The Dionysian Mirror – Concepts of the Pagan Otherworld

Dionysus was the ancient Greek divine hypostasis of eternal returning life. Like the other Greek gods and goddesses he represented a divine aspect of the originating (Arche, ἀρχή) divinity, Zeus, manifesting through the earth and nature as a tendrilled, seeking, pushing, growing, enlivening spirit responsible for the bringing forth of the divine logos into nature and humanity. His was perhaps the most important of the pan-Hellenic religious cults whose great age and far reach hints at origins in Europe and the Near East beyond the mythological horizon of the Bronze Age. His worship was part of an initiatory mystery cult which looked not to the stars and the skies for its mysteries, but into the earth. In turn, these chthonic mysteries provided the mythology by which the heavens and their constellations were to become decorated – as if reflected in an enormous transformative mirror:

“…Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
& thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended… ”

(The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus trans. Isaac Newton, 17thC)

Although the passage above cannot be textually dated earlier than the 7th CE, it deals with motifs common to mystery religions much older than Hermeticism and the philosophical Alchemy of the Arab word…

The Dionysian Mirror:

The mirror held a special place in the mythology of Dionysus, who was a god of death and rebirth. Dionysus was therefore known as the ‘twice-born’ god whose first incarnation (Dionysus-Zagreus) was destroyed and who was subsequently returned to life in an act which granted him divine redeeming powers, albeit with a ministry confined largely to the ‘sublunary’ realms. In the myth as recounted at a late period by Nonnus in his 4th/5thC CE Dionysiaca, the god was born to Persephone and fathered by Zeus in the form of a dragon. At far-seeing Hera’s bequest, he was enraptured by the Titans with a mirror in which he saw his reflected countenance: so distracted, they rended his body and scattered the parts. The great epic poet of late antiquity, Nonnus of Persepolis, related the myth as follows:

“… Ah, maiden Persephoneia! You could not find how to escape your mating! No, a drakon was your mate, when Zeus changed his face and came, rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden’s chamber, and shaking his hairy chaps he lulled to sleep as he crept the eyes of those creatures of his own shape who guarded the door. He licked the girl’s form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly drakon, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit, and she bore Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers.

By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titanes cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos. He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides [Zeus] shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.

After the first Dionysos had been slaughtered, Father Zeus learnt the trick of the mirror with its reflected image. He attacked the mother of the Titanes [Gaia the Earth] with avenging brand, and shut up the murderers of horned Dionysos within the gate of Tartaros: the trees blazed, the hair of suffering Gaia was scorched with heat. He kindled the East: the dawnlands of Baktria blazed under blazing bolts, the Assyrian waves set afire the neighbouring Kaspion Sea and the Indian mountains, the Red Sea rolled billows of flame and warmed Arabian Nereus. The opposite West also fiery Zeus blasted with the thunderbolt in love for his child; and under the foot of Zephyros (the West Wind) the western brine half-burn spat out a shining stream; the Northern ridges–even the surface of the frozen Northern Sea bubbled and burned: under the clime of snowy Aigokeros the Southern corner boiled with hotter sparks. Now Okeanos poured rivers of tears from his watery eyes, a libation of suppliant prayer. Then Zeus clamed his wrath at the sight of the scorched earth; he pitied her, and wished to wash with water the ashes of ruin and the fiery wounds of the land. Then Rainy Zeus covered the whole sky with clouds and flooded all the earth…” (Dionysiaca, Book 6, Trans. W.H.D. Rouse)

Reading from Nonnus’ exegesis of Dionysian cult secrets, Zeus intended the ‘Orphic’ Younger Dionysus (‘Zagreus’) to be his successor and heir in Olympos (the high ethereal realm) but his destruction condemned him to the infernal realms, albeit with leaping ambition for the heights of the ethereal gods. Zeus burns the earth and sends a flood in his rage against the Titans – this myth is evidently part of the ‘Titanomachy’ sequence, which culminated in the overthrow of the Titans and monsters, and the incarceration of these within the Chthonic Abyss…

Nonnus appears to imply that Zeus actually used the mirror to cause  the burning of Gaia, just as with the preceding sequence of the ‘image’ of Dionysus-Zagreus undergoing transfiguration at the moment of his demise, becoming at once Zeus, Kronos, a baby, a youth, a lion, a wild stallion, a serpent, a tiger and finally a sacrificial bull. It is somewhat akin to the breaking up of the mirror’s image, and the fluidity of this suggests that the mirror might even have been (perhaps unsurprisingly) of a watery or liquid nature in the Dionysian mysteries. The young god’s act of looking into the mirror is a first taste of death, in which its transformative potential is revealed as his image and body break apart and are dispersed. This has been interpreted as a process of undoing of the self experienced by initiates of the Dionysian mysteries. In Nonnus’ telling of the myth, Zeus burns and then floods the world in revenge for this act, setting the scene for renewal under a new refreshed order after the Titanomachy. Dionysus is reassembled and cared for on high mountain tops by the Nymphs. This myth resonates strongly with the Zoroastrian creation myth of the Bundahisihn in which all natural life emerges from the body of an ancient bull killed by beings of chaos.

Fresco from the 'Villa of Mysteries' at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in 'Dionysiaca'.

Fresco from the ‘Villa of Mysteries’ at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in ‘Dionysiaca’.

Evidently, Nonnus’ account of the use of the mirror is based on an ancient myth as Clement of Alexandria (Exhortation to the Greeks – 2nd CE) commented on the use of the mirror in Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult, and it appears that the ‘Dionysian mirror’ was an important allegorical part of the cult. The appearance of numerous elaborately-decorated mirrors depicting mythological scenes in the graves of Etruscan nobles from the 6th-1stC BCE offers a fascinating yet poorly understood link to the mysterious role of the mirror in relation to the afterlife and its mysteries. Likewise, the shiny ‘Orphic’ gold tablets accompanying the dead in Romano-Greek tombs of the same period may hold a similar significance.

Dionysus, Semele and Apollo depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

Dionysus (with Thyrsus), Semele and Apollo (with Laurel branch) depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

A 4thC BCE 'Orphic' gold tablet. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription....

A 4thC BCE ‘Orphic’ gold tablet, typically buried with a dead initiate of the Dionysian mysteries. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription….

Although the mirror as an object is infrequently depicted in relation to Dionysian imagery in ancient Greek and Greco-Roman imagery, one must remember that almost every such image depicts a dish or vessel containing the ‘blood’ of the god – wine. The reflectivity of this dark liquid cannot be understated, and it would seem quite probable that this was in fact the true ‘mirror’ of the Dionysian mysteries.

The wide shallow drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the Dionysian mysteries: a maenad and a satyr.

The wide shallow Greek drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the mysteries: a Maenad and the Satyr. The Maenads represented the destructive or conflict-inducing higher human nature (after jealous Hera), and the Satyrs the chaotic-intrusive wild cthonic/animalistic nature (after the Titans, represented by Kronus/Saturn)…

Mirrors and the Otherworld:

Mirrors offer an apparently inverted reflection of the light reflecting on them. The most basic mirror for humankind is experienced in the smooth surface of water or liquids, which was mimicked in the polishing of stones and metals to create functional mirrors. From the most ancient times until the present, mirror-surfaces have been used in the mantic/divinatory arts for ‘seeing’ beyond the mundane. The imperfections in the reflection offer re-interpretations of the source image, so divinatory mirrors are often imperfect reflective surfaces: bowls of water, tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, blood from a sacrificial animal etc being good examples.

