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.

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…




The ‘warrior’ panel of the Gundestrup cauldron

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

The 'warrior' panel from the interior of the cauldron. Photo: Malene Thyssen

This interior panel from the famous Gundestrup cauldron appears to show a line of seven mail-clad, shield and spear-wielding Celtic warriors advancing in a line from right to left towards a giant warrior who appears to be holding the body of another small warrior over a vessel of some sort. A dog or wolf appears to jump up at his feet. Proceeding from the giant along the upper row, are a line of four finely-arrayed horsemen with elite crested helmets, passing from left to right. Preceding them is a snake. The footsoldiers of the bottom row are followed by three carnyx (boar-headed celtic war-horn) players, whose horns reach up to face the cavalry riding back towards them, and the snake 'flies' above the horn chanters. Separating the rows of footmen and cavlry is a branch from which sprouts foliage or flowers. The metalwork around this is textured, suggesting an aura, a river or a footpath. The 'spears' of the footmen seem to connect with the trunk of the branch.

Symbolism interpreted:

The silver Gundestrup cauldron was probably a ritual deposit in water, pledged to the gods, as it was discovered in pieces in a Danish bog in 1891. Such deposits were an archaeological feature of Europe's 'Atlantic Bronze Age' which were influential upon the Celtic Iron Age cultures of north and central Europe. The organised style of the warriors, their mail suits and war trumpets seem date the cauldron between the 3rdC BCE and the 1stC CE during which time there were broad military and cultural interactions between Celtic tribes of Gaul and those of south and central Europe, explaining the artistic styles (and that of the armour) depicted on the cauldron: In fact, some design elements on the cauldron are so similar to those on objects found in the 'Letnica Hoard' (Bulgaria) to suggest a Gallo-Thracian origin for at least some of the panels. The cauldron shows aspects of both military and spiritual ideas of the afterlife which commentators typically associate with Celtic Iron Age culture.

Our 'warrior' panel shows some key features of a warfare-oriented view of reincarnation:

The footsoldiers:

These are 'ordinary' footsoldiers kitted uniformly for war with shields, spears and chainmail vests. There are seven armed men and three carnyx players. The last of the armed men carries no shield, and may be a youth, as he stands below the topmost 'sprout' of the tree-like design above their heads. They are clearly marching into battle, towards the dog/wolf and the giant figure with his cauldron, who appears to be placing one in or pulling one out of the cauldron. The soldiers are marching in the direction of the roots of the aforementioned tree design. Interestingly, it can be seen that their chainmail hauberks finish at the knee, below which they appear to wear hose and rawhide sandals on their feet, similar to those still in use in Ireland and the Isle of Man into the 19thC.

The giant warrior and his 'cauldron':

The giant warrior's cauldron or vessel appears to be a metaphor for some kind of rebirth promised to the valiant footsoldiers, as proceeding from it in the opposite direction to them are a line of mounted knights with fabulous helmets. The womb-like metaphor for the cauldron as a symbol for rebirth is found in the 'Second Branch' of the medieval Welsh epic tales known as Mabinogion in which the giant, Brân, owns a cauldron which revives the dead. In the case of the Gundestrup cauldron, two things appear to be emerging from this giant's cauldron – glorified warriors and a tree. This has echoes of the Yggdrasil tree mentioned in the 12thC Icelandic accounts of Scandinavian pagan legends: at the base of Yggdrasil were a number of wells from which the lives and fates of men flowed. At the base of the tree, gnawing animals and serpents were found: aspects of the ancient empirical idea of regeneration through putrefaction: these are also represented on the Gundestrup cauldron by the snake and the dog. The message of the panel is that the masculine god of the Otherworld (here portrayed also as a warrior, therefore a 'colleague) promises regeneration to those who glorify themselves in battle, and the new existence may have greater glory, represented by:

The four knights:

Proceeding from the apparent god and his cauldron are four mounted men (knights), remarkable for their elaborate crested helmets. The horses and more beautiful helmets mark them out as part of the warrior elite, and the implication of their appearance in the panel is that valiant footsoldiers might become so great – either through death or attainment. It is notable that there are only four knights, compared to the eight warriors going towards the cauldron (including the man held by the 'god'). Assuming that all of the soldiers on the lower row were looking forward to death in battle, then the panel suggests only four of these seem to have achieved a more glorious reincarnation! This again links to the Norse accounts of beliefs about death of warriors in battle which suggest that only half of the slain went with Odinn to Valhöll. Another interesting concordance.

So what of the other four warriors – what might the panel say about these? We are left with two interesting possibilities:

The first is represented by the animals in the image: first of these are the cavalrymen's horses, which would bring the number of sentient beings up to eight in the top row. The other is the ravenous dog or wolf, who like the crows and carrion birds depicted elsewhere on the cauldron would be features of any battlefield. The folklore of hosts of the restless dead remaining in Atlantic Europe after the Iron Age seems to have relevance here: the Sluagh Sidhe of the Gaelic world, and the 'Wild Hunt' of the Germanic world in particular. It may be that the souls of the unglorified were believed to have been incarnated in the form of the animals who haunt battlefields and the margins of human habitation: the corvidae (crows), vultures, wolves, dogs and foxes. By consuming the flesh of the glorious and providing good deeds in the form of omens and warnings, they might find themselves given a better incarnation in the next life, as well as speeding the recovery of the battlefield etc.

