Vishnu and Manannan

Interesting parallels can be drawn between the ancient Vedic (Indian) myths concerning the god Vishnu and the traditional (albeit bizarre) conception in the Isle of Man that the main Atlantic solar god Manannan had three legs, a fact reflected in the small island nation’s ancient flag:

The 'Three Legs of Mann'

The ‘Three Legs of Mann’

The imagery of the flag is widely agreed by celticists to be related to the ‘triskelion’ motif common in Atlantic and northern-European art from the late Bronze Age onwards, and to be a  solar symbol, related to the ancient lucky (for some) ‘swastika’ design.

Folklore collected in the Isle of Man by Charles Roeder, Edward Faragher, Sophia Morrison and colleagues in the late 19thC contained references to Manannan as a three-legged giant. This was an era when ancient mythology was considered very important to contemporary ideas of nationhood, and the study of folklore was a widespread pastime throughout Europe. The following excerpts were published in Volume 3 of a publication called Yn Lioar Manninagh (‘The Manx Book’) produced by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in the 1890’s:

” In olden times, long gone, there was a giant with three legs (‘dooiney three cassyn’) who lived in the Island; At last, when he could keep it no longer, it is said he rolled out like a wheel at Jurby Point, and then he disappeared and went out into the tide, and I heard this 60 years ago, when I was a little boy. “

” My next door neighbour was telling me his father went to Spanish Head one morning, at an early hour, some few years ago, and he saw a headless man toward the perpendicular cliff, some-thing in form of the three legs, rolling like a wheel on his feet and hands, and rolled over the cliff, which was full of sea-birds at the time, but the sea-birds did not appear to see anything, or they had all been on the wing in a moment, for if a small stone is thrown down the cliff the birds are flying and screaming in a thrice.”

” Manannan was a magician that governed the Island for many years, often hiding himself in a silver mist on the top of some high mountain, and as he could see strange ships who came to plunder the Island, he would get into the shape of the three legs, and roll down from the mountain top as fast as the wind, to where the strange vessels were anchored, and invent something to frighten them away.”

” There was a fleet of Norwegian ships came to Peel Bay, and the three-legged fellow came rolling to Peel, and it was about low tide in the harbour, with a small stream of fresh running out to sea. So he made little boats of the flaggers (AR: Iris) by the river side, a good number of them, and put them in the stream. Now, when the little fleet came out of the harbour, he caused them to appear like great ships of war, and the enemies fleet on the bay were in a great panic, and hoisted sails, as fast as possible, and cut their cables, and got away from the Island.”

Apparently, such ideas – if we are to believe the mid-19thC Irish antiquary John O’Donovan – were not just confined to the Isle of Man. In his notes to the translation of the 10thC Irish text known as Sanais Chormaic (known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’), published by Whitley Stokes in 1868, he wrote the following against the entry on Manannán Mac Lír:

“… He was the son of Allot, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann chieftains. He was otherwise called Orbsen, whence Loch Orbsen, now Lough Corrib. He is still vividly remembered in the mountainous district of Derry and Donegal, and is said to have an enchanted castle in Lough Foyle. According to the traditions in the Isle of Man and the Eastern counties of Leinster, this first man of Man rolled on three legs like a wheel through the mist…”

The ‘Three Legs’ myths about Manannan’s rolling or striding are also perhaps mirrored in the many myths from Irish and British folklore about great leaps made by the titanic denizens of ancient legends, including but not limited to: The Devil, the Cailleach, St. Patrick, St. Patrick’s horse, Fionn mac Cumhaill and any number of other giants and supernatural beings. Take, for instance, the case of the tales of ‘7 League Boots’ popularised in literary accounts of fairy tales in the 19th and early 20th centuries. All of these variants have a widespread provenance in popular folklore, and are not limited to insular Europe alone, but occur across the continent and further afield.

It is in that ‘further field’ that we leap almost three millenia to find the hymns of the ancient Indian/Hindu Rig Veda texts (dated by scholars to the period spanning 1500-1200 BCE). These detail the role of the god Vishnu (the indo-european rootword ‘Vis-‘ implies ‘penetrating/pervading’), whose three great strides spatially delineate the universe, and whose incarnations and transformations delineate the eras of time itself – the ‘Yugas’:

Rig Veda Mandala 1, Hymn 154 – the ‘Vishnu Suktam’ (Trans. ?Griffiths):
1. I WILL declare the mighty deeds of Visnu, of him who measured out the earthly regions,
Who propped the highest place of congregation, thrice setting down his footstep, widely striding.
2. For this his mighty deed is Visnu lauded, like some wild beast, dread, prowling, mountain-roaming;
He within whose three wide-extended paces all living creatures have their habitation.
3. Let the hymn lift itself as strength to Visnu, the Bull far-striding, dwelling on the mountains,
Him who alone with triple step hath measured this common dwelling-place, long, far extended.
4. Him whose three places that are filled with sweetness, imperishable, joy as it may list them,
Who verily alone upholds the threefold, the earth, the heaven, and all living creatures.
5. May I attain to that his well-loved mansion where men devoted to the Gods are happy.
For there springs, close akin to the Wide-Strider, the well of meath* (AR: Soma – the holy visionary sacrament, called Haoma by Zoroastrians) in Visnu’s highest footstep.
6. Fain would we go unto your dwelling-places where there are many-horned and nimble oxen,
For mightily, there, shineth down upon us the widely-striding Bull’s sublimest mansion.

and

Rig Veda: Mandala 7, Hymn 100 (trans. ? Griffiths):

1 NE’ER doth the man repent, who, seeking profit, bringeth his gift to the far-striding Viṣṇu.

He who adoreth him with all his spirit winneth himself so great a benefactor.

2 Thou, Viṣṇu, constant in thy courses, gavest good-will to all men, and a hymn that lasteth,

That thou mightst move us to abundant comfort of very splendid wealth with store of horses.

3 Three times strode forth this God in all his grandeur over this earth bright with a hundred splendours. 

Foremost be Viṣṇu, stronger than the strongest: for glorious is his name who lives for ever.

4 Over this earth with mighty step strode Viṣṇu, ready to give it for a home to Manu. 

In him the humble people trust for safety: he, nobly born, hath made them spacious dwellings…

Vishnu is known in one of his incarnations by the name Vamana, also referred to by the epithet Trivikrama: ‘Three world strider’, because his three strides took in the seven heavens (Svarga), the underworlds (Patala) and the middle world of nature (i.e. the Earth). The name  ‘Vamana’ certainly appears resonant with that of Atlantic Europe’s Manannán! You might also note from Hymn 7.100 above, he bestowed the earth upon a character called Manu. Manu is of course, as the name suggests, the mythical ‘Proto-Man‘ of Hindu myth – the same function occupied by Manannan in Manx mythology. As the Hindus believe in reincarnation, it is unsurprising to learn that their mythology deals with many incarnations of Manu. The early Irish manuscript references to Manannan (Cormac etc) also hint at a number of ‘incarnations’ of the god, whose various names the euhemerist christian clerics were eager to record in order to support their propaganda that pagan gods were nothing but deified ancestral heroes. Vishnu, as the primary Vedic god, is represented as the animating spirit of men through his incarnation/’avatar’, Manu, just as Manannan is the same for the Manx people…

Like Vishnu and his wordly incarnations, Manannan provided a similar link between the mundane, subterranean and heavenly worlds of Irish mythology. He had a foot in each. As well as providing a link to an idealized past, he functions – like Vishnu- as a warrior-protector in the less-than-ideal present, referred to in Hindu parlance as the Kali Yuga or ‘Epoch of Kali’. Fans of Atlantic mythology might recognise our own ‘Western Kali’ in this name – the fractious and destructive goddess referred to as ‘An Cailleach‘!

…. But that, as they say, is for another story.

NB – Re: *’Meath’. This is the old Indo-European word related to the ancient intoxicating honey drink ‘Mead’. It appears to be a word cognate with the name of Ireland’s famous fairy Queen Medb (‘Maeve’) of Connacht, from the Ulster Cycle of tales, as well as being echoed in the fairy lord, Midir/Mider of Brí Leith (a key player in the Old Irish mythological reincarnation tale known as ‘The Wooing of Etain‘). Of interest, Māyā is one of the names of Vishnu’s wife in Hindu/Vedic mythology, and is also another name of the goddess Lakshmi. In Greek mythology, Maia is the mother of the travelling/leaping/world-crossing god, Hermes

The Hag of the Mill

The ‘Hag of the Mill’ (Cailleach an Mhuilinn) is a mysterious and elusive character featured in a number of famous mythological tales from medieval Irish literature. This ‘grand dame’ appears variously as a helper, an adversary and a prophetess whose intervention determines the future outcomes of mythical narrative. Her ability to fly, leap and shape-shift marks her out as exceptional and supernatural – the very model of a goddess, in fact.

Mills were of course associated with ponds, lakes and water-courses, wind-powered mills not being known in ancient Ireland. They are therefore doubly associated with fertility and goodness, attaching a powerful aura of magical potency to them in folklore. The drudgery of hand-milling is also symbolic of the work of the lowly. Milling is both a destructive and creative act, and this is almost certainly why the Cailleach is associated with it in some Irish literary and folklore traditions.

The idea of magical females and fairies associated with mills was once apparently fairly widespread. As well as being a common theme in popular beliefs about witchcraft in the British Isles from at least the medieval period, it occurs in the Slavic myths of Baba Yaga (‘Mother Hag’), who was said to travel about with the aid of a magical mortar and pestle. The act of winnowing, hulling and grinding represents the uncovering and extraction of goodness: the revealing of what is hidden. The word ‘Cailleach’ (often translated as ‘hag’) means ‘veiled one’, and in the tales in which she appears, she often hides her inner nature, only to reveal it at critical junctures. The same can be said of Frau Holle or Holda and the Huldra figures of Germanic and Scandinavian folklore, whose name represents the same concept, demonstrating a deep and ancient conceptual link shared between Eurasian and European cultures. ‘Hulling’ is an english word for the act of removing the calyx covering a grain…

A set of 'quern' stones in a Viking era hand-mill. The grains were poured into the 'eye' of the mill and the stones rotated with a stick. Like the hearth of a house, the mill would have been associated with magical potency.

