Medieval Scandinavian Elves and Dwarves

There have been many attempts to explain how Elves (Alfar) and Dwarves (Dvergar) fitted in with the cosmology and spirituality of the pagan Norse peoples. In Snorri’s Prose Edda (13thC, based on traditional tales), he tells us that the Dvergar were a race of subterranean shapeshifters created spontaneously (as worms) within the body of the primal giant Ymir from whose corpse the world is made:

‘…Next the gods took their places on their thrones. They issued their judgements and remembered where the dwarves had come to life in the soil under the earth, like maggots in flesh. The dwarves emerged first, finding life in Ymir’s flesh. They were maggots at that time, but by a decision of the gods they acquired human understanding and assumed the likeness of men, living in the earth and rocks….’ (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning; trans. Jesse Byock)

In other Norse myths, the dwarves maintain their primal attributes and shape-shifting abilities (although this was also an ability of the other legendary spiritual beings). In the Volsungsaga, for instance, they transform into dragons, otters and salmon. They are associated with great wisdom, skill and dexterity but also are somewhat greedy and introspective, and prone to cruelty. They are, in fact, a fairly straightforward breed, easily comprehendible.

The Elves or Alfar on the other hand are a somewhat more difficult species to locate in the spiritual cosmogony. Snorri in his Prose Edda divides them into two types: ‘Light Elves’ and ‘Dark Elves’ – Ljósálfar and Dökkálfar:

‘…Then Gangleri said, ‘You know much to tell about the heavens. Are there other significant places besides the one at Urd’s Well?’

High said, ‘There are many magnificent places there. One is called Alfheim. The people called the Light Elves live there, but the dark elves live down below in the earth. They are different from the light elves in appearance, and far more so in nature. The light elves are more beautiful than the sun, while the dark elves are blacker than pitch…’

The implication here is that the Dark Elves are the dwarves, and this is also suggested when Snorri refers to dwarves as Svartálfar who inhabit Svartalfaheim, later in the Gylfaginning (34) as well as in the Skáldskaparmál. The ‘Light’ Elves and the Dwarves/Dark Elves seemed to occupy polar opposite or complementary positions in a classical ‘elemental’ reckoning of Norse cosmology. Scholars such as Alaric Hall sees Snorri’s ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ elves (a division unattested elsewhere) as an attempt to fit these spirits into a contemporary Christian framework of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ angels, which is a distinct possibility given the propensity of christianised folklore from as far afield as Ireland, Iceland and Russia for portraying ‘fairies’ as fallen angels. Nonetheless, even Snorri’s light/dark division of elves does not divide them along moral categories, and the evidence from Edda, Saga and Skaldic literature supports the argument that Elves and Dwarves are overwhelmingly morally ambiguous. The poetic Edda composition Alvissmal maintains that the dwarves and elves are definitely different groups, however.

What is more certain is that the Aesir and the Elves are referred to as being part of the the same ‘in-group’. In the poetic Edda’s Lokasenna, the feast in Aegir’s hall which Loki so rudely interrupts is peopled by guests who include gods and elves, implying confraternity. The fact that the two groups are often named together is further evidence that the Elves and the Gods appear to have shared a ‘cultural’ commonality. For instance:

“I know a fourteenth [spell], if before a host I have to give a tally of the gods; I know something about all the Aesir and elves: few foolish men know the same.” (Hávamál 159 – Poetic Edda)

Here Odin boasts that he has knowledge of all of the ‘gods’ (tiva) among which the Aesir and the Elves appear to be counted. Snorri’s interpretation possibly adds the dwarves to the class of beings called ‘elves’. However, dwarves are often aligned to the ‘lower’ elemental forces represented by the Jötnar or giants, and (apparently) dragons and wyrms – beings more often in opposition to the gods. Sometimes, the distinction becomes blurred:

In the poetic Edda lay called Völundarkviða, Völund (known elsewhere as ‘Wayland the Smith’) is described as vísi álfa, ‘prince/wise-leader of elves’, one of three sons of the ‘King of the Finns’ – a lineage with overtones of magical powers. Although described as an ‘elf’ he is also a smith-craftsman which is a profession with distinct dwarvish overtones. The distinction between elf and dwarf is therefore not so certain! What is more certain is that Völundr was a popular figure in Norse and Germanic mythology with multiple attestations. Another set of ‘dwarves’ who are elsewhere connected to elves are the smiths known as the Sons of Ivaldi who are said in the Snorra Edda chapter called Skáldskaparmál  who create Thor’s hammer, Freyr’s golden boar and Odin’s magical ring. The ‘elf’ connection is made in a later poetic Edda composition called Hrafnagaldur Óðins, which says that the goddess Idunn was one of the Alfar and a daughter of Ivaldi. Like the 18thC MacPherson ‘Fingal’ traditions, this has been questioned, and may come from a later period than the original poetic Edda manuscripts.

As mentioned in previous posts, dwarves are strongly connected to the chthonic world and to the elements of earth and water. They also – like all water-divinities – have a more ancient primal aspect, akin to the Greek Titans and their monstrous offspring. In Norse mythology, they are closer to the ‘monstrous’ – the giants in particular – and this is perhaps worth bearing in mind when comparing them to elves (or ‘light elves’), who sit closer to the ‘spiritual-elemental’ aspects of air and fire, in Snorri’s account at least. The existence of elves may simply be a counterbalance expressing the division of things in the ancient pre-Christian mindset – ‘as above, so below’ – a belief that everything has an inverted or complimentary form.

