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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



Across the ocean that encircled the Earth, in Scandinavian mythology, lay a land of giants, according to the thirteenth century Icelander Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda. Across a magical Celtic ocean described for us in the Irish tale, the Voyage of Maeldun, found in an early-twelfth century Irish manuscript, the Book of the Dun Cow, lay many islands on which giants lived. King Arthur defeats a particularly nasty giant after crossing the English Channel in the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Giants lie across the sea in the Middle English romances Sir Eglamour of Artois and The Turke and Sir Gawain. Given what we may now suspect about tales involving journeys across magical Otherworldly seas in mysterious boats, what meaning can be given to the presence of giants in these, and in many other Medieval tales?

There is one creature we have met with only briefly, but it is one that seafaring men would have come more and more into contact with as they braved the turbulent seas. Brief glimpses of this creature may have inspired terror as well as awe. Perhaps they knew intuitively that these creatures thought like themselves. Perhaps they heard them singing.

The Fomorians ruled Ireland once. They lived offshore. When the Tuatha de Danaan first arrived in Ireland they had a hard time, because the Fomorians made them pay tribute. This race lived beyond the sea, or by some accounts beneath the sea in the western ocean. They were deformed, with only one foot or one hand; awful to look at, and led by a giant and his mother. We have all seen pictures of whales in the North Atlantic, surfacing on their sides, covered with encrustations and with one flipper waving in the air as they crash back into the water.

But despite this antipathy, there is Fomorian blood running in the veins of many Irish heroes. The father of that Ulster champion of champions, Cú Chulaind, was Lugh of the Long Hand, a god and a hero of the Tuatha de Danaan. Lugh's mother was the daughter of the King of the Fomorians.

Giants and the sea are often connected. A giant wades across the Irish sea in a Welsh Mabinogion tale. In one of the Medieval Scandinavian romances, a giant approaches Halfdan Eysteinsson carrying a whale on his chest. And in the Arthurian tales of Sir Thomas Malory, Sir Marhaut, son of the King of Ireland, encounters a giant who, having been maimed by the knight, wades into the water where Sir Marhaut cannot follow because of the depth. 'And than sir Marhaut made the erle Fergus man to fecche hym stonys, and with that stonys the knight gave the gyaunte many sore strokis tylle at the laste he made hym falle downe in the watir...'.

A beautiful giantess once waded ashore in Fionn's Ireland looking for refuge, according to a twelfth century Middle Irish literary account, the Colloquy of the Ancients. As they were speaking to her, the warriors on the beach became suddenly aware of another shape bearing down upon them. This second giant was a handsome young man, but his manner became less engaging when he threw a spear at the girl, mortally wounding her. The giant then waded back out to sea, to where a ship was waiting to carry him away, leaving the giant girl lying on the beach, stranded and dying.

However, the image of giants is multifaceted. Shortly we will be plunging again into Medieval Arthurian waters, and indeed those of Medieval romance in general, in order to highlight a particular motif which is common enough to be considered their hallmark and which will perhaps broaden our understanding of these tales even further and reveal the truly astounding nature of the religious beliefs held by the Celtic druids of Britain and Gaul. But before doing this, it is worthwhile diving into other areas at the heart of the tradition, to the oldest in the accumulation of ancient layers that has culminated in the Medieval Arthurian world, and to see what we can find.

Giants feature in the oldest European myths that we possess, those written down by the Greek poet Hesiod. They were born of Mother Earth. 'Great Heaven came, and with him brought the night. Longing for love, he lay around the Earth... and when the year's time was accomplished, she gave birth to the Furies, and the Giants, strong and huge, who fought in shining armour, with long spears... For many years the sons of Kronos [the Olympian gods, Zeus, Poseidon Hades, etc.] and the Titan gods have been at war, fighting for victory and power... They joined in hateful battle, all of them, both male and female, Titan gods and those whom Kronos sired...' One of their kind, Prometheus, was tied to a rock by the victorious Zeus, where a vulture came every day to peck at his liver, and every night his wound would close and the injury heal, only for the vulture to return the following day and the torment to begin anew. A never-ending cycle of pain and recovery, of fatal injury and regeneration, of death and reincarnation – as though, perhaps, this punishment might have been thought to be appropriate.