A set of ‘quern’ stones in a Viking era hand-mill. The grains were poured into the ‘eye’ of the mill and the stones rotated with a stick. Like the hearth of a house, the mill would have been associated with magical potency.

The ‘wheel’ of the millstone and the ‘wheel of the year’ share a common theme, represented in  northern Europe’s ancient Great Goddess… Perhaps the popular ‘lucky’ holed stone used as an amulet is even a remnant of former Cailleach worship?

'Lucky Stones', also called 'Hag Stones' and 'Witch Stones': They are a familiar feature of folklore from across the British Isles and Ireland. A remnant of Cailleach worship?

‘Lucky Stones’, also called ‘Hag Stones’ and ‘Witch Stones’: They are a familiar feature of folklore from across the British Isles and Ireland. A remnant of Cailleach worship?

In fact, the holed stone is also associated with the weights used on looms, and the weights used for fishing nets, so it represents a great deal of significance of nourishing and creative forces.

Holed stones and a necklace of glass beads and stones were among the grave goods of a pagan viking burial at Peel Castle in the Isle of Man.

Holed stones and a necklace of glass beads and stones were among the grave goods of a pagan viking burial at Peel Castle in the Isle of Man.

With all of this in mind, I would now like to discuss the character of the ‘Mill Hag’ in context of a number of Irish myths surviving from the medieval period:

Compert Mongáin ocus Serc Duibe-Lácha do Mongán (‘The Conception of Mongan and Dub-Lacha’s Love for Mongan’)

The English text is here.

The fateful Cailleach threads her way repeatedly through this tale which essentially deals with the sovereignty of Ireland: First, as the ‘Caillech Dub’ or ‘Black Hag’ of Lochlann, she appears as a healer of kings by donating her magical cow to save the life of Eolgarg Mor, king of Lochlan, then as an instigator of conflict between the Ulster king Fiachna mac Baetán and Eolgarg. When things are going bad for Fiachna (Eolgarg unleashes a battalion of venemous sheep upon the Irish!) the god Manannán mac Lir appears to him an offers to save Fiachna’s army from the sheep upon the condition that he can go to Ireland disguised as Fiachna and beget a magical son upon Fiachna’s wife. In this manner is begat Mongan mac Fiachnae or ‘Mongan Fionn’, who Manannán fosters in his magical island kingdom in the west, teaching him the arts of magic and shape-shifting. After a period away, Mongan returns to Ireland replete with higher mystical knowledge and magical powers – a veritable incarnation of Manannan himself.

In the tale, Mongan and Dubh Lacha fall in love. However, she is betrothed to the King of Leinster and Mongan and his companion Mac an Daibh conspire to trick the king and rescue Dubh Lacha. They go to the Cailleach an Mhuilinn and ask for her help in their ruse, to which she gladly assents.

   And in that way the year passed by, and Mongan and Mac an Daimh set out to the king of Leinster’s house. There were the nobles of Leinster going into the place, and a great feast was being prepared towards the marriage of Dubh-Lacha. And he vowed he would marry her. And they came to the green outside. ‘O Mongan,’ said Mac an Daimh, ‘in what shape shall we go?’ And as they were there, they see the hag of the mill, to wit, Cuimne. And she was a hag as tall as a weaver’s beam, and a large chain-dog with her licking the mill-stones, with a twisted rope around his neck, and Brothar was his name. And they saw a hack mare with an old pack- saddle upon her, carrying corn and flour from the mill.

And when Mongan saw them, he said to Mac an Daimh: ‘I have the shape in which we will go,’ said he, ‘and if I am destined ever to obtain my wife, I shall do so this time.’ ‘That becomes thee, O noble prince,’ [said Mac an Dairnh]. ‘And come, O Mac an Daimh, and call Cuimne of the mill out to me to converse with me.’ ‘It is three score years [said Cuimne] since any one has asked me to converse with him.’ And she came out, the dog following her, and when Mongan saw them, he laughed and said to her: ‘If thou wouldst take my advice, I would put thee into the shape of a young girl, and thou shouldst be as a wife with me or with the King of Leinster.’ ‘I will do that certainly,’ said Cuimne. And with the magic wand he gave a stroke to the dog, which became a sleek white lap­dog, the fairest that was in the world, with a silver chain around its neck and a little bell of gold on it, so that it would have fitted into the palm of a man. And he gave a stroke to the hag, who became a young girl, the fairest of form and make of the daughters of theworld,to wit, Ibhell of the Shining Cheeks, daughter of the king of Munster. And he himself assumed the shape of Aedh, son of the king of Connaught, and Mac an Daimh he put into the shape of his attendant. And he made a shining-white palfrey with crimson hair, and of the pack-saddle he made a gilded saddle with variegated gold and precious stones. And they mounted two other mares in the shape of steeds, and in that way they reached the fortress.

Mongan uses his magic wand to transform the hag into a beautiful young woman who gets the king drunk and sleeps with him. Mongan and Dubh Lacha then make off. The next morning the king is found in bed with Cuimne – now transformed back into a gnarled hag, much to the dismay of his people. The theme is one of the king wedded to the sovereignty goddess, familiar from many other Irish tales, and as used in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’. In the Mongan tale however, the beautiful maiden transforms into  the hag – usually the reverse occurs: the brave hero kisses the hag, who transforms into a young beauty.

Interestingly, as well as identifying Mongan mac Fiachna with Manannan, the corpus of ‘Mongan’ literature also identifies him with the even more famous Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the trickster hunter-warrior-leader. Fionn’s dealings with the shapeshifting Fairy Queen and goddess of the earth, the Cailleach, are dealt with in the tale of ‘The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne’:

Toruigheacht Diarmada agus Grainne (‘The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne’):

The tale is ostensibly one of the love affair between Fionn’s wife Grainne, and his strapping young protege, Diarmuid. The two fall out violently and the narrative deals with the couple’s pursuit by Fionn, and the eventual death of Diarmuid. It is a tale of split loyalties and the tragedies of betrayal in love. The Cailleach’s appearance is as Fionn’s nursemaid, in Tir Tairngire – the Otherworld homeland of the Tuatha De Danann, and realm of Manannan. She agrees to help Fionn and attacks Diarmuid and Oscar, who are staying with Angus at the Brugh na Boyne.

The next morning Diarmuid and Oscar rose, and harnessed their fair bodies in their suits of arms of valor and battle, and those two mighty heroes went their way to the place of that combat, and woe to those, either many or few, who might meet those two good warriors when in anger. Then Diarmuid and Oscar bound the rims of their shields together that they might not separate from one another in the fight. After that they proclaimed battle against Finn, and then the soldiers of the king of Alba said that they and their people would go to strive with them first. They came ashore forthwith, and rushed to meet and to encounter them, and Diarmuid passed under them, through them, and over them, as a hawk would go through small birds, or a whale through small fish, or a wolf through a large flock of sheep; and such was the dispersion and terror and scattering that those good warriors wrought upon the strangers, that not a man to tell tidings or to boast of great deeds escaped of them, but all of them fell by Diarmuid and by Oscar before the night came, and they themselves were smooth and free from hurt, having neither cut nor wound. When Finn saw that great slaughter, he and his people returned out to sea, and no tidings are told of them until they reached Tir Tairngire (fairyland), where Finn’s nurse was. Finn came to her, and she received him joyfully. Finn told the cause of his travel and of his journey to the hag from first to last, and the reason of his strife with Diarmuid, and he told her that it was to seek counsel from her that he was then come; also that no strength of a host or of a multitude could conquer Diarmuid, if perchance magic alone might not conquer him. “I will go with thee,” said the hag, “and I will practise magic against him.” Finn was joyful thereat, and he remained with the hag that night; and they resolved to depart on the morrow.

Now it is not told how they fared until they reached the Brug upon the Boyne, and the hag threw a spell of magic about Finn and the fian, so that the men of Erin knew not that they were there. It was the day before that Oscar had parted from Diar­muid, and Diarmuid chanced to be hunting and chasing on the day that the hag concealed the fian. This was revealed to the hag, and she caused herself to fly by magic upon the leaf of a water lily, having a hole in the middle of it, in the fashion of the quern-stone of a mill, so that she rose with the blast of the pure- cold wind and came over Diarmuid, and began to aim at and strike him through the hole with deadly darts, so that she wrought the hero great hurt in the midst of his weapons and armor, and that he was unable to escape, so greatly was be oppressed; and every evil that had ever come upon him was little compared to that evil. What he thought in his own mind was, that unless he might strike the hag through the hole that was in the leaf she would cause his death upon the spot; and Diarmuid laid him upon his back having the Gae Derg in his hand, and made a triumphant cast of exceeding courage with the javelin, so that he reached the hag through the hole, and she fell dead upon the spot. Diarmuid beheaded her there and then and took her head with him to Angus of the Brug.

Although not explicitly referred to as ‘hag of the mill’, the narrative obviously invokes the ring-shaped grinding stone in its description of the curious leaf the Cailleach flies upon as she attacks Diarmuid. Another tale themes by flight and pursuit that features the Hag is:

Buile Shuibhne (‘Sweeney’s Frenzy’):

The full English text of this tale can be found here.