As the companions (and drinking buddies) of the Aesir, the ‘Elves’ share some esteemed company – that of the souls of departed human heroes – and this adds another possible aspect to their identity. It is possible that the Norse Eddaic elves were – as feasting companions of the gods – identical with the Einherjar,  the occupants of Valhalla. Such an identity is never made explicit in the Icelandic sources or elsewhere, but there is circumstantial evidence of a connection. The connection between fairies and familial ancestors in Atlantic mythology is a constant one I have alluded to, and the popular idea of ‘elves’ crosses over or is identical with these imaginary beings.

Another connection also exists with the elves and the gods, and that is with the class of deities referred to as Vanir. Ostensibly a ‘second set’ of gods allied to the Aesir by truce and marriage, they occupy a somewhat curious position that has a distinct air of religious accretion or misunderstood differentiation about it. The connection between Vanir and Elves is suggested in the poetic Edda verse of Grímnismál (5) which claimed that the youthful Freyr had received Alfheim as a ‘tooth gift’ from the Aesir. Unfortunately, there are few other references to elves in relation to Vanir, although ‘half of the dead’ were supposedly claimed by the goddess Freyja, Freyr’s brother. If the souls/spirits of the dead were somehow related to the Álfar then  the connection is perhaps more explicit….




Norse Sea-Giants in more detail…

Giants and monsters have a special connection to the sea in Norse mythology – just like the Titans in ancient Greek mythology. They represent the unconquerable and titanic forces of nature. As characters in stories, their great size can be considered an expression of the large shadows cast by distant things with the low sun behind them – as happens as it passes into the ocean on the western horizon of the Atlantic. The main characters in these tales of oceanic titans are Thor, Loki and Aegir:

Thor wrestling the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

Thor with Hymir wrestling Loki’s son – the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

The 13thC CE, Icelandic christian scholar Snorri Sturluson wrote a mythological ‘theogonic’ dialogue on poetry called Skáldskaparmál (“language of poetry”) in which the primal sea-giant Ægir, also known as Gymir (a version of ‘Hymir’) or Hlér, discusses kennings and mythology with the Æsir god, Bragi, after the style of the poetic Edda composition Alvissmal. That Snorri chose these two as characters in the dialogue is interesting, moreso because of they seem to represent the two ‘Platonic’ aspects of what to the ancients was knowable – the first: nature and the elements (Ægir), understandable through sense, and the second: the gods and spiritual things – knowable through the mind, and therefore the province of poetry and philosophy (Bragi). In Alvissmal, it is a wise earth deity – a dwarf/dvergar called Alviss (‘All-Wise’) who instructs Thor on poetic kennings. In Skáldskaparmál, however, it is the ‘sea’ (Aegir) talking…

Aegir is also the host of the feast at the centre of the important poetic Edda story Lokasenna (Codex Regius): This is the tale of a feast of the gods and elves, hosted by Aegir, whose hospitality (and his ale and mead) is considered sacrosanct to the gods, who become angry when troublesome giant/god Loki starts drunkenly abusing the guests. This episode assures Loki’s imprisonment and Promethean-Orphic torture by the gods (he must endure the poison dripping from the fangs of a serpent ) until the showdown of Ragnarok. Aegir’s legendary cauldron or brewing pan seems to provide a link between the elements and the mind, and Lokasenna (the ultimate drunken social meltdown) provides an amusing view of how leisure and strife were never far away from each other in the Viking world. The poetic Edda version from the Codex Regius says Aegir was also called Gymir, and ‘Hymir’ is the giant with mighty caudron/brewing-pan who is Thor’s host and companion when he goes fishing for the giant Midgard Serpent in the poetic Edda tale of Hymiskviða (Codex Regius). Hymir, Gymir and Aegir are probably the same mythological sea-giant.

Aegir was said to be one of three sons of the giant-ancestor Fornjótr (described as an ancient king of the magical north),the other two being Logi (fire) and Kári (wind).  Fornjótr might in literally mean ‘First Giant’. The compounding of his watery son’s name with ‘-gir’ is redolent of the word ‘Gyr’ (eg – Gygr) and theirefore of the Greek words Gigantes and Gygas, representing the larger than life ancestral deities of ancient Greek myth. Ægir might even be a Norse version of and the sea-giant Geryon, who had three bodies. This association with the elements (water in Aegir’s case) comes from the Skáldskaparmál kennings of the primal elemental forces:

“…How should the wind be periphrased? Thus: call it son of Fornjót, Brother of the Sea and of Fire, Scathe or Ruin or Hound or Wolf of the Wood or of the Sail or of the Rigging…”

The only classical element missing from the ÆgirKáriLogi triad is earth (jörð), usually represented in Norse myth and kennings as the eponymous giantess Jörð – ‘wife of Odin’. The Earth is feminine – like in the Greek Gaia/Ge. It is obvious from both ancient Greek and Norse mythology that the ‘giants’ bear names with suffixes which connect them intimately with ‘mother earth’: Gigantes (‘Born of Gaia/Ge’) and Jötnar (‘Born of Jörð’).

