Tinneas Sidhe: Afflictions from the Fairy Realm.

One of the central doctrines of the Gaelic ‘fairy faith’ (Irish: creideamh sidhe/sí, Manx: credjue shee) was the belief that the ‘Good People’ could cause illness and disease. Although such a belief is well documented, the mechanics of it have rarely been explored in any great detail, although followers of my blog may have been able to gain a passing insight.

An 'Elfshot' or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky charm.

An ‘Elfshot’ or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky amulet.

The concept of Tinneas Sidhe (in Manx, Chingys Shee) or ‘Fairy Disease’ was a common across the Gaelic realms, and representative examples of its different aspects have been recorded at different times from Ireland as well as Scotland, Mann and Britain. William Camden’s late Elizabethan nationalistic masterwork ‘Britannia’ contained the following observation on Irish superstition from an English schoolmaster at Limerick called John Good, whose account he dates to 1566:

They think, the women have peculiar charms for all evils, shar’d and distributed among them; and therefore they apply to them according to their several AilingsThey begin and conclude their Inchantments with a Pater-noster and Ave-Maria. When any one gets a fall, he springs up, and turning about three times to the right, digs a hole in the ground with his knife or sword, and cuts out a turf; for they imagin there is a spirit in the earthIn case he grow sick in two or three days after, they send one of their Women skill’d in that way, to the place, where she says, I call thee P. from the east, west, south and north, from the groves, the woods, the rivers, the fens, from the fairies, red, black, white, &c. And after some short ejaculations, she returns home to the sick person, to see whether it be the disease Esane (which they imagin is inflicted by the Fairies,) and whispers in his ear another short prayer, and a Paternoster; after which, she puts coals into a pot of clear water, and then passes a better judgment upon the distemper, than all the Physicians.

The exact nature of ‘Esane’ remains mysterious to this day, sounding suspiciously like the term given for a cure, rather than a disease. However, Good’s account in Camden was partly mirrored by another, written some 300 years later: That of William Wilde (father of Oscar). He researched, wrote and lectured about the folklore of the different parts of pre-famine Ireland, a subject which became more popular in the late 18thC when many of the beliefs in the old ways were rapidly spiralling away. His wife, Lady Francesca Wilde used her husband’s observations and notes in her book ‘Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland’ (1887), in a chapter headed ‘The Fairy Doctor’:

The Fairy Doctor

IF a healthy child suddenly droops and withers, that child is fairy-struck, and a fairy doctor must be at once called in. Young girls also, who fall into rapid decline, are said to be fairy-struck; for they are wanted in Fairy-land as brides for some chief or prince, and so they pine away without visible cause till they die. The other malign influences that act fatally on life are the Wind and the Evil Eye. The evil power of the Wind is called a fairy-blast; while, of one suffering from the Evil Eye, they say he has been “overlooked.” The fairy doctor must pronounce from which of these three causes the patient is suffering. The fairy-stroke, or the fairy-blast, or the Evil Eye; but he must take no money for the opinion given. He is paid in some other way; by free gracious offerings in gratitude for help given. A person who visited a great fairy doctor for advice, thus describes the process of cure at the interview:- “The doctor always seems as if expecting you, and had full knowledge of your coming. He bids you be seated, and after looking fixedly on your face for some moments, his proceedings begin. He takes three rods of witch hazel, each three inches long, and marks them separately, ‘For the Stroke,’ ‘For the Wind,’ ‘For the Evil Eye.’ This is to ascertain from which of these three evils you suffer. He then takes off his coat, shoes, and stockings; rolls up his shirt sleeves, and stands with his face to the sun in earnest prayer. After prayer he takes a dish of pure water and sets it by the fire, then kneeling down, he puts the three hazel reds he had marked into the fire, and leaves them there till they are burned black as charcoal. Ali the time his prayers are unceasing; and when the sticks are burned, he rises, and again faces the sun in silent prayer, standing with his eyes uplifted and hands crossed After this he draws a circle on the floor with the end of one of the burned sticks, within which circle he stands, the dish of pure water beside him. Into this he flings the three hazel rods, and watches the result earnestly. The moment one sinks he addresses a prayer to the sun, and taking the rod out of the water he declares by what agency the patient is afflicted. Then he grinds the rod to powder, puts it in a bottle which he fills up with water from the dish, and utters an incantation or prayer over it, in a low voice, with clasped hands held over the bottle. But what the words of the prayer are no one knows, they are kept as solemn mysteries, and have been handed down from father to son through many generations, from the most ancient times. The potion is then given to be carried home, and drunk that night at midnight in silence and alone. Great care must be taken that the bottle never touches the ground; and the person carrying it must speak no word, and never look round till home is reached. The other two sticks he buries in the earth in some place unseen and unknown. If none of the three sticks sink in the water, then he uses herbs as a cure. Vervain, eyebright, and yarrow are favourite remedies, and all have powerful properties known to the adept; but the words and prayers he utters over them are kept secret, and whether they are good or bad, or addressed to Deity or to a demon, none but himself can tell.” These are the visible mysteries of the fairy doctor while working out his charms and incantations. But other fairy doctors only perform the mysteries in private, and allow no one to see their mode of operation or witness the act of prayer. If a potion is made up of herbs it must be paid for in silver; but charms and incantations are never paid for, or they would lose their power. A present, however, may be accepted as an offering of gratitude…

Although this account is particular to one individual from the South of Ireland, the concepts of the the ‘Fairy Stroke’, ‘Fairy Blast’ and ‘Evil Eye’ were more universal within the Gaelic world, and indeed further afield.

The Fairy Blast: The English word ‘blast’, meaning a ‘gust of wind’, was equivalent to the the Gaelic gaoithe, and the ‘fairy blast’ was referred to as ‘sidhe gaoithe‘ or perhaps ‘gaoithe sidhe‘ in Ireland, a term which was once often applied specifically to tornados and dust-devils, which were once believed potent visible manifestations of this force. The connection between spirits and winds is an ancient one: for starters, the Latin word for ‘soul’, anima, also carried the meaning of ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’ and ‘life’. Common technical understanding of spirits was that they were invisible and made of a very rarified substance akin to light itself. Because of this subtle nature, they were only usually able to move very light things, such as the air, and it was common for the medieval mind to attribute sudden unexpected gusts of wind to the provenance of demons or spirits. In fact, modern ghost beliefs still continue this tradition.

Why were gusts of wind associated with disease?

Ireland and Britain are lashed by seasonal winds and storms that are usually fairly predictable on the calendar. These events (more typically at the onset of winter) coincide with a change in the patterns of disease, such as an increase in infectious diseases of the respiratory tract. Wind can itself be a terrible and violent force, and is to be feared for this alone. The ancient ‘elemental’ and corresponding ‘humoral’ doctrines of disease saw health and vitality as being in a state of ‘heat’ and ‘moisture’, whereas the wind was ‘cold’ and ‘dry’, and could therefore be considered contrary to health. The mythological Cailleach Bheur of Scotland personified these energies, as did the Sluagh Sidhe – a turbulent aerial host of roaming spirits who were sometimes held responsible for the effects of the Fairy Blast. In the Anglo-Manx dialect of the 19thC the word ‘blass’ (blast) was used to denote a skin lesion – a spot, boil, lump or rash. The English word ‘blister’ derives from ‘blast’ (a German word), indicating that gusts of wind must have been associated with wind from Anglo-Saxon times or earlier. The suggestion is that external diseases were considered a form of buffeting or abrasion from a force without. Interestingly, in Manx skin rashes were also called ‘Chenney Jee‘ (Irish: Tinneas Dia, ‘God’s Fire’ – Ignis Sacer) as it was commonly believed in ancient and medieval times that the gods or god would burn the wicked with ethereal fire, which of course is also the substance from which spirits and divinities were conceived as being composed of. Of course the Irish/Gaelic word for disease – tinneas – is derived directly form that which means ‘fire’ (teine), illustrating that an ancient concept linked disease to the unseen spiritual fire. 

A good crop of Ireland's prime 'fairy herb' - Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as 'Luss Mor' or 'Foxglove'.

A good crop of Ireland’s prime ‘fairy herb’ – Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as ‘Luss Mor’ or ‘Foxglove’, it was used in ‘cures’ to defeat fairy influence. Notoriously it was occasionally fed to ‘changeling’ children, causing their death.

