Mythological Event Horizons Part 1: Rome before 27BC

(This is the first in an occasional series of posts dealing with the use of mythology to revise history)

The emergence of powerful new cultures is often accompanied by the rise of powerful new religious narratives, with which leaders seek unify their domain under a spiritual foundation sympathetic and congruent to their regime. In times of crisis, this narrative may further evolve and gain accretions.

Establishing a mythological basis for a culture is an ancient technique designed to place that culture’s origins back in a place called ‘mythic time’ – in an unassailable period of timeless ‘fact’ lying somewhere beyond the horizon of verifiable history. This  mythology provides a justificatory provenance which supports the new order, but the phenomena is one which – after great periods of time – continually confounds enquirers seeking to untangle the truth behind the history of cultures and their mythological aspects.

In the case of the ancient city state of Rome, its different phases of cultural development (economic, military and religious) demanded establishment of and refinement of a popular founding myth. In so doing, its leaders were calling upon the traditions borrowed from the oldest and most glorious city states, of which Babylon (established circa 2800BCE) is a particular example. Largely following in the footsteps of Greek and Phoenician examples, Rome required a founder who existed in a time when men and gods walked the earth together – the mythical ‘bridging age’ of demigods, around which most legends evolved. Mere historical truths could be easily revised by fact, but in the popular imagination the divine was more unassailable.

Romulus and Remus and their Lupine 'mother'.

Romulus and Remus and their Lupine ‘mother’.

The Roman Kingdom and Republic:

With cultural change and revolution, comes a re-mythologizing of the past in the image of the present. As most of the histories of Rome’s past come to us from the late Republican era at the earliest, we are at a loss to determine fact from mythology and invention.

The Roman Republic was said by later histories to have commenced with the overthrow of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in 509BCE. It is hard to say for sure if this founding event (albeit later trumpeted as such) actually occurred or if that king was indeed real. It may have been an historical invention by a culture struggling to trace its faltering early steps from ‘barbarity’ into the era’s idealised Hellenic models of power and polity.

Tribalism, chieftains and tyrants were a typical Greco-Roman shibboleth for the majority of Europeans whom they considered Barabarians – Celts, Thracians and those living north of the Danube and the Rhine who had not assumed the trappings of Hellenic and Middle Eastern cultures. We might add the class of ‘Romans’ to those whom Greeks considered also considered ‘barbarian’.

The distinction between social classes during the era of the Roman Republic was a typical dialectic split between the aristocratic dynasties of landed gentry (the ‘Patrician’ class) who typically traced their family pedigrees back into the city’s supposed and actual Regal Era, and the more ordinary ‘Plebians’ – families (gens) without historic aristocratic pedigree, but keen on building their own modern dynasties. It can be considered a typical Old Money/New Money dialectic – absolute power was held by neither, yet strived for by both. As such both groups had different needs in using mythology to bolster or establish their claims to rights and power.

Since the Roman Republic (which cam to an end in 27BCE) is the first era from which we have definite supporting history and archaeology, Rome’s Regal Age (Romulus, Numa, the Tarquinians etc) must therefore constitute its first mythological ‘event horizon’.

It was from this age that was generated the archetypal image of a ‘good king’, Numa Pompilius (said to have ruled 715 – 673 BC), who was so lauded by Rome’s first Patrician Emperors. Numa was said to have instituted peace, wealth, economic growth and the structure of Roman religion and its calendar of observances. By the Augustan era (after 27BCE) Numa therefore served as an idealised ‘historic’ founding father for Rome’s new aristocratic Imperium. The city’s ultimate supposed founder, the fratricidal Romulus, was more of a ‘mythic’ founder. This was the narrative later employed by Livy and his literary compatriots of that New Order.

The Second Punic War and further re-mythologizing:

Rome’s earliest autocthonus history that we know of is that of Quintus Fabius Pictor a soldier-statesman of the ancient patrician Gens Fabii who participated both militarily and diplomatically in the Roman Republic’s greatest crisis before the 1stC BCE: the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC). This war was an attempted conquest of Rome by a combined force of Celts, Numidians and even some Italians, led by the Carthaginian Gens Barca dynasts Hasdrubal and his brother Hannibal.