The second possibility of reincarnation is represented by the tree – the ancient metaphor for human generations: 'root, branch and seed'. The panel's design with the tree apparently growing from it suggests the dead are fertilising the regrowth of future generations, perhaps implying the reincarnation of less worthy footsoldiers as humans, ready for another 'go' at attaining greater glory. My feeling, based on the residual folklore and traditions of Europe, is that the truth probably lies somewhere between these two suggestions. The transmigration of souls (described by Roman authors as a central tenet of Gallic/Celtic faith) might lead to a number of outcomes, based variously upon the achievements of individuals in this life: a glorious afterlife, reincarnation as a human, or even a cavalryman's horse, or as a restless ravening creature who plays an important role in the regeneration processes of nature, and who might offer auguries to the living. The calls of ravens and crows, the flight-patterns of birds and the calls and shouts of canines and horses, were all recorded as potential sources of augury in ancient Europe until at least the middle ages.

The snake and the Carnyxes:

The snake has been a symbol of reincarnation for a very long time, based upon their continuous unblinking stare, their shedding their skins, their love of chthonic lairs from which they emerge into daylight, and from their ancient philosophical (morphological) classification along with worms, larvae and maggots as part of natural putrefaction and regenerative processes of nature. The snake is also notable for the visceral, terrifying/transfixing ability it has over its prey, bringing us here to discuss the Carnyx, above which the snake is positioned in the panel. The was the war-trumpet par-excellence of the Celts, whose terrifying cacophonic honking seemed designed to evoke the enraged squeals and bellows of an attacking boar, stag or bull, augmenting the terrifying transfixing effect of soldiers' war-cries upon an enemy. The horn was apparently a potent weapon in itself, designed – like the gaze of the snake – to sap the morale of the enemy.


This panel appears to show imagery promising soldiers reincarnation in battle. Their deaths are being 'inverted' into a renewed, more glorious life, and the cauldron and tree act as a central metaphor of regrowth from the well of life, with the dog and snake representing the earthly and allegorical forms of this natural process.


Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato – spiritual philosophy

Medieval accounts of the Cosmos such as that given by the character Taliesin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’ are based upon much older pagan philosophies:

“…I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each borne in different directions by the repulsion of Strife. Thus, as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many, and to become many once more, when the one is parted asunder, so far they come into being and their life abides not. But, inasmuch as they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of existence…” Empedocles of Acragas/Agrigentum (Sicily) – 5thC BCE (From: ‘Fragments’ of the Strasbourg Papyrus)

Empedocles was one of the ‘Pre-Socratic’ (Pre-Hellenic) philosophers of the ancient Greek world – a group of individuals including Pythagoras of Samos (attributed to the 6thC BCE, but possibly even legendary) about whom we know little except of what was reported much later. In the case of Empedocles, we are lucky as some of his contemporary writings survive. Empedocles is credited with developing the cosmogenic theory of the Four Elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) which her referred to as ‘roots’ of matter, and which was to dominate the worldview of the ancient European, North African and Middle-Eastern peoples right through to the 17th century. Whether or not he was the true originator remains to be seen, but he became an icon of this to the Greeks. His surviving fragmentary works were – like those of Homer and Hesiod – written in a poetic verse, suggesting a possible connection to an oral transmission tradition. He was as much concerned with spiritualism and religion as what we moderns would think of as ‘philosophy’ – to the ancients there was no difference. As a Sicilian Greek, he would have had access to and interest in the ‘Celtic’ peoples and their philosopher-priests. His belief in transmigration of the soul was supposedly shared by/derived from Pythagoras and was common to the Orphic/Eleusinian mysteries, as well as by the Atlantic Europeans. The Greeks would never admit that they derived anything or shared a common heritage with the ‘Barbarian’ world, of course!

The Cosmogony attributed to Empedocles was used by Plato of Athens some 100 years later during the era of the Hellenic expansion. His famous dialogue ‘Timaeus’ discussed the structure of reality and history of creation, framed within Plato’s theories of geometry and number, itself derived from ideas of Pythagoras. Here he discusses the relationship between the elements (stoichaea):

“…Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean-then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one. If the universal frame had been created a surface only and having no depth, a single mean would have sufficed to bind together itself and the other terms; but now, as the world must be solid, and solid bodies are always compacted not by one mean but by two, God placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer…” Plato – Dialogue of Timaeus (4thC BCE, Athens)

You will note that Plato talks of the ‘creator’ or ‘God’ as a single force (you’d need to check the Greek original, though!) – surprisingly like the idea of God to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamist faith it would seem. This might seem strange, until one realises that to Plato and the philosophers of this age this was a natural part of polytheismthe plural ‘gods’ were a description of the important functions and continuum of time and space between the philosophical absolute ‘Monad’ and the dissolution of chaos. This was quantum physics for the mind! To worship the Monad was as senseless as worshipping pure chaos.