Aegir’s other name or kenning is given as Hlér, which seems incredibly close to the Irish/Welsh/Manx name for the sea: Lir/Ller/Lear of whom the legendary Sea God Manannán/Manawydan was the son. In the most important 14thC Icelandic manuscript collection, Flateyjarbók, the following is said of Aegir/Hlér and his family:

“…There was a man called Fornjót. He had three sons; one was Hlér, another Logi, the third Kári; he ruled over winds, but Logi over fire, Hlér over the seas…”

The connection between Logi and the Norse ‘god’ figure Loki is uncertain. The names certainly seem similar, and Loki is definitely one of the Jötnar, being portrayed in the Edda myths as something of an uncontrollable ambiguous shape-shifter as well as a father (or even a mother) of monsters and magical horses. One might even compare him to the role of the Gorgons in Greek myth – a frightful challenge to be overcome by initiates into the mysteries of life, death and the otherworld. Logi represents fire – perhaps one of the most untameable and dangerous, yet useful ‘elements’ – and Loki represents a similar aspect of chaos in his oppositional and inductive roles in the Eddas. He, in fact, comes across as a character the Christian (and Muslim) narrative would assign to their ‘evil god’ – Satan – otherwise known as God’s right-hand man in the Hebrew Book of Job.

Another ‘giant’ of note in Norse myth who is tied closely to Aegir and Loki in surviving narratives is the god Þórr (Thor), whose name seems to be cognate with the word Thurs (þurs) which is another Germanic word for a giant/titan. In the Icelandic mythologies recorded in the Christian era from orally-transmitted traditional pagan poetic and story traditions, Thor is associated with great strength and battles with giants and monsters using his great hammer Mjölnir which represents both a weapon and a tool. His traditional role in Germanic societies is as a protector and battler with the elements akin to the Greek Herakles (a fact not lost on the 1stC CE Roman author and historian Tacitus), and he seems to have an agricultural/fertility aspect on account of this. This connects him to the folk-legends of similarly enthusiastic (but not too bright) ‘helpful fairies’ – Brownies, Glaistigean, Phynnodderee, the hammer-wielding Leprechauns and the ‘Hobthrust‘ of northern England…

The poetic Edda composition called Hymiskviða is a tale of Thor being sent by Aegir to fetch a giant brewing-pan or cauldron from Hymir – the giant who lives ‘at the edge of Heaven’. Hymir is said to be Aegir’s father, and Aegir also goes by the name Gymir, of which ‘Hymir’ is an aspirated pronunciation. Thor ends up going on a perilous fishing expedition with Hymir, during which Odin’s son manages to land the Midgard Serpent, Loki’s son Jörmungandr who encircles the Earth biting his tailHymir considers it very bad news when Thor bashes the serpent over the head before letting it slide (presumably lifeless) back under the waves… It can be seen here that the same consistent association occurs between oceanic Titans and sea monsters in medieval pagan Norse myths.  The outcome of the story is that Thor obtains the brewing pan that will make the ‘poisonous’ ale or mead that spurs Loki to sow discord among the gods in Lokasenna. The killing of Jörmungandr and the breakdown of order with Loki and the giants/monsters presages the Ragnarok… This imagery appears upon a number of incised stones of the Viking era (including Cumbria and the Isle of Man, as well as in Scandinavia), providing corroborative evidence of its importance in Scandinavian-influenced Atlantic mythology.

There is much to be identified between the Norse myths and the Irish and Welsh. For instance, the theme of sea-giants and a ‘fatal feast’ featuring a caudron that determines the world’s outcome is seen in the Welsh Mabinogion tales, and the Irish tales ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ (Fled Bricrenn) and ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ (Togail Bruidne Derga) among others. They appear to be different figurative ‘branches’ of the same ancient tree whose roots are nourished by ‘world-river’,


Terror and Beauty from the far shores…

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the north?

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the European north?

To the ancient peoples of Europe, the realm of the dead and of heaven lay deep in the west on the path of the setting sun. This exceeded the bounds of the known world of the Mediterranean and was presumed to lie beyond the extent of the Titanic Atlantic Ocean, believed to represent the extent of the 'world river', Okeanos. Plato (Athens, 4thC BCE) describes the mysterious point where earth and heaven meet in his 'last words of Socrates' dialogue known as Phaedo (trans. Benjamin Jowett) :

“…Also I believe that the earth is very vast, and that we who dwell inthe region extending from the river Phasis to the Pillars of Heracles,along the borders of the sea, are just like ants or frogs about amarsh-pool, and inhabit a small portion only, and that many others dwell inmany like places. For I should say that in all parts of the earththere are hollows of various forms and sizes, into which the water andthe mist and the air collect; and that the true earth is pure and inthe pure heaven, in which also are the stars-that is the heavenwhich is commonly spoken of as the ether, of which this is but thesediment collecting in the hollows of the earth…”

His description of the 'frogs' and the pond is an echo of contemporary Athenian playwright Aristophanes' famous Dionysiac play of the c.405 BCE known as 'The Frogs' when the god Dionysus crosses the river Styx to visit Hades, and rather than being regaled by the shades of the departed from within the water, he is annoyed by a chorus of frogs. The connection between water, and the seemingly grotesques yet miraculous aspects of both death and rebirth was not lost in the ancient European worldview, of which the Greeks were to create the earliest written sophistication:

One of our oldest written sources on ancient Greek mythology, Hesiod ('Theogony'), says that the most archetypal race of Greek monsters, the Gorgons, lived on an island at the furthest extent of the western ocean, supposedly near the island of the Hesperides. This puts them in the realm of Cronos (Saturn) at the far shores of the world-river Okeanos, near Homer's famous island of Ogygia from the Oddyssey. Ogygia in Homer was domicile of the titan Atlas (also called Atlantis) and his daughter Calypso, whose charms almost took Oddyseus away from the land of the living. The name Ogygia (Hy Gyges?) is based upon the greek word gygas, meaning 'born of Ge (Gaia/Ge – the Earth)', often interpreted as 'Giants' (Gigantes) and possibly linked with the name Gorgós (dreadful)…

Accordingly, the Titans of greek myth were viewed as primordial, earth-born giant in stature and monstrously alien. They were supposedly banished in a succession war with their children, the Olympian gods, and the various Greek theogonies suggest these marginal realms were at the farthest reaches of the 'time before memory' of oral-culture mythology – on the shores of the world river Okeanos at the edge of the heavens.

The relation ship between the chthonic underworld of Hades and Tartarus is based upon the fact that the oceans are the deepest places, and the Atlantic far more so that the Mediterranean. The beings of this realm partook of the primal, cthonic 'elements' of Water and Earth. Even the Hebrew Book of Genesis (first compiled 5thC BCE) borrowed this conception…

The children of the Titans were often monstrous, for example: Python, Scylla, Medusa, Charybdis, Cereberus, Ekhidna, the Hydra, Chimera, Geryon, Cetus and the Graeae. Sometimes they were beautiful too, like the titaness Calypso, and Pegasus and Krysaor who were the children born of the neck of Medusa. The mysterious realm of the oceans, has always delivered both beauty and terror to mankind!

Although encountered in Greek mythology in various parts of the Mediterranean, it was not, however, it was not from this comparatively mild 'frogpond' that these creatures and Old Gods derived, but the mighty Atlantic, beyond the 'Pillars of Heracles' or the Straights of Gilbraltar, at the extremes of Okeanos in the Atlantic west. During the era of the Roman expansion into northern Europe, the misty, cold and terrifying reaches of the British Isles, Ireland and the North Sea might well have been at the very brink of this terrifying alien realm… to the ancient world, if you wished to get to Ogygyia and the Hesperides, you went to the furthest navigable islands (Britain and Ireland), and then just went a little further!

In mythology, the monstrous is often depicted as a trial to be overcome by a hero (or 'initiate'). In northern Europe, the aquatic 'loathly lady' traditions of the Melusine, the tale of how Conn Cétchathach gained the High Kingship of Ireland, and Chaucer's 15thC 'Wife of Bath's Tale' are examples of such a tradition. In Greek myth, the story of Perseus and Medusa might be seen as a version of the same principle:


The most famous monsters of the Greek and Roman world were arguably the three snake-haired Gorgons, who were said to be the daughters of Phorcys (a hypostasis subordinate to Poseidon). These were also the sisters of another divine female triad of Greek myth, the Graeae – the grey, aged and withered, one-eyed Cailleach-like Okeanid nymphs said in some myths to guard the approaches to the Hesperides, Ogygia etc and (redolent of the Norse Valkyries and the Irish Children of Lir) to have part of the form of swans. In the myth of Perseus, the hero is dispatched on an apparent suicide mission by evil King Polydectes to kill and gain the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone. Polydectes fully expected the young hero to die in the task, so that he might marry Perseus' mother, but he survives his 'initiation' and triumphs from it. The Gods Athena, Hades, Zeus and Hermes donate magical weapons and aids for the task, setting Perseus on a perilous course to success. He tricks the Graeae at the approaches, and enters the grey and misty realms to stalk his prey… Upon decapitating Medusa, the magical horse Pegasus is born from her neck – a bizarre conception, fit only for these distant and magical realms of the Titans. Perseus rides the flying horse, saves the maiden Andromeda from being devoured by the sea monster Cetus and rides off into the sunset with the girl.

The characters of the Perseus-Medusa mythology all occupy a portion of the heavens as a group of related constellations named after the characters: Pegasus, Cetus, Perseus, Andromeda, in close proximity to the other 'aquatic' constellations of the zodiac – Pisces, Aquarius and curious Capricorn. This group contains two particular stars which express the curious behaviour of having a cyclical variable intensity, namely the 'blinking' eye of Medusa: Algol (period repeats every 2 days) – seen in the constellation of Perseus, and the longer-period Mira Ceti on the neck of Cetus, whose period is 11 months. Both these stars appear to 'come and go', a feature which must have had particular implications to ancient peoples who believed a star was a perfected heavenly soul. Mythology was sometimes designed to record information about the skies!

By 'killing' Medusa on the far western shores of Okeanos, Perseus immediately helps her 'give birth' to his conveyor back from the Otherworld (Pegasus – whose feet create springs of water on land), and mysterious Chrysaor – the 'golden blade' suggesting agriculture: both aspects of continuity in a culture which believed in reincarnation. By 'kissing' the 'loathly lady', the beauty of regeneration might occur…

Chrysaor, Kallirhoe and Geryon:

Two miraculous children were born at the moment of Medusa's beheading: The winged horse Pegasus ('Creator of Pegai (springs)'?), and the golden boy Chrysaor ('Golden Blade'). Pegasus became the companion and steed of the warrior-hero Perseus, but the mysterious Chrysaor was credited only (so far as we know) with the paternity of another monstrous being: the giant three-bodied cowherd Geryon on whom the legendary strongman-warrior Heracles/Hercules was supposed to have conducted his Tain or cattle-raid. Pegasus and Chrysaor have distinct echoes of the Atlantic Europe's 'fairy helpers' – the 'fairy horse' and the 'brownie'.