In the story, king Suibhne (‘Sweeney’), a 7thC pagan warlord of Dal nAraidhe, offends St Ronan Finn by tossing his psalter into a lake when the christian invader sets up a church on his lands without permission. This occurs just before the decisive Battle of Moira (Magh Ráth) of 637CE which was to mark the beginning of the ascendancy of the Uí Neill over the north of Ireland. In punishment for his anti-clerical transgressions, Suibhne is cursed by the saint with madness, and doomed to fly and leap across the landscape like a bird, never knowing the fate of his sons and kinsmen after the battle, at which the Dal nAraidhe were defeated. His final fate, Ronan tells him, is to eventually die pierced upon the point of a spear.

Suibhne subsequently lives like a bird, perching in trees and flitting from hilltop to hilltop, cursed to never wish for the comforts of settlement. His wild, bird-like condition is presented as lonely and tragic. Eventually he is captured by his kinsman Loingseachan (who is apparently also a miller), and he is restrained in chains so that he might live again among his people. With their care, his madness lifts temporarily, only to be robbed from him once more when he is entrusted one harvest-time to the care of Lonnog, the Hag of the Mill, who is described as Loingseachan’s mother in law, who challenges him to show his magical flying leaping ability, which she then reveals is also a faculty she herself posesses:

“… When Suibhne heard tidings of his only son, he fell from the yew, whereupon Loingseachan closed his arms around him and put manacles on him. He then told him that all his people lived; and he took him to the place in which the nobles of Dal Araidhe were. They brought with them locks and fetters to put on Suibhne, and he was entrusted to Loingseachan to take him with him for a fortnight and a month. He took Suibhne away, and the nobles of the province were coming and going during that time; and at the end of it his sense and memory came to him, likewise his own shape and guise. They took his bonds off him, and his kingship was manifest. Harvest-time came then, and one day Loingseachan went with his people to reap. Suibhne was put in Loingseachan’s bed-room after his bonds were taken off him, and his sense had come back to him. The bed-room was shut on him and nobody was left with him but the mill-hag, and she was enjoined not to attempt to speak to him. Nevertheless she spoke to him, asking him to tell some of his adventures while he was in a state of madness. ‘A curse on your mouth, hag!’ said Suibhne; ‘ill is what you say; God will not suffer me to go mad again.’ ‘I know well,’ said the hag, ‘that it was the outrage done to Ronan that drove you to madness.’ ‘O woman,’ said he, ‘it is hateful that you should be betraying and luring me.’ ‘It is not betrayal at all but truth,’; and Suibhne said:

Suibhne: O hag of yonder mill,
why shouldst thou set me astray?
is it not deceitful of thee that, through women,
I should be betrayed and lured?
The hag: Tis not I who betrayed thee,
O Suibhne, though fair thy fame,
but the miracles of Ronan from Heaven
which drove thee to madness among madmen.

Suibhne: Were it myself, and would it were I,
that were king of Dal Araidhe
it were a reason for a blow across a chin;
thou shalt not have a feast, O hag.
‘O hag,’ said he, ‘great are the hardships I have encountered if you but knew; many a dreadful leap have I leaped from hill to hill, from fortress to fortress, from land to land, from valley to valley.’ ‘For God’s sake,’ said the hag, ‘leap for us now one of the leaps you used to leap when you were mad.’ Thereupon he bounded over the bed-rail so that he reached the end of the bench. ‘My conscience!’ said the hag, ‘I could leap that myself,’ and in the same manner she did so. He took another leap out through the skylight of the hostel. ‘I could leap that too,’ said the hag, and straightway she leaped. This, however, is a summary of it: Suibhne travelled through five cantreds of Dal Araidhe that day until he arrived at Glenn na nEachtach in Fiodh Gaibhle, and she followed him all that time. When Suibhne rested there on the summit of a tall ivy-branch, the hag rested on another tree beside him. It was then the end of harvest-time precisely. Thereupon Suibhne heard a hunting-call of a multitude in the verge of the wood. ‘This,’ said he, ‘is the cry of a great host, and they are the Ui Faelain coming to kill me to avenge Oilill Cedach, king of the Ui Faelain, whom I slew in the battle of Magh Rath.’ …”

This leaping hag is famous in Gaelic folklore as the earth-goddess Cailleach whose legendary jumps and falls created the landscape in folktales scattered across Scotland, Mann, Britain and Ireland. Once a pervasive goddess of northern Europe, her traditions have been corrupted so that she is variously depicted in corrupt and christianised myths as a giant, the devil or a great beast, even a horse. In some of this folklore, the Cailleach herself is said to manifest as a great bird (for instance, as the ‘Gyre Carline’ of Scottish lowland repute). She appears in the narrative of Buile Suibhne as the flying/leaping ‘mistress of the wilds’ who return Suibhne to his former sylvan madness – as if he was back-sliding from christian charity into paganism, which was still apparently strong among elements of the Dal nAraidhe and Picts of the 7thC.

During his flight with the Cailleach, Suibhne hears the first horns of the start of the stag-hunting season and fears that it is he who is hunted. He then utters a lay which identifies with the stags who rule the peaks of the hills, with the trees of the forest in which he alights, and draws parallels with both, describing the antlers as akin to the branches and thorns upon which he is cursed to alight, and these with Ronan’s prophesied fate for him to eventually die upon the point of a spear. He even refers t0 the Cailleach at one point as ‘mother of this herd’:

There is the material of a plough-team 
from glen to glen: 
each stag at rest 
on the summit of the peaks.
Though many are my stags 
from glen to glen, 
not often is a ploughman’s hand 
closing round their horns.
The stag of lofty Sliabh Eibhlinne, 
the stag of sharp Sliabh Fuaid, 
the stag of Ealla, the stag of Orrery, 
the fierce stag of Loch Lein.
The stag of Seimhne, Larne’s stag, 
the stag of Line of the mantles, 
the stag of Cuailgne, the stag of Conachail, 
the stag of Bairenn of two peaks.
O mother of this herd, 
thy coat has become grey, 
there is no stag after thee 
without two score antler-points.

It is evident she (as an elder of his tribe) is showing him the fate of the stags pursued by the hunters to demonstrate to him that the ‘wild’ tribes of the pagans, attached to their hilltops and springs of water, are going to suffer the same fate. The other common folkloric motif associated with the Cailleach is as ‘mistress of herds and flocks’. Unable to bear her fatalistic taunting and her attempts to push him back into madness, he tricks the hag into leaping to her doom:

“… After that lay Suibhne came from Fiodh Gaibhle to Benn Boghaine, thence to Benn Faibhne, thence to Rath Murbuilg, but he found no refuge from the hag until he reached Dun Sobairce in Ulster. Suibhne leaped from the summit of the fort sheer down in front of the hag. She leaped quickly after him, but dropped on the cliff of Dun Sobairce, where she was broken to pieces, and fell into the sea. In that manner she found death in the wake of Suibhne …”

A similar fate came to the legendary hag Mal, who pursued the leaping Cuchullain to the Cliffs of Moher in a legend attached to Loop Head on the coast of County Clare. Evidently, the genesis of both stories lies within a more ancient pagan myth explaining how the landscape of Ireland was formed – possibly involving the chase of rutting stags, of which Cuchullain is a human representation. Patrick Weston Joyce (‘The Origin and History of Irish Names and Places’, Dublin, 1870) commented on a number of other places named after legendary leaps.

Why the ancient goddess manifests as the ‘Mill Hag’ is Buile Suibhne is still somewhat mysterious, indicating that the reader or listener was expected to know and understand why she manifests in such a rôle. Another tantalising hint at why this occurs is found in the conclusion of the story, in which Suibhne (like all good pagan heroes committed to the hands of Ireland’s christian mythographers) commits his last days to the care of Saint Mo Ling in Leinster, who was famed for his legendary water mill and whose name itself evokes the very word for Mill – Muillean – such that the anglicised version of his name is ‘Saint Mullins’. In fact, his legend states that the saint built a mile-long millrace connecting the river Barrow to his mill at Tighe Moling (now known as St Mullins). A hagiography (copied by one of the O’Clery brothers in the 17thC) contains accounts of his oratory being miraculously filled with grain, in order to pay the legendary Gobbán Saer (and his wife) who builds his houses and religious buildings at Teach Moling from the remains of the pagan Yew of Ross, said to have been felled by the Christian evangelists. Like the leaping Suibhne, Moling’s hagiography contains an episode in which he performs a series of leaps in order to confound and escape some evil spirits. How fitting, then that this saint would become the selfsame mad king’s guardian!

Students of the British traditions of Merddyn/Merlin discussed by Geoffrey of Monmouth will instantly be able to identify his own madness with the fate of Suibhne in the Irish story. The sylvan state of beast-like insanity and living among swine is a potent invocation of the pagan mysteries, except that in the christian narrative of Buile Suibhne the care and fate of Suibhne becomes dependent wholly upon the charity of saints Ronan Finn and Moling. Of the characters in Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini who might answer to that of the Irish/Scots/Manx Cailleach, the briefly-mentioned Morgen or Morgan who resides in a mystic island is the most likley candidate. She actually appears in the Martyrology of Donegal as a Saint, under the name Muirgen (‘Born of the Sea’) or Liban! In the ‘Sickbed of Cuchullain’ from the Ulster Cycle tales, ‘Liban’ is the sister of Manannan’s wife, Fand. Fionn mac Cumhaill’s nursemaid, indeed. Or maybe Mongan, or perhaps Manannan? Here is a translation of the entry:

MUIRGHEIN : i.e., a woman who was in the sea, whom the Books call Liban, daughter of Eochaidh, son of Muireadh ; she was about three hundred years under the sea, till the time of the saints, when Beoan the saint took her in a net, so that she was baptized, after having told her history and her adventures.