In the following passage from Timaeus, he explains how the stars and souls are one, expressing a great deal of the same theory as Empedocles, no doubt one of his formative sources. He tells how – as well as the universe being a huge soul ‘framework’ in itself, the souls of beings (gods and mortals) were made by combining them with aspects of the elements:

“…and once more into the cup in which he (ed: the Creator) had previously mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all,-no one should suffer a disadvantage at his hands; they were to be sown in the instruments of time severally adapted to them, and to come forth the most religious of animals; and as human nature was of two kinds, the superior race would here after be called man. Now, when they should be implanted in bodies by necessity, and be always gaining or losing some part of their bodily substance, then in the first place it would be necessary that they should all have in them one and the same faculty of sensation, arising out of irresistible impressions; in the second place, they must have love, in which pleasure and pain mingle; also fear and anger, and the feelings which are akin or opposite to them; if they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously. He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state. Having given all these laws to his creatures, that he might be guiltless of future evil in any of them, the creator sowed some of them in the earth, and some in the moon, and some in the other instruments of time; and when he had sown them he committed to the younger gods the fashioning of their mortal bodies, and desired them to furnish what was still lacking to the human soul, and having made all the suitable additions, to rule over them, and to pilot the mortal animal in the best and wisest manner which they could, and avert from him all but self-inflicted evils…”

    Although seeming mysogynistic to modern readers, Plato’s opinions about unworthy souls being reincarnated first in the body of a woman, and next in that of a ?beast have to be judged, firstly by the standards of his culture and age, and secondarily by considering the otherworld inversion principle I have made previous references to in terms of ancient spirit beliefs. For instance, the ancient Gaelic belief in hereditary healing and protective charms always had contrasexual inheritance as its core mode of transmission. Plato’s audience at his seminars were privileged Athenian males.

   In spite of his apparent misogyny, he was steadfastly devoted to the principles of Sensation (resulting, he believed, from the conflict between matter and spirit and the soul) and Love as the highest faculties motivating humanity. These, to him and his devotees of future generations, were represented in the Goddesses Athena (Strife) and Aphrodite (Love).

The views of Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato were to have a profound influence upon religious philosophy in the Hellenic and Roman empires, inspiring new generations of philosophers who flourished from the 3rdC BCE to the 4thC CE. The philosophical origins of christianity may in fact be based upon them – albeit with a one-sided doctrine of ‘Love thy Neighbour’ and the denial of the sensationalist aspect…. 


Bronze Age roots of European Paganism

A deep and insoluble question that dogs the history of paganism in northern Europe before the advent of Greek and Roman expansion and christianity is that which asks about its structure and theology. Was it generally polytheist – believing in a host of different gods each with individual functions? If so, did it follow a similar system to the southern European religions? …. Or was its focus dualist – having god and goddess figures representing the perceived universal polarities? What if the dualist interpretation is the root of the polytheist, even?

Romans such as Julius Caesar (1stC BC De Bello Gallico) wrote that the ‘barbarian’ Gauls worshipped similar gods to them, but scholars consider such accounts as undetailed and lacking useful context. The fact that some Gauls in the south appear to have become quite Hellenized by the time of Caesar’s wars demonstrates the complicating factors at play. From the accounts we can see there are some apparent differences in theology and organisation between Gaulish/British and Roman official religion: Foremost was the system or college of learned druids at the apex of these societies, and also the reported emphasis on reincarnation, and the ideas about human ‘sacrifice’ that these appeared to engender:

They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory. They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded. They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods

In the same book (De Bello Gallico Book 6 ch.21) Caesar claimed that the German peoples of the 1stC BC:

” … rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon; they have not heard of the other deities even by report…”

Coupled to his assertion that the Germans had no Druids, Caesar was possibly making a declaration of their apparent primitivism and lack of philosophical gods and ideals. Surely no Roman would stoop to this? Caesar had his eyes on conquest…

However Caesar’s life was curtailed by jealous forces, and when his successor Augustus commissioned Vergil to write the Aeneid about Rome’s supposed cultural origins at Troy, Caesar’s comment on reincarnation (seemingly a barbaric tenet) has its waters somewhat muddied by Book 6 which depicts Aeneas’ visit to Hades to his father, Anchises. During this he is instructed how purified souls drink the waters of forgetfulness from the River Lethe before crossing into reincarnation. This crossing is sometimes associated with entering Elysium – a place Homer placed on the banks of the world-encircling river, Okeanos, and which Hesiod referred to as the Blessed Isles, watched over by the Titan god Cronus (Saturn to the Romans). This is not actually that unusual as Pythagoras had a well-documented belief in metempsychosis that – along with the writings of Plato (Timaeus) and with the Greek mystery cults – had a popular following among the intellectual elites of the Roman Empire, Vergil and Ovid being particular examples. Here is that part of the Aenied:

[723] Meanwhile, in a retired vale, Aeneas sees a sequestered grove and rustling forest thickets, and the river Lethe drifting past those peaceful homes. About it hovered peoples and tribes unnumbered; even as when, in the meadows, in cloudless summertime, bees light on many-hued blossoms and stream round lustrous lilies and all the fields murmur with the humming. Aeneas is startled by the sudden sight and, knowing not, asks the cause – what is that river yonder, and who are the men thronging the banks in such a host? Then said father Anchises: “Spirits they are, to whom second bodies are owed by Fate, and at the water of Lethe’s stream they drink the soothing draught and long forgetfulness. These in truth I have long yearned to tell and show you to your face, yea, to count this, my children’s seed, that so you may rejoice with me the more at finding Italy.” “But, father, must we think that any souls pass aloft from here to the world above and return a second time to bodily fetters? What mad longing for life possesses their sorry hearts?” “I will surely tell you, my son, and keep you not in doubt,” Anchises replies and reveals each truth in order.

