Concordance in Norse/Germanic and Irish mythology

Pagan mythology evolves in response to the environment which gave birth to it, so it is perhaps unsurprising that mythology along Europe’s Atlantic climes should share much in the way of similarity. In this post, I seek to discuss some of these

Odinn and Manannan:

Legends about Odinn and Manannan demonstrate a number of obvious correlations. They are both wise. They are well-travelled. The look after the souls of those who have passed on. They are rulers of the Otherworld. They possess magical abilities and magical artifacts, which they donate to heroes in stories. They can change their appearance and are shapeshifters. They both ride a magical horse.

Odinn (whose German name Woden means madman) appears to have suffered from episodic bouts of madness or wondering, and although madness is not an explicit theme with Manannan, travel and wondering appears to be. The fact that Manannan appears to have been somewhat conflated with Merlin (who Geoffrey of Monmouth made explicitly unhinged) is of particular interest. He is described as ‘Melinus’ by Geoffrey’s euhemerist colleague-at-arms Jocelyn of Furness, and is also called ‘Merlin’ by early 18thC author George Waldron. Other famously mad tree-dwellers from Irish myth include king ‘Suibne Geilt‘, and from the Fenian mythology the interestingly love-mad Diarmuid Ui Duibne (finally caught hiding in a tree). Diarmuid is paralleled by another Fenian myth with a character who loves Fionn’s intended woman and ‘takes flight’, called Derg Corra . He, like Diarmuid is hunted down by Fionn using his (‘Odinnic’) divinatory power and finally discovered hiding in a tree, seemingly out of his mind. The Eddas refer to Odinn hanging himself from the world tree in order to get divine knowledge, which is a theme linking Fionn to another character from Germanic mythology:

Sigurd and Fionn:

The motif of the dwarf-mentor and the killing and cooking of an otherworld creature is familiar to both the Irish story known as ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ (Irish: Macgnímartha Finn) and the poetic Edda narrative known as the Völsungasaga. In the saga version, Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir and gains understanding of the language of birds when he inadvertently licks his finger while roasting Fafnir’s heart for the dwarf Regin who desires this knowledge. In the Fenian version, of course, Fionn is cooking the Salmon of Wisdom for the dwarf-druid Finnegas when he does the same. Both of these tales may represent a narrative theme popular in their day as both written texts have been located to the 12th/13thC, but then again – they may be from an older oral tradition!

Finn, Cuchullain and Thor:

Thor and his battles against giants and monsters are one of the key hero-myths of the Icelandic Eddas. Like the ancient Greek figure of Heracles, he transcends what is normally acheivable in his fight against the forces of chaos. The same role is represented in Irish mythology by the ‘larger than life’ heros Cuchullain and Fionn mac Cumhaill, although when compared to the Eddas and Greek myths, the overt ‘sacred’ nature of their narrative importance has been obscured by christianisation of their stories.

Wayland, Chullain and the Gobban Saor:

The ‘hero-smith’ narrative is widespread throughout Irish mythology and placenames, yet the legends have suffered (like those of the Cailleach) from significant demotion or erasure during the inscription of the traditional narrative tales of the pagan world. This makes them all the more intriguing! A similar problem seems to exist with the Wayland legends, in fact.

Magical wells returning water from the Otherworld:

The Icelandic Prose Edda and the Irish Dindshenchas texts from the middle ages both contain explicit references to the mysterious flow of rivers to and from the Otherworld. In the Eddaic version (Snorra Edda), the ‘Otherworld’ source of waters is from the antlers of the stag Eikthyrnir who stands over Valhalla, and whose streams flow down to the bottom of the tree into the well Hvergelmir which is the source of all the world’s rivers and nourishes the roots of the tree. In the Irish sources, the Otherworld streams flow back into secret wells in fairy mounds, emerging as the springs originating the Rivers Boyne and Shannon, which themselves flow into the ‘world-river’ which laps on the shores of the Blessed Isles. As well as being an aquatic analogy, these appear to be describing the ancient belief in the transmigration of souls! This is an important aspect of the ancient Atlantic religion.

