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.


The winter Dionysia

The ancient Attic Greek festival known latterly as the ‘rural’ or ‘lesser’ Dionysia was celebrated – like Saturnalia and Christmas – just after the winter solstice in the second half of the Greek month of Poseidoneia which spanned December and January. The so-called ‘greater’ Dionysia festival, the Anthesteria, was a secondary development of the Greek city polities such as Athens and occurred a month or so later at the end of winter when the weather was finer. As befits its metropolitan status, it was a grander version of the rustic winter festival involving great public events, theatre, music and competitions as well as private celebrations of the Dionysian ‘mysteries’. None the less, it was otherwise effectively the same festival, its date transposed to enjoy better weather.

The ‘Rural Dionysia’ seems to have had many parallels with the Roman festival of Saturnalia which coincided with the roughly the same period, and which in the Christian era evolved into the ‘twelve days of Christmas’, culminating in the Feast of Epiphany – itself a festival almost certainly based upon the Dionysia, whose climax was the epiphany of the God Dionysus among the people. This brings us to an interesting confluence of deities: Poseidon (whose month it is), Saturn (Kronos, whose Roman name is based upon the Greek word for phallus: sâthe, as in satyr) and Dionysus.

The Dionysia – like the Saturnalia – was a time when classes came together in order to celebrate their shared origins in the natural world. Class distinctions were – to a degree – temporarily suspended and opportunities for public satire were made conducive by the wearing of masks and costumes by participants in the celebrations. It is believed that this festivity was the origin of the theatrical tradition for which Greece became so famous.

The god’s entourage at the Dionysia consisted of the male-gendered satyrs and the female maenads, although there was apparently a good deal of cross-dressing among the performers in some festivities. These accompanied the image of the god, which in its most rustic and ancient form was represented by a giant phallic pole of pine (a ‘xoanon’ image), coloured red and decorated, which was carried on a cart or on the shoulders of the phallophoroi. This made a ceremonial entry to the village or polis preceded by satyrs and maenads wearing animal skins (fawn and leopard, for example) wielding the thyrsus wand, and carrying cult objects such as jugs of wine, pithoi and krater vessels, plates of figs and a sacrificial goat.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the 'Phallophorai' enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the ‘Phallophorai’ enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The ithyphallic satyrs, sometimes darkened their faces with wine lees and engaging in ribald and ecstatic celebratory behaviour in honour of the god and the image of the phallus, which they wore a representation of apparently in the form of a codpiece with a leather erect penis attached to. Women (sometimes men) dressed as maenads or nymphs to complete the thiasos or retinue of the arriving god and took part in equally disinhibited behaviour and special ceremonies of their own. The maenads were a form of ‘bodyguard’ corps of the deity, and in mythology (and scandalous Roman reports) were sometimes portrayed as a maddened and frenzied bloodthirsty girl-mob who would rend and devour the flesh of men and animals. The ceremonial rending of the sacrificial goat, and even the eating of its raw flesh  may be behind this opinion.

Special songs (dithyrambs) were composed and sung and, naturally, wine was drunk and sacrifices offered to Dionysus, the god of sprouting vegetation and urgent returning nature. Group-experiences, comedy, humour and jollity were the order of the day and inhibitions were temporarily cast aside.

Origins of the Christmas Tree: The Pine and the Phallus:

The display of the phallus was an important symbolic aspect of the rites of the Dionysia, as well as being prominent in the equivalent Roman festival of Liberalia (held in March near to the spring equinox). Records (including the drinking vessel pictured above) speak of the giant decorated totemic phallic pole (made of the hewn erect trunk of an evergreen pine tree) which was paraded with the ‘coming’ of the god, accompanied by men dressed as satyrs with erect phalli attached to their costumes. A pole bearing the same image (carved from fig wood) was also sported by celebrants in the thiasos. The thyrsus wand depicted as carried by Dionysus as his symbolic weapon and badge of office was also brandished by the maenads and was itself also a depiction of the phallus: it was typically made of a pine cone mounted upon a staff, sometimes wreathed with ivy.

The pine tree was (like the vine and the fig) a totem plant of Dionysus. It evokes a similitude with the androgynous castrated Phrygian god Attis, who was likewise strongly associated in myth with the pine tree. Attis was consort of the great mother goddess Cybele, identified with Kronos’ wife Rhea in Greek mythology. Kronos, of course, castrated his father Ouranos. The pine is both evergreen and erect in habitus so is a fine metaphor for the phallus – its sticky sap a metaphor for semen.

