Practical Katabasis

A couple of years ago Avalonia Press were thinking of a publishing a collection of articles under this title. In case you don’t do Ancient Greek, the term basically means ‘going down’. It’s been used for all sorts of things including military retreat and visiting the seaside, but in spiritual context, it’s about going to the Underworld. Seems though that the project has been abandoned, so here is my contribution (slightly adapted – plus a few pictures, not that it was easy to find anything suitable). Not quite so many readers here perhaps, but spread it if you like it!

My grandmother, May, died in 1980, having started her life the previous century. Before her funeral, the local vicar came to visit. She had never been to his church, nor any other in my memory (except for a wedding or two) and never spoke of any Christian belief. He knew nothing of her character, nor of her life, which indeed had not been easy – crippled by polio at 16, widowed at 30 whilst pregnant with her second child. Nonetheless he drank a glass or two of whisky (to which May was partial!) and said a few platitudes about a wonderful generation. At the time I had been Pagan for but a few years, certainly had no experience of public celebrancy, yet I distinctly felt that I could do better, especially with whisky provided. I don’t remember anything significant of the subsequent cremation ‘service’.

It wasn’t long after that I found myself in rather more visible public Pagan leadership. In 1982 and 1983 I led the first open Pagan Circles of modern times at the Glastonbury Green Gatherings, organised by ‘Pagans Against Nukes’ (PAN). A few years after that, I was ordained in the Fellowship of Isis (I use my title of ‘Reverend’ for official purposes) , and although most of the FoI priesthood work semi-privately, my interest was always in public ministry. During the 1990s I was chair of the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust. More recently, I did a five-year stretch as Pagan Prison Chaplain in the various prisons of Wales.

And I’ve got older, as we do. Seems to be a lot more funerals to attend than weddings. There’s been elderly relatives as would be expected, but also youngsters through accidents and alcoholism, and far too many dear friends, mostly of cancer, but sometimes also by their own hand. When I was a prison chaplain, one of the men I worked with managed, despite being supposedly in ‘safer custody’, to hang himself (in a previous attempt he cut his own throat but didn’t quite manage to die). I can’t quite say that Death is a constant companion, but it’s starting to get that way.

In my involvement at sundry funerals, I suspect that I was usually the only person who bothered to listen to what the celebrant actually said. My feeling has been, overwhelmingly, that the more ‘conventional’ (closely correlating with ‘Christian’) the funeral, the more unsatisfying it has been, not just for me – I’m certainly ‘biased’ – but for everyone concerned. Contrariwise, the more unusual, even wacky, events had much better psycho-spiritual effects. People seem to have gone through all the standard rigmaroles not from any real choice, but rather under the belief that no other options were permitted. The term ’empty ritual’ has been entirely appropriate to describe these events.

I’m the sort of person cursed to think about all this, rather than being someone who just accepts ‘normality’. It seems to me that there are three modes of problem in conventional funerals. Firstly that of ‘doctrine’ – what we say of death, its nature and meaning. Secondly, that of ‘praxis’ – what we actually do at these events. Thirdly, that of ‘culture’ – the context in which they take place. I believe that we should challenge all of these, as best we are able.

So what does happen after death? It’s easy to say that none of us knows for sure, in the sense of something provable to the extent of being acceptable to ‘science’. Be that as it may, we all want to know. The dominant view in our culture (I mean ‘British’ and ‘White European’, that being what I am) is that of ‘scientific materialism’, which not only says that death is the final end of life, but further that life itself is no more than an ‘epiphenomenon’, that is, a secondary effect, of chemical reactions. Likewise our consciousness and all sense of individual identity and meaning, not to mention anything as silly as Love. For scientific materialism, Life Has No Meaning. Indeed, with such a view, it would be fair to describe any (and anyone’s) life as a waste of time – the whole Universe, thirteen thousand million years since the ‘Big Bang’ then indeed an utter Waste of Time, no more than atoms and stuff whizzing around entirely pointlessly. Not exactly a comforting perspective for the bereaved, but for scientific materialists, comfort is just as meaningless as everything else.

Our culture is almost entirely devoid of spiritual guidance in the matter of death, and this is the demonstrable failure of the Christian religions. Their own teaching is somewhat confused. Most folk think of the ‘religious view’ as involving a ‘soul’ separating from the body, arriving at ‘Pearly Gates’; bad guys (never ourselves) cast into eternal damnation, and so on. Yet actually, this idea of soul-separation is derived from Pagan concepts (first documented, as I understand, by Plato). The (arguably) ‘proper’ Christian belief is that a ‘soul’ simply ‘sleeps’ after death (that’s why their headstones say ‘Rest In Peace’) with the possibility of bodily resurrection after the ‘Second Coming of Christ’. (In a nice new, young, fit and beautiful, but presumably asexual, body – no need to worry about cremation, rot, cannibalism or other complications.) The Church of England ceremony uses the somewhat bizarre phrase ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. Not many people comprehend this at all – sounds like oxymoron, meaningless. If it’s ‘sure and certain’ how can it be at the same time a ‘hope’? (Unless the hope is not to be damned eternally.) The only way for the phrase to make sense is for it to be the hoping that’s ‘sure and certain’, rather than what is hoped for. I can’t see how this is in any way comforting for anyone who actually thinks about the words.

I don’t have any experience of funerals in Jewish and Muslim traditions, nor much idea what their ordinary adherents believe about death. I suspect though, that all of the Abrahamic religions have much the same sort of problem in their notion of (frequently brief) ‘once for all’ life, followed by eternity, all too often of unpleasant experience. Faith in ‘pie in the sky when you die’ falls away very easily nowadays so that all that is left is the abyss of scientific materialism.

It seems to me therefore that there is a real need for Pagans to present a different doctrine as to the nature of death – indeed to do so not only in brief at a funeral ceremony, but in the wider culture that is, I assert, in deep and real need of our understanding. But what should that be? Trying to get more than two Pagans to agree as to any point of ‘doctrine ‘is notoriously difficult. (Please note that I use the term ‘Pagan’ to include a very wide range of folk: basically everyone who isn’t Abrahamic or imitating them; not just ‘Western Pagans’ but also the many indigenous traditions, who actually greatly outnumber WPs.) As an actual celebrant and priest, it is all too necessary to talk about these beliefs with the bereaved. My experience is that Pagans (here I do mean WPs) are often a bit vague about it all. Death doesn’t take a central place for us as some say it did for those of ancient Egypt (a very arguable idea indeed!). A large proportion of WP folk are indeed still in a younger demographic than ‘Second Wave Pagans’ like myself, and actuality of death has barely started to be present in their lives. Few of us have made the Journey to the Land of the Ancestors, and those that have don’t necessarily teach ‘doctrine’. Nor is the knowledge of that Journey necessarily the Whole Truth.We do have the tradition of that Journey though – our shamans have spoken of it for thousands of years. Pagans can easily be blasé about death – saying things like “it’s just a doorway we go through into a new phase of being”. True as this may be, Death always still comes as a shock.

True in its way. But this viewpoint can also deny the actuality of death, and tend to invalidate grief
True in its way. But this viewpoint can also deny the actuality of death, and tend to invalidate grief

In actually presenting a serious doctrine of the soul, one is actually quite at odds with conventional concepts, in which the funeral is a “celebration of the loved one’s life” and “comfort for the bereaved”. The former all too easily becomes an assertion that there is nothing further or relevance for the dead person; the latter an admission of meaninglessness. My experience has been that the presentation of Pagan doctrine has been listened to and appreciated by the bereaved. What you get from me (unless prior disagreement expressed) is a sort of composite, or overview, of teachings drawn from multiple traditions – it appears to me that individual traditions tend to stress just one aspect of a greater whole. The basic idea then is of three ‘souls’ (or parts, or layers of soul). The first of these is the ‘body soul’ – that which maintains our body’s physical integrity during life, and its identity through the complete physical body changes of life. The second soul is the’personality soul’, something that can exist indefinitely in non-physical form. The third may be called the ‘deep soul’. It is the body soul that actually ‘dies’. Its being is dispersed at death into the greater soul-stuff of Mother Earth. Although this is arguably the least important of the souls, it really does matter. It is a real part of the person – a body soul is fundamentally necessary for mortal existence. It is only through the body soul that other people are able to make contact with the personality and deep souls of the person we loved. So the death of this soul is a real loss, deserving of grief, not to be glossed over. Nonetheless, that’s not it. The personality soul is that which travels to Summerland / Tir na nOg / Amenti / Elysian Fields / Valholl (or as culturally appropriate). It is these souls that we encounter when invoking, meeting, or otherwise being aided by, the Ancestors. The deep soul is that which may reincarnate at some future point.

The materialist view is that the person who has died no longer has any needs to be addressed. Things are not so simple. You may not be aware that until the 1914-18 World War, Christians (or rather, the Church of England, since this was one of the issues in the Protestant Schism) did not ‘pray for the dead’. Firstly, it was considered unnecessary (and as noted above, soul-separation is not the fundamental Christian belief). But further, such prayer was considered to be ‘cheating’, unfair interference for advantage in the process of proper divine judgement. The C of E could not maintain its line in the face of unprecedented casualties and overwhelming public grief, in the context of a mode of war that often left no coherent bodies for burial. The public moved to Spiritualism in considerable numbers.

Sadly, it’s not just dying that can be difficult: being dead is not always so easy. We know that many people die suddenly, not just by random accident, but all too frequently as a result of extreme violence and trauma. (In much of the world, such death may well be more likely than something peaceful.) Were these folk to have recovered from the event, we would readily understand that they might have experienced some form of ‘soul loss’ not easily or quickly remedied. That sort of loss may be mostly in the body soul, but not wholly. That is, the dead person may continue to be ‘injured’ after death. You may well also be aware of the ‘five stages of dying’ as discussed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others. So what do you think happens when physical death occurs in stages of ‘denial’ or ‘anger’? More generally, any of us can die still holding grudges to those who hurt us in life, as well as holding on to loving attachments that involve more than the body soul. All of these scenarios may plausibly make it more difficult for the deceased (personality + deep) soul(s) to ‘move on’.

Anubis is one of the better-known psychopomp deities

There is perhaps a limit as to what can be achieved at a funeral. These events are not places for real shamanic psychopomp work, if that is needed. Nonetheless, it is right to address the dead person and assume that they can hear us, as a fundamental part of the ceremony. We may indeed need to tell them they really are dead. We need to tell them that it is right for them to let go of the living, of both the loved and the loathed. The Love that is part of the personality and deep souls will abide beyond death. The dead must set their feet on the Road. The Journey has been described by various of our Pagan traditions, but I am strongly inclined to think that despite the stories of monsters and other unpleasantness, actually it’s not usually so difficult for those who are indeed dead – the problems are for those of the living that walk that Path, and want to return. We can call to the dead person’s aid those Spirits that guide the dead, whether they be of the Ancestors or the Shining Ones, in sure knowledge that one will come.

Moving on to the problems of praxis, of what we actually do at a funeral rite, it seems to me that almost every aspect of conventional practice fails to meet the needs of all involved. Customary procedures are largely as established in Victorian times. There are limits to what can be done, but if indeed everything ‘normal’ is wrong, then one may think in terms of subverting anything that can be – if in doubt consider doing the opposite! One’s actions as a celebrant must be subject to proper respect for the principal mourners, and discussed in advance, but congregations rarely heckle the celebrant, and will usually do as they are asked.

One of the most basic problems is the brevity of most funeral rites. About two-thirds of people in the UK are cremated after death – a standard cremation ceremony allows mourners a mere half-hour, plus a few minutes for entrance and exit. Sometimes for sure, this will be all that the bereaved can cope with, but more generally, my experience is that it is totally inadequate. There are not many options here: for a price, crematoria can sometimes book a double slot. A better option for Pagans generally would be to go for green / woodland burial, which is widely available. As well as giving the mourners a closer contact to Mother Earth, Who can absorb pain as well as recycle bodily remains, ceremony time is rather less likely to be restricted. (But it may not be an accessible option for mobility-impaired or elderly folk.)

The lovely new long barrow at All Cannings, Wiltshire

A different option would be to go for two separate events. That is, to make the cremation or burial ceremony private and minimal and to have a separate memorial for wider family, friends and public. This has the further advantage of allowing the former to be ‘downbeat’, focused on death and loss, whilst the latter can be ‘upbeat’, a celebration of life and indeed of what lies beyond it. It generally seems quite difficult to combine both these aspects in a single funeral ceremony, especially a brief one, yet this is what mourners generally would wish to do. In a conventional ceremony, there is very little involvement of the mourners – they just sit there and do as they are told, listening to (or perhaps more often, ignoring) the celebrant. Their involvement comes later, at the wake / refreshments – only then do they open up and speak, sharing memories of the dead person to one another, but less widely than they might. So my suggestion would be to combine the memorial and wake, let them segue from one to the other, at a location where there is no time pressure. Such an event seems to provide all participants with a much greater level of ‘completion’, Indeed, a few years ago we managed this for the funeral of my own mother, Audrey May. That was in Santa Cruz, California, where fashions are a bit different. She was actually cremated the day before the memorial – but rather than the very sanitised procedure usual in the UK, there were just four of us escorting her right to the actual furnace. We all held down the big red button until the fires were fully operative. There isn’t much to trump the overwhelming physical finality of this.

More recently, I attended the funeral (not as celebrant) of a friend who was a leading activist in Extinction Rebellion. A procession took him to the burial place on his own land. We drank real champagne (one of his last requests) to his memory. I was privileged to have been one of those who shoveled the earth back over his shrouded body – another deeply physical experience. After just a little while, everyone gathered in the nearby village hall where we grounded ourselves with the shared food everyone had brought and then sat together as folk spoke of his life’s achievements and their love for him.

A crematorium chapel will have seats fixed in rows, whereas Pagans like Circles. Still, it is possible to ask those present to join hands in invocation of Sacred Space. (I generally suggest linking little fingers since this is minimal enough to overcome contact reluctance, but still provides a physical expression of solidarity amongst the mourners, and I’ve found that people unused to such things are still quite happy with the idea.) I’ve tried a couple other ‘different’ procedures that seem to have worked well. You’ll know how those closest to the dead person often struggle to speak at a funeral ceremony, to the point of collapsing in tearful mess. I now have a ‘black robe’ that I wrap around a family speaker – for me this is the mourning robe of Isis and Nephthys, Goddesses who understand mourning, whose wings can enfold the grieving person and give them strength to speak as they would want to honour the dead person. Another simple practice that has worked well has been for everyone present to tie a ribbon to the coffin in expression of their final blessing or wish for the deceased. (Unless there are very few present, people need to be told to ‘multi-tie’, not to queue.) With some good Pagan music, this actively involves the mourners – though minimal in itself, that’s still very different from doing nothing at all – and it breaks the tendency (which is exacerbated by us not singing horrid hymns) to slide into celebrant’s monologue.

If possible, one can also take the ceremony into deeper places than would conventionally happen. So far I have two guided meditations that seem right. One has people accompanying the dead person on their final journey to the place of ‘crossing-over’ where they must bid farewell. (This draws rather from Ursula Le Guin’s vision of the low wall, so easily stepped over, that separates the land of the Living from that of the Dead. Another involves invocation of the presence of the dead person – sitting in the centre of the chapel as each remembers them best (hopefully this is younger / healthier / happier than their last days) and sharing parting words and gifts.

It’s not so difficult to change the conventional funeral stuff – changing cultural context is a much less tractable problem. Our culture has a deeply contradictory approach to death. A large part of ‘drama’ and ‘thrill’ involves more fictional murder than most war zones, confused by the knowledge that the actors appear later in perfect health, and that heroes (ourselves fantasised) are never much injured by the events that would in ‘real life’ not have survivors. We are bombarded, further, by daily ‘news’, with a steady stream of murders, the latest mass shooting by US crackpots, wars and allegedly natural disasters happening to darker-skinned people far away. The point has long been reached that typically we are desensitised to the mass of suffering that is constituted by all this violence. But on the other hand there is overwhelming denial of death at all. We are all supposed to be ‘young’ for ever. The wonders of ‘medical science’ promise (at some rather vague future) to cure every illness. Undertakers frequently try to deny death by embalming a corpse (to slow the natural process of rot) and ‘make-up’ the body to make it ‘more life-like’. To my mind, practices of this sort do actual harm in our understanding of death, in that the difference between a dead body and a live one is in general clearly experienced as proof of a ‘soul-separation’. The UK state actually denies people suffering intolerable pain and indignity the simple right to end their lives at the time they choose, with loved ones to hold their hand. Death is just not discussed. I have been appalled by the scenarios of the current Covid epidemic, with many thousands dying sedated and variously entubated, denied even the presence of their loved ones, let alone a final hug or even a hand being held.