[724] “First, know that heaven and earth and the watery plains the moon’s bright sphere and Titan’s star, a spirit within sustains; in all the limbs mind moves the mass and mingles with the mighty frame. Thence springs the races of man and beast, the life of winged creatures, and the monsters that ocean bears beneath his marble surface. Fiery is the vigour and divine the source of those seeds of life, so far as harmful bodies clog them not, or earthly limbs and frames born but to die. Hence their fears and desires, their griefs and joys; nor do they discern the heavenly light, penned as they are in the gloom of their dark dungeon. Still more! When life’s last ray has fled, the wretches are not entirely freed from all evil and all the plagues of the body; and it needs must be that many a taint, long ingrained, should in wondrous wise become deeply rooted in their being. Therefore are they schooled with punishments, and pay penance for bygone sins. Some are hung stretched out to the empty winds; from others the stain of guilt is washed away under swirling floods or burned out by fire till length of days, when time’s cycle is complete, has removed the inbred taint and leaves unsoiled the ethereal sense and pure flame of spirit: each of us undergoes his own purgatory. Then we are sent to spacious Elysium, a few of us to possess the blissful fields. All these that you see, when they have rolled time’s wheel through a thousand years, the god summons in vast throng to Lethe’s river, so that, their memories effaced, they may once more revisit the vault above and conceive the desire of return to the body.”

In truth, the Greek and Roman spiritual worldviews were a composite of oral traditions woven into the dialectic transmissive mediums of art, poetry, song and theatre. Although deriding ‘barbarian’ religion, the ‘occult’ practices of the mystery religions of Orphism, Mithraism etc allowed Romans to stay in touch with the primitive fundamentals of paganism. In this manner they mirrored what Caesar had seen among the Atlantic peoples and their druidic religious system. The difference with the Roman system of priests of the ‘Olympian’ gods was that they were often simply members of the patrician and aristocratic classes, acting out pietous civic duties. As such we have little evidence that they formed a primary collegium – it was more often a secondary role. The core and perhaps oldest Roman religious cult was that of the household – of the genius, the gens, the lares and manes – representative of the ancestral cults of traditional European societies. These are some of the ‘peoples’ Aeneas sees in Virgil’s vision of Elysium and Hades.

The peoples who the Greeks and Romans interfaced with and conquered generally took on their ways, and they ways of the conquered were fitted in to their cultures (albeit in a demoted form). As the Mediterranean cultures expanded their influence and merged during the progress of the 1st millennium BC, so the Pantheon became a reality. During the process, the figurative realities of poets and philosophers became increasingly concreted by power, religious celebrity and literature.

Rome’s active policy of the plantation of (not just ethnic Roman) migrants among conquered cultures, coupled to the introduction of vigorous consumerism successfully displaced native traditions and imposed Roman worldviews and practices in a relatively short period of time. The fact that we know so little about the paganism of the Atlantic Europeans is because the process was so successful that there was no need to make a detailed religious assessment as the machine of Empire marched sandle-shod across Europe. The final leverage from paganism to christianity was an easy step after Rome’s political multiculturalism ensured the breakdown and replacement of indigenous religious cultures.

Even before the advent of christianity, much derision was heaped upon this overly-complex, often contradictory mass of deities and interpretative ‘mystery cults’ began to become more common. Jewish theologians struggling to establish their model of post-exilic monotheist orthodoxy and theocratic rule in Judaea had been revolting against the cultural aspects of Seleucid Hellenization. This culminated in the Roman occupation of Judaea and within a hundred years, the cataclysmic fracturing of that nation whose emergent monotheist faith began to subdivide all over again. It would eventually partition into three parts during the subsequent displacement and migration of its peoples across the middle east and Mediterranean basin and beyond in the following 600 years.

The more pro-Hellenic ‘Christian’ faction of Judean monotheism would find itself increasingly leading the intellectual (and political) arguments against paganism as the empire of Rome fractured under the strain of the cultures it had absorbed. Christian polemicists such as Cyprian and Augustine of Hippo were to argue that pagan gods were nothing but deified ancestors and leaders, and that the various spirits, daemones, lares and genii that populated the pagan spiritual world were in fact evil: a simplistic but effective argument that suited an intensely confusing, doubt-ridden and stressful period in European history. This approach to Mediterranean polytheism was to influence the tone of subsequent Christian interpretation of paganism, no matter what its actual true form was.

During and after the establishment of christianity in their country, Irish monks began to compile a similar Christian narrative tradition to deal with their own land’s pagan gods and ancestor-traditions, following the template laid by the ‘Augustinian’ polemical style of the ‘New Empire of Light’. The Irish invented their own highly stylised euhemerist Christian literature to match and exceed these: it would consign paganism to the same fate as on the continent, and paint its divinities into a pseudo-history of failed invaders and tyrannical warlike and venal rulers. In the same manner, christian Scandinavians of the 12th and 13th centuries would produce saga traditions which portrayed their (more recently) former gods in a similar manner: multiple, hierarchical, euhemerised, amoral and modelled largely after the deposed ‘Olympian’ gods of the Mediterranean.

