Diving at Epiphany

Bulgarian men 'diving for the cross' at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

Bulgarian men ‘diving for the cross’ at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

In Orthodox christianity, the ancient tradition of the Sanctification of the Waters at the festival of Epiphany (5th and 6th of January) is marked throughout the world by the popular custom of ‘diving for the cross’. The festival itself celebrates not just the ‘Theophany’ of Jesus to the gentiles but in particular among Orthodox Christians, his adult baptism by John the Baptist/the holy spirit (depending on which gospel tradition you go by).

Cross-diving usually follows the Epiphany mass and involves the priest casting a crucifix into a body of water, this being the cue for a crowd of eager young men to dive in, competing to retrieve it. It obviously echoes the baptismal theme of the Christian myth, but is there more to this tradition that predates Christianity?

As previously mentioned, there are many features which Christianity has borrowed from paganism for the festivities spanning from the winter solstice to Epiphany: the festivals of Saturnalia and the Dionysia being key donor traditions. Dionysia is the closest model for Epiphany, being the annual festival of the epiphany or theophany of Dionysus to the people. In western christianity, it is also remembered in the seemingly Dionysian celebration of the ‘Miracle at Cana’ at which Jesus supposedly turns water into wine. Diving into water, however is not a particular tradition of the Dionysia.

The Nativity of Aion:

We must look into the early 1st millennium Hellenistic world, and to Alexandria in Egypt to get more of a clue as to the origins of baptism at Epiphany. Christianity evolved in the Levant and Egypt among a seething sea of syncretistic pagan ideas, which under the influence of reductionist neoplatonic philosophy began to be intellectualised, combined and refined. At multi-ethnic Alexandria in the 1st-4th centuries CE, one of the chief gods worshipped among the Hellenised Egyptians was ‘Aion’ or ‘Aeon’ – seemingly a syncretistic youthful version of Kronos, compounded with Osiris, Dionysus and Apollo, and whose nativity festival was held on the 6th of January. The Alexandrian mythos claimed he was born to the virgin goddess Kore (also known as Persephone) on the night of 5th/6th of January. In gnosticism, Aion became the name or title of the series of historically repeating godhoods, one of whom was believed to be Jesus by some gnostics. The idea of the chain of prophets leading to the Messiah was of course originally a Judaic idea, and seems to be the root of the gnostic Aions. Aion, however, was originally a pagan idea:

Aion holding the 'wheel of the year' on a Roman mosaic.

Aion holding the ‘wheel of the year’ on a Roman mosaic.

Epiphanius of Salamis (c.315–403CE) wrote in his book Panarion:

“… Christ was born on the sixth day of January after thirteen days of the winter solstice and of the increase of the light and day. This day the Greeks, I mean the Idolaters, celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of December, a feast called Saturnalia among the Romans, Kronia among the Egyptians, and Kikellia among the Alexandrians. For on the twenty-fifth day of December the division takes place which is the solstice, and the day begins to lengthen its light, receiving an increase, and there are thirteen days of it up to the sixth day of January, until the day of the birth of Christ (a thirtieth of an hour being added to each day), as the wise Ephraim among the Syrians bore witness by this inspired passage in his commentaries, where he says: ‘ The advent of our Lord Jesus Christ was thus appointed: His birth according to the flesh, then his perfect incarnation among men, which is called Epiphany, at a distance of thirteen days from the increase of the light; for it needs must have been that this should be a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and of His twelve disciples, who made up the number of the thirteen days of the increase of the light.’

How many other things in the past and present support and bear witness to this proposition, I mean the Resurrection birth of Christ!  Indeed, the leaders of the idol-cults, filled with wiles to deceive the idol-worshippers who believe in them, in many places keep highest festival on this same night of Epiphany, so that they whose hopes are in error may not seek the truth.  For instance, at Alexandria, in the Koreion as it is called – an immense temple – that is to say, the Precinct of the Virgin; after they have kept all-night vigil with songs and music, chanting to their idol, when the vigil is over, at cockcrow, they descend with lights into an underground crypt, and carry up a wooden image lying naked on a litter, with the seal of a cross made in gold on its forehead, and on either hand two other similar seals, and on both knees two others, all five seals being similarly made in gold. And they carry round the image itself, circumambulating seven times the innermost temple, to the accompaniment of pipes, tabors and hymns, and with merry-making they carry it down again underground. And if they are asked the meaning of this mystery, they answer and say: ‘To-day at this hour the Maiden, that is, the Virgin, gave birth to the Aeon.’