The Scandinavian Saga of Arrow-Odd, composed around the middle of the thirteenth century, is a mythical story in which the eponymous hero is fated to live for three hundred years. But his life does not follow the normal course of events. On one occasion, as a fully-grown man, he is grabbed by a vulture and taken over 'many lands and seas' until he is rescued by a giant. 'I'm sure I saw a little child here; where is he?' asks the giant, as he peers into the vulture's nest. Arrow-Odd reveals his presence in the nest and the giant takes him and rows across the sea to Giantland, where his giant daughter cares for Arrow-Odd like a mother. The succession to kingship in this land, however, seems to hinge upon the outcome of a dog fight.

The images are pregnant with meaning. To be grabbed by a vulture, a carrion feeder, implies that one is dead. To be taken by unusual means over water may also carry this meaning, as we have seen. And having been carried across the water, Arrow-Odd is brought up in a land where kingship is determined by the fighting of dogs; in other words, a world of dogs. But his encounter is also, at another level, with a human being who makes him appear as an infant again. A symbolic death has resulted in his being regarded again as a child.

Unlike most well-known Icelandic sagas whose plots unfold in tenth century Iceland, the romance of Arrow-Odd is one of a small number that inhabit a far more mythical and supernatural landscape centred upon mainland Scandinavia and extending eastwards into Giantland; and where most of the story elements are acknowledged as deriving from a still earlier tradition. Odd is taken to a land of giants. As a parting gift, the giant who rescued him gives Arrow-Odd a sword, a helmet and a shield, in much the same way that all young noblemen in Medieval romances are given their arms by their lord as they set out in life. Later in the tale, Odd meets with a perennial adversary who, coming off worse in the ensuing fight, dives into the sea and vanishes from sight completely. But this enemy turns up again, wedded to Geirrod, the daughter of a giant whose father lives in Geirrodstown. Geirrodstown is not a real place in Viking geography. It is the Scandinavian Otherworld. Odd again defeats this adversary, whose name is Ogmund Eythjof's-killer, by slicing off his backside and pulling the flesh of his face up over his ears, exposing the bone beneath. The earth 'opens up and closes again' over Ogmund; perhaps unsurprisingly. But Ogmund turns up yet again, this time as King Quillanus of Novgorod, and Odd does battle with him yet again, having himself been to Giantland and back. One suspects that the film 'The Highlander' might trace some initial inspiration here.

Another Scandinavian romance, written in about AD 1300 and preserved in three vellum manuscripts of the fifteenth century, is the tale of Egil and Asmund. In part rather crudely written, it tells of a king's daughter who is taken away by a vulture. We have seen how Arrow-Odd was seized by a vulture and we may therefore be ready for what comes next. In a forest far to the east, where the Scandinavian Otherworld is always located, the two stern Vikings Egil and Asmund search for the missing girl. Here they come across two grotesque female creatures, mother and daughter, whose names suggest that they have the form of birds. Eagle-Beak is the daughter of a giant, and it is one of her giant brothers who has snatched the king's daughter away. Here then, we have the same double meaning; the Otherworld is both a land of animals and a land where the newly-arrived take on a diminutive stature, like infants.

The Otherworld is a land of giants also in the Medieval Scandinavian romance of Thorstein Mansion-Might. Thorstein was so named because he was too large for most Norwegian doorways. But far to the east, having been lost in a mist for two weeks – a mist that in Irish legend is often a prelude to an Otherworldly encounter, as in Fled Bricrenn, or Bricriu's Feast, from the Book of the Dun Cow – Thorstein meets with three giants who nickname him Mansion-Midget. Their world includes Geirrodstown and Giantland, and when Thorstein makes an appearance at Geirrod's hall, the giant asks who the little child is.