A recent meme arriving at my desktop said “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.” Quite so, the denial of Death damages us and those around us. For sure, it all has a very harmful effect on the directly bereaved. Whilst no one wants to go back to the Victorian requirement of wearing nothing but black for a year (which we may well consider largely a matter of social control, especially of women), it is nonetheless necessary, when we are mourning, for the wider public to acknowledge this state of being. To be expected to ‘carry on with life’ as soon as the uneaten funereal sandwiches have been tidied away actually tends to prevent the natural passage through grief from taking place. We no longer have the signal of wearing black – so time for some good challenging t-shirt slogans perhaps. How about “I am bereaved. (May bite if provoked.)” It would be unacceptably intrusive to hug bereaved strangers (unless requested), so we need new social forms and gestures that would still acknowledge them with compassion.

From the perspective of Pagan celebrancy and priestly work, what the bereaved need is actually more rites, not just the single funeral bash. We need to make better-known the idea of multiple Rites of Remembrance. Such rites may well be largely private – at least a couple are appropriate, one perhaps three months after the death, and another perhaps after a year, depending how the bereaved are actually coping. Or the rites can be timed to coincide with the usual Pagan festivals – such as Samhain for Remembrance, Spring Equinox for new beginnings, so that they can more easily be shared, since indeed others in the community are all too likely also bereaved. Modern Pagan practice has the wisdom of including physical action rather than being confined to purely verbal / mental ‘prayer’. My own suggestion for something meaningful, yet possible for anyone, is to use a garment of the deceased, tearing it to strips in the first rite, tying to a tree, or something outdoors for weather to take effect. (Or use some strips of black cloth – the ‘mourning bands’.) The later rite, which is intended to bring mourning to some sort of closure, can burn whatever remains, sending the last of grief back into the lifecycle of Gaia.

As a Pagan Celebrant, it’s a bit difficult to go touting for funerals. People usually plan their weddings well ahead, but are often taken by surprise by funerals, even though they can be predictable enough in everything but precise date. It’s certainly important to plan for your own if you’re any sort of solitary Pagan, since otherwise your family, friends or solicitor simply won’t know what to do or who to contact.It’s difficult to make your wishes known after you’re dead.

Beyond that though, the actual process of helping the dying needs, I strongly believe, to be more of a focus for Pagan priesthood. In recent years there has developed a movement of ‘soul midwifery’, not explicitly Pagan, from which we have much to learn. We are not (presently in the UK) legally permitted to ‘assist dying’ in any physical way. Nonetheless, the psycho-spiritual process of dying is not legally constrained, and it’s well understood that it can take a significant time. In other cultures, it has been traditional to meditate with the dying about the path they must walk after death – we can do that too. The idea of ‘giving permission to die’ often seems to arise. My own thoughts and experiences about this (perhaps prompted by work with prisoners) have to do with ‘guilt’. Few of us are completely free from this curse. In the ancient Egyptian tradition, it is told how Ma’at weighs the (spiritual) heart of the deceased – comparing it to the Feather of Truth. One’s task then is simply to ‘lighten the heart’ before dying. We understand this perfectly well in everyday usage – the heart is unburdened, lightened, by talking about it all. But to have effect for Ma’at, the process has to be done before physical death (though the personality-soul will eventually ‘unburden’ itself anyway). We don’t have to take on the Christian church control-mechanisms of ‘confession’ (though one surely has to be prepared for it to be that) and ‘absolution’ (since that is in the Hands of the Gods). Rather, our gift to the dying in this process is simply to be their Witness. (I would be interested to know more of Deities who took this role.)

If you work as a hospital chaplain, you may well find yourself called for someone who is close to death. I believe we need to develop a full Pagan tradition of ‘Last Rites’ for this work. Such rites don’t have to be complex, and you don’t have to wait until what looks like a penultimate breath – you may assume that the state of ‘Grace’ you thereby invoke won’t immediately dissipate. You won’t be allowed to light candles or burn incense in a hospital environment but you should be allowed to annoint the dying person with essential oils, or lacking that, clean water is always sufficient. As for words, my suggestion uses something on the lines of the Wiccan initiation blessing. Although I mostly don’t much relate to Wicca, this blessing seems to me to have a deep beauty. So you start with “Blessed Be thy Feet, that Brought Thee in these Ways”. After that, you can bless as many or as few bits as you choose (or indeed as felt appropriate), not necessarily or only the Wiccan standard ones. You finish with “Blessed Be thy Lips, that Speak the Sacred Names.” If the person is conscious, they can say the names for themself. But quite likely, they will not be. So you must do it for them – if in doubt as to Whom to invoke, just use the well-known chant (“Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hekate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna”), touch your fingers to your own lips, and then to theirs. By this act, the dying person may pass, quite literally, with the name(s) of God/dess/e/s upon their lips.

(Image from, I think – site no longer available)

I suspect that it won’t be many more years before ‘assisted dying’ does become an acceptable option in the UK. At present, in countries where it is available things tend to be somewhat of a ‘medical’ process. As Pagans, we surely want planned dying to be a genuinely spiritually-connected event. Faced with a continued mortal existence of overwhelming pain and humiliating indignity people will welcome the coming of the ‘Bearer of Surcease’. This too would be our task – how would you handle it? I think you would need to find the full depth and intensity of your priesthood – to feel the mantle of the God/dess/e/s about you, Her / Their hands guiding your own.

In my everyday Pagan spirituality, I’m very much concerned with Life – I can wave at the Sun each morning, say “Hello Bunnies, Hello Trees” and all that. Coming to terms with Death is rather more difficult, but there’s certainly no Escape. I would very much like to hear from others, especially other funeral celebrants, who do this work – your thoughts, experiences and inspirations. If you disagree with what what I’ve written, I would like to know that also, for I’m sure I have much yet to learn.

In quite different tone, you might be interested in a poem I wrote on the theme of Katabasis – here it is Going Down

Probably Rubbish

An exploration of the Probabilistic Fallacy and alternatives to it

As Pagans, particularly as NeoPagans, we are overwhelmingly interested in the Past. We don’t (necessarily) have a romantic or otherwise rosy-tinted view of former times. We simply want to know more about both the material lives and the spirituality of our ancestors. We generally believe that for them a closeness to, an understanding of and a unity with the Deities and Spirits generally was something normal and known from immemorial times. We who live in a culture utterly alienated both from spiritual meaning and from one another often despair of the struggle that we have in making meaningful contact with the Spiritual Kindreds.

Unfortunately, our knowledge of the past is desperately inadequate – less clear than a blizzard at moonless midnight. But we do our best to interpret, infer and extrapolate from the pitiful remnants of pots and bones and, where our ancestors were actually literate, from the generally incoherent textual fragments.

The point of this essay is to challenge (indeed completely to refute) the use of certain ‘probabilistic’ words in discourse regarding the past. These include ‘probable’, ‘possible’, ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, ‘likely’, ‘perhaps’, ‘may have been’ and so on. You can find them in almost any work opened at random. These usages are to be found in all registers, from the most ‘popular’ to the impenetrably academic.

Modern Druids having a nice time at Stonehenge. As real, and not ‘probable’ as folk who visited the site long ago

You will certainly have seen many similar such statements. My personal favourite is the use of ‘almost certainly’, which for a number of authors characteristically seems to precede a wild flight of fancy. As an easy test, try Google for ‘druids probably’ and see what sort of stuff you get – here are some:

1. a quote from the British Museum site,

“Archaeologists rarely find direct evidence for priests in the Iron Age. But they often find evidence for religious rites and sacrifices and many of these were probably carried out by Druids.”

2. in an OBOD page:

“we can see that the Druids probably acted not as mediators of Divinity, but as directors of ritual, guiding and containing the rites. “

3. somewhat questionable in its substance perhaps, I spotted a work by one Geoffrey Higgins (1829) titled “The Druids Probably Pythagoreans” (didn’t bother to read it!).

4. On the ADF site for ‘probably’ this from the late and now excoriated founder Isaac Bonewits (

As near as I can figure, Quarter invocations probably weren’t necessary for Paleopagan Druid ceremonies, since (a) everybody probably already knew which direction was which, so the orientation factor was covered

Or for a taste of somewhat less rigorous thought processes, try looking for “Jesus probably never existed”.

The problem with this sort of writing, the fallacy that it contains, is quite simple. Druids (whatever they were, since that issue itself is less clear than mud) either did, or did not carry out ‘religious rites and sacrifices’. Druids either did or did not act as ‘directors for ritual’ or as ‘divine mediators’ (though these concepts are in no way mutually exclusive). They did or did not know which direction was which (we might presume the former, despite the uncertainty of many modern Pagans). They did or did not celebrate equinoxes and/or solstices. And as for my last example ‘Jesus’, as a purported human being born of a mother, quite definitely either did or did not exist. No specific human being can ‘probably exist’.

In these cases, and inevitably with similar phrases, there is actually no question of probability. The past happened as it did – the problem is our lack of knowledge. The use of probabilistic language is fallacious – which is to say, not so much ‘wrong’ as something that gets in the way of knowledge and understanding.

At this point my reader may be starting to protest. One argument is that the meaning or rather the usage of words changes over time (not by themselves, but by human choice) In the case of the word ‘probable’, a change did occur from around the 16th century onward. Prior to this point, ‘probable’ meant what we would now express as ‘provable’ (Cambridge History of word meanings), linked closely to ‘probity’ (good authority). The modern meaning, with implications of likelihood and chance derives from the mathematical / scientific study of gaming and chance. Look a little closer here and you can see that the modern meaning can even be said to have reversed the older one – for nowadays, if something is ‘only probable’ then there is also a ‘possibility’ of non-occurrence – so it surely can’t be ‘provable’.

Wikipedia gives a simple definition. “Probability is the measure of the likeliness that an event will occur.” Note the tense. Probability refers only to future or hypothesized events – not to past (or present) ones. Probability theory, and developments from it, such as statistics, are based on the outcomes of large numbers of individually ‘independent’ ‘random’ events – such as tossing coins or rolling dice repeatedly. Probability is expressed as a number between zero and one (zero means ‘absolutely impossible’, one means ‘absolutely certain’) or as a percentage. When I was young, this subject was considered to be ‘advanced level’ mathematics. Nowadays, the basics are taught to children from primary school (though not with much success if one considers lottery sales!)

Probability at primary school

In ordinary (conversational) usage, ‘probable’ means ‘fairly likely to occur’ – so if forced to quantify this we might alternatively write of the issue under consideration that it has a probability of more than 75% (say). Conversationally, we might also use the word ‘possible’ for a probability less than 25% (say). Such usage is wildly inconsistent though. For example, on a main road near where I live, there is an official sign saying ‘Queues Likely Ahead’. So what really is the probability of encountering a queue taking longer than one cycle of traffic lights? Certainly queues do occur, especially on Friday afternoons and holidays. But if you computed the proportion of time with queues to that without, I suspect it’s only about 2% at most. A computation counting journeys experiencing a queue would give a higher result (since not many people drive at midnight) but still a very low value, much less than 50%. In this case, it is conceivable that the sign have saved a careless driver’s life, or one day will do so, hence can be forgiven.

In more scientific usages, the numbers in use are quite different. If you were trying to sue a company on the grounds that its practices or products had made you ill, the court would require at least ‘99% certainty’ before awarding in your favour. Drug trials and all other such testing likewise require this level of ‘proof’. Mathematically the meaning is subtly different, these numbers are not a percentage of ‘proof’ or ‘certainty’ but rather a double negative – the probability that the opposite effect occurred by ‘chance’. For example, if one throws a coin 20 times and gets 17 heads, one might ask “Could the coin be biased?” The answer to this question is always “Yes, certainly could be” but this answer is worthless without quantification. In fact, the maths computes that, if the coin is unbiased (this is called the null hypothesis) the probability of 17 or more heads out of 20 is (via ‘binomial calculator’ from Google) approximately 0.0013, also expressible as just over 1 chance in 800. You might well be suspicious, and inclined to ‘reject the null hypothesis’, but if bored enough to do many such sequences of throws with a genuinely unbiased coin, 17/20 would indeed be expected to happen at around the one-in-800 frequency. (The more precise wording of this ‘law of averages’ is called the ‘Central Limit Theorem’).

Colloquial terms for probability

So consider how this applies to the use of probabilistic language for events of the past. No one ever specifies, even as a wild guess, any numerical value for a ‘past probability’. Of course, they cannot do so. Not only did past events simply happen as they did, they were unique, not repeatable, as is the first requirement for probability theory. Although we might argue, for example, that each future horse race or sports game is unique, we have seen so many of such similarity that reasonable probabilistic prediction is possible (at least enough for gambling businesses to prosper). But the past events under discussion just aren’t like that.

My concern here is not at all to grumble about the rather poor understanding of probability theory shown by people in general, including academic writers with PhD degrees. It certainly is the case the probabilistic language is widely used to indicate a lack of knowledge rather than anything resembling mathematical probability. My assertion though is that the ubiquitous usage of ‘probably’, ‘may be’ and related terms is not a legitimate evolution of language but rather is (a) fallacious in itself and (b) actually constitutes a deliberate obscuring of knowledge.

Perhaps you feel that I am ‘overstating’ my case. So here’s a couple more examples, from the thoroughly academic ‘Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt’.

1. From the article about ‘Childhood’, concerning education of girls: “Daughters of noble families probably also had home instructors…

This statement refers to a ‘population’ and so resembles ‘shorthand’ for something on the lines of “if a noble family were chosen at random there was a 75% probability of a daughter having a home instructor”. But to make such a statement would of course require reliable quantified data, which does not exist at all. However, I have no doubt that if the writer had such a precious nugget of information then she would have quoted it directly. So the probabilism is there to hide what is really an ‘educated guess’, and hence is fallacious, even though I suspect its import is accurate enough.

2. From the article about ‘Chronology’, concerning the Hyksos invasion: “It is probable that the remnants of the ruling house of the thirteenth dynasty fled to Thebes…”.

This refers to a specific historical event, so that the probabilism is there to hide the lack of precise documentation. (Even though it’s difficult to see how any other guess at events would be remotely plausible.)

Evidence is increasing that dinosaurs had feathers. One could say our image of their fuzziness is becoming less fuzzy. (Ambiguous language fallacy alert!)

What we are really doing when examining the past is not looking for ‘proof’ but rather simply for ‘evidence’. We are used to the idea of evidence being ‘weighed’ (in legal process) in order to make a binary decision – guilty, yes or no. We may describe certain types of evidence as being ‘weightier’ than others. This isn’t a very good metaphor. A better one is now well-known – most people are familiar with digital imagery such that when expanded beyond its proper level of resolution, the picture appears ‘fuzzy’. This is very much the character of the past. More evidence sharpens the images, but still we are at best peering at mostly incomprehensible fuzziness. You may well be aware that fancy computational maths can be used to ‘sharpen’ images such as those of car number-plates – but this is only possible because we have a firm ‘model’ for such images – that they consist solely of dark characters (a choice of 36 well defined shapes) on a pale background. The matching of facial photographs to existing images is dramatically more complex (as well as being highly questionable in political intent), currently still far from being a ‘certain’ process. But it still relies on the fact that we all have two eyes, a nose, mouth, ears etc. Whilst we presume Druids were similarly equipped, we know so little further about them that their identity, ideas and activities continue to be hopelessly ‘fuzzy’.