There are a number of ancient superstitions about the dead and mirrors or reflections. The reversal of mirrors in the presence of the dead is one of these, linked to old European superstitions about the (un)dead having no reflection or shadow. Robert Kirk’s description of the beliefs about the dead and seers of spirits in 17thC Scottish Highlands (recorded in  ‘Secret Commonwealth‘) says that the dead/departed spirits occupied a world which was an inversion or reflection of our own. This belief about the Otherworld appears on cursory inspection to have no connection to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans who are usually supposed to have believed that their dead to occupied the misty dank and dark recesses under the earth, or – if lucky – some far off fields beyond a river. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated, and bound up in the pagan religious mysteries…

Death and the Chthonic realm:

“… For were it not Dionysus to whom they institute a procession and sing songs in honor of the pudenda, it would be the most shameful action. But Dionysus, in whose honor they rave in bacchic frenzy, and Hades are the same…” (Fragment of Heraclitus (5th BC), quoted by Clement of Alexandria 2nd CE)

The mythology and philosophy of the ancient world depicted the earth both as the source of life and decay, and the representation of elemental solidity – an antithesis of the most ethereal elements of fire and light. As the dead rotted away into the earth, leaving their stony bones as evidence, it is logical that it became associated with death, coldness and decay and thus a logical abode of the dead. Liquids poured upon the earth flowed and trickled downwards into its cavities, hence libations were the form of sacrifice appropriate to the chthonic deities and spirits. Death, entropy, chaos and disease were seen as originating or having their allotted place within the chthonic realm in Greco-Roman mythology. Indeed, the theogonies of 1st BCE Greek religion claimed that the Titans and monsters were consigned to Tartaros (in the traditions referred to as Titanomachy and Gigantomachy), which was said to be a void or boundless deep cavity below even the earth itself. As the forces of divine order occupied the heavenly position, so the forces of chaos and divine disorder occupied a similar state in a reflected state of opposition to that conceived of as ‘above’. Both states were seen as essential to create the balance of our ‘middle’ earth (i.e. – the ‘elemental’ or ‘sub-lunary’ world). In the light of this interpretation, it is better to think of the Greco-Roman conception of the dead occupying the ‘lower’ world for the initial part of their journey. The shady world of Hades can be thought of as merely an official ‘cover story’ for a more complicated belief system which involved the eternal soul’s travel to and from the extremities of the chaotic and the divine. Crossing into the chthonic/underground realm was a point of reflective transformation: where life became death, and ideas were reversed – as if in a ‘mirror’ state. The final ‘mirror’ of this state was the waters which sat in the earth’s deepest recesses into which they flowed, and from which they mysteriously returned…

Of course, we come across this mythologically in the subterranean pools, lakes and rivers which the heroes and gods who visit and return from Hades invariably encounter. These liminal waters also occur in the legends of heroes who visit far-off islands and encounter the monstrous, Tartarean creatures sired by the Titans: Medusa, the Graeae, the snake of the Garden of the Hesperides etc. This theme is common to the myths of the Celtic and German worlds of northern Europe and was in evidence at the time the Roman world encroached on these from the 4th BCE onwards….

Rebirth of Dionysus:

Some of the ‘Orphic’ myths of Dionysus have him re-assembled by Rhea after his dismemberment, after which he is fostered by the mountain nymphs – probably during the great flood sent by Zeus to cleanse the world after he took revenge upon the Titans. It is thus also very similar to the aquatic myth of Osiris and Isis from Egypt. Dionysus, like the waters and their mountain springs, streams and rivers, represented the root and branch of returning life. Like the mystery of the returning waters, he embodied the mysteries of returning nature…

The ‘underworld’ as an inversion of the ‘overworld’:

The pit of chaos or Tartaros, lying beyond the deeps of the earth and sea was the ancient Greek idea of ‘antimatter’, in opposition to the celestial light and order of the heavens. Of the sublunary world, the elements of water and earth partook of a greater part of the nature of this chaos, including the Titans, giants and monstrous beings. Likewise, air and fire partook of the more luminous properties of the higher nature of things in the heavens, including the gods. The ‘interface’ between these two aspects of perceived reality was a very liminal place in which ideas became inverted, and opposites found unity. The ‘underworld’ of Greco-Roman mythology should not be seen as a lower realm from which souls struggle up incrementally in order to return to the light, but as an exact mirror and equally valid version of the ‘celestial’ world. In other words: Zeus is Hades inverted, Poseidon is the synthesis of both. Dionysus was therefore, like Hermes and Apollon, a Daimon who unified these god-themes and manifested them in the mundane world.

Europe’s midwinter ‘wild man’ traditions

The Christmas period in Europe is marked by some fairly bizarre and decidedly un-Christian traditions, although given that this has been a festive period long before christianity hit the scene these are perhaps unsurprising. Although sometimes savage and alien, they give an insight into the world of spiritual empiricism which formed ancient indigenous cultural and religious philosophies and practices. The fact that many of these traditions enjoy a plasticity and interchangeability of date and can run anywhere from Hallowe’en (31st October) through to Epiphany (6th January) demonstrates perhaps that they are first and foremost midwinter festivals, with roots seated deeply in the ancient pagan world and its beliefs about ancestors, cyclicity and divine manifestation.

The traditions generally involve people dressing up in wild, frightening or outlandish costumes and performing processions and plays in honour of the festive season and of mythologies connected with it. Here are a few examples:

Swarte Piet and Sinterklaas:

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas...

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas…

The ‘Christian Santa’ is based upon St Nicholas of Myra – an early Christian saint from what is now modern Turkey. His festival is attached to the 6th December on the Gregorian calendar, yet by the Julian calendar it lies on the winter solstice. That he became a popular saint all over Europe is indicative of the ability of his traditions to supplant pagan ones, and in the Low Countries he became known as ‘Sintiklaas’, from which we get the name ‘Santa Claus’, and he had an elfen helper – Swarte Piet or Black Peter, who became a character accompanying St Nicholas in the religious festival processions typifying the festival in the Netherlands. The character is immediately identifiable as he has his face blackened. Those following my blog or knowledgeable in ancient Greek history and mythology will recall that the male satyroi celebrants of the midwinter Dionysia in Greece during the 1st millennium BC would blacken their faces with wine lees at the procession of the god’s epiphany, and this appears to be a continuation of such a practice. Like the Dionysian satyrs the purpose is entertainment and the bestowal of gifts. Piet and his boss generally arrive in their processions from a far off land, by boat – another link to Saturn and Poseidon, as well as to Dionysus.

Political extremists have recently made attempts to have Piet banned, claiming that he is an ethnic parody and denigrating the importance of the ancient tradition. The medieval conception of the man with a blackened face as a ‘blackamoor’ or ‘saracen’ always associates him with luck, and no negative ethnic connotations – a phenomenon recognised from across Europe where similar traditions occur. Perhaps the older origins of the face-blackening (the Dionysia of the ancient Greco-Roman world) have been overlooked, but in the very least the character is a positive celebration rather than having any negative connotations. The same might be said of our next winter character-performance:

Krampus:

December 5th (St Nick’s eve) and the first two weeks in December are associated with St Nicholas in Bavaria and Austria, and as in the Netherlands  the saint is accompanied in his processions by an outlandish sidekick, who is either his ‘helper’ or antithesis: Krampus.

