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.


‘Root, branch and seed’ – Ancestral tree-analogies in Europe’s pagan past

Europe’s ancient pagan religions had their origins buried deep in a pervasive natural philosophy whose origins can be traced far into the pre-historic archaeological record to the cultures of the Bronze Age and Neolithic periods. This philosophy was one of death, the afterlife, regeneration and links with the ancestors. Not only does it employ the analogies of life-giving springs of water, regenerating serpents and the firmament of putrefaction from which life re-emerges, but also the active growth and re-growth of plants and trees in nature, particularly the nourishing agricultural crops and wild foliage sustaining man and the animals he relied upon. For this reason, the symbolism of the branch and the ear of corn was of particular importance to Europe’s ancient pagan cultures – Celtic, Thracian, Greek and Roman.

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Note the branch between the warriors - the flowers look like Henbane. Photo: Malene Thyssen

The ‘celtic warrior’ panel from the interior of the Gundestrup cauldron. Note the branch between the warriors. The ‘flowers’ look like Henbane – herb of the dead. Photo: Malene Thyssen

Hercules and the confronts Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides (Roman Hispania)

Hercules confronts Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides (mosaic from Roman Hispania)

Corn ears on a coin of Cunobellinus (Catuvellauni/Trinovantes) 1stC AD.

Corn ear on a coin of Cunobellinos (Catuvellauni/Trinovantes) 1stC AD. It is possible that Cunobellinos was an initiate of the Greek Eleusinian mysteries, perhaps part of the scheme of Caesar Augustus to ‘Romanise’ the wild pagan elites of north Europe.

The branch is a particular symbol found on the 'Anted Rig' British celtic gold staters.

The branch is a particular symbol found on the ‘Anted Rig’ British celtic gold staters. Like those of Cunobellinos, they were minted during a time of crisis in the Celtic world, when tribal unity was of utmost importance.

The analogy of the tree is of particular importance, and sacred groves were of great importance to all of Europe’s pagan religions – be they Celtic, Greek, Germanic, Thracian or Roman. Sacred trees remained important to the cosmologies of Europe’s longest-surviving pagan traditions (for instance, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic states) far into the middle ages.

Trees were symbolically  important for the following reasons:

They represented the ‘reflected’ symmetry between the mundane and spirit worlds. The roots below the earth are a reflection of the branches in the air above. The tree was therefore a link between the supra-terranean world and the mysterious chthonic realms into which living matter decayed and from which life seemed to eternally regenerate. ‘As above, so below’, so the saying goes. The idea of the ‘family tree’ depicts the analogy of ancestors and generations. The roots of the ‘family tree’ were the ancestors, the trunk the living patriarchs and matriarchs,  and the branches and fruits the future life and continuity of the family. Trees are analogous with rivers in many ways. The tree’s branching nature shares a very distinct similarity with the patterns exerted upon our landscapes by rivers. The winding nature of great rivers is also analogous to the shape of the snake, and rivers, trees and snakes are distinct in the symbolism of the Otherworld and its flow of interaction with the ‘world of the living’. Trees and plants rely very strongly upon sources of water, and are also prone to being struck by that other great ‘branching’ phenomenon of nature: lightning. Nourished by water welling up from the earth, and destroyed by lighting branching down from the sky – it  is no surprise that the tree is such a potent symbol of the forces connecting the heavens and the earth… Trees are the longest-lived organisms. Trees outlive almost any other species, and are therefore entrusted with the positive faculties of age: wisdom, perseverance and constancy. Trees might witness events spanning the lives of successive generations of humans. They protect and shelter, we build our homes and conveyances from them – they are a source of strength and protection to us. The physical nature of wood changes little after its death. Apart from ceasing to produce leaves and new growth, wood maintains its structural properties much better than other living organisms once it is dead. Well-treated wood lasts millennia, in fact. This property gives it a special place in human consciousness and imagination. The tree represents monarchy. The stout trunk and roots are the cohesive force of monarchy itself, with the topmost branch representing the king or queen and the lesser branches the subjects.

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.

Cronos, Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries and spirit-traditions of ancient Europe

In Greek poet Hesiod’s c.7thC BCE account of the ‘time before memory’ in the early days of creation, Cronus was the Titan ‘god’ of the ‘Golden Age’ – an idealised period after creation when a perfect race of men existed, and all was bountiful with no work or conflict nescessary:

First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven.  And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils.  When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint.  They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

But after earth had covered this generation — they are called pure spirits dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received…

Source: Hesiod ‘Works and Days’ trans H.G. Evelyn White 1912.

The myth goes on to relate the subsequent four creations of humans down to Hesiod’s ‘modern’ day (c.7thC BCE, the ‘Age of Iron’), portraying each successive race of mankind as progressively debased and further from the godly ideals. The other races who came after the Golden are the Silver, the Bronze, and penultimately and somewhat curiously – the Race of Demi-Gods: people who were great enough to enjoy a deified status or to have a half-divine parentage. To these, he assigns an eternal existence in the Blessed Isles:

But to the others father Zeus the son of Kronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the Islands of the Blessed (Nesoi Makarôn) along the shore of deep swirling Okeanos, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Kronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.”