Geryon was supposedly born to his father of the Okeanid nymph Kallirhoe who occupied the island of Erytheia, and was said by some later classical authors (Diodorus) have also lived on the mountainous slopes of Atlantic Iberia. Like the tripliform Celtic deities, he was supposed to have been a giant with three bodies.

“From Medusa, daughter of Gorgon, and Neptunus [Poseidon], were born Chrysaor and horse Pegasus; from Chrysaor and Callirhoe, three-formed Geryon.”Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 151 (2ndC CE) – Trans. Grant.

His home was the far-west 'red island' of Erytheia in the mystical Hesperides (equivalent by name and association with the 'Arthurian' Avalon, and Irish Emain Abhlach), no doubt the reason his cattle also had coats the colour of the setting sun – the predominant colour of the flowers in Atlantic Europe after the Summer Equinox and also, notably, the colour of the running blood of the dead… He was once allegedly defeated by Hercules, who stole his cows. The constellations Orion (the 'stick-waver') and Boötes (the 'cowherd') might even be considered cosmic aspects of the legend behind Geryon, on account of the location of his myth – at the boundary of the Otherworld… the heavens near to that great nourishing sky-river, the Milky Way. The 'cattle' of Geryon are a motif for the spirits of the dead, like Aristophanes 'Frogs' and 'Birds' and Hercules taking of them is an expression of the role of the psychopompic gods: Manannan, Dionysus, Hermes/Mercury etc.

The Hesperides:

The mythical garden of the Hesperides lay somewhere in the mythological west – either beyond the Atlas mountains and Libya (home of the setting winter sun) or further out beyond the Atlantic ocean at 'Okeanos' far shore' (summer sunset), depending on the accounts. It was the site of goddess Hera's magical apple tree, whose golden fruit imparted divine knowledge (or chaos and warfare when placed in the hands of Eris!), and the three nymphs known as the 'Hesperides' were its guardians. It features in the myths of Perseus (the nymphs tell him where to find Medusa) and of Heracles (who steals the apples). These nymphs were supposed by some sources to be the daughters of Hesperus – personification of the 'evening star' (Venus) known as 'Hesperus' to the Greeks ('Vesper' to the Romans). Venus, being close to the sun, and relatively close to Earth often appears in the sun's train ('evening star') or vanguard ('morning star') as it traverses the ecliptic path. The Greeks, of course, named the planet Venus after Plato's muse Aphrodite.

Not trusting the Hesperides with her precious apples, Hera (a notoriously jealous sort of person) is supposed to have set the dragon Ladon to guard it, and he coils around the base of the apple tree's trunk. This is somewhat redolent of the Norse myth of the Midgard serpent coiled around the world tree, and the constellation Draco was said by Hyginus ancient account of the constellations to represent Ladon.

The exact 'identity' of the 'Island of the Hesperides' itself is somewhat mysterious – is it Ogygia or Erytheia? Or somewhere else, even? Erytheia is sometimes given as the name of one of the Hesperides, so this may link to Geryon and his herd of red cows. Conceptually, of course, this does not matter – the 'island' has no corporal existence, but an important spiritual one. The apples were a bridal gift of Gaia (the Earth) to Hera. The Irish and British also had a legend of an 'Isle of Apples' – Avalon and Emain Abhlach.

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?...

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?... The imagery is somewhat phallic!

The location of the Titans and their monstrous offspring at the far reach of Okeanos in ancient European mythology made them occupy the liminal 'crossing place' between the mundane world and the heavens. It is a place simultaneously distant in both space and time, ruled over by its Titan king, Cronus, whose 'star' (the planet Saturn) takes so long to traverse its ponderous path (as if an old Boddagh of a man) when compared to our nearer planets. If this 'crossing place' seemed distant and somehow unobtainable except through an extreme journey and a trial of nerve, the spiritual realm of the heavens on the other side was paradoxically immanent and of the 'here and now'. The meaning of this 'crossing over' point and a belief that the traffic here was bidirectional became a feature of the ancient initiatory mystery cults of Eleusis and the 'Orphic' mysteries and was a key part of the mythology of the barbarians of Atlantic Europe, preserved in their own rich traditions…


The Evil Eye in ancient Atlantic Europe, ‘101’.

The eye was once considered the one organ which could express the divine light of the soul. In the ancient world a perfected soul was believed to reside in the heavens as a star...

The eye was once considered the one organ which could express the divine light of the soul. In the ancient world a perfected soul was believed to reside in the heavens as a star…

The eye is a curious organ.

As well as receiving light, it appears at times to emit it also. This can be illustrated by the way that nocturnal predators’ eyes appear to glow (actually from reflected light), but there is another ‘light’ of the eye: that which, curiously, seems to disappear from it at the moment of death. This is the ‘spark’ or ‘twinkle’ of the eye whose intensity and quality we perceive to enhance and alter when we laugh, flirt or are excited to enthusiasm or anger. This phenomenon perhaps explained the theory of vision common to the ancient world – that known as the theory of ‘extromission’.