It appears that Dionysus was actually a god of the ‘sap’, ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ stimulating life. Maximus of Tyre (perhaps commenting on the phallic totem pictured above) wrote in the 2ndC CE that:

“…the peasants honour Dionysos by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue…”

Plutarch  observed the contemporary belief that the god was a god of moisture – associated with life and vigour. One of the epithets of Dionysus was Dendrites – ‘of the trees’ – an indicator of his connection to branching life, and a metaphor of the familial tree of humanity. The tree was similarly a metaphor for rivers whose branching nature was morphologically similar. This links Dionysus to Poseidon who was god of waters – Okeanos (i.e. – the sea) being conceived of as a confluence of the world’s rivers.

Furthermore, the pine was a tree of the hot mountainside characterising the uplands of southern Europe, the Near and Middle East and North Africa. These wild places were a typical mythological resort of Dionysus and his retinue. The god’s birthplace was said to have been on a mountainside on the mythical Mount Nysa, nurtured by nymphs – the Hyades – whose stars form a cluster on the crown of the constellation of Taurus – the Starry Bull, representative of Asia and Europe’s wild Aurochs from which many of the world’s domestic cattle breeds are derived…

The mythical origins of mankind are often expressed in European folklore in the form of an ascent from oneness with the animal world. From the fables of Aesop (6thC BCE?) and further still into antiquity we see a tendency to illustrate the identity of humans with animals, just as in ancient Egyptian and Greek religion, the gods had a similar identity with the animal kingdom. Mythologically, the oneness occurs at the vanishing point characterised as the oldest period in a time without memory – a point firmly identifiable in ancient Greek mythology with Kronos, the Titans and Gigantes, and the ‘Golden Age’. This was an age when human heroes battled monsters in far-off realms and had no fixed era by historical reckoning, yet was typically used as a starting point in the reckoning of histories from the Classical period onwards.

This is the ancient, primal and even bestial ‘vanishing point’ which Dionysus (and humanity itself) appears to emerge from and to which the god mystically returns in his annual cycles of travel among humanity. Kronos (Saturn) and even Hades may represent his more distant self – forever marooned on the far shores of time at the limits of the great world-river Okeanos, or beyond in the shady realms of Elysium and Tartaros. These were all once believed to be linked by the earth’s waters. Indeed, this aquatic existence summons to us the identity of the third god in this apparent ancient triad: Poseidon, in whose lunar month the Greeks celebrated their oldest Dionysia.

Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hades, and together they formed a triumvirate who represented the dominion of the sea, the sky and the underworld respectively. Hades was celebrated as an important divine figure in the mystery religions, in particular the Eleusinian Mysteries – as the abductor and husband of Persephone (Kore), daughter of the goddess of the fruitful earth – Demeter. The seasonal drama of nature was said to depend on her annual passage into the underworld in the depths of winter when fruitfulness and vegetation dies back.

A curious identity exists between the gods Dionysus and Hades, hinted at by the ancient ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ – a versified account of the Eleusinian myth. This states that Persephone was abducted in the ‘fields of Nysus’, from which Dionysus appears to get his name (‘God of Nysus’). Dionysus was said in other legends to have been raised on a place called Mount Nysus by the nymphs known as the Hyades, daughters of the Titan Atlas whose stars form the crown on the ‘Starry Bull’ constellation, Taurus. Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5thC BCE) also stated that Hades and Dionysus were the same – a unification of opposites: One the god of indestructible quintessence of life and the other the lord of irresistible death, from which new life mystically arises through the fertilising processes of putrefaction. It is likely this was a key secret in the mysteries of Eleusis, and is part of a similar death<>life narrative encountered again in the story of Apollo slaying Python, and Perseus slaying Medusa. All such encounters occur in the murky Stygian regions – often characterised as lying in a misty place at the far reaches of Poseidon’s realm, characterised over all by the concept of the unifying waters – Okeanos.

The mysteries of life and death link in the cult of Dionysus, and remembered in the Roman Saturnalia: Both were eventually continued in the cult of Jesus Christ and ‘Christmas’. The traditions of dressing up as beast-men, collecting together to sing songs and enjoy the communal fantasy of theatre and dramatic entertainment, as well as the public expression of satire and comedy still mark Europe’s Christmas and Epiphany festivals. The Christmas Tree also has its origins in the Dionysia.

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.

Nehalennia – the ‘Cailleach’ of Zeeland?

