279BC and the ‘Sons of Tuireann’.

279BC marked the zenith of the Celtic ‘La Tene’ cultural period and the warlike seemingly pan-Celtic ‘Belgic’ religious-cultural movement which had rocked Europe to its core and provided Europe’s first verifiable highly mobile elite mercenary fighting forces. It was the year that combined Celtic (‘Gaulish’) armies, having began an invasion and settlement of the Balkans some years previously, surged down through Macedonia and northern Greece and sacked of the holy city of Delphi – home to the shrine of Apollo and the Pythean Oracle. It was ancient Greece’s most sacred (and wealthy) religious site and was internationally famous. Rumours of fantastical treasure hordes carried off from these conquests back into the Celtic world persisted for centuries afterwards (e.g. ‘The Gold of Tolosa’), and it is highly likely that the stunning victories became the stuff of legends and stories for an even longer period to come. A more interesting aspect of the episode is that it fundamentally changed opinions in the Greek and Roman worlds about Celtic power: The combination of 279BCE with the earlier 4thC BCE sack of Rome by another warlord called Brennus, and the various Punic Wars in which significant Celtic mercenary forces fought for Carthage, ultimately ensured that Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasts were determined to smash independent Celtic power and culture in its seats across western and northern Europe.

It has always intrigued me how tales of this stellar 3rdC BC event might have filtered back to Britain and (in particular) to Ireland, and influenced the medieval story traditions that have survived down to this day. An example I would like to share with you is a story known as Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann (‘The Tragedy of the Sons of Tuireann’), which was translated to English under the name ‘The Fate of the Children of Tuireann’ by Eugene O’Curry and first published in ‘The Atlantis’ (Volume IV, 1863) alongside the equally important ‘Fate of the Children of Lir’.

The earliest surviving manuscript of the tale is of a late period (16th/17thC) and is written in Early Modern Irish. However, the story has some features of great antiquity to it, and the narrative is in the tradition of the ‘Mythological Cycle’ discussing the war between the Fomorians and the Tuatha De Danann: an imaginative and magical period of prehistory. The tale seeks to illustrate the inevitabilty of how acts against gods will ultimately ensure the demise of the proud and vainglorious, and as such mirrors the typical tragedean approach of ancient Greek myths.

The Tragedy, Fate or Violent Death of the Sons of Tuireann: 

First, take a look at the story, here at the Celtic Literature Collective website. O’Curry’s translation can be found here, with extra notes.

The story is essentially about a group of three warrior brothers: Brian (the leader), Iuchar and Iucharba . On account of a blood-feud, they kill Cian of the Tuatha De Danann, inviting the wrath of his son – the solar warrior and champion leader of the Tuatha De Danann knights: Lugh Lamhfada (‘Long Arm’).

Lugh sets an erec (compensation fee) that at first seems lenient, but it transpires that Lugh has tricked them, and the warriors must engage in a wild and violent chase across Europe and the Middle East in order to gain what turns out to be the magical treasures of foreign kings, treasures that Lugh will require in order to win the final Battle of Magh Tureadh against the Fomorians. Tuireann’s sons achieve their goal, but ultimately meet their demise in so doing, sealing Lugh’s revenge with blood.

Upon closer analysis, this story shares many features of that of the famous 3rdC BCE invasion of Greece and sacking of Delphi. This episode, which started out as a Celtic attempt to immitate the glory of Alexander of Macedonia, as well as being motivated by greed and envy of the unstable post-Alexandrian state of the Macedonian monarchy and northern Greek alliances. It culminated in an act of religious desecration, which (in the ancient world) whilst seeming daring would have had a number of ominous consequences. The repercussions against Celtic culture (and in particular druidic culture) which were to come would have been interpreted in the light of the these events, and no doubt affected the morality expressed in poetic arts. Even the legends of Sigurd among the Germanic peoples can be interpreted in this same context.

