Gods and Robbers: Robin Hood

Undoubtedly the most globally famous of Britain and Ireland’s legendary bandits is the much vaunted Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest. His popularity has much to do with his wide-ranging status as a champion of the disenfranchised, freedom-fighter against oppressors, self-sufficient inhabitant of the marginal wilds, egalitarian redistributor of wealth and adventurer whose legend resonates with a timeless, placeless audience. Of all the mythological outlaws of note, his has most often been linked to the euhemerisation of the land’s oral traditions of older pagan gods, trampled under the march of quill and parchment from the early middle ages. As most people know a few stories about him, in this post I am going to refrain from discussing plots which have little relevance to the underlying meaning.

In truth, evidence about the origins of the myth of ‘Robin Hood’ is somewhat sketchy, and this in itself is complicated by the apparent transformations of the tale in art, song, story and dramatic performance right down to the most modern times. The story seems always to have suited various contemporary propagandistic political and revisionist narratives which have retold it in order to magnify their own contemporary causes through appropriation of the story. More recently, for instance, it has been used to serve both cold-war communist and multiculturalist dogmas. However, the underlying narrative is one of the establishment of justice and economic stability, essentially crystalized in the following framework-myth:

A outlaw man with claims to leadership of the common people (i.e. – national husbandry) is expelled from his community when it comes under the yoke of a wrongful order which is unjust and economically unfair. He goes to live in the wilds where he learns skills that allow him both to survive without recourse to common society and to become a master of his new kingdom – nature itself. The hero gradually makes increasingly bold forays against the invasive new order, and sweeps back into the social spotlight where he dazzles and tricks his way through the obstacles thrown in his path, eventually regaining his rightful position within his society as a trusted hero and leader.

What’s in a name?

The earliest versions of the myths preserved in (15thC) medieval ballads demonstrate Robin more as a commoner, omitting claims of royalty which have been suggested to have come as later additions made possible by the increasing social mobility engendered in phases following both the Black Death and subsequent peasants’ revolts, and then from the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and the redistribution of land following the fractions of the Protestant Reformation and various wars and revolutions this engendered. The oldest medieval tales often focus more on ‘Lytel Johne’ as the main protagonist, with ‘Robin’ often seeming a touch otherworldly, and therefore (from John’s frustrated perspective), somewhat erratic and untameable. The relationship seems somewhat akin to that between humans and the mythological ‘fairies’ known as ‘Robin Goodfellow’, ‘Brownie’, ‘Phynnodderee’ or ‘Hobthrust’ of folk legends. The name ‘Robin’ is derived from the Latin word for the sanguine colour (red) – ruber. ‘Robin’ is synonymous with the name ‘Robert’, which has a phonetic similarity to the English word ‘robber’, implying a thief and outlaw.

‘Robin Goodfellow’ is the English fairy who is supposed to help with domestic husbandry, and therefore a version of the ancestral household deity once so common in European religions of the Iron Age and earlier. The name is obviously very similar to ‘Robin Hood’, and this brings us to an examination of the ‘Hood’ part of the name: The Old English words ‘Hode’ or ‘Wode’ (they are interchangeable) do not mean ‘hood’ or ‘wood’, but instead refer to ‘wildness’ or ‘madness’, and are therefore related to the name of the Germanic deity ‘Wodan’ or ‘Odin’, not to mention the Germanic fairies referred to as ‘Hodekin’ who may somehow be related. The modern English word ‘Mad’ is a version of the same, ‘M’ and ‘W’ being interchangeable in many Indo-European languages, both Celtic and Germanic. ‘Robin Hood’ therefore probably means ‘Wild Red One’, although ‘Robin God-fellow’ might be another interpretation. The name ‘Robin Artisson’ is given for the spirit associated with Alice Ketil (Kyteler) – an aristocratic (Hiberno-Norman-Norse) woman who was tried by the Bishop of Ossory for heretical pravity, use of magic and consorting (sexually) with a demon at Kilkenny in the early 14thC. The Annales Hiberniae have this to say on the matter:

“…. Ricardus Ledered, episcopus Ossoriensis, citavit Aliciam Ketil, ut se purgaret de heretica pravitate; quae magiae convicta est, nam certo comprobatum est, quendam demonem incubum (nomine Robin Artisson) concubuisse cum ea…”

Accusations and suspicions of heretical paganism seemed to stick to the more recently Christianised Norse-Hibernian elites of the Irish Sea region during the middle ages. The name ‘Artisson’ is a Norse version of the Irish ‘Mac Airt’, meaning ‘Son of the Bear’. This would imply that ‘Robin Artisson’, like Robin Hood was a creature of the wild woods, or maybe even a real man somehow associated with ongoing practices and beliefs in Norman Ireland of the Norse Berserker cult of Odin … perhaps ‘Robin Wode’ would be another name for the same character.