The clearest evidence for this aspect of giants, however, may come from the Welsh Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen, handed down to us in fourteenth century manuscripts but dating to the late-eleventh century in the form we have it in. Young Culhwch, who is King Arthur's cousin and who later enlists King Arthur's help in the pursuit of an impossible quest involving the hunting of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth, whose pursuit also features in pagan Irish legend, sets out to find the daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden with the intention of marrying her. He approaches the Giant's fortress and meets with a shepherd whose dog is 'bigger than a fully-grown horse.' The shepherd receives the gift of a ring from Culhwch, which does not fit the man's finger so he takes it home to his wife.

Wife: 'How did you come by this ring?'

Shepherd: 'As I was looking for food along the seashore I saw a body drifting in with the waves. It was a very handsome body, and there was a ring on its finger.'

Wife: 'The sea takes jewellery from the fingers of dead men. Where is the body?'

Shepherd 'Wife, it will not be long before you see the owner of that body. He is Culhwch son of Kilydd.'

Despite some doubt on the part of the shepherds's wife, the idea has been put into our minds that in order to enter the land of giants, Culhwch, it seems, has had to arrive as a body drifting in with the waves; in much the same way that Arrow-Odd arrived in the talons of a vulture. The implication seems obvious.

A number of verse romances exist in Middle English, typically composed in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, that have Sir Gawain as their principal hero; they usually see Sir Gawain set off from court, the court of his maternal uncle, King Arthur, on adventures which highlight Gawain's courtesy and gentlemanly conduct as well as his bravery and martial prowess. Thus did Sir Gawain live before wading ashore at the battle against Mordred. These poems are often referred to collectively as the English Gawain cycle. One such adventure occurs in perhaps the finest example of Middle English alliterative poetry, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which describes Sir Gawain desperately searching the north of England through the winter rain and cold for a Green Chapel whose whereabouts he does not know but which he must find by New Year's Day in order to accept the return stroke of an axe that he is under oath to receive. More of this marvellous and revealing poem later. But a variant of the same story occurs in a seventeenth century volume known as the Percy manuscript. Contained in this book is a much shorter version of the tale, a 'minstrel piece' believed to have been originally composed in about the year 1500 for oral recitation, and in which half the text of each page is missing, having been torn away in the eighteenth century to light domestic fires with. But what remains of the tale is very interesting. Gawain is not left to journey alone to an appointed but undisclosed place, in order to receive the return blow of an axe, in The Turke and Sir Gawain, but is escorted by an Otherworldly being in order to receive a blow from a weapon whose exact nature is now lost, and the Otherworldly being is not a Green Knight but a 'turke' – a pagan.

In Bricriu's Feast, recorded in an early-twelfth century Irish manuscript, the Book of the Dun Cow, but dealing very firmly with pagan times, the Ulster hero Cú Chulaind is set to accomplish a series of heroic feats in a competition to see who is the bravest of the champions of Ireland; a series of feats which includes a beheading game with an Otherworldly being. In one test, Cú Chulaind rides in his chariot into a magic mist, a druid mist, that in both Irish and Scandinavian legend is often a harbinger of the proximity of an Otherworld. Almost at once, he meets with a giant. Then, in another test, he has to spend the night on watch at the castle of Cú Roí mac Dáire. It is an Otherworldly castle and as dawn approaches, Cú Roí appears as a giant. Roger Sherman Loomis has shown that Cú Roí mac Dáire can be recognised not only in the churlish Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but in Sir Carados, who appears in twelfth century Arthurian romances and who also appears, as a knight Carrado, in a sculpture in the cathedral of Modena, in northern Italy, dating to the early-eleventh century; a sculpture depicting the siege of a castle by, among others, Sir Gawain, and defended by Carrado. Loomis has pointed to the possible personifications of natural cycles in such tales, Gawain and Cú Chulaind taking the part of the new sun as the old sun, personified by Cú Roí mac Dáire, the Green Knight or the Turke in The Turke and Sir Gawain, tests its fitness to take over control of the new year. But might there not also be something nearer to home, something more applicable to the human world and to human fears in all this?