The widespread use of euhemerist interpretation, the control of literacy by Christian elites and the difficulties inherent in expressing aspects of oral traditions using the fixed literary medium means that there is little good historical evidence about what pagan North Europeans believed.

The answer to the difficult question about northern pagan identity and belief lies in a fundamental understanding of what ‘paganism’ actually is and was. The state-sponsored religious cults of the Mediterranean classical age were designed to reflect the temporal power of the civilisations promoting them, and as these temporal powers grew so did their religions, the spiritual system reflecting the temporal one in its hierarchy and complexity after the manner of the older religions of ancient Egypt and the ‘Fertile Crescent’. Christianity simply followed in these footsteps.

In fact, the popular religion of country peoples and tribal groups under the classical empires was quite different to that of those involved in expansionism and regional overlordship. It was much simpler and reflected the necessities of the worldview of those who subsisted with the land, and left fewer relics in art, masonry and literature. To metropolitan elites, these simpler versions of religion were considered barbarism and tended to be derided, or to be absorbed into the popular spectacles of the fast-moving, ever-changing mainstream metropolitan cultures. The adornments and trappings of paganism that survived in the archaeological remains to the current day are generally elite interpretations of this core spiritual root.

The core basis of the Greek mythos (derived largely from Hesiod and Homer) is that there were 3 phases of overlord gods: Ouranos, Cronus then Zeus. Ouranos was the sky, who coupled with the Gaia, the Earth. Her offspring were the Titans who deposed Ouranos, and led by Cronus (who famously castrated his father) ruled over the ‘Golden Age’ (which was something akin to Elysium – showing the conflation of historical time with contemporary ‘place’ in the ancient worldview). Cronus then fathered Zeus who in turn deposed him, and the rest – as they say – is ‘history’ (in other words, where the bard Homer picks up the tale). Similar tales of one order replacing the other are echoed much later in the Scandinavian saga literature of the 12th/13thC, which records some original epic verse and stories of their late pagan era. The similarities are interesting.

The Olympian Gods were the third order, but their inception and promotion of their respective cults is very much linked in history to the growth and expansion of powerful kingdoms and city states during the late Greek Bronze Age. During this age (that of Homer and Hesiod – creators  of ‘historic’ epic verse for a new order), the idea of a ‘civilisation’ that was better than that of its ‘barbarian’ origins was born. The second and first order of Greek gods seem to be of the elemental order that existed much further afield than the Mediterranean, and which persisted in the folklore of the Atlantic peoples down to the modern day. Cronos, as Lord of the Golden Age and Elysium/The Blessed Isles  becomes functionally identical with the British & Irish Isles’ own god – Manannan. Greek writer Plutarch even stated explicitly that Cronus was worshipped in an actual Island called Ogygia believed to lie west from Britain. To Homer (in the Oddysey), this ?mythical isle was home to Calypso and her father Atlas/Atlantis. Add in the mythology about Leto mother of Apollo, the river Lethe, and Leda and things become distinctly more interesting. These again, are so curiously similar to Irish and Manx legends that they are either the cause or derived from a common mythos…

‘Erdathe’ – The Atlantic religion’s ‘day of judgement’?

The 7thC Patrician biographer Tírechán is a valuable source for some details of the Atlantic religion in Ireland. His work – known as the Collecteana occurs in the Book of Armagh – MS52 of Trinity College Dublin. One of the mysterious Irish words he left in his Latin hagiography of the saint is the word 'erdathe' which Tírechán claims was the term used by Irish pagans for their equivalent to the 'day of reckoning of the Lord'. It can be found in the last paragraph of Folio 10r…

12 (1) Perrexitque ad ciuitatem Temro ad Logairium filium Neill iterum, quia apud illum foedus pepigit, ut non occideretur in regno illius; sed non potuit credere, dicens:(2) “nam Neel pater meus non siniuit mihi credere, sed ut sepeliar in cacuminibus Temro quasi uiris consistentibus in bello” (quia utuntur gentiles in sepulcris armati prumptis armis) “facie ad faciem usque ad diem erdathe” (apud magos, id est iudicii diem Domini) “ego filius Neill et filius Dúnlinge Immaistin in campo Liphi pro duritate odiui ut est hoc”.12 (1) And he proceeded again to the city of Tara to Loíguire son of Níall, because he made a pact with him that he should not be killed within his realm; but (Loíguire) could not accept the faith, saying:(2) 'My father Níall did not allow me to accept the faith, but bade me to be buried on the ridges of Tara, I son of Níall and the sons of Dúnlang in Maistiu in Mag Liphi, face to face (with each other) in the manner of men at war' (for the pagans, armed in their tombs, have their weapons ready) until the day of erdathe (as the magi call it, that is, the day of the Lord's judgement), because of such fierceness of our (mutual) hatred.'