In the city of Petra also – the metropolis of Arabia which is called Edom in the Scriptures – the same is done, and they sing the praises of the Virgin in the Arab tongue, calling her in Arabic Chaamou, that is, Maiden, and the Virgin, and him who is born from her Dusares, that is, Alone-begotten of the Lord.  This also takes place in the city of Elousa on the same night just as at Petra and at Alexandria … “

Unfortunately Epiphanius was none the wiser as to what happened in the crypt of the Koreion, and it is for us to speculate that it may have involved some form of immersion in water. This ancient Alexandrian celebration of nativity and epiphany on the 5th/6th January survives still in the most ancient Christian denomination – the Armenian Church. The prime divinity among the pre-Christian Armenians was the Persian goddess Anahit (Anahita) who was analogous to the Hellenistic ‘Kore’ and therefore to Isis. She was also linked to Ishtar, Aphrodite and Artemis. Anahita was a mountain goddess representing waters – a theme of some importance in the pagan world.

The drowned god who came back to life:

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

The myth of Isis and Osiris is at the core of ancient Egyptian mythology, and became influential throughout the Roman Empire from the 1stC BCE, when Isis became one of the favourite goddesses of what I call the ‘syncretic era’. The myth of the death by drowning and the resurrection of her brother and lover Osiris is intimately tied up with water. The reborn Osiris – like Phrygian Cybele’s consort, Attis – was summoned from death by the goddess and the new era (Horus) conceived by an act of mystical intercourse. The descent of the statue of Kore into the basement of the temple at the Hellenistic ?gnostic nativity festival of Aion was obviously designed to reflect the Egyptian myth, and also its Eleusinian and Dionysian counterparts. Indeed, examination of this myth demonstrates that it was a theme with vast and far-reaching provenance in ancient paganism.

So … the mysteries of Epiphany are tied up in the many older pagan legends of a dying and reborn god. There is much more that I could say about this topic which involves the Celts of Atlantic Europe, but I will save this for another post for now, except to quote from Florus’ Epitome of Roman History which suggest that the cross-diving tradition may have an older provenance in Bulgaria…

”  … After the Macedonians (heaven save the mark) the Thracians, former tributaries of the Macedonians, rebelled and, not content with making incursions merely into the neighbouring provinces of Thessaly and Dalmatia, penetrated as far as the Adriatic; checked by the boundary which it formed, since nature apparently stayed their advance, they hurled their weapons against the very waters. Throughout the period of their advance they left no cruelty untried, as they vented their fury on their prisoners; they sacrificed to the gods with human blood; they drank out of human skulls; by every kind of insult inflicted by burning and fumigation they made death more foul; they even forced infants from their mothers’ wombs by torture. The cruellest of all the Thracians were the Scordisci, and to their strength was added cunning as well; their haunts among the woods and mountains harmonized well with their fierce temper… ” Lucius Annaeus Florus – The Epitome of Roman History (Trans. E.S. Forster)

Aubrey Beardsley's beautiful depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of 'Dame Du Lac'. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.

Aubrey Beardsley’s evocative bookplate depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of the ‘Dame Du Lac’. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.





279: Brennus and the mystery of the undiluted wine…

Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture. (Eubulus, Greek playwright, 4thC BCE – quoted by Athenaeus in ‘Deipnosophists’ 2.37c)

Pausanias, the famous Greek travel writer of the 2ncC CE,  claimed that the leader of the military assault of the Celtic general Brennus on the oracle-sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi in Greece in 279BCE died following his defeat (engendered by the wrath of Apollo and the bravery of some doubty Greeks), after drinking ‘unmixed’ (undiluted) wine:

…Brennus’ wounds left him no hope; they say out of fear of his countrymen and even more out of shame as the cause of all their sufferings in Greece, he died deliberately by drinking unmixed wine

Having formed a massive federation of warriors from across Celtdom (then stretching from the Alantic west coasts to the Pannonian basin) their leaders, including (among others) Brennus, Acichorius and Bolgios, surged with them through the Balkans into Thrace, Macedonia and northern Greece. Brennus’ cohorts crashed through the Greek defences at Thermopylae and made for the bejewelled ‘holy cow’ of the holy oracle of Pythian Apollo at Delphi on Mount Parnassos. Their intention was undoubtedly to gain booty and prestige, but the religious importance of such a target – one of the most important of the ancient world – must not be underestimated.