In the Old Testament Bible Book of Leviticus (likely a product of Babylonian Judaean exiles under the influence of Mazdaism), these cutaneous diseases are referred to by the generic term ‘leprosies’, commonly misconceived of as what we now sometimes call ‘Hansen’s Disease’. In the Middle Ages, the Christian church and society was obsessed with ‘leprosy’ in the biblical context, which was the idea of disease caused by divine agency – outwardly visible marks of divine disfavour. Of course, to country people in the Gaelic world these disease-inflicting agencies were fairies, and the church devised an interpretation that that fairies were elements of the angelic host who had been cast out of paradise in the christian narrative of ‘Lucifer’ and his ‘fall from heaven’. Again, from Lady Wilde’s book:

The Fairies as Fallen Angels

THE islanders, like all the Irish, believe that the fairies are the fallen angels who were cast down by the Lord God out of heaven for their sinful pride. And some fell into the sea, and some on the dry land, and some fell deep down into hell, and the devil gives to these knowledge and power, and sends them on earth where they work much evil. But the fairies of the earth and the sea are mostly gentle and beautiful creatures, who will do no harm if they are let alone, and allowed to dance on the fairy raths in the moonlight to their own sweet music, undisturbed by the presence of mortals. As a rule, the people look on fire as the great preservative against witchcraft, for the devil has no power except in the dark. So they put a live coal under the churn, and they wave a lighted wisp of straw above the cow’s head if the beast seems sickly. But as to the pigs, they take no trouble, for they say the devil has no longer any power over them now. When they light a candle they cross themselves, because the evil spirits are then clearing out of the house in fear of the light. Fire and Holy Water they hold to be sacred, and are powerful; and the best safeguard against all things evil, and the surest test in case of suspected witchcraft.

That this concept was once common across Europe (from Russia to Iceland), indicates that it was an official church doctrine to equate fairies and elves with the fallen angels of the biblical narrative’s interpretation. The legend of the Fall popularly ascribed elemental stations to the angels when they lodged in the various parts of the ‘Elemental’ mundane world. The spirits who occupied the air evidently became the ‘Sidhe Gaoithe’. The gradual onset of skin lesions can fit logically with the mode of action of wind which frequently starts gently and increases gradually. Sometimes, mysterious bruises appearing upon the limbs were ascribed to ‘fairy pinches‘, and in the Isle of Man it was once a customary belief that improper piety to the Good People by not leaving them a bowl of fresh water at night would invite these particular skin blemishes. However, the sudden onset of illness was attributed to what is known as the ‘Fairy Stroke’.

The Fairy Stroke and Evil Eye:

A striking or blow by the fairies (or unspecified spirits) was deemed responsible for a number of afflictions which might sometimes also be classed as ‘Tinneas Sidhe’: A sudden sharp pain, seizure or paralysis was likely caused by a ‘stroke’ or blow from an invisible being. The term even persists in the English language for describing the effects of a cerebral infarction or haemorrhage! The idea of being ‘Buailte‘ (‘struck’), is actually quite a complicated subject which combines with that of the Evil Eye, the Fairy Blast, and the concept of being ‘Elf-Shot’.

A belief that fairies and elves cast darts at people to harm them was fairly widespread, especially in Scotalnd and (hence) Northern Ireland, and was reinforced by the presence of curious and beautiful Neolithic-era stone arrowheads that are not occasionally discovered in the landscape, and have long been a subject of curious speculation. Lady Wilde’s description of girls being considered ‘fairy struck’ when they pined away for a supposed fairy lover who desired them owes more, it seems, to the concept of the ‘Evil Eye’ or ‘Jealous Eye’, or to the concept of fairies ‘taking’ people, changelings etc. The mysterious plasticity of this belief in ‘striking’ is best approached by trying to understand the ancient beliefs about light, vision, intellect, the soul and spirits. I have attempted to explain the concept in this article here. See here also. As ‘striking unknown’ and the ‘bad eye’ were also attributes often popularly ascribed to humans practising magic or witchcraft, is somewhat complicated by Robert Kirk’s famous and detailed 17thC account of fairy traditions in the Scottish Highlanders who believed that living people were accompanied by a ‘spirit double’ who is one of the fairies, or as he calls them – Sith:

…THEY (Ed: fairies) are clearly seen by these Men of the SECOND SIGHT to eat at Funeralls & Banquets; hence many of the Scottish-Irish will not teast Meat at these Meittings, lest they have Communion with, or be poysoned by, them. So are they seen to carrie the Beer (Ed: Bier) or Coffin with the Corps among the midle-earth Men (Ed: people of our world) to the Grave. Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him. They avouch that every Element and different State of Being have Animals resembling these of another Element; as there be Fishes sometimes at Sea resembling Monks of late Order in all their Hoods and Dresses; so as the Roman invention of good and bad Dæmons, and guardian Angells particularly assigned, is called by them an ignorant Mistake, sprung only from this Originall. They call this Reflex-man a Co-walker, every way like the Man, as a Twin-brother and Companion, haunting him as his shadow, as is oft seen and known among Men (resembling the Originall,) both before and after the Originall is dead, and wes also often seen of old to enter a Hous, by which the People knew that the Person of that Liknes wes to Visite them within a few days. This Copy, Echo, or living Picture, goes att last to his own Herd. It accompanied that Person so long and frequently for Ends best known to it selfe, whither to guard him from the secret Assaults of some of its own Folks, or only as ane sportfull Ape to counterfeit all his Actions. However, the Stories of old WITCHES prove beyond contradiction, that all Sorts of People, Spirits which assume light aery Bodies, or crazed Bodies coacted by forrein Spirits, seem to have some Pleasure, (at least to asswage from Pain or Melancholy,) by frisking and capering like Satyrs, or whistling and screeching (like unlukie Birds) in their unhallowed Synagogues and Sabboths. If invited and earnestly required, these Companions make themselves knowne and familiar to Men; other wise, being in a different State and Element, they nather can nor will easily converse with them…

Kirk’s account is perhaps the most technical and in-depth of the system behind the fairy belief that we have, written down as it was at the behest of his friends excitedly discussing the emerging scientific revolution among London’s coffee shops and salons. His account is interesting as it emphasises that the Sith or fairies sicken by stealing away the quintessence of earthly objects, beasts and people. He mentions that the Sith strike and pierce, but merely as a means for extracting what they are after:

…They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life, such as Aquavitæ (moderately taken) is among Liquors, leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts…

Of course, the Evil Eye was also responsible for causing transference of quintessence and the Manx called this stolen substance ‘Tarra’, ‘Tharroo’ or ‘Tharrey’. They referred to the condition of being afflicted with the Evil Eye ‘yn aarcheoid‘, and employed a number of charms and rituals in order to recover lost Tarra caused by this state. Manx accounts of the effect of the evil eye and fairies, like many Gaelic fairy tales from elsewhere are frequently accompanied by the victim experiencing a sudden sharp pain. This is illustrated in ‘Ned Quayle’s Story Of The Fairy Pig’ from Sophia Morrison’s ‘Manx Fairy Tales’:

…WHEN I was a little boy, we lived over by Sloc. One day, when I was six years old, my mother and my grandmother went up the mountain to make hay and I was left by myself. It was getting rather late, and they had not come back, so I was frightened, and started off up the mountain to try and find them. I had not gone far when I saw running before me a little snow-white pig. At first I thought it was some neighbour’s pig and I tried to catch it, but it ran from me and I ran after it. As it went I saw that it was not like an ordinary pig-its tail was feathery and spread out like a fan, and it had long lapping ears that swept the ling. Now and again it turned its head and looked at me, and its eyes were burning like fire. We went higher and higher up the mountain, and all of a sudden I found myself at the edge of a steep brow and was all but over. I turned just in time, and ran as hard as I could go down the mountain and the pig after me. When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw that it was jumping over the big stones and rocks on the mountain side as if they had been butts of ling. I thought it would catch me; it was close behind me when I ran in at our garden gate, but I was just in time, and I slammed the door upon it. I told my mother and my grandmother what had happened, and my grandmother said it was a Fairy Pig. I was not like myself that night ; I could not eat any supper, and I went soon to my bed ; I could not sleep, but lay tossing about; and was burning hot. After a time my mother opened the door to see if I was asleep, and when she looked at me, HER EYES WERE LIKE THE PIG’S EYES. I felt a sharp pain go through my right leg like a stab. After that the pain never left me; it was so bad that I could not bear to be touched, and I could eat nothing. I grew worse and worse, and after some days my father said he would take me to a Charmer at Castletown. They lifted me in the sheet, four men taking the four corners, and carried me to a cart. Never, will I forget the shaking and jolting I had in that cart. When we got to Castletown I was more dead than alive. The Charmer lived in Arbory Street and they took me to his house. When he saw me he said that they must all go away and leave me alone with him, so my father and my mother went to wait for me at The George. The Charmer carried me to a room upstairs and sent his wife away, and laid me on the floor and locked the door. Then he took down a big book and placed it on the floor beside me. He opened it at the picture of a little plant-I can see the plant to this day-and he pointed with his left hand to the picture, and with his right hand he made the sign of the cross on my leg, where the stab went through me, and said: ‘ Ta mee skeaylley yn guin shoh ayns en.nym yn Ayr, as y Vac, as y Spyrryd Noo, Ned Quayle. My she guin, ayns ennym y Chiarn, ta mee skealley eh ass yn eill, ass ny fehyn, as ass ny craueyn,’ which means in English-I spread this fairy shot in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Ned Quayle. If it is a fairy shot, in the name of the Lord, I spread it out of the flesh, out of the sinews, and out of the bones. That minute the pain left me. I felt very hungry, and the Charmer’s wife set me at a table and gave me dinner. The Charmer went to fetch my father and my mother, and when they came in I was eating like two. The Charmer told my mother I must not go on the mountain alone between the lights again. The pain never came back. I have been sound from that day to this, but I have the mark on my leg where the stab went through as clear as glass to the bone…

