths, Apollo slew the ancient snake Python: symbol of putrefaction and death, the afterworld and regeneration, and hence he became associated with the sorcerous practice of divination, intended to call on the knowledge of the reincarnating dead once believed in across Europe. As the snake symbolises regeneration and rebirth, Apollo’s ‘dragon-slaying’ was a metaphor for conquering death, hence his primary role as both a god of prophecy and a god of healing.

Apollo was typically represented as an archer (his statue at Delphi probably depicted him holding a bow and arrows). He used his arrows to slay the death-serpent, Python, and its decaying body was probably supposed to give off the vapours which inspired the Delphic Pytheia with their visions and oracles from the Otherworld. Chiron was also depicted with the prey of a hunter – a branch from which dead hares were suspended, like ‘fruit’. His disciple, Hercules, inadvertently caused his death with his own poisoned arrows. The arrows of Apollo were probably considered as a means by which disease was conveyed – an ancient prefiguration of the north European belief in disease caused by the darts of fairies and elves, although it should be clear by now that Apollo was linked to another serpent-slaying healing god tradition originating among the barbarians, and linked to horses. The archer constellation of Sagittarius is most usually depicted as a centaur and mythologically it is linked to both Chiron and a character called Krotos, who was a horse-legged satyr who lived with the mysterious Muses on Mount Helicon. He, like Apollo, was said to have invented the bow, to be a hunter, and (in this case, rhythmical) music – Apollo was said to have invented the lyre. Mount Helicon in Boeotia in Greece had strong associations with horses, it being the site of the birth of Pegasus, who emerged from a well on its slopes. This suggests another proto-religious link between Apollo and an equine man-beast god, but there are certain other aspects to the Krotos myth which links with that of Zeus:

The Idaean Dactyloi:

The myth of Zeus being hidden on Mount Ida from his cannibalistic father Cronus is a key element to the story of the rise of the Olympian gods over the primeval Titans, and from its location to Crete, suggests Minoan origins. This act was done by Gaia (the Earth), also often cognate with Rhea (mother of the gods), who was known in Anatolia among the Phrygians as Cybele – the prophetic ‘mountain mother’, and officially venerated by the Romans after the second Punic wars as ‘Magna Mater‘ – the ‘great mother’. The guardians of infant Zeus were a band of curious characters called the Kouretes who would stamp their feet and clash their weapons in order to cover the thunderous cries of the young god-on-high, Zeus. This was also said to be the invention of rhythmic music, and the connection with the thunderous sound of horses’ hooves becomes suggested for the Mount Helicon mythology associated with horses. The Kouretes were also known as the ‘Daktyloi’ (‘fingers’) which links back to the name ‘Chiron’ (‘hand’) and the hand-symbol associated with the worship of Sabazios. Their rustic and ‘dextrous’ nature were emphasised in their traditions, and they had a fairly widespread cultic expression in religious ritual, being called by additional names such as ‘Korybantes‘ and ‘Kabeiroi‘ in various other traditions outside of Crete.  Hercules was sometimes considered one of them, and they were also linked to the invention of skills such as smithcraft (the clashing of metal on metal being an essential part of this). This links them to some notable north European mythology, which I have already discussed.

The Celtic horse coins:

The vast majority of the coinage produced among European Celtic tribes of the late Iron Age depicts the horse, often in conjunction with a solar wheel symbol. Although often explained away as crude copies of Greek coins, their symbolism goes much deeper than these and hints at many ancient religious secrets which the coming of Romanisation and Christianisation would increasingly obscure. The horse depicted seems highly likely to be a supra-regional god, and the existence of many coins depicting a centaur-like man-horse, a horse-like rider or a human rider seem to confirm this theory, which is worth considering in the light of the information I discussed above about the older Greek and Phrygian myths…

A centaur depicted on a coin of the semi-Romanised king Cunobelinos (1stC CE Britain)

A centaur depicted on a coin of the semi-Romanised king Cunobelinos (1stC CE Britain)

1stC BCE coin of the Venetii (Brittany) showing the horse-man. Definitely a wholly Celtic design!

1stC BCE coin of the Venetii (Brittany) showing the horse-man. Definitely a wholly Celtic design!

The Osisimi of Gaul (atC BCE) also produced many indigenous 'centaur' coins. Like those of the Venetii, they also depict many human heads attached to ?cords in the designs.

The Osisimi of Gaul (1stC BCE) also produced many indigenous ‘centaur’ coins. Like those of the Venetii, they also sometimes depicted human heads attached to ?cords in the designs.