Extromission theory believed that the eye emitted light. Light itself was believed in ancient times to be a higher emanation of the philosopical element of fire, and to the ancient peoples it took two forms for which the Latin words ‘Lumen’ and ‘Lux/Lucis’ came into use. Lumen was mundane light – that emitted by candles, or the sunlight coming through windows and was closest to ‘elemental’ Fire. Lux however represented light in its higher spiritual or intellectual form – the divine light, the light of spiritual and philosophical illumination. Plato explains this in his account of the creation of human bodies from the Dialogue of Timaeus:

“…And so in the vessel of the head, they first of all put a face in which they inserted organs to minister in all things to the providence of the soul, and they appointed this part, which has authority, to be by nature the part which is in front. And of the organs they first contrived the eyes to give light, and the principle according to which they were inserted was as follows: So much of fire as would not burn, but gave a gentle light, they formed into a substance akin to the light of every-day life; and the pure fire which is within us and related thereto they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight. But when night comes on and the external and kindred fire departs, then the stream of vision is cut off; for going forth to an unlike element it is changed and extinguished, being no longer of one nature with the surrounding atmosphere which is now deprived of fire: and so the eye no longer sees, and we feel disposed to sleep. For when the eyelids, which the gods invented for the preservation of sight, are closed, they keep in the internal fire; and the power of the fire diffuses and equalises the inward motions; when they are equalised, there is rest, and when the rest is profound, sleep comes over us scarce disturbed by dreams; but where the greater motions still remain, of whatever nature and in whatever locality, they engender corresponding visions in dreams, which are remembered by us when we are awake and in the external world. And now there is no longer any difficulty in understanding the creation of images in mirrors and all smooth and bright surfaces. For from the communion of the internal and external fires, and again from the union of them and their numerous transformations when they meet in the mirror, all these appearances of necessity arise, when the fire from the face coalesces with the fire from the eye on the bright and smooth surface. And right appears left and left right, because the visual rays come into contact with the rays emitted by the object in a manner contrary to the usual mode of meeting; but the right appears right, and the left left, when the position of one of the two concurring lights is reversed; and this happens when the mirror is concave and its smooth surface repels the right stream of vision to the left side, and the left to the right. Or if the mirror be turned vertically, then the concavity makes the countenance appear to be all upside down, and the lower rays are driven upwards and the upper downwards…” Plato – Timaeus 4thC BCE

It is evident from this that Plato considered the pupil of the eye a ‘filter’ to remove the Lumen element of light so that the meaning (information) conveyed in the Lux could be made available for the soul to consider! He considered vision and sensation an interaction between emanations of the soul and emanations of the universe. The Greek word for soul, mind, spirit and consciousness is  ψυχή – ‘psyche‘. The 5thC BCE playwright-‘philosopher’, Epicharmus of Kos, is quoted as saying “It is the psyche that sees, it is the psyche that hears, all the rest is deaf and blind”.

As an organ believed capable of emanation, not just reception, it is of no surprise that beliefs developed suggesting that the gaze of the eye can cause harm. Humans are acutely adjusted to the significance of the manner in which others look at them – a look can convey love, contempt, and any one of a number of other emotions or communications. Aside from the reaction of the perceiver of a gaze, the active principle of light extromission believed in by the ancient Greeks and others allowed that the eye emitted a spiritual force, and if this was evilly intended it would interact with that which it perceived in a harmful way. The most famous mythological account of a harmful gaze was that of the Gorgon – Medusa – whose gaze turned men to stone…

Perseus presents the head of Medousa to an obviously jealous Athena (Aine). Note there are only two snakes protruding from the Gorgon's head...

Perseus presents the head of Medousa to pleased-looking (jealous?) Athena. Note there are only four snakes protruding from the Gorgon’s head – the topmost two resemble horns…

That the gaze of Medusa could turn men to stone was a paradoxical inversion of the eye’s connection to light and thus the philosophical ‘element’ of fire. As Plato expressed it, fire and earth (of which stone was an expression) were the principle diametrically opposed elements of creation, and air and water were those which linked the two fundamental elements in a fourfold system. In Empedocles’ reckoning, the root-element Earth would correspond closest to the consolidating principle of ‘Love’ and Fire to the dissipating principle he called ‘Strife’ – the two contesting forces ascribed to the universe. Medusa’s gaze of stone, rather than light was perhaps a feminine idea of ancient established solidity. The flashing fiery gaze of love was the daimon that inspired the Trojan War, at the advent of Greek (and Roman) oral history’s ‘time of memory’. Being in love might be more dangerous than the stare of Medusa! Plato’s dialogue ‘Symposium‘ examines this theme in more detail.  Lizards and snakes, being considered ‘cold and dry’ by the ancient elemental reckoning, were  linked to the element of Earth and the cold distant chthonic and oceanic realms – the legendary Basilisk, like the snake, could seemingly transfix its prey (‘turn to stone’) with its unblinking stare. Legends are circumlocutive expressions of higher truths and maps of the heavens, as well as good stories…

Yet another European mythological figure with a ‘dangerous eye’ is from the Irish ‘Mythological Cycle’ medieval texts: Balor of the Fomorians, the probable inspiration for Tolkein’s Sauron, whose name also elicits something of the scaly-haired Medusa, or perhaps the legendary Basilisk. The legendary Irish ‘Fomorians‘ were – akin to the Greek Titanes (of whom Medusa was one) – considered a race of giants associated with the sea. They, like the Titans, probably haunted the ancient shores of furthest Okeanos (perhaps even as far as Tory Island!): far away in time and space in the ‘time before memory’…

From the 6thC CE, the western Christian church increasingly began to classify for its adherents the ‘sins’ which it believed were the spiritual errors that led its followers away from God: These were “superbia, avaritia, invidia, ira, luxuria, gula & pigritia” – the ‘seven deadly sins’ of pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Of these, the majority were deemed ‘sins of the flesh’ or ‘material sins’. However, two were ‘sins of the soul’, namely envy and pride.