My assertion about the use of manifestly fallacious probabilistic language is that it is not ‘just a mistake’, but rather that it is deliberate, for a purpose I consider illegitimate. As one makes one’s way through the ‘educational process’, one of the themes that gradually develops is the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’, or alternatively, between the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’. This used not to be considered much before university, but nowadays, saturated as is our culture with ‘fake news’, propaganda, advertising and PR in general, the idea of distinguishing fact / opinion is taught at a much earlier point. One of the motifs in such discussion is whether or not any claim is ‘scientific’, since ‘science’ is often presented as guaranteeing ‘fact’. The history of science and the claims of scientificity is somewhat less than reassuring. The dramatic development of the study of ‘physics’ in the 19th century greatly encouraged a claim of scientificity for almost anything. Marx and Engels claimed their concept of socialism was ‘scientific’. Madame Blavatsky made similar claim for her vast outpouring of twaddle. Distinguished classicists ‘proved scientifically’ that ‘Mycenae’ and ‘Troy’ were ‘just myths’ (until Schliemann came along with his shovel). Even in physics things are far from clear – if you study the subject at university you will soon discover that everything you were taught as ‘facts’ and ‘laws’ is actually no more than ways to make fairly good guesses of everyday-world events, but useless at the scale of electrons or planets. .

A number of writers have demonstrated the inadequacy of the binary terminology such as ‘objective / subjective’, ‘fact / opinion’, ‘scientific / unscientific’ etc. But this opposition very much remains a standard criterion for judgement. Supposedly, the ‘most objective’ of all disciplines is mathematics – the more mathematically an idea is presented, the more ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ it is considered to be. If the language of mathematics can be appropriated in any other discourse, that discourse is considered to achieve ‘objectivity’ and ‘scientific’ character. Probability is certainly a mathematical concept, but the generalized use of its language is directly intended to confer ‘objectivity’ when actually the matter of interest is irredeemably ‘fuzzy’.

A recent example of precisely this. See archeologists-found-almost-2000-gold-spiral-objects-bronze-age-180955943/. This is from the magazine of the Smithsonian Institute, from which one might hope for genuine ‘objectivity’. The headline is

“Archeologists Have Found 2,000 Ancient Golden Spirals and They Have No Idea What They Are”

An honest headline, but the first sentence then says “The meaning or purpose behind the spirals is unclear, but they probably were part of a ritual”

We all know of course that the use of the word ‘ritual’ by archaeologists is their ‘code’ (that is, a pretension of knowledge) for “haven’t got a clue” (See for more!) But consider how the ‘probably’ is used above so as immediately to convert ‘no idea’ into a purportedly ‘objective’ statement.

So, in this case, and more generally I assert, the use of the fallacious probabilistic terms is intellectually fraudulent. Its purpose in all cases is to attempt to hide the writer’s lack of knowledge and present that absence as if genuine ‘objective’ knowledge. If you poke around any interesting tome, you will find examples on almost every page. If you’re a bit bored, you could even compute p3 coefficients (probabilisms-per-page). It wouldn’t be so bad if the writers generally presented evidence for and against a claim of probability, but all to often the words are used as a substitute for evidence, ‘ex cathedra’ one might say, so that one is obliged to but trust (or otherwise) the ‘authority’ of the writer. ‘Appeal to Authority’ is indeed well-attested as a standard form of fallacy.

Fallacy is easy to label, but less easy to spot in real life. In many cases, some expert knowledge is required to distinguish fallacy.

Sadly, this way of writing is heavily encouraged academically. It is comparatively rare that you will find anyone writing “I think that…” or more honestly “My guess is that …”. Academic writers not infrequently seem to want to stress their own ‘authority’ more than honestly to present information. Any explicit ‘subjectivity’ is derided. I recently found an example in Richard Wilkinson’s ”The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt”. This is a very attractive book, well-regarded by academic and wider audiences. Intriguingly, of Sekhmet he writes “Statues of Sekhmet can still inspire feelings of awe”. As stated, this is certainly true, as many of us may attest. Yet Sekhmet is the only deity of whom he mentions such a response. I rather suspect the author would have liked to say that he himself feels such awe before Her. But dared not, lest his entire work and career be ridiculed for a single sentence.

So one can have sympathy for those writers in the Pagan community who produce well-researched and thoughtful work, yet who are generally not considered sufficiently ‘scholarly’ for the academic community. Some of these folk I know and would hope to count them as friends. The pressure on them is very much to use probabilistic language in convergence with academic writing.

Particularly annoying, I find, is the ‘compound probabilistic fudge’. This is shown in a statement on the lines of “evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians might have visited Britain”. From my argument above, the ‘might have’ is worthless. A non-fallacious statement would have been “evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians did visit Britain” (preferably with evidence, such as the presence of British-origin tin in Egyptian bronze). The word ‘suggest’ is quite sufficient to imply the fuzziness of evidence and that a claim of absolute and unchallengeable fact is not being made. Yet you will often encounter triple fudges – multiple probabilisms in a single phrase.

Does any of this really matter? Is it just intellectual trivia? Sadly, I think it does matter. It seems to me that the pretense of ‘objectivity’, the imposition of probabilism and the pretense that almost everything written about the past is not primarily interpretation and opinion, is also a denial of personal agency and responsibility in general.

As a more informal example, I might make a statement like “I shall probably go to the pub tonight”. Yet there is really no probabilistic content in this. The statement is not founded on an analysis of my past behaviour and the consequent hypothesized probability of my going to the pub on any randomly selected night. Rather, it would in some instances be a statement of intention that is still fuzzy (unfinalized) or else a pretense at fuzziness when in fact I had firmly decided to go to the pub, the phrasing intended as a ‘negotiation’ with a partner deserted to ‘Eastenders’. The latter variation, a denial of intention and agency, is a commonplace in day-to-day human interactions. I make no claim to be innocent of it. Nonetheless, it is a dishonest mode of communication.

Such personal trivia might not matter, some would say. But when we look at the state of the world, it seems to me that a major feature of most public discussion (politics!) is precisely this denial of responsibility and agency in almost every sphere of concern. A rapist might say the victim was ‘asking for it’; a murderer that ‘they had no choice’; capitalists say they are ‘providing work’ rather than exploiting surplus value; police gassing demonstrators are called ‘security forces’; wars are ‘humanitarian intervention’; and all that is before we hit the denial of Global Heating and Climate Emergency. So it’s not just the personal that is political, the probable is political too!

There is no need for the use of probabilisms. The English language has a plethora of possible forms. The simplest single-word replacement for ‘probable’ is the word ‘plausible’. Indeed, a general confusion seems to exist between the meanings of these words. ‘Plausible’ means that something can be ‘believed’, but with defensible reasons. More generally, an opinion may be presented as a guess, conjecture, hypothesis, postulate, speculation etc. Interpretations may be presumed, assumed, asserted, argued, ‘seem to be’ and so on. Any such term may be qualified with wild, tentatively, firmly and others as required. An author may resort to passive mode in general (‘it is thought that…’) or using semi-personal forms (‘one feels…’ or ‘we suggest…’). Collective support may be implied (‘it is generally considered…’ or ‘Most scholars take the view…’). Each of these innumerable variations has its own nuances of meaning, which are not necessarily the same for both writer and reader. (Yet, I suggest, less randomly interpretable than are probabilisims.) Nonetheless, all of them involve and require the active subjectivity of the author in expressing their view, and all actively invite the presentation of the evidence from which the judgement has been made.

So I would like to challenge you. If you are a reader, any time that you encounter a probabilism, consider how it might be rewritten appropriately. If you are a writer, have a look at your work and think about what you really mean… I was horrified a little while ago to find such a beast in my own published piece about Pandora in ‘Naming the Goddess’. We slide into these usages without thinking properly, so ubiquitous and ingrained is the probabilistic fallacy in all forms of language. (I have attempted to fix the blogged version of Pandora!)

Here’s an example, taken from “Egypt’s Annointing Mysteries” by Alison Roberts (a most interesting work well-provided with proper scholarly references and actually with quite a low p3). Of the New Year Rite, she writes (page 66):

“although it is impossible to locate the ceremonies specifically within any known Egyptian temple, in all likelihood they would have been performed in one of the huge sacred precincts in the north at Memphis or Heliopolis which has long since disappeared.”

In this, the phrase ‘in all likelihood’ is an unfounded probabilism. For the passage to be non-fallacious, a simple replacement for the otherwise not-at-all-contentious phrase is, I suggest, “we may assume that“. Where’s the problem with this? Would the sky have fallen to have used it instead?

Making Sacred

In my news feed around last year’s Winter Solstice there was a item about Icelandic Pagans celebrating at their new temple site.The report is here:   For the most part, it’s a reasonable presentation, but at the end the reporter just had to put in “As to the sacrifice, there’s no blood spilled at the ceremony.” The Gothi, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson responded “No, no, this is very child friendly. The only thing we sacrificed were clementines.” Sounds to me like he was a bit grumpy over the s-word. Quite justifiably I feel – reporters in general seem quite obsessed with their notion of ‘sacrifice’, projected onto us.

But why are they so obsessed? I am inclined to feel that it is indeed their own (that is Christian) nastiness that they desire to project onto others. The Abrahamic religions in general have something of a cheek in doing this, for their religions are absolutely founded on the principle of ‘sacrifice’, that is, of killing in the name of their big-G.  Not many people actually bother to read the Bible nowadays, other than a few cherries suitable for Sunday-school children, but its awfulness is there in black and white.

Cain leadeth Abel to death, by James Tissot – I’m amusedly fascinated by the utterly propagandist character of this painting! Cain is shown as adult (bearded and almost exposing himself), Abel as a child. Cain is red-headed (beware, ginger power!) and swarthy-faced, Abel very pale. But remember, it’s Abel that cut the throats of lambs in ‘sacrifice’.

It takes just four pages to get to the first atrocity (Genesis 4:1-18) – Jehovah rejects Cain’s offering of ‘the fruit of the soil’ but accepts Abel’s choice lambs. Fratricide ensues. Sundry places in the ‘Old Testament’ document Jehovah’s delight in the “soothing aroma” of burnt offerings. Apples and lettuces clearly aren’t good enough for him. It is generally considered that the Cain / Abel story is ‘historical symbolism’, to do with conflict between pastoralists and agriculturalists. There’s no doubt some violence did occur in that historical context, as indeed similar economic difference has repeatedly through history. However, the evidence from multiple historical scenarios generally has the pastoralists causing the violence, so the story can plausibly be read as a deliberate case of ‘blame the victim’!

We refer to the Abrahamic religions as such since they claim Abram / Abraham (my ‘New English Bible’ seems to mix the names) as founder. By ‘submitting’ to J, or ‘Allah’, Abram is also considered ‘the first Muslim’. Pagans might well interpret this story somewhat differently – for me anyway, it demonstrates Abram’s absolute moral failure. Genesis 22 does not mention Abram having the slightest compunction at cutting his son’s throat (despite Isaac’s somewhat miraculous conception to a woman of 90 and a man of 100 – one might imagine the child as more valued!) Wondering what sense could be made of the story, I came across this article:, which describes the famous ‘Ram in a Thicket’ as illustrated. Apologetic though the article is, it suggests firstly that the Hebrew word ‘aval’ can mean any animal with horns, and then further that the image is of ‘Marduk’, also known as ‘Amar-utu’; that is, the calf of Utu (the sun god), hence ‘the young bull of the sun’. So that article argues that the ‘sacrifice’ story is really a symbolic statement of the death of the Pagan deity, with J taking things over.

The Ram in a Thicket is one of a pair of figures excavated in Ur, in southern Iraq, and which date from about 2600–2400 BC. One is currently exhibited in the Mesopotamia Gallery in Room 56 in the British Museum in London More accurately, they represent male markhor goats. We have no knowledge of their use, but apparently it is considered that the pair were used to support something, such as a bowl. Some have suggested that the Abraham / Isaac story derives largely from Hebrew ‘re-explanation’ of this sacred image.

If J was prepared to ‘save’ young Isaac, he was less bothered as to “Jepthah’s Daughter” – being female, she doesn’t even get a name. Her father ‘sacrifices’ her in thanks to Jehovah granting victory over the Ammonites. You can find her tale in ‘Judges’, ch. 11. Abrahamic apologists often try to deny this disgusting story.  As for animal sacrifice, it is precisely specified that two yearling lambs should be killed every day at the Hebrew Temple. (We don’t really know whether this rule was really complied with, since it’s a vast quantity of creatures for a supposedly poor folk, or whether the whole idea is all just the writer’s fantasy.)  Yet apparently, a ‘sacrifice’ of a lamb is now being performed by the ‘Jewish Institute’ in celebration of the passover festival. (Source: One could go on, ad nauseam – the Bible is full of such stuff.

Archaeologists too seem to be obsessed by ideas of ‘sacrifice’. All forms of violent death, human or animal, are guaranteed press coverage and exhibits of the remains. There’s always been a big gap between ‘animal sacrifice’ and ‘human sacrifice’ – the former was clearly a widespread practice in classical (Greek / Roman) religions, yet the latter is only hinted at in myths, to the point that some question whether human sacrifice was ever actually practised. These historical Pagan cultures certainly did kill people of course, in the context of ‘execution of criminals’. What makes a ‘criminal’ is, as nowadays, not consistent – the famous philosopher Socrates famously found this out the hard way.

Druids as imagined in popular culture

My own view is that ‘human sacrifice’ was always the deeply ‘political’ matter that it is to this day – a matter of power and control in which any form of spirituality is just conscience-appeasement and public relations. I would assert that there is no significant difference between ‘execution’ and ‘human sacrifice’ – we should certainly consider that the killing of ‘witches’ was the latter. So, contrary to the official view, I would argue that human sacrifice in Britain only came to an end in the 1960’s when execution by hanging was abolished. Calling the process ‘execution’ makes no difference – it was a highly ritualised killing, fully sanctioned by a representative of the state religion, the ‘Church of England’.

The Goddess pours her love out upon the Earth.  Source:

The media obsession with ‘sacrifice’ is particularly galling, for modern-day Pagans, in that ‘sacrifice’ is something we have (almost) completely renounced. The most famous of such renunciations is the one in Doreen Valiente’s “Charge of the Goddess” in which She states “Nor do I require aught in sacrifice, for behold, I am a gracious Goddess and my Love is poured out upon the Earth”. This is an excellent summary of Gift-Economy Theology.

Various public-facing Pagan organisations with which I am personally involved, such as the Fellowship of Isis, and Ar nDraiocht Fein (A Druid Fellowship), explicitly prohibit any form of ‘sacrifice’ in their rites. And yet, it is fascinating that at almost any Pagan event, someone will inevitably make a ‘sacrifice joke’. Few, if any, are amused, yet whereas sexist and racist ‘jokes’ would nowadays be called-out, this doesn’t much happen with ‘sacrifice jokes’. Most Pagan events are indeed considerably less orgiastic than a Sunday-School outing, and one can perhaps forgive those who wish they were rather more wicked.

Given the apparent significance of ‘animal sacrifice’, at least in the comparatively well-documented classical world it is not surprising that some Pagans have, Valiente et al notwithstanding, wondered whether some form of ‘sacrifice’ should be reinstated, for example, at major festivals where ‘hog-roast’ or suchlike would be taking place anyway. Although vegetarians might not care for this, it is argued that the creature should be killed humanely, thanked and honoured – which certainly does not happen with abbatoir meat.

It is difficult to understand any sort of rational explanation for animal ‘sacrifice’ except in the context of communal feast. Indeed, the whole business seems somewhat crazy. I read recently (in Sorita d’Este’s just-published “Circle for Hekate”) that the chronicler Hesychius of Miletus wrote that dogs were sacrificed to the Goddess Genetyllis (associated with Hekate) in order to reduce pain in childbirth, on the justification that dogs were thought to have less painful labour. He wrote in the 6th century ce, so might well be misinformed.

Why would Hekate approve of her dogs being killed?