Pausanias had few kind words for these Celts whom he describes (400 years later) unsympathetically as a cunning, fanatical, chaotic, and brutal baby-murdering horde – the epitome of barbarians to the average Greek. His account of Brennus’ attempted attack on Delphi is full of somewhat fantastical detail relating how Apollo caused earthquakes, lightning storms, frost and snow to thwart the barbarians before driving them insane and causing them to attack one another. Suffering attacks from the Phocians and Aetolians, Brennus is injured and the army is driven into retreat. As he describes the Celtic approach to Delphi, however, Pausanias’ account seems devolve from the historical into a mythical depiction of the Greek god and the land itself repelling the Celts, leaving a suspicion that the outcome of the real event was skirted around: None of the Greek military engagements appear to be decisive – according to Pausanias, the claimed victory was more due to fantastical events – the wrath of the gods:

” …All the day the barbarians were beset by calamities and terrors of this kind. But the night was to bring upon them experiences far more painful. For there came on a severe frost, and snow with it; and great rocks slipping from Parnassus, and crags breaking away, made the barbarians their target, the crash of which brought destruction, not on one or two at a time, but on thirty or even more, as they chanced to be gathered in groups, keeping guard or taking rest…

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

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

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

His account of a rout and defeat occuring before Delphi could be sacked is also somewhat at odds with others from within the Roman world (eg – Strabo) which suggest that Delphi may indeed have been laid waste and some of its gold taken back as far as Tolosa (Toulouse) in Gallia Narbonensis by the Volcae-Tectosages. Nonetheless, Brennus died in the retreat, by his own acts or omissions – that much seems certain. The other classical historian, Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus‘Epitome of the Phillipic history of Pompeius Trogus’, Book 24), who is our other (and perhaps Pausanias’) source for Brennus’ assault, agrees largely in its detail, except to say that Brennus took his own life with a dagger. That the suicide came about through the consumption of alcohol is, however, stressed in the accounts:

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

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

(Translation: John Selby Watson, 1853)

Justin’s account was an abridged version of a more extensive history written by 1stC BCE Gallo-Roman author, Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, of the Vocontii in Gallia Narbonensis – a province with associations with the Volcae-Tectosages and hence with ancestral knowledge of the assault on Delphi. Gallia Narbonensis was settled by the Greeks before the coming of the Romans in the 2ndC BCE.Reading between the lines of Trogus and Justin’s account, one can see that Delphi – an undefended city – appears to have tried to appease Brennus by giving wine and food to his troops, the consequences of which become apparent. It then attacked them and drove them off, although not necessarily without some serious loot.

So what about the curious reference to ‘unmixed wine’?

‘Unmixed wine’ sounds like a barbarian treat – the Greeks considered it ‘hard liquor’. We know from many sources that it was an important commodity among the feasting warrior-culture of the Celts, who – like their  various European cousins – had a historic reputation for a love of the celebratory consumption of alcohol. Dilution of this drink would certainly have diminished its euphoriant qualities and kept them closer to Eubulus’ idealised and civilised first three bowls. Celtic warriors were, however, members of an adrenaline-fuelled, fearless and sensationalist culture – definitely a ‘six bowls’ and up kind of people if contemporary accounts are to be believed!

The possibility of a store of ‘special’ hallucinogenic wine used in sacred Dionysiac rites or by the oracular Pythias priestesses being plundered from Delphi by the unwitting warriors might account for Pausanias’ story of the violent hallucinatory confusion which came upon Brennus’ encampment, although Justin/Trogus cites drunkenness causing ill-discipline. In the first case, we might take it that Brennus possibly even died of a drug overdose during a celebratory feast, or was murdered by a colleague, rather having committed suicide…

The health problems and political problems resulting from the of over-consumption of wine was apparently a perennial problem for the banqueting and borgeoise elites of any society, and the barbarian warrior lords such as Brennus and the (later, arguably more famous) Hunnic warchief, Attila, might be considered case-studies of alcoholic mischief among barbarian chieftains. Attila (according to the unsympathetic Jordanes , in his book Getica, 6thC CE) apparently died ?vomiting blood from his nose – a demise almost certainly a result (if true) of his lifestyle, coupled with the stresses of leadership.

…He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages. Thus did drunkenness put a disgraceful end to a king renowned in war… (Getica Ch.59)

The account, although not contemporary, has unusual detail and may be based upon a composite of earlier accounts. Brennus (if you believe Pausanias) may have suffered a similar fate, if the comment about his use of ‘unmixed’ wine is an allusion to personal alcoholic peril: the Dionysian/Apollonian diseases of madness and in-fighting are all faintly alluded to in Pausanias’ account of his death.