It appears that Hesiod has made a distinction between the more ancient Golden Race and the Demigods who preceded the Men of Iron, yet the description of their existence and their ruler -Kronos/Cronos – is more or less identical, suggesting Hesiod sought to somehow change the tradition. This may well relate to Hesiod’s wish to promote the Olympian cult of Zeus which must have displaced that of Cronos, as described in his poetic narratives – Theogony and Works and Days. It is quite possible that Cronos represented a more primitive occidental god that the Greeks identified with the barbarian peoples to their north and west, and for this reason Hesiod and his contemporaries demoted him into exile on an Island far to the west…

Hesiod’s account of the race of the Golden Age is interesting in that these ‘ancestors’ who live on as helper-spirits (the original greek word is Daimôn) seem very similar to what Atlantic Europeans in the 2nd millennium CE referred to as fairies or elves in their own mythology. They certainly have aspects that we encounter in the denizens of much later ‘Celtic’ tales of the glorious otherworld – beauty, abundance, prosperity and peace.

Plato (4thC BCE) in his Socratic dialogue known as Cratylus discusses the belief that the eternal souls of virtuous humans become Daimones or Daemones (helper spirits – not the ‘evil spirits’ which Christianity later created from them) and refers to Hesiod’s Golden Race to make his point. His 4thC BCE Athenians agree that the eternal souls of virtuous men in their own time might achieve the same – not just those of the ancient mythical race of men. In Timaeus Plato expounded a common belief that souls were made of aither and the stars could be conceived of as souls of the departed (which is why demigods were placed in the sky as constellations). He has this to say of the Creator of the Universe:

….And once more into the cup in which he 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…

He based much of this story on Hesiod, who he references in Cratylus. He goes on to discuss reincarnation:

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.

The 1stC BCE Roman author Virgil was of the same opinion, being heavily influenced by Pythagorean, Platonic and Orphic doctrines which often went hand-in-hand in his day, as they were intimately concerned with the passage of the soul in former and future lives as well as the current. In this regard they were not much different to what Caesar said the Atlantic peoples of northwest Europe believed in. One of Roman society’s most popular celebrations was the Saturnalia which terminated at the Winter Solstice and celebrated the abundance of the Golden Age ruled over by Saturn (Rome’s name for Cronos), in the lead-up to the returning year. This was a festival of what I have referred to as ‘Otherworld Inversions‘ – masters would serve slaves, and the slaves could rest, for example.

So … what was Orphism and how does it relate to Cronos?

The Orphic faith has been identified from writings dated from at least the 4thC BCE onwards, though its origins are unknown and it may be partly evolved from a much older belief system – namely the Dionysian and Eleusinian mysteries with which they share much of their narrative structure. Orphism had definitely attained a consolidated (literary) existence at the advent of the Hellenic period and became one of the most influential mystery cults of the classical world, staying in existence until the late classical period. The surviving evidence for it is fragmentary and comes from literature (e.g. – the ‘Dereveni papyrus’, writings of the Neo-Platonist philosophers), art and inscriptions.

The key knowledge of the mysteries was said to have been gained by the proto-poet Orpheus in a visit to (and return from) Hades – the afterlife, which is the key aspect of the mysteries. The background story relied upon what are termed the ‘Orphic Theogonies’ (creation myths of the universe and the gods) which ultimately explained the creation of mankind the passage of the eternal soul through various states or cycles of reincarnation before it reached perfection.

The reincarnation beliefs of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries revolved around a shared dramatisation of the reincarnation of the year: The abduction of Kore (Persephone), daughter of Demeter (Rhea) by Hades, and her eventual release on the condition that she returned annually to his underworld. Zeus’ son and heir by Persephone (his daughter!) is the first incarnation of the god Dionysus – sometimes referred to in Orphism as ‘Zagreus’ and identified with Egyptian Osiris. Orphism attempted to weld aspects of older (Mycaenean and Barbarian/Thracian) religion and the high philosophies of Egyptian religion to the Olympian pantheon. In the Orphic theogonies, the young Dionysus-Zagreus is given the throne of Olympus by his father. Rhea inflames the Titans with anger at this and they dismember him after the manner of Osiris before consuming most of his body (Rhea keeps the heart). As punishment Zeus burns the Titans with lightning, turning them (and their meal) to ash and soot from which humans are created – their souls formed from the spiritual essence of Dionysus and their bodies from the soot and ash of the Titans’ bodies.

This is somewhat different from Hesiod’s ages of men, and perhaps explains the importance attained by the Cult of Dionysus or Bacchus in later antiquity: Celebrants of the cult sought to liberate themselves from their bodily limitations and experience the divine in a state of ecstasy. The Orphic and Eleusinian initiates appear to have believed that the soul passed through a number of bodies in order to purify itself from the envy and pride of the Titans of whom Cronus was the exiled leader. Dionysus represented a liminal figure whose death and rebirth (from the heart saved by Rhea) meant that he trod between the ordered realm of the Olympian gods and that of the Titans (who represented chaos, and primal forces), to whom the Olympians were ultimately subject to, in spite of their apparent besting and mastery of them in legend. Zeus and his colleagues were not omnipotent in Greek theology – they were prone to human foibles and subject to the forces of higher powers such as Fate and Chaos, as much as they were beholden to the structure of the elements and aither…

It is apparent that the theologies about Cronus, the origins of humanity, the transmigrations of the soul, and the link of this to the seasonal drama of the returning year was part of a more ancient European and Middle-Eastern religious system. Their existence is paralleled in the fairy beliefs of the Atlantic Europeans, and in the folklore of the Cailleach, Manannan,  Mag Mell and the Land of Youth, all of which are at the heart of the survivals of the Atlantic Religion in folk culture of northwest Europe.