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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trees were symbolically  important for the following reasons:

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

The Celtic Mysteries?

So-called ‘mystery religions’ were at the core of paganism in ancient Europe. Many ‘gods’ were used to illustrate the fundamental ideas of commonly-shared philosophies, ideals and empirical observations of nature and existence among ancient Europeans. Their ‘mysteries’ were a method of communicating the dynamic interplay of such forces through the participation of suppliants in story, ritual, drama and ceremony, often through means of ‘initiation’, usually followed by ongoing participation. This communicated higher knowledge and understanding in an intimate personal manner which could not ordinarily be achieved simply by listening to or reading stories. As many of these mystery religions existed within the Hellenic and Roman polities of Europe, North Africa and the Near East we know at least a little about them from archaeology, art and literature which has survived from the Iron Age, Classical and Late Classical eras (8thC BCE to 5thC CE). Because the exact nature of the mysteries was secretive, we are often left guessing about exact details of ritual and ideology. However, we have even less information about the indigenous mystery religions among the Atlantic Europeans or ‘Celts’ whose independent cultural direction was largely crushed or assimilated by the Roman Republic and Empire between the 2ndC BCE and 2ndC CE.

To be an ‘initiate’ in these old European mysteries usually involved submitting oneself to its priests or guardians at a site sacred to the cult. Once there, one would subsume one’s mundane identity into that of an initiate and participate in a number of dramatic performances designed to illustrate the principles of the cult in an atmosphere of mystery, awe and (eventually) revelatory ecstasy. The initiations would be designed to impress a set of ideas onto the initiate which would have a profound influence upon their worldview, while leaving them with questions only partly answered by the immediate experience in order to encourage further participation in the cult, or encourage dialectic philosophical exegesis of the epiphany the initiate had experienced. At the height of their popularity, initiates would come from nearly every walk of life, from slaves up to Emperors and Kings. The great Augustus himself – inheritor of Julius Caesar’s posthumously-declared empire took a particular interest in the mysteries of Eleusis which, as we shall see in the light of Caesar’s commentaries on Celtic religion, is somwhat interesting.

The mysteries were generally secretive, so apart from external observations and some archaeological paraphernalia and written ephemera, we actually have a very limited idea of what they involved or exactly what they were trying to communicate. We don’t know exactly what happened at the convocations of the various mystery cults at the various stages in their existence, but we do now that they had an influential effect upon the societies they operated in.

Literary evidence for ‘Celtic Mysteries’?

After Julius Caesar had completed the task of conquering Gaul, it is apparent that he was keen to portray it an as attempt to civilise a barbarian nation in the grips of a powerful, savage and mysterious religious cult, led by a sect of hierophants called Druids who he had suppressed. He further claimed Gauls said they were descended from a cthonic deity he called ‘Dis Pater’, and that they worshipped ‘Mercury’ (the conductor of departed souls, prime divine Daimôn and god of trade) above their other gods, who he again equated ‘interpretatio romanum’ (See: De Bello Gallico, Book 6). Although he professed no indication of a mystery religion, he certainly alluded to the secretive nature of what was taught by the Druids, who committed none of their teachings to writing, in consequence of which their training was a dedicated and laborious process lasting many years. Nevertheless, he indicates that this instruction was common to the youth of Gaulish society, which may imply an aspect of their religion as a mystery cult with a high degree of social organisation:

“… The Druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. Induced by such great advantages, many embrace this profession of their own accord, and are sent to it by their parents and relations. They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory. They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded. They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods…” (Book 6, Ch. 14; Trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)

It is hard to determine from Caesar’s account if Druidism was indeed a ‘mystery cult’ in the Greek or Roman sense, or a highly advanced system of education and cultural indoctrination. Caesar talks of ‘the Gauls’ as a unified whole, and many of them certainly unified to fight him in the 1stC BCE. However, Celtic culture seems to have been historically riven and even driven by intertribal warfare so we must be cautious about his opinions. What does strike me as relevant to the Mediterranean mystery cults is the pre-eminence he accords to cthonic and psychopompic deities and the idea of reincarnation. This suggests Gaulish/Celtic religion shared similarities with the Greek mysteries, and could conceivably have shared common origin with them.

Greek and Roman attitudes to Barbarian culture and The Mysteries:

The first Roman Emperor, Augustus (ruled 27BCE-CE14), is notable for his eventual establishment of an internally stable Roman home province which would remain stable for almost 200 years. He took the reigns from his murdered adoptive ‘uncle’ Julius Caesar, who had expanded the Republic’s territories and cultural influence from Celtic Gaul to Egypt. Subsequent years would see consolidation of Roman influence over Germania west of the Rhine, the Balkan regions of Pannonia and Moesia, as well as Macedonia and Thrace. This, to the Romans, constituted a matter of great pride as they had conquered the greater continental portion of western Europe whose people were known to the Greeks and Romans as ‘barbarians’: a people at once considered to be backward, unsophisticated, frighteningly violent, and yet still mysterious.