The Gauls’ apparent target-icon, Alexander III (‘The Great’) of Macedonia, was indeed also said to have died following a number of heavy drinking-sessions in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon in 323BCE. Although fever was the likely cause, the proximity of alcohol to the onset of the illness is notable in the famous account of Greek historian Arrian, which itself was based upon contemporary court accounts. The ‘party atmosphere’ and over-consumption of booze no doubt fostered the divisions among the heirs to his empire – a factor not lost on narrative traditions describing the subsequent demise of later warrior enterprises.

“…A few days later he (Alexander) had performed the divine sacrifices (those prescribed for good fortune and others suggested by the priests) and was drinking far into the night with some friends. He is said to have distributed sacrificial victims and wine to the army by detachments and companies. Some state that he wanted to leave the drinking-party and go to bed, but then Medius met him, the most trusty of his Companions, and asked him to a party, for he promised that it would be a good one…
…The Royal Diaries tell us that he drank and caroused with Medius. Later he rose, had a bath and slept. He then returned to have dinner with Medius and again drank far into the night. Leaving the drinking, he bathed, after which he had a little to eat and went to sleep there. The fever was already on him…”

The perilous health of celebrant warrior-chiefs seems to have been a major theme determining the fate of the ancient world, so much so that the ‘Primary Chronicle’ of the Kievan Rus (who were one of the last major eastern European powers to be Christianised during the 10th-11thC CE) contains the following allusion to it in an oath: In this, the pagan Slavic magnate, Svlyatoslav, promises not to attack the interests of the Christian emperors of Constantinople:

” … And even as I have given oath to the Greek Emperors in company with my boyars and all my subjects, so may we preserve this treaty inviolate. But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, either I or my companions, or my subjects, may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons… ” (trans. Samuel Cross)

This could almost be an invocation of the famous hepatically-challenged fates of proud Brennus or even Alexander or Attila, all of whom are suggested to have succumbed (no doubt with many of their ‘flocks’) to the jaundiced curse of gold, and seeking to become equal with the sun: excessive feasting, alcoholism and the in-fighting that can only be engendered within such a toxic atmosphere…


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…




Symbolism on Celtic coins

The mysterious symbolism of the horse pervades the artwork of the coins of the Iron Age Celtic peoples of Atlantic Europe. From the Thracian Celts of the Balkan region, to the tribes of Britain, Gaul and Hispania – all produced coins which depicted a strange and compelling set of images, perhaps providing a clue to the supra-regional religion of the peoples classified by the Greeks and Romans as the ‘barbarians’.

A Celtic coin of the Iron Age depicts a woman riding a horse. Note the apparent astronomical designs!

Celtic (Scordisci) coin from the Balkans depicting a woman riding a horse (?2ndC BCE). Note the apparent astronomical designs!

The history of coinage among the Celtic peoples lies in their economic links to the ancient Greek world – in particular through southern Gaul, Macedonia and Thracia at the height of Hellenic influence, and the Empire of Alexander the Great and his successors. For this reason, the design of celtic coins was afterwards strongly influenced by the format of the Macedonian/Greek ones, some of which depicted the horned head of ‘Alexander’, sometimes Apollo, Hercules or Zeus on one side….

Depiction of Alexander (with horn) on a greek coin of the 3rdC BCE

Depiction of Alexander (with horns) on a greek coin of the 3rdC BCE

Due to trade links with celtic tribes through southern Gaul (from 6thC BCE) and trade and warfare with the Illyrian, Pannonian, Dacian, Thracian and eastern Celtic peoples as well as marauding incursions of western Gauls , the indigenous style of coinage developed in the 4thC BCE generally copied the Macedonian and Greek format and typically showed a depiction of ‘Alexander’ on one side – an icon which would become increasingly stylised:

Coin of the Parisii c.4th-1stC BCE. Note the depiction of the charioteer - an image associated with the 'Dioskoroi' in Greek myth.

Coin of the Parisii ca. 1stC BCE. Note the depiction of the martial charioteer – apparently female, in the role of a ‘Badbh Catha’, seemingly trampling an ‘angel’ into the dust….

Trinovantes, Britain, 1stC BCE - what happened to Alexander's head?

Trinovantes, Britain, 1stC BCE – what happened to Alexander’s head?