 

Muirgen

 

 

 

Hymn to the ‘Son of Waters’

Apam Napat (‘Son of Waters’) is one of the most important and intriguing aspects of the Vedic trinity of creator gods mentioned in the hymns of the ancient Rigveda texts, sometimes described as ‘humanity’s oldest scripture’, deriving at least from the 1st millenium BCE. He represents the fiery creating force, emanating from the waters, and is also a divinity shared by the ancient Persian Mazdean (later Zoroastrian) faith. Since the 18thC and even more so during the 20th centuries scholars of religion, linguistics, archaeology and culture have increasingly recognised the connection between these faiths and those of Europe during the 2nd and 1st millenia BCE. In Apam Napat, we can see an etymological similarity to the name of the Italic sea-god Neptune and an ideological similarity to the Atlantic Gaelic god Manannan. The word ‘Napat’, means ‘son’ or ‘offspring’, and as Manannan is surnamed ‘Mac Lír’ – ‘Son of the Sea’ – his title is an almost exact equivalent to that of the Vedic god Apam Napat, who is in fact an aquatic manifestation of the Vedic ‘fire-deity’ Agni, so in reality (and like Manannan) a ‘solar god‘.

The Vedic hymn to the ‘Son of Waters’ (Apam Napat) demonstrates the conception of how fertility and growth manifests through the combined mystical actions of fire and water in their spiritual aspects. It stridently evokes themes clearly evident in the myths and symbolism of ancient European belief:

Rig Veda, Book 2, HYMN XXXV: Translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, 1896.

‘Son of Waters’

1. EAGER for spoil my flow of speech I utter: may the Flood’s Child accept my songs with favour. Will not the rapid Son of Waters make them lovely, for he it is who shall enjoy them?

2 To him let us address the song well-fashioned, forth from the heart. Shall he not understand it, The friendly Son of Waters by the greatness of Godhead hath produced all things existing.

3 Some floods unite themselves and others join them: the sounding rivers fill one common storehouse. On every side the bright Floods have encompassed the bright resplendent Offspring of the Waters.

4 The never-sullen waters, youthful Maidens, carefully decking, wait on him the youthful. He with bright rays shines forth in splendid beauty, unfed with wood, in waters, oil-enveloped.

5 To him three Dames are offering food to feed him, Goddesses to the God whom none may injure. Within the waters hath he pressed, as hollows, and drinks their milk who now are first made mothers.

6 Here was the horse’s birth; his was the sunlight. Save thou our princes from the oppressor’s onslaught. Him, indestructible, dwelling at a distance in forts unwrought lies and ill spirits reach not.

7 He, in whose mansion is the teeming Milch-cow, swells the Gods’ nectar and cats noble viands. The Son of Waters, gathering strength in waters, shines for his worshipper to give him treasures.

8 He who in waters with his own pure Godhead shines widely, law-abiding, everlasting— The other worlds are verily his branches, and plants are born of him with all their offspring.

9 The Waters’ Son hath risen, and clothed in lightning ascended up unto the curled cloud’s bosom; And bearing with them his supremest glory the Youthful Ones, gold-coloured, move around him.

10 Golden in form is he, like gold to look on, his colour is like gold, the Son of Waters. When he is seated fresh from golden birthplace those who present their gold give food to feed him.

11 This the fair name and this the lovely aspect of him the Waters’ Son increase in secret. Whom here the youthful Maids together kindle, his food is sacred oil of golden colour.

12 Him, nearest Friend of many, will we worship with sacrifice. and reverence and oblation. I make his back to shine, with chips provide him; I offer food and with my songs exalt him.

13 The Bull hath laid his own life-germ within them. He sucks them as an infant, and they kiss him. He, Son of Waters, of unfading colour, hath entered here as in another’s body.

14 While here he dwelleth in sublimest station, resplendent with the rays that never perish, The Waters, bearing oil to feed their offspring, flow, Youthful Ones, in wanderings about him.

15 Agni, I gave good shelter to the people, and to the princes goodly preparation. Blessed is all that Gods regard with favour. Loud may we speak, with heroes, in assembly.

Romano-British stela of the triple-goddess 'Coventina'. Note the vases and the bunch of corn...

Romano-British stela of a triple-goddess identified with Coventina. ‘To him three Dames are offering food to feed him’…

The solar-energetic divinity Agni is depicted as manifesting through the waters, evoking fertility. The fertile seed of bulls (another core Vedic concept shared with Atlantic mythology) is said to originate within the waters inspired by Agni, as are all the trees and plants. The hymn depicts waters flowing to converge on Apam Napat who fertilises them, just as it invokes the ceremonial-ritual burning of oils (liquids which burn) in holy fires as a means of evoking his power and conveying prayers into the divine world of spiritual ethereal fire: Agni (as a kind of Vedic Hermes-Mercury) is said in the Rig Veda hymns to act as conduit to this realm. The descriptions of his youthful shining god-force also resonate strongly with ancient Greek ideations of Apollo, as manifesting divine logos. The idea of words as energetic seeds flow readily in the hymns of the Rig Veda, evoking the power also expressed in Atlantic Europe’s medieval remnants of Iron Age bardic poetry. As such, the Atlantic god ‘Manannan’ may owe his name to the bright light of the mind, represented in the Proto-Indo-European rootword ‘Mana-‘ (from which we get the Latin mens, and the word for human: ‘man‘.)

Pagan controversy in the Isle of Man?

Following the recent news of the apparently hate-motivated vandalism of the statue of Manannán Mac Lir (apparently) by christian fundamentalists in Northern Ireland, another controversial tale of interference with modern pagan practices has emerged from the neighbouring Isle of Man: On 15th December 2014, the local news media reported upon the furtive and (to some) unwelcome removal of the ‘devotional’ objects from the Island’s (in)famous ‘Fairy Bridge’ on the main road between the towns of Douglas and Castletown. The bridge, has proved increasingly popular over recent years as a site of pilgrimage for locals and visitors seeking to honour their dead friends and relatives or appeal to the denizens of the Otherworld for protection in their endeavours. Typically, visitors attach notes, gifts and mementoes to the trees next to the bridge. It has become something of a regular and increasingly exotic destination on the Island’s tourist trail, especially around the time of the Island’s awesome, otherworldly and dangerous TT races – the last great contest-ground of those timeless Celtic Heroes.

The Isle of Man's popular 'Fairy Bridge' - more than just a tourist destination.

The Isle of Man’s popular ‘Fairy Bridge’ – more than just a tourist destination.

The initial impression presented to the reporter who appears to have been invited to witness the removal of devotional objects at the bridge was that these had become an ‘eyesore’: scraps of paper bearing messages of hope and remembrance, ribbons, rags, motorcycle helmets, flags and pieces of motorcycle fairing were removed and disposed of. It appears from the story that the journalist was invited to witness the clearing of these items from the bridge as the news article contained photographs of the perpetrator at work:

‘I’ve driven past it often, and thought that for a while now it was getting out of hand,’ he said, while climbing on to the bridge and removing a bike helmet from a high branch. ‘I had a day off today, so I thought I’d just come down now and do it quickly.’ Really?

‘I’ve driven past it often, and thought that for a while now it was getting out of hand,’ he said, while climbing on to the bridge and removing a bike helmet from a high branch. ‘I had a day off today, so I thought I’d just come down now and do it quickly.’ 

The bridge after the removal of the devotional material.

The bridge after the removal of the devotional material.

Theories about what led to the act are varied: Some cite that the attachment of these objects are not ‘traditionally Manx’, even though folklorists of the 19th and early 20th century record a number of untidy-looking rag wells and ‘fairy trees’ tied with what the Scots refer to as ‘clooties’, and to which locals would pay their respects. Indeed, the phenomenon of tying deposits to the trees at this Fairy Bridge is actually a modern invention, which has only really taken off in the past 15 or so years, before which people would generally only stop to pay their respects to the Little People or raise a hand or finger in a wave or salute as they passed by in their cars. The latest news, sadly, is that a similar ‘attack’ has been made upon the Island’s ‘other’ more secretive Fairy Bridge… 

The 'real' fairy bridge shrine at Ballalona. Now desecrated.

The ‘real’ fairy bridge shrine at Ballalona. Here with recent decoration. Now ‘desecrated’ too?

The ‘Real Fairy Bridge’ is by no means a ‘public’ eyesore, lying as it does off of a secluded footpath in woodland away from civilisation. It has remained a place of quiet reflection and wonder, cluttered with tiny toys in memory of dead children, ribbons tied in memory of friends killed in road traffic accidents, or taken by illness. Candles and coins could until recently be found lodged between the crevices in the stones of the bridge, which was a favourite haunt for young people and families holding vigils of remembrance for their loved ones – believed to reside in the Otherworld with the spirits locals euphemistically and obliquely refer to as ‘Themselves’ (‘Them’s Elves!’) and the ‘Good People’. So… is removal of such items merely a common vandalism of a magical expression of innate spirituality, or a recognition of proper respect for the Island’s somewhat conservative fairies? Either way, the ‘cleaning’ of the fairy bridges has been deemed as sacrilegious and offensive by some locals, as it has been seen as an act of restitution by others of a more conservative persuasion. The fairy faith still enjoys a strong undercurrent of belief among the indigenous Manx peoples and perceived imported ideas about attaching devotional items to ‘their’ bridges and wells do not apparently sit well with some of the population. In the light of the Manannan statue desecration, it would be easy to blame a shady group of presumably christian fundamentalists who are seeking to destroy emergent pagan devotional sites. However – like the nature of the Good People themselves – the truth may be stranger than we first think: This is, after all, the Island which still claims a common belief that Manannan is their god, and is the place where Gardnerian Wicca was largely founded, although that was another controversy for the locals in itself, as Gardner paid little heed to the Island’s genuine vestiges of true ancient Atlantic religion… The trees and bridges will no doubt flourish their messages again soon. What would ‘Themselves‘ or the ‘Little People‘ think of it, I wonder? Has anyone actually asked them?

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.

Solar origins of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Christianity.

Roman era iconographic depiction of Apollo in mosaic, Tunisia. The similarity to later depictions of Jesus in both the Eastern and Western traditions is striking.

