Mythological Event Horizons Part 2: The Greco-Persian Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek opinion of Persians after the War:

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

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

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

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

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

Persian and Assyrian religion:

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

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

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

Principle of the waters as ‘first cause’:

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

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

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

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

Strife as an life-giving factor for the universe:

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

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

The Universal Soul and the circle:

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

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

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

The mixed elements of water and earth imply destruction:

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

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

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

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

The Athenian ‘aftermath’ of eastern philosophy:

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

Ancient connections between the Greeks and Indo-Persian peoples:

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

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

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

The meanings of Beltane

Following on from my last thematic post, I wish to discuss some of the deeper meanings behind the festival of Beltane, known in Irish as Bealtaine, and Manx as Boaldyn. I have employed the English spelling 'Beltane' when talking in the general sense, simply because this is the language I use.

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

It really is an old festival, proceeding from times when religion was generated from the landscape, seasons, survival and memories – not from books. The empirical observations of nature's great mechanism assigned particular periods where change was apparent a specific importance, and Beltane was one of these.

It represents the surge of trees into full leaf, the arching and dividing of shoots to form branched plants, and the appearance of swarms of insects. Climatically it is warm and wet – the ideal generative conditions for nature to surge into full life. The response to this growth is visible in the behaviour and migrations of wild animals, and reflected in the procedures of transhumance when it is safe to move animals to upland pastures. It is perhaps not surprising that the groups of stars or constellations in which the sun is noted to travel during this period have ancient names which correspond closely to agricultural animals – Aries (the ram), Taurus (the bull), the Pleiades (plovers) and mysterious Cetus (see my earlier post about Iron Age coins). None of these will be visible in daytime in the sun's glare (except perhaps Taurus and the Pleiades just after sunset), and are hidden below the horizon at night! Boötes ('The Herdsman' -home of the bright star Arcturus) and Virgo ('The Young Woman' whose brightest star is Spica which represents a fertilised ear of corn) are visible rising on the ecliptic path to the southeast as the sun sets on Beltane eve, however… The 'meaning' of these constellations appears to have been assigned on the basis of the seasonal events they attend.

Irish Bealtaine customs:

According to William Robert Wilde, (Irish Popular Superstitions, Pub. McGlashan, Dublin 1852) the pre-famine celebration and customs of the Lá Buidhe Bealtaine included the following:

1. Bealtaine bonfires: Usually lit on May eve. He says that the embers would sometimes be taken away to peoples homes to light their own fires, and the ashes considered lucky and curative. Wilde records the burning of horse skulls and animal bones on the fires, as well as the May bush.

2. The May Bush: A decorated uprooted bush or small tree which was carried around ceremonially by youthful celebrants. It was burned on the bonfire.

3. He describes stories of parties of young character-actors similar to those of the Manx 'Summer Queen' and her troop.

4. May Flowers: Like in the Isle of Man, the Bearnan Bealtaine or Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) was a principle apotropaic Mayflower. Any other yellow wildflowers would be used to decorate houses and doorways etc.

5. Household superstitions: Wilde describes a superstition that it was unlucky to give fire or milk from the house at Bealtaine. He associates this with making the household vulnerable to fairies. Curiously, this superstition applies to Easter in the Isle of Man.

6. Spring wells and dew: A number of superstitions existed about the power held in the dew of May morning. Going to a person's land and skimming the dew was considered an attempt to transfer/steal its productivity. The same applies to skimming someone's well or spring. Conversely, wells were resorted to for ablutions and drinking first thing on May morning, and girls would also try and wash themselves in the dew of May morning.

7. May balls: Aside from dances and frolics, Bealtaine was also sometimes associated with spherical balls: One of these was a large football, kicked about as part of a May 'wide-game', and another was a custom of carrying a decorated ball suspended from a pole.

The book was a misty-eyed look back at pre-famine Ireland, and it is evident from its tone that Wilde perceived the famine to have caused a cultural collapse of traditional customs. He was correct, of course, and the latter half of the 19thC was marked by a rise in the power and influence of the Roman Catholic church which sought to fill the void of the decimated culture with its own cultural 'produce'.

Apart from the aspects of fun attached to former Bealtaine celebrations, it is worth examining in more detail the meanings of the customs Wilde and others have described.

Primrose_IMG_1803_2009_04 copy (1)

Water, trees and fertility:

The similitude between water and the plant life that relies upon it to survive permeated the empirical (i.e. – pagan) philosophies of Atlantic Europe. The physical patterns traced by the branches, stems and roots plants are similar to the shapes of river deltas. Plants 'spring' up from the ground in the season named in honour of this – just like water has a similar tendency to gush forth. The 'flood' of greenery at Beltane is analogous to the floods of rivers and the ocean tides. It was anciently believed that dew was created by the moon whose cold light was supposed to create moisture. Furthermore it was believed that its disappearance from the leaves of plants as the morning progressed constituted a 'drinking in' of its goodness. Grass and its dew, spring-wells, and the flow of milk from cattle were considered analogous parts of the same systematic (spiritual) process of conveying life and goodness.