Sir Gawain and the turke ride off together for two days, in The Turke and Sir Gawain, following their encounter at King Arthur's court, without food or drink; then the turke – 'led Sir Gawain to a hill. The earth opened and closed again; then Gawain was frightened. Darkness has come, and the light is gone.' – In other words, Sir Gawain has been taken into the side of a hill. If this was Ireland it would be a hill of the Sidhe. He is taken first of all to the turke's castle where, initially refused food and drink, he is afterwards given all that he can eat. Then they find a boat and cross the sea to an island whose king is 'a heathen' and with him he has 'a hideous rout of giants strong and stout and ugly to look upon.'

Here, then, we have the full sequence. A journey into an Otherworld through the side of a hill, a land beyond the grave, a world beyond death, which takes Gawain across a stretch of Otherworldly water in a boat to a land of giants that make him look as small as a child again.

The links between Irish and Welsh mythology, tales from Brittany, Medieval European romance and Arthurian legend seem to be growing stronger. The world of myth and allegory they evoke is powerful and might have been recognised and even approved of by the druids of ancient Britain and Gaul. But where did the druids themselves derive this vision? Was it indigenous to their own culture or was it perhaps inherited from an earlier European tradition? Is it significant, in other words, that King Arthur's sword, in Robert de Boron's early-thirteenth century tale Merlin, is pulled from a stone in the same way that Bronze swords were once pulled from their clay moulds?

The classical Greeks and Romans did not generally believe in reincarnation, as we have seen. Allusions to this idea seeped into their lives only through folklore, through a substratum of myth that was ancient even then, and through the work of poets, like Virgil, who had been born in Celtic lands; in Virgil's case, the former Cisalpine Gaul. The Romans and the Greeks believed – if they believed at all – in gods like Zeus, the father of all gods, Neptune, Mars, Apollo, Vulcan and Pluto. These gods had been around for a long time. They by and large dominated the goddesses like Venus and Juno, Diana and Vesta. Certainly, Zeus, or Jupiter, was the father of them all. The north Europeans had a war god and lawgiver, Tiwaz, a thunder god, Thor, and a god of battle, Odin.

Brian Branston in his work 'The Lost Gods of England' commented that the deities of a former religion become the devils of the new. One need only look at the Romano-Gallic horned god Cununnos to see where the image of the Christian devil came from. So it is intriguing that the 'devils' of both the Scandinavian and the Greek and Roman religions were giants. Thor, for example, continually battled against the giants in Scandinavian myth. Zeus defeated the Titans at the beginning of his divine reign and confined them to Tartarus, the Greek hell. Prometheus, one of these Titans, was tied, like Tityos, to a rock, compelled, as we have seen, to undergo an endless cycle of death and regeneration, as a punishment.

Perhaps the Giant Albion was one of these Titans. Points of contact are vague, but when William Blake speaks of the Giant Albion in his long visionary poems, The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem, written around the turn of the nineteenth century, one wonders whether he was tapping into an ancient poetic tradition and had in mind a giant of the same kind as Prometheus, or Atlas, who was given the task of holding up the sky, or the other Titans who were cast by Zeus, as we have seen, into hell. Or the Scandinavian giants who warred against the northern Indo-European gods and lived, in some accounts, on the outer edge of the Earth, beyond a sea that surrounded the known world. A sea of Ocean. Or perhaps like the unnamed British god whom Plutarch described in the first century AD lying "asleep in a deep enchanted cavern in an island near Britain," and whom, even as Britain battled with Napoleon Bonaparte, Blake wished to rouse with the call "Albion Awake!"

Blake reveals the answer to this question – who was the Giant Albion? – in a catalogue he wrote to accompany an exhibition of his watercolours in 1809. 'The Giant Albion,' he says, 'was Patriarch of the Atlantic; he is the Atlas of the Greeks, one of those the Greeks called Titans. The stories of Arthur are the acts of Albion...'. The artist and poet sees an ancient Britain in 'his visionary contemplations, relating to his own country and its ancient glory, when it was, as it again shall be, the source of learning and inspiration.' In the same way, perhaps, that it was in the time of Julius Caesar, when Gallic druids went to Britain for instruction. 'The Britons,' thought Blake, 'were wiser than after-ages.'

