Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition
This beautifully produced book with splendid photographs of what archaeologists call “cult objects” has a misleading title: Pagan Celtic Britain. “Pagan” properly refers to the superstitious survival of pre-Christian beliefs in country villages remote from a Christian city; yet most of Dr. Anne Ross’s exhibits date from before the arrival of Christianity. And “Celtic” is properly applied only to the Aryan invaders who, under the Greek name of “Celti” or “Galates,” and the Latin name of “Galli,” invaded Europe and Asia Minor in the Iron Age, reaching the British Isles in two waves: Goidels, or Q-celts, in the seventh century B.C., and Brythons, or P-celts, in the fifth. The Goidels imposed their language and customs on the even more gifted non-Aryan Bronze Age agriculturists who over a thousand years before had come to the British Isles from North Africa, one horde by way of Central Europe and Norway, another by way of Spain.
Dr. Ross’s chief interest lies in Roman Britain and she includes among her illustrations not only pre-Celtic pieces, which she styles “Proto-Celtic,” but such later non-Celtic work as a Roman statue of Mars with his usual woodpecker crest. About a third of her photographic subjects come from France, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere on the Continent. Yet the legendary material that she relies on is almost wholly Irish—if only because the Romans had never reached Ireland and destroyed its Druidic culture, as in Gaul and Britain, and because Irish poets in the early Middle Ages who inherited this culture were therefore better educated and held in far greater esteem than their abased Welsh or Scottish contemporaries.
As a girl of seventeen, Dr. Ross had done what anthropologists call “field work” by learning Gaelic for six months in a West Highland peasant’s hut. Then after graduating at Edinburgh, she took an educational job in the same Goidelic region, but later returned to Edinburgh for a degree in Celtic studies and a Ph.D. in Celtic archaeology.
At Edinburgh, a most academic university, she forgot, it seems, how to think in Gaelic crofter style, which means poetically, and grew afraid of having her newly acquired scientific intelligence warped by any magic material she might handle in the course of excavation. Last year, by the way, a gifted young woman friend of mine, a lecturer in anthropology at a London College mainly devoted to scientific research, was forced to resign her job. As she explained to the Dean, one cannot lecture on primitive magic without giving it at least de facto recognition for its effectiveness; and all her students jeered at her unscientific credulity.
I hope Dr. Ross will forgive me if I reject the established view that an ichthyologist knows more about the nature of the fish he studies than the fish themselves do. One can prove that by putting an ichthyologist naked in a sealed water tank and telling him, or her, to behave like a fish for just three minutes…. The truth is that no dedicated scientist can afford to think in religio-poetic terms, and Dr. Ross had to make her choice. Now, as a titled and polished Celtologist, she has succeeded in understanding even less about the real nature of Celtic religion and poetry than the famous Professor I. A. Richmond himself, kingpin of Romano-British studies. She will go far.
I can best make my point by quoting her three-page treatment of an important Celtic myth, that of the Sea God’s Crane Bag; and her general view of cranes in Celtic tradition.
The Crane Bag, she informs us correctly, belonged in Irish legend to Manannan God of the Sea, and had been made from the skin of Aoife (“pleasing”), a woman magically transformed into a crane. In this context Dr. Ross quotes an early medieval Irish text which she calls “full of interest from a mythological point of view”:
This crane bag held every precious thing that Manannan possessed. The shirt of Manannan himself and his knife, and the shoulder-strap of Goibne, the fierce smith, together with his smith’s hook; also the King of Scotland’s shears; and the King of Lochlainn’s helmet; and the bones of Asil’s (Assail’s) swine. A strip of the great whale’s back was also in that shapely crane bag. When the sea was full, all the treasures were visible in it; when the fierce sea ebbed, the crane bag was empty.
As a scientist she can make nothing of such fairy-tale nonsense, so is content to point out with a kind smile that though Aoife had been transformed into a crane by a jealous rival, she was “a treasure of power with many virtues,” and that her skin was therefore a fit receptacle for the Sea God’s treasures. Also that in another Irish legend, one Midir who lived in the Isle of Man (named for Manannan) kept three cranes which cried out inhospitably to all would-be visitors: “Do not enter—keep away—pass on!” She suggests that this is the reason why in Ireland mean and disagreeable women were called “cranes,” which gave cranes a bad name, so that eating crane’s flesh was held disgusting in the Gaelic Western Highlands. Finally, and irrelevantly, she refers us to a Gaulish carving found under the choir of Notre Dame in 1711: It consists of three cranes perched on a bull’s back, beside a bearded god who is shown cutting branches from a willow; the inscription is Taurotrigaranos (“The Bull with three Cranes”).
