The ancient Celtic tribes were devout believers in the cosmic oneness of the universe, and held the belief that nature and even objects many times were ensouled. An example of such a notion can be found if one examines the trees the Celts considered sacred.
Featuring in their religious rites, everyday life and mythology, they were endowned with medicinal, magical, spiritual and otherwordly properties. This posts explores five such trees that played a significant role in the lives of the Celts.
This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.
It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.
The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout…
In the first and second part of my essay, Hyperborea: Beyond the North Wind Part I, II, I explored the myth of the titular fabled land, focusing on the ancient Roman, Greek and Celtic sources and discussing about the various legends associated with it like the figure of Abaris and the cult of Apollo. In the third and last part, I’ll conclude with some modern interpretations and hypotheses about the region of Hyperborea.
As I’ve already written, a slew of locations have been suggested as the true vicinity where Hyperborea lay. Of course, as it often is the case with mythology, only a certain number of details can have a basis on modern knowledge. Depending on latitude, above the Arctic Circle, for the duration of the spring to the autumnal equinox, sunshine can last up to 24 hous a day.
At the very confines of the Pole, sunset and sunrise take place only once a year. Such a phenomenon could induce one to the erroneous correspondence between day and year. Therefore a thousand days could possibly amount to a thousand years.
Perhaps another incident from ancient Greek mythology can reveal more glimpses of truth. According to Herodotus, the Hyperboreans lived beyond the tribes of Massagetae and Issedones, both in Central Asia. Probably then his Hyperboreans lived in Siberia.
One of the labours of the demigod Hercules was to hunt after the golden-antlered hind of Artemis in Hyperborea. The reindeer is the sole species where the female bears antlers, so this could refer to some arctic or subarctic location.
What’s more, the professor of classical studies Carl P. Ruck, influenced by J. D. P. Bolton’s placing of the Issedones tribe on the south-western slopes of the Altay mountains, has suggested the Hyperborean region lies beyond the Dzungarian Gate into northern Xinjiang, thus arguing for the Hyperboreans’ Chinese provenance.
The Greeks got their hands on amber when the fossilized resin travelled through a route beginning far in the north. The speculative fiction author Avram Davidson put forth the theory that Hyperborea was erroneously associated by the Greeks with the insects that originated in a warm climate and were spotted trapped inside the amber that came all the way from the northern countries.
Ignorant of modern scientific elaborations, (that said insects lived in an age where the temperature of northern Europe was far higher and their bodies were preserved intact in the amber) the Greeks believed the icy climate of northern countries was the result of the cold breath of Boreas, the North Wind.
Upon coming in contact with the classical Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean region, the Scandinavians regarded themselves as Hyperboreans. Such belief is congruent with the traditional aspect of a vicinity beyond the north where the sun always shines—a fact based on the long days during high summer with no hour of darkness the Northern half of Scandinavia enjoys, otherwise known as the mid-night sun.
This perception was held to be true especially during the 17th century in Sweden. There, the later supporters of Gothicism proposed the idea that the Scandinavian peninsula was at once the lost Atlantis and the Hyperborean land. On the other hand, European culture identified itself as Hyperborean. An example to this effect is given by Washington Irving. Upon elaborating on Astoria in the Pacific Northwest, he writes that,
”While the fiery and magnificent Spaniard, inflamed with the mania for gold, has extended his discoveries and conquests over those brilliant countries scorched by the ardent sun of the tropics, the adroit and buoyant Frenchman, and the cool and calculating Briton, have pursued the less splendid, but no less lucrative, traffic in furs amidst the hyperborean regions of the Canadas, until they have advanced even within the Arctic Circle.”
To the same effect, there existed a group of Northern European scholars who had dedicated themselves to the study of classial ruins in Rome, founded in 1824 by Thoedor Panofka, Otto Magnus von Stackberg, August Kestner and Eduard Gerhard, having named themselves the ‘’Hyperborean-Roman Company’’.
In the Antichrist, Nietzche referred to his sympathetic readers as Hyperboreans. “Let us look each other in the face. We are Hyperboreans–we know well enough how remote our place is.” He quoted Pindar and added, “Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness.”
Even today, the term ‘’Hyperborean’’ is sometimes used in a joking manner to refer to groups of people living in a cold climate and, under the Library of Congress Classification System, the letter subclass PM includes “Hyperborean Languages”, a catch-all branch that encompasses all the linguistically unrelated languages of peoples living in Arctic regions such as the Inuit.
The author and scientist John G. Benett opined on the topic of Hyperborea in a research paper of his, ‘’The Hyperborean Origin of the Indo-European Culture’’, that the Indo-European homeland was situated in the far north and identified the region as the Hyperborea of classical antiquity. An idea propounded before by both Bal Gangadhar Tilak in The Arctic Home in the Vedas and by the Austro-Hungarian ethnologist Karl Penka in the Origins of the Aryans.
If the land of Hyperborea was a source of endless fascination for the ancient peoples, an equal source of fascination it remains in modern times as well, especially in the field of esoteric thinking. Philosophers like Blavatsky, Guéron and Evola believed in the Hyperborean, polar descent of Mankind and the solidification and devolution that followed afterwards.