Lugh’s first task, is to have the sons of Tuirenn plunder the apples (of immortality) from the orchard of the Hesperides, which was in ancient times believed to lie at the furthest point to the east in the world-encircling sea (river) of Okeanos. To reach it, Brian and his brothers are forced to borrow Mannanan’s boat ‘Sguabatuinne’ (‘Wave Sweeper’). Once there they take the form of birds in order to steal the apples.

It is obviously a retelling from the myth of Hercules, but with a distinct Celtic twist: the theme of distant islands and birds feature heavily in other perhaps older Irish tales and poems dealing with the Otherworld, including the Legend of St Brendan, and ‘The Voyage of Bran’. It is believed that birds were the souls of the dead, or conducted the souls of the dead to the Celtic Otherworld.

Hercules himself (as well as Pythian Apollo) was depicted on 1stC BC coins minted by Celtic tribes from the great army who settled in the Balkans, these being imitations of Greek Thasos tetradrachms:

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Celtic recreation of a Thasos-type Greek tetradrachm depicting Dionysus and Herakles c.1stC BCE

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo - the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

Another Celtic Thasos imitation depicting Apollo – the god of Delphi. with his bow and three arrows.

It seems that the very act of going east towards the rising sun to seek the apples of immortality was an ideological theme which would have appealed greatly to the Gaulish warriors of Brennus’ army, seeking glorious immortality through heroic acts. In the 1st centuries BC and CE, Roman authors commented upon the fanatical aspects of Gaulish religion (said to have arisen in Britain) and that warriors were motivated to bravery by a belief in future reincarnation. Hercules’ defeat of the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides seems to be an alternate version of the Delphic myth of Apollo slaying Python. In our Irish tale, the leader of the adventurers is called ‘Brian’, very similar to the name Bran, and also to Brennus. All three means Raven in Celtic languages – the archetypal bird of war, and perhaps a symbol of reincarnating warriors.

After the Hesperides, the next significant target for the sons of Tuireann is the court of the Greek king, ‘Tuis’ (possibly a celticization of ‘Attis’). This seems suspiciously close to the raid on Delphi, particularly as they demand the king’s magical healing pig skin which brings men back to life. Tuis refuses but offers instead to give them as much gold as will fit on the skin, to which they acquiesce, only to whip the skin out from under the king’s nose in the treasury, kill the king and make off. The Gaulish army of 279BC famously killed the Macedonian King, Ptolemy Keraunos, before Brennus’ faction made for Delphi. Apollo (the god of Delphi) was famously a god of healing, and a need for healing is a theme which crops up again and again in Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann.

Next, the brothers go to Persia to obtain the king’s magically potent spear, killing the Persian king into the bargain. This may be a reference to the elements of Brennus’ army who settled in Anatolia and became known as Galatians. They were notorious as making their living as a mercenary fighting force among the Seleucid Kingdoms and were deployed across the middle east, perhaps as far as Persia, in fighting their wars. Another interpretation could be of the spear representing the Gaulish defeat of the Macedonian kingdom, which had in turn defeated the Achaemenid Empire (represented in the Irish tale by the ‘King of Persia’).

After Persia, they go to the King of Sicily (Siguil) posing as mercenaries in order to relieve him of his chariot and team of horses. This seems to be a reference to the Pyrrhic war, which coincided with and continued after the sack of Delphi. It involved the Carthaginians and Greeks fighting over Sicily, and although we cannot be certain that Celtic mercenaries were involved in this conflict, we know that they played a major role in the Second Punic War. Another Delphi-related detail is that one of its treasures was reported to be a large golden image of a god (probably Helios) riding a chariot.

From there, the heroes go to the kingdom of’ ‘Coloman Orda’, which O’Curry translates as ‘Pillars of Gold’. The location of this is less certain, but the Lugh demands the heroes relieve the king of this place of his nine magical regenerating pigs. I would suggest that the kingdom of the Pillars of Gold, well stocked with endless pigs suggests the Iberian peninsula. Iberian and Southern Gaulish support for Carthage was a significant factor in Hannibal’s campaign during the Second Punic War, the Celts of the city of Gades (modern Cadiz) having been ancient trading partners and cultural exchangees of the Phoenicians. The pigs are recognisably similar to the magic pigs owned by Manannan Mac Lir.