Fabius’ lost history of Rome was later cited by Livy (Ab Urbe Condita Librii) as the source for its founding myth of Romulus and Remus, as heirs of Aeneas of Troy, and the line of pre-Republic kings who ruled after them. It was written in Greek and would have served as a brilliant piece of contemporary propaganda designed to garner support for Rome from among the Greek world (itself no lover of the Celts) in the wake of the Punic crisis, through citing a common Greco-Roman origin.

This supposed ethno-cultural connection with the Greeks was very popular in the more deeply Hellenised patrician classes, many of whom spoke Greek and studied Greek culture as a high cultural ideal. The stories of Aeneas, the kings of Alba Longa, Romulus and Numa, were however, not necessarily a Roman idea: the Grecophile Fabius had borrowed the story of Rome’s earliest kings from an earlier Greek historian: Diocles of Peparethus, whose lost works included histories of the Persian Empire, the significance of which becomes more important as we delve further into the myth of Romulus. It stands as a good example of how mythology, posing as history, can respond to a state of crisis.

In stark opposition to the Grecophile attitudes of patricians such as Fabius was the brooding, brilliant, energetic and deeply conservative Marcus Porcius Cato (‘Cato the Elder’). Cato was from a well-established plebeian gens of wealthy agriculturalists, who was outspoken against the ingress of Greek, Phoenician or more oriental cultures. To him has been credited the first Latin history of Rome (perhaps written in opposition to Fabius’ patrician-oriented Greek language history of Rome), which survives only in fragments quoted by later writers. Cato rose to the highest public offices and strove throughout his life to act as a ballast of traditional Roman values, and felt no shame in wearing the Greek label of ‘barbarian’. You can imagine his horror with the perceived degeneracy of the recently imported festivities of the Bacchanalia at Rome, especially in light of threat from Carthage. His apoplexy must have been acute when the patricians of the senate took the advice of the (Greek) Cumaean Sibyl and the Delphic Oracle and decided to bring a foreign god into Rome’s official pantheon in response to the Hannibalic War:

Magna Mater – and the introduction of Greek mystery cults:

A more overt consequence of the second Punic War upon Roman state religion was its importation of the worship of Magna Mater/Cybele from Phrygia in Magna Graecia, which was not just the donation of a goddess and her cult, but actually involved the translocation of its principle idol and priesthood from Mount Ida in the Troad (the district in which ancient Troy was supposedly located). The Greeks equated Cybele with Rhea (associated with the similarly-named Mount Ida in Crete), and the name of the legendary mother of Romulus and Remus from the Roman histories – Rhea Silvia – seems simply to be a Romanised metathesis of ‘Rhea Cyvele‘. This suggests the possibility that the history of Fabius and the introduction of Magna Mater were possibly part of a concerted conscious effort of state cultural and religious propaganda.

As it happened, Cato’s political rival Scipio, was victorious over Hannibal and occupied Carthage after a series of decisive and stunning military engagements in Hispania and in North Africa, making these into Roman provinces. Soon after, Rome was to conquer the Achaean league and take Greece itself – its religious and social makeup would be forever changed, much to Cato’s dismay.

Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire:

The late Roman Republican era culminated in the city’s stunning territorial expansion, driven by the twin threats of incursion of the Celts from the north and the sequelae of the opportunity caused by the fractious instability of the eastern military Empire founded by Alexander the Great. This opportunity culminated in both stunning conquests (Caesar’s taking of Gaul and Pompey’s campaigns in Africa and the Middle East) and Rome’s next great period of crisis in which militarised internal factionalism and power struggles threatened the root and stability Rome’s establishment. It was a period of chaos, civil war and a controversial de facto regicide in the case of Julius Caesar.

The man who eventually established peace and a new era of stability was Octavian, who became Rome’s first Emperor – Caesar Augustus – in 27BCE, founding a dynastic line of subsequent emperors.