Mystical Trees:

The Yggdrasil is the great ‘world-tree’ of Icelandic Eddaic mythology, which was based on the ancestral beliefs of the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians etc who settled in Iceland before the advent of Christianity in the Scandinavian world. It represents an abstract effigy of the idea of human generations, and nourishing rivers  – roots, trunk, branches and leaves. It also acts as an abode for the metaphorical animals representing this kind of fertility, who are strongly associated with regeneration and rivers by their appearance: stags (with their branching antlers) and serpents (whose bodies mimic the appearance of rivers and who shed their skins and are ‘reborn’). Ireland, being ‘freed’ of serpents by St Patrick, naturally also has a number of serpent legends that deal with the pre-Christian era and during the period of Christianisation, but the imagery of the tree and the river was and is important. The tendency of trees to both depict the shape of and attract lightning, no doubt explains their link to ‘thunder gods’ such as Donar/Thunor/Thor and Roman deities such as Jupiter.

A large number of ‘fairy hills’, stone circles and ‘holy wells’ in Ireland seems to be associated with an ancient thorn tree. The Rowan also has great importance in the Gaelic world (particularly Scotland and the Isle of Man) and one is featured in the Fenian myths as being a sacred possession of a giant called Searbhan in the Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne.

Ireland – like the Germanic regions pillaged by the tree-felling St Boniface – has an history of special trees, and their demise was detailed in the medieval texts. These may be figurative or actual – the truth is (as with the Boniface account) unclear. The great tree at  Maigh Adhair was recorded in the Irish annals as a sacred tree associated with the inauguration of Munster clan chiefs: Brian Bóruma and his relatives, in particular. There were others besides, including Bile Tortan, Craeb Daithi and Bile Uisneg,many of which were (like Yggdrasil) ashes…

 

 

Watery gateways to the Otherworld

See my other post: Boand – Water Goddess of the Boyne

In the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ entries about Boand, the eponymous goddess/fairy woman of the River Boyne, there is explicit mention of a belief that all rivers run to the Otherworld which is also the world of Creation:

“…Sid Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here, the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid, from which flows the stainless river whose name is Boand ever-full.

Fifteen names, certainty of disputes, given to this stream we enumerate, from Sid Nechtain away till it reaches the paradise of Adam…

….from paradise back again hither

to the streams of this Sid.”

The ancient Greeks believed exactly the same – all rivers ran into the ‘world river’ Okeanos (the great sea) which bordered the realm of Cronus-Atlantis (Ogygia)  and the Elysium. The Dindshenchas entry actually claims that the River circulates from the Otherworld, back to Sid Nechtain where it arises within the Sid as the magical spring or stream of Segais, before emerging back into the mundane world at the ‘pool of Mochua the cleric’.

This is an important piece of mysticism that explains much about the reincarnation beliefs of the Atlantic peoples, as promoted by Caesar’s Druids.

Boand is famous in the Irish Mythological Cycle as being the mother of Aengus Og, after an illicit coupling with the Stallion-Man-God known as the Daghda. The similarities between her Dindshenchas stories and those of Sinand are marked by allusions to the mystical origins and recirculation of rivers between this world and the next, and back again. Key to this are the mystical Otherworld/underworld wells from which the Boyne and the Shannon arise: described as ‘Connla’s Well’ (Sinand/Shannon) and Segais (Boann/Boyne) – both interchangeable motifs linked to fairy women at sacred hills (the usual site where springs arise). The Irish, ‘Arthurian’ British, Gallician, Germanic and Breton mythologies plus that of Gallia Aquitania and the Pays D’Oc, are full of the motifs of magical men and women riding horses, associated with spring pools, forests, hills and rivers and the Otherworld. They are connected by an important common thread of themes which defies the explanations of Roman and Greek religion and Roman and Greek understandings of Gaulish, German and British religion in the Iron Age.