The final tasks involve plundering in colder climes among places less easily identified. Ioruaidh – ‘the cold country’ – furnishes them with a hunting dog, and the congregation of women occupying the island of Inis Cenn-fhinne donate a cooking spit. Finally they give three shouts upon a hill in Lochlann (a fjord in Norway?) in order to complete Lugh’s quest, though are grievously wounded by the hill’s guardians. Upon returning to Ireland they die, sealing Lugh’s revenge. These last three tasks imply a diminution in the difficulty faced and a retreat into a colder world, where their adventures finally finish with the Sons of Tuirenn dying merely for standing upon a hill and shouting, maybe just an echo from towering Mount Parnassos and its mighty shrine to the gods. Of all their earlier victories over kings, it seems that the story seeks to trace an almost ignominious end for the warriors…

The story resonates with themes from the late Celtic iron age, tracing the descent of this golden age from the glory and immortality of the attacks on Delphi, the apparent ill-luck and kin-strife of its aftermath leading through the ill-advised mercenary alliances of the Punic Wars and finally to the destruction of independent Celtic power by the conquests of Spain, Gaul, and Britain by the Romans. These events marked the final retreat of independent Celtic power in to the far northern and northwestern climes of Europe. The story of Brennus and that of the Sons of Tuirenn are (like that of Alexander the Great) a warning against vainglory, and the corruption of men by power and money. They are an evocation of the ancient pagan European concept that no manner of power and glory will make you immune from the implacable wrath of the gods when ill-treated.

The role of Lugh in the story:

Lugh Lamhfada appears to be invested in the tale with the attributes and authority of a god, namely Manannan Mac Lir – Lord of the Otherworld. This is expressed by the simple motif of Lugh bearing the arms, armour, steed and legendary boat of the god, and through which he projects his power as chief hero, knight and leader of the cavalry of the Tuatha De Danann. As a youthful representative of Manannan’s otherworld power, Lugh seems here in many ways to embody the power of Apollo, whose shrine was desecrated in 279BC. This role was fulfilled by Thunor/Thor in Germanic paganism, and the name Tuirenn now appears to resonate a little with these, as well as the Gaulish god Taranis. How these might be linguistically linked to a word for thunder (Torran), for a disembodied soul (Taran), or the indo-european rootword from which we get ‘tyrant’ is open to conjecture…

An Early Modern Irish historical interpretation of the story:

The manuscripts of this story date at their earliest to the 16th/17thC, a period when Ireland had been subjected to invasion and settlement by the protestant Tudor and Stuart monarchies of England and Scotland, who were determined to destroy independent Gaelic power and culture, which remained conservatively Roman Catholic in its outlook. In their bids to withstand the invasion, Irish Earls were send out emmisaries across Europe in order to muster support for what would ultimately – like in the story – prove to be a doomed cause. The result was what is known as the ‘Flight of The Earls’. Although probably based on much older traditions, the themes  certainly had a contemporary resonance when they were written down in the form we have them today.

Irish literature and storytelling has always retained a mythical ability to address contemporary issues, a feature which is as much a testament to the subtlety of its timeless themes as to the frequent need of Irish people to express their ideas in a form disguised from the depredations of censorship and misunderstanding by church or state.

Who were the Belgae?

The Belgae (originators of the name of the modern country of Belgium) were a fascinating and influential ethnic-cultural group of tribes with a dominant political and ideological presence among northern Europe’s ‘Celtic’ peoples before and after Romanisation, in the period spanning the 2ndC BCE to the 4thC CE. Their territories at the time of Julius Caesar’s Gallic conquest extended in an area covering roughly the lands between the Seine and the mouth of the Rhine – parts of modern day France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. In Book 5, Chapter 12 of his Comentarii de Bello Gallico, Caesar states that the southeastern British tribes were ruled by descendants of the Belgae, explaining the fact that Belgic tribal names were found in Britain, for instance the Atrebates, and even the Menapii who were recorded in Ireland by 2ndC CE by Greco-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy as the Manapi and from whom Co. Fermanagh is possibly named, possibly even also the Isle of Man (once known as Menapia/Monavia):

The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands. The number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous, for the most part very like those of the Gauls: the number of cattle is great. They use either brass or iron rings, determined at a certain weight, as their money. (trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn.)