Hekate is certainly known both as a ‘lover of dogs’ and as a friend to women in childbirth. But the ‘logic’ escapes me. I would have thought Hekate displeased by people killing her creatures… More generally, I absolutely reject the notion of the Deities as capricious and hostile beings that require appeasement. I similarly reject the idea that they need the ‘energy’ or ‘mana’ from killing-sacrifice – rather, the God/dess/e/s are the source of all ‘life’ and ‘energy’. Those of Hellas lived on ‘ambrosia’. (And in Asgard, Odin consumed only wine.) So they really didn’t need burnt offerings and smoke.

One can wonder therefore how the notion of ‘animal sacrifice’ might have arisen, unless one dismisses it as ‘primitive superstition’, or otherwise takes it as purely a form of manipulation of the masses by a parasitic priesthood. Those views might be taken by rationalists and Abrahamics, but surely not by Pagans. Nonetheless, I cannot see how the ‘dog sacrifice’ described above can derive from a valid spiritual vision. In pursuing these thoughts, I was inspired to the following perspective.  I haven’t worked through the vast academic literature on the subject – I would be most interested if anyone has additional reliable information in support of my thesis (or even if there is real counter-evidence!)

I was struck by the similarity of two individually well-known mythic stories. The first is Greek – the establishment of animal sacrifice by Prometheus (as related by Hesiod). The point of this story is that what Prometheus actually ‘sacrifices’ (that is, burns on the altar) is really a bundle of skin, bones and unappetizing bits, saving the meat for humankind (which Prometheus had just created). All the usual interpretations take Greek myth as ‘drama’ (by which I mean human interaction, rather than sacred story), and so this episode is regarded as a ‘clever trick’ at the expense of Zeus, who then has ‘justification’ for his subsequent sadistic cruelty to Prometheus.

Thor notices that one of his goats has a lame leg in an illustration (1895) by Lorenz Frølich – from Wikipedia

The second is Norse, from the story of Thor’s visit to Utgard. Thor kills his goats, as meat for dinner at a farmstead where he stays. He specifically requires bones and skin to be set aside, and next morning, he ‘hallows’ the two piles (using Mjolnir, his ‘hammer’) and they are returned to life as goats. The whole story is usually treated as near-slapstick, and as an incidental excuse for Roskva and Thialfi being taken into Thor’s service. Alternatively, the episode might be considered an example of ‘magic’ – which doesn’t really tell us much if we consider that Thor, like all deities,, is 100% magic anyway.

For us modern folk, cursed by the Book, we tend not to realise that ancient sacred story (aka ‘myth’) was transmitted as much by visual means as by oral retelling, and not at all by fixedly printed words. In addition to wall paintings and art on ceramics, myth-depicting tapestries were highly valued (women’s work of course…) and we have specific record of wood carving being used as myth-depiction in Scandinavia. I have not been able to identify good images, neither ancient nor modern, of either of the two specific scenes (lots of Prometheus being tortured, and of Thor in chariot with live goats) – but if we imagine the two scenes, I think we might well be unable to distinguish between them. We don’t know whether Prometheus blessed his ‘sacrifice’ by hand-waving or with any implement. However, it seems to me that in the closely-linked myth of Pandora (see also my post:  Pandora Unboxed) Prometheus is in places mythically doubled by Hephaestus, who certainly is a Hammerer, so that a hammer is plausible in Prometheus’ grasp also.

Prometheus with hammer (somewhat Titanic in size), having stolen fire from heaven,  gave it to humankind, teaching them many arts and handicrafts.(From a Liebig trade card) Source: (the article isn’t really any use except for the pictures)

My contention firstly then, is that these two stories are later reflexes of a much older, shared Indo-European spiritual tradition. I’m happy to accept the tenet (much used by Jane Harrison and the ‘Cambridge school’) that the praxis of a rite is deeply conservative and may be much older than the explanation or ‘myth’ associated with it. The story of Thor is not, of course, called a ‘sacrifice’, since he revives the goats rather than killing them. My contention is that actually, Prometheus was ‘originally’ considered to be doing the same thing. He clearly is not killing the creatures, since that happened some time prior.

Academics, for whom dinner is put on their plates by someone else, may not be aware of how time-consuming a process butchery actually is. The creature has to be beheaded, bled, eviscerated, skinned and jointed. Often, meat is ‘hung’ for at least a few days before cooking. We are told that at one festival of Panathenaia, for example, Athena received a sacrifice of 100 oxen, which were then used in a great banquet to feed the worshipers. No one ever tells us how many butchers and cooks were involved, nor how long it took them to get the meat from living animal to worshipers’ plates.

Women caring for a sacrificial bull. Culture Club/Hulton Archive / Getty Images

We must understand though that the myth of Prometheus is not ‘just another story’ but rather is the primary precedent, the mythic / theological justification for, and the exemplar of sacrifice in Greek religion. So if his rite is manifestly not one of killing, but rather one to effect rebirth of the dead creatures, that completely explodes all ‘rationale’ for ‘sacrifice’. Thor, being a deity, effects revivification immediately – we mortals, following Prometheus, have to trust the Gods to do things in their own time.

It seems to be universal in hunting cultures that, whilst valuing the skill of the hunter, it is always considered that the animal ‘gives itself’, generally with the mediation of a deity sometimes known as ‘Master of the Animals’ and otherwise as ‘Lady of the Beasts’. It is always the case that prayers are made at the killing: firstly for the arrow or spear to fly true, bringing a quick and clean death; secondly in thanks for the gift of life, to both creature and deity. But this is not ‘sacrifice’, just dinner. More theologically, it does not meet the criteria for the usual view of ‘sacrifice’, since it is not the hunter who ‘gives’ the animal to the deity, but rather the opposite – the deity gives the creature to us.

The Lady of the Beasts – bronze from ancient Luristan

I do not have information as to whether the ‘skin and bones rebirth rite’ is something specifically Indo-European or more widespread. I strongly suspect that other cultures have different practices, but still focused on the rebirth of the creatures’ spirits. Anthropologists, viewing through the muddied Abrahamic lens, are all to likely to have referred to such ‘primitive’ rites as ‘sacrifices’. It would be interesting to know of other traditions in which alleged ‘sacrifices’ might more properly be revivifications. The only other such rite that I know of is the ancient Greek “Bouphonia” described in Harrison’s “Themis” – in this, after all have eaten of the flesh, the ox skin is stuffed with hay and stood up together with a plough as if alive.

Human beings have been killing animals and eating meat for as long as we have been standing on our back legs. It is now widely understood that ‘gathering’ generally produced more calories than ‘hunting’, but this tended to make meat-eating something ‘special’, as it still is for a great majority of the world, unless explicitly vegetarian. So why should killing a creature in a fancy way become something religious? I have argued that what we now call ‘sacrifice’ conflates two quite separate events of religious significance – the death of the animal and the later ‘rebirth’ rite. These events are separated by a substantial time interval. It seems to me that whilst ‘sacrifice’ is generally considered ‘nasty’, both the above are perfectly valid rites for meat-eaters. I appreciate of course that vegetarians may feel it is time for ‘spiritual evolution’ beyond all of this.

Is this a ‘sacrifice’ or not? Image, from a kylix in the Ancient Agora Museum, Athens. Yet the dish appears to be empty, certainly does not contain animal products, burnt or otherwise..

I think we have to assume that the notion of ‘sacrifice as killing’ derives from the time when humankind shifted from gathering-hunting as ‘mode of production’. It is tempting to ‘blame’ the Indo-Europeans herding culture for originating the notion, but early farmers can just as plausibly be the culprits, or indeed the fusion of these cultures may have triggered it. Both herders and farmers think that they ‘own’ animals and further that they themselves are responsible for the animals’ breeding. Freud and other psychologists have built vast theoretical edifices on the idea that killing animals for food produces ‘guilt’ within humans, and that this is the real basis of ‘original sin’ and all other religion. I find this argument wholly specious, and rather, that is the theological / conceptual shift from the twofold prayer-at-death / subsequent revivification to the notion of ‘sacrifice as killing’ that is the ‘Original Heresy’.

So where does this leave modern Pagans? Not many of us, even if meat-eaters, have the option of killing and butchering the meat we eat. Were we so forced, one suspects the number of vegetarians would rapidly increase! But it does mean that if context and circumstances allow – the festival hog-roast for example – then it’s not invalid to treat the animal’s death as a spiritually meaningful event and hence to give appropriate prayers and thanks at that act. Nor would it be invalid to perform the ‘skin and bones hallowing’ or other revivification rite. Nonetheless, neither of these should actually be referred to as ‘sacrifice’ (meaning killing). I suspect of course that it would not be good PR at present to make too much of these practices. For the rest of us, what we should be doing is re-instating the prayers of ‘Grace’. Most Pagans dislike and avoid these prayers as a result of distaste for their Christian versions. But it is proper to Hallow our meal, to Make it Sacred, whatever it might consist of, including wheat and lentils, to give thanks for the Gifts of the Deities, for Life Given that ours may continue. (In due course, the worms will have us.)

In modern English usage, the word ‘sacrifice’, with the meanings of either killing as propitiation to a deity, dates from late 13th century ce. Usage in the sense of ‘giving up something’ is more recent (1590’s). The original Latin word ‘sacrificium’ or ‘sacrificus’ had the meaning of ‘performing priestly functions’, so was in no way limited to killing animals. If you are more learned in Classical languages than myself, you will be aware that many ancient words are translated just by ‘sacrifice’. I have argued above that the whole notion of killing-as -propitiation is not just nasty, but fundamentally theologically invalid, and in fact, not actually ‘sacrifice’ as exemplified by myth.  Further to that, the entire notion in modern usage is a specious hodgepodge – to use the word at all is only to confuse and be confused.

In a subsequent blog post I intend to discuss the ideas still adhering to ‘sacrifice’ in modern Paganism and think further, not just in simple ‘rejection’ but as to a different way of thinking our relationship to all the kindreds of Spirit.

Pryderi and the Pigs

In trying to reclaim our spirituality, we Pagans can draw upon a vast range of sacred stories – usually termed ‘myths’ – about the deities we worship. This material is complex, fragmentary, and often contradictory and confusing. For those of us living in, or interested in, the land of Cymru (aka ‘Wales’) the task is more difficult. Nearly all of what we have is collected in the stories known as ‘Mabinogi(on)’, but nowhere are the characters in these stories considered as deities – rather they are wholly mortal – kings, queens, their families and hangers-on, a somewhat disfunctional bunch. Best known of the Mabinogi are the connected set of tales known as the ‘four branches’.

Cover art for one of the modern editions targeted at younger readers.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Euhemerus did not ‘believe’ in deities – he claimed that the idea of such was a mis-remembering of ancient royalty and heroes (‘bad history’ we might say). Euhemerism has been a popular view of Pagan religion, taken by academics, Abrahamists, and even some modern Pagans. The first reteller of Norse myth, Snorri Sturluson, took a similar view in his ‘Ynglinga Saga’. Here in Cymru the opposite sort of process (without a fancy name) seems to have taken place. The Grimms and others suggested a form of derivation from myth with respect to ‘fairy tales’ – their view has been challenged. It is pretty universally accepted that the Mabinogi characters are deities, or ‘reflexes’ thereof, because of their close similarity to Irish myth (Don => Danu, Gofannon => Goibniu, Lleu => Lugh and so on). It remains very difficult to make any real sense of the stories, nor, apart from names, is there much correspondence with Irish material. Everyone seems to accept that the stories, as we have them, are ‘distorted’, yet at the same time, all seem also to accept a basic integrity in the plot lines.

I first found the Mabinogi nearly 50 years ago, initially via Evangeline Walton’s four novel-length retellings rather than the ‘proper’ text. (I can laugh now at how I pronounced “Pwyll” back then!) At least five translations are available into modern English, plus bowdlerisations, though how anyone can think the stories ‘suitable for kiddies’ I cannot comprehend. Academic discussion is aplenty, but seems confined to minutiae, and serious consideration of ancient Welsh religion is quite out of bounds. For these folk, the deities do not actually exist, so that the stories are studied only as things in themselves, unrooted, except perhaps as ‘perennial human drama’. The best-known Pagan commentary is by Caitlin Matthews in her ‘Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain’, which focuses on the Goddess of Sovereignty, (the) Madron, and Her Son, (the) Mabon. Matthews’ work is highly-regarded amongst Pagans, but rarely cited by academics.

The Theosophist Kenneth Morris wrote a development of the first branch in his work ‘The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed’ – he may be unique in trying to to reclaim the Deities and mythic mode. Walton’s novels have more ‘psychology’, focusing on a clash between ‘matrilinear’ and ‘patrilinear’ groups within Celtic culture – a view I can endorse in part, but she too stays with the standard plot and, I feel, misses the chance to go further. Looking around further,  found this interesting version of’ The Battles of the Trees’ interpolated into the fourth branch timeframe, shortly after Pryderi’s death: I suspect that there are nowadays a variety of shorter works to be found on the internet. Please let me know of anything original and worthwhile that you know of. Seren Press have recently released a set of novels, in modern settings, each based loosely on one of the Mabinogi stories (not only the four branches) – but although their writers are distinguished, I found these unsatisfying, lacking spiritual connection. Creative writing by present-day Pagans seems to concentrate on Blodeu(w)edd – for example, “Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd” edited by Jhenah Telyndru. Don’t waste your money on the turgid and wholly unspiritual ‘Rhiannon’ by Roscoe Howells. You might guess that I can’t abide the ‘Prydain’ pastiches by Lloyd Alexander.

At Cilmeri this monument honours Llewelyn the Last, killed nearby in 1281.

Something that must surely be relevant to our understanding of the stories, but which gets little comment, is the political scenario that was current when they took form and also when they were set down. By the time of the earlier manuscript, the White Book of Rhydderch, the four-hundred-year monarchy of Gwynedd had been destroyed by the English invaders under Edward I and Wales ‘conquered’. If the stories were actually fixed a century or two earlier (as suggested by Sir Ifor Williams), we know that relations at that time were somewhat better – Llewelyn the Great was married to Siwan (aka Joan), a daughter of the English King John, and a century or so earlier, the celebrated Nest ferch Rhys was mistress of Henry I. The range of plausible dates for the manuscript of the Red Book of Hergest covers the attempted war of liberation by Owain Glyndwr, and its failure. We simply do not know whether the stories were in their own time considered celebratory of Gwynedd, or the opposite. The stories appear in just the two manuscripts. One might imagine that if they were popular then more copies might have been made, so one must suspect that after Glyndwr was gone, the gentry preferred the more recent Anglicised ‘Arthur’ to the legends of their own land.

The emblem of Moch Pryderi, a US-based folk band:

My own focus in this post is on a small part of the text, specifically the episode opening the Fourth Branch, usually known as ‘The Pigs of Pryderi’. My feeling is that most commentators largely ignore this story, treating it as of little significance in itself, (bearing ‘no apparent relation to the rest of the story’ according to the highly respected Patrick Ford introduction) and rather as just setting the scene – perhaps farcically – for the more dramatic business of Gwydion, Aranrhod, Lleu and Blodeu(w)edd. And yet, as often repeated, the continuity of the four branches is specifically that of the life of Pryderi, born in the first branch, warrior in the second, king in the third, and dying in the fourth.

My ‘problem’ is that the text just doesn’t make sense. Modern readers seem typically to slide over these issues, but I believe they would have been more apparent to any original audience. It’s not sufficient just to invoke ‘magic’ as the solution to them. Audiences are happy with Gwydion turning toadstools into gold – such events are surely essential to any good story – but other matters have to be consistent with the audience’s own knowledge and experience.

The story begins with Gwydion asking his uncle Math for permission to steal the pigs.This quote from the Gwyn Jones’ translation

“Lord,” said Gwydion [to Math son of Mathonwy],I have heard tell there have come to the South such creatures as never came to this Island.” “What is their name?” said he. “Hobeu, lord.” “What kind of animals are those?” “Small animals, their flesh better than the flesh of oxen. But they are small and they change names: moch are they called nowadays.” “To whom do they belong?” “To Pryderi son of Pwyll, to whom they were sent from Annwn [the Underworld], by Arawn king of Annwn.”