Madness and divinity are close bedfellows! The concept of madness appears to have had a different connotation in ancient times – ‘wildness’ seems more of an appropriate interpretation: close to the state of beasts and the turbulence of the untamed. I have already previously talked about the connections between the Celtic god Belenos, madness, prophecy and battle-fury and the seed of the herb, Henbane (Hyoscyamus Niger/Albus), which was anciently (and still is) called ‘Beleno’. Another connection with madness-inducing plants is alluded to by the name of the Roman god Robigus, who seems more pertinent to this discussion of ‘Robin Wode’: Robigus was one of the rustic (and therefore indigenous, non-oriental/non-Greek) gods worshipped by the Italic Iron Age peoples and on during the Roman Empire. He was the god venerated for the protection of crops from rust disease, much of which was caused by the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) which was a famous cause (along with contamination with the Darnel grass, Lolium temulentum) of madness among those who ingested contaminated grain. Robigo/Robigus was probably related to the chthonic-military Italic god, Mars-Quirinus, whose colour is red (like that of his planet). The Robigalia was celebrated by the Flamen Quirinalis on April 25 (close to Beltain) with the sacrifice of a dog, in order to prevent crop disease. Mars is the most active planet on the ecliptic path – dancing and looping like the merry pranks of Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood, and any number of legendary equivalents…

Profuse wildness of growth and references to the colour red appears in a number of British plant-names: for instance, we have Herb Robert/’Red Robin’ (the prolific Geranium Robertianum – replete with red stems and pink flowers) and the equally prolific but decidedly un-red ‘Robin-Run-Over-The-Hedge’ (Glechoma Hederacea). There is also ‘Ragged Robin’ – Lychnis flos-cuculi – another pink flower, a lover of acid soils and boglands. The notable north European bird species, Erithacus rubecula the European Robinis perhaps of greater significance in indigenous traditions. An old English rhyme states ‘The Robin and the Wren are God’s two holy men’, and the old Manx wren-hunt ballad or rhyme refers to ‘Robbin the Bobbin’ as the instigator of the wren hunt itself – the wren being the incarnation of the Manx pagan goddess of olden times – Tehi-Tegi, the ‘Fair Chooser’ of the dead… The robin bird, unlike others, is famously inquisitive of human activity, and is sometimes known as ‘the gardener’s friend’. It – like the fairy ‘Robin Goodfellow’ has a semi-wild sympathy with the human race…





Hallucinosis, battle-fury and oracles of the divine

When the Gaulish warlord Brennus led his army through the Greek defences at Thermopylae and into a full-on assault on Delphi in 279BC, he was attacking perhaps the most important and wealthy religious centre of ancient Greece, notable for its oracular priestesses who apparently communed with the solar god Apollo in order to answer the questions of suppliants. These suppliants came from across the known world and beyond, and bought great wealth and honour to the sanctuary and its city, deep in the Greek highlands. Although there are no surviving contemporary records of this exceptional assault by the Celtic army, the 1stC Gallo-Roman author Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus of the Vocontii of Gallia Narbonensis wrote about the attack some 200 years later in his ‘Phillipic History‘ (of the Macedonian dynasty and its aftermath) which survives in a slightly later Epitome by Roman author, Justin. Given the role of southern Gauls in tne campaign (the Volcae Tectosages Belgic group settled or returned there after the event – reputedly with great wealth) it seems that Pompeius Trogus’ account is worth paying attention to, albeit embellished with the idea that those who attack holy sites pay with their lives… In Book 25 of Justin’s ‘Epitome’, we learn the following:

“… The Gauls, when the land that had produced them was unable, from their excessive increase of population, to contain them, sent out three hundred thousand men, as a sacred spring, to seek new settlements. Of these adventurers part settled in Italy, and took and burnt the city of Rome; and part penetrated into the remotest parts of Illyricum under the direction of a flight of birds (for the Gauls are skilled in augury beyond other nations) making their way amidst great slaughter of the barbarous tribes, and fixed their abode in Pannonia. They were a savage, bold, and warlike nation, and were the first after Hercules (to whom that undertaking procured great admiration for his valour, and a belief in his immortality), to pass the unconquered heights of the Alps, and places uninhabitable from excess of cold. After having subdued the Pannonians, they carried on various wars with their neighbours for many years. Success encouraging them, they betook themselves, in separate bands, some to Greece, and some to Macedonia, laying waste all before them with the sword. Such indeed was the terror of the Gallic name, that even kings, before they were attacked, purchased peace from them with large sums of money…”

He goes on to describe the defeat and death of the Macedonian king Ptolemy Keraunos and his army by the theophorically-titled Celtic warlord, Belgius. Another Gaulish chieftain, Brennus, appears to have then entered the fray to acquire his own share of the wealth of the crumbling Empire’s homelands:

“…In the meantime Brennus, under whose command a part of the Gauls had made an irruption into Greece, having heard of the success of their countrymen, who, under the leadership of Belgius, had defeated the Macedonians, and being indignant that so rich a booty, consisting of the spoils of the east, had been so lightly abandoned, assembled an army of a hundred and fifty thousand foot and fifteen thousand horse, and suddenly invaded Macedonia. As he was laying waste the fields and villages, Sosthenes met him with his army of Macedonians in full array, but being few in number, and in some consternation, they were easily overcome by the more numerous and powerful Gauls; and the defeated Macedonians retiring within the walls of their cities, the victorious Brennus, meeting with no opposition, ravaged the lands throughout the whole of Macedonia. Soon after, as if the spoils of mortals were too mean for him, he turned his thoughts to the temples of the immortal gods, saying, with a profane jest, that “the gods, being rich, ought to be liberal to men.” He suddenly, therefore, directed his march towards Delphi, regarding plunder more than religion, and caring for gold more than for the wrath of the deities, “who,” he said, “stood in no need of riches, as being accustomed rather to bestow them on mortals.”