A 'Krampus' character - devilish indeed! Half man, half beast - like the Greek satyrs

A ‘Krampus’ character – devilish indeed! Half man, half beast – like the Greek satyrs

Krampus or Perchtemn?

Krampus or Perchten?

Tradition holds that Krampus comes to punish the wicked (naughty children, in particular) and St Nicholas brings gifts for the good. It is a spectacle where children and the public in general get fun from a ‘scare’ from Krampus who brandishes chains, whips and bells and lears through his demonic and entirely terrifying mask. His northern German equivalent is Knecht Ruprecht – who plays a similar role but is of a much less terrifying persona, more human than beast, yet still with hints of ‘Robin Goodfellow’ in both name and deed. Krampus seems almost identical to the related:

Perchten:

Perchtenlauf processions are held just after Christmas in the period up to and including Epiphany (6th January or ‘Twelfth Night’). They occur in Southern Germany, Austria and Slovenia (where Mother Perchta is known as Pehta Baba). Like the Krampus traditions of early December, they involve the dressing up as masked characters, generally divided by their appearance and behaviour into the Schönperchten (“beautiful Perchten”) who wear mild-faced masks topped with floral or decorative crowns, and the (arguably much more popular)Schiachperchten (“ugly Perchten”) who correspond in appearance and behaviour to Krampus and delight in causing a good ‘scare’.

The mask of a Percht - typically worn at epiphany festivities.

The mask of a Percht – typically worn at epiphany festivities.

Badalisk and Bosinada:

Hailing from the Val Camonica region of the Italian Alps is an ‘Epiphany’ tradition corresponding to those of the Perchten further north and east. It involves a person dressing up as a wild creature called the ‘Badalisc’ or ‘Badlisk’ (i.e. – Basilisk) who is ceremonially ‘captured’ out in the countryside by a band of masked characters who parade it in the village of Andrista where it is ‘made’ to recount a rhyme containing humorous gossip and predictions for the coming year etc in return for its ‘release’ back into the wild. The event is marked by popular celebration and feasting and is an annual crowd-pleaser. It may be a remnant part of a wider regional (e.g. – Milanese) tradition of public performance or publication of satirical or excoriating rhyming poetry known as Bosinada, which offered a kind of pre-Epiphany ‘purgation’ of community woes – what might be called a ‘roast’ by contemporary American comics. Upon examination, it becomes apparent that such midwinter satire traditions appear in the ancient cultures all over Europe, and ultimately relate to the Rural Dionysia of ancient Greek culture!

The 'Badalisc' of Andrista, Val Cammonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Badalisc’ of Andrista, Val Camonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Basilisk’ of Greek legend was, by its name, the ‘King of Snakes’ and represented the figurative primal serpent often encountered in ancient European mythology. The Camonica valley was a Celtic region up until it Latinised in the 1stC CE with Rome’s northward expansion.

Wren Hunts:

The tradition of capturing a wren at midwinter and parading it tied to a pole is peculiar to Atlantic Europe and has been recorded in Spain, France (at Carcassone – former stronghold of Catharism) and (in particular) in Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man. The reason for this distribution is unclear, although it seemingly corresponds to historic sea-routes by which ancient cultural traits have been proven by archaeologists to have spread in this region.

'Wren Boys' procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

‘Wren Boys’ procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

The Irish ‘Wrenboys’ who lead the procession of the bird wear outlandish straw suits and masks, primitively evocative of the shaggy Perchten of Austria, although not quite so fearsome. In the Isle of Man, such costumes were not recorded, although outlandish garb of some sort was known – boys would wear black coats in the early 20th century.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the DIonysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the Dionysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

 

 

 

The winter Dionysia

The ancient Attic Greek festival known latterly as the ‘rural’ or ‘lesser’ Dionysia was celebrated – like Saturnalia and Christmas – just after the winter solstice in the second half of the Greek month of Poseidoneia which spanned December and January. The so-called ‘greater’ Dionysia festival, the Anthesteria, was a secondary development of the Greek city polities such as Athens and occurred a month or so later at the end of winter when the weather was finer. As befits its metropolitan status, it was a grander version of the rustic winter festival involving great public events, theatre, music and competitions as well as private celebrations of the Dionysian ‘mysteries’. None the less, it was otherwise effectively the same festival, its date transposed to enjoy better weather.

The ‘Rural Dionysia’ seems to have had many parallels with the Roman festival of Saturnalia which coincided with the roughly the same period, and which in the Christian era evolved into the ‘twelve days of Christmas’, culminating in the Feast of Epiphany – itself a festival almost certainly based upon the Dionysia, whose climax was the epiphany of the God Dionysus among the people. This brings us to an interesting confluence of deities: Poseidon (whose month it is), Saturn (Kronos, whose Roman name is based upon the Greek word for phallus: sâthe, as in satyr) and Dionysus.

The Dionysia – like the Saturnalia – was a time when classes came together in order to celebrate their shared origins in the natural world. Class distinctions were – to a degree – temporarily suspended and opportunities for public satire were made conducive by the wearing of masks and costumes by participants in the celebrations. It is believed that this festivity was the origin of the theatrical tradition for which Greece became so famous.

The god’s entourage at the Dionysia consisted of the male-gendered satyrs and the female maenads, although there was apparently a good deal of cross-dressing among the performers in some festivities. These accompanied the image of the god, which in its most rustic and ancient form was represented by a giant phallic pole of pine (a ‘xoanon’ image), coloured red and decorated, which was carried on a cart or on the shoulders of the phallophoroi. This made a ceremonial entry to the village or polis preceded by satyrs and maenads wearing animal skins (fawn and leopard, for example) wielding the thyrsus wand, and carrying cult objects such as jugs of wine, pithoi and krater vessels, plates of figs and a sacrificial goat.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the 'Phallophorai' enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the ‘Phallophorai’ enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The ithyphallic satyrs, sometimes darkened their faces with wine lees and engaging in ribald and ecstatic celebratory behaviour in honour of the god and the image of the phallus, which they wore a representation of apparently in the form of a codpiece with a leather erect penis attached to. Women (sometimes men) dressed as maenads or nymphs to complete the thiasos or retinue of the arriving god and took part in equally disinhibited behaviour and special ceremonies of their own. The maenads were a form of ‘bodyguard’ corps of the deity, and in mythology (and scandalous Roman reports) were sometimes portrayed as a maddened and frenzied bloodthirsty girl-mob who would rend and devour the flesh of men and animals. The ceremonial rending of the sacrificial goat, and even the eating of its raw flesh  may be behind this opinion.

Special songs (dithyrambs) were composed and sung and, naturally, wine was drunk and sacrifices offered to Dionysus, the god of sprouting vegetation and urgent returning nature. Group-experiences, comedy, humour and jollity were the order of the day and inhibitions were temporarily cast aside.

Origins of the Christmas Tree: The Pine and the Phallus:

The display of the phallus was an important symbolic aspect of the rites of the Dionysia, as well as being prominent in the equivalent Roman festival of Liberalia (held in March near to the spring equinox). Records (including the drinking vessel pictured above) speak of the giant decorated totemic phallic pole (made of the hewn erect trunk of an evergreen pine tree) which was paraded with the ‘coming’ of the god, accompanied by men dressed as satyrs with erect phalli attached to their costumes. A pole bearing the same image (carved from fig wood) was also sported by celebrants in the thiasos. The thyrsus wand depicted as carried by Dionysus as his symbolic weapon and badge of office was also brandished by the maenads and was itself also a depiction of the phallus: it was typically made of a pine cone mounted upon a staff, sometimes wreathed with ivy.

