The magical swineherds of Irish mythology.

“…in ancient days first of the long-haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme; And those who pacify with blood accursed savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, and Taranis’ altars cruel as were those loved by Diana, goddess of the north; All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards, whose martial lays send down to distant times the fame of valorous deeds in battle done, pour forth in safety more abundant song. While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, to mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars to know or not to know; secluded groves your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men seek not the dismal homes of Erebus or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life still rules these bodies in another age…” Lucan – Pharsalia 1stC AD

Wild and semi-wild pigs played an important part in the rural economies and philosophies of the peoples of the Atlantic Iron Age. Europe (including Ireland) was once extensively forested, and the Eurasian Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) roamed and thrived in this environment. It was from these that most local varieties of domestic pig were bred, but domestic pigs only began to diverge seriously in appearance from their wild cousins during the course of the 18thC when foreign conquest and trade and the acceleration of agricultural breeding programmes introduced new external genetic traits. The Irish ‘Greyhound Pigs’ and Manx ‘Purrs’ (which had largely died out by the early 19thC) were such throwbacks to the Wild Boar, whose long snouts, long legs and hairy bodies were ideally suited to a semi-wild existence of foraging. Indeed, these formed the majority of wild pigs in Ireland and Mann, which were commonly found before the agricultural reforms of the late 18thC.

“… In the mountains they have also a small breed of swine called purrs or wild swine; not that they are ferae natura or wild, for every man knows his own; but because they are bred and live continually in the mountains without coming to their houses, and both these and the wild sheep are counted incomparable meat…” (Account of the Isle of Man by Bishop Thomas Wilson – from the 1722 edition of William Camden’s Britannia produced by Edmund Gibson, Lambeth.)

The same form of swine-husbandry was still prevalent in Ireland during this period, in continuity with methods extending right back into prehistory. As well as allowing the ‘fat of the land’ to infuse the pigs, turning them away in herds allowed the more domestic breeds to mate with the population of wilder varieties, which in turn encouraged genetic diversity and disease-hardiness. The appearance of these semi-wild Irish pigs was evidently not to the taste of Gerald of Wales who visited Ireland (as a high church official) in the wake of the armies of the Angevin king Henry II’s conquest of  Ireland during the 1180’s:

“… in no part of the world have I seen such abundance of boars and forest hogs. They are, however, small, misshapen, wary, no less degenerated by their ferocity and venomousness than by the formation of their bodies… ” Topographia Hiberniae, Giraldus Cambrensis (‘Gerald of Wales’ or Gerald de Barri).

These hogs, so vital to the supply of invading armies, were the ward of Ireland’s swineherds (muccoi/mucced/muiceadh) who looked after them in the forests. By this period (and especially with the ingress of Norman feudal culture), the memory of the importance of the office of swineherd was largely set in the pre-conversion era before the 5th/6thC, as evinced by the number of tales in which these colourful characters featured. At this time swineherds were evidently powerful and influential men.

Wild pigs feeding in oak forests.

Wild pigs feeding in oak forests.

The earliest encounter between christianity and swineherds is recorded in Muirchú moccu Machtheni‘s account of the christianisation of Ireland in his ‘Life of Patrick’ from the 7thC CE:

” …He and those who were with him in the boat landed at Inber Sláne, hid their small craft, and went a short distance inland in order to rest there. They were found by the swineherd of a man who was good by nature, although a pagan, whose name was Díchu. He lived in the place where there is now the barn named after Patrick. The swineherd, thinking they were thieves or robbers, went to tell his master Díchu (about them), and led him upon them unawares. Díchu had come with intent to kill them, but when he saw the face of holy Patrick the Lord changed his mind for the better, and Patrick preached the faith to him, and there and then he believed Patrick—the first man to do so—and the holy man stayed with him for a few days… ” (trans. L. Bieler)

Here, the swineherd is the first point of human contact between Patrick’s mission and an Irish pagan. Patrick goes on to convert the swineherd’s master, Dichu, who becomes the first Irish saint, and is sometimes characterised as the swineherd in some medieval martyrologies. Muirchú’s preamble to Patrick’s arrival contains a passage proclaiming that the druids of the King of Tara prophesied Patrick’s coming and the apparent downfall of paganism:

…In the days when this took place there was in those parts a great king, a fierce pagan, an emperor of non-Romans, with his royal seat at Tara, which was then the capital of the realm of the Irish, by name Loíguire son of Níall, a scion of the family that held the kingship of almost the entire island. He had around him sages and druids, fortune-tellers and sorcerers, and the inventors of every evil craft, who, according to the custom of paganism and idolatry, were able to know and foresee everything before it happened. There were two of these whom he preferred above all the others, whose names are these: Lothroch, also called Lochru, and Lucet Máel, also called Ronal; and these two, by their magical art, prophesied frequently that a foreign way of life was about to come to them, a kingdom, as it were, with an unheard-of and burdensome teaching, brought from afar over the seas, enjoined by few, received by many; it would be honoured by all, would overthrow kingdoms, kill the kings who offered resistance, seduce the crowds, destroy all their gods, banish all the works of their craft, and reign for ever. They also described the man who was to bring this way of life and to win them for it, and they prophesied about him in the following words, in the form, as it were, of a poem, which these men often recited, and especially during the two or three years immediately before the coming of Patrick. These are the words of the poem— not very intelligible, owing to the peculiarity of their language:

“… There shall arrive Shaven-Head,
with his stick bent in the head,
from his house with a hole in its head
he will chant impiety
from his table in the front of his house;
all his people will answer ‘Be it thus, be it thus’ …”

In our own language all this can be expressed more clearly. ‘When all this happens’ (the druids would say) ‘our kingdom, which is a pagan one, will fall.’ And so it happened afterwards: when Patrick came the worship of idols was abolished and the catholic Christian faith spread over our whole country…

This theme of prefiguration through the prophecies and visions of magicians seems to thread through the writings of Ireland’s early christians. Ireland’s curiously smooth transit from paganism to christianity obviously involved very little change to the social order, with hereditary religious functionaries likely continuing their traditional familial or clan vocations within the new framework. That swineherds  were considered holders of visionary and magical powers is highly interesting. Was there a connection between this office and druidism or religious hierophancy?

A good example of this theme, with obvious references to Muirchú’s prefigurative testimonies can be found in the 14thC Leabhar-na g-Ceart/Lebor na Cert, or ‘Book of Rights’ detailing the dues of the ancient kings of Cashel. It commences with fragments of an older story of the founding of Cashel (Senchas Fagbála Caisil – found in another manuscript: Dublin, Trinity College, H.3.17: V, pp. 768–73) as prophesied by the swineherds of two local magnates, whose language dates them between the 8th and 10th centuries. Here is Myles Dillon’s translation of the Lebor na Cert version, taken from CELT:

“… In the time of Corc son of Lugaid two swineherds happened to frequent that hill for a period of three months, masting their swine, for it was a ridge of forest. The names of the swineherds were Durdru, swineherd of the king of Éle, and Cularán, swineherd of the king of Múscraige. And they beheld a form as bright as the sun with a voice as sweet as the lute, blessing the hill and the place, and prophesying Patrick. And it said:

A good man shall reign
over lofty and venerable Cashel
in the name of the Father and of the Son of the Virgin
with the grace of the Holy Ghost.
A bishop stately and benign,
sage of all the world in judgement,
will fill Ireland of the angels with people of every rank
with many canonical orders in the service of gentle Christ.