The word ‘archeoid’ is suffixed by the Manx Gaelic word ‘-keoi’ (Scots Gaelic  = cuthaich), which means ‘disturbed state of mind’, ‘madness’ or ‘frenzy’. It was cured by herb magic and through performing certain rituals. This brings us to another manner in which fairies could sicken people:


Another pathological power believed exercised by fairies was their ability to sicken or delude the mind, causing their victim to go running off (or be ‘carried off’) in a wild fugue or frenzy, to become lost and disorientated. The above tale of wild pursuit by a fairy pig and a state of delirium occasioned by the pig’s gaze in fact embody the synthesis of ‘taking’, the ‘fairy stroke’ and the ‘evil eye’ all together. Being ‘abducted’ by fairies and placed in a state of confusion is one of the commonest motifs in Gaelic fairy stories. It represents the victim somehow having the entrance to the fairy world ‘pierced’ so that he or she might enter its strange dimensions. To return whole from this realm was dependent upon a number of frequently encountered stipulations, such not eating the fairies food, or taking their wine; Not setting foot on their lawns or meadows is a common caution in Ireland’s medieval fairy tales. Not looking back or conversing with spirits is also a common theme, which has obvious provenance identifiable in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, such as the tales of Orpheus and Euridice. Fairy ‘taking’ was often ascribed to a ‘fairy horse’ (such as the Kelpie or Nikker) whom the victim rashly decided to try and ride, and fairies were blamed for riding domestic horses at night so that their owners found them exhausted by the morning time. Likewise, humans ‘ridden’ by the fairies would meet the morning dazed and exhausted. The sickening, weakening or befuddling effect of fairies was often ascribed to setting foot upon one of their precincts. Raths, meadows, fairy circles (mushroom rings) and other ‘sidheogue‘ or ‘sidheach’ places had the power to inflict these states. The ‘hungry grass’ or féar gortachwas said to be a patch of grass which had the power to make you suddenly hungry and weak. It was etymologically and conceptually linked to a hunger-spirit called the Fear Gorta (‘hungry man’), a concept recognisably related to the hungry abstracting concept of Fairies desiring the wealth of this world in order to strike a balance with the otherworld (read Kirk and my own commentaries on the Gaelic Otherworld.) In fact, delirium and states of mental confusion are not in themselves uncommon. The elderly are particularly prone to them, as are those who consume too much alcohol for a prolonged period of time. In medieval times, there were further perils faced by the Gaelic peoples which may have influenced their beliefs about mystical and confusing encounters with the Sidhe/Sith/Shee peoples: For starters, famine could cause states of starvation resulting in hallucinations. When food was plentiful, there was the ever-attendant risk of grain crop contamination with the hallucinogenic Ergot fungus (Claviceps Purpurea) as well as the weed-grass known as Darnel (Lolium Temulentum), whose seeds were equally hallucinogenic and could be easily confused for barley. Both of these were known to cause sharp bodily pains as part of their side effects. Darnel also caused trembling and dull vision. Sudden shocks can induce a condition called ‘Transient Global Amnesia’ which seems to be triggered by blood being forced upwards into the neck when people either fall or experience a sudden stressful event, causing a period of memory loss and bewilderment often lasting hours…

Changelings: wasting-diseases, famine and being ‘taken away’:

Obviously, the attrition of jealous fairy-folk was often blamed for the wasting and fading of vitality associated with particular diseases, a fact often noted by observers such as William Robert Wilde during Ireland’s famine era. In Ireland, the term ‘Cnaoidh’ (‘Cnai’) was used to describe the effects of marasmus (whole body wasting due to dietary energy-deficiency) common to that period. Other widespread endemic diseases such as Tuberculosis and Rickets could also cause such states, as would conditions such as cancer. The power of the Otherworld (expressed so potently by Kirk) to take away life and vitality from those considered vulnerable: ‘Changelings‘ were not just infants, but could also be older children, even adults.

The folklore of the ‘changeling’ was a very ancient and common feature of fairy-beliefs up until the 19thC. It was noted that apparently healthy and flourishing children might all of a sudden become sickly and gradually dwindle away. Such beliefs were common before modern medical sciences began to understand and deal with many of the causes of infant and child mortality, particularly malnutrition (which often also affected the minds and judgement of parents) as well as infectious diseases, diabetes and cancers. Formerly, it was believed that the suddenly ‘different’ child was replaced by a fairy child, while the latterly vigorous youngster was taken to continue thriving in the fairy realm.

Summary: The fairies of Atlantic Europe were believed capable of causing disease, either by the mode of removing nutritional vitality and quintessence through their hunger for the goodness of the living, or through physical attacks by searing magical fiery (or chilling) winds, or by dispensing ‘projectiles’ causing sudden ‘attacks’ of disease. They also possessed the power to abduct and control people – making them ‘wild’ or mad.

The Dionysian Mirror – Concepts of the Pagan Otherworld

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

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

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

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

The Dionysian Mirror:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrors and the Otherworld:

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

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

Death and the Chthonic realm:

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

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

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

Rebirth of Dionysus:

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

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

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

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.

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

Time and again we see the myths of paganism subsumed into the narratives of hagiography in the early centuries of the Christian church in northern Europe. Another prime example of this can be found in the stories about ‘St Winifred’ – an early Welsh saint with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name, whose life is ascribed to the 7thC CE.

Winifred is interesting because her life, legends and veneration are full of the indicators of a pagan origin hinting at the Gaelic great goddess, known as Brigit or Aine. She is local to north Wales in the tribal areas of the Deceangli, known by medieval times known as Tegeingl – modern Flintshire. The Deceangli were a Celtic tribal polity of the late Iron Age whose origins are supposed to lie in part in Ireland. Winifred’s father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, is supposed to have been a chieftain among these peoples.

Although relating her floruit to the 7thC CE, the earliest hagiographies (surviving in the Laud and Cottonian manuscript collections) must stem from at least the 12thC, as the work of Giraldus Cambrensis (‘An Itinerary through Wales’) from that century makes no mention of Winifred’s Well and its supposedly famous shrine. The 12thC was an important period for clerical writers who were busily remodelling the more ancient and often syncretic traditions of the past in order to suit the anti-heretical world of new Christian piety, modelled around the example of the Cistercians. The recent Christianisation of Scandinavia (whose settlers had peopled Ireland and Britain) demanded such a modern narrative in order to disguise more overt pagan themes underpinning Christian piety from the eyes of the aware.

Winifred’s tale begins, suitably, with a tale of death and rebirth: An only daughter, she decides from an early age to dedicate her life to Christ, and convinces her father to allow her holy maternal uncle, Beuno, to build a church upon his land. One day while preparing for mass, a huntsman (Caradoc, son of a local prince) emerges from the woods and attempts to rape her or convince her to marry him, but being devoted to Christ she escapes and spurns him. In a fit of rage Caradoc pursues her to the threshold of Beuno’s oratory or church and decapitates her. The head rolls down a hill, and where it comes to rest a miraculous spring bubbles up from the ground. Luckily for her, Beuno arrives, kills Caradoc (his body melts into the ground) and contrives to magically join the maiden’s head back to her body, restoring her to life in god’s name. Beuno then his benediction, proclaiming that pilgrims who honoured the well would be healed of their ailments. Winifred takes holy orders, and Beuno says he must go, but instructs her to annually place a cape of her own fashioning upon a rock in the middle of the river issuing from the spring, and it would be conveyed, dry, with the rock to where Beuno would be staying (either Wales or Ireland depending on the tradition). The spring well supposed to have been created by Winifred’s decapitation is known as St Winifred’s Well at Holywell, and was an important location for pilgrimage in the later middle ages, during which time (up until the Reformation) such sites were of great economic importance to the church.