   The ‘Augustan Period’ (27BCE-14CE) marked another important milestone in Rome’s deliberate efforts at significant cultural re-invention and re-mythologizing. There was an explosion in the expression of ideas about Rome’s past in literature, almost certainly engineered by Augustus himself. Of these, the works of Livy with his new history of Rome: Ab Urbe Condita Librii, and the epic poetic equivalent represented by Vergil’s Aeneid served to concrete the past in the image of Octavian’s new order. Both borrowed from newly translated Latin versions of Fabius’ History. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses provided the Greek world with ample evidence of Rome’s superior abilities in the poetic and mythological arts.

Vergil, Ovid and Livy’s works spanned a dialectic between popular culture (the mythology and poetics of the Aeneid) and serious historical scholarship (Livy) and were runaway hits that succeeded in promoting the new Empire’s ideals. As usual a certain amount of licence was taken with facts in order to portray a seemingly cogent, continuous and ordered rise from Rome’s noble but humble origins in the 8thC BCE to the greatness of Augustan Rome, which in the era cited for its founding myth was probably no more than a small and insignificant village on the Tiber. The reality of Rome’s growth was probably very different and more chaotic than historians of the Empire would have us believe.

In his preface to the history of the age of the Roman kings, Livy sums up the spirit of his Imperial benefactor’s ambition:

” … the fates, I suppose, demanded the founding of this great city, and the first establishment of an empire, which is now, in power, next to the immortal gods … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii – Book 1)

The earliest part of the book is probably entirely mythological, and is thought to be based on Fabius (3rdC BCE) who based his work on Diocles (4th/3rdC BCE). Both of these works are lost. Livy’s account places the founding of Rome as part of the dynastic succession struggles of the Kings of Alba Longa – said to be heirs and successors of Aeneas of Troy, who settled with his people in Italy, after that Homeric idealised prototype city-state‘s fall.

Livy was using a legendary motif common to the founding of many great city dynasties – birth (rebirth) from water: This is also seen in the legends of Sargon of Akkad (originating in Bronze Age Babylonia), which would have been known to Diocles of Peperethus, who studied the Persian Empire which inherited Babylon until it was taken by Alexander in 331BCE. A founding myth of Babylon includes the following details, taken from a Babylonian inscription:

” … Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I. My mother was a <virgin priestess>, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains. In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates, my mother, the <virgin priestess>, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth. She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch, and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me. The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier. Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart, Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son, Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener. In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king, and for forty-five years I held kingly sway… ” (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, 1914 – translation of an inscription supposedly dated to the period of the founding of Babylon c.2800. Rank uses the term ‘Vestal’ for my insertion: <virgin priestess>)

This theme of the aquatic rebirth of a city-empire’s founder-hero appears to have been copied into the myth of Moses, which seems likely to have originated among the Judaean immigrants of Persian-ruled Babylonia during the Iron Age. These were to return and rule their own great city-state or kingdom with their new monotheist religion as vassals of Persians and then the Macedonian Empire of Alexander. It was then probably borrowed (‘probatum est’) into Livy’s 1stC BCE Roman history in his myth of Romulus and Remus, which goes as follows:

” … The Vestal (AR: Rhea Silvia) being deflowered by force, brought forth twins, and declared that the father of her doubtful offspring was Mars; either because she really thought so, or in hopes of extenuating the guilt of her transgression by imputing it to the act of a deity. But neither gods nor men screened her or her children from the King’s cruelty: the priestess was loaded with chains, and cast into prison, and the children were ordered to be thrown into the stream of the river. It happened providentially that the Tiber, overflowing its banks, formed itself into stagnant pools in such a manner, as that the regular channel was every where inaccessible, and those who carried the infants supposed that they would be drowned in any water, however still. Wherefore, as if thereby fulfilling the King’s order, they exposed the boys in the nearest pool, where now stands the Ruminal fig-tree, which, it is said, was formerly called Romular. Those places were at that time wild deserts. A story prevails that the retiring flood having left on dry ground the trough, hitherto floating, in which they had been exposed, a thirsty she-wolf from the neighbouring mountains, directed her course to the cries of the children, and, stooping, presented her dugs to the infants, showing so much gentleness, that the keeper of the King’s herds found her licking the boys with her tongue; and that this shepherd, whose name was Faustulus, carried them home to his wife Laurentia to be nursed. Some there are who think that this Laurentia, from her having been a prostitute, was, by the shepherds, called Lupa; and to this circumstance they ascribe the origin of this fabulous tale. Thus born, and thus educated, as soon as years supplied them with strength, they led not an inactive life at the stables, or among the cattle, but traversed the neighbouring forests in hunting. Hence acquiring vigour, both of body and mind, they soon began not only to withstand the wild beasts, but to attack robbers loaded with booty. The spoil thus acquired they divided with the shepherds; and, in company with these, the number of their young associates continually increasing, they carried on both their business, and their sports … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii. trans. George Baker)

Livy’s famous account seems very close to the myth of Sargon, used in the founding myths of the city-state of Babylon and its later clutch of Persian-Judaean whelps and their story of Moses. The twins seem very similar to the mythical Greek twins, Kastor and Polydeukes (Interpretatio Romanum: Castor and Pollux), one of whom was mortal, the other divine. The story is also echoed in the Hebrew story of Cain and Abel.

In his narrative on Romulus and Remus Livy is reflecting the importance of Kastor and Polydeukes in the myths of the Hellenic world. These were mythical sportsmen, and the games that marked the Roman festival of Lupercalia (linked to the wolf mythology of Romulus and Remus) were perhaps a reflection of an Arcadian and Attic Greek tradition attached to myths of Kastor and his brother, and involving a unifying festival of competitive sports: the Olympic games. The appropriation of Greek culture was of particular importance to Romans after the Battle of Corinth in 146BCE, which marked Rome’s effective conquest of Hellas (some might say it was more the other way around, culturally). Rome filled the footsteps of Magna Graecia and her Empire. This was no surprise: after all – Roman culture was in fact Greco-Roman culture…

Similarities in Greco-Roman and Gaelic myth

Although the mythology of the material and intellectual cultures we know as 'Greco-Roman' is Europe's oldest inscribed tradition, that of Ireland and the 'insular Celts' must come next, albeit the written form of it is from a much later date. In particular, it often excels and exceeds the Greek material by its apparent strangeness and stylised 'otherness', yet as a source of pagan myth it needs – like the Norse sagas and Edda texts – to be treated very carefully as it is told by christians, unlike the Greek and Roman material which comes from pagans.

Nonetheless, the Christians did not have much in the way of myth to call their own, except for the 'Old Testament' materials and the early saints' lives, many of which were based on pagan tales, in their style and often in their narrative content: These were essential to pad out its own religious narratives and replace (or at least displace) the contents of the potent oral-transmission culture with a literature-based alternative.

It is worth noting a number of things about southern-European pagan religious culture, however, before framing a debate of paganism vs christianity in terms of oral transmission culture vs. literary culture: Firstly, it is worth remembering that – since the advent of the Hellenistic era in the 5thC BCE – that literary culture became an important stalwart of Greco-Roman societies, and seems to have become a primary mode by which people came to understand their religion. There were certainly traditional aspects to the culture to a late period, but by the advent of christianity, this was being displaced. The role of the priesthood and attendants in many of the most important temples was generally fulfilled as a fixed term civil office by the worthies of Greek and Roman society, so – unlike the traditional and esoteric forms of learning that Gaul (and Britain's) professional priesthood had to undergo, these offices were losing their mystery. Mystery remained the province of cult-centres such as Eleusis, Delphi and the island of Samothrace, and the discourse-communities of the Philosophers – the Neo-Platonists, Hermeticists and Gnostics who thrived in the late-classical world after the advent of Christianity and who pre-figured its rise. It is telling that classical paganism's most complete and (in scope) extensive theogonic text – the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Persepolis in Egypt – was written by an author whose output later included a commentary on the christian Gospel of John. To understand this is to understand where the impetus for Christianisation was focussed in the less-literate climes of northwest Europe, such as Ireland, in the 5th/6thC CE.