That form was Patrick’s angel Victor prophesying Patrick, and proclaiming that the dignity and primacy of Ireland would be always in that place. Accordingly that is Patrick’s sanctuary and the principal stronghold of the king of Ireland. And the rent and service of the men of Ireland is due to the king of that place always, namely to the king of Cashel through the blessing of Patrick son of Calpurnius… ” (Trans. Myles Dillon)

Of course, the period of three months refers to the period between Lughnasadh and Samhain when the acorn and nut crops were lying on the forest floor and when visionary experiences might be available to errant and bored woodsmen through the use of certain drugs then available from the plant and fungal world. The name Durdru seems almost to be a metathesis of the word ‘Druid’ or variant of the old Irish word ‘Draoi‘ (magician), making the link between swineherds and magic that much more intriguing. The Senchas Fagbála Caisil text goes further in making this identification, also giving the name as ‘Druidriu’ and stating that he proclaimed the first king of Cashel (after the manner of a christian bishop), and his descendants – the Uí Druidrenn – maintained this hereditary right under the Eóganachta Kings of Cashel who ruled Munster between the 6th and 10th centuries. Cashel was, of course, one of the foremost centres of christian power in early medieval Ireland – the tale seems almost to boast of a continuity between druidism and the portable faith, which spread by associating itself with the courts of monarchs.

The theme of swineherds as magicians is part of the narrative associated with perhaps the most famous and celebrated of the Irish epic tales of the middle ages, namely the Táin Bó Cúailnge or ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley‘. It exists in parts in several important manuscripts – the Lebor na hUidre (‘Book of the Dun Cow’ created at the Abbey of Clonmacnoise in the 12thC), the Leabhar Buidhe Leacáin (‘Yellow Book of Lecan’ from the 14thC) and as fragments and side-tales in the 12thC Book of Leinster. The 12thC saw a flourishing in northern European literature and story-telling relating to the former pagan era, ensuring that further copies of original written variants were reproduced and survive to this day. This may have been a factor of the ingress of continental courtly culture and its interaction with the bardic traditions of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Although the linguistic style of the 12thC copies of the Táin are identifiable with 8th/9thC Irish, the subject matter is set in the pre-christian Iron Age, containing a number of motifs identifiable across Europe’s Pre-Roman cultures of the 1st millenium BCE, so it is generally believed to originate in this period. Chariot warfare, magical bulls and fairy queens all make an appearance alongside the brave celtic warriors who contest on liminal river banks and sacred hilltops like so many rutting stags. The prize of the battles is the fertility of the land, embodied in the form of the two bulls Donn Cúailnge and Finnbhennach, whose genesis is dealt with in a tale peripheral to the main story, known as De Chophur in dá Mucado – ‘Contest of the Two Swineherds’ – found in the aforementioned Book of Leinster.

Contest of the Two Swineherds:

Similar to the visionary swineherds of the Lebor na Cert and Senchas Fagbála Caisil texts, the two contesting ‘swineherds’ in the origin-story are actually two powerful magicians, whose job is to guard the flocks of semi-wild swine of two great lords when they are annually sent out to ‘pasture’ and fatten on the nut-crops of Ireland’s wild forests. The story revolves around their attempts to outdo one another in feats of magic, resulting in their successive transformations into combatting birds, sea-creatures, stags, men-at-arms, as two spirits (scáth) and finally worms which slither into the source-rivers of their masters’ territories where they are consumed by cows who become pregnant with the two bulls, who represent the final incarnation of the magicians. The pagan themes in this are striking.

These two bulls come to represent the goal for the warring parties of the Táin Bó (‘cattle-raid’): Conchobar Mac Nessa and Medb and Aillil of Connacht. The tale’s narratives are of the contests of men and women – consciously mirroring the territorial rutting of the animal kingdom. The subtext of having the magicians reincarnate as bulls in De Chophur in dá Mucado might be a medieval christian attempt to suggest that the pagan spirit lay at the heart of the inter-tribal warfare which appeared to be Ireland and the continental Celtic Iron Ages’s perennial curse, albeit that the pagan theme of regeneration through death was not entirely alien to christian doctrine…

As swineherds, these two wizards or druids represent the conduit between mankind and the ‘fat of the land’ – that on the backs of their hogs, who are fattened freely in the wilds. That the two start out sharing their masters’ forests to indulge each another’s pigs contains a message of unity, that is destroyed when they are set against each other in contests which ultimately create the two bulls, who become totemic prizes driving human (or Tuatha Dé Danann) folly. This was ultimately the folly which broke the back of Iron Age Celtic culture, after all…

Collectio Canonum Hibernensis

The ecclesiastical manuscript collection known as Collectio Canonum Hibernensis (dating from the 8thC CE) contains among its collection of continental and insular church statutes some interesting comments about the origins of customs in the Celtic church. One of the more fascinating of these claims that the ear-to-ear frontal tonsure of the early ‘Celtic’ church was copied from that worn by the swineherd of St Patrick’s (eventually converted) adversary Lóegaire mac Néill, King of Tara. In a note erroneously attributed to Gildas, the text says:

“…XI. THE ROMANS SAY: The tradition is that the tonsure of the British took its origin from Simon Magus, whose tonsure reached only from ear to ear, following the very excellence of the tonsure of sorcerers, by which only the fore part of the forehead was wont to be covered. But that the first originator of this tonsure in Ireland was a swine-herd of King Loegaire mac Neill, is made evident by the word of Patrick. From him nearly all the Irish assumed this tonsure…” (translation from Latin by Hugh Williams, 1899)

The Saxon church’s ‘Roman’ opinion that followers of Simon Magus originated the Celtic style of tonsure is directly compared here to the Irish account that Loegaire’s swineherd wore this tonsure, and was therefore probably considered a magician or sorceror. No extant hagiography of Patrick survives to confirm the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis comment, although Patrick is said by Muirchú to have worked as a swineherd himself after being enslaved in Ireland during his early life. In the 12thC hagiography of Patrick by Jocelyn of Furness (designed for the Anglo-Norman conquerors, and their Hiberno-Norse cousins in the Isle of Man), the Isle of Man was won from the pagan magician ‘Melinus’ who pretended to fly into the air after the manner of Simon Magus. Patrick evidently enjoyed visionary experiences from guiding spirits while in his captive rôle as a swineherd, albeit that the swineherd appears to have been something of an elite vocation in ancient Irish society, causing us to question Patrick’s original true vocation:

“… An angel used to come to him regularly on the seventh day of every week, and as one man talks to another so Patrick enjoyed the angel’s conversation. Even when, at the age of sixteen, Patrick had fallen into captivity and spent six years in servitude, the angel came thirty times to meet him, and he enjoyed the angel’s counsels and their conversations before he went from Ireland to the Latins. He used to pray a hundred times during the day, and a hundred times during the night. One day, when tending swine, he lost them and the angel came to him and showed him where the swine were. One day after the same angel had talked to him about many things he placed his foot on the rock of Scirit opposite Slíab and ascended in his presence, and the footprint of the angel can be seen in the rock to the present day…” (trans. L. Bieler)

So why the connection between swineherds and magic?