Specialistic concern with Romanized Gaul and Britain has distracted Dr. Ross’s attention from Julius Caesar’s explicit statement that the Celtic Druids never committed their religious secrets to writing, and in all secular matters used Greek, not Roman, letters. Which should have reminded her of the Asiatic Greek colonies in Southern France. Also of the close trade relations between pre-classical Greece and the pre-Celtic British Isles, proved by the lunulae, half-moon-shaped collars of Wicklow gold, found in mainland Greece and by the imprint of a Mycenaean dagger lately noticed on one of the pre-Celtic Stonehenge pillars. Why should this trade connection not have implied common religious ties, as the Greek (not Latin) name Taurotrigaranos suggests—and as the word “Druid” itself suggests? Druid is a Greek word, meaning priests of the drus, an oak tree with edible acorns, like those of the oracular grove at Dodona in Northern Greece. Indeed, close religious ties seem to have bound Greece and the British Isles down to classical times; and the first British coinage was modeled on the Greek, not the Latin. The Land of the Hyperboreans (“Back-of-the-North-Wind-men”) was, as the historian Hesychius makes clear, Apollo’s other island, Britain. And from thence certain secret straw-wrapped gifts were annually passed, from tribe to tribe, all the way across the Continent until they reached Apollo’s shrine at Delphi.
I CAN FIND no reference in this book to the religious importance of the crane in Greece, where it was sacred both to the ancient Pelasgian Goddess of Wisdom, Athene, and to Apollo, the Hellenic God of Poetry and Music. In fact, at the period of panic when, according to a well-known myth, most of the Olympian Gods disguised themselves as animals or birds and fled to Egypt from the monster Typhon—apparently the violent eruption of the Santorin volcano back in the thirteenth century B.C.—Apollo chose to appear as a crane. Moreover, in Greece, as in Ireland, cranes were always sacred to poets; a belief commemorated in the story of the Pelasgian poet Ibycus of Samos, whose death was avenged by a flock of cranes that revealed his murderer to a crowded theater at Corinth.
Well, to be brief, what this fabulous Crane Bag contained was alphabetical secrets known only to oracular priests and poets. The Greek mythographers credited a poet of the Trojan war, Palamedes, son of Nauplius (“Ancient Intelligence, Son of Navigator”) with having invented such of the letters as had not already been invented by the Triple Goddess. His inspiration came, it is said, from observing a flock of cranes, “which make letters as they fly.” And Hermes, “messenger to the Gods,” afterward reduced these to written characters. Cranes were in fact totem birds of priestly clans who gave counsel to queens and kings and ranked above mere warriors. At Paris, a Gaulish king is pictured as a bull, as kings had been in Mycenaean Greece and Minoan Crete; his druids, who drew their wisdom from the Triple Goddess, appear as three cranes. In Ireland the Triple Goddess Brigid—among the Pelasgian Greeks the same goddess was called “Brizo”—protected poets, physicians, and smiths, and was popular enough to become eventually canonized as a Christian saint—St. Brigid of Kildare. All this rigmarole explains why the eating of crane meat was tabooed in Ireland and Scotland just as the hazel, the tree sacred to poets, was tabooed fuel on any hearth. And why Midir, the Irish Hermes who lived in Manannan’s island and guarded the secrets of the Crane Bag, kept three cranes to discourage curious visitors.
But why should this druidic alphabet have been kept secret? Because it was not a mere traders’ convenience like the alphabet openly used by the Phoenicians, but a religious calendar, a fortune-telling device, a means of signaling in deaf and dumb language, and the base of a hundred-and-fifty Ogham speech ciphers.
The arrangement of the alphabet was Pelasgian in origin—“Pelasgian” meant People of the Sea, hence Manannan’s possession of it—but its druidic nicks were invented (according to the Irish myth) by one Ogma Sun-face—who is mentioned by the second-century A.D. Greek historian Lucian as Ogmius, the white-haired Celtic Hercules, who drew men by golden chains. The original twenty-letter Pelasgian alphabet, beginning with the signs for B, L, and N, was regulated by a stem-line and consisted merely of one, two, three, four, or five upright nicks cut above it—one stood for B, two for L, three for N, etc.; then the same number of upright nicks cut below it; the same number of diagonal nicks crossing it—all these fifteen letters being consonants; and finally the same number of upright nicks crossing the stem-line, namely the five vowels.