Whereas some of our oldest surviving literature from the pagan world is religious, this aspect of the genre was in mortal decline in parallel to the rise in interest in philosophy and the 'mysteries' from the advent of the Hellenic period. By placing literacy in the hands of a few – a trained elite (after the model perhaps of the barbarian, Egyptian and Eastern peoples) – christianity would place itself at the heart of the new models of kingship appearing in the 'barbarian' world following the collapse of the Roman franchise in the west.

There are many similarities between the written medieval Irish myths and Greek legends. The reasons for this might be fourfold:

1. That the Irish believed in a shared widely-known and ancient cosmic worldview, populated with similar characters and themes to those of ancient Greece and southern Europe, and the Christian authors recorded this from traditional orally-transmitted narratives.

2. That literate monks used Greek and Roman (or Romano-British) myths to flesh out a written Irish narrative which did not otherwise exist – a kind of 'new age' eclecticism.

3. That Irish and Greek myths developed separately, yet shared similarities determined by (a) the culture and traditions/techniques of storytelling and (b) empirical reactions to natural phenomena.

4. A synthesis of points 1-3.

Obviously, the most likely answer is point 4 – we simply do not have enough evidence to support points 1-3 independently, but we have good evidence that all of them have been contributing explanations. I shall now present a number of Irish myths/mythic characters and their apparent Greco-Roman counterparts and let you decide for yourselves:

Cú Chulainn:

The archetypal indefatigable warrior super-hero of the 'Ulster Cycle' stories – Cú Chulainn – seems to have a particular similarity to Herakles or Hercules: He is the son of a god, associated with blacksmith-craftsmen (Cullain). Cullain seems to relate to the Greek 'earth-born' proto-blacksmiths known as the (Idaean) Dactyls, of whom Herakles was sometimes considered one. was a supreme warrior, a lover of goddesses (Fand, wife of Manannán mac Lir) and his nemesis is a goddess (the Morrigan). He is a performer of fantastic tricks and sporting feats, yet forever tied to the whims of his king and his gods. He lives fast and dies young – a true aspect of the Celtic warrior ideal. is also a 'king's champion' warrior archetype – a dog on a leash, as befits his name. He sometimes comes across as bombastic, brash, sometimes clumsy and insensitive – a bit of a lummox at times, and then at others, clever and dextrous, and light on his feet. Like Herakles, he travels to far-off islands and does battle with the weird as well as the mundane, performing 'feats' along the way.

One way in which Cú Chullain differs from Herakles is that Herakles was a folk-hero responsible for taming and conquering the wild and chaotic forces for the good of humanity. In the 'Ulster Cycle', Cú Chullain typically acts on behalf of the interests of his liege lord – like the other famous Greek warrior-strongman Achilles. This perhaps reflects the fact that these Irish legends (like their later French and British 'Arthurian' traditions) were often designed for telling at the courts of elite rulers, and therefore suited the value-system of this milieu. In folk-myths, Fionn and Cú Chullain often take on much more gigantic proportions and attributes.

The Battle of Maige Tuired:

This is the 'showdown' scene of the Irish mythological cycle stories in which the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians are pitted against one another for supremacy of Ireland. The Fomoire are usually described as a race of sea giants in Irish mythology, and the Manx word Foawr (from 'Fomor') means 'Giant'. They seem similar to the aquatic Titans of Greek myth and the Cath Maige Tuired is like an Irish version of the Greek Titanomachy – the battle and overthrow of the Titans by the Olympian Gods, with whom the TDD share a certain similarity. Similar legends exist from Norse myth – the primal giants here are the Frost Giants: Titans at -40 Celsius! Of course, the bizarre cannibalistic and incestuous Greek narratives of the Titans are absent from the CMT and the 'Book of Invasions' stories which present more of a heroic pseudo-historical dynastic struggle. Tolkein borrowed heavily from the imagery of the battles of Maige Tuired in constructing his battle scenes in Lord of the Rings.