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

The Christian legend about Winifred and Beuno seems wholly designed to replace a pagan narrative associated with a holy well: a typical site of Celtic worship. As such the details of the story, fantastical and grotesque as they seem, offer us a fascinating chance to understand what it was the Christians were trying to replace.

The Head: The apparent decapitation of Winifred is used here to explain the creation of the spring. That Beuno undoes the discombobulation is a narrative theme of negation typical of early Christian hagiographies – it is an act contrary to an underlying pagan narrative. This would imply that a head or something representing a head was once associated with the well, and would be removed occasionally. Similarly, the spring obviously predated Winifred’s supposed floruit, yet the narrative wishes it to start with her, rather than linking it to a pagan past.

The head was a potent symbol in the Iron Age Celtic world, depicted time and again in Celtic art and in accounts of Celtic warriors treasuring the heads of their enemies. Numerous examples of male and female carved stone heads from the Celtic era have been found throughout Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and sometimes in association with spring wells in an archaeological context.

Decapitated heads played an important part in the mythology of the Mabinogion (the head of Bendigeidfran, for instance). In the ‘Arthurian’ poem of Gawain and the Green Knight, the decapitated head of the tale’s eponymous adversary (Bertilak) – like that of Bran the Blessed – has an active life after its separation from the Knight’s body, indicating a supernatural provenance. This potent and pertinent theme of ancient Atlantic spirituality also occurs in the Ulster Cycle Irish tale Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast) in which three contesting heroes have to submit to a trial by beheading with the disguised Manannan hypostasis – Cu Roi. The idea of a beheaded female, however, is largely absent from the mythological corpus.

Mobile Stones: The idea of a moveable holy stone associated with a river and the sea in this cultural region is hinted at in a number of medieval legendary and apocryphal tales. One of these can be found in the Irish version of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ of the monk Nennius, which discusses certain wonders to be found in the Isle of Man during the early medieval period:

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

The second is a ford which is far from the sea, and which fills when the tide flows, and decreases when the tide ebbs.

The third is a stone which moves at night in Glenn Cindenn, and though it should be cast into the sea, or into a cataract, it would be found on the margin of the same valley…”

The name ‘Cindenn’ contains an element which appears to represent the Gaelic word for ‘head’, which is ‘Cin’ or in modern Manx ‘Kione’ and in Irish, ‘Ceann’. The implication might be that in the Isle of Man during the period of the text’s writing, a stone (head?) was taken from a location near to a water source in a glen (valley) and placed in the sea before being returned to its location. The name Cindenn has not survived in the modern Isle of Man, so the location is unknown. However, most tantalising and curious reference is from an ancient Manx ballad, ‘Berrey Dhone’, which makes allusions to a magical female character who steals cattle and hides out on the high mountains within rocks referred to as ‘doors’. The ballad refers to her having ‘stone of/for her head’ (the Manx phrase in the song is ‘As y lhiack er e kione’). ‘Berrey’ is pronounced ‘Beara’, leaving no doubt that the ballad is referring to the ancient ‘Cailleach’ herself.

Holy Cloaks: The curious reference in the Winifred tale to an annual gift of a cloak (at midsummer) is another tantalising glimpse of a lost pagan tradition. The ‘cloak’ or ‘veil’ is, of course, an attribute of the eponymous Cailleach, whose name (we might speculate) might mean ‘covered stone’.

Death and Rebirth at the Holy Well: Winifred’s story starts with her martyrdom – something of a change to the usual story of Christian saints. However, she is promptly brought back to life by a male saint, an aspect of the story seeming to deliberately emphasise the power of the masculine over the feminine.  Rivers had female personifications in the Celtic world, with many legends associating them with magical females who stand guard over their sources – typically spring wells, which were deemed holy. It was believed that the life-giving waters of these springs flowed both to and (mystically) back from the Otherworld. I discuss this in some detail here.

Interestingly, the ‘decollation’ of St Winifride was celebrated on the summer  solstice – 22nd of June, which was her original festival day before it was moved to the 3rd November (Samhain) later in the middle ages, a date more suited to ‘witches’. Proof enough that ‘Winifred’ was a reaction to goddess worship…

Gifts to the Otherworld: The idea of a former pagan belief in an Otherworld river arising from Winifred’s Well is made explicit in the part of the narrative which has Beuno advising the saint to annually express her gratitude to him by casting a gift into the stream arising from the spring, safe in the knowledge that it will mystically travel to him in Ireland. One wonders if Beuno himself as well as Winifred was a Christian hypostasis of a pagan theme, rather than solely a male Christian character imposed upon a pagan female narrative. It was once a practice (according to an 18thC account by Thomas Pennant) to dedicate calves and lambs born bearing a special mark on their ear (a slit or nick called ‘Nôd Beuno’) to the saint at his church and supposed tomb at Clynnog in north Wales.

The Irish connection:

Being in the same region as the diocese of St Asaph, Winifred’s legend and the themes of her hagiographic narrative must in some way be culturally linked to that of the water-loving St Kentigern, also called ‘Mungo’. The Glaswegian saint’s legend mentions him sojourning in North Wales with Asaph during his spiritual questing in ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ (‘The Old North’ Celtic polity of sub-Roman Britain during the early Anglo-Saxon pagan era): Northwest Britain, Southwest Scotland and North Wales were once part of a purer Celtish cultural polity connected to Ireland after the collapse of continental Roman administration.

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

The prefix of the name Winifred (‘Wini-‘) calls to mind the Celtic words for river: Abhain (Irish), Awin (manx) and Afon (Welsh) – all generally pronounced in a similar manner, and the ‘saint’ herself is strongly connected with the source of rivers. It has been suggested that the Irish goddess name Áine (pronounced ‘Awynya’ or ‘Awnya’) might also be connected to the word for ‘river’, as it also signifies a circle or cycle, as does the Latin word Annus, from which the goddess of the seasons, Anna Perenna was named.

Indeed, the Manx use of the name ‘Jinny the Winny’ and ‘Jinny the Witch’ (Jinny is pronounced either ‘djinny’ or ‘yinny’) for the supernatural female associated with Samhain (in Manx called ‘Hop-tu-Naa’ or Sowin) persists to this day, providing linguistic evidence of a connection between Winifred and the pagan goddess of the Gaels.

Another interesting link comes from the term ‘Awen’, familiar to students of neo-druidry and those with an interest in Welsh celtic reconstructionism. This is usually described as meaning ‘poetic inspiration’ and is indeed related to the previously mentioned Celtic word for river: it implies a flow of inspiration. If Cormac’s 10thC ‘Glossary’ is to be trusted, the triform Brigit was the pagan goddess of poetry among the Irish and she and Áine appear to be different aspects of a triple goddess of the annual cycle, represented by the Maiden (Brigit, goddess of spring), the Mother (Aine, goddess of summer) and the Crone (the Cailleach who represents winter). The multi-dimensional mystery of this triple formed goddess and her triple-formed consort must have been a core spiritual tenet of the druidic religion, now lost, but seemingly within grasping distance for us once again…







Epona and the cult of the Danubian Horsemen

The Getae (Dacians) and other peoples of the Danube basin developed a fascinating religious cult some time between the 1st and 3rdC CE whose imagery seems to have been a syncresis of the worship of Epona and that of the ‘Thracian Hero’ or Sabazios. The reason we know about it is from a collection of small lead plaques and occasional stone stelae  depicting cult images. After Trajan conquered the Dacians at the start of the 2ndC CE, his admiration for them as a military fighting force and organised society led to a rapid assimilation of them into the Empire and offered Dacian warriors and nobility an opportunity to serve with honour in the Roman army – particularly the cavalry. Dacians, Dalmatians, Moesians, Sarmatians and their Thracian cousins and neighbours had a great equestrian tradition and became key recruits to Rome’s elite mounted fighting forces. As such their native religious cults often appear to have involved the horse – in particular the mounted ‘Thracian Hero’ and the more northerly ‘Danubian Horsemen’ imagery come to mind. There was also the ‘celtic’ goddess Epona, whose idea and imagery was popular not only in the Balkans and down the Danube, but among the ‘Germanic’ peoples who existed along and around the river Rhine in Germania, and even in Gaul and Rome itself.

The phenomenon referred to as the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult is perhaps of greatest interest, as appears to show elements of syncretism uniting the more western or Celtic ‘Epona’ cult and the more eastern Thracian ‘Horseman’ cult. The lead plaques which are the most common source of the Danubian imagery are typically quite small – they’d fit in the palm of your hand – and were obviously devotional objects of some kind.