Caesar states that the Belgae, in particular the western branch known as Bellovaci, were of a particularly fearsome and unsympathetic nature in regard to the Romans. Indeed, their resistance played an important part in the final stages of his conquest of northern Gaul, when they formed an alliance with both the British and Armorican tribes, whose cross-channel neighbours were again ‘Belgae’, according to Ptolemy. Influential 20thC Irish scholar T.F. O’Rahilly even suggested that the Fir Bolg mentioned in the Lebor Gabála Érenn might be a branch of this widely-spread Iron Age ‘tribal group’ supplanted by Goidelic peoples from Spain in the 1stC BCE. It appears that the ‘Belgae’ were an influential bunch!

In assessing the origins of tribes calling themselves ‘Belgae’, however, there is an important cultural movement among Iron Age Europeans that needs to be examined. This hinges on the events in the immediate aftermath of the death of Alexander The Great, perhaps also triggered by displacements caused by tribal movements from northern Europe. The culmination of this was the (infamous if you were Greek) events of 279BCE, which saw an invasion by a federation of massed Gaulish war-bands through the Balkans and the homelands of the Macedonian-Greek Empire of Alexander, penetrating right down into the Greek and Anatolian heartlands. This movement appears to have had a fundamental impact upon the warrior-culture of western Europe’s Celtic elites who absorbed the iconography of deified Alexander as Apollo, Mars/Ares and Ammon/Zeus/Jupiter and spread it back into NW Europe, famously represented in their magnificent coinage. The leaders and heroes of this famous invasion included the theophorically named Bolgios, who – as far as we know – survived the campaign and would have had sufficient prestige to then rule as a tribal dynast. The Gaulish tribe known as the Volcae-Tectosages were one of several whose creation appears to have resulted from this pan-Gallic enterprise, and who returned to the Gaulish homelands in the west, so it is possible that the Belgae might have been another cultural group or part of a Pan-Gallic movement who participated in this great warrior event. The names Volcae and Belgae/Bolgae in fact appear to be synonyms or variants of the same tribal designation, incorporating the name of the Pan-European god Belenos or Volos/Veles/Velnias who appears to have shared the same solar-martial aspects as the deified (at least by the Celts) Macedonian Warrior-King who conquered most of the known world… The Romans and Greeks would hereafter comment upon a fanatical, boastful and decapitation-obsessed faction when talking about Celtic barbarians – something akin to the modern Sunni Muslim ISIS/ISIL and Al-Qaeda movements.

From Galatia to Galway: The NW thrust of 'Belgic' culture after 279.

From Galatia to Galway: The NW thrust of ‘Belgic’ culture after 279.

By Caesar’s time (1stC BCE), he was able to identify separate Belgae and Volcae, the latter being placed in the Hercynian forest, as well as Gallia Narbonensis (the Volcae Tectosages and Volcae Arecomici):

“… And there was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine. Accordingly, the Volcae Tectosages, seized on those parts of Germany which are the most fruitful around the Hercynian forest, (which, I perceive, was known by report to Eratosthenes and some other Greeks, and which they call Orcynia), and settled there. Which nation to this time retains its position in those settlements, and has a very high character for justice and military merit; now also they continue in the same scarcity, indigence, hardihood, as the Germans, and use the same food and dress.. ” Comentarii de Bellum Gallicum, Book 6.