The era of the early Celtic christian church crosses over with that of the decay of the late Roman Empire and its western authority, which was in turn coupled to the resurgence of indigenous cultural movements within the Romanised portions of the northwest European Celtic polities. One of these in particular was that of the Armorican Bagaudae or Bacaudae of late Roman Gaul – rebellious rural insurgents who challenged the power of Imperial Rome, and who provided a cause for which 5thC christian bishop (and mentor of Patrick), Germanus of Auxerre, was able to leverage social, political and (no doubt) cultural influence. To the elements of Gaulish society opposed to Roman power, this ‘grass-roots’ movement (so far as we can tell from our biased Roman sources) might have resonated somewhat with the marginal swineherds and Déisi tribes of Ireland, from the point of view of her continentally-oriented evangelists.

The ‘swineherd’ of ancient Ireland was more akin to a more modern cowboy of America’s ‘wild west’, tasked with driving herds of pigs from domestic corrals for fattening on the ‘mast’ crop of acorns, chestnuts and beech nuts in the forests which used to cover Ireland. As well as guarding these flocks, they served (as in the tale of the arrival of Patrick’s mission) as guardians and representatives of local lords at the peripheries of their territories. Swineherds were also engaged with hunting and retrieving these pigs at the end of the masting season before the swine-slaughtering periods which were around the time of Samhain in Autumn, and in late springtime leading up to Beltain. Swineherds were therefore important guardians of a region’s wealth and territorial integrity – significant heroes with great animal-hunting and trapping skills, who worked close to the liminal and magical zone of interface with the natural world. The idea of men turned away for a period into the wilds as hunter-warriors, living by the primal laws of nature is in every way evocative of the ancient and popular narrative tradition of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his band of Fianna

The position of ‘swineherd’ was therefore one combining the skills of both herding, hunting and trapping and was therefore far from a lowly job, but one of extreme skill, bravery and dexterity. Culturally during the European Iron Age and well into the medieval period, the boar-hunt was one of the highest acheivements of hunting skill and bravery, as these creatures were the epitome of tenacity, strength and savagery when cornered. The swineherd was, in this context, a prime embodiment of the protector-provider hero-archetype, versed in the magical mysteries of nature.

The boar was an iconic cult animal of the Celtic tribes of Europe: As well as seeking in the cthonic realms of earth for their food, wild pigs fed and fattened on the crops of trees, which were also potent archetypal symbols of ancestral continuity and the forces of natural regeneration. Conceptually, trees were also linked to the branching nature of springs, streams, and rivers, and – to the Celts at least – notions of the regenerating and returning Otherworld realm. The appearance of boars and serpents in the art of the Celtic Iron Age hints at the cthonic mysteries – both are ‘fanged’ and hunt upon the surface and in the recesses of the earth. Both shun human contact but can be deadly when cornered. Both represented the forces of regeneration inherent in the earth’s mysteries.

The connection between Druids and Swineherds:

Reading between the lines of Ireland’s early christian stories and more secular traditions such as the Táin, it is apparent that the ‘swineherd’ may in fact be a literary codification of the Atlantic tradition’s druids. Such an identity works on many levels:

(i) Judaeo-Christian distaste for swine as ‘unclean’.

(ii) Swine-herding was prevalent over shepherding in the Irish agricultural traditions. The use of the ‘shepherd’ archetype as applied to christian missionaries must therefore, in Ireland’s case, be subverted into a similar ‘local’ archetype. Due to the biblical negativity towards swine, this metaphor never really connected with the later christian mission. The ‘event horizon’ of Patrick necessarily erases any heretical or syncretic forms of christianity existing in Ireland before his ministry, the ‘Brigitine’ church, being one example of this, another being Pelagianism: ‘Gentile’ or ‘Paganus’ were terms used by metropolitan early christians of the Roman world to describe the rural peoples who chose the Old Religions. The idea of pagan religious leaders living with their herds of ‘little pigs’ out in the wilds was almost the ideal metaphor for Ireland itself, living as it did outside of the Romanised world of late antiquity.

(iii) Swineherds are identified with magicians and both of these are identified with pagan barbarian kings. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the swineherd-magicians become identities of the earth’s fertility (and, to give a christian subtext to matters), with conflict and unstability. The early christian monk and author Gildas (De Excidio Brittonum) portrays the violence, conflict and instability of his age (5thC CE) as being mediated by pagans, perhaps as instruments of god’s wrath for the improper piety of christians! In contrast to this turmoil, the christianisation of Ireland under Patrick is portrayed as being a smooth transition untouched by the anxieties besetting Britain which experienced the settlement and invasions of the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes with considerably less ease. In Ireland, the ‘swineherds’ of the peripheries became the ‘shepherds’ working out of the seats of royal power, establishing abbeys in towns as well as far-away dysarts.

(iv) St Patrick was a swineherd in his early life in Ireland, his coming is prophesied by magicians and the first pagan he meets upon returning to Ireland is a swineherd. His ‘guardian angel’ Victor is first met when he is in Ireland working as a swineherd. Victoria was the Roman goddess of victory and overcoming death, popular in the late Empire even after the advent of christianity. She was cognate with Bellona, a war-goddess possibly influenced by or related to the Celtic war-god Belenos. The boar, savage in its own defence, was also an archetype of overcoming death among the Celtic peoples. A druid called Milúch moccu Bóin (his former captor) is the first man Patrick goes to seek out and convert upon his arrival in Ireland, according to Muirchú’s 7thC account of his ministry. Some of Patrick’s earliest successors had names invoking the memory of the wild magician-swineherds: Mochae, Mochtae and Mochua, for example…

So those ‘swineherds’ may well have just been druids – Ireland’s alternative to the ‘good shepherds’ of middle eastern and continental christianity. It appears that in order to survive the change in power which came, under christianity, to rest in kings rather than gods, that they chose (in Ireland) to become the ministers of a new religious hegemony. The focus of religious power shifted from the wilds – hilltops, forests and sacred springs, where the liminal ‘other’ was sought and mysteries expressed – into the heart of habitation. Druids and their herds of ‘little pigs’ munching upon the acorns of holy trees and drinking from sacred springs, became Abbotts and their monks feeding from another authority – that of the written word, and power not from nature, but from the world of men…

Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

The 'Beltaine flower' Caltha Palustris (, Marsh Marigold, Lus buí Bealtaine) emerging in 'curragh' pools at Beltaine.

The ‘Beltaine flower’ Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Lus Buí Bealtaine) emerging in ‘curragh’ pools at Beltaine.

The ancient Atlantic Gaelic seasonal festival of Beltane, Beltaine or Boaldyn (usually ascribed to the 1st May/12th May) celebrates the opening of summer and the burgeoning growth and fertility of nature. Before the second half of the 19th century, it was a great cause for public and domestic celebrations and observances in many rural districts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, as well as many districts is Wales and England. Seemingly coming down from prehistory, these seasonal May celebrations were characterised by hilltop bonfire parties, cattle-saining (prior to transhumance to the summer pasturage) and the celebration of foliage, flowers, fertility and water through various customary and superstitious observances.

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

There is a popular conception that Beltane was a fire festival, not in the least reinforced by a famous early record of Beltane celebrations, found in the c.10thC Irish glossary-cum-clerical-resource-book known as Sanais Chormaic (‘Knowledge of Cormac’), which deals with Irish words, concepts and customs important to medieval religious functionaries and scholars of Irish orature and literature. Whitley Stokes’ 1868 edition of John O’Donovan’s translation contains the following two relevant entries:

“Bil from Bial i.e. an idol god, unde beltine – May day – i.e. fire of Bel.


“Belltaine… May-day i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] ‘they used to drive the cattle between them’…”

The first example is very intriguing, as it states that ‘Bil’ was an ‘idol god’, and that ‘beltine’ means ‘fire of Bel’. This is slightly at odds with the definition given for ‘Belltaine’, as ‘lucky fire’. No connection is made of the bible’s Baal, however – this would come later.