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

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

Apart from the central goddess and her two (or four) horses – an image familiar from the Epona cult – they typically show aspects of the chthonic imagery associated with the Thracian/Phrygian deity Sabazios, and Delphic Apollo: namely the serpent or dragon. The dragon was an important and iconic aspect of Dacian symbolism, as evidenced by their legendary ‘Draco’ banners as depicted on Trajan’s column in Rome. The other essential piece of imagery associated with the cult is the sacrificial fish which appears in the image above in three forms: under the hooves of one of the horses, on the ‘altar’ surrounded by three women, and upon a sacral tripod.

Epona with two horses - note the similarity with the Danubian cult iconography

Epona with four horses – note the similarity with the Danubian cult iconography

The usual appellation of  ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult actually removes the real central figure from the religion, which is actually the seated goddess. Whereas the ‘Thracian Horseman’ images usually represent the solitary hero on his horse vanquishing a boar or similar beast, here there are two riders – somewhat akin to the Greek Dioskoroi, the famed equestrian brothers of ancient Greek religion, one of whom was mortal and one of whom was divine. Such imagery is an important aspect of the ‘divine hero’ cults which drove societies in this age: it was important that humans could aspire to the divine through identity (tribal or spiritual) with such ideas. Although Hercules was a popular image in this age, his non-equestrian nature would not have appealed so much to warriors of the Danubian region…

By the ‘Dioskorian’ interpretation of this imagery, the goddess seated between the two horsemen would have been seen as an intercessor between the divine and the mortal and therefore a goddess of death and war. The Dioskouroi – Kastor/Castor and Polydeukes/Pollux themselves represented the combination of immortal with mortal – a fact as important to their cult as their association with horses. By common European norms of the day, the owners and riders of horses held a superior cultural and social status – a feature which has endured down to the modern day. The goddess who controls horses was therefore the goddess with power over human society’s elites – perhaps explaining the importance of ‘Epona’. The ‘fertility’ aspect of Epona has often been commented on – perhaps on account of this cultural power-relationship of humans with horses. The imagery of serpents associated with the Sabazios and Danubian cults reflects the power of decay to promote fertility – an aspect reflecting the ideas of kingship and ambition which lead to wars, which in turn led to death and regeneration in Europe’s ancient societies.

Writing in the 1stC BCE, Diodorus of Sicily had this to say about the Celts of Atlantic Europe (which if he is borrowing from Herodotus :

 “…The Keltoi  who dwell along the ocean venerate the Dioskoroi above any of the gods, since they have a tradition handed down from ancient times that these gods appeared among them coming from the ocean…” Library of History 4. 56. 4 (trans. Oldfather)

This may explain the fish in the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult imagery – the Dioskouroi were also favourites among Greek and Roman fishermen and mariners, and the Danube basin was famously associated with fisheries and river trade as well as its cavalry traditions, and the river was well-stocked with fish in ancient times, including the freshwater Danube Salmon (Hucho hucho) which can grow to a huge size – as big as a man! The giant fish being trampled by the hooves of the leftmost rider on the ‘Danubian’ plaque may well be one of these. It seems a good fisherman’s alternative to the ‘Thracian Horseman’, typically portrayed trampling his porcine or leonine prey.

So why Epona and what does she signify?

The Danubian ‘Epona’ is depicted making contact with the horses of the two mounted heros, and occupies the central upper part of the plaques’ imagery associated by the usual interpretation with the spiritual or otherworld realms.  In the plaque depicted above, under the arch (which depicts the vault of the heavens) is another figure who appears to be driving a quadriga chariot yoked to four horses and with the rays of the sun coming from his head – evidently this is Helios-Apollo. Other similar plaques depict Sol and Luna (or Helios-Apollo and Artemis-Hecate-Selene, interchangeably Sabazios and Bendis) in the same position. This syncretic imagery seems to have been shared with the late classical Sabazios and Mithras cults of Thracia and Phrygia which subsequently spread throughout the Roman empire. For the solar and lunar gods to be depicted above ‘Epona’ suggests to me that the events in the drama of her mysteries in this cult happened at the gateway to the otherworld, and places this ‘Epona’ as a receiver of the dead. Not a ‘goddess of horses’… She may have been viewed as this by Romans who absorbed Epona’s cult (see: Juvenal, Satires VIII), but they also popularised the Dioscuri as gods of horses! This was evidently a mystery cult whose outward façade hid higher truths.

Some of the Danubian plaques depict Epona interacting with the horses while simultaneously cutting/sacrificing the fish on a tripod altar, sometimes a pedestal altar. Others, like the one above in particular, leave this to a trio of apparently female figures. The image in fact looks like a depiction of Shakespeare’s ‘weird sisters’ around their cauldron, although it may be a pedestal altar. This may be a depiction of a cult practice, but it might equally portray the typically Celtic ‘triple’ aspect of the divinity above, which imagery seems often to have been borrowed by the Greeks and Romans. The left-most figure is dumpy and matronly, the right-most seems lithe and young, the one in the middle is difficult to age unfortunately, but I shouldn’t be surprised if she was supposed to be a crone

Lughnasadh lunacy…

We are entering the next Gaelic year-quarter: The season of  Lughnasadh, Lúnasa, Luanys or Lunastal. It is a time of ripening, harvest and (from the autumn equionox onwards) dieback in northern Europe. The Irish festival was once widely celebrated, being typified by festive gatherings on hilltops, visits to sacred springs, special foods, games and contests, generally themed around harvest. It was also popular in the Isle of Man until the 19th century, but appears to have had less recent prominence in Scotland, and no name-equivalent in Wales.

Based upon the ‘evidence’ of medieval Irish ecclesiastical author, Cormac of Cashel, in his famous ‘Glossary’ (Irish: ‘Sanas Chormaic‘) it was supposed to have been named in honour of Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Dannan:

“Lugnasa .i. nasad Loga maic Ethlend .i. oenach nofertha laissom im thaitti fogomair”

“Lugnasa – the games of Lugh son of Ethlend. A festival held at the beginning of autumn” (AR – ‘Ethlend’ is also called Ethne and Ceithlenn in other versions of the Sanas Chormaic)

This assertion has generally remained unchallenged, even though folk-customs associated with Lugh seem generally pretty hard to come by in the Gaelic world. Indeed, MacNeil found it hard to find any customs suggestive of Lugh in her awesome study, ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’.

Of further interest is the Manx name of the festival/quarter: Luanys. This emphasises that the name may have more to do with the Moon (Ir. Luan) than Lugh mac Eithlenn. That there was a special significance for the moon during this quarter in the Isle of Man is supported by the Manx dictionaries of the 18th/19thC which give the only surviving Manx moon-names as falling in this quarter. These were quoted by William Cashen, custodian of Peel Castle, whose notes were published under the title ‘Manx Folklore’ in 1912 by his friend and protégée, Sophia Morrison of the Manx Language Society:

“…The three moons in the fall of the year would be called Re-Hollys Mooar yn Ouyr, The Harvest Moon to ripen corn. Re-Hollys mooar ny Cabbil, The Horse Great Moonshine, after which the horses would have to be housed at night. Re-Hollys mooar cooil y cleigh , the Great Moonshine that hove no shadow behind the hedge. Whichever way the weather was on the first of these moons, it would be expected to be the same all three…”

None of the other moon names – if such existed – survive. These were the Great Moonlights’ and it seems that a conjunction between these and the Manx name for the period of ‘Lughnasa’ need to be accounted for. Indeed, the Manx preserved intact a lot more of their pagan lore than the Irish and British, as accounted for by their reputation for belief in spirits and the second sight, and their diverse folklore filled with pagan themes.

There was a common belief before the 19thC that the moon played a part in the ripening and growth processes of animals and vegetation, and this generally informed harvest or slaughter times. This could certainly account for the customary importance of the moon in the Manx harvest quarter, where such lunar beliefs were noted by folklorists of the late 19thC and early 20thC. It is also worth noting that the Old English word for ‘month’ was ‘monath’, meaning ‘moon’, indicating that pagan Anglo-Saxons probably originally followed a lunar calendar.