The Hercynian forest described by Caesar stretched from the lands of the Helvetii, eastward along the Danube into Dacia and Pannonia – modern Romania. This was a kind of Roman mental ‘event horizon’ which they failed to gather the will to cross after a history of disastrous military campaigns, resulting in the development of something of a ‘pseudo-ethnicity’ of ‘Germanii’ to describe the peoples living beyond it, even though contemporary sources such as Posidonius considered tribes such as the Boii (whose homelands included parts of Germania as far as the Baltic) to be ‘Celts’ – a belief supported by archaeological evidence. I might also add my own observations on the aspects of the Celtic solar war-god, Belenos, found in later Germanic, Slavic and Baltic cultures…

In short, my theory is this: The ‘Belgae’ were a manifestation of a cultural-religious movement that was an expression of the Celtic ‘war-band’ culture which sought the glory of Alexander and Delphic Apollo (who they identified with their main god, Belenos) and invaded and settled in Greece and Anatolia in the 3rdC BCE. This internationalist and warrior-centric culture transcended local ethnicity and introduced a fundamental ideological change among the Celtic/Germanic peoples of NW Europe which subsequently influenced their religious, military and philosophical outlook and had great influence upon their mercantile and numismatic culture. ‘Bel’, ‘Vel’ or ‘Belenos’ was the god most venerated in this culture who gave his name to this cultural movement which spread from Greece and the Balkans, up through the La Tene heartlands, up the Rhine and into Britain and Ireland over the next 4 centuries….

This ‘southeast-northwest cultural corridor’ of influence appears to have been the fostering ground of both religious and secular power in the post-Roman era, as the Belgic territories of the Suessiones (focussed on modern Soissons) eventually became a heartland of the Germanic Frankish kingdoms, the Christianisation of which Irish missionaries were to play such an important role in, sowing the seeds of the superb Carolingian Empire and thus medieval European Christendom…

The Belgae were possibly the main reason that Julius Caesar and the subsequent Roman Emperors invaded northern Europe. They were promoters of a religious system which was fanatical: it knew no fear, promised reincarnation and had a distinct warrior-cult which enticed men to challenge the temporal authority of Rome. This movement had (for the Romans at least) a historical root in the humiliating sack of Rome by Brennus of the Senones and his army of Cisalpine Gauls in the 4thC BCE. That this cultural movement extended well into the very much un-Romanised Germania Superior regions where the very ‘Belgic’ (and Thracian) ‘Gundestrup Cauldron’ was discovered must surely make us examine why ‘Germanic’ paganism is not considered similar to the religions of Europe’s Atlantic pagan Celts…

“You can lead a horse to water…”

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany.

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany. In the coins of this tribe, the female rider is usually armed.

…When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream…. George Waldron – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ 1731 – legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’.

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

The image of the horse is a striking symbol on Celtic coins of the late European Iron Age, all the more so when depicted ridden by a naked warrior woman, as was the case during times of war with the encroaching Roman empire – both in central-eastern and north-western Europe. The question is – what was the importance of the horse to this culture, such that it was depicted on almost all of its various tribes’ coinage? We know from the writings of the Romans that the Atlantic/western Celtic peoples’ main religious doctrines were based around the principle of reincarnation. However, after subjugating and then ‘Romanising’ them, there is little more said about their beliefs as they seemed no longer to be relevant. The Celtic religious system seemingly incorporated into the Roman pantheon but in a marginal way that gave no precedence over Rome’s greater gods: Statues and stelae of a horse-goddess ‘Epona’ seems to have been one popular expression of native religion, but the original context is not understood. The Batavians (Belgic celts) who built the 3rdC CE temple of the well-goddess ‘Coventina’ at Hadrian’s Wall in England were a cavalry unit – surely a shrine to Epona would have had greater precedence if there was an actual ‘horse goddess’? Perhaps to the Batavians, the well-goddess was the same person as the ‘horse goddess’! To understand this imagery of the divine female and the horse we need to examine how she was represented both before, and after Romanisation. Surviving images of Epona from Romanised Celtic shrines generally portray her as a gentle beneficient figure, conveying pateras of food and cornucopias. When contrasted with the coin imagery of the pre-conquest tribes however, and it immediately becomes clear that there is a clear distinction in imagery: In these, she is a fierce naked horsewoman-warrior, armed for the job of butchering Romans! Of course, once conquered, the Romans put an end to these images and the coins stopped being minted. The cult of ‘Epona’ was therefore probably a deliberate attempt to corrupt an important core tenet. She went from this:

More coins from the Redones tribe

More coins from the Redones tribe

To this…

Cuddly mother Epona - the original would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Cuddly mother Epona – the original would have brought your head on a plate, not food!