In 1645, storms ravaging Domberg in the Dutch coastal province of Zeeland uncovered the remains of a significant Roman-era temple sacred to the hitherto unknown goddesss Nehalennia, whose name and image was inscribed on multiple dedicatory altar-stelae. The temple is believed to have served traders at a port who would have had commerce with Gaul and Britain, and also contained dedications to Neptune, Mercury, Hercules and Jupiter, although those to the goddess were by far the most numerous. Her image depicts her wearing a tunic, shoulder mantle and cloak. Her feet are booted and she is almost always accompanied by a small, friendly-looking dog. In common with the many German images of the Matres she is usually (but not always) seated and bears a basket, patera or cornucopia loaded with fruit, suggesting she was considered benevolent.




Although a local goddess, her imagery – like much of that from between the 1st and 4thC CE is obviously culturally Romanised. Her association with fruitfulness and the dog (which appears to be of the Greyhound type) would place her somewhere between the huntress-goddess <Diana-Artemis> and the fertility goddess <Ceres-Demeter>. Her boots and shoulder-mantle render her redolent of the Roman god Mercury, who (as a god of trade, and conductor of souls to the Otherworld) was depicted wearing travelling-wear. Most Roman(ised) goddesses were depicted in sandles. The overall impression is a goddess of fruitfulness, trade and travel – a fact emphasised by a number of images which depict her standing with her foot on the prow of a ship.

Geographic origins of Nehalennia:

One of the question most often asked of her is whether she was of a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Germanic’ origin. This question itself is somewhat complicated by the issue of if there is actually a cultural distinction to made between either, as this was originally a distinction made by Romans on the basis of (i) language and (ii) conquerability! Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Zeeland lies on the Rhine estuary, and that Nehalennia is known to have been depicted as a triple-goddess making her almost indistinguishable from the more common Roman-Era images of the three Matres found in Germany and France. The Matres or Matronae were typically depicted as seated and bearing pateras and cornucopias as well as sheaves of corn etc. A further shrine with altar stones dedicated to the goddess existed near Colijnsplaat in Zeeland, where a large number of altars and statues were dredged out of the Scheldt, the original Roman settlement of Ganuenta having been lost to the sea. A couple of examples of her shrines were also found as far away as Deutz – now part of Cologne, which was a major Roman civitas on the Rhine in Germania Inferior and therefore on the trade route connecting out to Zeeland and the low countries.

Analysis of the theonym:

The name of the goddess has also attracted quite a lot of speculation. As with many names transcribed and transliterated into Roman inscriptions of this era, a degree of caution is required, as the population using the name would have been largely illiterate, so the inscriptional custom of the name may not have been an accurate interpretation. Once inscribed once, it is likely to have been copied and fixed in this form. As occurs in, for example ‘Andraste’, the ‘Ne-‘ of ‘Nehalennia’ sounds like the definite article (‘the’) of the Celtic languages. In Irish and Scots Gaelic, for example, this might be ‘an’ or ‘na’. Manx is ‘yn’ and ‘ny’ respectively. This leaves us with the suffix ‘-halennia’. The terminal ‘-ia’ is typical of a Romanised goddess (‘Dia’), leaving the word ‘-halenn-‘.  My suggestion is that this is an aspirated from of ‘Callen’ – a name familiar to followers of the ubiquitous Cailleach goddess-name of the Irish and British Isles. Modern Irish ‘Caillín’ means ‘girl’ – the word is evocative of that definitive female garment of ancient times: the veil or mantlea notable feature of Nehalennia’s statuary appearance. The Irish town of Enniskillen – another trading centre on a river – is named after a pagan goddess whose name appears the same as that behind the name ‘Nehalennia’! ‘Halenn’ may therefore also be an aspirated version of the name which could also be written as ‘Cathlin’ or ‘Ceithlin’, and the seated-goddess aspect of her would fit with the Indo-European word ‘cath’, from which that sapient sitting beast, the cat, gets its name… I’d quite like to know just how old the name Colijnsplaat is for that matter – comments welcome as to if ‘Colijn’ is a version of the name of our goddess!