 

279: Brennus and the mystery of the undiluted wine…

Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture. (Eubulus, Greek playwright, 4thC BCE – quoted by Athenaeus in ‘Deipnosophists’ 2.37c)

Pausanias, the famous Greek travel writer of the 2ncC CE,  claimed that the leader of the military assault of the Celtic general Brennus on the oracle-sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi in Greece in 279BCE died following his defeat (engendered by the wrath of Apollo and the bravery of some doubty Greeks), after drinking ‘unmixed’ (undiluted) wine:

…Brennus’ wounds left him no hope; they say out of fear of his countrymen and even more out of shame as the cause of all their sufferings in Greece, he died deliberately by drinking unmixed wine

Having formed a massive federation of warriors from across Celtdom (then stretching from the Alantic west coasts to the Pannonian basin) their leaders, including (among others) Brennus, Acichorius and Bolgios, surged with them through the Balkans into Thrace, Macedonia and northern Greece. Brennus’ cohorts crashed through the Greek defences at Thermopylae and made for the bejewelled ‘holy cow’ of the holy oracle of Pythian Apollo at Delphi on Mount Parnassos. Their intention was undoubtedly to gain booty and prestige, but the religious importance of such a target – one of the most important of the ancient world – must not be underestimated.

Pausanias had few kind words for these Celts whom he describes (400 years later) unsympathetically as a cunning, fanatical, chaotic, and brutal baby-murdering horde – the epitome of barbarians to the average Greek. His account of Brennus’ attempted attack on Delphi is full of somewhat fantastical detail relating how Apollo caused earthquakes, lightning storms, frost and snow to thwart the barbarians before driving them insane and causing them to attack one another. Suffering attacks from the Phocians and Aetolians, Brennus is injured and the army is driven into retreat. As he describes the Celtic approach to Delphi, however, Pausanias’ account seems devolve from the historical into a mythical depiction of the Greek god and the land itself repelling the Celts, leaving a suspicion that the outcome of the real event was skirted around: None of the Greek military engagements appear to be decisive – according to Pausanias, the claimed victory was more due to fantastical events – the wrath of the gods:

” …All the day the barbarians were beset by calamities and terrors of this kind. But the night was to bring upon them experiences far more painful. For there came on a severe frost, and snow with it; and great rocks slipping from Parnassus, and crags breaking away, made the barbarians their target, the crash of which brought destruction, not on one or two at a time, but on thirty or even more, as they chanced to be gathered in groups, keeping guard or taking rest…

… At sunrise the Greeks came on from Delphi… 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… “

His account of a rout and defeat occuring before Delphi could be sacked is also somewhat at odds with others from within the Roman world (eg – Strabo) which suggest that Delphi may indeed have been laid waste and some of its gold taken back as far as Tolosa (Toulouse) in Gallia Narbonensis by the Volcae-Tectosages. Nonetheless, Brennus died in the retreat, by his own acts or omissions – that much seems certain. The other classical historian, Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus‘Epitome of the Phillipic history of Pompeius Trogus’, Book 24), who is our other (and perhaps Pausanias’) source for Brennus’ assault, agrees largely in its detail, except to say that Brennus took his own life with a dagger. That the suicide came about through the consumption of alcohol is, however, stressed in the accounts:

” … 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… “

(Translation: John Selby Watson, 1853)

Justin’s account was an abridged version of a more extensive history written by 1stC BCE Gallo-Roman author, Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, of the Vocontii in Gallia Narbonensis – a province with associations with the Volcae-Tectosages and hence with ancestral knowledge of the assault on Delphi. Gallia Narbonensis was settled by the Greeks before the coming of the Romans in the 2ndC BCE.Reading between the lines of Trogus and Justin’s account, one can see that Delphi – an undefended city – appears to have tried to appease Brennus by giving wine and food to his troops, the consequences of which become apparent. It then attacked them and drove them off, although not necessarily without some serious loot.

So what about the curious reference to ‘unmixed wine’?

‘Unmixed wine’ sounds like a barbarian treat – the Greeks considered it ‘hard liquor’. We know from many sources that it was an important commodity among the feasting warrior-culture of the Celts, who – like their  various European cousins – had a historic reputation for a love of the celebratory consumption of alcohol. Dilution of this drink would certainly have diminished its euphoriant qualities and kept them closer to Eubulus’ idealised and civilised first three bowls. Celtic warriors were, however, members of an adrenaline-fuelled, fearless and sensationalist culture – definitely a ‘six bowls’ and up kind of people if contemporary accounts are to be believed!