   Sins of the Soul were therefore deemed to be those which occupied a spiritual dimension and affected the world in spiritual ways. Envy (Latin: Invidia – ‘in vision’) corresponds exactly to the power known as the Evil Eye. By the ancient extromsission theory of vision the light of the soul illuminated what it perceived as a ‘ray’, and an evil soul would therefore have a negative invidious influence upon what it perceived. Likewise, the common belief that spiritual beings operated in spiritual ways is the foundation for the belief in old Atlantic Europe that ‘fairies’ envied the goods and children of people and wished to spirit them away… The supposed sin of the adversarial Christian spirit called ‘Satan’ or ‘Lucifer’ and his troop of rebel angels was that of pride.

The ‘Evil Eye’ belief in the Gaelic provinces of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man remained important until the late 19th century. It evolved (perhaps as a result of widespread ‘witchcraft’ paranoias of the 16th-18th centuries) to engender two forms: The first (and oldest) belief was that it was a passive force derived from latent human foibles of jealousy (innate sinfulness). The more sinister form of the belief was that which believed the ‘Bad Eye’ to be the actual mode of witchcraft by which magical/spiritual harm could be done by a marginal and jealous socially-disempowered person. In Gaelic areas, there are as many records of belief in the possible abduction of vital forces by fairies as there were by supposed ‘witches’ or even by jealous neighbours. This may be a main reason why there were so few reports of judicial or popular murder of people for ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorcery’: The alleged ‘perpetrators’ were generally not believed prosecutable in court on account of their lack of corporeality, and/or could not be ascribed the criminal concept of mens rea.

The Gaelic ‘Evil Eye’ belief manifested to observers between the 16th and 20th centuries as the apparent desire by people to offer a blessing on any thing which they had expressed admiration of. People feared that they might passively or unintentionally cause harm. They also obviously feared that their admiration might invite blame if something went wrong. The fact that people who own something that invites envy are prone to that other ‘spiritual sin’ of pride compounds the social aspects of the belief. Ontologically, the message is ‘pride comes before a fall’, or before a loss. The proud are envied, and the envy is ultimately a force which opposes them. Morally, this suggests that modest-living and modest-speaking is the ideal which invites the least trouble in life… This ideal was to become an important cultural shibboleth of many old Atlantic European subsistence cultures, now fallen victim to certain malign aspects of modernity.


Belenos and St Michael the Archangel?

One curiosity of Atlantic European Christianity is the existence in its collegium of venerated ‘saints’ of a figure with no earthly beginnings whatsoever: St. Michael the Archangel.

Saint Michael the Satan-slayer, as depicted by Raphael.

Saint Michael the Satan-slayer, as depicted by Raphael.

As the Taxiarch of the heavenly battle host, he occurs firstly in the Darnel-induced visions of the Hebrew Book of Daniel (Daniel 10, to be precise, where he reassures the Hebrews that they as a nation will be protected from the depredations of their Persian captors):

“…Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz: His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude…” (KJV)

Michael appears again in the equally hallucinogenic Christian Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos, and leads the War in Heaven.

“…And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon…”

It is obvious that in the late -classical period such a character would have had a certain appeal to Central and Northern Europe’s newly Christianised warrior-cultures who venerated their departed heroes religiously, and had complex story traditions recounting their deeds. If you believe St Patrick, the Irish worshipped ‘Idola’ – visions or images – and from the designs of Celtic coins, it is quite possible that Celtic religion was something of a visionary cult.

The idea of a winged, victorious warrior is by no means an invention of the Hebrews, however. The older Egyptian and Babylonian Empires were responsible for this cultural iconography which entered the western Mediterranean sphere during the Hellenistic period, from where it eventually spread into the ‘barbarian’ world of Europe’s Celts.

During the period of Roman expansion into the lands of the Danubian and Rhineland Celts, and thereafter into Gaul and Britannia, the coins of the Celtic kings began to pick up on the iconography of the ‘winged’ human or animal form. In particular, this can be seen in those produced by the Belgic cultures – in particular the Atrebates, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni of eastern Britain during the 1stC BCE and 1stC CE who played such a major role in the Romanisation of Britain and northern Gaul. Of particular note are the coins of Commius, Cassivellaunus, Addedomarus, Tincomarus, Tasciovanus and his son Cunobelinus, which all show signs of Roman acculturation through their use of visual motifs such as the use of imagery of Pegasus,  the winged Victoria, and the Eleusinian head of Corn. In so doing, they were copying the iconography that their sons had become accustomed to while in fosterage/hostagery in the Roman curia.

Winged icons of shining deities would find their true Renaissance in the coming Christian era, when angels as warriors of light would replace the icon of the mercurial shining warrior god so beloved of the Celts.