Roman era iconographic depiction of Apollo in mosaic, Tunisia. The similarity to later depictions of Jesus in both the Eastern and Western traditions is striking.

The number twelve has a strange significance in the reckoning of time:

There are twelve solar months, corresponding roughly to twelve zodiacal houses along the sun’s ecliptic path. In the Christian myth, Christ is followed by 12 apostles.

There are traditionally twelve ‘hours’ of daylight, as reckoned by sun-dials, and hence we derive our twenty four hours of daylight and night which comprise our unit of one solar ‘day’. This is known as ‘apparent solar time’, as compared to the clock-time we tend to keep in modern times, known as ‘mean solar time’.

There is a difference of roughly twelve days between the old ‘Julian’ and newer ‘Gregorian’ calendric systems in use in Europe and Asia Minor. These changes were instituted to prevent the celebration of Easter (calculated based on the Jewish Lunar calendar) from creeping further away from the Spring Equinox into summer.

There are twelve days marking the traditional European and Eastern ‘Christmas’ or ‘Yule’ festive midwinter period… These were sometimes each looked upon as representing a separate month of the solar year in many pre-modern European cultures. Yuletide began at the winter solstice (approx. 22nd December) and finished on the 3rd January, whereas Christmastide was from 25th December to 6th January (Epiphany).

Origins of Christmas Day:

The establishment of the date of the Nativity festival on the 25th December in Christianity was not in fact formally agreed upon for hundreds of years after the era of Jesus’ supposed life and death. In the late pagan Roman Empire, the 25th day of December was celebrated as Natalis Invicti – the rebirth of the deified ‘Unconquerable Sun’ – Sol Invictus. Although introduced as a late Imperial Cult under Aurelian in 274CE (250 years or so after the death of Jesus) the cult of Sol Invictus was probably in response to the profusion of mystery cults throughout the Roman Empire which employed the iconography of a youthful solar male god, seemingly derived from the older depictions of older gods such as Apollo, Adonis and Attis. Adonis, etymologically at least, appears to have a Semitic origin (compare Adonai – ‘Lord’). These had their origins in the principles of Solar godhood attached to the great ‘static’ or ‘official’ mystery cults of the 1st millennium BCE: Those of Delian Apollo, Apollo at DelphiEleusis, Samothrace and the mysteries of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia, among others. Such cults generally relied upon visitation of geographical loci – fixed cult sites – and the participation in initiatory ritual for the purposes of either receiving oracles, healing or higher knowledge. They themselves may have developed from popular extensions of the originally more closely-guarded inner mystery ritual traditions surrounding the elite classes of kings and religious hierophants of the earlier ‘palatial’ cultures (Minoan and Mycenaean), themselves copying the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, which are the oldest for which we have evidence, and were in continuity until at least the start of the 1st millennium CE.

Wars with Carthage and the great movements of the ‘barbarian’ Celts during Rome’s Late Republican Era (c.3rdC BCE) led to the importation of ‘foreign’ mystery religions such as that of Cybele and her ecstatic priests into Rome during the late Punic wars. Another popular ecstatic religious mystery cult was that of the Bacchanalia (Dionysia) from Greece. The Celtic fanaticism towards the solar god Apollo (whom they knew as Belenos) caused them to actually invade Greece and sack Delphi in 179BCE! These events, along with Rome’s increasing expansion and cultural interaction led to the surge in popularity of mystery religions in general during the late Republican era, such that by the 1stC CE  Roman Emperors were themselves visiting Eleusis and Samothrace to become initiates. These cults purported to explain the secrets of the sun, the moon, the planets and stars and the deepest mysteries of nature, death and regeneration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the life-giving Sun was a key part of this, and became part of a new ‘elementalism’ and drive towards simplification and ‘portability’ of mythology.

As the Roman and Greek cultural polities expanded and prospered, initiatory mystery religions became less an indulgence of the elites, and also less attached to fixed geographical locations, developing into a plethora of mobile ideological ‘franchises’ enjoyed by more ordinary persons. These almost certainly plagiarised the secrets and mythological frameworks of the older ‘official’ mysteries whose (often wealthy) initiates and suppliants were supposed to keep their secrets on pain of death or spiritual torment, and such mysteries were gradually bought out into the open and discussed and theorised over. This process was aided by the diffusion of literacy and the spread of and development of the ideas of the ‘Philosophers ‘of classical and Hellenistic era ‘Magna Graecia’ who sought to analyse the constancies and truths behind ancient orally-transmitted mythology.

A good example of such reductionist processes at their apotheosis are the ‘Hermetic’ and ‘Gnostic’ cults in Hellenized Asia Minor, Middle East and North Africa, of which Christianity was to emerge as an early branch within the fractious and millenarianist Hasmonean-era Jewish world with its significant diaspora. These employed Pythagorean, Platonic and Epicurean reductionist theories and a discourse involving the principles of the soul as a form of undying light in their prophetic religious narratives, barely hiding such ideas behind the character narratives of older mythologies.

Such explicit intellectualism was not to everyone’s taste, of course, and other more semiotic forms of mystery cults based upon ritual, myth and symbolism served the needs of those with more traditional (less orientalised) tastes. Orphism was perhaps the oldest and best-established of these traditions – possibly the ‘granddaddy’ of them all, with its origins in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE at least. Its initiates sought to ‘purify’ themselves in order to achieve a better afterlife. Mithraism was certainly the most popular of the newer cults, spreading from Asia Minor into the most northern and western extents of the Roman Empire between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the Common Era. Similar popular mystery religions centred around the Thracian god Sabazios (a regional relative of Dionysus) and European syncretic cults involving the Celtic gods, such as that of the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ involving Epona in Eastern and northern Europe, and a profusion of others more poorly understood due to paucity of material evidence. These all had the common trait of emphasising the position of the characters of ‘Sol’ and ‘Luna’ in their iconography – almost as a ‘badge’ of their ‘mystery’ status.

A Roman relief depicting the banquet of Sol, Luna and Mithras.

A Roman relief depicting the banquet of Sol, Luna and Mithras.

An exquisite example of a plaque depicting the 'Danubian Horsemen' and their central goddess... seemingly a version of Epona.

A plaque depicting the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ and their central goddess (Epona): Sol Invictus rides his quadriga at the top of the image, which deals with the imagery of the cult’s mysteries.

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

A coin of Emperor Constantine I who converted to Christianity and took the Empire with him. The depiction on the obverse is of Sol Invictus.

A coin of Emperor Constantine I who converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. The depiction on the obverse is of Sol Invictus – a vision of where things were heading?

The deified sun was conflated in this era with the older Greek  god Apollo, whose identity was favoured by the Romanised Celtic peoples from the Danube basin to the Atlantic northwest of Europe, in their own syncretic cults. Such cults throughout the Empire had displaced those of the older Capitoline and Olympian Roman and Greek deities among the general populations, although these still had a civic role to play.

Perhaps the most important, popular and long-running cult of the elder Greek gods was that of Dionysus, whose oldest festival – the Rural Dionysia – coincided with the period of the winter solstice whose Greek month was named in honour of the ancient sea god: Poseidonia. This was a festival of dressing up in the guise of the retinue of the god: men as satyrs or silenoi and women as maenads. It was also, significantly, a festival of the epiphany of Dionysus to mankind, which celebrated the god’s transubstantiation of water into wine and the mysteries of budding nature: themes obviously borrowed into later christianity. At Delphi, there was a tradition that Apollo left to live among the Hyperboreans during the month when Dionysus manifested among the people at this festival, at which there was much singing of popular songs by all classes in Greek society – a tradition surviving in the modern European Christmas singing festivities.

After the third century CE the rise of iconoclastic, literate, literalised and intellectualised religious tendencies in the Hellenized Eastern Empire and North Africa was increasingly to eclipse the western traditions of mysterious figurative mythology, which had been at the cornerstone of European religion for millennia. Apollo, Sol, Belenos, Attis, Dionysus and Adonis became ‘Logos’ – replaced by an intellectual man-god who claimed to be ‘the light of the world’, promising – in return for an oath of allegiance – ‘regeneration’ after death into a divine afterlife, safe from the confusion of life. The perfect model of benevolent Imperial power in fact…

Early Christian writers attest to the disagreement between the supposed Nativity day – one for which there is obviously no precedent in the ‘gospel’ traditions, yet which – as the temporal power of the Christian religion grew – became more important to establish, in order that the ‘church’ might exert leadership over the people and displace the pagan festivities.

The earliest Christian authors from whom we have records and quotations make no reference to a celebration of Christ’s nativity. Origen of Alexandria (245CE) and Arnobius (303CE) both scorn the idea that holy men should have their birthdays celebrated, and imply that this is a practice of sinners.

The earliest reference  from Rome itself to a Nativity festival for Christ held on the 25th of December (the festival of the Rebirth of the Unconquered Sun) is in a document produced for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus in 354CE (‘The Calendar of Philocalus’), of which only copies survive. However, there is evidence that the main focus of the Empire in the East at Constantinople was celebrating the nativity on 6th of January at this time, and it would not be until the advent of the 5th century that the 25th of December would hold sway across all of the main Christian patriarchies (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria), in the drive for Orthodoxy which followed the establishment of the religion as a state Imperial cult, as well as the religion followed by Christianised kings who established themselves in the ruins of Rome’s collapsed western Empire in Atlantic Europe.
It is interesting why the arguments often veered between dating the nativity on the 6th of January (still favoured by the Armenian Church) or the 25th of December: Other recorded early traditions even put the nativity closer to the summer solstice, although these were roundly dismissed in favour of the midwinter dating, corresponding to the solar rebirth festivals of paganism. One must remember that early Christianity was spread across the vast Roman Empire, and was well established at centres such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and Antioch before the pagan system was rejected by the Emperors. There was no formal agreement as to the structure of festivities, except where there was literal evidence from scriptures.