' Urizen fell, and death
Shut up his powers in oblivion; then as the seed shoots forth
In pain and sorrow, so the slimy bed his limbs renew'd.
At first an infant weakness; periods pass'd; he gather'd strength,
But still in solitude he sat; then rising, threw his flight
onward, tho' falling, thro' the waste of night and ending in death
And in another resurrection to sorrow and weary travel.'

William Blake. The Four Zoas, Night the Sixth.

The Greek pantheon headed by the father of the gods, Zeus, was well-established by the time the poets Hesiod and Homer were writing – in the eighth century BC. Scandinavian mythology, admittedly known to us only from a much later period, also recognises a preponderance of male deities, although the water is muddied, as it is with Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, or the Roman goddesses Minerva, Juno, Diana and Venus, by the Scandinavian goddesses Frigg, Freyja, Idun and particularly by the goddess Nerthus, who was worshipped by the Angles in what is now northernmost Germany and southernmost Denmark before their name became associated with eastern Britain. Tacitus, the Roman senator and historian, writing in AD 98 about the unconquered tribes in Germany, described seven such tribes in the north including the Anglii. These were the Angles, who are reputed to have invaded Lincolnshire in the fifth century AD and laid a foundation for the English nation. 'None of these tribes is particularly worthy of individual mention,' he says, 'but collectively, it should be said that they all worship Mother Earth. 'After them come the Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii,... There is nothing noteworthy about these tribes individually, but they share a common worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth.'

But it is generally true that the male gods took precedence over the female. Most of the languages spoken in Europe, including Norwegian, Latin and Greek, both ancient and modern, and English, derive from a single ancestor language called Indo-European. So do Irish and Welsh. The Celts were Indo-Europeans. In all these languages, there is a common relationship between words for father-in-law, but there is no such relationship between words for mother-in-law. The significance of this lies in the likelihood that wives went to live with their husband's family and not the other way around. It was a patriarchal society.

It is not known for sure when the Indo-European speakers settled, or, if there was no large-scale migration, when they projected their influence and the desirability of learning their language decisively over the whole of Europe; but there are clues. The Minoans of ancient Crete spoke a language that has not yet been deciphered. They wrote on clay tablets in a script known as 'Linear A'. These tablets have survived in the excavations of lavish and undefended 'palaces' where artefacts and frescoes suggest very strongly that women held positions of power in their society and that the highest deities were female. Later in the second millennium BC, just prior to the final destruction of this civilisation, which had lasted for many hundreds of years, the palace at Knossos on the island of Crete began to accumulate clay tablets similar to those undeciphered 'Linear A' tablets, but these 'Linear B' tablets have been decrypted – the language is an Indo-European language; it is ancient Greek.

And at about this time, or a little after, the so called 'Urnfield' culture swept across Europe. Associated with this change in the late second millennium BC is the first appearance of well-defended hill-fortresses, which later evolved into the Iron Age hill forts of the Celts, of which Cadbury Castle near the Somerset-Dorset border, and not far from Glastonbury, is one of the most famous, and one associated with King Arthur.

And there is a final piece in the jigsaw puzzle. The Picts of northern Scotland were Celtic, that is, Indo-European, and had occupied the land possibly since about 1000 BC, shortly after the Celtic nations had first spread out from their homeland in southern Germany. But the Picts, unlike other Celtic tribes, were said to retain traces of a matriarchal succession of kingship. It has been surmised that the Picts took this matriarchal system of inheritance from the indigenous, pre-Celtic population.