The second passage states that between the two Beltaine fires, cattle were driven. The original text and its marginalia are by no means clear as to their exact meaning: it is NOT necessarily saying that druids used to build a pair of bonfires between which cattle were led or driven! Evidence from copious historical and folkloric records confirms that Irish ‘Beltaine’ fires in Ireland were held on 1st May as well as at Midsummer day, with many traditions being interchangeable. William Robert Wilde noted this in his immediate post-famine account of lost or dying Irish traditions, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) :

“… As at the Midsummer festival so at the May fires, the boys of an adjoining bonfire often made a sudden descent and endeavoured to carry off some of the fuel from a neighbouring bonfire, and serious consequences have resulted therefrom. When all was over it was no uncommon practice in Connaught at least at the Midsummer fire to drive the cattle through the greeshagh or warm ashes as a form of purification, and a against witchcraft, fairies, murrain, blackleg, loss of milk and other misfortunes or diseases. Even the ashes which remain bear a charm or virtue and were sprinkled about like the red and yellow powders at the Hindoo festival of Hoolie …” (p.50)

Wilde supposed, like many scholars of the 18th and 19thC, that Mayday Bealtaine was the original festival, transferred to the ‘christian’ festival of midsummer during the era of primary evangelism. That both occasions (1st May and Midsummer) were ones at which the smoke and embers from the celebratory fires were used in saining people, animals, fields and properties might support this, but it is evident that midsummer celebrations were of an equal significance in traditional paganism across Europe. The interval period between La Belteine (1st May) and midsummer was one in which cattle were typically driven to summer pastures, which would otherwise be inhospitable and sparse during the winter months.

The Old/Middle Irish term ‘druidhe’, ‘draide‘ or ‘draithe’ in the source texts of Sanas Chormaic is the genitive plural of ‘draoi’, meaning ‘magician’, but equated generally with the Latin term druides used by Caesar and Pliny etc. This was apparently a trend started by 16/17thC Irish historian Seathrún Céitinn (d. 1644, hereafter, ‘Geoffrey Keating’) whose great account of Irish history, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, freely used the old Irish term ‘draoi‘ (pron. ‘dry’). He was effectively sealing a link in peoples’ minds behind the medieval Irish accounts of their religious/magical functionaries during the early medieval period and those of the continental and British Iron Age. Borrowing from sources such as Sanais Chormaic, and spicing things with a dash of invention, Keating (who wrote in Irish) continued the suggestion in Sanais Chormaic that ‘Bealltaine’ was a celebration of the god ‘Beil’ and fires. Here is a translation:

“… Now, when Tuathal had put these four parts together and made them into one territory called Meath, he built therein four chief fortresses, that is, a fortress in each of the portions. Accordingly he built Tlachtgha in the portion of Munster which goes with Meath; and it was there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax of a screaball, or three-pence, since the land on which Tlachtgha is belongs to the part of Munster given to Meath. On the portion he had acquired from the province of Connaught he built the second fortress, namely Uisneach, where a general meeting of the men of Ireland used to be held, which was called the Convention of Uisneach, and it was at Bealltaine that this fair took place, at which it was their custom to exchange with one another their goods, their wares, and their valuables. They also used to offer sacrifice to the chief god they adored, who was called Beil; and it was their wont to light two fires in honour of Beil in every district in Ireland, and to drive a weakling of each species of cattle that were in the district between the two fires as a preservative to shield them from all diseases during that year; and it is from that fire that was made in honour of Beil that the name of Bealltaine is given to the noble festival on which falls the day of the two Apostles, namely, Philip and James; Bealltaine, that is Beilteine, or the fire of Beil…” (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Ch.39; Translation/Edition: “The general history of Ireland … Collected by the learned Jeoffrey Keating, D.D. Faithfully translated from the original Irish language, with many curious amendments taken from the Psalters of Tara and Cashel, and other authentic Records” by Dermod O’Connor. Dublin, 1723. Sourced from CELT)

A god called ‘Beil’ and druids galore! His attitude towards fire-ceremonies and druid-savvy opinions were probably shared by a strong Irish contingent of contemporary Roman Catholic and Scots scholars exiled on the continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scots had been first off of the mark in the new National History stakes with Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527), which made free license with the history of the druids, who Boece claimed took up residence in the Isle of Man after the fall of Anglesey to the Romans in the 1stC, and became educators of the early Scots monarchs.

These ideas would certainly have been known to the continental expatriate Jesuit historian Michael Alford (Michael Griffiths d.1652) who appears to have been the first to have commented on the possible connection between the names Belinus and Baal in his Latin book Annales Ecclesiae Britannicae (finished in the 1650s, but published posthumously at Liege in 1663). Alford and Keating were both influenced by William Camden’s former use of formal history to assert national identity in a style less conjectural that Boece and his English counterpart and plagiarist, Raphael Hollinshead. Camden used numismatic evidence from old British Celtic coins to glean the names of Britain’s earliest known kings in his famous works of British history published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and Alford commented upon the names of these rulers depicted on Camden’s coins (which on bookplates in printed versions of Britannia). In particular he enlarges upon the name Belinus and equates it with the Canaanite Baal of the bible:

“… Effigies illa foemine, quae in eidem nummi facie prostat, Britanniae symbolum est, factae sub tributo. Obscurior vox illa NOVANE: nisi sorte Novantum, vel Trinobantum Urbem, Britanniae Principem, velis accipere. Quod in adversa parte visitur, Apollo cytharum pulsans, & Cunobelini nomen: devotum Regem significat illi numini, unde & nome ceperat. Enimvero quod Hebraeis, Chaldaeis, Suris & toti ferme Orienti, Baal, Bel, Belus erat : hoc idem Occidenti nostro Belinus…

Scholars of the early modern era onwards were generally fascinated by the references to ‘druids’ in Caesar, Pliny etc, and could be guaranteed to find traces of them in the medieval manuscript texts of the Irish. For Keating (himself a Catholic priest), druids could provide further prestige to Irish history, which could already unarguably lay claim to being a leading light in christianising northern Europe. Had not the Irish converted almost seamlessly from paganism to christianity? During the 16th and 17thC English literature had sought to attack and demean the Irish, and Keating provided a positive (and  Roman Catholic) narrative which he hoped would equal that of Camden.  He was writing in an era noted as much for its ahistoric ‘druid craze’ as its efforts to establish some kind of stable orthodox history which promoted a notion of continuous progress from a barbaric unchristian past into an enlightened christian present. As a Roman Catholic he was all too aware that Protestantism frequently derided Catholicism as backward and superstitious. Druids appeared to early modern man’s mind as the ideal bridge from savagery into ‘enlightened’ christianity, and the Irish manuscript narratives (in particular the traditions of Patrick and the early Irish saints portrayed as ‘taking over’ from the ‘druids’) were the ultimate form by which this might be expressed.