The temple of Apollo at Delphi is situate on Mount Parnassus, on a rock steep on all sides. A concourse of people, who, collecting from the parts around, through veneration for the majesty of the god, settled on the rock, formed a city there. Thus, not walls, but precipices, not defences formed by the hand, but by nature, protect the temple and the city; so that it is utterly uncertain whether the strength of the place, or the influence of the deity residing in it, attracts more admiration. The central part of the rock falls back in the shape of an amphitheatre; and, in consequence, if ever shouts are raised, or if the noise of trumpets is mingled with them, the sound, from the rocks echoing and re-echoing to one another, is heard many times repeated, and louder than it was made at first. This effect, on those who are ignorant of its cause, and are struck with wonder at it, produces a greater awe of the power of the god. In the winding of the rock, about half way up the hill, there is a small plain, and in it a deep fissure in the ground, which is open for giving oracles; for a cold exhalation, driven upwards by some force, as it were by a wind, produces in the minds of the priestesses a certain madness, and compels them, filled with the influence of the god, to give answers to such as consult them. Hence many rich presents of kings and nations are to be seen there, which, by their magnificence, testify the grateful feelings of those that have paid their vows, and their belief in the oracles given by the deity.

Brennus, when he came within sight of the temple, deliberated for some time, whether he should at once make an attempt upon it, or should allow his soldiers, wearied with their march, a night to refresh themselves. The captains of the Emanus and Thessalorus, who had joined him for a share in the booty, advised that “no delay should be made,” while the enemy were unprovided for defence, and the alarm at their coming still fresh; that in the interval of a night, the courage of the enemy would perhaps revive, and assistance come to them; and that the approaches, which were now open, might be blocked up. But the common soldiers, when, after a long endurance of scarcity, they found a country abounding with wine and other provisions, had dispersed themselves over the fields, rejoicing as much at the plenty as if they had gained a victory, and leaving their standards deserted, wandered about to seize on everything like conquerors. This conduct gave some respite to the Delphians. At the first report that the Gauls were approaching, the countrypeople are said to have been prohibited by the oracle from carrying away their corn and wine from their houses. The salutariness of this prohibition was not understood, until, through this abundance of wine and other provisions being thrown in the way of the Gauls, as a stop to their progress, reinforcements from their neighbours had time to collect. The Delphians, accordingly, supported by the strength of their allies, secured their city before the Gauls, who clung to the wine-skins, on which they had seized, could be recalled to their standards. Brennus had sixty-five thousand infantry, selected from his whole army; of the Delphians there were not more than four thousand; in utter contempt of whom, Brennus, to rouse the courage of his men, pointed to the vast quantity of spoil before them, declaring that the statues, and four-horse chariots, of which a great number were visible at a distance, were made of solid gold, and would prove greater prices when they came to be weighed than they were in appearance.

The Gauls, animated by these assertions, and disordered, at the same time, with the wine which they had drunk the day before, rushed to battle without any fear of danger. The Delphians, on the other hand, placing more confidence in the god than in their own strength, resisted the enemy with contempt, and, from the top of the hill, repelled the Gauls as they climbed up, partly with pieces of rock, and partly with their weapons. Amidst this contest between the two, the priests of all the temples, as well as the priestesses themselves, with their hair loose, and with their decorations and fillets, rushed, trembling and frantic, into the front ranks of the combatants, exclaiming that “the god was come; that they had seen him leap down into his temple through the opening roof; that, while they were all humbly imploring aid of the deity, a youth of extraordinary beauty, far above that of mortals, and two armed virgins, coming from the neighbouring temples of Diana and Minerva, met them; that they had not only perceived them with their eyes, but had heard also the sound of a bow and the rattling of arms;” and they therefore conjured them with the strongest entreaties, “not to delay, when the gods were leading them on, to spread slaughter among the enemy, and to share the victory with the powers of heaven.” Incited by these exhortations, they all rushed eagerly to the field of battle, where they themselves also soon perceived the presence of the divinity; for a part of the mountain, broken off by an earthquake, overwhelmed a host of the Gauls and some of the densest bodies of the enemy were scattered abroad, not without wounds, and fell to the earth. A tempest then followed, which destroyed, with hail and cold, those that were suffering from bodily injuries. The general Brennus himself, unable to endure the pain of his wounds, ended his life with his dagger. The other general, after punishing the advisers of the war, made off from Greece with all expedition… “

Pausanias (Description of Greece, 2ndC CE) added greater detail to his own version of the story, claiming that the disorder that led to the apparent defeat of Brennus and his army was caused by an apparent outbreak of madness within the Gaulish camp which caused them to fight among themselves…

“… At the beginning of the fight the Gauls offered a spirited resistance, especially the company attached to Brennus, which was composed of the tallest and bravest of the Gauls, and that though they were shot at from all sides, and no less distressed by the frost, especially the wounded men. But when Brennus himself was wounded, he was carried fainting from the battle, and the barbarians, harassed on all sides by the Greeks, fell back reluctantly, putting to the sword those who, disabled by wounds or sickness, could not go with them.