So we have evidence of what was likely to have been a matriarchal culture possibly extending across the whole of Europe, before the imposition, to varying degrees, of a patriarchal society by Indo-European speakers in the late second millennium BC. It may be wildly speculative to suppose with Robert Graves that the whole of ancient Europe once shared a matriarchal culture; or perhaps it is not such a wild idea. But that the ancient Indo-European Greeks chose to make giants the enemies of their gods, and similarly the ancient Indo-European peoples of the north, cannot be disputed. Britain, it is said by Geoffrey of Monmouth, was populated by giants before the coming of the 'British', that is, the Celts. 'At this time the island of Britain was called Albion. It was uninhabited except for a few giants.' So in giants, perhaps we begin to approach the old, pre-Indo-European religion. And we have seen the sort of myths that giants feature in; myths that present an Otherworld in which a traveller into a land of the afterlife becomes once more like a child. And in places, perhaps, like that of druidic Britain and Gaul, where the Old Religion may not have vanished but been absorbed into Celtic myths and beliefs, the 'devilish' giants may have retained a little of their original function in the religious stories of the time. Both Fionn mac Cumhaill and Arthur are known from folk legends to have been regarded as giants.

It may be that in the days when Crete had a flourishing civilisation and when Egyptian Pharaohs were marrying their sisters to legitimise their rule, there was throughout the whole of Europe a widespread belief similar to the one attributed to the Egyptians of the sixth century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus; that human souls are immortal and become reincarnated into the bodies of animals, fish and birds, before returning once again to live another life in human form. We know that Pythagoras, also of the sixth century BC, believed this to be the case, and his knowledge was judged by Roman commentators to derive from the Celts, perhaps the Celts of Britain and Gaul. So perhaps an ancient European belief system that stretched from Britain in the west to Egypt and Crete in the east, was taken up and absorbed to varying degrees, or not, by these Indo-European invaders. Scandinavian mythology preserves echoes of it, particularly in the myths involving giants, and Giantland. And in giants, perhaps we resonate with the most ancient chords of our land.

Giants figure a great deal in the Arthurian legends and Medieval romances. King Arthur encounters a giant in the Alliterative Morte Arthure when he crosses from Britain into Gaul to meet the army of 'Emperor' Lucius Iberius. On the top of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy he fights and kills this giant, who 'fro the face to the foot was five fadom long [about thirty feet tall].'

Sir Tristram meets with a giant in an anonymous Middle English retelling of the story of Tristan; 'Twelve feet long the club that Urgan weilded; a blow from it impossible to survive! Tristram found an opening at last, the club fell – "and of [off] the geauntes hand · Tristrem smot that day." He cut off the giant's hand.'

Erec, in Chrétien de Troyes' Eric and Enid, is riding through the forest when he hears the cries of a damsel. Rushing to her aid, he learns that two giants have carried her lover away with them. 'Over there,' Sir Lancelot is told in the thirteenth century pre-Cyclic Lancelot, 'are two giants...'.

The fourteenth century Middle English Arthurian romance Lybeaus Desconus, or The Fair Unknown, sees the hero encounter two giants as they sit beside a camp fire with a captive maiden. And on another occasion, he fights a giant who is thirty feet high. Sir Eglamour of Artois, in a fourteenth century Middle English romance, defeats a giant across the sea in the far west of the world, a giant who measures over fifty feet in length.

In an early-fourteenth century Middle English verse romance Sir Beues of Hamtoun (Southampton), which is based upon a thirteenth century Anglo-Norman romance, the hero at last escapes from a prison, having spent many years incarcerated within it, with only death to look forward to, crosses the sea (on his horse) and goes to the first castle he finds to ask for food. But a giant lives there. 'The geaunt was wonderstrong... thretti fote long · He tok a levour in is hond · and forth to the gate he wond.'

In Chrétien de Troyes' Arthurian verse romance, the Knight of the Lion, Sir Yvain (Malory spells his name Uwayne) lodges one night with a grief-stricken lord. The man explains that he is in great difficulty because a giant has demanded his daughter who is the most beautiful maiden in the whole world. More of this wonderful and revealing romance in the concluding chapter. But it is not only the presence of giants in these Medieval tales that may point to the great antiquity of their sources.


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