This association of the indigenous god (‘Bel’ or ‘Belinus’) with the Assyrian or Canaanite god continued to exert increasing influence as time went on. In 1707, Martin Martin’s ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ detailed his c.1695 tour of his native Hebrides. In it, he says the following:

“… Another God of the Britons was Belus or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian God Bel or Belus; and probably from this pagan deity comes the Scots term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practiced by the Druids in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, “He is between two fires of Bel,” which in their language they express thus, “Edir da din Veaul or Bel.” Some object that the Druids could not be in the isles because no oaks grow there. To which I answer, that in those days oaks did grow there, and to this day there be oaks growing in some of them, particularly in Sleat, the most southern part of the isle of Skye. The houses named after those Druids shall be described elsewhere… “

Martin was steadily enlarging the prevalent theme linking Beltaine with fire and fire-gods. The druid-concept came to its fuller popular fruition in the writings of another Irish author, John Toland, whose ‘A specimen of the critical history of the Celtic religion and learning, containing an account of the Druids &c’ was published shortly after his death in 1722, to much acclaim in certain circles.

Many 18thC scholars and gentry, perhaps egged on by John Toland’s writings increasingly enjoyed identifying themselves with the ‘noble’ vision of ancient druids, who offered a closer-to-home vision of their ancient elite forebears, favoured over the previous desire to show sympathy with the great classical era Greek and Roman or biblical characters. After the custom of the day, they began to create the ‘neo-druidic’ fraternal orders which sought to establish some kind of continuity with the ancient mystical past of non-Roman, pre-christian Europe. Unfortunately, in so doing, they were also effectively censoring themselves from deviating from group-held opinions on what had really been going on among the ancient ‘Celts’…. These scholars with a love of all things ‘druidic’, were often (like Keating) of a religious background – literacy being greatest among the clergy. If not, they were steeped in the religious cultures of Protestant and Roman Catholic christianity. For this reason, they tended to attempt to fuse the contending interests in the history of ancient paganism with the biblical narratives. There thus developed in the 17th and 18thC a popular theory that Beltane was a remnant of a festival worshipping the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal or Bel somehow transplanted to Britain by (presumably) Phoenicians in dim and dusty unknowable antiquity. 

When the Scottish laird James MacPherson published (in perfect English hexameter verse) his version of a supposedly lost ancient epic poem by the legendary Irish poet ‘Ossian’ (and son of Fionn Mac Cumhail), suddenly new visions of a hallowed ancient past to match those of Homer startled and galvanised the scholars and educated gentry of the European world. Anything seemed possible in an era already heady with the almost daily discoveries of science and exploration, and this led to a certain excessive credulity. The idea of Baal being worshipped at Beltane was given increasing force in the mid to late 18thC by antiquarians in Ireland, such as Charles Vallancey, who expounded a linguistic theory trying to prove that the Irish were descendents of tribes from the biblical Holy Land, who had bought Baal worship with them. Religiously, the Christian churches historically liked to portray ‘light’ coming from the East to the gloomy heathen West – part of a misguided popular narrative which believed humanity was continually bettering itself.

The exploratory and empire-building Europeans of the 16th-19th centuries frequently came across and subjugated populations whose level of technical and social development they equated with their own ‘savage’ pre-christian past. The new awareness of examples in the east of immolatory human sacrifice (Suttee), along with the fire-ceremonies and corpse-exposure practises of the Zoroastrians reminded druid-crazed Europeans of the Greco-Roman propaganda about Celtic immolatory practices. This reinforced the notion of a primitive religion being about fire-worship, and the Beltane activities seemed to prove this link to ‘barbarism’, extending also into a Protestant polemic narrative against ‘primitive’ and ‘ungodly’ Roman Catholicism.

In reality, the bonfires were not particular to Beltane in its various regional variants, and the practice of using smoke and fire to cleanse and bless is by no means specific to any one festival or religious/superstitous practice, being common across all religions throughout history. Bonfires were also special features of the other ‘quarter day’ and ‘cross-quarter day’ festivities in the traditonal and ancient Gaelic ‘wheel of the year’ celebrations. Samhain, Lammas/Lughnasadh, Imbolc and the celebrations of the Solstices and Equinoxes were also typified by fires.

Beltane is not just about fire: Forgetting the theories of Canaanite fire gods and druidic immolations, we are left with a pretty large and diverse collection of folkloric accounts of Beltane and Mayday practices from Britain, Mann and Ireland, which demonstrate it was a celebration of a complex set of natural forces. Fires were certainly an important element (as they are for any good communal feast or activity), but there is absolutely no reason from evidence to suggest that they were the core defining aspect. The collecting, carrying and displaying of foliage and flowers was a particularly important and widespread aspect of customs, which is unsurprising given that the beauty of surging vegetation is characteristic of the season. Water was also important, as was the ascending of mountains and hills, where it is likely to be found.

In late spring and early summer of Atlantic Europe, the combination of sunshine and rain in equal measures ensures that greenery is a potent and visible feature of the landscape, typified by the acceleration of vigourous vegetative growth in herbaceous plants, and the explosion of blossom and leaves on trees. This offered ancient peoples with a significant reliance on animal-herding in their rural economies (such as the Irish and Britons) opportunites to exploit burgeoning upland pasturage once the threat of harsh weather had receded. This coincided with better access to turbary (cutting turf/peat for fuel) and the hunting opportunities offered by movement of herds of wild deer and birds etc to the same upland pastures, as well as the movement of fish up rivers to spawn. It is perhaps no surprise that many records of older Beltane festivities involve the ascending of hills and creating of fires upon them. Of course, hills or mountains are not just good summer sources of food for man and beast, but are also often the sources of streams and rivers which proceed downwards from them and across the land and to the sea. Often saturated with rain and cloud they are great sources for the rivers which nourish the lowlands, and – excepting the morning dew – there is nothing clearer and purer than a mountain spring, just as there is nothing muddier than estuarine waters. To the ancients, mountain springs were therefore a special source of water, just as the mountains themselves attracted a special accretal of mythology, legend and spiritual importance. It is unsurprising that both dew and spring wells enjoyed a special prominence in ancient May traditions.

Wilde (Irish Popular Superstitions, 1852) noted the importance of springs, wells and water to the Irish Beltaine festivities:

“… Wells, whether blessed by saint, or consecrated by pilgrim’s rounds, or merely furnishing the healthful spring are objects of especial care and attention at May time, and in former years were frequently watched all night, particularly in pastoral districts, to ensure them against being skimmed with a wooden dish or cuppaun by some butter abducting hag as the sun rose on May morning. This was called ‘taking the flower of the well’ and the words “Come butter come” were then repeated.

Farmers drive their flocks by daybreak to the wells that they may drink there before those of their neighbours, and the greatest rivalry prevails amongst the servant girls and milkmaids as to who should first draw water from the spring well upon May morning… ” (p.54)

The idea of ‘taking the flower of the well’ echoes the English Mayday-tradition of well-dressing or ‘well-flowering’ in which wells were anciently decorated with flowers. Such collective efforts at beautifying wells and springs are believed to have an ancient pagan provenance, and removing items from such religious sites would have been associated with bad luck or an attack on the common good, as suggested by the well-skimming ‘witch’ stories common across the Gaelic world. In the same way, the removal of rags and ribbons left at ‘clootie wells’ has long been considered unlucky.

Wells and springs represent the returning of waters to the land, and waters flow in a branching manner (from branch to trunk to roots) redolent of the form of trees and vegetation whose growth is celebrated at Beltane, represented in Ireland and Britain by ‘May bushes’ and ‘May poles’. The heat of the sun is only fertile when combined with the moisture of water spouting forth from the sky and earth.

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

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.