You can read about Ogham in R.A.S. Macalister’s Secret Languages of Ireland, and in George Calder’s The Scholar’s Primer: how the poets used it as a secret signal code, by treating the shinbone or nose as a stem-line and laying their fingers across or against it according to the letter required. For example, one finger laid diagonally across it stood for the letter M; and two fingers laid diagonally across it stood for the letter G; and five fingers placed on the lower or right-hand side of the stem-line, but not crossing it, stood for the letter S.
THAT THE CRANE BAG filled when the idea was in flood, but emptied when it ebbed, meant that Ogham signs made complete sense for poetic Song of Manannan, but none for uninitiated outsiders. The Crane Bag, in fact, was not a real object but, like Athene’s Aegis bag which contained the Gorgon’s head, only a manner of speaking. No more than two of the ordinary twenty letters which it contained are described in pictographic from by the poet quoted by Dr. Ross: namely M and G, the initials of Manannan and Goibne the Smith, consisting of one and two nicks of the diagonal group crossing the stem-line. They are here disguised in riddling terms as “Manannan’s knife” (stuck in his belt) and “Goibne’s shoulder strap” (which crossed his belt to his sword) and are offered merely as examples of the more ancient letters. As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye. They stand for a group of five extra characters borrowed (as Macalister shows) from a fourth-century, B.C., Greek alphabet, to supply consonants not used in Goidelic Celtic but only by Brythons, Gauls, Norsemen, and others. You will notice that these characters have not kept their original Greek shape, but are adapted for use in deaf-and-dumb language so as to indicate special positions of the signalers’ hands. Thus:
They are described from left to right. “The King of Scotland’s shears,” made by crossing the forefingers; “The King of Lochlainn’s helmet” (with his face underneath), made by opening the thumbs and forefingers of both hands and making the tips touch; “the bones of Assail’s swine, made by crossing one’s thumbs: “Goibne’s smith-hook,” made by crooking the thumb and forefinger of the left hand; and “Manannan’s own shirt,” which is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude, made by crossing the four slightly open fingers of one hand over the four fingers of the other.
But why, you may ask, were the shears ascribed to the King of Scotland? Because, I suppose, Scotland was famous for its wool and because the King had a name beginning with Ch, pronounced K as in Christopher. And why was the helmet ascribed to the King of Lochlainn (Norway)? I suppose because of its Norse shape, and because the King’s name began with a Th—maybe he was the Thunder God Thor. As for the bones of Assail’s swine, they seem to be the crossed stalks of sacred mushrooms because, according to Rahilly’s Early Irish Myth and History, Assail was a lightning god and because mushrooms, called “little pigs” in Latin and Italian, were believed to be created by lightning, and because hallucinogenetic varieties of mushroom were used in Greek and several Eastern religions for oracular purposes. Why “bones”? Because wherever mushrooms are ritually eaten (always in pairs) the stems are discarded, as bones are from meat. Yes, the argument is complicated, but the druids and poets delighted in reducing a difficult concept to a single phrase such as “the bones of Assail’s swine,” and this again to an even simpler sign of crossed thumbs—which no ignorant men-at-arms could understand. Nor any irreligious philosophers, for that matter, like Socrates and his pupil Plato who had turned their backs on poetic myths.
I am tempted to go on about cranes in Celtic and Greek myth; for instance to identify Taurotrigaranos with the three-bodied Geryon whom Hercules killed and robbed of his cows during the long Tenth Labor which took him through Spain and Gaul by way of the Pyrenees. Then there was the spirally-performed Crane Dance celebrated on the island of Delos in honor of Apollo and his sister Artemis—Delos being the center of the sacrosanct poetic guild called the “Sons of Homer.”
Do I hear some conscientious reader complaining, “Hi, wait a bit! What about the strip of whale’s back in the Crane Bag?” That was so easy that I left the explanation out. Ogham nicks make no certain sense without a stem-line; and for a sea god the only possible stemline was the horizon—dark and slightly arched like the back of a whale.
Let me express my gratitude to Dr. Ross for all she has dug up even if she seldom recognizes the importance of her finds. An archaeologist’s job is to quarry, date, and compare rather than to understand. And how blind most archaeologists can be! Recently I came across some photographs of Etruscan antiquities which included a carved steatite stone, vaguely labeled “cult object—use unknown.” Yet any properly brought up Jewish child could have recognized it at once as representing rolls of dough plaited and baked into a ritual loaf of the same immemorial shape.
Dr. Ross’s position is clear; she stands solidly by her academic conditioning which can accept no poetic or religious magic other than that of the Bible, if only because the University Chair of Theology is traditionally held by a Christian professor. All else is branded as mythical—“mythical” being, like “pagan,” a word that denies truth to any ancient non-Christian emblem, metaphor, or poetic anecdote.
The Crane Bag October 26, 1967