They encamped where night overtook them in their retreat, and during the night there fell on them a “panic.” For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan. It was when evening was turning to night that the confusion fell on the army, and at first only a few became mad, and these imagined that they heard the trampling of horses at a gallop, and the attack of advancing enemies; but after a little time the delusion spread to all.

So rushing to arms they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither understanding their mother tongue nor recognizing one another’s forms or the shape of their shields. Both parties alike under the present delusion thought that their opponents were Greek, men and armour, and that the language they spoke was Greek, so that a great mutual slaughter was wrought among the Gauls by the madness sent by the god…”


Considering both accounts, we can see that Brennus’ previously highly disciplined and motivated army arrived at Delphi after a string of significant earlier victories, and plundered (or were given) some wine and subsequently fell into disarray, eventually being repelled. Both accounts agree on a certain amount of chaos breaking out, but Pausanias states that the Gauls suffered a mass outbreak of some kind of hallucinatory and delusional psychosis and paranoia. Assuming that he is not speaking figuratively of the weapons of the god Apollo (divine madness) it would appear that the Gauls were affected by the Delphian wine, which was obviously no ordinary wine…

Herba Appolinaris:

Hyoscyamus Niger

Hyoscyamus Niger

It is likely that Brennus’ army (or a significant part of it) fell prey to the effects of wine laced with the mind-bending herb Hyoscyamus Niger, known in English as Henbane, in Spanish as Beleno, and in German as Bilsenkraut. The ancients (eg – Pedanius Dioscorides (De Materia Medica, Book 4, 1stC CE, also Pliny the Elder)  knew it as Herba Appolinaristhe herb of Apollo. In fact, Dioscorides tells us of the many names for it across the known world:

It is also called dioscyamos, pythonion, adamas, adamenon, hypnoticum, emmanes, atomon, or dithiambrion; Pythagoras and Osthenes call it xeleon, Zoroastres, tephonion, the Romans, inanaoentaria, some, Apollinaris, the Magi, rhaponticum, the Egyptians, saptho, the Thuscans, phoebulonga, the Gauls, bilinuntiam, and the Dacians, dieliam.

That Dioscorides gives the Gaulish word as ‘Bilinuntiam’ is often taken as indicative of a concordance between the gods Apollo and the Celtic deity Belenos, and thus it would seem of interest to those who are intrigued by the genesis of the cultural movement of the Celtic ‘tribes’ referred to under the umbrella term Belgae who were somehow linked to the events of 279BC. Dioscorides’ reference to the name ‘pythonian’ for Hyoscyamus also appears to be a reference to this oracular usage, although the myth maintained at Delphi was that priestesses inhaled the exhalations of an ancient vent in the ground, no doubt supposed to conduct the fumes of the decaying corpse of the giant Python killed by Apollo. The fact that Henbane is also known as ‘Stinking Henbane’ due to its unpleasant odour adds to the likelihood that it was responsible for the mind-bending oracles of the Pythia.

Greek tetradrachm depicting Apollo the archer with the Python and the Delphic tripod

Greek tetradrachm depicting Apollo the archer with the Python and the Delphic tripod

Toxicity of Hyoscyamus goes from mild drunkenness to a total confusion, agitation and frenzy, and from there easily into overdosage and death. Obviously, the Pythia (priestesses of the Apollonian oracle) would have been experts at dosing themselves, and must have possessed a standardised preparation which they consumed. It is possible that they could have inhaled the vapours from burning seeds, but given the accounts of Pausanias and Pompeius Trogus/Justin about the chaos that afflicted Brennus’ army in 279BC it is just as likely that they consumed it in wine. Pausanias’ comment that Brennus died of drinking undiluted wine could well be an allusion to this, in fact. Pompeius Trogus states that the leaders at Delphi ordered that the Gauls be given free access to the wine and food of the city, so a deliberate poisoning may well have occurred…


The reputation for bravery and ferocity of some Celtic warriors was commented on by a number of Roman authors – not in the least to allow themselves to congratulate their own soldiers for defeating them. The same ferocity among ‘barbarian’ warriors next receives comment when Christian Europeans encountered the warring aspect of their pagan neighbours from the north during the ‘Viking’ era, this time in the form of the ‘Berserkr‘ (lit. ‘Bear Skin’) warriors. These were men who had dedicated themselves to Odin, their god of battle. The Anglo-Saxon equivalent was Wodan – a name recognisably connected with the Old/Middle English word ‘Wod(e)’, meaning madness or frenzy. It has been suggested that Henbane is a likely drug that could have been used to induce a visionary or frenzied state in Berserkr warriors, and evidence of Henbane seeds among possessions buried in pagan graves (eg – Fyrkat, Denmark) has been used to reinforce this suggestion (although to my mind they could equally have been used for preventing sea-sickness!). Further to this, there was a tradition in Germany and Bohemia of brewing beer using Henbane, suggesting that ‘Pilsener’ was a name fortuitously apprehended by the burghers of Plzen in Bohemia with which to brand their own pseudo-eponymous mass-produced beer in the 19thC, albeit without the ‘Pilsenkraut’ additives. Bohemia, was of course named after the Celtic Boii tribal federation who were undoubtedly involved in the Balkan, Greek and Anatolian Celtic campaigns of the 4th/3rdC BCE.