Etruscan religion in the Italic Iron Age

The Etruscan civilisation which dominated northern Italy until the rise of the Roman republic was responsible for contributing significant additions to the religion of one of the great military and cultural powers of the ancient world. It grew out of the 'Villanovan culture', which was itself an ethnic and cultural offshoot of the proto-'celtic' Urnfield Culture of north/central Europe during the Bronze Age. During the 7thC BCE, like other nations and ethnic groups in the Mediterranean region, it came under increasing cultural influence of the Greeks who were expanding their colonies westward via coastal trade and conquest.


Although borrowing aspects of Greek-style immanent polytheist religion and adopting parts of the Olympic pantheon after the 7thC BCE, the Etruscan religious system maintained aspects of its older religious outlook, which by the time of the Roman Republic became identified in particular with a focus on Augury and Haruspicy – the reading of signs from nature and deriving prophecy from the behaviour (and entrails) of animals, and from natural phenomena such as lightning. The Romans referred to this (and the written texts upon which Romans based their augurial practices) as the Etrusca Disciplina, whose precepts became an important part of their religious life.

This particular aspect of Etruscan faith was indeed important: Etruscans were famed for their dedication to religion and required a professional technical priesthood trained in the disciplines of astronomy, natural philosophy (scientia), meteorology, zoology and the gods themselves. In this manner, they appear to have had similarities to the religious specialists among the Gauls and Britons, known to Greeks and Romans as Druids. Like the druids, the Etruscan priesthood were trained in colleges, the most notable late classical example being that opened by the Emperor Claudius in 1stC CE. The powerful influence of this religious system caused it to become the founding model for what would become Roman religious culture, and it therefore unsurprising that Etruscan religion appears to have had a fairly extensive pantheon of gods, albeit that Etruscan culture was formed from autonomous city states, each with their own interpretation of religious practices. These gods seem to have represented a system of immanent polytheism in which all natural phenomena were ascribed a divinity to represent them. However, the Etruscan religious system had three principal gods, named Tinia, Juni and Cel (later supplanted my Menrva). Tinia or Tin was the chief god, Juni his feminine counterpart, and Cel was the 'Earth Mother', perhaps responsible for the subterranean realms (her name evoking tombs and caves – cella). These seem to have evolved into the Roman 'Capitoline Triad' of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Under the influence of Greek and other Italic gods, the number of these diversified. However, the art of Augury and Haruspicy was apparently the principle feature of the religion by which the gods' wills were interpreted – Etruscans were natural philosophers par excellence.

Another feature of Etruscan religion which is notable is the fact that it was, by tradition, a revealed faith. The story of this was recounted in 44BCE by Roman author Cicero (De divinatione Book 2; 50-51.23):

“…It is said that, once upon a time, in the countryside of Tarquinii, while the earth was being plowed, a rather deep furrow was dug and suddenly Tages sprang forth and spoke to the man plowing. Now this Tages, according to the books of the Etruscans, is said to have had the appearance of a child, but the wisdom of an elder. When the rustic had gaped at his appearance and had raised a great cry in astonishment, a crowd gathered in a short time, all Etruria assembled at that place. Then he said many things to his numerous listeners, who received all of his words and entrusted them to writing. His whole address was about what is comprised by the discipline of soothsaying (haruspicinae disciplina). Later, as new things were learned and made to refer to those same principles, the discipline grew. We received these things from (the Etruscans) themselves, they preserve these writings, they hold them (as) the source for the discipline…” (Translation: Loeb Classical Library edition)

This tradition has several interesting aspects: Tages was obviously no earthly prophet, but was born from the furrow in a field in a rustic district. This would make him a child of the Etruscan goddess Cel, but also portrays the origins of Etruscan religion as being very indigenous and tied to the ancestral lands of their people. Cicero's account has the peasant gaping in incomprehending wonder while the educated 'townies' write the tiny prophet's words down, suggesting that Etruscan religion was based upon (now lost) canonical texts. Of course, this tale has all the hallmarks of a rustic religion sophisticated by the urbanisation of power in the Italic peninsula during the Iron Age, a process influenced and accelerated by the wealth of the land and commerce with the Greek and Anatolian states. Tarquinii/Tarquinia, founded by the legendary king Tarchon was one of the homelands of Etruscan culture, and therefore 'Tages' (Tarchies – the Etruscan language had no 'g' sound) may well be related as a demoted founder-god.

The Etruscan priest-seers are usually represented in Etruscan and Roman art as holding a stave or 'crook' known as a Lituus. This is sometimes depicted as a trumpet very similar to a Gaulish 'Carnyx' – straight with a curved tip. The lituus stave became the model for the Christian bishop's crozier, but its original form is mysterious. It may possibly have been a tool for assisting in the mapping or measurement of the night sky.

Roman Emperors were proud of their Etruscan heritage. This coin depicts the ritual artifacts of an Augur, including the Etruscan 'lituus'. Similar depictions also include a basin instead of the jug, suggesting the use of liquid 'mirrors' in the scrying process...

Roman Emperors were proud of their Etruscan heritage. This coin depicts the ritual artifacts of an Augur, including the Etruscan 'lituus'. Similar depictions also include a basin instead of the jug, suggesting the use of liquid 'mirrors' in the scrying process...

Etruscan cosmology appears to have been quite concerned about the importance of boundaries and divisions in the proper order of things. This probably represented a technical aspect of the need to assign signs and portents based upon where in nature they occurred. For this reason, Roman authors tell us that Etruscan religious teachings state that the gods were ascribed to 16 separate regions in the heavens, and that there were 8 (or 12) great eras of Etruscan history (seculae) the last of which was contemporary to them. The established limits and barriers which organised the Etruscan city-states and the rich agricultural land upon which their civilisation thrived were also of key importance. An account of the Etruscan 'Prophecy of Vegoia' preserved in a Roman treatise on land management known as ‘Corpus agrimensorum Romanorum’ (preserved in a 6thC mss collection) says this about the importance of physical land barriers:

“… Know that the sea was separated from the sky. But when Jupiter claimed the land of Aetruria for himself, he established and ordered that the fields be measured and the croplands delimited. Knowing the greed of men and their lust for land, he wanted everything proper concerning boundaries. And at some time, around the end of the eighth saeculum, someone will violate them on account of greed by means of evil trickery and will touch them and move them [….]. But whoever shall have touched and moved them, increasing his own property and diminishing that of another, on account of his crime he will be damned by the gods. If slaves should do it, there will be a change for the worse in status. But if the deed is sone with the master's consent, very quickly the master will be uprooted and all of his family will perish. The ones who move [the boundaries] will be afflicted by the worst diseases and wounds, and they will feel a weakness in their limbs. Then also the earth will be moved by storms and whirlwinds with frequent destruction, crops will often be injured and will be knocked down by rain and hail, they will perish in the summer heat, they will be felled by mildew. There will be much dissension among people. Know that these things will be done when such crimes are committed. Wherefore be not false or double-tongued. Keep this teaching in your heart…” (Translation quoted from 'The Religion of the Etruscans' Ed. Nancy Thomson de Grummond, Erika Simon; Pub. University of Texas Press 2009)

The Romans obviously took this heart as their annual festivals of the Liminalia and Robigalia seemed designed to celebrate the spirit of this traditional Etruscan prophecy. Vegoia was a female divinity similar to Tages who was quoted in the lost texts of the Etrusca Disciplina. Presumably this prophecy was originally a part of the corpus!

Another important aspect of the Etruscan religion which was followed by Roman religion was the belief in spirits of the dead travelling to and occupying a 'cthonic' or underground location. The cultus of the gods who looked after such realms in Mediterranean pagan cultures were actually deeply rooted to the source of their wealth and success (in both trade and warfare): organised agriculture. This is because of the cycle of death being strongly linked in nature to that of renewal: that which decays fertilises new growth. The ancient domestic ancestral cults linked the presence of the spirits of the departed ancestors with success in the temporal world.