Augustus (Octavian) is notable as being the first Roman leader recorded to have had himself initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis, whose cult centre was situated near Athens, and was considered the beating heart of Greek religious culture. He was also notable for his attempts to form alliances with British Belgic Celtic leaders, including Tasciovanus of the Catuvellauni and his son and succesor, Cunobelinos (Kymbelinus). Tasciovanus was on such good terms with the Roman Emperor that he sent his sons to be fostered and educated in Rome. Consequently the coins these British monarchs minted show some interesting Romanised features which suggest they themselves were initiates of Eleusis: specifically where they repeatedly display the icon of Demeter and the Mysteries – the ear of wheat or barley:

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism -influenced by Augustus?

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism – influenced by Augustus?

Of course, the interest of these Belgic leaders in the Greek mysteries would have been a strong statement of alliance with the worldview of Augustus and his successors. For Augustus himself, it is entirely possible that his own devotion to the Eleusinian Mysteries was designed to better understand the religious worldview of the ‘barbarians’, which the Greeks appeared to have had civilised, and who he was continuing to conquer or gain as allies for his new Empire. The implication might be that the new Emperor felt he could find common religious origin with his newly conquered peoples and allies. The Greeks certainly believed the mysteries to have originated among the barbarians, but to have been civilised in Attica.

Of course, the exposure of Celtic peoples to a cult which dealt with the mysteries of death was far greater than that experienced within the Roman culture. Caesar blamed the apparent fearlessness of Gaulish warriors on a firm belief in reincarnation, indoctrinated into them by the Druids (supposedly originating in Britain), and his successors would spend a good deal of time, money and human lives in eradicating this movement. The origins of it are to be found hundreds of years further back in time, perhaps when the great Celtic warbands formed and stamped their mark on Europe and the Near East from the start of the ‘La Téne’ period. This was the ‘Belgic’ cult which venerated the solar god Belenos as receiver of the dead and lord of the Otherworld. He was equivalent to Apollo, whose most significant shrine at Delphi was famously assaulted (and possibly thoroughly pillaged) by a Gaulish army in 279BCE.

Belenos was the god who promoted growth and decay – the sun who grows vegetation and at the same time hastens putrefaction of the dead. His domain included the lands of the daytime as well as the lands beyond the setting sun – the realm of the Celtic dead. Like the ancient Mars-Quirinus he was a god of war and chthonic fertility. Like Apollo he was a conqueror of serpentine decay and giver of oracles. Like his later development as Wodan/Odin, he was a god of battle-fury and madness – a shaper of madness into purposeful action, which is in fact the political aim of warfare. The mysteries of Belenos were never attested, but the evidence that they existed is reasonably compelling from the opinions of Caesar and the god’s replacement by Apollo in the post-Romanised era at Romanised cult-sites among the Gauls, Britons, Iberians and Germans and in the Balkans.

The imagery of this religion could be found inscribed on the coins and monuments of the Celts, although the latter ocurred after the advent of syncretism post-Romanisation. It is evident on the designs and decorations on personal ornaments and weaponry, and on spectacular artefacts such as the Gundestrup cauldron.

Hallucinosis, battle-fury and oracles of the divine

When the Gaulish warlord Brennus led his army through the Greek defences at Thermopylae and into a full-on assault on Delphi in 279BC, he was attacking perhaps the most important and wealthy religious centre of ancient Greece, notable for its oracular priestesses who apparently communed with the solar god Apollo in order to answer the questions of suppliants. These suppliants came from across the known world and beyond, and bought great wealth and honour to the sanctuary and its city, deep in the Greek highlands. Although there are no surviving contemporary records of this exceptional assault by the Celtic army, the 1stC Gallo-Roman author Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus of the Vocontii of Gallia Narbonensis wrote about the attack some 200 years later in his ‘Phillipic History‘ (of the Macedonian dynasty and its aftermath) which survives in a slightly later Epitome by Roman author, Justin. Given the role of southern Gauls in tne campaign (the Volcae Tectosages Belgic group settled or returned there after the event – reputedly with great wealth) it seems that Pompeius Trogus’ account is worth paying attention to, albeit embellished with the idea that those who attack holy sites pay with their lives… In Book 25 of Justin’s ‘Epitome’, we learn the following:

“… The Gauls, when the land that had produced them was unable, from their excessive increase of population, to contain them, sent out three hundred thousand men, as a sacred spring, to seek new settlements. Of these adventurers part settled in Italy, and took and burnt the city of Rome; and part penetrated into the remotest parts of Illyricum under the direction of a flight of birds (for the Gauls are skilled in augury beyond other nations) making their way amidst great slaughter of the barbarous tribes, and fixed their abode in Pannonia. They were a savage, bold, and warlike nation, and were the first after Hercules (to whom that undertaking procured great admiration for his valour, and a belief in his immortality), to pass the unconquered heights of the Alps, and places uninhabitable from excess of cold. After having subdued the Pannonians, they carried on various wars with their neighbours for many years. Success encouraging them, they betook themselves, in separate bands, some to Greece, and some to Macedonia, laying waste all before them with the sword. Such indeed was the terror of the Gallic name, that even kings, before they were attacked, purchased peace from them with large sums of money…”

He goes on to describe the defeat and death of the Macedonian king Ptolemy Keraunos and his army by the theophorically-titled Celtic warlord, Belgius. Another Gaulish chieftain, Brennus, appears to have then entered the fray to acquire his own share of the wealth of the crumbling Empire’s homelands:

“…In the meantime Brennus, under whose command a part of the Gauls had made an irruption into Greece, having heard of the success of their countrymen, who, under the leadership of Belgius, had defeated the Macedonians, and being indignant that so rich a booty, consisting of the spoils of the east, had been so lightly abandoned, assembled an army of a hundred and fifty thousand foot and fifteen thousand horse, and suddenly invaded Macedonia. As he was laying waste the fields and villages, Sosthenes met him with his army of Macedonians in full array, but being few in number, and in some consternation, they were easily overcome by the more numerous and powerful Gauls; and the defeated Macedonians retiring within the walls of their cities, the victorious Brennus, meeting with no opposition, ravaged the lands throughout the whole of Macedonia. Soon after, as if the spoils of mortals were too mean for him, he turned his thoughts to the temples of the immortal gods, saying, with a profane jest, that “the gods, being rich, ought to be liberal to men.” He suddenly, therefore, directed his march towards Delphi, regarding plunder more than religion, and caring for gold more than for the wrath of the deities, “who,” he said, “stood in no need of riches, as being accustomed rather to bestow them on mortals.”

The temple of Apollo at Delphi is situate on Mount Parnassus, on a rock steep on all sides. A concourse of people, who, collecting from the parts around, through veneration for the majesty of the god, settled on the rock, formed a city there. Thus, not walls, but precipices, not defences formed by the hand, but by nature, protect the temple and the city; so that it is utterly uncertain whether the strength of the place, or the influence of the deity residing in it, attracts more admiration. The central part of the rock falls back in the shape of an amphitheatre; and, in consequence, if ever shouts are raised, or if the noise of trumpets is mingled with them, the sound, from the rocks echoing and re-echoing to one another, is heard many times repeated, and louder than it was made at first. This effect, on those who are ignorant of its cause, and are struck with wonder at it, produces a greater awe of the power of the god. In the winding of the rock, about half way up the hill, there is a small plain, and in it a deep fissure in the ground, which is open for giving oracles; for a cold exhalation, driven upwards by some force, as it were by a wind, produces in the minds of the priestesses a certain madness, and compels them, filled with the influence of the god, to give answers to such as consult them. Hence many rich presents of kings and nations are to be seen there, which, by their magnificence, testify the grateful feelings of those that have paid their vows, and their belief in the oracles given by the deity.

Brennus, when he came within sight of the temple, deliberated for some time, whether he should at once make an attempt upon it, or should allow his soldiers, wearied with their march, a night to refresh themselves. The captains of the Emanus and Thessalorus, who had joined him for a share in the booty, advised that “no delay should be made,” while the enemy were unprovided for defence, and the alarm at their coming still fresh; that in the interval of a night, the courage of the enemy would perhaps revive, and assistance come to them; and that the approaches, which were now open, might be blocked up. But the common soldiers, when, after a long endurance of scarcity, they found a country abounding with wine and other provisions, had dispersed themselves over the fields, rejoicing as much at the plenty as if they had gained a victory, and leaving their standards deserted, wandered about to seize on everything like conquerors. This conduct gave some respite to the Delphians. At the first report that the Gauls were approaching, the countrypeople are said to have been prohibited by the oracle from carrying away their corn and wine from their houses. The salutariness of this prohibition was not understood, until, through this abundance of wine and other provisions being thrown in the way of the Gauls, as a stop to their progress, reinforcements from their neighbours had time to collect. The Delphians, accordingly, supported by the strength of their allies, secured their city before the Gauls, who clung to the wine-skins, on which they had seized, could be recalled to their standards. Brennus had sixty-five thousand infantry, selected from his whole army; of the Delphians there were not more than four thousand; in utter contempt of whom, Brennus, to rouse the courage of his men, pointed to the vast quantity of spoil before them, declaring that the statues, and four-horse chariots, of which a great number were visible at a distance, were made of solid gold, and would prove greater prices when they came to be weighed than they were in appearance.

The Gauls, animated by these assertions, and disordered, at the same time, with the wine which they had drunk the day before, rushed to battle without any fear of danger. The Delphians, on the other hand, placing more confidence in the god than in their own strength, resisted the enemy with contempt, and, from the top of the hill, repelled the Gauls as they climbed up, partly with pieces of rock, and partly with their weapons. Amidst this contest between the two, the priests of all the temples, as well as the priestesses themselves, with their hair loose, and with their decorations and fillets, rushed, trembling and frantic, into the front ranks of the combatants, exclaiming that “the god was come; that they had seen him leap down into his temple through the opening roof; that, while they were all humbly imploring aid of the deity, a youth of extraordinary beauty, far above that of mortals, and two armed virgins, coming from the neighbouring temples of Diana and Minerva, met them; that they had not only perceived them with their eyes, but had heard also the sound of a bow and the rattling of arms;” and they therefore conjured them with the strongest entreaties, “not to delay, when the gods were leading them on, to spread slaughter among the enemy, and to share the victory with the powers of heaven.” Incited by these exhortations, they all rushed eagerly to the field of battle, where they themselves also soon perceived the presence of the divinity; for a part of the mountain, broken off by an earthquake, overwhelmed a host of the Gauls and some of the densest bodies of the enemy were scattered abroad, not without wounds, and fell to the earth. A tempest then followed, which destroyed, with hail and cold, those that were suffering from bodily injuries. The general Brennus himself, unable to endure the pain of his wounds, ended his life with his dagger. The other general, after punishing the advisers of the war, made off from Greece with all expedition… “

Pausanias (Description of Greece, 2ndC CE) added greater detail to his own version of the story, claiming that the disorder that led to the apparent defeat of Brennus and his army was caused by an apparent outbreak of madness within the Gaulish camp which caused them to fight among themselves…

“… At the beginning of the fight the Gauls offered a spirited resistance, especially the company attached to Brennus, which was composed of the tallest and bravest of the Gauls, and that though they were shot at from all sides, and no less distressed by the frost, especially the wounded men. But when Brennus himself was wounded, he was carried fainting from the battle, and the barbarians, harassed on all sides by the Greeks, fell back reluctantly, putting to the sword those who, disabled by wounds or sickness, could not go with them.