The 'visionary' man holding a torc and serpent (Gundestrup cauldron - late Celtic iron age). Compare this image to the Delphian tetradrachm above...

The ‘visionary’ man holding a torc and serpent (Gundestrup cauldron – late Celtic iron age). Compare this image to the Delphian tetradrachm above…

Bearing in mind my suggested concordances of the Celtic god Belenos with a number of medieval-era late pagan gods and mythological characters from northern and eastern Europe, the association with Apollo, and similarities between the Pythonian myth and the conception of the pagan Scandinavian universe from the Icelandic Edda texts, a picture begins to emerge of the survival and transformation of an Iron Age visionary religion which reached its height in the 3rdC BCE and which survived Romanisation in the Germanic, Slavic and Scandinavian regions…


Concordance in Norse/Germanic and Irish mythology

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

Odinn and Manannan:

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

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

Sigurd and Fionn:

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

Finn, Cuchullain and Thor:

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

Wayland, Chullain and the Gobban Saor:

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

Magical wells returning water from the Otherworld:

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

Mystical Trees:

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

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

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



Óðinn,Vili and Vé – Aesir, Elf and Vanir?

Óðinn, Vili and Vé are the three brothers who created the world from the body of the primordial giant Ymir in the Poetic and Prose Edda stories from 13thC Iceland – largely believed to represent the mythology and religious beliefs of the Norse/Scandinavian pagan world.

Óðinn is instantly recognisable from his multiple myths and position as the supreme Norse pagan god, yet the brothers Vili and Vé seem on superficial inspection to have few attestable roles in the old religious continuum. This, however, may not be the full picture: Firstly the ‘V’ names have an interesting link to the name of the other group of Norse gods, known as the Vanir. The Vanir may be older gods, particularly if the reference of the 1stC CE Roman historian Tacitus to a god(dess) called ‘Nerthus’ (Njörðr or Jörð) and a ‘Tribe of Ingvi’ is anything to go by… In addition the ‘Celtic’ god known as Belenos/Belinus/Bel may have a similar relationship through the linguistic transformation that occurs between ‘b’ and ‘v’‘Vili’ becomes ‘Bili’, which seems very close to ‘Beli’: The character of Baldr might also be closely related.

Óðinn’ typically occurs as ‘Woden’ in the more continental Germanic dialects. This makes the triad ‘Woden, Wili, and We’. The name-triad has particular significance as it suggests the name ‘Weland’ – Germanic folklore’s cunning blacksmith.

The apparently ‘triadic’ attestation of Óðinn and his brothers from the Icelandic Edda allows us an interesting opportunity to examine some lost elements of the puzzle of what the Norse gods were originally before the differentiations caused through Christianisation and migration of ‘Germanic’ language speakers during the collapse of the late western Roman Empire. In particular, we need to consider the triad as æsir-alfar-vanir, with Óðinn as æsir, Vili (Völundr) as alfar/elf, and Vé (Ingui) as Vanir.

The triadic division of gods and mythological divinities is commonplace in Europe’s ancient pagan traditions. With regard to Norse legend, the gods often travel in triads and in the poetic Edda lay of Völundarkviða, Völundr is travelling with his two brothers. The famous 11thC account of the pagan temple at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden by Adam of Bremen mentions a triad of giant statues – Óðinn, Thor and Freyr. Thor, although one of the Aesir, has a certain similitude with the hammer-weilding blacksmith Völundr, opening up another pathway for analysing how these gods might have evolved from common origins.

The possible link between Thor and Wayland (to use his English name) is beset at the outset with a number of contradictions or contradistinctions. For starters, we have a lot more mythological evidence about Thor, which necessarily skews the comparison somewhat. In Völundarkviða, Wayland is clever and a craftsman; he is wounded and enslaved by an apparently human adversary, against whom he eventually exacts vengeance. Thor, on the other hand is portrayed as less than bright; he is an impulsively bombastic smasher of skulls – in particular those of the ancient and monstrous mythological beings who represent primal chaos. The two therefore seem very different, albeit in a complimentary fashion