Giants and primordial helpers:

The landscape of Atlantic Europe – particularly those regions where Greco-Roman and later christian culture was slow to assert itself – is riddled with ancient mythology of primordial giants who supposedly played some important roles in determining the shape of the landscape – mountains, fjords, rivers, lakes, plains and great rocks. The same was true of the mythology of the Archaic period and Bronze Age of southern Europe – in particular the mythologies of ancient Greece, but we can discount these as playing a late originating role in the folklore of northern and northwestern legends due to the lack of impact of these material and cultural civilisations in these zones.

The Greek giants and Titans were 'Earth-Born' (Gygas – after Ge/Gaia, the personified Earth). The pagan Norse word used for giants in the middle ages was Gygr – existing into the more modern periods in the Scots Gyre and Faroese Gyro. The Manx equivalent of the Scots Brownie, Uirisk and Grogach legend was the Phynnodderee, 'Dooiney Oie' ('Night Man') or Glashtin – a being considered gigantic, primitive, coarse and animalistic in appearance who helped householders and warmed himself by the hearth at night when humans slept. His local legends seem, curiously, to conflate him with both Fionn mac Cumhaill and even Cú Chullain and, when not explicitly named, with the activities ascribed elsewhere in the Atlantic world to other giants – specified or unspecified. This is a representation of the archetypal earth-born ancestor, and is a particularly important and wide-ranging link between northern and southern pagan mythology which appears to have a commonality stretching way back into the Bronze Age. Herakles was also an aspect of this.

The Otherworld:

Both Greek and Irish myths portray the Otherworld as a location reachable by a westward journey over the great ocean. The legendary Greek islands of Elysium, the Hesperides/Erytheia and Ogygia, and the 'Islands of the Blessed' or 'Fortunate Isles' have their Irish equivalents in the many names of Gaelic mythology's magical western islands which were also considered the resort of departed souls: Mag Mell, Tír na nÓg, Tír na mBeo, Tír Tairngire, Tír fo Thuinn, Ildathach , Hy Brasil, Tech Duinn and Emain Ablach. These places are sometimes explicitly islands, sometimes under the sea, sometimes of a hybrid type that emerges (and just as soon disappears) from the sea.

Like in the Greek legends, the otherworld is also represented as a chthonic realm – beneath the earth. Like the Greeks, the Irish seem to have believed that the rivers of the world joined a 'world river', and that it re-manifested from the otherworld by piercing back though the earth as springs of water. Like the Greeks and Latins of southern Europe, and their fellow Bronze Age and Iron Age era 'Celtic' peoples further north and west they considered springs of water to be important and holy – no doubt for this reason. Sidhe mounds or Fairy Hills were the traditional 'home' of Irish (and to a lesser extent, Manx and Scottish fairies). They were sometimes considered to be the sources of rivers returning from the otherworld. Mountains and artificial mounds had similar associations in Ireland. In a flat landscape, a mound is something akin to an island – a consideration when addressing the 'otherworld inversion' belief that permeates Atlantic European folklore.

An interesting aspect of the Greco-Roman myth is how there seems to be a plasticity in portraying the otherworld 'places' (Elysium, for example) as both meadows or gardens and simultaneously as islands bordering Okeanos. This same conflation appears to represented quite strongly in the old Irish story 'The Voyage of Bran mac Febail' where he is conveyed to the otherworld islands over a sea which gradually appears to become a meadow.