So take a reality adjustment: Forget Lug or Lugh at Luanasa. Look for the moon instead! Isn’t it only the ‘sun’ of the Otherworld?…

The Celtic otherworld in Romanian folk belief

Although largely identifying its modern cultural ethne as ‘Slavic’, Romania’s historical and archaeological past shows that in the ‘Dacian’ Iron Age and late Classical periods its identity was definitely what we today would consider ‘Celtic’. This identity survived until the ethno-cultural engineering of Romanisation, and then the ‘migration period’ displacements of the late 3rdC CE which caused Roman withdrawal in the face of southern migration of Goths and westward migration of Scythic peoples: This introduced the cultural and linguistic foundations nowadays associated with the idea of ‘Slavic’, albeit with an enduring ‘Roman’ identity, preserved in the country’s name. These processes culminated with the early medieval hegemonies of the Caucasus tribes of Avars and Bulgars who eventually formed a stable state which, by fits and starts, had finally Christianised under Byzantine influence by the 9thC CE.

When Herodotus commented upon the Dacians (called ‘Getae’ by the Greeks) in his 5thC BCE Histories, he noted in particular that these peoples believed in the continuity of the soul after death. They were, after all, a people related to the Thracians, among whom the poet-seer Orpheus was supposed to have arisen, providing the European classical world with one of its most important religions, believing firmly in reincarnation. This provided its adherents with a particular map of the Otherworld which modern Celticists can quite easily identify with…

In the modern popular understanding about Romanian folklore, the most influential stories and beliefs surround the dark and fearful aspects of Strigoi – the restless dead who wish to abstract the life-force of the living. These are the model for the modern conception of vampires (and werewolves), and who we nowadays like to think of as humanoids with long sharp canines used to bite and suck the physical blood from peoples’ bodies. The reality (if you can call it that) of the idea of Strigoi is somewhat more complicated, and deeply tied to the ancient beliefs of souls and the otherworld which underpinned the religion of Europe’s Iron Age peoples, possibly extending deeper into antiquity. Characteristically, Strigoi can be either human (‘witches’ – the Italic word for ‘witch’ is ‘Strega’), but they might also be the undying or resurrected dead who seek to abstract human life-force (sometimes as actual blood) and who sicken their victims before finally taking their lives. They can shape-shift into animal forms and pass normally insurmountable physical barriers, and become invisible.

Coupled to the belief in a more sinister Stregoi is the important Romanian myth of the Blajini – the meaning of which translates almost exactly to that same phrase used in Ireland for fairies: ‘Gentle People’. These were spirits supposed to occupy a parallel reflected otherworld which mirrored our own, and at there is still a tradition associated with them, celebrated at Easter, known as Paştele Blajinilor. This festival (often celebrated a week or so after Easter proper) has strong associations with the ancestral dead. Apart from visiting or tending the graves of the departed, it is attached to a custom in which dyed or decorated eggs (often red) were made and eaten in their honour and the shells dropped into rivers to take them to the Blajini (the idea being that they should then know that it was Easter)! Readers of my blog will recognise that this custom is another explicit demonstration of an ancient European belief that all rivers flow to the ‘world-river’ (Apa Sâmbetei to Romanians, Okeanos to the Greeks), which bounds the shores of both our own and the ‘other’ world. Apa Sâmbetei is usually translated or understood as ‘Saturday’s Water‘, but is actually fairly obviously ‘Saturn’s Water‘ since the realm of Saturn or Cronus was in ancient mythology upon the far shores of Okeanos. The term evidently comes through the influence of Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians. Romanian folklore held that the souls of departed travelled through streams and rivers to reach the Otherworld, and this is exactly paralleled in the remains of Celtic pagan beliefs demontrated throughout medieval Irish literature, as I have previously discussed.

More interestingly, another belief attached in traditions to the Blajini was that they continually fasted in the Otherworld in order to sanctify our own world with the divine grace this practice bestows upon christians. They therefore provided a ‘boon’ to humanity, that demanded respect. This is the same belief that Scots minister Robert Kirk described in the Scottish Highlands in his 17thC ‘Secret Commonwealth’ manuscript, concerning the otherworld ‘counterbalance’ – namely when we have plenty, ‘they’ have scarcity!

Both traditions – Strigoi and Blajini – therefore represent different aspects of the same original spirit-belief which so pervaded ‘Celtic’ Europe. They show the idea of the dead living in an inverted state in the otherworld, and whose behaviour towards us seeks to address an imbalance between a mundane and a spiritual existence. However, the ‘reincarnate’ dead who walk the earth again could have no place within the Christian cosmology and folklore except as some fearful ‘evil’ force representing death, darkness, disease and chaos – these evidently evolved to become the Stregoi, whereas the Blajini were ‘allowed’ a continued existence as they largely stayed in the ‘spiritual’ realm beyond the concerns of mundanity, and therefore could not transgress the Christian doctrines to such a degree. In fact, the two ‘archetypes’ are more of a continuity, so that Blajini are sometimes of a more fearful aspect. They are therefore both analogous to the spirits of the Gaelic world, and indeed seem to share the same ancient doctrinal heritage…




Fairy Doctors, Sluagh Sidhe and Fianna

In the 5thC a crack commando unit was sent to purgatory by St Patrick for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade into the Gaeltacht underground. Today, still wanted by the church, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem – if no one else can help – and if you can find them – maybe you can hire: The F-Team

The idea of a group of heroes who battle the monstrous, the fateful and the chaotic at the boundaries of safe everyday existence is a pervasive feature of European mythology, extending back for as long as stories have been recorded. In the Gaelic language zones, perhaps the most important representatives of this legendary theme are Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna.Through their battles (and romantic encounters) with the magical denizens of legend, and their willingness to lay down their lives and suffer to do this, they become heroes who benefit the people, and their stories are marked by an enduring fondness.

What struck me as interesting about the aforementioned story of Aleisoun Pearsoun (put to death for witchcraft in Fife in 1588) was that her ‘story’ of how she acquired her powers seems to mirror and include aspects of that of the legendary Fianna:

1. She – like Fionn – joins a fairy band who take her on a wild adventure.

2. She ‘marries’ (has a sexual initiation) with a fairy she meets in the wilds. Fionn’s paramour was a woman in the form of a deer who he catches when hunting. Their magical son (poetry) is Oisin (‘Little Deer’).

3. She is tested with great adversity by the Otherworld denizens, who make her ill, but is given magical weapons with which to combat them.

4. She overcomes and returns with knowledge of its secrets, and becomes a warrior against the perils of the Otherworld (disease).

In fact, hers is not a dissimilar story to that of traditional Gaelic folk-healer characters such as Biddy Early (Ireland 19thC) and elsewhere besides. It is a feature pertinent to stories of ‘shamans’ and ‘medicine men’ etc from around the pre-modernised world.

The Fianna and the Sluagh Sidhe:

The fact that the ‘wild band’ or ‘fairy cavalcade’ in Gaelic folk-belief would have had something to do with Fionn and the Fianna often seems implicit, but it is quite rare to see this connection made explicitly in pre-20thC folklore accounts. Aleisoun Pearsoun’s fairy-band were apparently capable of both mirth and malice, which is a possibly a fair description of the legendary antics of the warlike Fianna. Nonetheless, apart from her kindred spirits who protect her, the cavalcade seem mostly harmful, and it is in understanding how to deal with this harm that she understands how to cure diseases. For this reason, we must turn our attention to the chaotic harmful fairy cavalcade, referred to in folklore as the Sluagh Sidhe or Sluagh Sith/Slieu Shee.

‘Sluagh Sidhe’ translates literally as ‘Fairy Host’ or ‘Fairy Army’. Robert Kirk (c.1690) provided one of the earliest accounts of the belief in these fairy hosts:

“… Moreover, this Life of ours being called a Warfair, and God’s saying that at last there will be no Peace to the Wicked, our bussie and silent Companions also being called Siths, or People at Rest and Quiet, in respect of us; and withall many Ghosts appearing to Men that want this Second Sight, in the very Shapes, and speaking the same Language, they did when incorporate and alive with us; a Matter that is of ane old imprescriptible Tradition, (our Highlanders making still a Distinction betwixt Sluagh Saoghalta and Sluagh Sith, averring that the Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged;)… “

As can be seen, Kirk gave two forms supernatural ‘Sluagh’, An Sluagh Saoghalta meaning, literally, ‘The Temporal/Earthly Host’. Kirk himself offers no translation to explain what he calls ‘Sluagh Saoghalta’ (‘Slooa Sheelta’) and uses the term only once. The implication from his fairy narrative is that one host is ‘spiritual’ and the other ‘of the mundane world’, probably meaning those ‘left behind’ due to sinfulness during their lives and more prone to the brutish acts that characterised a difficult existence. So far as I have been able to find out, there are few other references to ‘Sluagh Saoghalta’ from recorded folklore, it being more of a term used in Gaelic christian literature, so let us focus on the Sluagh Sidhe/Sith, a term which probably encompasses both ideas:

Source: Popular tales of the West Highlands, orally collected, Vol. 3 – John Francis Campbell, Pub: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862; pp.340-341

“….A doctor told this anecdote—

“Do you see that kind of shoulder on the hill? Well, a man told me that he was walking along there with another who used to “go with the fairies,” and he said to him—

“‘ I know that they are coming for me this night. If they come, I must go with them; and I shall see them come, and the first that come will make a bow to me, and pass on; and so I shall know that they are going to take me with them.’