The ‘Tehi-Tegi’ legend from the Isle of Man is perhaps the most overt survival (maybe matched by some Cliodhna legends of Ireland) of the ‘death-dealing horsewoman’ that the Iron Age celts were so enamoured of, but the principle has survived in many other forms. Most notable of these are the folktales of the fairy horse who kills people that try and ride it by jumping into water. Be it the Neck, Nykyr, Nixies or Rhinemaidens of the German and Scandinavian legends or the Kelpie of the Scots myths: all are related the same belief – a woman who conducts the dead to a realm under water. When we examine the fairy lays of the middle ages (Lai de Graelent, Lai de Lanval) we can see that the beautiful ‘fairy woman’ ends up conducting the tragic hero to a deathless realm through water. No wonder so many early Christian saints such as Kentigern spent their days mortifying themselves in water! The Germanic words used for the water-horse-spirit generally revolve around the word-root ‘nik-‘ – from a presumed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) neigw which means ‘wash’ – from which the Irish have nigh and in folklore the fairy washerwoman, the Bean nighe. The most famous portrayal of a Bean nighe in medieval Irish literature is that of the Morrigan washing bloody armour at a ford in the death tale of Cuchullain – part of the Ulster cycle. The Scots word ‘Kelpie’ is an allusion to what is also known in the gaelic world as ‘wrack’ (seaweed) which is also the Brythonic word for ‘hag’ – Gwrach or Groac’h. Martin Martin recovered a tale of Hebridean islanders in the 17thC sacrificing to a sea-god called ‘Shony’ (‘Old One’) in order to receive wrack from the sea to spread on their crops as manure. So there you have it – the military horsewoman on the Celtic coins is the Slachdan-weilding Cailleach – the Morrigan herself: The water woman of the fairy realm – otherwise known as the realm of the dead. The question now remaining to be answered is how does the horse fit in with the general reincarnation/otherworld myth? You might recall from my last post that I remarked upon the profusion of apparently astronomical imagery that accompanied the horse depicted on Celtic coins from before the Roman subjugation. Apart from the sun and the moon and obvious star-shaped figures, there are frequently dot-and-line figures with an uncanny similarity to what astronomers refer to as ‘asterisms’. The horse itself is also very stylised in its appearance, and the logical place to start in understanding the importance of the horse is to turn our eyes to the sky: The most well-known equine asterism is the great constellation of Pegasus which sits next to the Milky Way. We immediately have here an interesting combination: The Milky Way arches across the sky like a great shining white river – nowadays difficult to see clearly due to light pollution, and the great leaping horse in conjunction with this is a remarkable metaphor of the Kelpie, Nixie and Tehi-Tegi legends. However, in terms of Greek mythology, Pegasus represents the horse as a benign force, but with a very aquatic pedigree – his father is Poseidon, his mother Medusa, he is a friend of the Muses and created a magical well for them with his hooves. He is also a conveyor of heroes into the spirit realm. Already sounding like many Celtic myths, isn’t it? The Muses of course represented the ‘fairy-woman’ function of inspiring poets, keeping memory and promoting knowledge to humanity… The other less-benign and more overtly aquatic asterism that sits close to Pegasus on the other (‘southern’) side of the ecliptic path is that of Cetus variably described as a sea monster or whale. In Greek mythology Cetus/Ketos was sent by Poseidon to devour the sacrificially-chained Andromeda, and was killed by the Pegasus-riding hero Perseus who showed it the head of Medusa. Ketos in fact means any large aquatic beast, in the same way that the  old Germanic languages used variants of ‘neck’ to mean the same: nicor was the Old English term used for a water beast or a hippopotamus*, and the Old High German word nihhus was used for ‘crocodile’. As a ‘*water horse’ is what we are interested in, the constellation of Cetus seems like it is worth considering further: The constellation Cetus lies in such close proximity to the ecliptic path (the road travelled by the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky, marked by the 12 zodiacal constellations) that it seems that it should be considered a 13th ‘intercalary’ member of the zodiac. Its proximity to the asterism of Pisces is intimate enough that they can be considered in the same ‘house’. Cetus is in close proximity to the other ‘watery’ constellations: Aquarius and Capricorn (the fish-goat), the ‘river’ Eridanus and the dolphin Delphinus.