So… what is erdathe? There are two problems in determining the answer to this question: Firstly, is this really the word in the original text (written in 9thC insular minuscule text)? Secondly, the lack in standards for orthography from such early written Irish would make the word (whatever it is) a difficult one to find a more modern equivalent for…

Let's take a look at the first problem. Here is a facsimile of the word as written in paragraph 12 (Folio 10r) of the actual manuscript:


For those not accustomed to 9thC insular miniscule scripts, the initial e or a and the following r are compound or ligated and the 'r' part shows the typical dependant leg of the 'long r'. Third letter is 'd', fourth 'a', fifth 't' (capitalised in style), sixth 'h' and final a definite 'e': a/e-r-d-a-t-h-e. So: this is definitely the correct word, but the first letter might be an 'a'. You might also note the four dots above the d, a, t and 'e' where the scribe rested his nib while considering how to write the Irish word – one he was unfamiliar with and which has no other attestations in this form of spelling. This hesitancy on his part might also have given the indeterminate a/e at the start of the word. This leaves us to examine the second problem – that of meaning:

In addressing the second problem, it is necessary to take a phonetic approach and cast a wide net to see how this word relates to later Gaelic words:


The words ard and ath(e) appear to compound the word ardathe/erdathe. This offers us a straightforward translation, for 'ard' = 'height', 'high' or 'elevated'. However, the 'athe' part (-ath is not a usual suffix in the Irish language) is slightly more problematic, unless of course it is a pure compound word, in which case áth, meaning a 'ford' or an 'open space or hollow between two objects' (eDIL) seems a likely offering. The áth is a typical place for combats to occur in narrative tales such as those of the Ulster Cycle, and in particular the Táin Bó Cúailnge… this implies a liminal place where 'crossing-over' (death) might occur, as well as being a place typical for the territorial combats of rutting stags on river plains etc. It therefore shows a link of sorts to the word cath- which suffixes terms to do with battle or defence (e.g. Conn Cétchathach – Conn of the Hundred Battles); Bear in mind that the 'd' of 'erd' or 'ard' would possibly lenit a following hard consonant to give '-ath'. Other words that would fit this schema might include 'rath' and 'math'. The use of ath- as a prefix also implies an act of repetition. 'Athair' of course means 'father' – a term used to mean 'god' by Christians ('Pater noster…')

Manx: (definitions from Juan Kelly's Dictionary – Manx Society Vol.13)

The Manx language is a treasure trove for those looking for more ancient forms of Irish, having remained in a purely spoken form until the 17th century, and having enjoyed a level of cultural stability that Ireland could not, and which in turn preserved many aspects of Atlantic religious folklore that was otherwise lost. Literature has a habit of informing the 'correct' pronunciation and flow of ideas in a culture… The best guess of 'erdathe' in Manx is seen in the two forms of the expression for 'high', 'elevated' or 'exalted' – based on the rootword ard:

“Ardaght, ardys, s. height, eminence” – the round 'a' takes on a hollow 'e' sound to make the adjectival:

“Yrjey, a. high, eminent; also promoted, advanced.” – the Manx terminal -ey is pronounced '-ya' or '-yu'. The equivalent of 'ardaght' would by 'yrjaght'. In fact 'erdathe' might be pronounced in exactly this fashion with flat vowels: “er-jer-he”! These are effectively Anglophone ways of writing Irish words, after all…

Sanas Chormaic (Cormac's Glossary):

Another more intriguing and perhaps more likely possibility is a word given by the famous Cormac of Cashel in his 'glossary' of the 10thC. This word (from page 5) is Audacht which Cormac translates as

'a dying testimony' ; ie uath-fecht, ie – when one sets out on a journey (fecht) of (the) grave (uath), ie – of death

(Whitley Stokes' edition of John O'Donovan's translation)

The online Electronic DIL provides a number of variants such as édoct and aidacht. These are used to refer specifically to a 'bequest', 'legacy' or 'testament'. Cormac's etymology may be somewhat fanciful, of course. What kind of legacy/bequest could this be? The death of an individual means their earthly possessions default to the living. It might also be considered as a bequest of the self to future posterity in another incarnation.

So … Tírechán's 'erdathe' or 'ardathe' refers either to a state to do with the heights or something elevated, perhaps to a 'crossing-over' or liminal place leading into another cycle of regeneration and reincarnation, perhaps a testament or bequest of some sort, possibly of oneself to future posterity. His assertion that it was equivalent to a 'day of judgement' may just reflect a christian interpretation of what may well be a different form of the afterlife…


Catharism – a late flowering of pagan doctrine in Europe?

The ‘Cathar’ religion reached its height of popularity and notoriety in southern France, parts of Germany and northern Italy between the 12th and 14th centuries. It was founded on a belief in two gods – God in Heaven and a God of the Earth. Essentially Christian, it held that the good Heavenly God represented the redeeming god of the New Testament, whereas the bad Earthly God was that of the Old Testament – the angry creator of the world, who Cathars identified with the evil principle – Satan! If you are familiar with my breakdown and interpretation of ancient Atlantic European (‘Atlantean’) paganism so far, you might recognise this Cathar dualism as being largely similar to what I have proposed, albeit in a Christian guise!