If one considers their theory, Hyperborea was the Golden Age polar heart of civilization and spirituality. Man doesn’t owe his origins to the ape, but gradually regresses into an apelike state the more he drifts away, both physically and spiritually, from his arcane, otherworldly homeland in the Far North, falling prey to the dark powers of the South Pole, the very hotbed of materialization.
The French writer Robert Charroux often explored the theme of the ancient austronaut race in his works, attributing such origins to the Hyperboreans. “Reputedly very large, very white people” who had settled in “the least warm area on the earth because it corresponded more closely to their own climate on the planet from which they originated’’.
In the end, what are we to make of the Hyperboreans and their splendid, sunblessed homeland? What conclusions can we reach? Are we to regard them as a mythical race of veritable giants whose lives spanned to a millennia, residing in an unearthly paradise? Or are we to venerate them as our enlightened ancestors who gave birth to the rest of mankind and lament the fact we can never again reach the crest of their spiritual heights?
Did Hyperborea exist in some primordial age, so far removed in the past that nobody can hope to trace its actual historicity or does it merely reflect humanity’s deepest longins and aspirations? An ideal land full of light and health and abundance where age, sickness and war are perpetually exiled?
Whatever the truth, Hyperborea still retains its charm and rouses our imagination, proving its timelessness over and over again.
The Welsh, through the prose collection of the Mabinogion, have presented to the world a singular artistic creation that offers a charming panorama of fantasy, romance, adventure, tragedy, humour and satire wrapped up in a net full of otherwordly magic and allure.
This blog post explores one of the four branches of the Mabinogion, the story of the British princess, Branwen, and the war of her family against her Irish husband and his warriors. A tale of high-octane poignancy, it offers to the reader a wide cast of characters, each one larger than life and full of complexity.
Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”). The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty. He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter. These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children ofLlŷr. They are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brânwas a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him.
Arctic continent on the Gerardus Mercator map of 1595
In the first part of my essay, Hyperborea: Beyond the North Wind (Part I), I delved into the ancient myth of Hyperborea, exploring its more prominent locations according to the ancient Greek, Roman and Celtic sources. In the second part, I’ll focus on the various legends associated with this fabled region, the physical appearance of its inhabitants and the connection of the Celts with it.
The ancient Greeks and Romans recognized various terrae incognitae, including Thule and Hyperborea. Regarding the latter, a host of writers and historians like Virgil, Cicero, Pliny, Pindar and Herodotus had given accounts of people there whose lives spanned to a millenium and were full of bliss.
Hecateus of Abdera compiled and published all these stories and anecdotes in fourth century BC, which unfortunately are lost to us now, but mentioned by Diodorus Siculus. In the Hyperborean land, the sun was purported to rise and set only once in a year. Sunrise and sundown took place above or upon the Arctic circle or generally in the arctic polar vicinities.
In his work Philippica, the ancient Greek writer Theopompus wrote that once a race of soldiers hailing from another island, rumoured to be Atlantis, had planned to conquer Hyperborea. In the end, however, they didn’t go through with it, as the Meropian troops realized the fierce strength and blessed existence of the Hyperboreans. Preserved by Aelian, such a tale was generally regarded as a satire or comedy.
Many more mentions of Hyperborea can be found. The hero Theseus payed a visit to the Hyperboreans and Perseus’ clash against Medusa, which traditionally took place in Libya, Pindar thought to transport it to Hyperborea. The mythical island was sighted by the Argonauts as well when they sailed through Eridanos, as we’re told by Apollonius.
A Greek legend narrated in the writings of Aelian informs us the Boreades, the offspring of Boreas and the snow-nymph Chione or Khione, established the first theocratic monarchy on Hyperborea. We read, ”This god [Apollon] has as priests the sons of Boreas [North Wind] and Chione [Snow], three in number, brothers by birth, and six cubits in height [about 3 metres].”
Moreover, Diodorus Siculus further wrote, ”And the kings of this (Hyperborean) city and the supervisors of the sacred precinct are called Boreadae, since they are descendants of Boreas, and the succession to these positions is always kept in their family.” The Boreades, consequently, were depicted as giant kings who presided over Hyperborea, around 10 feet tall (3 metres).
Throughout the classical sources we don’t get another glimpse of the physical attributes of the Hyperboreans. However, comparisons are drawn that could give us a more detailed picture of these giants. The third century grammarian Aelius Herodianus described the mythical Arimaspi as identical to the Hyperboreans in looks.
Stephanus of Byzantium in the sixth century seemed to be in agreement as well. The Arimaspi were described as having fair hair by the ancient poet Callimachus, though it cannot be affirmed whether the Arimaspi and the Hyperboreans were one and the same folk.
An indisputable link between the ancient Greeks and the Hyperboreans is the cult of Apollo. The Olympian god lingered during the winter months among this benevolent race of giants. According to Herodotus, the Hyperboreans dispatched offerings to Scythia packed with straw and had them exchanging hands from tribe to tribe until they reached Dodona.