“‘Well,’ said the man, ‘we had not gone far when the man called out, ‘Tha iad so air tighin.’ These are come. I see a number of ‘ sluagh’ the people; and now they are making bows to me. And now they are gone.’ And then he was quiet for a while. Then he began again; and at last he began to cry out to hold him, or that he would be off.

“Well,” said the doctor, “the man was a bold fellow, and he held on by the other, and he began to run, and leap, and at last (as the man told me) he was fairly lifted up by the ‘sluagh,’ and taken away from him, and he found him about a couple of miles further on, laid on the ground. He told him that they had carried him through the air, and dropped him there. And,” said the doctor, “that is a story that was told me as a fact, a very short time ago, by the man whom I was attending.”

Not far off I was told this in a house full of people, all of whom knew the story, and seemed to believe it implicitly.”

This account was corroborated by Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gaedelica Volume 2, pp.3301-331) – as usual, my emphases:

Sluagh – ‘Hosts’, the spirit world – the ‘hosts’ are the spirits of mortals who have died. The people have many curious stories on this subject. According to one informant, the spirits fly about “n’an sgrioslaich mhor, a sios agusa suas air uachdar an domhain mar na truidean’ – ‘In great clouds, up and down the face of the world like the starlings, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions’. No soul of them is without the clouds of earth, dimming the brightness of the works of God, nor can any make heaven until satisfaction is made for the sins on earth. In bad nights, the hosts shelter themselves, ‘ fo gath chuiseaga bheaga ruadha agus bhua-ghallan bheaga bhuidhe’ ‘behind little russet docken stems and little yellow ragwort stalks’. They fight battles in the air as men do on the earth. They may be heard and seen on clear frosty nights, advancing and retreating, retreating and advancing, against one another. After a battle, as I was told in Barra, their crimson blood may be seen staining rocks and stones. ‘Fuil nan sluagh’, the blood of the hosts is the beautiful red ‘crotal’ of the rocks, melted by frost.


These spirits used to kill cats and dogs, sheep and cattle, with their unerring venemous darts. They commanded men to follow them, and men obeyed, having no alternative.

It was these men of earth who slew and maimed at the bidding of their spirit-masters, who in return ill-treated them in a most pitiless manner. ‘Bhiodh iad ’gan loireadh agus ’gan loineadh agus ’gan luidreadh anus gach lod, lud agus lon’–They would be rolling and dragging and trouncing them in mud and mire and pools. ‘There is less faith now, and people see less, for seeing is of faith. God grant to thee and to me, my dear, the faith of the great Son of the lovely Mary.’ This is the substance of a graphic account of the ‘sluagh,’ given me in Uist by a bright old woman, endowed with many natural gifts and possessed of much old lore. There are men to whom the spirits are partial, and who have been carried off by them more than once. A man in Benbecula was taken up several times. His friends assured me that night became a terror to this man, and that ultimately he would on no account cross the threshold after dusk. He died, they said, from the extreme exhaustion consequent on these excursions. When the spirits flew past his house, the man would wince as if undergoing a great mental struggle, and fighting against forces unseen of those around him. A man in Lismore suffered under precisely similar conditions. More than once he disappeared mysteriously from the midst of his companions, and as mysteriously reappeared utterly exhausted and prostrate. He was under vows not to reveal what had occurred on these aerial travels.

I took down several stories of persons who went with the ‘hosts.’ Here is one of the stories of the ‘hosts’ summarised:–The beautiful daughter of a king of France was taken up by the ‘hosts,’ and carried about in the air, over lands and seas, continents and islands, till they came to the little island of Heistamal, behind Creagorry, in Benbecula, where they laid her down in such an injured state that she died from the hard treatment; not, however, till she had told about the lands to which she had been carried, and of the great hardships she had endured while travelling through space. The people of the island buried the princess where she was found.

The ‘sluagh’ are supposed to come from the west; and therefore, when a person is dying, the door and the windows on the west side of the house are secured to keep out the malicious spirits. In Ross-shire, the door and windows of a house in which a person is dying are opened, in order that the liberated soul may escape to heaven. In Killtarlity, when children are being brought into the world, locks of chests and of doors are opened, this being supposed, according to traditional belief, to facilitate childbirth.

These Hebridean and Highland accounts concur with records of similar beliefs from Ireland and the Isle of Man. The Sluagh Sidhe were dangerous, vengeful and often angry – they were represented (as Aleisoun Pearsoun was informed) by gusts of wind which marked their passing. These fairy ‘blasts’ might burn your skin with ignis sacer or boils or other visible cutaneous conditions. They strike you with fairy darts rendering you sick, or paralysed down one side (a ‘stroke’, the name still used in medicine today). They might also carry you away in a state of delirium to a place you had no intention of being – you would be ‘taken‘ by them, sometimes into their own fairy world!

The Sluagh Sidhe/Sith were – like the Fianna of ancient Ireland – bands of souls who roamed the world outside of the laws of settled everyday life. They were dangerous and liminal, yet potentially helpful and – in the fairy faith discussed by Kirk and other commentators – could redeem themselves, sometimes by sharing the knowledge of how to ‘heal’ the harm they cause, and from there could pass to a different place – in the west, beyond the sunset.

A Fairy Doctor was a specialist who understood these modes of harm caused by these Fairy Hosts. He or she also understood the ‘principle of inversion’ which governed how we and the otherworld interacted together, and was able to intervene or advise in redressing this balance.

Otherworld streams and rivers in Norse mythology

I have previously discussed how the ancient Greeks and Irish believed that all rivers flowed eventually to the otherworld where they then took a mysterious course before returning to our own. The Irish medieval ‘Dindsenchas’ texts refer to this belief in regard to a number of mythologically and geographically important rivers such as the Shannon and the Boyne.

The much older classical Greco-Roman texts refer to Okeanos – the world-river composed of all the world’s waters – at whose furthest reaches the heavens begin and where there are islands such as Elysium, Erytheia/Hesperides, Ogygia etc peopled by Titans, monsters and the shades and souls of the dead. The Greek Orphic mysteries (another expression of the core pagan faith of the ancient Mediterranean world) were concerned with the transition of souls to and from this far-off watery/spiritual realm, and it appears that Irish myths entertained similar beliefs.

What about the myths of the Norse peoples of the middle ages, who were among Europe’s longest-surviving pagan cultures? Putting aside for now the various Germanic folklore elements which preserved much of the Atlantic metempsychosis myths in the form of fairy lore, I wish to focus on the Icelandic Edda mythology, recorded and written down during the Christian era in Iceland during the 13th century.

This was written down as the result of a desire among some learned Christian Icelanders to preserve as much as possible of the ancient culturally-important ‘portable’ oral mythology which had followed them on their difficult emigration from the ‘viking’ homelands of Norway, Sweden and Denmark as well as Britain and Ireland. They survive in the form of a number of traditional pagan ‘theogonies’ (descriptions of the gods) detailing the construction of the universe and discussing how the dynamic interplay of spiritual forces cause time to unfold and its cycles repeat – an ancient version of what modern astrophysicists are currently trying (with more or less success) to achieve!

The Icelandic manuscript Codex Regius is the source of the important metrical verse accounts known as the Poetic (or ‘Elder’) Edda, containing the most important pieces of preserved pagan Viking theogony. These are as explicitly about actual gods as the Greek myths, in contrast to many Irish tales which are sometimes not so easy to derive a ‘pantheon’ from. They detail the cosmology of how the comprehended universe was arranged, how the world was formed and (perhaps) how the world ends and is reborn. As such, they share many similarities with ancient Greek and NW European ‘Atlantic’ myths, in particular the belief about the role of springs, streams, rivers and the journey to and from the Otherworld.