Aside from Celtic considerations of the name, it may also contain the name of a very German divinity, namely ‘Frau Holle’, who answers in almost every way to the description of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’. Also known as Holda, Hulda, Huldra as well as Gode, Perchta, etc, she is a common theme in the mythology of Germany and Scandinavia. This name is also linked to that of the Norse otherworld goddess Hel, and it is worth considering that the German word for what is in English called ‘Hell’ is Hölle. The Frau Holle of folktales is generally depicted as a friendly but potentially spiteful aged matron who might be encountered deep in the woods or living on mountains. Like the Cailleach, she is deemed mythically responsible for weather phenomena such as snow, a creatrix of rivers, herder of wildlife (clouds were sometimes referred to as ‘Frau Holle’s lambs’) etc. Like the Cailleach, she possesses a magical veil or coverlet (an analogy of seasonal fertility if you think about). She – like the Cailleach – has also known to have been associated in tales with dogs. It is possible then, that ‘Nehallennia’ might equally be a version of ‘Holle’ – perhaps a ‘Frau Hallen’? As I have said before, the ‘German’ peoples were ‘Celtic’ anyway…

Nehalennia’s Dog:

The dog has an interesting symbolism in relation to both the Otherworld domain and human utility. Dogs are creatures who have followed human settlement for many an age, and have entered into a domestic relationship which is at times uneasy, as they are potentially dangerous. In fact, wolves – long portrayed as an archetype for man’s fearsome bestial adversaries are simply one end of the spectrum of ‘dog’. Wild dogs are features of the liminal boundaries of human habitations and roadways, and for this reason they have a ‘liminal’ aspect ideal for the portrayal of death and the otherworld. Death is feared, yet death is fruitful. A dog can be ‘man’s best friend’ or his incessant enemy. A dog can help the hunter, but the hunter can also be hunted by the wolf. The dog in mythology represents as essence of the dual nature of technologies – to help or to hinder – and was adopted in ancient Greek mythology as a companion of the <Artemis-Selene-Hekate> hypostasis of the mystery cults. The dog was also a symbol and companion of Apollo’s ‘son’ (or aspect), Aesculapias, god of healing. The dog therefore portrayed hunting (or harvest), death and regeneration. Its place at Nehalennia’s feet, along with baskets of apples on the stealae and statues recovered from the Netherlands seems to suggest that she represented cthonic wealth and was therefore also an otherworld goddess.


Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

That the sea-voyage to Britain was particularly hazardous on account of weather and its notoriously difficult shorelines no doubt also supports the assertion that Nehalennia was a death-goddess. The pagan mindset with its belief in reincarnation had no problems equating death and fertility, as death was part of nature’s cycle of regeneration. The Greek goddess Demeter (known to the Romans as Ceres), seems to have a similar aspect, from which the tale of Hades’ abduction of her ‘daughter’ aspect Persephone/Kore derives. This tale underpinned most of the mythology of the mystery cults of ancient Europe: Eleusis, Samothrace, Orphism and the Dionysian-Sabazian mysteries. In the myths, Demeter is accompanied to the underworld by Hekate. The three-headed dog Cerberus guards the approach to Hades.

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task - leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c)

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task – leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c)

And finally…

On the subject of the Zeeland shoreline and its importance to trade in ancient (and modern) Europe, it is worth remembering that this is probably the vicinity mentioned by the early Byzantine historian Procopius (6thC CE) where there was a legend of the dead departing by boat for the isle of Brittia.

“They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwales hardly a finger’s breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour’s time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands’ names.”

There can be no doubt that this is a description of a mystical rather than actual voyage to the Atlantic Otherworld, and was based on accounts heard in Constantinople from Low Countries emissaries. I think it just adds a further frisson of interest to the mystery of this otherworld goddess whose shrines dotted the shorelines in ancient times, and were eventually (perhaps fittingly) taken by the sea…


Mountain Mothers: Cybele, the Sybils and the Cailleach

Another great ‘oriental’ influence upon the development of Roman state religion (apart from the Etruscan contribution) during the 1st millennium BCE was the ‘importation’ of the cultic oracular ‘Sybilline Books’ which were consulted in order to assist the state with important decisions. The acquisition of these works was originally ascribed to the legendary (Etruscan) last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, some time in the 6thC BCE, and after the development of the Republic they were kept in the possession of the Senate, and were used to assist decisions and determine possible outcomes. The collection was undoubtedly curated, researched and added to with reference to the various important Apollonian oracles across the eastern mediterranean region, including those at Cumae, Dodona, Delphi, and the Anatolian sites near to the supposed site of Troy* on the Hellespont, from which the original books were supposed to have originated. Although now lost (and at various times in their history, destroyed and recovered) we know that these books contained details of prophetic visions and utterances originating in the cultic goddess-oracles of the archaic world whose female seers were known as the Sybils.