Similar ideas were held by the Greeks and the Celts or barbarians of the 'Atlantic' north. However, one must be careful in how one interprets the idea of the spirits of the dead living in an 'underground' realm: Evidence from all of these cultures seems to suggest that this realm also had a reflected parallel existence to our own, and was also connected to the visible heavens and the concept of the far islands and shores of the world-river, called Okeanos by the Greeks…


Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato – spiritual philosophy

Medieval accounts of the Cosmos such as that given by the character Taliesin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’ are based upon much older pagan philosophies:

“…I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each borne in different directions by the repulsion of Strife. Thus, as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many, and to become many once more, when the one is parted asunder, so far they come into being and their life abides not. But, inasmuch as they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of existence…” Empedocles of Acragas/Agrigentum (Sicily) – 5thC BCE (From: ‘Fragments’ of the Strasbourg Papyrus)

Empedocles was one of the ‘Pre-Socratic’ (Pre-Hellenic) philosophers of the ancient Greek world – a group of individuals including Pythagoras of Samos (attributed to the 6thC BCE, but possibly even legendary) about whom we know little except of what was reported much later. In the case of Empedocles, we are lucky as some of his contemporary writings survive. Empedocles is credited with developing the cosmogenic theory of the Four Elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) which her referred to as ‘roots’ of matter, and which was to dominate the worldview of the ancient European, North African and Middle-Eastern peoples right through to the 17th century. Whether or not he was the true originator remains to be seen, but he became an icon of this to the Greeks. His surviving fragmentary works were – like those of Homer and Hesiod – written in a poetic verse, suggesting a possible connection to an oral transmission tradition. He was as much concerned with spiritualism and religion as what we moderns would think of as ‘philosophy’ – to the ancients there was no difference. As a Sicilian Greek, he would have had access to and interest in the ‘Celtic’ peoples and their philosopher-priests. His belief in transmigration of the soul was supposedly shared by/derived from Pythagoras and was common to the Orphic/Eleusinian mysteries, as well as by the Atlantic Europeans. The Greeks would never admit that they derived anything or shared a common heritage with the ‘Barbarian’ world, of course!

The Cosmogony attributed to Empedocles was used by Plato of Athens some 100 years later during the era of the Hellenic expansion. His famous dialogue ‘Timaeus’ discussed the structure of reality and history of creation, framed within Plato’s theories of geometry and number, itself derived from ideas of Pythagoras. Here he discusses the relationship between the elements (stoichaea):

“…Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean-then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one. If the universal frame had been created a surface only and having no depth, a single mean would have sufficed to bind together itself and the other terms; but now, as the world must be solid, and solid bodies are always compacted not by one mean but by two, God placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer…” Plato – Dialogue of Timaeus (4thC BCE, Athens)

You will note that Plato talks of the ‘creator’ or ‘God’ as a single force (you’d need to check the Greek original, though!) – surprisingly like the idea of God to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamist faith it would seem. This might seem strange, until one realises that to Plato and the philosophers of this age this was a natural part of polytheismthe plural ‘gods’ were a description of the important functions and continuum of time and space between the philosophical absolute ‘Monad’ and the dissolution of chaos. This was quantum physics for the mind! To worship the Monad was as senseless as worshipping pure chaos.

In the following passage from Timaeus, he explains how the stars and souls are one, expressing a great deal of the same theory as Empedocles, no doubt one of his formative sources. He tells how – as well as the universe being a huge soul ‘framework’ in itself, the souls of beings (gods and mortals) were made by combining them with aspects of the elements:

“…and once more into the cup in which he (ed: the Creator) had previously mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all,-no one should suffer a disadvantage at his hands; they were to be sown in the instruments of time severally adapted to them, and to come forth the most religious of animals; and as human nature was of two kinds, the superior race would here after be called man. Now, when they should be implanted in bodies by necessity, and be always gaining or losing some part of their bodily substance, then in the first place it would be necessary that they should all have in them one and the same faculty of sensation, arising out of irresistible impressions; in the second place, they must have love, in which pleasure and pain mingle; also fear and anger, and the feelings which are akin or opposite to them; if they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously. He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state. Having given all these laws to his creatures, that he might be guiltless of future evil in any of them, the creator sowed some of them in the earth, and some in the moon, and some in the other instruments of time; and when he had sown them he committed to the younger gods the fashioning of their mortal bodies, and desired them to furnish what was still lacking to the human soul, and having made all the suitable additions, to rule over them, and to pilot the mortal animal in the best and wisest manner which they could, and avert from him all but self-inflicted evils…”

    Although seeming mysogynistic to modern readers, Plato’s opinions about unworthy souls being reincarnated first in the body of a woman, and next in that of a ?beast have to be judged, firstly by the standards of his culture and age, and secondarily by considering the otherworld inversion principle I have made previous references to in terms of ancient spirit beliefs. For instance, the ancient Gaelic belief in hereditary healing and protective charms always had contrasexual inheritance as its core mode of transmission. Plato’s audience at his seminars were privileged Athenian males.

   In spite of his apparent misogyny, he was steadfastly devoted to the principles of Sensation (resulting, he believed, from the conflict between matter and spirit and the soul) and Love as the highest faculties motivating humanity. These, to him and his devotees of future generations, were represented in the Goddesses Athena (Strife) and Aphrodite (Love).

The views of Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato were to have a profound influence upon religious philosophy in the Hellenic and Roman empires, inspiring new generations of philosophers who flourished from the 3rdC BCE to the 4thC CE. The philosophical origins of christianity may in fact be based upon them – albeit with a one-sided doctrine of ‘Love thy Neighbour’ and the denial of the sensationalist aspect…. 


“You can lead a horse to water…”

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany.

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany. In the coins of this tribe, the female rider is usually armed.

…When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream…. George Waldron – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ 1731 – legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’.

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

The image of the horse is a striking symbol on Celtic coins of the late European Iron Age, all the more so when depicted ridden by a naked warrior woman, as was the case during times of war with the encroaching Roman empire – both in central-eastern and north-western Europe. The question is – what was the importance of the horse to this culture, such that it was depicted on almost all of its various tribes’ coinage? We know from the writings of the Romans that the Atlantic/western Celtic peoples’ main religious doctrines were based around the principle of reincarnation. However, after subjugating and then ‘Romanising’ them, there is little more said about their beliefs as they seemed no longer to be relevant. The Celtic religious system seemingly incorporated into the Roman pantheon but in a marginal way that gave no precedence over Rome’s greater gods: Statues and stelae of a horse-goddess ‘Epona’ seems to have been one popular expression of native religion, but the original context is not understood. The Batavians (Belgic celts) who built the 3rdC CE temple of the well-goddess ‘Coventina’ at Hadrian’s Wall in England were a cavalry unit – surely a shrine to Epona would have had greater precedence if there was an actual ‘horse goddess’? Perhaps to the Batavians, the well-goddess was the same person as the ‘horse goddess’! To understand this imagery of the divine female and the horse we need to examine how she was represented both before, and after Romanisation. Surviving images of Epona from Romanised Celtic shrines generally portray her as a gentle beneficient figure, conveying pateras of food and cornucopias. When contrasted with the coin imagery of the pre-conquest tribes however, and it immediately becomes clear that there is a clear distinction in imagery: In these, she is a fierce naked horsewoman-warrior, armed for the job of butchering Romans! Of course, once conquered, the Romans put an end to these images and the coins stopped being minted. The cult of ‘Epona’ was therefore probably a deliberate attempt to corrupt an important core tenet. She went from this:

More coins from the Redones tribe

More coins from the Redones tribe

To this…

Cuddly mother Epona - the original would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Cuddly mother Epona – the original would have brought your head on a plate, not food!