They encamped where night overtook them in their retreat, and during the night there fell on them a “panic.” For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan. It was when evening was turning to night that the confusion fell on the army, and at first only a few became mad, and these imagined that they heard the trampling of horses at a gallop, and the attack of advancing enemies; but after a little time the delusion spread to all.

So rushing to arms they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither understanding their mother tongue nor recognizing one another’s forms or the shape of their shields. Both parties alike under the present delusion thought that their opponents were Greek, men and armour, and that the language they spoke was Greek, so that a great mutual slaughter was wrought among the Gauls by the madness sent by the god…”

gauls_fighting

Considering both accounts, we can see that Brennus’ previously highly disciplined and motivated army arrived at Delphi after a string of significant earlier victories, and plundered (or were given) some wine and subsequently fell into disarray, eventually being repelled. Both accounts agree on a certain amount of chaos breaking out, but Pausanias states that the Gauls suffered a mass outbreak of some kind of hallucinatory and delusional psychosis and paranoia. Assuming that he is not speaking figuratively of the weapons of the god Apollo (divine madness) it would appear that the Gauls were affected by the Delphian wine, which was obviously no ordinary wine…

Herba Appolinaris:

Hyoscyamus Niger

Hyoscyamus Niger

It is likely that Brennus’ army (or a significant part of it) fell prey to the effects of wine laced with the mind-bending herb Hyoscyamus Niger, known in English as Henbane, in Spanish as Beleno, and in German as Bilsenkraut. The ancients (eg – Pedanius Dioscorides (De Materia Medica, Book 4, 1stC CE, also Pliny the Elder)  knew it as Herba Appolinaristhe herb of Apollo. In fact, Dioscorides tells us of the many names for it across the known world:

It is also called dioscyamos, pythonion, adamas, adamenon, hypnoticum, emmanes, atomon, or dithiambrion; Pythagoras and Osthenes call it xeleon, Zoroastres, tephonion, the Romans, inanaoentaria, some, Apollinaris, the Magi, rhaponticum, the Egyptians, saptho, the Thuscans, phoebulonga, the Gauls, bilinuntiam, and the Dacians, dieliam.

That Dioscorides gives the Gaulish word as ‘Bilinuntiam’ is often taken as indicative of a concordance between the gods Apollo and the Celtic deity Belenos, and thus it would seem of interest to those who are intrigued by the genesis of the cultural movement of the Celtic ‘tribes’ referred to under the umbrella term Belgae who were somehow linked to the events of 279BC. Dioscorides’ reference to the name ‘pythonian’ for Hyoscyamus also appears to be a reference to this oracular usage, although the myth maintained at Delphi was that priestesses inhaled the exhalations of an ancient vent in the ground, no doubt supposed to conduct the fumes of the decaying corpse of the giant Python killed by Apollo. The fact that Henbane is also known as ‘Stinking Henbane’ due to its unpleasant odour adds to the likelihood that it was responsible for the mind-bending oracles of the Pythia.

Greek tetradrachm depicting Apollo the archer with the Python and the Delphic tripod

Greek tetradrachm depicting Apollo the archer with the Python and the Delphic tripod

Toxicity of Hyoscyamus goes from mild drunkenness to a total confusion, agitation and frenzy, and from there easily into overdosage and death. Obviously, the Pythia (priestesses of the Apollonian oracle) would have been experts at dosing themselves, and must have possessed a standardised preparation which they consumed. It is possible that they could have inhaled the vapours from burning seeds, but given the accounts of Pausanias and Pompeius Trogus/Justin about the chaos that afflicted Brennus’ army in 279BC it is just as likely that they consumed it in wine. Pausanias’ comment that Brennus died of drinking undiluted wine could well be an allusion to this, in fact. Pompeius Trogus states that the leaders at Delphi ordered that the Gauls be given free access to the wine and food of the city, so a deliberate poisoning may well have occurred…

Berserkers?:

The reputation for bravery and ferocity of some Celtic warriors was commented on by a number of Roman authors – not in the least to allow themselves to congratulate their own soldiers for defeating them. The same ferocity among ‘barbarian’ warriors next receives comment when Christian Europeans encountered the warring aspect of their pagan neighbours from the north during the ‘Viking’ era, this time in the form of the ‘Berserkr‘ (lit. ‘Bear Skin’) warriors. These were men who had dedicated themselves to Odin, their god of battle. The Anglo-Saxon equivalent was Wodan – a name recognisably connected with the Old/Middle English word ‘Wod(e)’, meaning madness or frenzy. It has been suggested that Henbane is a likely drug that could have been used to induce a visionary or frenzied state in Berserkr warriors, and evidence of Henbane seeds among possessions buried in pagan graves (eg – Fyrkat, Denmark) has been used to reinforce this suggestion (although to my mind they could equally have been used for preventing sea-sickness!). Further to this, there was a tradition in Germany and Bohemia of brewing beer using Henbane, suggesting that ‘Pilsener’ was a name fortuitously apprehended by the burghers of Plzen in Bohemia with which to brand their own pseudo-eponymous mass-produced beer in the 19thC, albeit without the ‘Pilsenkraut’ additives. Bohemia, was of course named after the Celtic Boii tribal federation who were undoubtedly involved in the Balkan, Greek and Anatolian Celtic campaigns of the 4th/3rdC BCE.