The possibility of a store of ‘special’ hallucinogenic wine used in sacred Dionysiac rites or by the oracular Pythias priestesses being plundered from Delphi by the unwitting warriors might account for Pausanias’ story of the violent hallucinatory confusion which came upon Brennus’ encampment, although Justin/Trogus cites drunkenness causing ill-discipline. In the first case, we might take it that Brennus possibly even died of a drug overdose during a celebratory feast, or was murdered by a colleague, rather having committed suicide…

The health problems and political problems resulting from the of over-consumption of wine was apparently a perennial problem for the banqueting and borgeoise elites of any society, and the barbarian warrior lords such as Brennus and the (later, arguably more famous) Hunnic warchief, Attila, might be considered case-studies of alcoholic mischief among barbarian chieftains. Attila (according to the unsympathetic Jordanes , in his book Getica, 6thC CE) apparently died ?vomiting blood from his nose – a demise almost certainly a result (if true) of his lifestyle, coupled with the stresses of leadership.

…He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages. Thus did drunkenness put a disgraceful end to a king renowned in war… (Getica Ch.59)

The account, although not contemporary, has unusual detail and may be based upon a composite of earlier accounts. Brennus (if you believe Pausanias) may have suffered a similar fate, if the comment about his use of ‘unmixed’ wine is an allusion to personal alcoholic peril: the Dionysian/Apollonian diseases of madness and in-fighting are all faintly alluded to in Pausanias’ account of his death.

The Gauls’ apparent target-icon, Alexander III (‘The Great’) of Macedonia, was indeed also said to have died following a number of heavy drinking-sessions in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon in 323BCE. Although fever was the likely cause, the proximity of alcohol to the onset of the illness is notable in the famous account of Greek historian Arrian, which itself was based upon contemporary court accounts. The ‘party atmosphere’ and over-consumption of booze no doubt fostered the divisions among the heirs to his empire – a factor not lost on narrative traditions describing the subsequent demise of later warrior enterprises.

“…A few days later he (Alexander) had performed the divine sacrifices (those prescribed for good fortune and others suggested by the priests) and was drinking far into the night with some friends. He is said to have distributed sacrificial victims and wine to the army by detachments and companies. Some state that he wanted to leave the drinking-party and go to bed, but then Medius met him, the most trusty of his Companions, and asked him to a party, for he promised that it would be a good one…
…The Royal Diaries tell us that he drank and caroused with Medius. Later he rose, had a bath and slept. He then returned to have dinner with Medius and again drank far into the night. Leaving the drinking, he bathed, after which he had a little to eat and went to sleep there. The fever was already on him…”

The perilous health of celebrant warrior-chiefs seems to have been a major theme determining the fate of the ancient world, so much so that the ‘Primary Chronicle’ of the Kievan Rus (who were one of the last major eastern European powers to be Christianised during the 10th-11thC CE) contains the following allusion to it in an oath: In this, the pagan Slavic magnate, Svlyatoslav, promises not to attack the interests of the Christian emperors of Constantinople:

” … And even as I have given oath to the Greek Emperors in company with my boyars and all my subjects, so may we preserve this treaty inviolate. But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, either I or my companions, or my subjects, may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons… ” (trans. Samuel Cross)

This could almost be an invocation of the famous hepatically-challenged fates of proud Brennus or even Alexander or Attila, all of whom are suggested to have succumbed (no doubt with many of their ‘flocks’) to the jaundiced curse of gold, and seeking to become equal with the sun: excessive feasting, alcoholism and the in-fighting that can only be engendered within such a toxic atmosphere…

 

Who were the Belgae?

The Belgae (originators of the name of the modern country of Belgium) were a fascinating and influential ethnic-cultural group of tribes with a dominant political and ideological presence among northern Europe’s ‘Celtic’ peoples before and after Romanisation, in the period spanning the 2ndC BCE to the 4thC CE. Their territories at the time of Julius Caesar’s Gallic conquest extended in an area covering roughly the lands between the Seine and the mouth of the Rhine – parts of modern day France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. In Book 5, Chapter 12 of his Comentarii de Bello Gallico, Caesar states that the southeastern British tribes were ruled by descendants of the Belgae, explaining the fact that Belgic tribal names were found in Britain, for instance the Atrebates, and even the Menapii who were recorded in Ireland by 2ndC CE by Greco-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy as the Manapi and from whom Co. Fermanagh is possibly named, possibly even also the Isle of Man (once known as Menapia/Monavia):

The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands. The number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous, for the most part very like those of the Gauls: the number of cattle is great. They use either brass or iron rings, determined at a certain weight, as their money. (trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn.)