Cetus in relation to Pisces - picture borrowed from blackholes.stardate.org

Cetus in relation to Pisces – picture borrowed from blackholes.stardate.org

Now we know that the celtic high-priests were reputed to be philosophers and diviners of the heavens, so we might conjecture that celtic coins portrayed astronomical imagery. Having been puzzled by the potential relationship between the horse depicted on those famously beautiful Iron Age coins and that of Pegasus, I initially overlooked one of the motifs that accompanied it – that of the ‘tented net’ depicted on the Celtic Parisii coins. Looking eastward of Pegasus we come immediately to Pisces and Cetus – and the symbolism of the coins is made immediately clear – the horse is not a depiction of Pegasus – it is in fact Cetus, the ‘water horse’, with the net being Pisces! If this interpretation is correct, then a lost celtic star-myth has been recovered, together suggesting some potential original celtic names for their asterisms: ‘the water horse’ and ‘the net’!

Compare the stylised horse's body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

Compare the stylised horse’s body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

So… is there anything special about Cetus? As it turns out , there is – a star on the beast’s ‘neck’ known to us today as Mira Ceti: ‘Mira’ as in ‘mirabilis’ on account of this star’s seemingly miraculous appearance and disappearance from the constellation! It is actually a binary star whose conjunctions and occlusions are responsible for this effect, causing it to reach a maximum brightness every 332 days (approximately 11 months) when it is definitely visible (unless the sun is transitting near it if it falls in early springtime) and invisible to the naked-eye astronomer during its minima. Although there are no definite references to this phenomena in ancient Babylonian or Greek texts, an excavation of a 3rdC BCE Boii temple complex at Libenece in the Czech Republic contains sighting post allignments which possibly correspond to a viewing of Cetus, and (concludes the author of this astronomy paper), Mira Ceti in particular. The other star which famously exhibits this quality of variable intensity is ‘nearby’ in the constellation Perseus – Algol, the gorgon’s eye – whose period of dimming is much more regular – every 2.867 days, to be precise. The coming and going of a star might have been a metaphor for the coming and going of the year – of the sun. The cycles of ‘coming and going’ appear to have been a fundamental theme for the religious viewpoint of metempsychosis, and hence a great deal of attention would have been paid to the natural phenomena in which this was shown: These were – the cycles of the sun, the moon, the seasons and the tides. The principle that the heavens represented the world of spirits pervaded the ancient mindset, and the use of mythology to explain the heavens and their phenomena was a key part of this understanding. The image of the horse and the chariot convey mythological implications of the mysteries of the sun – the Greek legend of Phaethon, son of Helios/Apollo, who took his dad’s sports chariot for a spin with disastrous consequences attests to this. Most of ancient mythology was quite possibly designed to explain the cycles of nature in relation to the cycle of events witnessed in both the sky and on Earth and in the oceans – something which became lost in the Christian age…

Caesar on Celtic Religion

Julius Caesar’s memoir Commentarii De Bello Gallico (‘Commentary On the Gallic War’) was an account of the Roman army’s subjugation of Gaul in 51BCE and which he himself led.

The work is famous for its descriptions of the enigmatic priestly caste of the Gauls: the Druids. These were leaders of the ancient religious system then common to Gaul, Britannia and Hibernia/Scotia (Ireland). He says very little about the religion itself, being more interested in expressing the Druids’ political and social importance, but he does give a few tantalising details… (Translations by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)

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 valour, the fear of death being disregarded.