The 'visionary' man holding a torc and serpent (Gundestrup cauldron - late Celtic iron age). Compare this image to the Delphian tetradrachm above...

The ‘visionary’ man holding a torc and serpent (Gundestrup cauldron – late Celtic iron age). Compare this image to the Delphian tetradrachm above…

Bearing in mind my suggested concordances of the Celtic god Belenos with a number of medieval-era late pagan gods and mythological characters from northern and eastern Europe, the association with Apollo, and similarities between the Pythonian myth and the conception of the pagan Scandinavian universe from the Icelandic Edda texts, a picture begins to emerge of the survival and transformation of an Iron Age visionary religion which reached its height in the 3rdC BCE and which survived Romanisation in the Germanic, Slavic and Scandinavian regions…

 

The Fisher King: Belenos in the Arthurian tales?

Panel from the 8thC Anglo-Saxon 'Franks' Casket' depicting the juxtaposition of pagan mythology and Christian. On the left - the injured smith-king Weyland receives a visit from three (Valkyrie) women. On the right, Mary and the baby Jesus receive the three male Magi. Note the items carries by the Magi and consider the court of the Fisher King...

Panel from the 8thC Anglo-Saxon 'Franks' Casket' (British Museum) depicting the juxtaposition of pagan mythology and Christian. On the left - the injured smith-king Weyland makes a cup for three ?Valkyrie-women. On the right, Mary and the baby Jesus receive the three male Magi. Note the items carries by the Magi: a ?weapon, a torch and a cup...

 

The Arthurian tales and fairy lays of the 12th-15thC centuries are curious amalgams of contemporary chivalric and courtly Christian culture with much older pagan themes, with which they seem to abound. Those that survive as an identifiable part of the medieval corpus (starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth) were written down between the 12th and 15th centuries, and formed a tradition that was added to, re-versified, modified and expanded. That they were based upon themes and characters from indigenous folk-traditions of the post-Roman, pre-Christian European world is certain, although they would form a very contemporary tradition in their time, and their allegories were equally at home in the fevered era of the crusades and chivalry as they would have been in the 1stC BC before Rome crashed militarily and culturally into the heady and otherworldly domains of the peoples who identified themselves with the term 'Belgae', and from among whom these legends appear to have grown in oral traditions. As in Ireland, the Christian imperative in Britain and northern Europe was to assail these potent bastions of bardic culture in which the spiritual and philosophical worldview of late Iron Age celts were encoded, and convert them to a literary or suitably contemporary oral-narrative form which suited Christian culture – especially in the warlike post-Roman, post-Carolingian world which had evolved from the 'Belgic' culture.

Although mentions of 'Arthur' (and his older variant names) exist before the 1100's, it is during the 12thC that a tradition of written tales begins to coalesce around him and a cast of recognisable supporting characters that takes shape as what we recognise as 'Arthurian' legends. The cultural crucible was stoked by the influence of Troubadour culture (possibly an extension or development of older celtic bardic traditions) from Occitania in the more Romanised south of France, and the militarised chivalric and pious culture in the north of France centred on Normandy, which had developed among settlements of lately-Christianised Danes (warlike post-Belgic pagans until the 10thC). The Troubadours' lyrical traditions of courtly love emphasised feminine power and mystery in an era in which this had long been suppressed, and although it probably did little to change womens' position in life it suited the era during which reformed monasticism was promoting increased veneration of Mary, mother of Jesus, and portraying her allegorically as a fountain of rejuvenation. The Lady of the Lake, the Lady of the Fountain and similar otherworldly females all appear in the Arthurian tales and fairy 'Lays' of this era, and seem to correspond to such contemporary 'Maryology' – a heady mix of pagan goddess veneration and Christian euhemerisation and appropriation of powerful indigenous narratives.

The authors and redactors of the medieval romances and lays in the Arthurian literary tradition wrote across a period spanning some 400 years, and almost wholly for a learned elite audience. Oral tradition would have been part of the cultural pillar supporting and uniting communities and reinforcing a sense of tribal identity and connection to traditional lands. In the Arthurian tales, this was invoked by the elites so as to reinforce their sense of shared-origin and common-purpose with their subjects. Such a connection was important in places like Britain which had seen successive waves of invasion and settlement by neighbouring peoples, most notably that of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Normans. As with all invading cultures, these appropriated and modified indigenous traditions to suit their claims to legitimacy, hence the style of Arthurian literature. As a result of this and active processes among the religious to 'euhemerise' and consign pagan ideas to a pseudo-historical or literary tradition, the old gods of Europe changed their faces and names as the traditions developed.