In terms of similarity, we have the blacksmith’s hammer. Thor’s Mjölnir is forged by the ‘Sons of Ivaldi’ – dwarves or dark elves, of which I will say more. Although wielded by Thor as a weapon, its use as a subtle forging tool must not go unrecognised. The thought of Thor making things with Mjölnir seems laughable, yet the legendary theme of combat with primal forces is in essence one of mankind forging his survival out of the elements. The development of metalworking during the Bronze Age marked a shift in the archaeological evidence of how humans in Europe started to dispose of their dead – through cremation, underground. The cthonic realms (those of the dwarves and giants) offered up the metals and resources which were to drive radical changes in human technology and spirituality. Thor’s apparent ‘brutishness’ with monsters is in distinction to Wayland’s clever subtlety, but it can be seen that they both represent aspects of the same key idea. Goats are a similar example of exactly the same thing: goats are the most versatile domestic animals, being apparently able to feed on almost anything in order to produce meat and milk. Thor posseses two magical goats in the Edda accounts, said to pull his chariot. Both hammer-wielders are therefore responsible (spiritually) for representing the control of the elements and the creation of excellent things from base matter.

Other similarities between Wayland and Thor are that Wayland is also depicted in Völundarkviða (like Thor) as a fierce warrior and powerful hunter, capable of killing great beasts (he kills and eats a bear, for example). His human captor (a king) is ultimately powerless against him, suggesting a certain god-like power.

Another aspect of ‘Vili’ might possibly be found with the father of the characters referred to in the Snorra Edda book Skáldskaparmál as ‘Sons of Ivaldi’. These are three brothers (dwarves or dark elves) who create the mighty magical artifacts for the gods – a ring for Óðinn, a hammer for Thor and a golden boar for Freyr. The giant Thjazi (Þjazi) whose daughter Skadi marries the Vanir Njord is said to be a son of a giant called Alvaldi/Olvaldi, famous for his vast (cthonic) wealth. Thjazi’s two other brothers are Gangr and Iði, again forming a triad. Interestingly, one of Loki’s sons is called Váli (Gylfaginning) and is transformed into a wolf (symbolic of primal hunger and wildness) by the Aesir in order to kill Loki’s other son Narfi (Njord?) – the gods bind Loki with Narfi’s entrails! Also in Gylfaginning, the following is said of Odin’s sons:

“One is called Ali or Váli, son of Odin and Rindr: he is daring in fights, and a most fortunate marksman.”

Odin’s son Váli was said to have been created and grown up in a day in order to punish Baldr’s killer. The description of the gods in Gylfaginning associates him with the same qualities given to Wayland/Völundr in Völundarkviða – a daring vengeful warrior, and an excellent shot with a bow (one of Völundr’s epithets is ‘weather-eyed archer’). In fact the same is said of the Aesir Ullr – another of Odin’s sons who – like Völundr goes hunting on skis with a bow. ‘Ullr’ can be considered a linguistic transformation of Vllr, which links to both Váli and Völundr. Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum names Ullr by the latinized version ‘Ollerus’ and describes him as a wizard who ruled in Odin’s stead during his exile, which fits with the Snorri’s Icelandic Ynglinga Saga account of Vili and Vé who ruled in Odin’s stead while he was away, and took Frigg as their wife.

The other link to Odin is that there are references in Old and Middle English literature (as well as in the sagas) to Wayland’s father – Wade (Norse: Vaði) a name similar to Wotan. He is mentioned by Chaucer (e.g. – Troilus and Criseyde) and allusions are made to his wondrous boat.In the Thidrekssaga (also called Vilkinasaga), he is the son of King Vilkinus, a name redolent of Vili. Wade’s half brother is called Nordian.

The third member of the primal triad with Odin and Vili is Vé, who I suggest represents the Vanir aspect. The word ‘Vé’ way. It is interesting that Snorri mentions in his euhemerised account of the gods in the Ynglingasaga (Heimskringla) that Odin appointed Njord and Freyr to be the chief sacrificial priests among the Aesir, following the Aesir-Vanir war. The Vanir Njord was said by Snorri in this same text to have been the first buried under a burial mound at the temple of Uppsala in Sweden, effectively ending the (bronze age) custom of cremation urn-burial – Snorri was something of an archaeologist as well as an accomplished historian and author! The Vanir goddess Freyja was supposed to have had a hall at a place called Folkvangr which received the souls ?of women (‘half of the dead’), vangr meaning ‘field’ but with connotations of Vé.

The Isle of Man (known in its native tongue as Ellan Vannin) has a village called Glen Vine, which borders a farm called Ballafreer (next to Trollaby) at which there is a field recorded as being called ‘the devil’s field’ in the now lost Ordnance Survey namebooks. The field is – by popular tradition – said to have been cursed by St Patrick so that it might never grow barley for beer and must in Viking times have been a sacred meadow for the growing of barley for the winter ales. The same property (named after Freyr, and historically a church glebe) contains a whitewashed phallic standing stone of a type seen in Norway and Ireland, and the remains of a number of ancient buildings probably dating to the viking era (and before). The Vanir appear to have had a connection to temples and worship and cthonic bounties – as illustrated by this unique Manx example.

The Ynglingasaga account of Vili and Vé ruling while Odin was away from home runs straight into Snorri’s story of the Aesir-Vanir war, without explaining much about why this happened. In fact it occurs immediately after Odin returns to find his wife in bed with Vili and Vé, so we must assume that this is the cause! You may recall that the poetic edda lay, Grímnismál, describes Alfheim as Freyr’s ‘tooth-gift’ (generally thought to mean a teething present), associating Alfar with Vanir.