The movement believed that souls were those of Angels who were destined to be continually reincarnated in corrupt, evil worldly flesh until they could attain a state of religious perfection, when they might be released from the cycle and go to Heaven! Catharisms leaders were the ‘Perfects’ who had attained such a state while in the earthly form, and when the  Catholic church sought to eradicate the movement (the Albigensian Crusade from 1209-1229) observers were amazed at how willingly adherents accepted death, echoing the observations of Romans when fighting the Atlantean Celts of Gaul and Brittania 1200 years before. They rejected baptism, the sacraments, the eating of meat, and the swearing of oaths (which they might inadvertently break in another life, denying them perfection).

Catharism’s origins are usually traced by historians and commentators back to the Paulician and Bogomil dualist christian movements based on the older doctrine of Manicheanism from Eastern Europe and the Near East. This opinion demands revision, as it is based largely upon the apparent similarity with these branches of the Christian faith. Of greater interest are the similarities between the religion’s doctrines and those of pagan Atlantic Europe that I have been examining. Catharism can speculatively be proposed as a resurgent interest in certain ideas of the old Atlantic paganism which had developed Christian clothes (in fact as much as with many aspects of Roman Catholicism!). It was identified as an emerging movement in its heyday, which coincided with the medieval Renaissance of classical pagan learning in Europe, as well as upwellings in popular fads and cultures in religion and the  arts. For its inception to have been an attempt by a shadowy group of aristocratic pagans to reignite the pre-christian worldview of ancient northwest Europe, would be one possibility; after all it was supported by such networks. More reasonable though, was that it was a case of a good idea that wouldn’t die so easily. The reason to consider all of this is the popularity at the time of the telling of Europe’s old pagan stories – the Arthurian romances and tales of Parsifal, Siegfrid etc – many of which were riding the wave of popular troubadour culture that emerged from the Cathar lands in and around Occitania in southern France! Pagan conspiracies by shadowy aristocratic groups to kick out Christians were not unheard of (take the Vikings, for instance), and in the 15th and 16th centuries there was a good deal of official paranoia about such conspiracies among ordinary people which led to the infamous witchhunts. In fact, churchmen had been preoccupied with this issue for a good deal longer – right back to the time of first Christianisation. To the church, the social elites had always been unhealthily preoccupied with ‘pagan’ knowledge and traditions and complied with religion only where it suited them; Conversely, the obedient and thankfully illiterate peasantry dutifully accepted what the Church served to them, but their ‘ignorance’ meant that they continued to entertain pagan magical practices and beliefs. Catharism seemed to unite both groups in its heresy, and was therefore eventually annihilated with violence by the Church.

Boand – Water Goddess of the Boyne

I have already mentioned in recent posts that there were legendary connections between the Atlantic Goddess and water: For starters she is represented in the constellation Orion, standing on the banks of the great white river of the Milky Way as it arches across the winter sky. As ‘Tehi Tegi‘ in the Isle of Man, she conveyed the souls of the dead across the land until they reached the rivers or the sea and were able to enter the realm of the Otherworld. The Cailleach traditions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales tell of her role in creating Lochs and other floods by neglecting to close off springs, and as the Bean Nighe she sat near water washing the garments and effects of the dead.. In Brittany she is represented by the oceanic fairy queen known as the ‘Gro’ach‘ and as a Moura Encantada in Portugal and Gallicia she is a guardian of springs. Archaeologists across Atlantic Europe recognise the association of springs with pagan goddess-worship.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the rivers of Ireland have associations with pagan female entities preserved in their legendary lore. A good example of such stories are from the onomastic explanations of placenames found in medieval literature, often produced by Christian monks. These texts – published in compiled form in the early 20thC as the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas‘ (taken from the mss. the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, the Rennes Manuscript, the Book of Ballymote, the Great Book of Lecan and the Yellow Book of Lecan) – has the following (from Vol.3)  to say about the origin of the River Boyne (under ‘Boand 1’), the most prominent river of the Irish midlands, and one associated with a rich mythology and archaeology:

Sid Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here,

the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid,

from which flows the stainless river

whose name is Boand ever-full.

Fifteen names, certainty of disputes,

given to this stream we enumerate,

from Sid Nechtain away

till it reaches the paradise of Adam.

Segais was her name in the Sid

to be sung by thee in every land:

River of Segais is her name from that point

to the pool of Mochua the cleric.

From the well of righteous Mochua

to the bounds of Meath’s wide plain,

the Arm of Nuadu’s Wife and her Leg are

the two noble and exalted names.

From the bounds of goodly Meath

till she reaches the sea’s green floor

she is called the Great Silver Yoke

and the White Marrow of Fedlimid.

Stormy Wave

from thence onward

unto branchy Cualnge;

River of the White Hazel

from stern Cualnge

to the lough of Eochu Red-Brows.

Banna is her name from faultless Lough Neagh:

Roof of the Ocean as far as Scotland:

Lunnand she is in blameless Scotland —

or its name is Torrand according to its meaning.

Severn is she called through the land of the sound Saxons,

Tiber in the Romans’ keep:

River Jordan thereafter in the east

and vast River Euphrates.

River Tigris

in enduring paradise,

long is she in the east, a time of wandering

from paradise back again hither

to the streams of this Sid.