The complexity of pig domestication –

The first problem with the extract is that of historicity. Pigs were in no way introduced to Britain at the time when the stories are set – although somewhat vague, the most reasonable guess is to situate the tales at a point not long before the first Roman invasions. Pigs though, were first domesticated up to eleven thousand years ago, in the Tigris basin area. Marija Gimbutas suggests that the pig had become a sacred animal no later than 6000 bce. Pig culture spread westwards with Neolithic farming, and had certainly been in Britain for thousands of years before the Romans. In the past it was speculated whether a single strain was propagated as part of the ‘Neolithic package’ – but recent DNA-based research has demonstrated that pigs were ‘re-domesticated’ or ‘genetically improved from wild stock’ on multiple occasions. The Mabinogi audience did not have modern evidence to hand, but we have no reason to believe that the pig story was considered historically accurate.

Further then, is the idea that they came from Annwn. In the stories (the first branch) this is a physical place geographically contiguous with Dyfed. It can only be to the west or south-west, which makes it ‘Cantre Gwaelod’, now flooded by the sea. This land certainly did exist, and was lost not so far from the time of the stories’ setting (evidence suggests that the flooding had reached current shorelines by the second century ce ). Archaeology is difficult at the bottom of the sea. Still, there’s really no reason to believe that pigs were ever introduced to the rest of Britain from this area. Modern readers often consider ‘Annwn’ to be ‘The Otherworld’, something accessible via shamanic trance, and hence must treat Pwyll’s experiences in that way. This may work for us, but it’s not viable in the story. Some Victorian spiritualists allegedly managed to manifest a bit of ‘ectoplasm’, but I’ve never heard of even the most impressive of shamans manifesting real live pigs. It is, we may believe, possible for Deities to move physically between the worlds, and to bring material things with them. Such are usually termed ‘culture heroes’, found in the sacred stories of many peoples. Often they are Firebringers, such as Prometheus in Greece. In the traditions of North America, Skywoman falls to Earth in entirely physical form. But there is nothing else in the Mabinogi that would support interpretation on ‘culture hero’ lines.

Something further in this passage is deeply suspicious to my mind. Why is there the business of the name of the creatures? The sentence about the change of names is in quotes in both Jones and Ford translations, so should not be seen as an interpolation by a presumed narrator. The word ‘hobeu’ is apparently only ever used in the ‘White Book’ and ‘Red Book’ manuscripts. Modern Welsh always uses ‘moch’. Wikipedia has a page for a ‘Celtic boar/pig/swine god’ named ‘Moccus’, equated with Mercury (as Gwydion might well also be), surely proving pigs as well -established in the culture. Archaic / dialect English uses the word ‘hob’ for the ferret – a creature rather different from a pig. My feeling about this is that ‘hobeu’ vs. ‘moch’ is a play upon words, a pun, that is, something intended as a joke. Sadly the joke is wholly lost on us moderns, but one has to presume that the audience would have found it funny in some way. A little research in my (obviously inadequate) Pocket Welsh Dictionary just conceivably indicates a multilingual pun, not necessarily impossible at the time of the scribe – the word ‘hobaid’ is translated as (feminine noun) ‘peck’, but the English verb ‘to peck’ is translated as ‘pigo’. My only guess at the ‘joke’ then, is that it makes an equivalence of (hen)peckers and pigs, the misogyny of which indeed anticipates my larger theme.

At Sandy Water Park, Llanelli, the Mabinogion Woods hold various sculptures – this boar is actually intended as Twrch Trwyth:

Moving on, when Gwydion asks Pryderi for the pigs, Pryderi replies:

“there is a covenant between me and my country concerning them; that is, that they shall not go from me till they have bred double their number in the land”

This ‘covenant’ is also interpreted as a ‘geis’, a sacred vow that is often also ‘doomed’. But it is surely somewhat strange – pigs are well-known as bearing numerous piglets in each litter; so if adequately fed, and not eaten, it would not take very long for their numbers to double. How could it be such a significant matter for Pryderi?

Once Gwydion has actually abducted the pigs the story becomes truly absurd. One suspects that academic commentators are not very familiar with the behaviour of real live pigs. We are asked to believe that a bunch of twelve men, who have never before set eyes upon these creatures, let alone handled them in practice, are able to drive them from Rhuddlan Teifi (near Lampeter) to Creuwyron (just outside modern Bangor). But actual pigs are not at all happy to be driven more than a short distance, often needing a little training for that. They can balk at almost anything (including puddles); they may bunch together too tightly to move easily, or of course, try to make a run for it. One would guess, since the number appears repeatedly in other contexts, that there were twelve pigs taken. We might presume that the pigs would be distressed at being roused and chivvied by strangers. Gwydion tells his men to move quickly, since he expects pursuit by horsemen once the his illusion spell wears off. Any attempt at some secretive route would surely delay their progress, but in any case, the trail left by a dozen men, presumably their dozen horses, and a dozen pigs would be as wide as a modern motorway – just the pigs’ droppings would be ample for the most incompetent of pursuers to follow.

The story tells us that the first day of the journey takes them to Mochdref (pig-town, near modern Machynlleth). I challenge anyone to do this in reality, (it would be an extreme hike for the most vigorous of unencumbered walkers) nor are the subsequent journeys feasible. Gwydion would indeed have had to sprout magic wings for the pigs, plus golden harness of course. (We think flying pigs are fun, but you can’t put them in a story meant seriously.) The route takes them around the mountains so as to reach Bangor after but four overnight stops. Much is made of repeated onomastica (explanation of place names) – too much surely. One feels that a storyteller, singing for his supper using this stuff, might go hungry. At Creuwyron the pigs are then put into a sty, and nothing more is told of them whatsoever.

Gwydion supposedly driving some very compliant pigs. Art by Alan Lee.

Bizarrely, when Gwydion reaches nearby Caer Dathyl, even though it is understood that he had been driving animals, he is told “Strange how very slowly you have journeyed!”. The lord of Gwynedd is already making preparations for war, with Pryderi raising twenty-one cantrefs against him (at least three times the Gwynedd population). One presumes that Pryderi had the politeness to have sent heralds in ultimatum, rather than make war unannounced. At this point one can wonder as to the scale of the war. It was not so uncommon for Celtic tribes to indulge in a bit of stock-rustling. Yet Pryderi raises his entire land, at maximum urgency, for just a few pigs.

The story continues to describe fierce battle – with phrases such as ‘great slaughter on either hand’ and the final single combat between Pryderi and Gwydion, in which, “by magic and enchantment Gwydion conquered and Pryderi was slain”.

The standard story is as loathsome as one could wish, since the only point of this war is apparently to get Math, lord of Gwynedd, into war mode, so as to facilitate the rape of Math’s “footholder”, the maiden Goewyn, by Gwydion’s brother Gilvaethwy. In my view, Goewyn is about the only character in the standard story to emerge with any credit. Far from being intimidated by these men (Gwydion is presumed to be the heir to the Gwynedd throne), at first opportunity she calls out the rapist(s) saying:

“Assault was made upon me, and that openly. Nor did I bear it in quiet…They wrought rape upon me and upon thee dishonour”

Note that she says ‘they’, implying Gwydion as rapist as well as panderer, and that it is Math who is dishonoured, not herself.

Rereading the story recently, I find a couple further suspicious sentences, ignored by commentators I believe. Before the final fight, Pryderi gives hostages against the truce. But this practice did not happen in such warfare, or at least not one-sidedly, unless an army were fully defeated. It is said that ‘Gwrgi Gwastra’ is one of the hostages. It is subsequently implied, when hostages are released, that Gwrgi is the ‘lord’. Presumably then, he was heir to Dyfed and now rightfully its king. Most writers therefore assume him to be Pryderi’s son. The problem is that ‘Gwrgi Gwastra’ is not plausible as a real name for a king’s son. ‘Gwrgi’ can mean something on the lines of ‘cannibal’, linked to an Irish word for ‘werewolf’. ‘Gwastra’ means ‘vain’. Other Gwrgi persons in literature include ‘Gwrgi Garwlwyd’ (man-dog rough-grey) – a mass-murdering warrior. The word is obviously the same as the modern ‘corgi’ dog, mostly thought somewhat laughable, even if royally appreciated. Originally though, a ‘cur’ dog was the lowest sort of ankle-biting cattle-driving beast – the word ‘ci’ just means ‘dog’ in general. (There are ‘name issues’ with the whole family, including those of Cigfa and Pryderi himself, but these must wait for another day.)

The Journey of the Swine according to J K Bollard.  In the accompanying article, the whole thing is interpreted as astronomical symbolism. /2013/08/the-journey-of-theswine-journey-of.html

What on earth is to be made of all this? Whether the audience were peasants or gentry, they could in no way credit the ‘pigs’ as the creatures they knew by that name. If not ‘real pigs’ can they be ‘symbolic’ of something? If the Mabinogi were “Pilgrim’s Progress” we could guess that the pigs were ‘symbolic’ of ‘lust’ and ‘greed’. But there is no reason to interpret the rest of the stories in such a manner, not has it been seriously suggested. A plausible alternative to that sort of pious allegory, one consistent with what we know of Celtic culture, is that the stories as we know them actually constitute a sort of ‘satire’. Sadly, we have no trace whatsoever of earlier versions of the stories, but clearly my hypothesis requires prior versions to have existed and to have been well-known. Satire only works if the audience are familiar with what is being satirised, and also with the import of the mode of satire. To take a modern example, the ‘Donald Trump blimp’, depicting him as a baby in a nappy, would just not work if we were not well acquainted with his image, and did not think of him as an overweight infantile narcissist.

Satire is not an unreasonable interpretation. Pryderi is, quite simply, the son of a Goddess. His Mother, Rhiannon, is considered to be a ‘reflex’ of the Gaulish ‘Rigantona’ – Great Queen, and further more or less equivalent to the Irish ‘Mor Rigan’ (also ‘Great Queen’) and to the ‘Horse Goddess’ known to Roman soldiers as ‘Epona’. One might expect therefore that if the stories had any connection to Pagan spirituality, then Pryderi, appearing in all four branches of the Mabinogi, would get favourable report. But in the texts we have, and also as implied in most modern commentary, he is treated as something of an idiot. The first three branches are bad enough, whilst in the fourth he is so stupid as (a) to be seduced of his magic pigs (b) to start a serious war over them and finally (c) to get himself killed.

My personal feeling, reinforced by the insult to Pryderi’s son, described above, is that ‘satire’ is too kind a term by far. Rather, the Mabinogi (or at least, those parts referring to Pryderi) are actually a sustained insult, a blasphemy in fact, to the Pagan Deities. I don’t claim this view as original; for example, in his novel ‘Porius’, John Cowper Powys seems to feel likewise, at least as regards to Pryderi. But it seems to me that such a hypothesis requires some attempt at alternative explanation and reconstruction of ‘the real story’. Indeed, we really need at least two levels of prior story – one in which the characters are truly Goddesses and Gods (perhaps not so ‘dramatic’), and a second in which they are more humanised, but retain proper dignity. Given that we have no actual evidence whatsoever, few modern writers risk anything in this direction. But having no academic reputation at stake, I shall leap into this bog, hoping to land safely on a kindly rock just below water level.

Goewyn as usually portrayed: “footholder” to a senile Math. Her importance in the original text is stressed in this article:

To start with then, the ‘pigs’ are really women. Not just any women but actually the primary college of priestesses of Dyfed. As such, they undoubtedly constitute the Sovereignty of the Land, much described by Matthews and others. My own (hopelessly un-academic) reconstruction above of the hobeu / moch ‘joke’ hints at reference to women. As women, they are a sensible fit to the ‘double their number’ geis. This simply means that they were pledged to raise a daughter to succeed them before retiring from their role. Their being ‘from Annwn’ connects them to the ‘Old Religion’ (something more matriarchal at least) and / or to chthonic Earth spirituality. Actual women could be tied to horseback and moved at comparative speed from Lampeter to Bangor, and would leave rather less trail than pigs.

The abduction, and we may surely presume, the rape, of these women, would have constituted a fundamental spiritual and political assault upon the land of Dyfed. The Romans’ rape of Boudicca’s daughters may be seen in the same light, and was just as unforgiveable – once war was commenced, Boudicca did not stop until she and her army were defeated and slaughtered. It was thus entirely proper for Pryderi immediately to raise the maximum force of war in attempting the rescue and defence of the Holy Women. It is of course sad that Pryderi failed in that final battle against the rapist Gwydion, but we may reinstate Pryderi to proper honour. Not a pathetic idiot, but rather a true Son of the Goddess, dying in unflagging defence of Her honour, as manifested in Her Holy Women. Kenneth Morris suggests that after death Pryderi will have apotheosis, joining the Immortals. Quite rightly!

I have wondered whether the ‘pig’ theme is just the storytelling trick of the final redactor, or something more. If everyone knew the ‘true story’, but had no sympathy for it (being Christians) then perhaps it was enough just to tell the story in the form we have. But I am suspicious that the idea of referring to women (or especially, to priestesses) as ‘pigs’ was more than just the redactor’s personal misogyny. I have to go back a long way to get any connection here.

Dick King-Smith’s famous book

In our present-day culture, pigs do not have good PR. This is quite unfair. Left to themselves they are as clean as any creature – we humans would surely soon be quite pongy if forced to live in a sty with no washing or sanitation facilities. Pigs are actually quite intelligent – the writer Dick King-Smith (author of ‘The Sheep -Pig’, filmed as ‘Babe’) considered them at least as clever as dogs. Pigs are metabolically more like humans than most creatures, and it has been possible to transplant bits of pig into humans. Why should we despise them so intensely? (We are much kinder to other creatures that are eaten.) The reason has to be the dreadful combination of religion and politics. Rationalisation based on public health concerns is quite spurious.

My suggestion is that the piggist propaganda actually dates back quite a few thousand years, to the point when the Indo-European folk began to move from their Ukrainian homelands into Europe. My thoughts on this have been greatly stimulated by the work of Maria Kvilhaug, for example: There has been much controversy about all this, but my understanding is that modern DNA research has largely confirmed the earlier language-based migration theory, despite the continued opposition of many archaeologists. Seems to me that Marija Gimbutas’ work has been confirmed more than refuted, though I feel there is no need to accept all of her interpretations.

‘Sow Goddess head’, from ‘Old Europe’ (picture credit needed please)

The Indo-Europeans did not keep pigs. Theirs was a culture based on the herding of horses and cattle. But their first major cultural encounter on migration westward was with the people of ‘Old Europe’, who were settled farmers, and certainly pig-keepers. So as the Indo-Europeans became dominant, I suggest simply that they used the sort of dehumanising language all too common with modern day warmongers and oppressors, so that the conquered became ‘pig-people’. or pigs, for short. I would postulate that something similar happened in the Levant, when the Semitic tribes (Hebrews and Arabs) moved into Canaan. The Semites were herders of sheep and goats, again encountering settled farmers with pigs. Most of our modern-day piggist prejudice derives from them and their ‘holy books’.

I think there may be something further. It is not unreasonable to suggest a ‘Pig Goddess’ in Old Europe. Kvilhaug suggests that the historical basis of the Vanir (as opposed to the Indo-European Aesir) is in fact the people, and/or deities, of Old Europe. In the extant Norse sources there are indeed ‘Pig deities’, namely the Vanir siblings Freyr and Freyja. (At the least, both ride on magical pigs.) So it seems to me that it becomes painfully easy to imagine that the priestesses and priests of these deities might be referred to, by Indo-European (or Semitic) misogynists, simply as ‘Pigs’. I suspect that this unpleasantness was as sticky as pig-poo, and that patriarchs and misogynists have had a long-standing ‘tradition’ of referring to spiritual women as pigs. This has barely disappeared – legends about pig-faced women were around as late as the 19th century and a 2006 film, ‘Penelope’ starring Christina Ricci had this theme. The phrase ‘pig in a poke’ was in the past applied to women in bonnets – it is still in use.

Pigs in pokes – 18th c cartoon –

The challenge remains to reconstruct some of the story, at one or both of the prior levels I suggest. I would have been as wary of doing this as better scholars seem to be. However, after speaking about the above ideas recently to a Pagan group I found a story flooding into my consciousness, and had to write it down in order to be able to think of anything else. Whether this constituted ‘authentic spiritual vision’, or otherwise, you may judge for yourselves.