The originating Sybil was supposed, as mentioned, to have been the Hellespontine Sybil who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Gergis in the NW Anatolian *Troad region, and were supposedly received upon Mount Ida nearby. From here, the works were copied and passed to other sibylline oracles, first Erythraea and then eventually to the Greek colony at Cumae, near Naples and from here, apparently to Rome at the advent of the founding of the Republic. The Cumaean Sibyl was an important character in Virgil’s Aeneiad, establishing an oriental Trojan provenance for the Romans’ ancestors, allowing them to incorporate the trappings of Greek civilisation and religion. In the story, she guides the Trojan Aeneas to Hades to meet with his father who blesses his future endeavours as founder of the Roman peoples. The Sibylline Books were therefore possibly a bolster to Roman pseudo-history, providing a religio-political bridge to the intellectual power and influence of the Greek near east. The Etruscan religious books were probably of a more nativist slant, and therefore less capable of such a trans-national religious vision fitting Rome’s future ambitions…

The books were consulted in times of great need, and from deductions made from these ritual interpretative readings, further developments to Rome’s increasingly complicated religious scene often resulted. Of particular interest was the suggestion during the Second Punic wars (205-204BCE) that the Roman state adopt the worship of the Greco-Phrygian goddess Cybele (Kubilya) from the ancient mid-Anatolian highland town of Pessinus (an area settled by Gaulish tribes in the 3rdC BCE) where she had a principle cult-centre, possibly since the 2nd millenium BCE. A small black stone idol (possibly the remains of a meteorite) was removed and taken to Rome where it was introduced as the goddess with much ceremony, and – bizarrely – it appears that the stone was displayed in a cavity in her new statue where the face should have been!… Cybele was linked to the Troad ‘Mount Ida’ by the Roman epithet Magna Mater Idaea, linking to the old Greek myths of the hiding of infant Zeus from Cronus in a mountain cave, either by Gaia or Rhea (both aspects of the ancient European female divine force), although the ‘mute-faced’ Roman depiction evokes an apparent reference to the mute Mater Larum. The names ‘Sybil’ and ‘Cybele’ also share a distinct similarity, and were used interchangeably, identifying chthonic priestesses with the great goddess…

The 1stC BCE Roman Epicurean poet-philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus described a procession of the goddess and her priesthood in book 2 of his De rerum natura in which he refers to the ‘silent blessing’ of the goddess as well as certain ceremonials related to it and the Greek myth of the hiding of the god-child Zeus. In this he makes a profound statement regarding the place of Magna Mater in pagan religion (translation John Selby Watson, 1890):

The old and learned poets of the Greeks sung that she, in
her seat on her chariot, drives two lions yoked together ; sig-
nifying that the vast earth hangs in the open space of the air,
and that one earth cannot stand upon another earth. They
added the lions, because any offspring, however wild, ought to
be softened, when influenced by the good offices of parents.
And they surrounded the top of her head with a mural crown,
because the earth, fortified in lofty places, sustains cities ; dis-
tinguished with which decoration the image of the divine
mother is borne, spreading terror, through the wide world.
Her various nations, according to the ancient practice of their
worship, call the Idaean mother, and assign her bands of
Phrygians as attendants, because they say that from those
parts corn first began to be produced, and thence was diffused
over the globe of the earth. They assign to her also the
Galli ; because they wish to intimate that those, who have
violated the sacred-respect due to their mother, and have been
found ungrateful to their fathers, are to be thought unworthy
to bring living offspring into the realms of light. Distended
drums, and hollow cymbals, resound in their hands around the
goddess ; and their horns threaten with a hoarse noise, while
the hollow pipe excites their minds with Phrygian notes.
And they carry weapons outstretched before them, as signs
of violent rage, which may alarm with terror the undutiful
minds and impious hearts of the crowd, struck with the power
of the goddess.

As soon, therefore, as, riding through great cities, she,
being dumb, bestows a silent blessing on mortals, they strew
the whole course of the road with brass and silver, enriching
her with munificent contributions ; while they diffuse a shower
of roses, overshadowing the mother and her troop of attend-
ants. Here the armed band, whom the Greeks call by the
name of Phrygian Curetes, dance round vigorously with ropes,
and leap about to their tune, streaming with blood. Shaking
the terrible crests on their heads as they nod, they represent
the Dictaean Curetes, who are formerly said, in Crete, to have
concealed that famous infant-cry of Jupiter, when the armed
youths, in a swift dance around the child, struck, in tune,
their brazen shields with their brazen spears, lest Saturn,
having got possession of him, should devour him, and cause
an eternal wound in the heart of his mother. Either for this
reason, therefore, armed men accompany the great mother ;
or else because the priests thus signify that the goddess ad-
monishes men to be willing to defend the land of their country
with arms and valour, and to prepare themselves to be a pro-
tection and honour to their parents.