Timeline of significant 'Arthurian' literature (by no means complete!):

12thC: Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the Kings of Britain, Life of Merlin, Prophecies of Merlin), Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Béroul, Wace, Thomas of Britain, Robert de Boron, Eilhart von Oberge, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven.

13thC: (Wolfram von Eschenbach) 'Parzifal', (Anon.) 'Lancelot-Grail cycle' (or 'Vulgate Cycle'), (Anon.) Post-Vulgate cycle.

14thC: The 'Welsh Romances' (assoc. with the Mabinogion)

 


The Fisher King:

The 'Fisher King' or 'Wounded King' from the grail series of Arthurian tales is perhaps one of the more intriguing of the otherworldly regal male characters of the traditions. His first explicit appearance is in Chrétien de Troyes' 'Perceval, the Story of the Grail' from the late 12thC, where he is the 'Grail King' of the land of Logres, keeper of a mystical lance and a grail (plate or bowl), not then identified with any form of holy Christian relic from the biblical 'Last Supper': that would come later – after the Third Crusade tried to reconquer the 'holy lands' far away in the Middle East, as well as the introduction of the principle of transubstantiation of the communion wine and host. Chretien's 'Perceval' is fragmentary and incomplete, but was sufficiently popular and valuable to have been recopied and added to by a number of subsequent authors in an attempt to 'round off' the narrative and make sense of it.

In Chretien's version, the young and inexperienced Perceval is invited to stay at the castle of a wounded and indolent fisherman-king, whose aged father (also wounded) shares the castle with him. At a banquet a mysterious procession enters bearing a number of mystical objects which are paraded in front of Perceval: a graal/grail (dish or vessel), a bleeding lance, and a candelabra (see the Franks' Casket panel above!). The performance and the meaning of it is lost on Chrétien's Perceval, who returns to Arthur's court where a prophetic/fatalistic 'loathly lady' (ie – the narrative representation of the pagan Cailleach) appears and explains that had he solved the mystery he would have healed the wounded king and his lands.

As Chretien offers no satisfactory conclusion in his own surviving work to the tale of Perceval, others expanded upon his themes – either through reference to an original oral narrative tradition or using their own creative skills – we cannot be certain which. An analogy of the tale with similar themes (although not referring directly to a 'grail' or 'Fisher King') occurs in the Middle Welsh tale Peredur son of Efrawg – a romance appended to the 'Mabinogion' tales. Robert de Boron's 12thC 'Joseph d'Arimathie' introduces the Christianised version of the Grail, placing the 'Bron the Rich Fisher' (ie – the Fisher King) as last in a line of Grail guardians originating with Joseph of Arimithea – supposed to have come to Britain with the Grail in which he was supposed to have collected Jesus' blood: This fitted the Crusader theme entirely!

The Fisher King is Belenos?

In truth, we know very little about the Celtic solar deity Belenos, so equating him with the Fisher King has its problems. However, the theme of death and rebirth underlies the Grail mystery, just as it did the religion of the ancient Europeans, and the Sun is the most explicit exemplar of the principle. The wounds of the Fisher King, and/or his father are expressions of human mortality, just as his 'healing' from the 'dolorous stroke' represents reincarnation.

Interior panel from the late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron depicting a giant warrior rejuvenating soldiers in some kind of vessel, making them into mounted  knights.

Interior panel from the late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron depicting a giant warrior rejuvenating soldiers in some kind of vessel, making them into mounted knights.

 

Other clues lie in the names given to the King: The anonymous 13thC authors of the 'Lancelot-Grail' cycle expanded upon the 'Grail' stories and added a couple of interesting name-details: the 'Fisher King', they say, was named 'Pelles' and the 'Wounded King' was called 'Pellehan' or 'Pellam'. Like the Slavic god Veles, the Lithuanian Velinas and the Germanic Weland, these names seem to contain elements of the older 'Belenos' (in this case through the other common Celtic/Indo-European language consonantal switch of the 'B' and 'P' sounds.) The slightly later 'Post-Vulgate Cycle' versions of the Grail tale (also by an un-named author) and Sir Thomas Mallory's 15thC 'Morte D'Arthur' refer to a 'Sir Balin' who was responsible for causing the wound of the Fisher King (the 'Dolorous Stroke') and hence the sickness of his land, using a lance – perhaps unsurprisingly in the Christianised legends identified with the 'Spear of Longinus', supposed to have been the one that pierced the side of 'Christ'. In Robert de Boron's late 12thC Grail epic 'Joseph d'Arimathie', the Fisher King (here called the 'Rich Fisher') is called Bron – a name which has caused some scholars to comment on the similarity with the character Bendigeidfran ('Bran the Blessed') from the Welsh Mabinogion. Bran is a giant who possesses a healing cauldron, and who is mortally injured by decapitation yet whose head continues to talk. Bran means 'raven' – a bird strongly associated with the souls of the dead and reincarnation in Celtic and Norse (ie – late Belgic culture) mythology.