I’ve put the story on a separate page linked below. Here are a few notes about it in advance. If you want to discuss it (politely) with me, I would appreciate your thoughts. My story does of course resolve the sundry issues in the standard form. I found little use for Gilvaethwy except as a liar. Didn’t seem any need for two rape scenes (especially if the story was originally transmitted pictorially) so Goewyn has relocated to Dyfed. ‘Gwrgi’ must surely bear the true name of ‘Gwri’ (his father’s child-name), though the best I can do for a pun-original for ‘Gwastra’ is the modern Welsh ‘gwastad’ which can mean ‘constant’ or ‘steadfast’ as well as ‘level’ etc; I give him that character. Because the standard text does not mention the pigs’ release, which for me is vital, I have perhaps fudged some locations a little closer together than they actually are on the ground. (You can find actual maps for sites mentioned here: The end of my story has no literary source, but it was as insistent as the rest. It still leaves enough timeframe for the doings of Aranrhod / Lleu / Blodeu(w)edd, and indeed it explains why the standard fourth branch text tells of Lleu becoming lord of Gwynedd, but not Gwydion. You may spot the rest of my not-very-subtle allusions for yourselves.

I do have a worry about all this… If my hypothesis is correct – that the entire fourth branch of the Mabinogi (at the minimum) is actually an insult and a blasphemy – then it must be plausible that Gwydion is being traduced no less than Pryderi and his family are being insulted. The most obvious deity corresponding to Gwydion (via no more than the standard Welsh mutation) is the Germanic Woden (like Moccus, equated to Mercury by Romans). Tales of Woden / Odin certainly do have Him as a master of deceit and as a warmonger – rape only occurs once in a strange prophecy-fulfilling tale. But still, I feel Odin’s true nature to be something well beyond human nastiness. I can but await Gwydion telling his side of the tale!


My own telling of the tale of The Pigs of Pryderi is here:



Dancing the May

Around this time of year, coming up to Beltane, you’ll see articles about the Maypole and dancing thereat. Usually there will be some mention, unsupported by any evidence, of Maypole Dancing as an ‘ancient fertility rite’. Victorian folklorists loved this particular fancy. In reality, what we generally think of as ‘Maypole Dancing’ is more of a ‘chastity rite’. This dance style was created by Victorian Sunday-school teachers. The dances are usually performed by pre-pubescent children, all dressed in ‘pure’ white, and they never touch one another!

Victorian Maypoling children, plus Teacher, with an absolutely perfect plait, resting before the unwind

Spring is certainly doing its thing at this time of year, and humankind cannot help but respond. April can be the cruelest month for the unattached. The chance of a festival and a celebration after winter’s cold has passed and travel has become easier puts a sparkle in the eye even of the aged. ‘Fertility’ is of course the Victorian Christian folklorists’ euphemism for sexuality. But as Pagans rediscovering our spiritual connection, we are ill-advised to let the Vcfs define it for us. An interesting recent article by Sorita d’Este – links the Goddess Hekate to the Maypole, concluding:

So perhaps, it is time to put aside the assertion that poles are always phallic symbols, representing the male genitalia and the Masculine Divine. It might seem obvious to us today, but the pole is also a symbol of the Divine Feminine, around which devotion to her centred – and perhaps, still does.

For me, the Maypole is not at all a phallus of the Vcf fantasy, but simply the World Tree. It’s not a ‘symbol’ (or any other weasel word of denying). Every Maypole is the World Tree. The ribbons are the threads of Wyrd that we weave in our lives. In our dance, we have the special opportunity to unweave them free of all tangles and do it all again.  Real life tends to get things into knots that only the Shears of Atropos can resolve.

An older style of Maypole dance, no ribbons. Illustration dated 1825, but plausibly as much from imagination as memory.

I fell in love with Maypoling back in 1995, at a Circle Dance teachers gathering, when one of us brought a homemade minipole and taught an authentic Greek Maypole dance – some claim the tradition originated in southern Europe. It intrigued me that despite being very skilled dancers, in fact quite a few really struggled to do Maypoling at all. I was inspired to make my own Maypole, which I hawk around anyone who will have me at this season. Folk generally do enjoy Maypoling even when making the most appalling mess of the ribbons, just like life itself perhaps. Nonetheless, seems to me that if it’s fun to do it wrong, it has to be lots more fun to do it right, to dance perfectly in the groove. Done right, one can keep plaiting and un-plaiting again and again, until the musicians play their time-to-go-to-bed tune.

Gaitanaki is the Maypole tradition in Greece. There is a suggestion of a specific 12-ribbon plait being used.

I’m hoping that potential Maypolers will be interested in my efforts to ‘get it right’, especially anyone mug enough to try to teach Maypoling to a group. If you would like any more explanation of rhythms or step sequences just put a response on the blog page.

It’s not so difficult to create a portable Maypole. ( Skip this next bit if you wish!  Pass on to carpentry-competent friend.)  The pole itself is a piece of dowel, thickest you can get, eg from B&Q – will be maybe 2.4 metres, 3 metres if you’re lucky – celings are more than this in most dance rooms, but not always so at home.  Needs to fit into your vehicle…  I prettied the pole with two rolls of sticky insulation tape, red and yellow, spiraled all the way down. The top part was a piece of 150cm wide timber, cut square then the corners chopped off to make an octagon. Two holes drilled each side to hold 16 ribbons in all. If you can go for something large, 24 is perhaps the maximum. (Larger numbers than that can dance two persons to a ribbon.) You need a minimum of 8 people to do any of the dances. The top is held on to the pole with a detachable screw, with washers so it rotates freely. Then you need a socket. First I drilled a hole to match the pole in a solid block of timber (eg 10cm * 10 cm). Then screwed that with no. 10 screws to a much larger square board (again trimmed to make a pretty octagon. This is ok for most folk. With really incompetent dancers a breeze block, or a patient child, on the board helps it not to move. A bright cloth, hole cut in the centre to fit the pole, serves to hide these practicalities.

Maypole in action, summer 1995, complete with offspring to hold it steady!

You need much longer ribbons than you might imagine, because of course some of their length is taken up in the plaiting. For a 2.4m pole, you need at least 4m each ribbon, 5m better. Proportionately longer for a 3m pole.  This is the most expensive bit of the creation. I chose ribbons in just two colours, red and yellow, so as to assist, I hoped, in the dancers’ role understanding.

Unfortunately, you can’t practice on your own in the kitchen… you just have to have an adequate number of enthusiastically consenting friends. There are basically two types of Maypole ‘plaiting’ dances, though of course you could also dance freely, around, in and out without ribbon tangling. The ‘inside trace’ or ‘closed trace’ dances plait the ribbons down the pole. The ‘outside’ or ‘open plait’ dances create various spiderwebby patterns until you run out of ribbon.

When you see kiddies dancing, you have to realise they will have been drilled mercilessly by Teacher for a couple of months previously. I’ve always danced with motley crowds of adults, many of them ribbon virgins, generally with ideas or preconceptions of their own. That makes things a bit more unpredictable. People always do seem to enjoy it, even when, not infrequently, they make a dog’s breakfast of the actual plaiting. There are three basic Rules in Maypole Dancing: (i) Don’t let Go (ii) No Stopping (iii) No Overtaking.  Most folk do what you tell them, best as they can, but there seem to be several types who complicate things. The Ditherers violate the No Stopping rule, causing a traffic jam much like a random stopped vehicle on the M6. The Maenads violate the No Overtaking rule, merrily skipping through others like a motorbike in a traffic jam, turning the ribbons into an ‘impenetrable string tangle’. It’s  a very tedious and slow business to unwind a plaited set of ribbons by oneself. The trick is simply to reverse the dance, unwinding back to start – but this has to cope with previous ‘mistakes’ and there’s usually at least one person, the Rebel, who thinks they should take charge, violating the Don’t let Go rule at this point, attempting to untwine ribbons by hand instead of dancing! Then of course there’s the Loving Parent, who fondly imagines they can Maypole effectively whilst holding hands with a toddler.

Book illustration dated 1890 – the children (eleven in number) are simply dancing around the Pole, widdershins, and not making a plait

A Maypole Revelation came to me one day, on the Parrog at Newport as it happens, as to why it is that otherwise perfectly competent adults, and even expert dancers, have such difficulty with the whole thing. What happened was that random dragged-in folk (including men!) made a perfect job of a supposedly ‘advanced’ dance, but a mess of the supposedly ‘basic’. How could this be? Terpsichore kindly explained the paradox to me, and so I’ll share it with you.

The ‘advanced’ dance was the ‘Test Valley Tangle’ – a variety of open plait. Goes like this:

  • Dancers start in pairs standing back to back – one colour facing deosil (clockwise), other colour widdershins (anticlockwise). All take four steps LRLR so as to meet the person they are facing from next ‘spoke’ of the ribbons.
  • Dancers make a ‘pas de bas’, ie quick diddly-dum 123 to their own left and right
  • Dancers take 8 steps to circle each other clockwise – starting L – the first 6 steps actually are enough to being them once again face-to-face and the last two then take them further around into back-to-back arrangement, after which all happens again.
  • Unplaiting works much the same, except to start with R variously, and to circle each other anticlockwise.

I’ve been using the tune ‘Bondepigen’ for this – more traditionally a pleasant dance for threesomes. The Maypole sequence above takes 8 bars in 2/4 time. The version I have is just about the right duration to use up my ribbon length. Sample below is by ‘Sants and Fot’, their album ‘Quins Anys’ – purchasable I think from :

Now according to Terpsichore, there are two things that make this dance ‘work’ even with the uninitiated:

  • The steps are ‘structured’, everyone doing more or less the same thing, more or less in time with the music, as indeed happens in Circle Dance generally.
  • The dance proceeds as a series of ‘encounters’ (eye-contact essential but flirtation optional). Each encounter resets to an easily comprehensible standard configuration and thereby re-synchronises those who struggle to match their own steps to rhythm.

One attempted explanation of the standard closed plait technique. Not so easy to get this idea over in less than a minute, just with words and handwaving.

When one compares this with the ‘basic’ dance, used for a single closed trace, both features are missing. Dancers are advised to do a sort of ‘grand chain’, passing others alternately by right and left, as per pattern shown her for eight dancers.  But whereas a ‘grand chain’ in ‘country dance’ involves an ‘encounter’, taking hands alternately R and L with each new partner, when Maypoling, hands are occupied with the ribbons, and in fact dancers are avoiding any contact with each other. Furthermore, whereas the contact in a grand chain serves to swing both in a direction for the next encounter, when Maypoling each dancer has to make a freestyle turn in order to re-position. For the Ditherers, the free rotation is deeply disorienting – they stop, not knowing where to go next. A traffic jam occurs, and the buildup can bend or tip the pole, whilst the Maenads just frolic on past regardless !

As to specific (structured) dance steps, it is rare that these are advised at all. Generally, those playing ‘Music for Maypole Dance’ play jigs (6/8 time) at a vigorous tempo, and dancers are told to ‘skip’. Technically, a ‘skip’ takes one bar of 6/8, steps timed medium / quick / slow, utilising 2 / 1 / 3 of the quaver notes. On average, even well-trained kiddies, especially nowadays, will be puffed after about 90 seconds of this exercise, which perhaps matches the parental attention-span. So that’s about as long as they dance for, then unwind similarly after a breather.

The concept is hopeless for adults. Firstly, as a rule they can’t skip at all, especially at the expected tempo. After a couple of attempts at such they degenerate into a Maypole Walk. The 6/8 rhythm is also often used as ‘marching time’, but of course, the idea of a Maypole March feels inappropriate (especially for Maenads) and so almost immediately the dancers will be wholly out-of-step with one another. Any hope of synchronisation flies away – the Ditherers do so all the more, and the Maenads dance to their inner music instead. Traffic jams ensue, with all dancers on one side of the Pole, which can bend alarmingly. As yet I haven’t suffered the dreadful omen of a Broken Pole! Additionally, it seems to me that for adults, as with that most popular of activities, most prefer to not to charge maximum speed at things, but to go more steadily, with the experience lasting rather longer than 90 seconds.

The challenge then, was to find a way of dancing and teaching the dances, especially the ‘basic’ single trace, so as to establish ‘structure’ and ‘encounter’, synchronising the dancers, and actually having them dance to the music, not just amble (or plod) to accompaniment.

Gipsies’ Tent, Spider Web and Test Valley Tangle are open plaits, producing a ribbon pattern similar to this one.

For open-trace dances, it’s fairly easy to introduce a structured step sequence. For example, in “Spider’s Web”, half the dancers are static. Once can use a ‘Setnja’ sequence for this – (S,S,Q,Q,S, each sequences alternates starting foot) first sequence to travel to next dancer, one sequence on the spot , one to move to back of static person and one to move back to outer dance track. For adults, you need to swap roles every couple of encounters to avoid boredom.

I’ve tried a few possibilities – unfortunately there’s no single, simple answer. In reality, one does not always have a full complement of dancers – one can easily have as few as 8. Sometimes one is called to dance at larger-scale poles with 24 or even more ribbons. What this means in practice is that both the linear distance and the angle between pairs of dancers is not at all consistent. If folk have erected a pole of traditional dimensions, 6 metres or more high, the inter-encounter distance takes a lot more steps to cover. The dancers too have their own character, so each Circle of dancers is a new experience, not necessarily matching what others have done!

The most fundamental thing has to be to slow things down, or rather, to take more steps between ribbons than the standard expectation. It isn’t always easy to win the Maenads over to this idea, and they can get a bit grumpy. If you have real live musicians, typically they are not themselves dancers, and they often prefer to play like the clappers. They need restraint, confiscate their bottles. They have to play each tune rather longer than they thought (buy them a drink afterwards). With recorded music, the usual cd of ‘Maypole tunes’ is a disaster. It’s easy to think one should ‘keep it simple’, but actually this is a trap that promotes the Plod. For example, if you fancied dancing to the wonderful ‘Staines Morris’ song, you might think it would be ok to step 1-2-3 hop to each bar/measure of the music, and that this would be enough to pass each ribbon. But no, people actually take smaller steps than usual in the Maypoling context, fail to reach next person in these steps, fail to hop, and generally degenerate into asynchronous amble. It actually needs a combination of long and short (timed) steps, including deliberate ‘stops’ and explicit changes of direction. The sequence described above for the Test Valley Tangle has all these, but far from requiring ‘advanced’ dancers, is fully within the capability of all but the hopelessly dischorate. But do be aware though, children don’t usually cope with any sort of ‘structured dance’ before the age of eight at least, maybe to do with the development of more abstract numeracy.  (Little ones are best managed just to skip around, all in the same direction, as per illustration above)

Sample of ‘Staines Morris’ from ‘Morris On’, sung by Shirley Collins. .   You can use the ‘schottische’ steps with this music.

it isn’t always easy to find suitable recorded music. A track needs to be a minimum of three minutes, preferably somewhat longer.  And the same again to unwind of course (this can take a little longer than the initial plait.) Music that wasn’t explicitly created for dancers often has a ‘middle 8’ that doesn’t have the same phrasing as the rest – beware! Dancers will need to know this advance, so they can have a breather, maybe dancing a couple of extra sideways sways at the encounter. I love dancing to the Swalcliffe May Carol, as performed by Magpie Lane – but it’s easy to be thrown off by the ‘break’ halfway through.

If your music is in 4/4 time, then there are a couple of simple options. Firstly you could try the ‘Setnja’ sequence – slow, slow, quick, quick slow. many tunes can readily fit to this.  (A Setnja sample and source is on my ‘Daffodil Dragon Day’ post.) Use two sequences for each ribbon. The first should be sufficient to bring the dancers into proximity of new encounter – the second sequence can be danced on the spot if necessary, making eye contact (with flirtation potential), and to achieve the necessary change of direction before moving off to next. An alternative, possibly better (less prone to degeneration into plod) is the Schottische sequence, which also fits many tunes typed as ‘reels’. For this, do a quick-quick-slow (a sort of shuffle, small steps) first to left, then to right, followed by four slow steps. In a tight configuration, one sequence may be enough for each encounter, with the slow steps used for synchronisation and rotation. In a larger or looser setup, use two sequences per ribbon.