Moisture along with heat were considered the pre-requisites for generating life.

Fire and continuity:

The May fires and hearth-customs were another important part of the fertility/continuity philosophy of Beltane. The custom of creating frictional fires such as the Tein-eigin, particularly when the sun is transiting across the virile spring constellations of Taurus and Aries is an interesting evocation of sexual intercourse. The 'eternal flame' once apparently common to early Celtic Christian monasteries was an aspect of something pagan, and the hearth-kindling traditions and beliefs about ancestors (fairies) and their relation to the hearth are important features of the Atlantic Religion. The hearth is the heart of a household, and a witness to generations of occupants. Open air hearths (e.g. – the Fulachtai Fiadh) were a feature of pagan ceremonials, there being good evidence for this from archaeology and literature. These represented the 'tribal hearth' and had significance to Bealtaine in Ireland, in particular at places like Tara (where Muirchu says Patrick extinguished the sacred fire at 'Easter' time) and at Uisneach. These fires, used to rekindle the fires of the tribe were a powerful unifying force in ancient Gaelic culture, and the ability to host them was the province of kings or high-kings whose 'spark' (married to the 'wood' of the feminine earth) was the inspiration and generation of the Tuatha. Perhaps the 'May Bush' was figurative for the sovereignty goddess, and its burning a form of heiros gamos?

Confusion with Midsummer?

There are a number of independent written accounts from the 19thC which suggest that Midsummer fires in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man were also called 'Beltane' or 'Beltein' fires. The original entry in Sanas Chormaic describes two fires, usually interpreted to mean twin fires, between which cattle were driven. This was said to have been the case in the Isle of Man by William Harrison in his 'Mona Miscellany' (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. 1869), althougn he could have been quoting the authority of O'Flaherty. However, the entry may be a reference to two early summer fires, held individually on 31st April and at midsummer.

The original texts in the various copies of Sanas Chormaic do not give a date for the festivity, which was glossed in by O'Donovan on the basis of an apparently continuous tradition centred on the 1st of May. It might be that midsummer fires were a christianised form of Beltane which became conflated later on, but midsummer bonfires were a pretty certain pagan activity as well.

Fertile Bridget:

The astronomical event of sunset at Beltane eve sees the constellation Virgo rising in the southeastern horizon. She is preceded by the roaring fiery Lion that is Leo who is bathed in the warmth of the setting sun (assuming you don't live in the Isle of Man where it is probably raining!). Those familiar with the Norse and Germanic mythologies will know that Freyja was the goddess of love among the Scandinavians, and was depicted in Icelandic mythology as having a chariot drawn by cats (Snorra Edda, 'Gylfaginning').This is evidently a reference to these two constellations, and the association of Beltain with love and fertility must somehow be related to Freyja. St Bridget is associated not with Beltane, but with Imbolc (1st February), but the year is young in February and 'Saint' Bridget was a virgin according to the myths of her desexualised religion. So what is the relationship between the Norse Freyja and the Gaelic conception of the year as a woman? Those familiar with my writings might recall I have previously commented upon the similarity between the names of Bridget and Freyja: This is most evident in the Manx versions of Bride's name: Breeshey and Vreeshey, pronounced 'Breesha' or 'Vreesha', even 'Braysha' or 'Vraysha'….

Etymologies of 'Beltane':

Conventional interpretation divides the wordsound into two parts: 'Bel-' and '-tane'. The oldest written forms were beiltine and biltine (Sanas Chormaic).

The prefix has been variously described as a reference to a god called 'Bel' (a popular idea in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries), the word for 'mouth' or 'opening' (bealach), 'health' (beatha), prosperity (bail), food (bia/bea), fold/enclosure (baile/balla) and tree (bile). The Manx version 'Boal' has aspects of bovine animals (boa) and bowls (bol-). The suffix '-tane' is usually related to fire (teine) but might also relate to territory or a district (tain – derivation being 'tanistry' and the Germanic word 'thegn' or 'thane'), a cattle-herd or drove or war spoils (táin)or even water (tain). The Manx pronounce the suffix '-thane', but other regional pronunciations vary the 't' sound from hard 't' to 'tch'. As all have accrued meaning that can be freely related to folklore about Beltane it is hard to come to a firm conclusion.