Grímnismál shares certain similarities with Völundarkviða – principally the capture and torture of a God by a king, and the resulting consequences. The star of the latter poem or lay is none other than Wayland, whereas Odin is the protagonist of Grímnismál. Wayland’s ‘tooth gift’ is somewhat more sinister – he sends his captor and torturer the teeth of his murdered sons as jewelery! As to Freyr (whose ‘tooth gift’ was Alfheim), he is also known as Yngvi-Freyr or Ingui-Freyr and the name ‘Yngvi’ can be considered to mean ‘Son of Vi’ or ‘Son of Vé’, connecting him to the Odinic triad.

Noting the apparent Elf-Vanir relationship hinted at in the sources, it is of further interest that the Ynglinga Saga (and other sources based on the poem Ynglingatal such as in the Gesta Danorum) tells of two euhemerised progenitor-kings of Sweden called Yngvi and Alf. Alf prefers (like the Elf-Prince Wayland) to stay at home, whereas Yngvi is an active fighter and traveller. Consequently, Alf’s wife Bera falls for Yngvi, and the two fall out and kill one another. Again we see echoes of the legend of the Aesir-Vanir war and the theme of kin-strife, and the seemingly-linked Wayland legend blends with that of these euhemerised historical traditions.

The appearance of another character called Bera as the lover of the character Bjorn in the 14thC Icelandic Hrólfs saga kraka is another interesting parallel to Völundarkviða: Bjorn is the son of a king who is often away campaigning. He is in love with a freeman’s only daughter, Bera. The queen (possibly his mother) desires the strong, large handsome young man and demands he has sex with her but he slaps her in disgust and tells her to go. She curses him to assume the shape of a bear, and when the king returns he hunts the bear and the queen has it served up to Bera at a feast. Although superficially dissimilar to Völundarkviða it has a number of interesting parallels: After he and his brothers ‘marry’ the Valkyries who depart after 8 years, his brothers go to hunt for them, but Völundr stays home and takes to hunting in the forest. He kills and eats a bear shortly before he is captured and enslaved by the local King – the (unstated) implication of this tragic tale seems to be that the Bear was his Valkyrie lover. In the Ynglingasaga, Bera was the wife of Alf (=Elf = Völundr). In Hrólfs saga kraka the character Bera (which means ‘bear’) loves the bear, Bjorn.

Bera is a name not lost on scholars of Gaelic folklore, and in this context it also evokes another primal (albeit male) character of the Norse Snorra Edda creation myths: Borr/Bur son of father of Odinn, Vili and Vé, by Bestla. Snorri tells us that Buri was Odin’s grandfather – licked from the salty ice of Ginnungagap by Ymir’s cow Auðumbla. This appears to be an image of a bear emerging from hibernation – perhaps an allusion to an astronomical event to do with Ursa Major, Taurus and the Milky Way.

Bears (notorious hibernators) are an explicit exemplars of the annual cycle and the returning year. Their hibernation reflects the hibernation of nature during Europe’s winter months, and the reforging of the world in springtime is an allusion represented by Wayland/Völundr and the cthnonic (dark) elves or dwarves (represented by Vili). The Vanir (represented by Vé) are therefore possibly gods of the annual cycle. These are both aspects of Óðinn.


Medieval Scandinavian Elves and Dwarves

There have been many attempts to explain how Elves (Alfar) and Dwarves (Dvergar) fitted in with the cosmology and spirituality of the pagan Norse peoples. In Snorri’s Prose Edda (13thC, based on traditional tales), he tells us that the Dvergar were a race of subterranean shapeshifters created spontaneously (as worms) within the body of the primal giant Ymir from whose corpse the world is made:

‘…Next the gods took their places on their thrones. They issued their judgements and remembered where the dwarves had come to life in the soil under the earth, like maggots in flesh. The dwarves emerged first, finding life in Ymir’s flesh. They were maggots at that time, but by a decision of the gods they acquired human understanding and assumed the likeness of men, living in the earth and rocks….’ (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning; trans. Jesse Byock)

In other Norse myths, the dwarves maintain their primal attributes and shape-shifting abilities (although this was also an ability of the other legendary spiritual beings). In the Volsungsaga, for instance, they transform into dragons, otters and salmon. They are associated with great wisdom, skill and dexterity but also are somewhat greedy and introspective, and prone to cruelty. They are, in fact, a fairly straightforward breed, easily comprehendible.

The Elves or Alfar on the other hand are a somewhat more difficult species to locate in the spiritual cosmogony. Snorri in his Prose Edda divides them into two types: ‘Light Elves’ and ‘Dark Elves’ – Ljósálfar and Dökkálfar:

‘…Then Gangleri said, ‘You know much to tell about the heavens. Are there other significant places besides the one at Urd’s Well?’