Boand is her general pleasant name

from the Sid to the sea-wall;

The poet who wrote this account is effusive in his descriptions of the great river, comparing it (or perhaps more accurately actually identifying it) with the other great rivers of the known world, including the River Severn, the Tiber, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Jordan etc. It was believed that the oceans were made up of all the world’s rivers in the era of authorship – an idea born of classical antiquity and beyond. What is more important is the author implies that the river actually runs from Sid Nechtain to the ‘paradise of Adam’, being a direct allusion to a christianised  telling of the pagan Irish belief in an Otherworld at the Ocean’s End, and to the Garden of Eden, where Christians believe life begins! This almost tells of a former belief in rebirth… The passage also implies that the river is regenerated from the East and returns to Sid Nechtain to flow again by some unspecified route.

Quite amazing.

The compiled texts go on to describe the mythological origin of the River of Boand:

I remember the cause whence is named

the water of the wife of Labraid’s son.

Nechtain son of bold Labraid whose wife was Boand, I aver;

a secret well there was in his stead,

from which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.

There was none that would look to its bottom

but his two bright eyes would burst:

if he should move to left or right,

he would not come from it without blemish.

Therefore none of them dared approach it

save Nechtain and his cup-bearers: —

these are their names, famed for brilliant deed,

Flesc and Lam and Luam.

Hither came on a day white Boand (her noble pride uplifted her),

to the well, without being thirsty to make trial of its power.

As thrice she walked round about the well heedlessly,

three waves burst from it, whence came the death of Boand.

They came each wave of them against a limb,

they disfigured the soft-blooming woman;

a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye,

the third wave shatters one hand.

She rushed to the sea (it was better for her) to escape her blemish,

so that none might see her mutilation;

The authors relate a typical Irish Christian rescension of the pagan tale of the woman and the water. The passage also tells of the practice of circling a well or spring three times, which any folklorist who has studied Celtic traditions will recognise. The tale of Boand therefore acts on a number of levels: Firstly as a poetic figurative description of the river as a woman, secondly as descriptive account of the Boyne replete with onomastic and pseudo-historical details, and thirdly it seems to contain a warning to the ungodly of the fate which will meet them if they emulate the legendary magical female… Of particular interest is the manner in which the water harms Boand: It causes the ‘wounds’ of the Cailleach – the ‘fairy stroke’ of withering in one eye, one arm, one leg. Such ‘wounds’ are given to other magical females at rivers or fords or shorelines in other Irish myths from medieval works, including that of the Christian ‘St Brighid‘…

Medieval Irish tales with pagan themes usually contain a Christian footnote in their third part…

The End of Reincarnation

The ultimate fate of Bran and his party in the medieval Irish tale Imram Brain maic Febail (‘The Voyage of Bran Mac Febal’) is that upon attaining the otherworld, when they try to return to the land of the living a great age has passed and the party are unable to set foot in the land without crumbling to dust. In other words, the Christian narrator denies them access to reincarnation. Bran is only allowed to pass on his story and then fade into legend, the narration finishing with the lines:

And from that hour his wanderings are not known.

The motif of immortality’s end appears in a modified form in the other famous Irish medieval legendary tale of the ‘Children of Lir’, who were transformed into immortal swans and cursed to travel Ireland for hundreds of years until ‘released’ by the coming of Christianity. The ‘Voyage of Bran’ leaves the state of Bran and his party indefinite, but the Children of Lir resume a withered mortal form or crumble to dust, though not usually before receiving christian confession and going to the Christian afterlife.

There are other Irish accounts of very long-lived members of ancient races receiving similar treatment. Some of these, such as in the pseudo-historical Christian narrative of the Lebor Gabála Érenn or ‘Book of Invasions’, and other related historical legends written in the middle ages, contain accounts of ‘Fintan’, one of the first settlers in Ireland who legends and stories claimed lived on in various animal and human forms until the coming of christianity. The Welsh medieval author Walter Map (De Nugis Curialum) left us the tale of King Herla which was based on similar themes as that of Bran, Finn and Caílte. The Middle Irish tale of mad pagan King Suibhne (‘Sweeney’) who literally flies around in a semi-animalistic form until released to heaven by a saint may also continue the Irish Christian tradition which told stories designed to counter a pagan belief in reincarnation.

The theme of submission of the pagan order to that of christianity occurs most strongly in the middle irish manuscript tales of the Acallam na Senórach (‘Colloquy of the Ancients’ or ‘Tales of the Elders of Ireland’ etc) which contains the majority of the ancient tales dealing with Finn and his band. It is set within a Christian framework in which the ancient giant warrior Caílte mac Rónáin (Finn’s nephew) relates tales of Finn and of the Tuatha Dé Danann to an interested St Patrick: By implication Caílte is exchanging the reality of an otherworldly existence in the pagan time frame with a Christianised legendary life in the hearafter.

All of these tales are careful to create a linkage between the old and new religious orders, again demonstrating conformity with the principles of the Christianised reformed laws of the Roman Empire propounded by Theodosius and his successors during the late classical period, during which time christianity was setting up shop in the Atlantic West of Europe. It was a theme of peaceful cohabitation of old and new which formed the skeleton of many medieval narrative and literary traditions, and managed to preserve the tenets of paganism, which after all seemed to explain everything which christianity could not and would continue to influence the folk traditions and beliefs down to modern times.