You can Maypole to almost any traditional music. In waltz time, you should think in terms of 4 bars per encounter – dance two bars traveling as quick waltz steps (123, 123) then two bars simply on the spot, perhaps just a sway each side. The Greek Maypole dance that I learnt so long ago uses a Syrtos rhythm (slow-quick quick, repeatedIy). I found the original just too fast a tempo, and  slowed it physically by 10% (this is easy with the free software Audacity). Even so, this can be a bit brisk for freestyle, compared with dancing in a hand-holding open circle. You can introduce a pause by doing two SQQ sequences to travel (usually R-LR, L-RL) , but for the encounter, simply step (R) to side, then touch ground with L foot, and likewise step L, touch R. If you are compelled to use a jig, then you can slow things down with a ‘slow skip’ – slow, slow, skip-y-step when travelling, or for encounter / on-the-spot, touch heel and toe for the slow bar. This then takes 4 bars per ribbon

Sample of ‘Samokovsko Oro’ – rhythm has a half-beat pause on each fourth beat. This version slowed down a bit from the original by Rasalila on the ‘Free Range’ album. (Available from me.)

I’ve also tried to rethink the topology a bit. A grand chain isn’t actually necessary for a single closed trace. An alternative, topologically equivalent, is to dance in two parallel tracks, like a kiddies’ circular railway. One step sequence moves on the track to next encounter, the second sequence crosses tracks passing back-to-back. For this, I had a go with music unexpected by the dancers – a 9/8 rhythm as in the Balkan Samokovsko Oro, etc. This rhythm is already QQQS, a half-beat pause at the end of each bar. I also had the theory that people would get the alternating pass-left-shoulder, pass-right-shoulder thing more easily if the steps leading to each encounter were to start on alternating feet. So the full Samokovsko-rhythm sequence, starting with the ‘outside’ foot (furthest from other track) was (around) 1-2-3 stamp/pause (no weight), then to cross tracks, side-close-side-close/pause. The jury is out on this one…

Maenads, exhausted perhaps after a night of ecstatic Maypoling. “The Women of Amphissa” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1887, now at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

It would be great to experiment with some non-binary dance patterns – breaking away from the tendency to impose hetero-normativity. (People will always manage to flirt according to their personal preferences anyway.) There’s no reason why Maypole ribbon patterns can’t be danced in threes, fives or sevens. It’s not easy to visualise the full consequences of such dances in one’s head – an enthusiastic (and patient) group of volunteers is needed!

May Terpsichore Bless You, May Your Maypoling Delight Her This May!

Daffodil Dragon Day

Here in Wales we celebrate March 1st as Dydd Gwyl Dewi. That translates as “Dewi’s Festival Day”. Note that the Welsh phrase doesn’t mention any ‘saint’ despite that being usual in English. So I can readily argue that despite our long oppression by the dank chapels, the true meaning of the day has never been lost.

Daffies at Pandora aren’t enjoying the current cold spell.

We fly our flag too of course, the flag we call Y Ddraig (The Dragon) after what it depicts. It’s one of the few in the world that shows a Pagan spiritual symbol. Which is perhaps why it isn’t included in the composite ‘Union flag’ of the UK, comprised of the symbols of three other purported saints. . There is a recently-invented cross-style flag for ‘Saint David’, but I suspect the UK government is still ignorant of it. Y Ddraig for me anyway.

I doubt that many people really believe a word of the ‘Saint David’ hagiography, but it isn’t generally acknowledged that the whole thing was invented in the 11th century, basically as propaganda in a dispute as to which Welsh bishopric would have precedence. As usual with these fables, the scribe just nicked a few cherries from Pagan tradition, recombining the places and the images into their own fantasy. One of the more amusing ‘borrowings’ from the real Dewi is the ancient title ‘Dewi Dyfyrwr’ – Waterman. The hagiography pretends that this is because their saint didn’t drink beer!

In the collection ‘Jizzle’by John Wyndham, published 1954 (ISBN 0-234-77645-5) the story ‘Chinese Puzzle’ tells of the egg of a Chinese dragon hatching in Wales, much to the astonishment of the local populace.

Mostly, we simply speak of Y Ddraig, but actually, His name is Dewi. This isn’t just a fancy – though it’s pleasant enough, as in the imitation dragons (Dewi and Dwynwen, complete with babies Cariad and Dylan) that have been constructed at Ccaerffili Castle.  Dewi is the male, the red chunky one. There is a tradition, not necessarily invented by the author John Wyndham, that female dragons are blue and slinkier.

In the case of Dewi, we can see that knowledge is liberation. If one has only ever heard of ‘Saint David’ then all historical mention of ‘Dewi’ would have to be of the ‘saint’,  but once one knows of the real Dewi, we realise that when people write of “Dewi”, it’s really Him! For example, the earliest known reference to Dewi is in the very anti-English 10th ce poem ‘Armes Prydain Fawr’ (‘Prophecy’ or ‘Calamity’ of Great Britain). The quote is “A Lluman glân Dewi – a ddyrchafant”; that is: “And they will raise the pure banner of Dewi”. Medieval Welsh poets often compared their leaders to dragons in poems praising their bravery, for example, Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch said of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd Pen dragon, pen draig oedd arnaw (‘A dragon’s head he had’).

By now, Dewi has become the best known Spirit of our Land. More properly, he is a God of the Rivers. Many of the rivers of our land bear his name in some form or other: these include the Taf, Taff, Teifi, Towy, Tawe, Tywi and Dyfi. It does rain a lot here, so the rivers flow strongly! It would be nice to think that the Daffodil, the national symbol of modern times, derived its name from him also, but sadly not it seems – apparently it’s a medieval mixup from the quite different flower named asphodel, which in ancient Greece was said to grow in the meadows of the otherworld. In Welsh, the names of the leek (the original national emblem) and daffodil are close – leek is Cenhinen, daffodil is Cenhinen Pedr.

River God by Jean-Jacques Caffieri, 1755.

Dewi’s banner definitely has a history. Apparently, it has been traced back to various auxiliary cavalry units in the second century ce Roman army. Some of these came from Sarmatia – an area at the edge of the Empire broadly corresponding to modern Ukraine. After defeating a people, the Roman army typically took in new soldiers from its former opposition, in effect as hostages against genocide. These were then sent as far as possible from home to subdue yet more barbarians. Divide and conquer. The Sarmatians flew their banners in the manner of a wind sock. The Greek military writer Arrian describes the draco – “during a cavalry charge they are inflated by the wind and even make a sort of hissing sound as the air is forced through them”. The Sarmatians brought their dragon banners to Britain, where they seem to have found near relationship with the tribes they met, including, we may guess, a close language similarity within the Celtic diaspora. (We tend to forget that Celtic culture actually began in central Europe, after a rather earlier Indo-European movement from the Ukraine area, then spreading in all directions, in our case until the Atlantic Ocean.) The Sarmatians were indeed Cymry – fellow countrymen, and their descendants apparently fought with Arthur against the Saxons.

It is claimed that the mother of ‘Saint David’ was another saint, “Non”, raped by a local prince. This silliness cunningly hides a further thread of the real story. Non is really the local Spirit of the sacred wells and springs, which surely are the Mothers of the Rivers. The purported birthplace of David is Non’s Well near the city of Tyddewi (again, no ‘saint’ in the Welsh name) and there are at least three other places in Wales named after Her – Llan-Non = ‘sacred enclosure of Non’s spring’, one is on the next hill east from here. She is honoured in Cornwall too, with a church of ‘St Nonna’ nearby a sacred well in the modern village of Altarnun. There isn’t much in the way of traceability for Non. We may guess that Her name, rather than being derived from the English word ‘nun’ (in Welsh, ‘lleian’) is actually related to that of the Well Goddess of England, herself remembered in the many sacred wells dedicated to ‘Saint’ Anne (or sometimes Antony, as at Llansteffan). Christian fables tell of Anne as being ‘of the house of David’ and as the mother of Mary (who is also the sea…) so all that would make sense of a sort.

Monica Sjoo, author of ‘The Great Cosmic Mother’, who lived in Sir Penfro for a number of years, wrote that “St. Non’s Well has trance-inducing powers, and its still waters can act as a scrying mirror. Many a time I have sat there by the well dreaming and meditating”. Monica further linked the Well to a physical power that would be helpful in childbirth. Her s account is at

So how can we celebrate Dewi, Y Ddraig, in our modern Paganism (other than cheering the Wales Rugby team in the Six Nations tournament that’s underway each year at this time )?

Two thoughts: firstly, something practical and political – visit your local well or spring, or if you can locate it, the source for your domestic own water supply. Say your prayers and sing your songs, but make sure you take a carrier bag or two and first clean up any litter. Whether individually or in a group, you could well link this to an action against fracking, since that madness is likely to cause irremediable poisoning of the Waters in the Earth. (Join Druids Against Fracking:

Painting by James Albon found at

Secondly, something more ritual / personal / family-related: when my children were young, I was first introduced to the idea of the Earth Dragon by poet Hilary Llewelyn Williams, who celebrated likewise with her young children. We made a stuffed cloth ‘dragon’ who, with a mortal accomplice, had to ‘hide’ out in the garden. She is Asleep, and has to be woken. Finding Her takes some time, but whilst searching one can find lots of small chocolate spheroids as evidence of where She’s been (children enjoy this bit of course). When She is eventually found, She takes a lot of waking (getting on a bit after all) so this takes a lot of noise. She often complains that it’s can’t quite be time to wake as people aren’t singing loudly enough. (Bang the drums some more!)

Or perhaps, combine these! Wake up the Dragon at your local watersource with drums, song, bagpipes and laughter! (You’re welcome to use my song below)

A couple of years back I was inspired to create a song to the Earth Dragon, awakening at this time. I set it to the tune of the Serbian dance Setnja, so that dance for me is now firmly associated with both Dydd Dewi and Spring Equinox. My words bear no relation to the Serbian song lyric that is sometimes used. It’s a pretty easy dance, basically a fancy walk, that any group could do if they liked the idea.

It’s danced in an ‘open circle’ (curving line) anticlockwise – left hand rests on hip, right arm through left of person in front (like teapots!)

  • Step R first, around notional circle – slow, slow, quick quick slow (R L RLR)
  • Then swivel slightly on the spot to face more centrally: take two slow steps L R back (so outwards) then three ‘change your mind’ steps – back,  close, forward (LRL)
  • And repeat – traditional music tends to start slowly and speed up. You can see a small group dancing it here:

Two great versions of the music, instrumental only, can be found and purchased at minimal cost from ‘Freedonia State Orchestra’

Here’s my song and the basic melody line.:

Dragon Wake, Rouse Your Powers,
All Earth Greets You with Brightest Flowers

Dragon Rise, Dance and Sing
All Earth Calls You Spring-time Bring.

Dragon Wise, Oldest One,
All Earth Welcomes the Spring-time Sun

Dragon Fire, Lift in Flight
All Earth Leaps in Springs Delight

Earth Dragon rising from the Ivy!


Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus!

Imbolc and the Waters of Welcome

Here in Wales there’s a phenomenon known as ‘Welcome to Wales’, ‘Croeso I Gymru’. This occurs especially when one crosses the Pont Hafren (Severn bridge) in a westerly direction. Whatever the weather elsewhere, at this liminal point in time and space the rain always splats across the windscreen. Seems to work also at Cardiff airport – returning at midnight after a brief quest for winter sunshine the icy rain didn’t so much precipitate as move horizontally through the air. At least it woke me up enough to do the drive home.

Vines in Lanzarote, and more volcanoes than you can count

We joke about it, but after this trip I’ve decided I rather like our welcome home. I had been in the island of Lanzarote. The place is basically one giant volcano rising from one of the split lines in the spreading tectonic plates of the Atlantic Ocean. In some areas the rocks are still hot enough to cook one’s dinner. In wintertime Lanzarote is very arid. A good chunk of the island is a plain of black lava dating back to the last eruption of the 1730’s, so dry that in all those years just a few lichens have as yet made it their home. Away from the lava field every stream bed is dryer than bone, and you’re likely to be scoured by windblown dust and sand. There isn’t a single tree apart from the tourist resorts and close by to dwellings. Much of the land is brown, with a few scrabby dried-up bits of vegetation waiting for their chance to bloom again when rain does come. (To be fair, the northern part is a little bit greener!)

I was very impressed by the work of the folk cultivating the better bits of land. Immaculate little rectangles of finely-raked black ground-lava soil have little hollows for every plant to catch the occasional drop of rain. Lots of onions were coming up nicely. Whole hillsides are covered with vineyards, where each vine, with woody growth trimmed back almost to ground level, has its own hollow perhaps a metre in depth, with a little drystone wall of lava lumps to add to wind protection. There’s a great deal of the world desperate for water. But here in Cymru, though we do sometimes grumble as to the sogginess, the gift of water means that the land is green, and when the sun does shine, the trees provide a gentle shade.

The snowdrops in full bloom give the promise of Spring.

Water is very much a theme for the imminent festival of Imbolc. In folklore Imbolc is sometimes called a ‘breaking of the ice’, but I suspect that idea is both from a more northern location (like Scotland) and from a time when winters were colder (such as the ‘little ice age’ which lasted until the mid 1800’s). Nowadays it seems that floods are rather more likely. In the 30+ years that I’ve lived on this mountain, there has been a noticeable shift in climate. Used to be one didn’t think about gardening much before Spring Equinox, but Imbolc is now the time to begin planting if one is to make the most of the season. A greenhouse is essential of course for starting the plants in comfort.

In a song by Pagan band Aeolian Songspell, Imbolc is “The Season of Rebirth, Feel the Infant Stirring in the Waters of the Earth.” A lovely gentle song for the festival, also invoking ‘Galantha, the Snowdrop Queen’  – you can listen to it here:

Time for Badger’s annual Bath – though might want to keep his little mossy ecosystem

Years ago I was introduced to the idea of Imbolc as a time for ‘Washing the Face of the Earth’. This is very much in accordance with ancient Roman practice. For them, February was the last month of the year (which started March 1st) – a time for purification, getting rid of the year’s detritus. In ancient Athens, their ‘spring-cleaning’ festivals of Kallynteria and Plynteria were held a bit later in the year. In Anglo-Saxon times February was ‘Solmonath’ (Mud month!) and also Kale-monath (cabbage – there wasn’t much else left to eat – though in Wales we have leeks also!) Here at Pandora the festival of Imbolc seems the perfect opportunity for a soapy slosh-around of the various statues that live outside in the garden, as well as an extra dusting of the altars.

Brighid, from the frontispiece of ‘Brighde, Goddess of Fire’ by Sinead Sula Grian, 1985.


For many of the Pagan community, whether or not they have other ‘Celtic’ or ‘Gaelic’ interests, the festival of Imbolc is focused on the Goddess Brighid. Her name seems to mean ‘Bright One’ and ‘Fiery Arrow’. Brighid was identified with Sulis Minerva of Bath, which makes her ‘Eye of the Sun’, as is the Egyptian Sekhmet. Brighid is usually thought of as a Triple Goddess, but this has no connection to the notion of maiden-mother-crone – sometimes there are three Brighids, sisters perhaps, but of the same ‘age’. Alternatively, you may easily associate Her with all the four elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire – in short, She’s Goddess of just about everything. If you want to know more about her, and search the internet, you may well feel somewhat daunted – 927,000 results for ‘brighid goddess’! Brighid has become the focus for a true devotion, something felt in a deeply inter-personal way – She doesn’t fit into anyone’s allegorical boxes. In the 1960’s Vatican II ‘modernization’ it was declared that there was insufficient proof of the existence of any ‘Saint Brighid’ and she was thus ‘decanonised’. So She has been returned to us, and Her flame burns again at Kildare.