These parents, though celebrated as being fitly and excel-
lently contrived, are yet far removed from sound reason. For
the whole race of the gods must necessarily, of itself, enjoy
its immortal existence in the most profound tranquillity, far
removed and separated from our affairs; since, being free from
all pain, exempt from all dangers, powerful itself in its own
resources, and wanting nothing of us, it is neither propitiated
by services from the good, nor affected with anger against
the bad.

The earth, indeed, is at all times void of sense, but, because
it contains the primary elements of many things, it brings
forth many productions, in many ways, into the light of the
sun. If any one, then, shall resolve to call the sea Neptune,
and corn Ceres, and chooses rather to abuse the name of Bac-
chus, than to utter the proper appellation of wine ; let us
concede that such a one may pronounce the orb of the earth
to be the mother of the gods, provided that it still be allowed
to remain its real self…

The ‘silent’ aspect of Cybele’s public face may well have been because the sibylline priestesses ‘spoke’ with the voice of Apollo. The divine music of the Kuretes was supposed to be an ‘analogy’ to the voice of the crying god Zeus/Jupiter, masking its sound from Cronus/Saturn in the ancient creation myths. Ovid’s description of Jupiter cutting out the tongue of the Mater Larum evokes this too… a curious syncresis of ideas and traditions.

The introduction of the cult of Magna Mater was hardly a novelty to the wider Roman and Greek world, the Greeks having celebrated Phrygian Cybele for a number of centuries before her official adoption in Rome. In fact, the Phrygians were not even the originators of this particular Aegaean goddess-hypostasis, as the cult of Rhea at Mount Ida on Crete undoubtedly had origins back in the Minoan era. Furthermore, the important temple complex and mystery cult on the Thracian island of Samothrace in the northern Aegaean carried on its own veneration of a similar goddess with similar iconography and mythology, but known originally as Axiérosand apparently associated with a male consort and a pair of divine  sons. It absorbed aspects of the worship of Demeter and Dionysus and the chthonic mysteries of the Greeks. The Roman cult acted to reinforce an older indigenous mythical religious tradition as well as establish a ‘spiritual corridor’ to the supposed ancestral Trojan homelands of the Greeks and Romans in the Hellespont.

So, what of the Cailleach?

Surviving thousands of miles away and thousands of years in time from the homelands and heartlands of the Anatolian mother-goddess, the tradition of the prophetic ‘Great Mother’ appears to have continued in the ‘Gaelic fringe’ of northwest Britain and Ireland – an area never conquered or settled by the pagan Roman empire. She does this in the form of an aged female character known as the ‘Cailleach’, ‘Calliagh’ or ‘Caillagh’, who is associated from the southwest tip of Ireland up into the far highlands of Scotland with mountains, nature, the weather and the power of prophecy. There are so many fragmentary myths and landscape features associated with her in these regions that it is apparent that she held a supra-regional importance from ancient times, well before the coming of christianity. These legends often associate her with the seasonal cycles, and the creation of features of the landscape, as well as guardianship over the flocks of beasts, natural springs and rivers. She is sometimes described as the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, sometimes portrayed as an ultimate ancestress, ruling the world since the ‘time before memory’. Like the black rock representing the face of the statue of Magna Mater in Rome, she is even occasionally described as having a black or blue face (even the ‘Black Annis’ legend from Leicestershire in England has this feature). One of her names in the Isle of Man – ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ – even implies a state of mute silence, ‘Groamagh translating as the English word ‘sullen’, which itself is related to ‘silent’ (Kelly’s Manx Dictionary).  The Manx ‘Caillagh’ was a traditional utterer of prophecies, the substance of which were kept as oral traditions, as they were in the Ireland and Scotland. Further connection to the ancient Cybele cult of Rome and the Aegean might also be found in the curious Manx folksong which talked about a bull-stealing witch who is sought among the mountains, where she hides behind stone doors, As y lhiack er e kione –  ‘with a stone on her head’… (if you follow the link, you will note I have corrected WW Gill’s translation.)

It is not my intention to digress on the totality of Cailleach legends in order to prove a link, but needless to say, the evidence of an ancient Earth-Goddess in the British and Irish Isles is compelling, and shows more than a few similarities with Lucretius’ fearsome mute Earth divinity…