'Fires of Bel' and 'Cattle Fires' are both etymologies that have been suggested in the past, as is 'opening to fire' (from 'bealach' and 'teine' – meaning the hot months of summer). It might also mean 'Cattle-drove of Bel', 'Enclosure of Land' or perhaps more likely: 'Health/Prosperity of Land', or 'Tree Fire' both of which seem to fit the more fundamental aspects of the celebration.


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…. 


The ancient philosophical model of existence

A medieval illustration of the ancient map of the universe, after Claudius Ptolemy (2ndC CE).

A medieval illustration of the ancient map of the universe, after Claudius Ptolemy (2ndC CE).

The ancients had a very practical, empirically deductive and reductive system of describing how the universe worked. This was based on a synthesis of observations of natural cycles, the rotation of the stars and planets, and the physical properties of things, and it produced an intellectual ‘map’ which included both the earth and the heavens, people, animals, spirits and gods and described how they interacted – quite some achievement!

This system divided the universe into the mundane world and the spheres of the heavens. The mundane world and everything in it was deemed to be made of four ‘Elements’: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. These were under the control of a fifth element called Spirit or Aether, which was the substance from which the stars, heavens, gods, souls and spirits were formed. Aether was the ‘divine substance’ and was the driving ‘spirit’ of nature.

The elements were in a state of continuity and flux with one another. The theory arose from observations of how natural things change their qualities, through inductive reasoning. Solid stone becomes liquid under the influence of heat, water becomes solid ice when heat is taken away. Water and solids (‘earth’) becomes gaseous (air) when evaporated by heat (fire). Water lies on top of earth in the oceans, fire rises up above air towards the heavens, which are made of spirit. Rain falling from the heavens brings life back to the land, so it must have partaken of the animating spirit of Aether. Different animals were classified by their affinity to elements: snakes to the earth, birds to the air, fish to water etc. The system even made up animals that associated with fire (the phoenix)! Even the human body was deemed to made of four ‘humors’ which represented the elements. It seemed the most logical way to view things.


The ancient Greek word for an element was Stoicheon, meaning ‘to line up’, probably after the elements’ dynamic relationships as just mentioned. The system was first described in Mediterranean European literature by Greeks including Empedocles of Sicily (who described them as ‘roots of nature’ under the influence of the twin forces of love and hate), and later fleshed out in discourse by Plato and Aristotle at Athens. Plato frequently ascribes such learning to his favourite ancient scholars – the Egyptians, especially so in his book known as The Dialogue of Timaeus or just Timaeus, from the 4thC BCE.  However, we know that these divisions were obvious to all in the ancient world – why else would people everywhere offer burnt sacrifices to their spiritual gods during the Bronze Age, why were bodies cremated if not to release their souls back into the sphere of spirit?  The Greeks just wanted to appear first with a ‘published’ system in literature – something that Julius Caesar said the Druids of Atlantic Europe in the 1stC BCE apparently abhorred, even though they used Greek writing for secular matters!

The Four Elements and Four Qualities linking them

The Four Elements and Four Qualities linking them

Above the elemental world in this ancient map lay the heavens, comprising of the moving stars (planets and constellations) and above these the fixed stars of the Empyrean, representing the universal spiritual godhead! Yes – even before Hebrew monotheistic religion came to dominate Europe in the form of Christianity, Islam and Rabbinic Judaism, those polytheistic pagans had a concept of a unified central spirit! This may come as something of a surprise…

The spiritual ‘Gods’ were represented by the moving stars of the visible planets, the sun and the moon, who could be seen moving most rapidly across the sky and interacting with the constellations. The constellations appeared at different points in the sky, marking different times of the year. The interactions between the planets and constellations provided an ‘astral story’ narrative that linked their appearance and activity to natural phenomena in the elemental realm of existence. Many ancient religious stories offer explanations for how the constellations came to be. Astrology was the science of interpreting the conjunctions of planets and constellations with their influence upon the elemental world

The fact is that paganism itself was not in its origins so much an adorative suppliant religion as a Philosophy or Science describing existence through the relation of allegory and archetypes in the form of gods. This system was most successfully illustrated in a dialectic fashion through the arts: Story, poetry, illustration, dance and drama. Given the complex and plastic nature of reality, a literary representation would be too limited and didactic to hold true.

The problem with Europe during the period known as the ‘Iron Age’, was that there was a pressure, particularly within powerful centralised cultures, to represent the figurative in an increasingly concrete or literal manner. this caused the philosophical ‘gods’ to become physical manifestations, commodities and properties under the control of worldy human power.  If Caesar was correct about the Druids refusing to commit their religious doctrines to writing, then he was describing a political religious movement which recognised and rebelled against this change which characterised their era.