The pine tree was (like the vine and the fig) a totem plant of Dionysus. It evokes a similitude with the androgynous castrated Phrygian god Attis, who was likewise strongly associated in myth with the pine tree. Attis was consort of the great mother goddess Cybele, identified with Kronos’ wife Rhea in Greek mythology. Kronos, of course, castrated his father Ouranos. The pine is both evergreen and erect in habitus so is a fine metaphor for the phallus – its sticky sap a metaphor for semen.

It appears that Dionysus was actually a god of the ‘sap’, ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ stimulating life. Maximus of Tyre (perhaps commenting on the phallic totem pictured above) wrote in the 2ndC CE that:

“…the peasants honour Dionysos by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue…”

Plutarch  observed the contemporary belief that the god was a god of moisture – associated with life and vigour. One of the epithets of Dionysus was Dendrites – ‘of the trees’ – an indicator of his connection to branching life, and a metaphor of the familial tree of humanity. The tree was similarly a metaphor for rivers whose branching nature was morphologically similar. This links Dionysus to Poseidon who was god of waters – Okeanos (i.e. – the sea) being conceived of as a confluence of the world’s rivers.

Furthermore, the pine was a tree of the hot mountainside characterising the uplands of southern Europe, the Near and Middle East and North Africa. These wild places were a typical mythological resort of Dionysus and his retinue. The god’s birthplace was said to have been on a mountainside on the mythical Mount Nysa, nurtured by nymphs – the Hyades – whose stars form a cluster on the crown of the constellation of Taurus – the Starry Bull, representative of Asia and Europe’s wild Aurochs from which many of the world’s domestic cattle breeds are derived…

The mythical origins of mankind are often expressed in European folklore in the form of an ascent from oneness with the animal world. From the fables of Aesop (6thC BCE?) and further still into antiquity we see a tendency to illustrate the identity of humans with animals, just as in ancient Egyptian and Greek religion, the gods had a similar identity with the animal kingdom. Mythologically, the oneness occurs at the vanishing point characterised as the oldest period in a time without memory – a point firmly identifiable in ancient Greek mythology with Kronos, the Titans and Gigantes, and the ‘Golden Age’. This was an age when human heroes battled monsters in far-off realms and had no fixed era by historical reckoning, yet was typically used as a starting point in the reckoning of histories from the Classical period onwards.

This is the ancient, primal and even bestial ‘vanishing point’ which Dionysus (and humanity itself) appears to emerge from and to which the god mystically returns in his annual cycles of travel among humanity. Kronos (Saturn) and even Hades may represent his more distant self – forever marooned on the far shores of time at the limits of the great world-river Okeanos, or beyond in the shady realms of Elysium and Tartaros. These were all once believed to be linked by the earth’s waters. Indeed, this aquatic existence summons to us the identity of the third god in this apparent ancient triad: Poseidon, in whose lunar month the Greeks celebrated their oldest Dionysia.

Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hades, and together they formed a triumvirate who represented the dominion of the sea, the sky and the underworld respectively. Hades was celebrated as an important divine figure in the mystery religions, in particular the Eleusinian Mysteries – as the abductor and husband of Persephone (Kore), daughter of the goddess of the fruitful earth – Demeter. The seasonal drama of nature was said to depend on her annual passage into the underworld in the depths of winter when fruitfulness and vegetation dies back.

A curious identity exists between the gods Dionysus and Hades, hinted at by the ancient ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ – a versified account of the Eleusinian myth. This states that Persephone was abducted in the ‘fields of Nysus’, from which Dionysus appears to get his name (‘God of Nysus’). Dionysus was said in other legends to have been raised on a place called Mount Nysus by the nymphs known as the Hyades, daughters of the Titan Atlas whose stars form the crown on the ‘Starry Bull’ constellation, Taurus. Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5thC BCE) also stated that Hades and Dionysus were the same – a unification of opposites: One the god of indestructible quintessence of life and the other the lord of irresistible death, from which new life mystically arises through the fertilising processes of putrefaction. It is likely this was a key secret in the mysteries of Eleusis, and is part of a similar death<>life narrative encountered again in the story of Apollo slaying Python, and Perseus slaying Medusa. All such encounters occur in the murky Stygian regions – often characterised as lying in a misty place at the far reaches of Poseidon’s realm, characterised over all by the concept of the unifying waters – Okeanos.

The mysteries of life and death link in the cult of Dionysus, and remembered in the Roman Saturnalia: Both were eventually continued in the cult of Jesus Christ and ‘Christmas’. The traditions of dressing up as beast-men, collecting together to sing songs and enjoy the communal fantasy of theatre and dramatic entertainment, as well as the public expression of satire and comedy still mark Europe’s Christmas and Epiphany festivals. The Christmas Tree also has its origins in the Dionysia.

The days of Kronos and Saturn

The familiar traditions associated with the celebration of ‘Christmas’ or the ‘Festival of the Nativity of Jesus Christ’ throughout northern Europe are far from Christian in their origin, and many of them are a direct continuation of the festivities of the Saturnalia of ancient Roman culture, which are in turn related to the equivalent ‘Kronia’ of ancient Greek culture. Both of these were introduced to Europe’s barbarian north with the diffusion of these cultures – a process beginning in the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE and culminating with the Roman conquests. Even well into the Christian era, ancient aspects of the seasonal celebration derived from the pagan era continued to be introduced between nations – the ‘Christmas tree’ (an ancient symbol of family) being an example. The essence of the Kronia and Saturnalia was a celebration of a supposed ‘golden age’ of humanity, ruled over by the titan god Kronos, who was known to the Romans as Saturn (probably meaning ‘Fertiliser’, after the Greek word Sathe). In this age, humans were said to have been virtuous and egalitarian – a state which degenerated once Kronos/Saturn was overthrown by Zeus/Jupiter who established the ‘pantheon’ of twelve Olympians to rule over the heavens and the earth. The Attic Greek Kronia was celebrated at ancient Athens around midsummer and was a festivity shared between freemen, slaves, servants and masters in honour of Kronos and the ideals of the Golden Age, and usually involved a ceremonial aspect of (albeit limited) social role-reversal at which the masters sometimes served their servants at a feast, and servants or employees sometimes took on the identity of masters for the celebration. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was held at midwinter – from the 17th December – and after a similar fashion. With time the festivity was extended to a week or more. It was a time of freedom from work, giving of gifts, the playing of games (dice, knucklebones, board-games etc), giving to the poor and feasting and high-living – a very public celebration enjoyed across all social strata, bringing them (for a short period at least) closer together. It seems, therefore, very similar to modern festivities such as Christmas and Hannukah where similar customs still prevail. Anyone who has sat down to a family midwinter banquet wearing a Christmas paper crown and maybe spun a Hannukah dreidel or two is continuing a European tradition over 2000 years old!

The Hannukah Dreidel is an ancient European custom. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Roland Scheicher).

The Hannukah ‘Dreidel ‘is an ancient European custom. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Roland Scheicher).