High said, ‘There are many magnificent places there. One is called Alfheim. The people called the Light Elves live there, but the dark elves live down below in the earth. They are different from the light elves in appearance, and far more so in nature. The light elves are more beautiful than the sun, while the dark elves are blacker than pitch…’

The implication here is that the Dark Elves are the dwarves, and this is also suggested when Snorri refers to dwarves as Svartálfar who inhabit Svartalfaheim, later in the Gylfaginning (34) as well as in the Skáldskaparmál. The ‘Light’ Elves and the Dwarves/Dark Elves seemed to occupy polar opposite or complementary positions in a classical ‘elemental’ reckoning of Norse cosmology. Scholars such as Alaric Hall sees Snorri’s ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ elves (a division unattested elsewhere) as an attempt to fit these spirits into a contemporary Christian framework of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ angels, which is a distinct possibility given the propensity of christianised folklore from as far afield as Ireland, Iceland and Russia for portraying ‘fairies’ as fallen angels. Nonetheless, even Snorri’s light/dark division of elves does not divide them along moral categories, and the evidence from Edda, Saga and Skaldic literature supports the argument that Elves and Dwarves are overwhelmingly morally ambiguous. The poetic Edda composition Alvissmal maintains that the dwarves and elves are definitely different groups, however.

What is more certain is that the Aesir and the Elves are referred to as being part of the the same ‘in-group’. In the poetic Edda’s Lokasenna, the feast in Aegir’s hall which Loki so rudely interrupts is peopled by guests who include gods and elves, implying confraternity. The fact that the two groups are often named together is further evidence that the Elves and the Gods appear to have shared a ‘cultural’ commonality. For instance:

“I know a fourteenth [spell], if before a host I have to give a tally of the gods; I know something about all the Aesir and elves: few foolish men know the same.” (Hávamál 159 – Poetic Edda)

Here Odin boasts that he has knowledge of all of the ‘gods’ (tiva) among which the Aesir and the Elves appear to be counted. Snorri’s interpretation possibly adds the dwarves to the class of beings called ‘elves’. However, dwarves are often aligned to the ‘lower’ elemental forces represented by the Jötnar or giants, and (apparently) dragons and wyrms – beings more often in opposition to the gods. Sometimes, the distinction becomes blurred:

In the poetic Edda lay called Völundarkviða, Völund (known elsewhere as ‘Wayland the Smith’) is described as vísi álfa, ‘prince/wise-leader of elves’, one of three sons of the ‘King of the Finns’ – a lineage with overtones of magical powers. Although described as an ‘elf’ he is also a smith-craftsman which is a profession with distinct dwarvish overtones. The distinction between elf and dwarf is therefore not so certain! What is more certain is that Völundr was a popular figure in Norse and Germanic mythology with multiple attestations. Another set of ‘dwarves’ who are elsewhere connected to elves are the smiths known as the Sons of Ivaldi who are said in the Snorra Edda chapter called Skáldskaparmál  who create Thor’s hammer, Freyr’s golden boar and Odin’s magical ring. The ‘elf’ connection is made in a later poetic Edda composition called Hrafnagaldur Óðins, which says that the goddess Idunn was one of the Alfar and a daughter of Ivaldi. Like the 18thC MacPherson ‘Fingal’ traditions, this has been questioned, and may come from a later period than the original poetic Edda manuscripts.

As mentioned in previous posts, dwarves are strongly connected to the chthonic world and to the elements of earth and water. They also – like all water-divinities – have a more ancient primal aspect, akin to the Greek Titans and their monstrous offspring. In Norse mythology, they are closer to the ‘monstrous’ – the giants in particular – and this is perhaps worth bearing in mind when comparing them to elves (or ‘light elves’), who sit closer to the ‘spiritual-elemental’ aspects of air and fire, in Snorri’s account at least. The existence of elves may simply be a counterbalance expressing the division of things in the ancient pre-Christian mindset – ‘as above, so below’ – a belief that everything has an inverted or complimentary form.

As the companions (and drinking buddies) of the Aesir, the ‘Elves’ share some esteemed company – that of the souls of departed human heroes – and this adds another possible aspect to their identity. It is possible that the Norse Eddaic elves were – as feasting companions of the gods – identical with the Einherjar,  the occupants of Valhalla. Such an identity is never made explicit in the Icelandic sources or elsewhere, but there is circumstantial evidence of a connection. The connection between fairies and familial ancestors in Atlantic mythology is a constant one I have alluded to, and the popular idea of ‘elves’ crosses over or is identical with these imaginary beings.

Another connection also exists with the elves and the gods, and that is with the class of deities referred to as Vanir. Ostensibly a ‘second set’ of gods allied to the Aesir by truce and marriage, they occupy a somewhat curious position that has a distinct air of religious accretion or misunderstood differentiation about it. The connection between Vanir and Elves is suggested in the poetic Edda verse of Grímnismál (5) which claimed that the youthful Freyr had received Alfheim as a ‘tooth gift’ from the Aesir. Unfortunately, there are few other references to elves in relation to Vanir, although ‘half of the dead’ were supposedly claimed by the goddess Freyja, Freyr’s brother. If the souls/spirits of the dead were somehow related to the Álfar then  the connection is perhaps more explicit….