Pagan Rome’s Empire and the Hellenized cultures it was enveloping generally exercised a policy of syncretism and acceptance of diversity, whereas the new literature-based Abrahamic monotheism was based upon inclusion/exclusion determined by active profession of faith and the purificatory symbolic act of baptism. Before its imposition as state religion within the Empire, Christianity was a religion of the faithful that need pay no heed to incorporating pagan ideas. As a state religion though, compromises were necessary and the religion ‘swallowed the blue pill’ in order to incorporate more peacefully with humanity and establish itself at the centre of power. Hence the use of the day of the Nativity of Sol Invictus as the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.

Solar aspects of Epiphany/Theophany:

The indecision between the significance of nativity and epiphany perhaps recognised the importance to Christians of ‘spiritual’ birth or ‘revelation of the godhead’ to the people over the material act of parturition, which after all involved vaginas, body fluids and loco-feminis – ideas considered ‘spiritually unclean’ and somewhat repulsive to patristic religions, and Abrahamic ones in particular. The ‘Epiphany’ represented the cultic dedication of the Christ child to humanity, in the form of his supposed unveiling to the ‘Magi’ in the nativity story. It was a retelling of the Greek myths of the hiding of the infant Zeus from his father Kronos who sought to destroy him, and the visiting of various divine beings to the cave which sheltered him.

Jesus’ circumcision – the Attis/Ouranos myth retold?

Another festival prior to Epiphany celebrated Christ’s initial dedication to the jealous tribal god of Judaea – Yahweh – whose introduction by the post-exilic elites of Judah to the polytheistic semitic world marked a watershed in the eventual decline in the religious diversity of the ancient world of the Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Yahweh demanded absolute obedience from birth, including the marking by genital mutilation of male children, and the circumcision of Jesus was celebrated on the 1st of January, the first day of the first month of a new solar year. This – in Jewish custom – is supposed to occur within 8 days of birth, and is usually accompanied by the child’s naming, so prefigures the development of ‘Logos’ (in the words of John: ‘…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…’ ) and the inevitable Epiphany. There are older precedents for it: in particular, the sacrifice of genitalia by a youthful solar deity was a religious theme not uncommon to more ancient mythologies: The Greeks told the story of the Titan proto-god Kronos (associated with the Roman Saturnalia festival) castrating his child-slaying father Ouranos (the personified sky) with a sickle to spare the children Ouranos had created, and the Phrygians told the myth of their male solar-God Attis castrating himself in a similarly fertile mystic self-sacrifice to the Earth goddess, Cybele. Perhaps the Greek myth of Apollon (Apollo) killing the great Python of Delphi has similar mystic origins, as do the ithyphallic Dionysian, Hermetic and Orphic traditions also popular at the time of the inception of Christianity.

Perihelion and lengthening days:

The period between 1st and 6th of January marks a time when the sun begins to show a definite change in elevation in the sky and days are perceptibly longer. This is also currently the time when the Earth is closest to the Sun in its orbit – the ‘Perihelion’ – when the planet’s southern hemisphere scorches and the northern is tilted into the depths of its winter.

The Solar-Oceanic gods:

This midwinter solstice period also corresponded roughly to the sixth month of the ancient Greek calendar: Poseidonia. Poseidon was one of the oldest Greek gods, being mentioned before the inception of the Olympians in the Linear B texts surviving from the Mycenaean era of the 2nd millennium BCE. He corresponds in this sense to the ‘elder’ god Kronos, who was father of Zeus in Hesiod’s archaic-era ‘Theogony’, and who was ruler of the Golden Age typically celebrated in Rome’s winter solstice celebration: Saturnalia.  The Kronides – monstrous children of Kronos who pepper Greek myths – are the typical adversaries of ancient Greek heroes venturing to the far reaches of the encircling world-river, Okeanos, and Kronos-Poseidon corresponds incredibly closely to the ancient Gaelic Solar-Oceanic god-character Manannán in this regard. As god of the afterlife he was a perfect hypostasis of the Solar Jesus, introduced so successfully and so early among the non-Romanised pagan Gael of the Atlantic West….

 

 

 

 

Gods and Robbers: Sawney Bean

‘Gods and Robbers’ – an introduction:

I shall begin this ‘Atlantic Religion miniseries’ by just recapping on some of the mythologising phenomena that have influenced formerly pagan stories and woven them into the christianised narrative framework in Europe.

A number of different polemic and propaganda techniques appear to have been employed in the medieval Christian church’s efforts to incorporate and subsume the many and deeply-rooted European pagan narrative traditions which, even by the 12thC, were apparently deemed sufficient threat to undermine the establishment of the Christian religion and its vast power structures in Europe. The violence and outright warfare of Charlemagne’s 8thC conquest and forced conversion of pagan Saxon tribes, and of the Albigensian and Northern crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries was on the more extreme end of this spectrum, however. The church and its propaganda operatives generally relied more on polemical traditions, largely developed by the early ‘church fathers’ and used by northern missionaries such as Germanus of Auxerre, Ninian, Palladius, Augustine of Britain, and Patrick during the 5thC sub-Roman/early medieval period.

The main methods used for ‘handling’ pagan traditions can be summarised as follows:

1. Demonisation and ‘Monsterisation’: Perhaps the earliest and most basic technique, based on the theories set out by the earliest Christian authors and ‘church fathers’ that all pagan gods were in fact Satan’s evil demons who had been deceiving humanity for centuries. This would have been most prone to causing conflict among the target populations of missionaries as it equated their gods with ‘evil’. A more gradual process of ‘monsterising’ was also employed, which generally de-emphasised the ‘demonic’, and promoted the pagan characters as ‘monstrous’ (and technically then within the extremes of the natural order).

2. Euhemerisation or ‘humanisation’: Slightly more sympathetic and less likely to meet with violent opposition, this techniques was based upon the tendency of pagan nations and cities to deify their ancestors and pseudo-ancestors. It therefore became a ‘softer’ early Christian polemical doctrine to teach pagans that their gods were in fact originally human ancestors who they had formerly simply worshipped  in ‘error’. By this, they ‘humanised’ rather than ‘dehumanised’ pagans and their traditions, and were able to maintain the more deep-seated affections of ancestor-veneration in a Christian context. The gods therefore simply became part of the historical tradition: For this reason, the official genealogies of fervently-Christian 10th and 11thC Anglo-Saxon kings (written down for them by Christian scribes) were therefore able to firmly claim their proto-ancestor as Wodan without any bother! Likewise, the medieval Welsh Hareliean Genealogies did the same with the pagan gods of the ancient Britons. European peoples would give up their gods before they rescinded their ties to their ancestors, so deep was this spiritual link to the past.

3. Demotion and Diminution: The significance of pagan characters from narrative traditions could be demoted while still maintaining their presence in local Christianised traditions. Gods could become more humanised in their legendary forms and abilities, they could be given human parents. Goddesses became ‘fairies’ and ‘mermaids’, or just old ladies living deep in the woods.

4. Sanctification: The pagan characters of myth were often worthy and moral, generous and helpful and it was often more fruitful to portray them under the guise of a Christian ‘saint’, thus maintaining the important moral aspects of pagan tradition which were impossible to attack with demonization or demotion. It also allowed the pagan cultic sites to be employed under the ‘Theodosian’ system of usage-conversion.

5. Marginalisation: This was the siting of pagan mythical characters and traditions outside of the centre of the communities they formerly occupied. It might involve a relocation in both time and/or space, and was often coupled to the processes of humanisation, diminution and demonization.

These techniques inevitably became a part of popular tradition-making, devolved from ecclesiastical influence. The latter process (marginalisation) appears in part to be responsible for the creation of a number of popular ‘Outlaw’ legends throughout the British and Irish islands whose origins seem to be lost deep in the mists of the medieval period, and whose persistence perhaps owes itself to their deeper and more ancient mythical provenance:

‘SAWNEY BEAN’:

The popular notoriety and stories of the legendary Scottish cannibal-bandit ‘Sawney Bean’ still generates horror, revulsion and tourist dollars in his native homeland. The story goes that ‘Sawney’ (which is a Scots colloquialism of the name ‘Alexander’) ran away from his honest parents, joining forces with an equally evil-minded woman to live a life of crime and hideous cannibalism. They supposedly lived in a cave at Bennane on the Ayr/Galloway coast, on the Firth of Clyde, and had many children who they inculcated into their nefarious ways, sending the clan out to raid, steal and abduct and murder locals, whom they took back to their cave and cannibalised. They were evil in every way: an epitome of horror – robbery, murder, incest and rape were, as it were, their ‘bread and butter’. However, the legend goes that they were captured and taken to Edinburgh where they were tried at the behest of the King of Scotland before being mutilated and burned to death as punishment for their crimes.