From there, other Greek peoples delivered them to Apollo’s temple in Delos. Such a method was employed because, once, a rumour circulated about the first time the gifts were brought by Hyperoche and Laodice. The two maidens and the five men who served them as escorts never returned to their homeland.
Το avoid such an incident from happening again, the Hyperboreans sent the gifts to their borders and communicated with their neighbous to deliver them to the next country, until from hand to hand and nation to nation they reached the isle of Delos.
Another account is written by Herodotus as well about another virginal pair of maidens, Arge and Opis. The two came to Delos from Hyperborea as a tribute to the goddess of childbirth, Ilythia, accompanied by the gods themselves. They were received with great honour, the female islanders collecting gifts from them and singing hymns in their name.
One of the most majestic and mysterious figures to have ever featured in Greek mythology is Abaris the Hyperborean, whom many have identified as a Druid. He was the son of Seuthes and a legendary sage, healer and priest who worshipped Apollo. The story has it he learned and honed his skills in his homeland of Hyperborea which he was forced to abandon during the outbreak of a plague.
He possessed the gift of prophecy. Due to such an ability as well as because of his Scythian dress, simplicity of manners and honesty in speech he had left a great impression upon the Greeks who held him in high regard.
Herodotus asserts Abaris travelled around the world by sailing through the skies atop an arrow that sympolized Apollo and consuming no food. Plato thought him amongst the Thracian physicians who practiced medicine on both the soul and the body through incantations. A temple erected in honour of Persephone at Sparta, Pausanias attributed it to Abaris.
Last, Alan H. Griffiths has called Abaris a ”shamanistic missionary and savior figure”, noting similarities with Aristea, a semi-legendary Greek poet and miracle-worker around the seventh century BC and pointing out Pindar has placed Abaris in the time of Croesus.
A lush slew of anecdotes concerning Abaris can be read in Iamblichus’ work Vita Pythagorica. According to this source, the Hyperborean priest purified Sparta and Knossos among other cities from the outbreak of plagues.
Abaris, also, enjoys a scene with Pythagoras in the court of the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris, the pair delving into divine matters and encouraging the tyrant to reconsider his degenerate ways. The Syrian Neoplatonist philosopher, also, describes Abaris as possessing artistry in the art of extispicy: predicting future events through the examination of anomalies in animal entrails.
The tenth century Byzantine encyclopedia of the Mediterranran world, The Suda, mentions Abaris as the writer of a host of books, including a volume of Scythian Oracles written in dactylic exameter, a theogony in prose, a poem on the marriage of the river Hebrus, a work on purifications and, last, an account of Apollo’s vist to the Hyperboreans.
However, one must bear in mind, such yarns can only be read and enjoyed for what they truly are: colouful fictions to delight the imagination of readers, no more genuine than the sage’s interaction with the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris.
Antimachus of Colophon, Protarchus, Heraclides Ponticus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Posidonius of Apamea and Hecateus of Abdera were among the classical Greek authors who identified the Hyperboreans with the Celts residing in the Western fringes of Europe.
Such a perception, of course, was the fruit of the way the ancient Greeks understood their relationship with the non-Greek peoples, something heavily influenced by the myths of the Golden Age which fit in and adjusted to their contemporary life, particularly during the Greek colonisation and trade.
The Riphean Mountains of a mythical past were recognized as the Alps of Northern Italy. Based on that geographical identification, there was reason to believe the Hyperboreans were one and the same with the Celts who lived in and beyond the alpine region or that the Hyperborean lands were one and the same with those where the Celts resided.
Of course, such a connection wasn’t hard to reaffirm as the Celts with their fair hair, robust build and tremendous love for feasting and gold shared many of the traits attributed to the Hyperboreans.
On the other hand, the Irish Celts were of a different opinion and didn’t identify themselves as such.They told another tale of an advanced civilization beyond the far north. In the Gaelic compilation of poems and prose known as the Book of Invasions, we come across a record of this civilization which was established by migrants from Ireland, whose descendants once more set sail towards Ireland several centuries later with the intention of repopulating it.
We read, ”Bethach son of Iarbonel the Soothsayer son of Nemed: his descendants went into the northern islands of the world to learn druidry and heathenism and diabolical knowledge, so that they became expert in all the arts. And their descendants were the Tuatha Dé Danann … These latter acquired knowledge and science and diabolism in four cities: Failias, Goirias, Findlias and Muirias … Thereafter the Tuatha Dé Danann came to Ireland, without ships, passing through the air in dark clouds.”
In my third and last past, I’ll wrap up with some modern interpretations and hypotheses regarding the Hyperborean myth.
The Mabinogion, a collection comprised of the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, written in Middle Welsh, is a fascinating melange of mythology, folkore and history. In its pages, one can find themselves immersed in a world of magic, floating between the fringes of the human realm and the Otherworld. Both worlds are inhabited by characters larger than life: gods and heroes sprung from the depths of an extraordinary, distant past.
One such figure is the otherwordly woman Rhiannon, whom the scholars have identified as the goddess of sovereignty. Many supernatural incidents accompany her throughout her presence in the tales, one of the most intriguing that of her association with her three magic birds.
This post explores their role, abilities and significance in the tales in which they appear.
Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth. They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld. She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The…