The celts seem to have taken the symbolism of the Greek coins further than the original format… to recap, here is a typical Greek tetradrachm from the 3rdC BCE:

Phillip II of Macedon

Tetradrachm of Phillip II of Macedon – note the ‘Dioskouros’ on the obverse face… one of the famous Hellenic horseman-deities who would have been so popular in the ancient Balkans and steppes north of the Black Sea.

Ostensibly starting with a picture of Alexander’s father Phillip II the coins of the era of Alexander gloried in the imagery of the head of the conquering hero, and evolved between depictions of humans (Philip, Alexander) and gods (Apollo, Zeus, Herakles) depending on how successful and grandiose the ruler who minted them felt himself. In the fragmented succession period that followed Alexander’s death, depicting a god was often a safer bet than advertising your discombobulated head…. The totemic value of the Mercurial ‘Alexander’ among the peoples of Europe’s highly mobile barbarian warrior culture (in the La Tene period) cannot be underestimated, and it is perhaps unsurprising that they would copy the coins of the world’s most astounding military leader, whose legend had elevated him to a godlike status. Vast numbers of Celtic warriors had poured across and down through the Balkans in the 3rd century, culminating with an assault on Delphi itself, and many would afterwards find employment within the Seleucid Empire on account of their warrior prowess, just as ‘Viking’ warriors would in the Byzantine Roman Empire during the 8th-11th centuries.

Belgic tribes like the Parisii (northern France) and their cousins among the Icenii, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni (eastern Britain) produced a great deal of the most interesting and beautiful coins which elaborated on and converted the Greek template designs to meet their own system of material and religious values. In the 3rd-1stC BCE their increasing power was no doubt bought about by trade (and pillage) with the Greek and increasingly powerful Roman worlds, which demanded or received coinage.

We can tell that these tribes were powerful and influential due to the fact that they modified the design of their coins away from the Greek, demonstrating to the world their own culture and beliefs. They obviously understood the symbolism of the greek coins, but were to express their own through some significant changes and additions.

The coins of the Parisii (who occupied the region along the Seine) were typified by placing a star symbol under the front hooves of the horse, which was constructed of a circular arrangement of 6 (sometimes 5) dots. The other interesting feature of their coins was the ‘net’ design in the shape of a ‘tented inverted triangle’ above the serpentine horse, which usually faces left and is riderless. The Parisii further modified the coin template by feminising the head on the obverse side. Tree branch designs often decorate either side. There are no ‘sun wheels’ as seen in many British coins.

Alexander has become a woman on this Parisii coin!

Alexander has become a woman on this Parisii coin!

Across the water in Britain, their cousins the Trinovantes must have watched in dismay, as well as interest as the Parisii and the rest of Gaul succumbed to Julius Caesar and his Roman legions in 52BC. They were another great and wealthy tribe, who – along with their neighbours the Icenii and Catuvellauni – stood to become increasingly wealthy from contact (and alliance) with Rome. Their coins from this period demonstrate a more definite split from the Greek designs of the western European celts – perhaps showing more in common with their central European cousins who also excelled in stylising, perhaps when they too felt the pressure of Roman encroachment.

The Trinovantes coins show a number of variations on the theme from the Parisii. Firstly – like other British coins, they do not show the ‘net’ design above the horse, instead favouring a sun symbol (usually depicted as a wheel) and/or a branch. Like the Parisii coins, the ‘star’ symbol also often occurs under the horse’s front feet, but this seems an inconsistent feature – usually depicted as a circle surrounding a point. The horse, branch and sun symbols are more realistic and less stylised, either demonstrating the fact that they were more advanced artisans or perhaps due to the fact these coins are generally from a later date. Of greater interest is the fact that they do away with the head on the obverse side and replace it with symbolic images:

Coin of Addedomaros of the Trinovantes (1stC BCE) - note the reflected, stylised head of corn

Coin of Addedomaros of the Trinovantes (1stC BCE) – note the reflected heads of corn. These have stylistic echoes of Alexander’s headband or horn…

The corn/barley design was probably another borrowing from Greek coinage, but here it might also (during the 1stC BCE/1stC CE) represent the Trinovantes advertising their commercial wares to the Romans and other tribes of Britain: Beer and grains. Their territories were fertile and they had good access to the sea to supply those made hungry by war and famine, over the horizon in the brewing storm of the Roman conquest. Dropping the head of the famous Greek emperor might have represented an act of diplomacy in the face of Caesar’s threatened invasion. Note also the branch under the horse’s feet…