'Sawney Bean' and his clan sit down to supper

‘Sawney Bean’ and his clan sit down to supper

Although the story is dressed up in an air of official historicity, an examination of evidence pertaining to it uncovers many levels of polemical intrigue with elements spanning from the medieval era down to the 18th century, and smacks strongly of the legendary, being difficult to locate to any one period in time. Sawney Bean and his tribe have been described as active in either the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries during the reign of the Stuart kings – it varies somewhat, depending on the telling. His name is sometimes given as ‘Donald Bane’ or ‘Donald Bean’ (‘Fair Donald’) – coincidentally the name of a Gallovidian monarch of the 11th century, linked to MacBeth and Mael Columb. Modern understanding of the tradition has been largely informed by popular interest during the 18thC in the broadsheet press and its often sensationalised reportage of macarbre and bloody crimes and judicial executions. Publications such as London’s popular Newgate Calendar and its derivatives became responsible for an explosion of this subgenre, causing publishers to look past the here and now and take in an interest in historical (and romanticisied) tales of gruesome murderers with which to further scandalise and amuse their readership. Consequently, there was a popular explosion of interest in the Scots legend of the Sawney Bean and his exploits, complete with popular ballads and performances based on the tradition. On account of this, the legend tended to become fixed to a time and to a geographical location in the public consciousness, even though its true provenance was somewhere indeterminate, ‘over the horizon of history’ – perhaps in the otherworld. The 1780 edition of Part 1 of the Calendar covered the years until 1740 and regaled its readers with details of famous murderers on a case-by-case basis. The inclusion of the legendary Sawney alongside more avowedly historic and contemporary characters must perhaps be viewed in the light of the prejudices projected against the Highland Scots and Irish following the Wars of Religion and Jacobite Rebellions. It derived from a number of earlier chapbooks, but as I cannot find prints of these to transcribe, I’ve included the Calendar version here (for a more detailed account of the printed origins see here):

“… SAWNEY BEAN

An incredible Monster who, with his Wife, lived by Murder and
Cannibalism in a Cave. Executed at Leith with his whole Family in
the Reign of James I

THE following account, though as well attested as any historical
fact can be, is almost incredible; for the monstrous and
unparalleled barbarities that it relates; there being nothing that
we ever heard of, with the same degree of certainty, that may be
compared with it, or that shews how far a brutal temper, untamed by
education, may carry a man in such glaring and horrible colours.

Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, about eight or
nine miles eastward of the city of Edinburgh, some time in the reign
of Queen Elizabeth, whilst King James I governed only in Scotland.
His parents worked at hedging and ditching for their livelihood, and
brought up their son to the same occupation. He got his daily bread
in his youth by these means, but being very much prone to idleness,
and not caring for being confined to any honest employment, he left
his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the
country, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself.
These two took up their habitation in a cave, by the seaside on the
shore of the county of Galloway, where they lived upwards of twenty-
five years without going into any city, town, or village.

In this time they had a great number of children and grandchildren,
whom they brought up after their own manner, without any notions of
humanity or civil society. They never kept any company, but among
themselves, and supported themselves wholly by robbing; being,
moreover, so very cruel, that they never robbed anyone whom they did
not murder.   By this bloody method, and their living so retiredly
from the world, they continued such a long time undiscovered, there
being nobody able to guess how the people were lost that went by the
place where they lived. As soon as they had robbed and murdered any
man, woman or child, they used to carry off the carcass to the den,
where, cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled
limbs, and afterwards eat it; this being their only sustenance. And,
notwithstanding, they were at last so numerous, they commonly had
superfluity of this their abominable food; so that in the night time
they frequently threw legs and arms of the unhappy wretches they had
murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody
habitation. The limbs were often cast up by the tide in several
parts of the country, to the astonishment and terror of all the
beholders, and others who heard of it.  Persons who had gone about
their lawful occasions fell so often into their hands that it caused
a general outcry in the country round about, no man knowing what was
become of his friend or relation, if they were once seen by these
merciless cannibals.   All the people in the adjacent parts were at
last alarmed at such a common loss of their neighbours and
acquaintance; for there was no travelling in safety near the den of
these wretches. This occasioned the sending frequent spies into
these parts, many of whom never returned again, and those who did,
after the strictest search and inquiry, could not find how these
melancholy matters happened. Several honest travellers were taken up
on suspicion, and wrongfully hanged upon bare circumstances; several
innocent innkeepers were executed for no other reason than that
persons who had been thus lost were known to have lain at their
houses, which occasioned a suspicion of their being murdered by them
and their bodies privately buried in obscure places to prevent a
discovery. Thus an illplaced justice was executed with the greatest
severity imaginable, in order to prevent these frequent atrocious
deeds; so that not a few innkeepers, who lived on the Western Road
of Scotland, left off their business, for fear of being made
examples, and followed other employments. This on the other hand
occasioned many great inconveniences to travellers, who were now in
great distress for accommodation for themselves and their horses
when they were disposed to refresh themselves and their horses, or
put up for lodging at night. In a word, the whole country was almost
depopulated.   Still the King’s subjects were missing as much as
before; so that it was the admiration of the whole kingdom how such
villainies could be carried on and the perpetrators not discovered.
A great many had been executed, and not one of them all made any
confession at the gallows, but stood to it at the last that they
were perfectly innocent of the crimes for which they suffered. When
the magistrates found all was in vain, they left off these rigorous
proceedings, and trusted wholly to Providence for the bringing to
light the authors of these unparalleled barbarities, when it should
seem proper to the Divine wisdom.

Sawney’s family was at last grown very large, and every branch of
it, as soon as able, assisted in perpetrating their wicked deeds,
which they still followed with impunity.

Sometimes they would attack four, five or six foot
men together, but never more than two if they were on horseback.
They were, moreover, so careful that not one whom they set upon
should escape, that an ambuscade was placed on every side to secure
them, let them fly which way they would, provided it should ever so
happen that one or more got away from the first assailants. How was
it possible they should be detected, when not one that saw them ever
saw anybody else afterwards? The place where they inhabited was
quite solitary and lonesome; and when the tide came up, the water
went for near two hundred yards into their subterraneous habitation,
which reached almost a mile underground; so that when people, who
had been sent armed to search all the places about had passed by the
mouth of their cave, they had never taken any notice of it, not
supposing that anything human would reside in such a place of
perpetual horror and darkness.   The number of the people these
savages destroyed was never exactly known, but it was generally
computed that in the twenty-five years they continued their
butcheries they had washed their hands in the blood of a thousand,
at least, men, women and children. The manner how they were at last
discovered was as follows.   A man and his wife behind him on the
same horse coming one evening home from a fair, and falling into the
ambuscade of these merciless wretches, they fell upon them in a most
furious manner. The man, to save himself as well as he could, fought
very bravely against them with sword and pistol, riding some of them
down, by main force of his horse. In the conflict the poor woman
fell from behind him, and was instantly murdered before her
husband’s face; for the female cannibals cut her throat and fell to
sucking her blood with as great a gust as if it had been wine. This
done, they ripped up her belly and pulled out all her entrails. Such
a dreadful spectacle made the man make the more obstinate
resistance, as expecting the same fate if he fell into their hands.
It pleased Providence, while he was engaged, that twenty or thirty
from the same fair came together in a body; upon which Sawney Bean
and his bloodthirsty clan withdrew, and made the best of their way
through a thick wood to their den.   This man, who was the first
that had ever fallen in their way and came off alive, told the whole
company what had happened, and showed them the horrid spectacle of
his wife, whom the murderers had dragged to some distance, but had
not time to carry her entirely off. They were all struck with
stupefaction and amazement at what he related, took him with them to
Glasgow, and told the affair to the provost of that city, who
immediately sent to the King concerning it.   In about three or four
days after, his Majesty himself in person, with a body of about four
hundred men, set out for the place where this dismal tragedy was
acted, in order to search all the rocks and thickets, that, if possible, they
might apprehend this hellish crew, which had been so long pernicious
to all the western parts of the kingdom.   The man who had been
attacked was the guide, and care was taken to have a large number of
bloodhounds with them, that no human means might be wanting towards
their putting an entire end to these cruelties.   No sign of any
habitation was to be found for a long time, and even when they came
to the wretches’ cave they took no notice of it, but were going to
pursue their search along the seashore, the tide being then out. But
some of the bloodhounds luckily entered this Cimmerian den, and
instantly set up a most hideous barking, howling and yelping; so
that the King, with his attendants, came back, and looked into it.
They could not yet tell how to conceive that anything human could be
concealed in a place where they saw nothing but darkness. Never the
less, as the bloodhounds increased their noise, went farther in, and
refused to come back again, they began to imagine there was some
reason more than ordinary. Torches were now immediately sent for,
and a great many men ventured in through the most intricate turnings
and windings, till at last they arrived at that private recess from
all the world, which was the habitation of these monsters.   Now the
whole body, or as many of them as could, went in, and were all so
shocked at what they beheld that they were almost ready to sink into
the earth. Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and
children were hung up in rows, like dried beef. A great many limbs
lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, with
watches, rings, swords, pistols, and a large quantity of clothes,
both linen and woollen, and an infinite number of other things,
which they had taken from those whom they had murdered, were thrown
together in heaps, or hung up against the sides of the den.
Sawney’s family at this time, besides him, consisted of his wife,
eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen
granddaughters, who were all begotten in incest.   These were all
seized and pinioned by his Majesty’s order in the first place; then
they took what human flesh they found and buried it in the sands;
afterwards loading themselves with the spoils which they found, they
returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners, all the country, as they
passed along, flocking to see this cursed tribe. When they were come
to their journey’s end, the wretches were all committed to the
Tolbooth, from whence they were the next day conducted under a
strong guard to Leith, where they were all executed without any
process, it being thought needless to try creatures who were even
professed enemies to mankind. The men had their privy-members cut
off and thrown into the fire; their hands and legs were severed from
their bodies; by which amputations they bled to death in some hours.
The wife, daughters and grandchildren, having been made spectators
of this just punishment inflicted on the men, were afterwards burnt
to death in three several fires. They all in general died without
the least signs of repentance; but continued, to the very last gasp
of life cursing and venting the most dreadful imprecations upon all
around, and upon all those who were instrumental in bringing them to
such well merited punishments …”

As it happens, there are no formal records extant of such a trial, which would surely have left its impression given that the monarch, James VI/I, seemingly took great interest in the judicial processes and personally attended a number of public trials. It would appear that the dating given in the Calendar was one of convenience, perhaps designed to suit the political atmosphere and prejudices of the late 18thC. Galloway itself was – during the early 18thC – a hub of the somewhat politicised Irish Sea running trade, and French privateer frigates were given safe haven in the Western Isles during the 7 Years War during the 1750’s and 60’s, so there was good reason why such a negative character might have been depicted hiding out in caves on the Galloway coast.