Mermaids and Sirens:

The idea of female (and male) entities who lured men to stay with them in the watery or otherworld realms are common to both Greek and Gaelic myths. The 'Sirens' occur in Greek myths such as Homer's Odyssey and the Argonautica ('Jason/Iason and the Argonauts'). They were sometimes depicted as half-bird, half-female inhabiting islands surrounded by huge rocks and high cliffs, luring sailors to their deaths on the treacherous shores with their beautiful songs. Calypso, the daughter of Atlas on Ogygia also fits the enchanting-island maiden archetype, and although was not considered one of the Sirenai, seems part of the same mythos. Even the Gorgons tempted brave Perseus to their realm, and from his 'killing' of Medusa there was a magical birth (of Pegasus and Chrysaor).

In Atlantic Celtic mythology, this function was the province of alluring beautiful mermaids – usually half-human, half-fish in their conception but sometimes 'seal people' (e.g. – Selkies). The Isle of Man's version of the Cailleach – Caillagh y Groamagh was supposed to fly in from the sea in the form of a bird at Imbolc/La'a Bride, and she may be another aspect of the beautiful fairy maiden called 'Tehi-Tegi' who in Manx legends lures men into the sea or a river to drown them, before flying away in the form of a wren (sometimes a bat!). The Gaelic (Irish/Gallovidian) Merrow was sometimes known as Suire which sounds very much like a version of 'Siren' although this may be in reference to known Greek myths, and this type of mermaid was associated with a feather hat or cape. Crofton Croker's 'Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland' is worth reading for a summary on the Merrows.

Harpies and Sidhe Gaoithe:

There was an explicit belief in former times in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man that sudden gusts of wind were caused by the actions of spirits and fairies. Indeed, this was a feature of the demonology of medieval Christian Europe, and may well link back to the ancient Greek beliefs that the Harpies were responsible for the same. They were depicted (again) as half-woman, half bird or as winged female entities and were personifications of storm-winds. The Cailleach Bheara of the Scottish Highlands and Islands had a similar association, and was sometimes considered a female-avian who flapped her wings to make the winter storms. In the Isle of Man, the (not uncommon) tornados were sometimes supposed to be caused by a fairy known as Yn Gilley Vooar ny Gheay – 'Big Boy O' the Wind'.

River Nymphs and Sea Nymphs:

Perhaps subjoined to the mermaid legends, it is notable that the Greeks and the Irish personified their rivers with female spirits or entities. Evidence of this comes from the Dindseanchas legends and those of the so-called 'landscape-sovereignty' goddesses, otherwise referred to as Bean Sidhe, no doubt because river-drainage areas in mountainous landscapes tend to map and define territories. Greco-Roman mythology venerated such female water deities, and this tendency was also found in the European celtic world in the late Iron Age (although much of our evidence here comes after the period of Romanisation). Again, the 'Cailleach' personification from folklore seems to combine many of these functions (Harpies, Sirens, Nymphs etc) into the form of this single protean Titaness. Likewise, the Moura Encantada of the Iberian peninsula and the Marie Morgane of Brittany as well as the 'Lady of the Fountain' (or lake) of Arthurian lays and romances.


It is apparent that ancient European paganism was a universal system of philosophy and 'science' illustrated through traditions of the arts: story, poetry, song, pictures, dances and drama. Every possible phenomenon seems to have been addressed by assigning mythology to it, and the boundary between the spiritual and the secular did not really exist – instead there was a continuum. The southern European civilisations emerging from the Bronze Age with a more oriental perspective, eventually coming to consider themselves 'better' and more 'enlightened' than their 'barbarian' cousins (and ancestors) in northeastern and northwest Europe, and due to warfare and incursions of these 'barbarians' between the 5thc BCE and the 1stC CE (and beyond), and due also to the dependence on written knowledge, a perception derived that their religious and spiritual beliefs were 'different', when in fact they had a shared root.


Ancestor beliefs and the ‘time before memory’

I have made much of the importance of ancestor beliefs in my posts, and how these relate to a belief in ‘fairies’ and ‘spirits’, and I’d like to examine this a little bit more…

Before the introduction of literary culture to Atlantic Europe by the Greeks and Romans, the transmission of memories, information and knowledge was by oral transmission. This involved the development of a number of ‘tricks’ of formalisation – ‘aides-memoires’ if you will- in order to assist with memorisation, and from this grew the bardic culture: a field of expertise for coding large amounts of complex knowledge into verse and forms which allowed memorisation, as well as providing a shared mnemonic culture and good entertainment.