A more explicit depiction of corn, this time barley (similar to the Greek style) appears on another later coin (Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni in the 1stC CE), but as we shall see it appears to have had a symbolism to the Trinovantes which went beyond mere trade:

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Trinovantes 1stC AD

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni 1stC AD

To any well-connected and spiritually educated person of the Mediterranean world in the 1stC BCE – 1stC CE, the symbolism of the ear of corn was likely understood as a reference to the Rites of Eleusis held near Athens, and the veneration of Demeter – known to the Romans as ‘Ceres’. That it appears on the coins of Cunobelinus might be a reference to this cult – it is not implausible that he himself was an initiate in what was something akin to the Freemasonic Lodge of Europe’s elite! The rites were a mystery cult dramatizing the story of the annual cycle and the return of Kore (Persephone) from Hades. Caesar’s assertion that Celts such as Cunobelinus believed in reincarnation as instructed by the druids means that they would have had a spiritual sympathy with these rites, whose origins link to the Orphic beliefs originating somewhere in the lower Danube in the late Bronze Age, and hence possibly deriving from the indigenous belief system of the north Europeans. The tie-in between heads of corn and reincarnation is therefore obvious – especially at a time when Druidism and Celtic/Atlantic religion was under great threat.

Let us look at some of the designs replacing the head of Alexander on other Trinovantes coins during this period:

Coin of Adeddomaros - the allusion to heads of corn is not so strong, and the opposed crescent symbol is more obvious, as is the branch under the horse.

Coin of Adeddomaros – the allusion to heads of corn is gone, and the opposed crescent symbol is more obvious, as is the branch under the horse’s feet.

One cannot help but be overcome with a feeling that the reflective symmetry and structure of the design on the obverse side to the horse is telling us something – much like the pictograms on the early medieval stone stelae of the Scottish celts or ‘Picts’. The same design occurs in other coins of the same period (immediately pre-conquest when druidism had decamped to Britain, and before the Britons began to Romanise).

Iceni coins demonstrating the opposed crescent design, redolent of Pictish symbol stones

Iceni coins demonstrating the opposed crescent design, redolent of Pictish symbol stones

The 'Anarevitos' coin - noted the mounted rider and cross-symbol

The ‘Anarevitos’ coin – noted the mounted rider and cross-symbol

After druidism had retreated to Britain, its coins demonstrated a change. Here the complex symbol on the 'heads' side is matched by the woman riding the horse on the 'tales' side.

The cross-like symbol with its opposed crescents and solar discs seems to prefigure the ‘celtic cross’ by at least 500 years, and is rich in the symbolism of the annual cycle. The four ‘quarter days’ seem to be represented by the branches (or corn heads) forming the limbs of the cross, and joined to the solar symbols still used in astrology today: a circle with the spot in the middle. Between these are the solstices and equinoxes represented by torcs, rings or lunulae and ‘tented triangles’. In the centre of the cross lie the mysterious apposed lunar crescents – symbol of the months.

The woman riding (side-saddle) on the horse is an innovation that we also see in the Balkan/Danube region (see the first picture above) but here it possibly also gains a martial significance – a people, a goddess and a whole religious way of life readying for war… A small serpentine figure occurs where the ‘star’ often appears – another feature seen in celtic coins from central Europe. Was this symbology copied in an effort to invoke the military success of the central European celts against Macedonia, Greece and then Rome?

Another Belgic tribe who settled in Britain were the Atrebates and their coinage seems to demonstrate similar iconography to that of the Trinovantes and their neighbours.

Note the horse with overhead sun apparently trampling a loose wheel.

Note the horse with overhead sun apparently trampling a loose wheel. The pattern on the left is mysterious indeed!

The composition of the imagery may vary in detail, but the obverse side to the horse shows consistent features, seen also in the coins of other tribes, such as the Iceni, Trinovantes, Durotriges etc: separate torcs, linked torcs (the ‘yoke’), crescent-moons, spots, serpentines, ‘corn ears’, branches or wreaths, linear lines, rings and what looks like leaf-shoots. All of these sometimes appearing like a Miróesque deconstruction of the image of Alexander.

More detail on an Atrebates coin

More detail on an Atrebates coin – is that a cockerel on the left? The symbolism is perhaps richer and more mysterious than any Greek or Roman coins…  These coins provided inspiration for 20thC artists such as Miro and Picasso!

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.