Saturnalia (and Kronia) was typically a festival of reversals, the custom of masters serving their servants or slaves being a typical example of this which persisted down to the modern era. Those familiar with my discussions of the ancient ‘Otherworld’ philosophy of Atlantic European cultures (particularly the ‘Celts’) will immediately recognise this as a related theme: the Otherworld was an inversion of our own peopled by the spirits of the departed looking for reincarnation once more in our realm. Where we had plenty they had little and hungered for what we possessed. By treating these spirits with respect and gifts, we might deter their hunger for our material gains. Saturnalia was a method for ceremonially redressing the imbalance implicit in human nature and satiating the needy forces which might, through jealousy (the old ‘evil eye’ concept,) detract from well-being.

“…Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table…” Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.24.22–23 (4thC CE) – trans. by Robert Kaster, Loeb Classical Library.

In ancient Rome, the celebration coincided with the Larentalia – typically observed on December 23rd – a celebration of the Lares or familial ancestral/domestic spirits, and the elder Roman goddess Acca Larentia – the Mater Larum and supposed mother of legendary twins Romulus (Mars-Quirinus) and Remus. These were characters underpinning Rome’s famous founding myths and therefore the whole ‘dark season’ was a memorial of a distant idea of humanity’s foundation and founding sparks in the dark and distant past. The mythology of Saturn is intrinsically linked to that of the far bounds of time and space where he was supposed by the ancients to have been confined in the legendary overthrow of the Titans by the Olympians. His is the dark and misty realm at the bounds of what we now call space-time, usually depicted by the European ancients as at the furthest reaches of the encircling world-river Okeanos which bordered the heavens and Elysium, and stood above Tartarus – a perilous place full of ancient monstrous beings of legend that only the bravest mythical heroes might travel to in their sacred quests. These monsters were always portrayed as children of the offspring of Kronos/Saturn – the ‘Kronides’. The dark season was a time when the departed might be closer and should be paid respect. This darkness was – as I have discussed elsewhere in this blog – a source of refertilisation to the world, and the source for returning life to the ancient Europeans who believed expressly in reincarnation, like their cultural ancestors in Asia. The return of an ancient deposed god to engender equality and celebration among humans is an irrevocable part of these seasonal celebrations which appear to defy time itself, and the continuous shifts in human culture and religion in Europe. In itself it suggests a temporary dissatisfaction with the status quo: ‘Christmas’ remains a resolutely pagan affair.

Solar aspects of European gods: Kronos, Janus, Neptunus, Dionysus, Mars, Apollo and Manannan

In the Bronze Age Mediterranean, a profusion of small mobile island-based cultures and vigorous sea-borne trading nations coupled with the developing ‘city’ polities fostered a diversification of European pagan philosophies. In the eastern Mediterranean, these were dominated by the Greek and Phoenician cultures.

Contact with the religiously sophisticated ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations caused a continuous flow of ‘oriental’ cultural and religious ideas (including writing) into the west and the north.

These processes would inevitably lead to a fragmentation and sub-specialisation of the empirical principle of a ‘solar hypostasis god’ (and complimentary earth goddess) into multiple divinities, bearing (perhaps unsurprisingly) many different names. The persistence and re-integration of such divinities into the religious landscape of the dominant cultures of the Classical era Greeks and then the Hellenised Romans led to the demotion or promotion of these gods as part of a hierarchical ‘pantheon’, as well as a ‘familiarisation’, ‘temporalisation’ and ‘spacialisation’ of their existence in mythical traditions, based upon the apparent similarity/relation of one to the other, the age of their traditions and their location of origin. Thus the ‘Solar God’ archetype came to associated with a diverse set of gods, but most importantly: Kronos/Saturn, Poseidon/Neptunus, Dionysus/Bacchus, Mars, Apollo (worshipped by the Romans under his Greek name) and Janus (for whom there was no Greek alternative).

These identities seem to have often aggregated under a unified entity: ‘Zeus’ and ‘Jupiter’ (‘God’ and ‘Father God’) whom the mythological traditions tied up with the formal duties of ‘ruler’ of the others. He was a sky god – grandson (according to tradition) of the deified sky: Ouranus or Uranus. The mythological formality of the ‘ruler’ god, left little subtlety for expression of divine higher truths, and Zeus/Jupiter spent a mythological life doing what kings do: Lounging around, fornicating, making war, punishing miscreants and putting on spectacular displays of power and majesty. The cultic ‘mysteries’ were left to the subservient aspects of the ‘masculine’ solar divinity, who had developed many faces by the 1st millennium BC:

Kronos or Saturn:

Perhaps the most succinct appraisal of this god (borrowing from lost works of Nigidius) comes to us from the brilliant early 5thC CE pagan Greco-Roman author Macrobius Theodosius (‘Macrobius’), and his great work titled Saturnalia – one of the most significant late-classical treatises dealing with pagan mythology. It was written during a period when christianity was being actively incorporated over the shell of the receding pagan world of Rome’s great Empire, and it is possible that Macrobius himself was Christian, and wished to examine the underlying philosophical elements of paganism in order to unite the two in continuity. Of Kronos, he had this to say:

“… Κρóνος (Kronos) is the same as χρóνος (Khronos – time): for as much as the mythographers offer different versions of Saturn in their tales, the physical scientists (‘physici’ – philosophers) restore to him a certain likeness to the truth. They say that he cut off the genitals of his father, Heaven, and that when these were cast into the sea Venus was engendered, taking the name Aphrodite from the foam from which she was formed. They take this to mean that when chaos existed, time did not, since time is a fixed measurement computed from the rotation of the heavens. Hence Κρóνος, who I said was χρóνος, is thought to have been born from heaven (caelo) itself. Because the seeds for engendering all things after heaven flowed down from heaven, and because the elements that fill the world took their start from those seeds, when the world was complete in all its parts and members, the process of bringing forth seeds from heaven for the creation of the elements came to an end at a fxed moment in time, since a full complement of elements had by then been created. The capacity for engendering living things in an unbroken sequence of reproduction was transferred from water to Venus, so that all things would thenceforth come into being through the intercourse of male and female…” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 8.6-8.8, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

The castration of the sky (Ouranos/Uranus) by it’s titanic son, Kronos, is therefore the first act producing the male:female dipole upon which the god:goddess conception hinges. The ancients equated the stars of heaven with souls and these are portrayed in the Kronian myth as the seeds spilling from the castrated genitals of the sky into the oceans. Macrobius explains that the Roman word for Kronos, Saturn, is an epithet derived from a Greek word for the penis: σαθη (sathê), from which the Dionysian ‘satyrs’ are named. Charles Darwin’s greatest offence to protestant Victorian society was, it appears, simply to have suggested that the ancient Greek pagans had the right idea about evolution and sex after all! Unseemly!

Macrobius suggests that Kronos is a solar god on account of his genesis of the cycles of time – marked to us by the turning of the days, months and years, which underpin the cycles of fertility in the world. Kronos himself was therefore possibly supposed to represent the sun, representing the first star whose heat nourishes the life on earth. Indeed, his mythological devouring and regurgitation of his divine offspring (the Olympian gods) adds further credence to the destructive and life-giving aspects of the sun. The reason Kronos was not usually considered as an immanently-presiding god, was because his birth and creation of life fixes him at the start of time, where he is doomed to stay in myth and definition: cast on the far shores of Oceanus. As an originator god, Saturn was both the ancestral deity and provider of fertility, celebrated at the annual winter Saturnalia (Rome) or Kronia (Greece) with which Christianity collocated its nativity festival at the winter solstice, when the sun was deemed to be spending most of its time in the Otherworld. The otherworld was both the retreat of dead souls, and the source of returning fertility, which Macrobius noted was engendered on the world through water, into which the sun appears to plunge nightly from western coastal regions. The solar aspect of Kronos are therefore remarkable.