Caesar states that the Belgae, in particular the western branch known as Bellovaci, were of a particularly fearsome and unsympathetic nature in regard to the Romans. Indeed, their resistance played an important part in the final stages of his conquest of northern Gaul, when they formed an alliance with both the British and Armorican tribes, whose cross-channel neighbours were again ‘Belgae’, according to Ptolemy. Influential 20thC Irish scholar T.F. O’Rahilly even suggested that the Fir Bolg mentioned in the Lebor Gabála Érenn might be a branch of this widely-spread Iron Age ‘tribal group’ supplanted by Goidelic peoples from Spain in the 1stC BCE. It appears that the ‘Belgae’ were an influential bunch!

In assessing the origins of tribes calling themselves ‘Belgae’, however, there is an important cultural movement among Iron Age Europeans that needs to be examined. This hinges on the events in the immediate aftermath of the death of Alexander The Great, perhaps also triggered by displacements caused by tribal movements from northern Europe. The culmination of this was the (infamous if you were Greek) events of 279BCE, which saw an invasion by a federation of massed Gaulish war-bands through the Balkans and the homelands of the Macedonian-Greek Empire of Alexander, penetrating right down into the Greek and Anatolian heartlands. This movement appears to have had a fundamental impact upon the warrior-culture of western Europe’s Celtic elites who absorbed the iconography of deified Alexander as Apollo, Mars/Ares and Ammon/Zeus/Jupiter and spread it back into NW Europe, famously represented in their magnificent coinage. The leaders and heroes of this famous invasion included the theophorically named Bolgios, who – as far as we know – survived the campaign and would have had sufficient prestige to then rule as a tribal dynast. The Gaulish tribe known as the Volcae-Tectosages were one of several whose creation appears to have resulted from this pan-Gallic enterprise, and who returned to the Gaulish homelands in the west, so it is possible that the Belgae might have been another cultural group or part of a Pan-Gallic movement who participated in this great warrior event. The names Volcae and Belgae/Bolgae in fact appear to be synonyms or variants of the same tribal designation, incorporating the name of the Pan-European god Belenos or Volos/Veles/Velnias who appears to have shared the same solar-martial aspects as the deified (at least by the Celts) Macedonian Warrior-King who conquered most of the known world… The Romans and Greeks would hereafter comment upon a fanatical, boastful and decapitation-obsessed faction when talking about Celtic barbarians – something akin to the modern Sunni Muslim ISIS/ISIL and Al-Qaeda movements.

From Galatia to Galway: The NW thrust of 'Belgic' culture after 279.

From Galatia to Galway: The NW thrust of ‘Belgic’ culture after 279.

By Caesar’s time (1stC BCE), he was able to identify separate Belgae and Volcae, the latter being placed in the Hercynian forest, as well as Gallia Narbonensis (the Volcae Tectosages and Volcae Arecomici):

“… And there was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine. Accordingly, the Volcae Tectosages, seized on those parts of Germany which are the most fruitful around the Hercynian forest, (which, I perceive, was known by report to Eratosthenes and some other Greeks, and which they call Orcynia), and settled there. Which nation to this time retains its position in those settlements, and has a very high character for justice and military merit; now also they continue in the same scarcity, indigence, hardihood, as the Germans, and use the same food and dress.. ” Comentarii de Bellum Gallicum, Book 6.

The Hercynian forest described by Caesar stretched from the lands of the Helvetii, eastward along the Danube into Dacia and Pannonia – modern Romania. This was a kind of Roman mental ‘event horizon’ which they failed to gather the will to cross after a history of disastrous military campaigns, resulting in the development of something of a ‘pseudo-ethnicity’ of ‘Germanii’ to describe the peoples living beyond it, even though contemporary sources such as Posidonius considered tribes such as the Boii (whose homelands included parts of Germania as far as the Baltic) to be ‘Celts’ – a belief supported by archaeological evidence. I might also add my own observations on the aspects of the Celtic solar war-god, Belenos, found in later Germanic, Slavic and Baltic cultures…

In short, my theory is this: The ‘Belgae’ were a manifestation of a cultural-religious movement that was an expression of the Celtic ‘war-band’ culture which sought the glory of Alexander and Delphic Apollo (who they identified with their main god, Belenos) and invaded and settled in Greece and Anatolia in the 3rdC BCE. This internationalist and warrior-centric culture transcended local ethnicity and introduced a fundamental ideological change among the Celtic/Germanic peoples of NW Europe which subsequently influenced their religious, military and philosophical outlook and had great influence upon their mercantile and numismatic culture. ‘Bel’, ‘Vel’ or ‘Belenos’ was the god most venerated in this culture who gave his name to this cultural movement which spread from Greece and the Balkans, up through the La Tene heartlands, up the Rhine and into Britain and Ireland over the next 4 centuries….