The ‘Tehi-Tegi’ legend from the Isle of Man is perhaps the most overt survival (maybe matched by some Cliodhna legends of Ireland) of the ‘death-dealing horsewoman’ that the Iron Age celts were so enamoured of, but the principle has survived in many other forms. Most notable of these are the folktales of the fairy horse who kills people that try and ride it by jumping into water. Be it the Neck, Nykyr, Nixies or Rhinemaidens of the German and Scandinavian legends or the Kelpie of the Scots myths: all are related the same belief – a woman who conducts the dead to a realm under water. When we examine the fairy lays of the middle ages (Lai de Graelent, Lai de Lanval) we can see that the beautiful ‘fairy woman’ ends up conducting the tragic hero to a deathless realm through water. No wonder so many early Christian saints such as Kentigern spent their days mortifying themselves in water! The Germanic words used for the water-horse-spirit generally revolve around the word-root ‘nik-‘ – from a presumed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) neigw which means ‘wash’ – from which the Irish have nigh and in folklore the fairy washerwoman, the Bean nighe. The most famous portrayal of a Bean nighe in medieval Irish literature is that of the Morrigan washing bloody armour at a ford in the death tale of Cuchullain – part of the Ulster cycle. The Scots word ‘Kelpie’ is an allusion to what is also known in the gaelic world as ‘wrack’ (seaweed) which is also the Brythonic word for ‘hag’ – Gwrach or Groac’h. Martin Martin recovered a tale of Hebridean islanders in the 17thC sacrificing to a sea-god called ‘Shony’ (‘Old One’) in order to receive wrack from the sea to spread on their crops as manure. So there you have it – the military horsewoman on the Celtic coins is the Slachdan-weilding Cailleach – the Morrigan herself: The water woman of the fairy realm – otherwise known as the realm of the dead. The question now remaining to be answered is how does the horse fit in with the general reincarnation/otherworld myth? You might recall from my last post that I remarked upon the profusion of apparently astronomical imagery that accompanied the horse depicted on Celtic coins from before the Roman subjugation. Apart from the sun and the moon and obvious star-shaped figures, there are frequently dot-and-line figures with an uncanny similarity to what astronomers refer to as ‘asterisms’. The horse itself is also very stylised in its appearance, and the logical place to start in understanding the importance of the horse is to turn our eyes to the sky: The most well-known equine asterism is the great constellation of Pegasus which sits next to the Milky Way. We immediately have here an interesting combination: The Milky Way arches across the sky like a great shining white river – nowadays difficult to see clearly due to light pollution, and the great leaping horse in conjunction with this is a remarkable metaphor of the Kelpie, Nixie and Tehi-Tegi legends. However, in terms of Greek mythology, Pegasus represents the horse as a benign force, but with a very aquatic pedigree – his father is Poseidon, his mother Medusa, he is a friend of the Muses and created a magical well for them with his hooves. He is also a conveyor of heroes into the spirit realm. Already sounding like many Celtic myths, isn’t it? The Muses of course represented the ‘fairy-woman’ function of inspiring poets, keeping memory and promoting knowledge to humanity… The other less-benign and more overtly aquatic asterism that sits close to Pegasus on the other (‘southern’) side of the ecliptic path is that of Cetus variably described as a sea monster or whale. In Greek mythology Cetus/Ketos was sent by Poseidon to devour the sacrificially-chained Andromeda, and was killed by the Pegasus-riding hero Perseus who showed it the head of Medusa. Ketos in fact means any large aquatic beast, in the same way that the  old Germanic languages used variants of ‘neck’ to mean the same: nicor was the Old English term used for a water beast or a hippopotamus*, and the Old High German word nihhus was used for ‘crocodile’. As a ‘*water horse’ is what we are interested in, the constellation of Cetus seems like it is worth considering further: The constellation Cetus lies in such close proximity to the ecliptic path (the road travelled by the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky, marked by the 12 zodiacal constellations) that it seems that it should be considered a 13th ‘intercalary’ member of the zodiac. Its proximity to the asterism of Pisces is intimate enough that they can be considered in the same ‘house’. Cetus is in close proximity to the other ‘watery’ constellations: Aquarius and Capricorn (the fish-goat), the ‘river’ Eridanus and the dolphin Delphinus.

Cetus in relation to Pisces - picture borrowed from

Cetus in relation to Pisces – picture borrowed from

Now we know that the celtic high-priests were reputed to be philosophers and diviners of the heavens, so we might conjecture that celtic coins portrayed astronomical imagery. Having been puzzled by the potential relationship between the horse depicted on those famously beautiful Iron Age coins and that of Pegasus, I initially overlooked one of the motifs that accompanied it – that of the ‘tented net’ depicted on the Celtic Parisii coins. Looking eastward of Pegasus we come immediately to Pisces and Cetus – and the symbolism of the coins is made immediately clear – the horse is not a depiction of Pegasus – it is in fact Cetus, the ‘water horse’, with the net being Pisces! If this interpretation is correct, then a lost celtic star-myth has been recovered, together suggesting some potential original celtic names for their asterisms: ‘the water horse’ and ‘the net’!

Compare the stylised horse's body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

Compare the stylised horse’s body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

So… is there anything special about Cetus? As it turns out , there is – a star on the beast’s ‘neck’ known to us today as Mira Ceti: ‘Mira’ as in ‘mirabilis’ on account of this star’s seemingly miraculous appearance and disappearance from the constellation! It is actually a binary star whose conjunctions and occlusions are responsible for this effect, causing it to reach a maximum brightness every 332 days (approximately 11 months) when it is definitely visible (unless the sun is transitting near it if it falls in early springtime) and invisible to the naked-eye astronomer during its minima. Although there are no definite references to this phenomena in ancient Babylonian or Greek texts, an excavation of a 3rdC BCE Boii temple complex at Libenece in the Czech Republic contains sighting post allignments which possibly correspond to a viewing of Cetus, and (concludes the author of this astronomy paper), Mira Ceti in particular. The other star which famously exhibits this quality of variable intensity is ‘nearby’ in the constellation Perseus – Algol, the gorgon’s eye – whose period of dimming is much more regular – every 2.867 days, to be precise. The coming and going of a star might have been a metaphor for the coming and going of the year – of the sun. The cycles of ‘coming and going’ appear to have been a fundamental theme for the religious viewpoint of metempsychosis, and hence a great deal of attention would have been paid to the natural phenomena in which this was shown: These were – the cycles of the sun, the moon, the seasons and the tides. The principle that the heavens represented the world of spirits pervaded the ancient mindset, and the use of mythology to explain the heavens and their phenomena was a key part of this understanding. The image of the horse and the chariot convey mythological implications of the mysteries of the sun – the Greek legend of Phaethon, son of Helios/Apollo, who took his dad’s sports chariot for a spin with disastrous consequences attests to this. Most of ancient mythology was quite possibly designed to explain the cycles of nature in relation to the cycle of events witnessed in both the sky and on Earth and in the oceans – something which became lost in the Christian age…