Statue of Iron Age 'bard' clutching a Celtic lyre, or 'Crwth'. The lyre was common to the Greeks from an early period.

Statue of Iron Age ‘bard’ (Brittany) clutching a Celtic lyre, or ‘Crwth’. The lyre was common to the Greeks from an early period.

Bardism survived the Christian period into the late medieval period when they were largely only formally employed as reciters of pedigrees to Gaelic chieftains, but died out with the dissipation of the clan system – the last vestige of Iron Age culture save for those particular story traditions and beliefs which we all know and love, and which I seem to spend a lot of time writing about. Pedigrees offered clans a link with the heroic (i.e. – ‘purer’ and less controversial) past. As such, they were open to a great deal of interpretation and revision in order to satisfy the political needs and claims of contemporary bardic patrons.

Due to the limitations of memory, the usefulness of information, there is usually a cutoff point or ‘event horizon’ in oral history which represents a ‘time before memory’, and oral/bardic culture had to deal with this in a formalised way. In the context of informal folktales collected from post-literate societies (even if the reciter is illiterate), vague timescales creep into narratives: For example, Irish tales of the Cailleach Bheara collected and stored at the DeLargy Centre at University College Dublin’s folklore survey archive might refer to ‘a long time ago’ or even ‘a hundred years ago or more’ to establish a setting which involves timescales of great supposed antiquity. The opening credits to the Star Wars films open with the same legendary theme before scrolling away to a point of infinity on the screen. In a way it is a method for framing a story in a distant place where anything might be possible, or at least be more difficult to contest!

The start of all good stories...

The start of all good stories…

This ‘time before memory’ is an important place where a storyteller can establish modern ‘facts’ with abstract and alliterative origins. The freedom of the story takes the gravity of established fact and reality from the shoulders of the characters, allowing them freedom to fly in unimaginable ways and perform acts of magic. Time, physics, even conventional morality do not apply, except where it suits the storyteller to remind their audience of them.

Understanding how to address the principle of ‘time before memory’ was undoubtedly a technical discipline to a bardic/oral culture. Beyond the ‘event horizon’ it wouldn’t have been a case of ‘anything goes’, but there were instead degrees of difference depending on just how far back the tale was taking the reader. A good example of this are the written works of the traditional (orally transmitted) lyric poets of ancient Greece, most notably Homer and Hesiod (6thC BCE or earlier), both of whom deal with these shady kingdoms of the legendary past in a formalised and structured pattern. From the foundless chaos of the initial creation to the time of the Golden Age and the subsequent ‘Ages of Men’, through to the matings of gods with men and finally the Trojan War and its aftermath these narratives take the listener (or later the reader) through the various degrees of comprehensibility which end largely in a recognisable world of humans following the sack of Troy. Subsequent ‘histories’ from this part of the ancient world would use the events at the end of the Illiad to start their accounts of history ‘within memory’…

To add another dimension to bardic culture, it often relied upon former bards ‘from beyond the event horizon‘ to give authority or veracity to their accounts, as if these people were astronauts reporting back from the unknown. Thus we have Celtic story figures such as ‘Oisin’, ‘Taliesin’ and ‘Merlin’ (even the egotistical, pompous and bumbling Senchán Torpéist) who occur in stories in such a fashion. Who knows – perhaps Homer and Hesiod themselves were of the same kind?

The real Homer?

The real Homer?

The further back into the unknown and deep ancestral time a narrative tale goes, it is generally fair to say that the more fantastical it becomes. The number of human-like characters dwindles in order to suggest the origins within a single family unit – mother, father and child. Even then, they may take on characteristics which make distinguishing them from the landscape and animals of the land increasingly difficult. They grow to huge stature, as if to explain their likeness to the stars, oceans and mountains which informed the landscape of the listener.