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.

Through a mirror – water in the Atlantic religion

It has been well-established (if you’ll pardon the pun) that water played a prominent role in the religion of the ancient peoples of north and west Europe before the establishment of christianity. Even afterwards, and particularly in Ireland (no doubt something to do with its superabundance of moisture), this continued to be the case.

Flag Fen, England - site of a timber trackway and platforms built over water during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, associated with ritual water deposits

Flag Fen, England – site of a timber trackway and platforms built over water during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, associated with ritual water deposits. Anyone seen Grendel’s mother?

Votive deposits of religious artefacts, weapons and artefacts, food such as cheese and even human remains have been discovered in Europe’s wetlands, dating to the Bronze Age if not earlier, and archaeology of these environments has uncovered extensive constructed track-ways and structures to which have been ascribed great religious as well as economic and social importance.

Llyn Cerrig Bach

Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey – Site of Iron Age ritual water-deposits 300BC-100AD

An increasing number of crannogs and related ancient lake structures have been identified in the aquatic (and formerly aquatic) landscapes of Britain, Ireland and the rest of the ancient Celtic world. These are testament to the unique importance of proximity to water in the lives of peoples in the humid and often stormy climes of the Atlantic northwest of Europe: It offered protection, food, a source of power, a medium of transport, and a resource for industry. Coupled with the profound relationship between early (post-‘Theodosian’) Christian churches and religious settlements in northern and western Europe and the older pagan ritual sites at or near wells, springs, lakes, rivers and islands, it can be seen that water was at the heart of religious as well as secular life.

Aubrey Beardsley's depiction of Bedivere consigning the sword Excalibur to the 'Lady of the Lake'

Aubrey Beardsley’s bookplate engraving of Bedivere consigning the sword Excalibur to the ‘Lady of the Lake’

The legendary imagery connecting man with the spirit world through water is found throughout Europe from antiquity, but in particular it remained an active and important feature of the stories and literature of Atlantic Europe in the post-Christian period: From the lake-dwelling ‘Grendel’s mother’ and her role in Kingship in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, to the ‘Lady of the Lake’ (variously known as Nimue, Viviane, Elaine, Niniane, Nivian, Nyneve, and Evienne etc) of later Gallo-Brythonic ‘Arthurian’ legendary romances, the magical female in water pervades mythology.

Breton traditions tell of Malgven or Morgan, her daughter Dahut – the ‘Groac’h Ahez’ and her silver keys to the gloomy underwater realm – the medieval Lai tradition (Marie de France etc) from the region used the theme of beautiful female fairies met at springs and rivers into which they might plunge carrying worthy knights to the fairy realm of Avalon.

In Russia (where magical female spirits inhabiting rivers are called Rusalka), there is a similar tradition of the aquatic otherworld – a medieval epic tale known as Sadko, in which its eponymous hero visits the world of the ‘Sea Tsar’.

Sadko visits the Sea Tsar

Sadko visits the Sea Tsar

Ancient Irish legends (eg – from Dindsenchas) often confer the origin of rivers upon female characters: Sinand, Boand,  Éirne etc. Lakes are created by legendarily careless legendary girls who forget to cap off wells, and Old Women lament the coming of the sea to take them. Christian tales tell of lake and river monsters who vex their saints and heroes, and in the written accounts of pre-Christian legends, the Morrigan appears at critical junctures on river banks to warn, cajole (and occasionally have sex with) the stories’ male proponents…

Newgrange on the Boyne. Horde of poisonous sheep shown for scale!

Newgrange on the Boyne (Boand). Horde of poisonous sheep shown for scale!

In folklore, there are still many more tales involving the aquatic realm and the magical female, not least of which are those of the merrows and mermaids and the continental melusine.

In my next post, I am going to examine one particular sacred ‘aquatic’ landscape in Ireland: The Bog of Allen.