The most informative of the Poetic Edda narratives about these themes is the cryptic ‘Seer-woman’s Prophecy’, otherwise known as Völuspá. In some ways it is of a similar genre to the prophetic utterings found in a fragmented state in Atlantic Celtic folktales about the character known as Cailleach: A seeress narrates the theogony of the Norse gods from creation to ‘Ragnarok’ when the gods die. Within this narrative the seeress details the first creation of the giants and gods and the earth/sun/moon etc from the waters; she then says the gods and giants made subterranean men (dvergr – dwarfs) who then produced two supra-terrestrial trees – Ash and Elm – from which the gods made men. Then came the creation of the great ash tree Yggdrasil upon which (figuratively) the creation of the world ‘above-ground’, up to the heavens, rested…

An Ash I know stands, Yggdrasil by name, a high tree, drenched with bright white mud; from there come the dews that drop in the dales, it always stands green over Destiny’s well.

From there come maidens, knowing much, three from the lake that stands under the tree: ‘Destiny’ they called one, ‘Becoming’ the second – they carved on wood tablets – ‘Shall-be’ the third; laws they laid down, lives they chose for the children of mankind, the fates of men.

This famous passage describes the immortal ‘Norns’ who were possibly the same three giantesses who came to disturb the peace of the Aesir (apparently to mate with them) and create the dwarfs, who then helped create the sprouts of the word-tree (Ask and Embla) into which the gods infused life. The poetic Edda is vague or deliberately cryptic as to the exact points but, the picture emerges of a life-giving stream of humanity, reflected in the form of a great tree which grew from the subterranean world (of the dvergr) and which rises to the heavens. This feeds from the ‘lake’ of the Norns at the base of the tree, and it appears that the Norns ‘weave’ the wood of the tree from the water – an idea rooted (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the similarity of trees and plant-life with the branching nature of streams and rivers across the landscape. The Ash tree’s bark has the colour of clay, and has many similarities to water in its shape, form and mode of growth: its ‘raining’ seeds, and the blue-tinged flames that lick around its wood when it burns.

A ‘euhemerised’ version of the poetic Edda myths was produced in the late 13th/early 14thC by the great Icelandic scholar and politician Snorri Sturlusson, and (because it was told in prose form) became known as the Prose Edda. Although purporting that the ‘Gods’ were actually just deified real historic persons and the visions conjured of the spiritual world were illusions and hallucinations, it went on to add increased detail to the poetic Edda narratives which (because of their nature) are likely to be based on traditions that the Christian Snorri understood were important to keep. After all, paganism needed to be understood if it was to stay suppressed – a lesson perhaps learned from the experiences of the Irish… Snorri is obviously reasonably well-versed in certain Greek myths which were of interest to the European Christian euhemerist narratives – Troy, the Golden Age, etc, and weaves them into his narrative. He quotes from the poetic Edda and some Skaldic verses throughout, although he sometimes plays free and loose with the sequencing of the information – possibly to obfuscate the pagan themes from understanding. Snorri elaborates a great deal upon the Yggdrasil in part 15 of his Prose Edda narrative known as Gylfaginning. After going into great detail about the creation of the world, the gods, men and dwarves he tackles the great tree:

Then Gangleri said, ‘Where is the central or holy place place of the gods?’ High answered, ‘It is at the ash Yggdrasil. There each day the gods hold their courts.’… ‘The ash is the largest and the best of all trees. Its branches spread themselves over all the world, and it stands over the sky. Three roots support the tree and they are spread very far apart. One is among the Aesir. A second is among the Frost Giants where Ginnungagap once was. The third reaches down to Niflheim, and under this root is the weel Hvergelmir; but Nidhogg [Hateful Stikrer] gnaws at this root from below. ‘Under the root that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence are hidden there, and Mimir is the name of the well’s owner. He is full of wisodom because he drinks of the well from Gjallarhorn. All-Father went there and asked for one drink from the well, but he did not get this until he gave one of his eyes as a pledge…’ ‘…The third root of the ash is in heaven, and under that root is the very holy well called the Well of Urd. There the gods have their place of judgement. Every day the Aesir ride up over Bifrost, which is also called Asbru [Bridge of the Aesir]… ‘…A handsome hall stands under the ash besides the well. Out of this hall come three maidens, who are called Urd [Fate], Verdandi [Becoming] and Skuld [Obligation]. These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them the norns. There are yet more norns, those who come to each person at birth to decide the length of one’s life, and these are related to the gods. Others are descended from the elves, and a third group comes from the dwarves…’

These passages relate each root of the tree to a nourishing source of water – a well. These lie within three realms: that of primal chaos (the giants), that of the Aesir (gods) and that of the mortals who are open to fate (men) and under the destiny of the ‘Norns’ (who remained un-named in the original Völuspá).

Note: Although widely accepted as a ‘map’ of the ‘spiritual world’ of the pagan Scandinavians, the Gylfaginning text should perhaps be seen as Snorri’s attempt to reconcile some kind of ordered state upon a corpus of pagan folk-knowledge with diverse origins and traditions some 300 years into the Scandinavian Christian era. His textual ‘map’ of the ‘worlds’ and description of lists of gods, dwarves, elves and giants is probably his own interpretation and should not be accepted as canonical in understanding Norse paganism.

Later in the Gylfaginning, Snorri introduces us to Valhöll (Valhalla) – the mighty hall of the fallen warriors. He describes this as a hall of repose and reconciliation in the otherworld where warriors can still enjoy their sport (fighting) but as immortals, who can feast and enjoy each others’ company after doing battle. Snorri sites the hall (which belongs to Odin) in Asgard (‘Aesir Home’) although his poetic Edda source (one of which is Grimnismal) is less certain of the arrangement of the worlds.

To the hall is ascribed a very important pair of animals, said to dwell upon its roof and feed from a great tree called ‘Laerad‘, which seems (given the presence of the dead in the hall) to be a version or part of Yggdrasil. Although Snorri does not make this connection with Yggdrasil explicit in his prose Edda, it is more certain in the poetic Edda which places Laerad somewhere above the roots of Yggdrasil. From the tree, the goat Heiðrún feeds and her milk is the mead drunk by the heroes in Valhöll . Also up on the roof (think of it as a turf roof extending down to the ground if you want to be authentic) there is the stag named Eikþyrnir (Eikthyrnir) who too feeds upon the foliage of the great tree, and from whose antlers drips a dew which falls downwards and collects in the deepest chthonic pool of  Hvergelmir from which Yggdrasil is nourished, and from which (the poetic Edda says) all rivers arise.

The prose Edda contains other descriptions of munching stags wandering among the branches of Yggdrasil, in part 16 of Gylfaginning. Although Snorri doesn’t comment on dew coming from their antlers, he does refer to the nourishing dew supposed to drip down from the tree’s branches as described in the Voluspa. Hvergelmir was supposed in the poetic and prose Eddas to be the pool of serpents (which in ancient mythology share the winding characteristics of rivers). Níðhöggr (‘Malice Striker’) was the serpent who occupied this deepest region, and who may have been cognate with Thor’s great foe (in fishing and at Ragnarok) – the world-serpent, Jörmungandr. By the ancient reckoning ‘serpents’ included the whole class of earth-loving burrowing animals and might include earth and mud-worms, insects and larvae and even stinging insects: not just snakes. They were linked to the idea of gnawing and decay in disease, and the stings of serpents (venoms or poisons) were often blamed (figuratively or as exemplars) for diseases – mundane or magical. The dwarves or dvergr of Norse myth were sometimes characterised as serpents or worms who first burrowed in the dead body of the Earth-Giant Mimir – dead corpses were believed to generate worms by the old reckoning. The same for pools of water, in which insect larvae seem to ‘appear’ by magic. For this reason dwarves and dragons have their strange correlation in Norse mythology – none moreso than Sigurd’s opponent Fafnir who is described as both dwarf and dragon.


It is evident that the Edda’s descriptions of the world tree are an important depiction of the flow of creation to and from the Otherworld. The identity of water and wood is very explicit, and the strong connection in old European pagan lore between the tree (and hence rivers) and the generations (and regenerations) of humanity is explicit. The connection with serpents, death and regenesis is also a part of this deep mythology. The connection between mead (the milk of Heiðrún) and poetry is common in the ancient northern and north-western European world. Here, in the case of Valhalla, it signifies the satisfaction given to ancestors by the telling of lays and poems in their honour – a key aspect of the Atlantic religion’s ancestor-cult. The stag Eikþyrnir fulfils the mystical recirculation of water, no doubt the reason that the pursuit of white stags so often presage the encounters between brave knights and fairy-women at fountains in the forest-pursuits of medieval lays and Arthurian Romances. The mystical process explains why northern Europe’s ancient pagans typically venerated trees in the richly-wooded forests of central northwest Europe, and perhaps why trees played a subservient role to ‘fairy hills’ in the relatively tree-denuded extents of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Then again… what would an Irish ‘fairy hill’ be without its attendant spring and its thorn tree? 

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.