Holy Wounds and Healing Vessels:

The 'Holy Wound' apparently suffered by the Fisher King characters in Grail mythology is used as an allegory for the poor state of their lands: why else would the King catch his own food? The 'bleeding lance' theme introduced into literature by Chretien represents an injured virility, something akin to the bleeding stag with a broken antler who had lost the season's rutting combat, but will endure with hope that the next year promises dominance of the herd. The mystery of the image invoked by Chretien revolves around the question of whether the lance runs with the blood of its adversary, or if it is the lance itself that bleeds? In a solar sense, the 'wounding' of the land comes with the onset of winter, during which the sun – like the Fisher King – seems enfeebled. This invokes the necessity of death to encourage life. Interestingly, the 12th/13thC Norse Prose Edda myth of Volundr (Weyland/Weland) claims that he is wounded and cannot walk – this is confirmed by the imagery of Weyland on the earlier 8thC Franks' Casket…

 

However, it was the grail itself which took greater precedence in the later tales: the receiver of the 'sacrificial' blood of the Christian narratives, for which the 'wounded king' was to become an important allegory. The 'ladies of the fountains' of earlier tales – explicit references to the pagan goddesses we see depicted upon ancient Celtic stelae – were to merge with the 'Marian' goddess-philosophies of the more pious Christian eras. This process was reaching its height in the 12thC when the Arthurian tales were being written down.

 

However, the Arthurian 'Fisher King' is portrayed as a king down on his luck and wounded who requires redemption and healing through questing knights who seek the Grail. This means that he is never a direct analogy for Jesus, who was generally portrayed as a triumphal and all-powerful redeemer during the medieval period. In fact, the 'Fisher King' seems more akin to Shakespeare's version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'King Leir/Lear' or perhaps the wild Merddyn (Merlin) or his Irish equivalent Suibhne: slightly unhinged, somehow wounded, and a bit less than divine. The famous late-classical British/Irish Christian leader Pelagius (4th-5thC CE) seems to have shared the same opinion about Christ and rejected the idea of 'original sin', but was rebutted by his continental colleagues who expunged his doctrine that Jesus himself was somehow human! Even the name Pelagius is itself evocative of Pel- or Bel-: Celtic Christians were arch employers of the mythology of their own indigenous religious background.

Triadic nature of the Fisher King:

The Fisher King (who lives with his aged father – also wounded) is actually part of a 'triad' if one includes the redeeming young knights such as Perceval, Lancelot or Galahad who unlock the secret of Grail and the Lance, and who heal the King's wounds. These themselves are reflexes of the character who wounds the Fisher King: another knight of Arthur's court called Sir Balin, whose name is a more explicit invocation of Belenos. Galahad is the grandson of the Wounded King in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, where Pelles (the younger Fisher King) contrives to have Lancelot bed his daughter Elaine. This technically ensures his eventual healing, again demonstrating the complex themes of continuity and reincarnation. The triadic divinities of the Atlantic Europeans often incorporate a 'father-son-virgin youth' or 'crone-mother-virgin youth' type of schema, and this is witnessed with the Fisher King.

Triadic divinites: The 'Corleck Head' (National Museum of Ireland) has three faces - you can only ever see two when looking at it side-on! This is an expression of the mystery hinted at in the character of the Fisher King.

Triadic divinites: The 'Corleck Head' (National Museum of Ireland) has three faces - you can only ever see two when looking at it side-on! This is an expression of the mystery hinted at in the character of the Fisher King.

The character's important mystical nature, his association with death and renewal, his various names and triadic nature are all clues to his identity with the great solar god of the Otherworld. Manannan (son of Leir) is the same.

 

 

 

The ‘warrior’ panel of the Gundestrup cauldron

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

This interior panel from the famous Gundestrup cauldron appears to show a line of seven mail-clad, shield and spear-wielding Celtic warriors advancing in a line from right to left towards a giant warrior who appears to be holding the body of another small warrior over a vessel of some sort. A dog or wolf appears to jump up at his feet. Proceeding from the giant along the upper row, are a line of four finely-arrayed horsemen with elite crested helmets, passing from left to right. Preceding them is a snake. The footsoldiers of the bottom row are followed by three carnyx (boar-headed celtic war-horn) players, whose horns reach up to face the cavalry riding back towards them, and the snake 'flies' above the horn chanters. Separating the rows of footmen and cavlry is a branch from which sprouts foliage or flowers. The metalwork around this is textured, suggesting an aura, a river or a footpath. The 'spears' of the footmen seem to connect with the trunk of the branch.

Symbolism interpreted:

The silver Gundestrup cauldron was probably a ritual deposit in water, pledged to the gods, as it was discovered in pieces in a Danish bog in 1891. Such deposits were an archaeological feature of Europe's 'Atlantic Bronze Age' which were influential upon the Celtic Iron Age cultures of north and central Europe. The organised style of the warriors, their mail suits and war trumpets seem date the cauldron between the 3rdC BCE and the 1stC CE during which time there were broad military and cultural interactions between Celtic tribes of Gaul and those of south and central Europe, explaining the artistic styles (and that of the armour) depicted on the cauldron: In fact, some design elements on the cauldron are so similar to those on objects found in the 'Letnica Hoard' (Bulgaria) to suggest a Gallo-Thracian origin for at least some of the panels. The cauldron shows aspects of both military and spiritual ideas of the afterlife which commentators typically associate with Celtic Iron Age culture.