Janus/Ianus:

Janus (after whom the month of January gets its name) was one of the typically Roman gods, who we generally remember as being the one with two faces, ‘looking forwards and backwards in time’. Like with the Greek hearth goddess Hestia, it was customary to invoke Janus first at religious rites of other Roman gods. Macrobius has the following to say:

” … Some claim that Janus is shown to be the sun and has his two-fold nature because both heavenly doorways are in his power, as he opens the day by rising and closes it by setting; and further that when some god’s rite is being celebrated, he is called upon first so that he might open the way to the god to whom the sacrifice is being made, as though sending suppliants’ prayers on to the gods through his own gateways. Hence, too, his likeness is commonly represented keeping the number 300 in its right hand and 65 in its left, to indicate the measure of the year, which is the sun’s chief function… ” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 9.9-9.10, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

Macrobius is able to associate Janus with both Diana (the ‘lunar’ huntress whose brother was ‘solar’ Apollo, and who was known to the Greeks as both Artemis and Hecate, among other names) and Juno, wife of Jupiter and chief goddess (known to the Greeks as the scheming and jealous Hera, consort of Zeus). Indeed ‘Janus’ and ‘Juno’ have the appearance of a ‘matrimonial’ or ‘gender-twin’ god-pair similar to, for example Freyr and Freyja. Although Artemis/Diana is depicted as a ‘virgin’ goddess, this status is mystically equated with maximum sexual fertility potential, and Macrobius explains that Diana was considered a feminine part of the god, whose dual-nature is so apparent, arguing that ‘Diana’ is ‘Ianus’ with a super-added ‘D’. As the visible faces of the Roman and Greek gods were in reality fronts or ‘masks’ of their deeper mysteries, he may well be correct.

Janus was therefore a god of gateways and openings, as well as a somewhat daemonic entity, who – somewhat like Mercury or Hermes – carried messages from the mundane to the divine. The gates of the god’s temple were propped open in times of war, and the public reason for this was made into a story involving an early war between the Romans and the Sabines when Janus was said to have mysteriously opened Rome’s closed gate, and sent a torrent of boiling water at the Sabines from his temple, saving the city. Deeper reasons may link to the cult of the afterlife in which both Saturn and Janus played a part – the doors were probably opened to admit souls of dead warriors to the precincts of the god. The god’s statuary attributes (apart from his two faces) were the rod and the key, denoting measurement (?of lives, time, space) and the key (signifying the unlocking of thresholds). It was widely believed that worship of the god preceded the establishment of Rome itself, making Janus one of the rare and antique indigenous gods not borrowed from the Greeks. His cult is shrouded in a good deal of mystery, and his attributes seem to link him closely to Kronos/Saturn, who he may have been the original indigenous version of.

Mars/Quirinus:

Mars and/or Quirinus were – like Janus – aspects of an indigenous Sabine-Etruscan-Latin deity whose veneration appears to have preceded the influence of the Greeks. His Greek counterpart, Ares, was not equivalent – Mars was more of a chthonic deity of abundance-through-strife, whereas Ares was a colder divinity representing violence. Implicit in the idea of Mars was symbolic struggle of nature, and the renewal offered by death. He was therefore closer in conception to Ares’ brother, Apollo, who was identical in practical respects to the Greek solar god, Helios: the sun burns, and the sun renews.

The custom of opening the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war seems to link him to the cult of Mars as a war-god. In fact, Janus was also known as Janus Quirinus suggesting a syncresis. Quirinus was also cited as the deified ancestor-founder of Rome: Romulus. The priest of Quirinus (the Flamen Quirinalis) presided over a number of ancient chthonic-ancestor cult practices, most important of which were the Larentalia (23rd December – associated with the Saturnalia, no less) the late-April celebration of vegetative growth of crops called Robigalia (Robigus was evidently a jealous chthonic ancestral spirit who craved the goodness of grain, and was credited with causing soot and ergot etc) and the Consualia Aestiva in August after harvest was gathered (in honor of Consus, guardian of grain stores). ‘Larentia‘ was a consort of ‘Romulus’ in Rome’s founding myths – she was the ‘Mater Larum’ or guardian of ancestral souls: again an incarnation of the Great Goddess, just as her consort (Quirinus) is the founding male part of the equation. The god Portunus was also worshipped as a protector of storehouses and gateways, indicating he was somehow related to both Quirinus and Janus.

‘Mars Quirinus’ was the god’s epithet in times of peace, and ‘Mars Gradivas’ in times of war, at least in Republican times when he used to be part of the early ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus. This was why the principle Flamens (high priests) of the state religion were the Flamen Dialis, Flamen Martialis and Flamen Quirinalis. The ‘Triad’ (based on an older Celtic-style triune deity) eventually changed to Jupiter, Minerva and Juno – reflecting, perhaps, Greek religious tastes.

Poseidon/Neptune:

Poseidon is considered to have been the prime deity of the Mycenaean civilisation from which classical Greek civilisation developed. Neptune was his Roman counterpart, an Italic god of not just the sea but lakes and rivers, who was generally conflated with Greek Poseidon by the 4thC BCE. As the ‘brother’ of Zeus he ruled over the earth and the waters which flowed on and through it. Their other brother, Hades, ruled the cthonic underworld, and Zeus was master of the sky and heavens. This in itself a ‘solar’ triform god hypostasis.

As well as being associated with the waters (and their sculpting force upon the land, believed to include earthquakes) Poseidon/Neptune was the main god associated with horses, both legendary and mundane. These animals were strongly associated with solar mythology, and the sun was depicted as being conveyed in a four-horse quadriga chariot. Waves are figuratively depicted as white horses. The celtic peoples believed the horse would carry you to the otherworld, and their late Iron Age coinage uses the image of the horse and the sun more than any other symbolism.

The Roman god Portunus (mentioned above) was also related to Neptune, in that he was appealed to in order to ensure naval victory, and was a god of ports, harbours and gateways. The sea or water represented a ‘crossing over’ to ancient minds – the sun disappeared into it, and death was assured to those who stayed submerged in it. There might possibly be an older (possibly even non-italic) shared origin for Portunus and Neptune, and they share names with similar sounds. The Irish mythological character Nechtain (mentioned in Dindsenchas as husband of Bóand) might be a celtic version of Neptune (with the P<>Q/K sound transfer) – his magical well in his palace of Síd Nechtain was the mystical source of the River Boyne (Bóand). Other linguistic aspects of note that link the name to horses and water are the ‘Neck’ spirits of north European folklore, otherwise known as ‘water horses’ or ‘kelpies’.