The appearance of places named after ‘Michael’ was already well under way by the early middle ages: In Ireland, the early southern monastic island settlement of Skellig Michael was a key place in this process. St Michaels’ Mount in Cornwall and Mont St Michel in Brittany were another two significant places with religious importance. Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the 1stC CE referred to the metal-mining and smelting heartland of Cornwall by the name Belerion, suggesting a theophoric name based on Belen(os):

“…The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion are very fond of strangers and from their intercourse with foreign merchants are civilised in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like astralgi and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Ictis…”

Ictis is believed to refer to St Michael’s Mount near Marazion.

Further to the northwest, another important metal-producing place was the Isle of Man (called Manavia Insula by Ptolemy in the 2ndC CE). Here the concept of the  ‘Angel Michael’ was – as elsewhere – introduced into the popular imagination by Christian monks and priests. To the Manx, the name was converted to ‘Vaayl’. The ‘v’ sound could represent a transition from a name starting with ‘b’ or ‘m’ in the Celtic languages. This makes us consider if the original name was in fact ‘Mel’ or ‘Bel’… The name of this Island’s prime saint, ‘Maughold’, is a version of ‘Mayl’ (referred to as ‘Mel’ in the Brigitine hagiographies). The 12thC hagiographer Jocelyn of Furness told a legend of St Patrick defeating a flying wizard called ‘Melinus’ on the Isle of Man. ‘Melyn’ is the Welsh word for ‘yellow’, and sounds something like the Latin word ‘Malin’, referring to the tide. ‘Creg Malin’ in the Isle of Man overlooks St Patrick’s Isle where Jocelyn probably portrayed his imaginary showdown between christianity and the crusty Simon-Magus imitating wizard. This legend of Melinus actually equates directly to the Manx traditions of Manannan, who they claimed was the original ruler overtunrned by Patrick.  The 18thC English writer George Waldron commented that he had been told that ‘Merlin’ was said to be the legendary wizard-ruler, echoing Jocelyn, albeit with an extra ‘r’ and it is to be noted that ‘Merlin’ and ‘Mercury’ are not too dissimilar as names... the plot thickens!

So, Merlin, ‘Melin’ and ‘Belin’ are linguistically not too far from each other. Also, the tendency of Celtic languages to switch the P/B (‘P-Celtic’) sound with the C/K/Q (‘Q-Celtic’) sound make an association of ‘Belen(us)’ with the legendary ‘Cuillean’ a distinct possibility.

‘Cuillean’ was a legendary Irish/Manx smith and metal-smelter who occurs in the legends and placename-lore of Ireland, Mann and Scotland. If we are to link this character to ‘Belenus’ then it is worth noticing the names ‘Cunobelenus’ and ‘Cuchullain’ are exactly equivalent. Also the ‘germanic’ name of the legendary smith-figure ‘Weland’, with the addition of a Gaelic ‘k’ guttural becomes ‘kWeland’ so is actually an equivalent of ‘Chuillean’, or in the Welsh – ‘Gwyllion’. Slieve Gullion in Armagh, Ireland, and Slieu Whallian and Ard Whallan in the Isle of Man are name after him – possibly also ‘Schiehallion’ in Scotland. All of these places have interesting legends attached to them. Ireland also has its share of ‘giant’ or saint-stories with the name ‘Mal’ or ‘Mel’ attached – Mal Bay in County Clare being an example that comes to mind.

So… Belenus is the same ‘person’ as the smith/wright/craftsman Cuillean/Wayland?   The association of Belenus with Mercury, Mars and Apollo in the Romano-Celtic world has a direct relationship with his identity as a craftsman. Like his various hypostases – Lugus among the continental Celts, and Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Manawydan fab Lir in the Mabinogion, he is a maker of things (shoes – like the Irish Leprachaun) – a forger with the fire of the sun and spiritual ‘fire’ of the Otherworld…

Going back to those famous Belgic rulers of ancient Britain in the 1st centuries BC and CE, an appraisal of their names (as well as their numismatic iconography) shows a deep attraction to the god Belenus. Firstly, and most obviously there is Cunobelenus – the ‘Hound/Wolf of Belenus’. Next the tribe of the Catuvellauni – ‘Seat of Belenus’ and their leader Cassivellaunus (‘Stronghold of Belenus’ – defeated by Caesar in his first invasion). The name of the tribal King Tasciovanus (1stC BCE) also had distinct connections to the name of Celtic ancestor gods that Tacitus cites in his book Germania: Tuisto/Tuisco and Mannus (hence, possibly, ‘Tuisco-Vannus’). All of these are probably related to ‘Beli’ – the bristling, bellicose Sun God of the Celts whose icon was sometimes portrayed as a Boar, the horse with its hair streaming or as the combative rutting ‘Stag-Warrior’: Cernunnos.… In fact, etymologically the word for ‘hair’ in the Indo-European languages has similarity to the word for ‘war’ and ‘beauty’. To use Latin as our example, we have Pillus, Bellum, and Bellus: When considering the imagery of Bellenus as ‘Apollo Grannus’, this relationship becomes quite clear – especially in the context of the aesthetics of a proudly adorned warrior race such as the Celts…. It is no wonder they appropriated the horned image of Alexander as ‘Amon-Ra-Apollo’ which he began to use after liberating Egypt from Persian rule while in his youthful prime.

St Michael the Archangel served as a ‘placeholder’ for the ‘folk-memory’ of this important religious figure of the Celts.

A 'solar warrior'

A ‘solar warrior’