Our 'warrior' panel shows some key features of a warfare-oriented view of reincarnation:

The footsoldiers:

These are 'ordinary' footsoldiers kitted uniformly for war with shields, spears and chainmail vests. There are seven armed men and three carnyx players. The last of the armed men carries no shield, and may be a youth, as he stands below the topmost 'sprout' of the tree-like design above their heads. They are clearly marching into battle, towards the dog/wolf and the giant figure with his cauldron, who appears to be placing one in or pulling one out of the cauldron. The soldiers are marching in the direction of the roots of the aforementioned tree design. Interestingly, it can be seen that their chainmail hauberks finish at the knee, below which they appear to wear hose and rawhide sandals on their feet, similar to those still in use in Ireland and the Isle of Man into the 19thC.

The giant warrior and his 'cauldron':

The giant warrior's cauldron or vessel appears to be a metaphor for some kind of rebirth promised to the valiant footsoldiers, as proceeding from it in the opposite direction to them are a line of mounted knights with fabulous helmets. The womb-like metaphor for the cauldron as a symbol for rebirth is found in the 'Second Branch' of the medieval Welsh epic tales known as Mabinogion in which the giant, Brân, owns a cauldron which revives the dead. In the case of the Gundestrup cauldron, two things appear to be emerging from this giant's cauldron – glorified warriors and a tree. This has echoes of the Yggdrasil tree mentioned in the 12thC Icelandic accounts of Scandinavian pagan legends: at the base of Yggdrasil were a number of wells from which the lives and fates of men flowed. At the base of the tree, gnawing animals and serpents were found: aspects of the ancient empirical idea of regeneration through putrefaction: these are also represented on the Gundestrup cauldron by the snake and the dog. The message of the panel is that the masculine god of the Otherworld (here portrayed also as a warrior, therefore a 'colleague) promises regeneration to those who glorify themselves in battle, and the new existence may have greater glory, represented by:

The four knights:

Proceeding from the apparent god and his cauldron are four mounted men (knights), remarkable for their elaborate crested helmets. The horses and more beautiful helmets mark them out as part of the warrior elite, and the implication of their appearance in the panel is that valiant footsoldiers might become so great – either through death or attainment. It is notable that there are only four knights, compared to the eight warriors going towards the cauldron (including the man held by the 'god'). Assuming that all of the soldiers on the lower row were looking forward to death in battle, then the panel suggests only four of these seem to have achieved a more glorious reincarnation! This again links to the Norse accounts of beliefs about death of warriors in battle which suggest that only half of the slain went with Odinn to Valhöll. Another interesting concordance.

So what of the other four warriors – what might the panel say about these? We are left with two interesting possibilities:

The first is represented by the animals in the image: first of these are the cavalrymen's horses, which would bring the number of sentient beings up to eight in the top row. The other is the ravenous dog or wolf, who like the crows and carrion birds depicted elsewhere on the cauldron would be features of any battlefield. The folklore of hosts of the restless dead remaining in Atlantic Europe after the Iron Age seems to have relevance here: the Sluagh Sidhe of the Gaelic world, and the 'Wild Hunt' of the Germanic world in particular. It may be that the souls of the unglorified were believed to have been incarnated in the form of the animals who haunt battlefields and the margins of human habitation: the corvidae (crows), vultures, wolves, dogs and foxes. By consuming the flesh of the glorious and providing good deeds in the form of omens and warnings, they might find themselves given a better incarnation in the next life, as well as speeding the recovery of the battlefield etc.

The second possibility of reincarnation is represented by the tree – the ancient metaphor for human generations: 'root, branch and seed'. The panel's design with the tree apparently growing from it suggests the dead are fertilising the regrowth of future generations, perhaps implying the reincarnation of less worthy footsoldiers as humans, ready for another 'go' at attaining greater glory. My feeling, based on the residual folklore and traditions of Europe, is that the truth probably lies somewhere between these two suggestions. The transmigration of souls (described by Roman authors as a central tenet of Gallic/Celtic faith) might lead to a number of outcomes, based variously upon the achievements of individuals in this life: a glorious afterlife, reincarnation as a human, or even a cavalryman's horse, or as a restless ravening creature who plays an important role in the regeneration processes of nature, and who might offer auguries to the living. The calls of ravens and crows, the flight-patterns of birds and the calls and shouts of canines and horses, were all recorded as potential sources of augury in ancient Europe until at least the middle ages.

The snake and the Carnyxes:

The snake has been a symbol of reincarnation for a very long time, based upon their continuous unblinking stare, their shedding their skins, their love of chthonic lairs from which they emerge into daylight, and from their ancient philosophical (morphological) classification along with worms, larvae and maggots as part of natural putrefaction and regenerative processes of nature. The snake is also notable for the visceral, terrifying/transfixing ability it has over its prey, bringing us here to discuss the Carnyx, above which the snake is positioned in the panel. The was the war-trumpet par-excellence of the Celts, whose terrifying cacophonic honking seemed designed to evoke the enraged squeals and bellows of an attacking boar, stag or bull, augmenting the terrifying transfixing effect of soldiers' war-cries upon an enemy. The horn was apparently a potent weapon in itself, designed – like the gaze of the snake – to sap the morale of the enemy.

Summary:

This panel appears to show imagery promising soldiers reincarnation in battle. Their deaths are being 'inverted' into a renewed, more glorious life, and the cauldron and tree act as a central metaphor of regrowth from the well of life, with the dog and snake representing the earthly and allegorical forms of this natural process.