Dionysus/Bacchus:

The epiphanic Dionysus was an important solar god who represented the aspect of sun-driven vegetative growth and in particular, the ecstasy-inducing produce of the vine. He was a central figure of a number of important mystery cults, and was known to the Romans under one of his other names – Bakkhos or Bacchus. His cult may have originated further north in Europe or the Near East, and in Thrace he was known as Sabazios, and shared aspects of Apollo. In fact, at Delphi in Greece (Hellas) he sat in for Apollo once a year when the sun god was deemed to be taking a holiday among the noble barbarians of Hyperborea, somewhere beyond the river Eridanus, site of an infamous mythological accident suffered by the chariot of Helios, whose son Phaeton took it on an ill-starred joyride. Like the sun, Dionysus was portrayed as coming from the east, leading some to posit that he had eastern origins, but this is not necessarily the case. The cult of Dionysos was not just an orgiastic celebration of fertility, but a mystical expression of the connection between death and new life. Aspects of it were borrowed into the mythology of christianity – for instance, the motif of death and rebirth comes from the mythology of Dionysus, particularly in the Orphic mysteries. Unlike the ‘hero’ gods of Greek, Roman and Thracian religion who were depicted armed with weapons, Dionysus flourished the thyrsus – a stave topped with a pine cone, deliberately suggestive of the phallus. His mythical retinue consisted of ‘wise Silenus’, the ithyphallic Satyrs and the crazed retinue of the female maenads.

Dionysus was not just a god, but a ‘prophet’ through whom the mysteries of life and death could be addressed periodically. He was somewhat unobtainable, except through throwing oneself into the wild aspects of his rites. Temples dedicated to him were a late feature of the Roman empire, and in Greece his most significant structures were his open air theatres.

Apollo:

The ‘purest’ or most overt solar god was Apollo, who might be thought of as the youthful god of new dawn. Often cultically portrayed with a bow, arrows and lyre (perhaps signifying the rays of the rising sun), he was also depicted with his chthonic adversary, the serpent Python, which his mythology describes him slaying. This Apollonian myth is also echoed in the myths of semi-mortal Herakles/Hercules who meets the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides, while seeking the golden apples of immortality. The symbolism was the conquest of death, and it is easy to see the parallels with Dionysus. Along with the Thracian Sabazios, Hercules, Apollo and Dionysus appear to have resonated with the Celts much more than other gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons, and influenced their imagery and religious practices during the syncretic eras between the 3rdC BCE and 3rdC CE.  Unlike Dionysus, Apollo’s was generally seen as a more stable and providential presence. His widespread presence in syncretic-era Celtic shrines attests to the importance of the solar godhead in these cultures.

A note on Hades/Pluto:

Hiding in the shady realms of the Greco-Roman underworld of the dead, it is hard to consider Hades as a ‘solar’ deity, yet the darkness – an inverted state of the sun’s light is itself an aspect of that light. It is therefore important to consider Hades a part of the ‘solar’ god-hypostasis. Indeed, to the Greeks he was part of the triform Olympian brotherhood of Zeus-Poseidon-Hades who ruled over the earth’s aspects: Zeus had the skies and heavens, Poseidon the earth and waters, and Hades the underworld realms.

The Atlantic solar god:

In Irish mythology, the ‘sea’ god Manannán mac Lir shows all of the characteristics of a sun-god. From his ‘epiphanic’ arrivals bearing gifts and challenges in tales such as Echtra Cormaic maic Airt (‘The Deeds of Cormac, son of Art’) to his mysterious psychopompic departures to the Otherworld in the poem Immram Brain maic Febail (‘Voyage of Bran, son of Febhal’), he typifies the solar archetypes which informed the worship of Europe’s ancient solar god-hypostasis. To the Atlantic Celts, the sun’s visible disappearance far away into the great western ocean maintained an implied marine aspect to their sun-god, who being born again every morning in the east, was also god of the Otherworld. Manannán seems to incorporate multiple aspects of the Mediterranean deities under one guise – Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and Apollo in particular. It is likely that Manannán was an elegant expression of (were it not for the Goddess) monotheistic godhood behind Ireland’s apparently rapid transit from paganism to being at the cutting edge of the medieval Christian world.

Of course, ‘Manannán’ was only one name or epithet for the solar god among the Irish celts. and the character appears under other guises across Europe. In fact Manannán’s character in his Irish legends is explicitly that of a shape-shifter and master of disguise. His wizardly abilities identify him with similar god-like characters such as Merlin and Wodan/Odin, as I have discussed previously. To the warlike Iron Age celts he was best-known as ‘Belenos‘ – the god to whom warriors pledged their lives in battle, and who promised them reincarnation. Under the epithet ‘Cernunnos‘, he was depicted as a fighting fertility god, with imagery redolent of the battling, rutting beast. Called ‘Esus‘ he was cultified as the branch-cutting god – another warlike image symbolic of killing, typical to the La Téne age, and a possible link to the Norse ‘Aesir’. Called ‘Teutates’ or ‘Andraste’ he was signified as a tribal ancestor-originator. As ‘Taranis‘, he was the energising regenerator whose ‘wheel’ image was an overt symbol of the sun which promised regeneration to come. Under christianity he became represented as the warrior-angel St Michael, Christianised as ‘Malo‘, ‘Mel’ or a multitude of other saints, and demonised as any number of legendary pseudo-historic evil kings, giants, goblins and devils. Due to the weaving of Roman paganism into continental and British celtic cultures, he was deeply buried in layers of syncretism, of which christianity was the most recent incarnation. Whatever guise the god took, he kept his most complete and fascinating literary and mythological identity in Ireland’s Manannán: the Atlantic otherworld solar god.

The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.

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The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.

The Atlantean Sea God

Plato, speaking in ca.360BCE of a supposedly historic lost western island-civilisation he called ‘Atlantis’, placed the worship of their founder, the Greek sea god Poseidon (Neptune to the Romans), at the centre of this culture. His accounts have no historical or geographical merit, except that they talk of a potent civilisation of united kingdoms founded on a shared spiritual vision, existing beyond the ‘Pillars of Herakles’. Setting aside the contemporary ‘Clash of the Titans’ style Ancient Greek colouring of Plato’s telling (he was seeking to link the supposed glory of Atlantis with his own state of Athens), the geographically-closest essential match we can find that has any kind of vague archaeological symmetry with Plato’s fable is that of the Atlantic European civilisation of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, which placed its imprint on the landscape from Portugal up to Scandinavia. In Plato’s day it would have been inconceivable to Athenians that the legend of Atlantis might relate to the culture of those hairy uncouth illiterate barbarians to the North and West!

Many modern scholars have dismissed the discussion of Atlantis in the dialogues of Critias and Timaeus as pure invention, devoid of anything but metaphysical truths and object lessons. After all, there is no geographical evidence of such a place as Atlantis, and the theories relating to cataclysmic Mediterranean volcanic eruptions do not fit with the Atlantic specification of the Platonic tale. In fact, the same criticism might be levelled at any other oral tradition handed down, and Plato admits that it is an oral tradition he is conveying. The codification of truth in oral tradition is in fact a more complex discipline to understand, and none of the academic rejections of the historicity of Plato’s Atlantis fable argue from the point of view of this discipline.