The cave of Sawney and his clan is most commonly located to Bennane Head, Ayrshire, formerly being in the lands of the distinctly Gaelic Kennedy clan who had ruled over the Carrick district since at least the time of Robert the Bruce. It is certainly capable of housing a group of bandits, but does not fit the description in the Newgate Calendar tale, which forms the basis for modern recollections of the tale in Scotland. It is not in a place which would have been sufficiently remote in ancient times. The cave has sufficient early 16thC provenance and importance to appear on a 1450 writ asserting the rights of Johne Kennedy to the lands at:

“…Bennane and Dalwegene with the Manor Place and Cave of the same togidder with the office of Seargandrye of the said Earledome Carrick and that upon the said Henrye Kennedy his resignation which lands and office he had held hereditarily from James II, dated at Aire febr 13 1450 …” (See: History of the counties of Ayr and Wigton, Volume 2 p.95, by James Paterson; Pub. James Stillie, Edinburgh 1864)

They cave is on a small bay, and could have served use as a warehouse, boathouse or even a defensive shelter, hence its inclusion in the above writ. James Paterson described the remains of a masonry bulwark wall at the head of the cave that was ancient in the 1860’s as well as remains of buildings. The Kennedy clan were eventually caught up in the religious chaos and in-fighting following the Protestant reformation, and the murderous intrigues and regional instabilities between Kennedy and his neighbours only hastened the willingness of the Stuart monarchy to finally begin to break independent Clan economic, military and religious power in the region – power which they had originally fostered.  It is perhaps no surprise that Sawney’s scandalous legend would have been located within these lands for this reason, but the history of banditry, piracy and ‘out groups’ in the West Lowlands has an even older provenance beyond the history of the Pictish and Dalriada kingdoms.

So… what of Sawney Bean in all of this? Evidently, to have inhabited the Bennane (Benand) cave he would have had to have done so with the blessing of the local Kennedy lairds, to whom the cave was evidently important. This makes the legend of a real outlaw unlikely, unless he was one of the Kennedy’s himself. Some regional clans certainly practiced piracy and smuggling down to the 18thC (some might argue they were no more pirates and smugglers than the King’s navy and trade fleets). Cannibalism? It seems like too lurid a detail to be true and almost certainly originates in Scottish polemical propaganda of the intrigue-riddled Shakespearean/Renaissance Age, rather than English efforts at Scots-bashing in the 18th century. ‘Makar’ poet, William Dunbar (Dumbar), might surely have made reference to the legend of Sawney Bean had it been current and associated with the Kennedys as a whole, when flyting his insults at the bard Walter Kennedy, younger brother of the 2nd Lord, John Kennedy of Dunure, in ca. 1503. This famous performance – known as The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie was apparently performed in the court of James IV in Edinburgh at the start of the 16thC and makes no reference to cannibalistic crooks, but yet for this is perhaps one of the most delightful pieces of insult-poetry committed to writing during the Renaissance! It was preserved in the Bannatyne Manuscript. Dunbar’s approbations of Kennedy (a clergyman, as befits his ‘second son’ status) are colourful to say the least, twice referring to the priest as ‘cuntbitten’ among a barrage of similar lurid insults.  None the less, Dunbar’s derision at no point makes any reference to his clan’s supposedly cannibalistic tenants, suggesting that if they were historic and associated with Bennane, then they likely came later in the 16thC after Kennedy’s death in 1507. However, this seems highly unlikely to be the case, given the lack of corroborative evidence for what would have been a well-recorded and sensationalised case in its day. Dunbar’s taunts at Kennedy were largely based on his appearance and ‘uncouth’ Gaelic mannerisms, including not a few imputations of paganism. Given the general lack of evidence to back up their existence, the clan of ‘Sawney Bean’ must therefore be considered legendary or mythological. This in turn leaves us with the possibility that more mysterious seeds may have populated the tale…

Was pagan mythology behind the ‘Sawney Bean’ myth?

The association of seaside caves with the mythology of the old Atlantic Religion seems to be a definite subtext in the folklore of the region. Nearly all such caves of any significance in the British and Irish Isles (not to mention Brittany and beyond) have enjoyed a connection to either saints or devils: Such a dichotomy of attribution is in itself highly suggestive of Christian polemic attempting to convert pagan legends into a form congruent with the ‘new order’. Galloway has, further south, a cave near Whithorn that was said to have been used by St Ninian and is still celebrated in association with the saint who is said to have bought christianity to this region at a very early time from Rome.

St Ninian's Cave: No mermaids here - please move along!

St Ninian’s Cave: No mermaids here – please move along!

Sea caves or caves near rivers are more often than not associated with pagan myths. The creation of caves is often related to underground rivers or springs, to which many (especially in limestone areas) owe their existence. They also represented a baser more ancient form of living – a place of resort in times of peril, and the habitation of those outside of the bounds of law and society. This made them the focus of many christianising legends designed to demote pagan ideas.

Sawney or Samhain?

The name ‘Sawney’ is usually believed to be a version of ‘Sandy’ and therefore a colloquialisation of the name ‘Alexander’. However, the name derives ultimately from the west coast of lowland Scotland, which was a predominantly Gaelic-speaking region until the 17th/18thC. This means that it is worth taking a gaelic linguistic approach to the name ‘Sawney Bean’, which contains obvious Gaelic elements (‘Bean’=’Bane’=white/fair). The first part of the name ‘Sawney’ is closest to the Gaelic festival name ‘Samhain’ (pron. ‘Saw-en’). Samhain was the festival of the dead when the souls of the departed (the Sluagh Sidhe) were near at hand, waiting to be carried off to the otherworld. The cave associated with Sawney Bean is located at a place containing aspects of his name – the Bennane‘ – also a gaelic name. ‘Ben’ is, of course, the gaelic word translating as ‘female’ (mna is ‘woman’) and is also applied to the names of mountains. You might recall from my previous posts that there is an association with mysterious aquatic female spirits with headlands and foreshores, not to mention caves all across the Atlantic world from Spain to the Slavic lands. The frightening popular figure of the ‘Halloween Witch’ is perhaps the greatest demonic archetype associated with Hallowe’en/Samhain – this originally referred to a single magical female character, not ‘witches’ in general (which were probably an innovation of the 16th/17thC witch panics). In the Isle of Man, she was called ‘Jinny the Witch’ (‘Yinny’ = Aine) and she was probably also the sorceress of Manx legend known as ‘Tehi-Tegi’ who stole the souls of men and took them into the sea, before transforming into a mystical bird – the wren. Samhain was the period when fertility had been ‘stolen’ away from the world, and the Sawney Bean was also famous for abducting souls and death. Both him and the ‘Samhain Witch’ therefore take on an equally monstrous aspect whose terrifying legends draw them closer together in the legendary consciousness… so much so that Sawney’s wife takes such a role in his legend. Of further linguistic interest, Sawney was sometimes referred to as

Written legends or traditions about ‘Sawney Bean’ are somewhat hard to come by. Most traditions available to study in literature (late 18th and 19thC) seem to have arisen from the Newgate Calendar versions of the tale, which influenced the growth of the tale in popular culture down to modern times. 19thC English author, the wealthy and well-connected politician/lawyer/novelist Robert Plumer-Ward included Sawney Bean in a romantic short story called ‘St Lawrence’ which was printed in many of the literary magazines in the early-mid part of the century. The tale is set in the fictional ‘Castle Campbell’ in Kintyre, in which the laird is forced to tell his visitors of the tale of Sawney Bean after his guests enquire why his servants are nervous of a coming storm. The laird intimates that it was a tradition of the clan is that Sawney’s soul periodically returned to cause severe storms, and that he was a supernatural personage. It is unclear if Ward was simply using literary license or quoting a tradition he had discovered through research – he was a well-connected individual who almost certainly was entertained in Scottish castles with similar stories. Here is a passage which sums up Ward’s use of Sawney in his tale:

“…’Scotland would not be Scotland,’ returned Mr Campbell, ‘if some such appendage had not been added to the tale. In truth, the whole neighbourhood believed that the storm which had closed the sea entrance had been the express work of Providence, for it never happened before. Sawney believed it too and the farmer who took him, being a Campbell who had emigrated to the north of Ireland from this place, he swore as he was led to execution that he would visit it every twenty years, and bring destruction upon all of the name’… “

The implication is that ‘Sawney’ was a spirit who haunted certain members of the widespread clan of Campbell – one of the oldest Gaelic clans, who famously claim ancestry with the tragic Fenian hero Diarmuid O’Duibne, whose legend claims he hid out in a cave with his lover (and wife of Fionn), Grainne, before dying fighting a fierce wild boar. In the Isle of Man one of the names for a mythological fairy-pig was ‘Arkan Sonney’ (Uirceann Sonney) – another hint at the older aspect of ‘Sawney’.

Summary: Sawney Bean was the name of a legendary Gaelic Scottish cannibal-outlaw supposed to have lived with his wife and family hidden in a cave on the Galloway coast. His existence has no historical veracity but his demonization myths were applied politically, both by the Scots (against the Gaelic Scots) and later by the English, to whom he provided a Scottish ‘bogeyman’ figure for the troubled Jacobite era. The name ‘Sawney’ means ‘Alexander’, and was a popular form of the name during the 18thC. However, in the gaelic tongues, ‘Sawn’ could quite reasonably be the word ‘Samhain’ – a name for the festival of the dead, associated with a latterly monstrous magical female character in the Irish sea region. This character is known variously as ‘The Witch’, ‘Cailleach’, ‘Tehi-Tegi’, ‘Jinny’, ‘Ouna/Ona/Una’, ‘Aine’ and ‘Shoney’. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to wonder if ‘Sawney Bean’ has something to do with a demonised, demoted, euhemerised and marginalised aspect of the legend of the Celtic Great Goddess…