This ‘southeast-northwest cultural corridor’ of influence appears to have been the fostering ground of both religious and secular power in the post-Roman era, as the Belgic territories of the Suessiones (focussed on modern Soissons) eventually became a heartland of the Germanic Frankish kingdoms, the Christianisation of which Irish missionaries were to play such an important role in, sowing the seeds of the superb Carolingian Empire and thus medieval European Christendom…

The Belgae were possibly the main reason that Julius Caesar and the subsequent Roman Emperors invaded northern Europe. They were promoters of a religious system which was fanatical: it knew no fear, promised reincarnation and had a distinct warrior-cult which enticed men to challenge the temporal authority of Rome. This movement had (for the Romans at least) a historical root in the humiliating sack of Rome by Brennus of the Senones and his army of Cisalpine Gauls in the 4thC BCE. That this cultural movement extended well into the very much un-Romanised Germania Superior regions where the very ‘Belgic’ (and Thracian) ‘Gundestrup Cauldron’ was discovered must surely make us examine why ‘Germanic’ paganism is not considered similar to the religions of Europe’s Atlantic pagan Celts…

Warband culture and the Celtic Iron Age

The dynamic stylistic and cultural impact of ‘celtic’ civilisation on Europe during the Iron Age was driven initially by trade among peoples with geocultural commonality as well as the emerging Greek and Phoenecian mercantile powers, and later by the highly mobile warfare practised by many of its peoples, which often led to permanent migration. A cultural shift at the advent of what became known as the La Tène period, from the 5thC BCE, saw a change in the habits of central Europe’s celtic peoples. It was marked by an increase of burials indicating a higher status of warrior elites and a change in attitudes towards warfare, and with this came a new excitingly fluid and dynamic style of decorative art that most of us today recognise as ‘typically celtic’. Use of iron swords, chainmail armour and better fighting horses all marked this shift from the former ‘Halstatt‘ styled cultures seen before the 5thC BCE. The La Tène period also marked that when Mediterranean people started to write things down about the Celts…

Although existing largely as loose tribal federations, from the 5thC these would occasionally organise en masse into highly organised war parties or armies, such as that led by Brennus of the Senones (Alpine Gaul) against Rome in the 4thC BCE. These would cause no end of trouble to the Roman Republic’s northern borders and interests.

The most notable of these massed military movements, however, was the invasions of a Gallic tribal confederacy through the Balkans in the 3rdC BCE, led by characters such as Bolgius, Brennus and Acichorius. It was directed at the unstable kingdom of Alexander’s recently dead successor Lysimachus, which included Macedonia, Thrace, Greece and Anatolia. The gains for those Gauls who invested their time and effort into this adventure were manifold – some returned home with plunder, some took land for themselves and settled in ethnic communities, some were paid off to desist from their attacks, and some found service as mercenaries in Macedonian empire’s internal disputes, of which there were many. Many, including Brennus, died: this was also acceptable outcome to Gauls, believers as they were in reincarnation, as having acquitted themselves in glorious battle, they could earn themselves better fortune in their next life.

The impact of such a well-organised campaign against an enemy with such an impressive empire would have sent cultural shockwaves through the Celtic world, and would have important implications. Rumours of vast wealth plundered from the 279BCE assault of Delphi in Greece became attached to the Tectosages tribe, based at what is now Toulouse. There was an explosion in the issue of coins throughout the Celtic world initially copying the style of those of Lysimachus, but which would eventually transform and incorporate indigenous designs with mysterious meanings, and a totemic power invoking military success. New tribes and confederations formed (eg – the Scordisci and the ‘Volcae’ – perhaps from Bolgius’ faction) and settled the Balkans, Thrace and Carpathia, and at least as far east as Anatolia (Galatians) as  well as returning to the more western Gallic heartlands.

How the waves of migration and invasion culminating in the invasion of Greece in 279 affected or interacted with Celtic religious ideology is hinted at in the coinage of the period which followed in its stead: This combined the image of the world’s most famous campaigning military leader with designs hinting at a complex view of spirituality, astronomy, the afterlife and reincarnation.

This organised mobile ‘warband culture’ of continental Celtic tribes was reflected to varying degrees among the Celtic peoples of the ‘Atlantic fringe’. Many of these were  coastal seafaring peoples and islanders perhaps not so much inclined towards such grand expeditions of conquest, and more likely engaged in commerce as a source of livelihood. The insular Celts were possibly something of an ‘old nobility’, slower to take up the manners and trappings of continental ‘La Tène’ culture. It is possible that they were religiously more conservative too with Britain and Ireland remaining to history as the last outposts of the Druid religion following the Romanisation of Celtic culture and religion from the 1stC BC…