… and about their gods he has this to say:

All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids.

As well as naming ‘Dis’, Caesar used the convention of giving Roman names for the rest of the gods of the Gauls and describes ‘Mercury’ as their chief deity, as well as Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. As war is perhaps the least satisfactory arena in which to study cultural anthropology, his is probably a very rough and unreliable overview of the reality of Gaulish religion. After all, this was an era where even the Romans were confused about their own gods and religion: To contemporary intellectuals (such as followers of the 4thC BCE Hellenic philosopher Plato) gods were scientific expressions of universal phenomena, not to be taken literally. To the masses, they were a literal truth – an unseen power made visible and understood through images and ceremonies. Religion was diversifying at an alarming and unsustainable rate. His appraisal of the Gauls and the contradistinction he makes with the German tribes in chapter 21 (where he claims that they had no druids and worshipped only what they saw – the sun, fire and the moon) have underpinned the study of European paganism ever since, but it is likely that the Gauls, Britons, Irish and Germans probably shared very similar beliefs, which the mediterranean mind found it difficult to conceptualise.

The thing is… there is very little evidence of the exact nature of Pre-Roman/Pre-Hellenic religion among Iron Age ‘Celtic’ or German tribes. What exists is – like Caesar’s account – seen from a very jaded Roman or Greek viewpoint. There is ample evidence of Romanised ‘Celtic’ deities from the next 5 centuries after Caesar, and even before he took Gaul its southern part was under the cultural influence of the Hellenes (and was probably itself influential upon the Greek world). Familiar attested names of ‘gods’ such as ‘Toutatis’, ‘Taranis’, ‘Belenos’, ‘Cernunnos’ and so forth remain as popular totems that have scant evidence linking them to a systematic beliefs, and perhaps the biggest problem is that folklore from the more modern celtic world that preserves obvious and fundamental pre-chistian beliefs does not offer much support for a Roman-style pantheon of gods. The reasons for this need to be and will be investigated in my writing.

The most important key belief that Caesar mentions is that the soul flies free of the body after death and returns to another corporeal existence in time. Such a belief is the core of an ancestor-based religion. Also the Gaulish god Caesar calls ‘Dis’ (to the Romans a psychopomp or conductor of souls, and guardian of the earth’s fertility and mystery) was believed to be the racial forefather, thus making him/it the key archetype god for this soul-belief. When he omits mentioning ‘Dis’ in his assessment of Gaul’s most important totem gods in the previous chapter, he is probably seeking to discourse on something the Romans knew more about. Roman ‘Mercury’ (Hermes to the Greeks) was also a psychopomp (conductor of souls) and Caesar may well have been using the names ‘Mercury’ and ‘Dis’ (as well as ‘Mars’, ‘Apollo’ and ‘Jupiter’) to refer to the same important progenitor divinity, and I will present evidence for this in due course. His intention with the interpretatio romanum was also possibly an attempt to orientate his Roman readers to similarities between them and the Gauls, especially as many would own Gaulish slaves as a result of his campaign. The core domestic (and plebian) religion of Rome was, after all, based upon ancestor-spirit worship (of ‘Lares’ and ‘Genii’ as well as ‘Lemures’, ‘Larvae’ and ‘Manes’) and veneration of the ‘eternal gods’ (Jupiter etc) was generally seen as a more high-minded and public affair, albeit open to fads and trends, and imperial decree. The Roman beliefs in disincarnate souls therefore showed a distinct commonality with their ‘Celtic’ neighbours, and is in evidence among Rome’s Etruscan forerunners.

In christian times, it seems that stubbornly tenuous pagan ideas about discarnate ‘souls’ were to become identified with ‘fairies’ – spirits who inhabited an inverted parallel world to our own, their daytime being our night, and vice versa… Fairy belief was to become a cultural shibboleth of Atlantic Celtic peoples.