I have already discussed in previous blog entries how there is a legendary association between the sea and the world of the dead in many Atlantic European traditions, and how the disappearance of the sun into the ocean in the west and its rising again in the land to the East has probably influenced the fundamental belief in reincarnation as mentioned by 2000 year old Roman and Greek sources about Atlantic European religion, and supported by elements in later local folklore. The idea of a key ‘Sea God’ (rather than an Olympian or Semitic mountain god) is therefore a potent one that must be one of the ‘truths’ woven into Plato’s Atlantis oral tradition. We shall therefore examine this Atlantic ‘Sea God’ in greater detail:

The most definite character surviving in the pagan legends from before the invasion of the Roman and Middle Eastern Religions (Christianity, Catharism, Judaism, Islam) is that of Manannán mac Lir, who is remembered in the legends of Ireland, Wales (as Manawydan fab Lir), Scotland and the Isle of Man (where he is still is portrayed as the principle ancestor-god!). His extent or identity is therefore limited to the ‘Celtic’ Northwest of Europe – the chief god of the more eastern Scandinavian peoples, appears from medieval literary sources to have been Óðinn (Odin), who was known to the more southerly Germanic peoples as Woden or Wodan, and does not appear on superficial inspection of the evidence to have a particular connection with the oceans – moreso the wilds and forests of the East. I shall examine the truth (or otherwise) of this later.

Manannán is represented in the various ancient Irish tales as a Lord of the Otherworld with connections to the sea, as can be expected from an Atlantic theology. This is most strong in the aforementioned Voyage of Bran, and in the Ulster Cycle tale of Serglige Con Culainn (The Sickbed/Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn) he is again portrayed as the Lord of Mag Mell. Where he appears in Irish tales, it is usually as otherworld Lord and donor of magical gifts and appears to share an identity with many of the characters of Irish literary legend such as the Dagda, Elatha, Ogma, Lugh and of Aengus Óg (who may represent his youthful aspect). Christian tellers of tales and scribal authors in the middle ages appear to have used the Greco-Roman style of the ‘exploded pantheon’ to explain Irish pagan history, which folklore evidence seems at somewhat at odds with. A prime example of the obfuscation of Manannan comes from his identity as it evolved in the Isle of Man:

In the Isle of Man, folk tradition (including an old ballad possibly dating back to 1507, called Mannanan Beg Mac y Leirr) hales him as the proto-ancestor of the Manx to whom they once paid homage by an annual tithe, still enacted nowadays as part of the annual midsummer Tynwald festival. Manx ideas about Manannan echo medieval Irish descriptions (eg – Cormac’s Glossary) which portray him in a ‘euhemerised’ fashion as a great seafarer/pirate/magician who once resided in and ruled over the Island. To the Manx he appears to have taken the mantle of a Mountain God who lived atop the great fortress hill of South Barrule – more akin to Jehovah than a sea lord, possibly the result of attempts by local Christian clergy and laity to portray him as an earthly alternative to the more feminine land-goddess apparently once venerated by Atlantic pagans! (George MacQuarrie’s ‘Waves of Manannan’ is worth a read as he expands this theory). The Manx Manannan is definitely at odds with the otherworldy one of ancient Irish legends, and the absence of many land features in the Isle of Man named after him, compared to those named after the pagan goddess give testament to this. However this does not detract from the fact that many Manx people today will reply ‘Manannan’ when you ask who the god of the Island is! What other European nation still has a popular pagan god? 😉 There is even a fisherman’s prayer to Manannan that was collected by folklorist Sophia Morrison and published in Volume 1 of the Proceedings of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society (1906-1915):

Mannan beg Mac-y-Lir, fer vannee yn   Ellan,   

Dy bannee shin as nyn moatey.   

Mie goll nagh as ny share chiet stiagh,   

As bio as marroo ‘sy vaatey.  

“Mannan beg Mac-y-Lir,

who blessed the Island,      

Bless us and our boats,   

Good going out, and better coming in,   

With live and with dead in the boat.”

Although echoing a similar prayer to St Patrick it stands alone as an example of pagan or perhaps nationalist devotion, Morrison claimed it to be from a Peel (the island’s western fishing port) woman who was nearly 100 years old who had claimed it to have been used by her grandfather! Note the Manx use of ‘Mannan’ or ‘Mannin’ is interchangeable with ‘Manannan’, ‘Mannin’ being the name of the Island which was supposed to have been named after the God. Some Norwegian fishermen were still apparently offering up prayers to ‘Njor the Merman’* during the 18th and 19th centuries – a late reference to belief in the Vanir god Njörðr and evidence that people in dangerous marginal professions spread their luck among many baskets, and don’t place their faith in the usual socially-accepted agencies. (*Collected by Halldar O. Opedal in Odda, Hordaland, Norway during the 19thC – related by Georges Dumézil in ‘Gods of the Ancient Northmen’, 1973).

A contemporary Manx sculpture of Manannan displayed at a local music festival

A contemporary Manx sculpture of Manannan

Njörðr is possibly the same deity as the ‘Nerthus’ mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus (responsible for the second or third-hand literary account of the defeat of the Druids on the Island of Mona in the 1stC AD) –  Njörð is pronounced ‘Nyerth’ or ‘Nerth’. Tacitus’ Nerthus is described as a goddess of the Atlantic or Baltic Germanic tribes, whose cult image was annually taken from its sea-island sanctuary in procession among the peoples on a wain drawn by heifers during a certain festival period at which iron objects were locked away and no warfare was carried out. At the end of this according to Tacitus’ (again, second or third-hand account), the wain and the image of the goddess was immersed in a lake and its male attendants died.  Jörð was the feminised portrayal of the Earth (it is the origin of that word in English) in later Germanic and Scandinavian legends – Tacitus refers to Nerthus as ‘Terram matrem’ (mother earth).

Njörðr has a reasonably strong legendary association with the sea and was said (in the Prose Edda text Gylfaginning) to live in a heavenly place called Nóatún, meaning ‘ship enclosure’. In the Poetic Edda  poem Vafþrúðnismál, it is stated that he will survive Raganorok and be reunited with the Vanir, suggesting an afterlife existence in the Scandinavian religious schema. He is associated with wealth, fertility, benignity – much like his son Freyr – and in one tale he was married to the mountain giantess Skaði – a daughter of the jötunn (giant) Þjazi whose attributes included the ability to take the shape of giant eagle. (Skaði and Njörðr’s daughter Freyja’s feathered cloak appears in other tales and gives the ability to shape-shift into the form of a bird!). After the Aesir kill her father, Skaði is allowed to choose Njörðr as a husband, apparently deciding on account of his beautiful feet (presumably being a sea-loving god they are clean and smooth), but they disagree about their favourite place to live –  Njörð wishes to stay near to the sea and Skaði longs for her father’s mountainous province of Þrymheimr.

In the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Njörðr is recorded as being the father of the male and female twins Freyr and Freya (literally ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’) – described as leaders of the race of gods known as ‘Vanir’, who originate in ‘Vanaheim’. Although it is never stated that Skaði is their mother, it is strongly implied. As we shall explore later, the theme of an estranged otherworld sea-god and his female earthly-mountainous consort was a key theme in Atlantic Paganism further West, and the Vanir tradition of Scandinavian paganism ultimately derives from this.

In the Lokasenna poem of the ‘Poetic Edda’ texts, Loki states that Njörðr came to live as a hostage among the Aesir race of gods from the west (stanza 34) after the first ‘Aesir-Vanir War’ (an account of which occurs in the Völuspá). The mixing of the ‘Aesir’ and ‘Vanir’ in Norse legends is a curious aspect of late Scandinavian Atlantic Paganism, and we need to consider how theirSea God’ Njörðr relates to Manannán Mac Lir. Are they the related to the gods of the Western Atlanteans? I’ll do this in another post to follow….

tbc