If you’re interested in knowing more of Brighid in the devotional sense you should look at Clann Bhride (Children of Brighid), a religious order devoted to this goddess – their website is at   They publish a ‘Book of Hours’, on paper and also as free pdf. Some of the same folk have contributed to ‘The Cauldron Cill: Brighid Devotional’, available from This prayer is from the Clann Bhride introduction: ‘Who is Brighid’

Light me as Your lantern.
Play me as Your harp.
Keep me in Your mantle.
Guide me to Your hearth

Taking things beyond just three ‘aspects’ the Brigid-Along developed by Sassafras Grove of AD is a Novena, or potentially nine-day event. Starting at (or search from brighid-along) – the nine rites celebrate Brighid as Midwife, Foster Mother, Initiatrix, Smith, Poet, Warrior, Guardian of Sacred Wells, Keeper of Hearth Fires, and as Healer.

For me, Brighid is Lady of the Mantle. Her mantle covers and protects the land and each person who asks for her protection. The threads of the mantle connect all things in the Web of Life. You may be interested in this 2010 article ‘Brigid of the Mantle: Brigid nam Bratta’ by Linda Iles, at The visionary “Fiona Macleod” has Brigid saying:

“I put songs and music on the wind before ever the bells of the chapels
were rung …

“And I have been a breath in your heart.

“And the day has its feet to it that will see me coming
into the hearts of men and women like a flame upon dry grass,
like a flame of wind in a great wood…”

Our local Circle Dance group will be meeting towards the end of the ‘Imbolc season’. Dances will include the Romanian ‘Cradle Dance’ Joc de Leagane (traditionally in honour of the village midwife), the Bulgarian ‘Razvivaj Dobro’ (traditionally led by a nursing mother) and Zensko Oro (to the tune of ‘Come Bride, Enter In’. Shifting themes, the Corries’ “Peat Fire” seems just right for the Breton An Dro. My personal favourite music for Brighid is the song ‘Brighid Upon the Highland’, for which a circle waltz seems right. The tune is the traditional ‘Brigit O’Malley’, with words by Helen Farias and Craig Olsen. You can read a little more about the song here: and you can hear the song, even download it for free at:

Brigid ~ Inspiration, from the Goddess Oracle Card deck, by Amy Sophia Marashinsky,


To close, the simplest of all prayers for Her is in Gaelic, translating as “Walk with us, Brighid”, pronounced “Shoe lean ah Breejah”:

Siul Linn, a Bhrid



It’s a hard world for us Pagans to relate to. The most popular usage for the word ‘myth’ is ‘a widely held but false belief or idea ‘. We generally speak of the religious beliefs of ancient Pagans as being ‘myths’, but what does this really mean for us? How do we actually relate to myths, from our own culture or others?

There seems to have been a shift in language usage such that the word ‘mythology’, which ought to mean ‘study of myth’ or more literally, ‘talking about myth’ has become equivalent to ‘myth’ itself. Google certainly indicates this. A search for ‘myth image’ produces masses like these arrows, not a deity in sight. Whereas, a search for ‘mythology image’ gets you Zeus and other Olympians, Thor and his hammer, and lots more. As for ‘mythos’, that seems to be a brand of beer! Whether a source uses ‘myth’ or ‘mythology’ is itself an interesting point. I do find that the better writers tend to use the former term, whilst the potboilers and plagiarists use the latter. If one looks in a bookshop or library for ‘mythology’, it’s almost all to be found in the “children’s section”. Victorian academics had the notion that the people in traditional cultures have ‘primitive’ and ‘undeveloped’ minds, supposedly analogous to those of children. Hence myth was and is thought only suitable for children (once stripped of all sex and much of the violence), irrelevant to adults.

There is for me something a little strange about this ‘mythology’ word – although similar dual usage has happened also with some other ‘ologies’. To me ‘mythology’ also suggests a ‘subtext’ – specifically that what is being studied is only the ‘myths’ and not that to which they refer (the deities). In other words, it is fundamental to most presentations of ‘mythology’ that the deities do not actually exist – and so they cannot in themselves be a valid target of study. Only what people have said (and especially written) about them can then be of concern. Hence the title of this piece – it is ‘talking about’ those who ‘talk about myth’

Really though, that’s not my interest – since for us as Pagans, it seems to me that the point of mythology must be to know better the nature of God/dess/e/s themselves. Arguably better for us to drop the term ‘mythology’ and instead use ‘theology’ (study of the ‘theioi’ ) or the feminist term ‘thealogy’.

We don’t know how our ancestors actually thought! But certainly, every single ‘discovery’ tells us that they were far more ‘advanced’ in both cultural and intellectual senses than the ‘caveman’ stereotype. Source:

It’s certainly not an easy task to relate to Myth at all. For us as NeoPagans, embedded in the ‘western’ commodity-culture, our mythic heritage has been perverted and largely destroyed. We can speculate as to how patriarchal cults have rewritten older myths, typically rendering the results incomprehensible, but though we might try a ‘re-inversion’ it’s not easy to recapture the ‘originals’. Many scholars tell us that no such originals ever existed. They tend to prefer texts to oral tradition, even though writing is a fairly recent event in human experience.

Clearly we ‘moderns’ have a real problem between Myth and Science. Rationalists tell us that myth is just ‘bad science’, and so superseded. We can disagree, and say that myth is the expression of spiritual vision. But how many of us could seriously speak of our galaxy, the word itself derived from Greek for ‘milk’, still known as the Milky Way, as drops from the breasts of the Great Mother?

In ancient Greece, the term used for stories about the ‘Gods’ was “mythos”, which means little more than just ‘story’. This word was often used in association partly with ‘logos’, which has connotations of order and knowledge – logos being the logic behind an argument. Intriguingly, the writer Hesiod (not usually my favourite) makes a deeply-felt contrast between the two. For him, mythos was truth and logos was lies,’seductive falsehoods’. One might speculate that this rather grumpy character had had a bad experience with lawyers… I find his opposition amusing anyway, especially when I bear in mind the the Christian ‘message’ is – in the ‘Gospel of John’ anyway – specifically referred to as ‘Logos’ (usually translated as ‘the Word’ in English). I think Hesiod would be even more unhappy with the ‘logos’ of public discourse nowadays – faced with the barrage of advertising, political propaganda and fake news in general, he would rather talk to his sheep!

If you search for ‘definitions’ of ‘myth’ alongside ‘legend’ and related words, you will find a clearly-graded ranking. Myth is reserved for deities, especially stories of ‘creation’ (effectively, ‘bad science’) whilst ‘legend’ is considered to relate events concerning humans (effectively, ‘bad history’). The bottom ranks of the hierarchy are fable, folk tale and ‘fairy tale’ – all suitable only for the ‘common people’ and to fill the heads of children. But this is a construction of our culture’s intellectuals – people in traditional Pagan cultures, past and present, do not endorse any such separation.

Over the past decade or so I’ve visited family in Aotearoa / New Zealand several times. There’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy a ‘Maori Cultural Heritage Experience’ but very little chance for Pakeha tourists to talk with any Maori about real spirituality. Whilst their faith has certainly ‘survived’, it does seem that to an extent there is an active process of rediscovery underway. A pride in traditional culture and festivals links closely to spirituality. For example, the Maori festival of Matariki marks the heliacal rising of the Pleiades, a little before the winter solstice. Increasingly this is celebrated as a public holiday, but the connections to spirituality are taken seriously (unlike Xmas).

Matariki, by Robyn Kahukiwa. (cover image from ‘Matariki’ by Libby Hakaraia) – The inscription translates loosely as ‘Matariki is the Star of Guidance’.

In Maori, ‘Mata-ariki’ means “the eyes of god”. According to myth, when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, were separated by their children, the god of the winds, Tāwhirimātea, became so angry that he tore out his eyes and threw them into the heavens. Others say Matariki is the mother surrounded by her six daughters, Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipuna-ā-rangi and Ururangi. Another account explains that Matariki and her daughters appear to assist the sun, Te Rā, whose winter journey from the north has left him weakened.

You may have read , in works by writers such as Eliade, how in traditional spirituality, myth is of fundamental importance. Every single act, the outwardly ordinary as well as those of magic and ritual, takes on a sacred character precisely as it re-enacts the primal events of the myth. Furthermore, each such re-enactment is understood as a re-creation of whatever the primal events brought into being. Now, it’s one thing for an academic to say this sort of thing, far removed from its actual substance – it’s quite another when a modern writer speaks of their own tradition in very similar language.

I was fortunate to purchase a copy of ‘Tohunga’ by Samuel Timoti Robinson (it’s often difficult to locate a source for this book). Whereas almost all accounts of indigenous myth have been collected by hostile redactors – missionaries or colonial administrators – this is by a modern practitioner initiated into the Maori shamanic / priestly tradition. The first quarter of Robinson’s book presents Maori myth from ‘before creation’ – the Ages of Void and Night – to the population of the world by our ancestors. Robinson’s account has great depth and complexity – far beyond the ‘just-so-story’ material one usually encounters. One feels then that other oral traditions have no less substance.

The second degree (of seven) in tohunga training is specifically focused on learning systematically the lore of the many deities and prayers. Speaking of ‘karakia’ (prayers of power) Robinson writes (my brackets):

The karakia …called upon the aid of atua (deities) …for hunting…gathering food…calling and quelling the winds and rain, chanting while weaving so as to hold the fibres together…every aspect of Maori daily life.”

The tohunga ascends the macrocosm by karakia and contacts the higher powers by naming the atua…then, when we apply this karakia to the physical level, such as when calling Rangi to bless a child, these heavenly powers are brought down to out level in Te Ao Marama.”

The names of the wairua (spirits) become the power bases by which rituals are empowered.

To join the karakia to Hawaiki (the mythical origin place) has the added mana of the source…instead of our individual power the Maori has the power of everyone before him in his whakapapa.

In the NeoPagan movement we don’t really have a lot of myth. The myth of Atlantis has been superseded, I think, by the science of plate tectonics and continental drift. (So Atlantis was ‘bad science’, though to credit Blavatsky et al, it was not until nearly a hundred years later that the modern theory was accepted.) The Wiccan second degree employs a much-questioned ‘Descent of the Goddess’ myth – usually considered to have written by Gardner himself.

The internet abounds with beautiful ‘wheel of the year’ images. This one from

Most popular, surely, is still the Wiccan ‘Wheel of the Year’ myth, in which their Goddess and God are directly embodied in the changing of the seasons. This is mostly derived from the ‘Golden Bough’ by James Frazer and the ‘White Goddess’ by Robert Graves. Various ideas of twin gods in conflict are mixed in, not always very consistently. I suspect though, that whilst most Pagans think it’s important to be in tune with the physical cycle of the year, as well as with its underlying spiritual currents (which of course differ greatly in different climates. and reverse in the southern hemisphere), nonetheless they don’t feel a need to mythify this especially. Nor can it have been so significant to the first generation of Wiccans, some of whom have suggested that ‘doing magic’ was of more importance than celebrating festivals. Starhawk’s ‘The Spiral Dance’ presents the creation myth from the Feri tradition, but as far as I am aware, that title is the only popular Wiccan book with its own ‘mythic’ narrative.

One of the major changes in the Pagan community during my 40+ years has been the shift away from duotheism to polytheism in general, and to specific polytheisms, such as Hellenismos or Kemeticism, as well as various Celtic and Norse reconstructions. Barely a handful of us will have born into polytheism, so these commitments are the result of explicit choice – however much we feel the Gods have directed us. I’m wondering how much this movement derived from a ‘need for myth’, unsatisfied by Wiccan or not-very-theist-Druid Paganism, and to how great an extent myth is the centre of the spiritual practice, rather than a background. (I would love to hear more from practitioners in these faiths.) Certainly I’m aware of a distinct divergence in the Heathen community, between those who treat the Eddas as ‘authoritative sacred texts’, not so unlike the Abrahamics, and those of more flexible views. (You might be interested to know that if you’re a prisoner in the UK, you can get a free copy of the Eddas, just like the Bible and the Koran, but these is the only Pagan text given such status.)

Looking at some of the Pagan faiths that have maintained continuity – the many Hindu traditions, say, or Shinto, it’s not always easy, when we are not fluent in the relevant language, for us to know whether myth is a fundamental part of daily spiritual practice, or more the excuse for a public festival. In Voudoun, the loa are considered immediately present at every event, so perhaps in that religion myth plays a lesser part.

Many of us are deeply unsatisfied by standard versions of myths – taking the view that what has come down to us is not much representative of ancient spirituality, having been heavily ‘patriarchalised’ and otherwise amended by those with political and economic power. You can find many writers describing this – a classic is ‘The Paradise Papers’ by Merlin Stone. But if we are to do more than grumble, and instead regain ‘true myth’ we will have to write it ourselves. If there ever were texts of these ‘tru myths’, all have gone to the fires. So rather than sneering at ‘Unverified Personal Gnosis’ (UPG) we have to ask the deities to tell us their stories directly. Better if we don’t expect all such gnosis to be consistent! We won’t all like everyone else’s visions.

The process is happening. One of my great favourites is Charlene Spretnak’s “Lost Goddesses of Early Greece”. Another good place to rummage is at Bibliotheca Alexandrina where the folks have produced a number of ‘devotional anthologies’, often including retellings as well as modern prayers.

Illustration from ‘Lost Goddesses of Early Greece’

Creation myths have not much featured as yet. It’s notable that the Abrahamic cults make a big deal of these. Victorian-era scholars, whose influence continues, tended to interpret Creation as making a Creator automatically ‘Top God’. Then writers like Eliade describe how these deities seem to move off the scene, using the term ‘deus otiosus’. I am inclined to think that this is a deep misunderstanding of Pagan Creation Myth. I would suggest that our myths are conceptually quite different from the Abrahamic stuff. More precisely, rather than their separation of Creator and Created, in the Pagan myths the Pagan Creator deities are the Creation Process. In Robinson’s book mentioned above, creation is termed ‘Te Wananaga o Te Ao Marama’ – the coming of our world of light. The language is deep and subtle – it’s not like making a cake, or anything else in which creator, source material and created result are identifiably separate.

Cover of ‘Remembering: Myths of Creation’, published by ‘Pipes of PAN’ 1985.

For myself, I felt the ‘craving for true myth’ some years back. Writing for the readers of ‘The Pipes of PAN’ magazine, I initiated a ‘competition’ to encourage ‘new’ myths of creation. The prize was awarded to the poet Hilary Llewellyn-Williams for her story “Spinning Woman”. I didn’t write at that time, but more recently found ‘The Drummer’ was speaking to me. The story She gave combines a Creation myth with a very specific aetiology (origin story).

Just because they are deities, doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humour…

You can find the Drummer’s story here:


Pandora Unboxed

Naming the Goddess

You’ve all heard of Pandora. You’ve all been told the story of the silly girl whose curiosity released all the ills of the world. She has the distinction of being the second-most-blasphemed Goddess in human history – after Eve,  Mother of All Living. Perhaps now that hardly anyone actually believes in ‘Eve’, Pandora is tops!

 I wrote rather more briefly about Pandora in the collection ‘Naming the Goddess’ ed. Trevor Greenfield, Moon Books 2014. Some new insights have arrived since then.

Pandora never had a ‘box’ – the 16th-century writer Erasmus mistranslated the Greek word ‘pithos’ (a large storage jar) as if it had been ‘pyxis’ (box). The story was somewhat confused with that of Psyche (the story within a story in Lucius Apuleius wonderful ‘The Golden Ass’). Just about every artist since then has reproduced the mistake – lovely pictures but not much help when it comes to understanding Her. Except maybe that the word ‘box’ is sometimes used as a euphemism for female organs…This has been a very sticky error – one even finds Goddess-worshiping Pagan writers caught up in it.

This painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is pretty much standard – tells us more about the artist’s relationship to the model (Jane Burden Morris) than about Pandora.

In my local ‘high street’ Pandora has been turned into a shop selling expensive bling – no doubt in costly ‘boxes’. Just as the name of our Goddess Isis has been hijacked of late, so a google for Pandora now prioritises shopping. And just about every hack journalist in search of a cliché will open up “Pandora’s Box” before long. Computer games pervert Her into a ‘goddess of calamity’ and deceit. There are countless novels using Her name – Amazon currently has no less than 6809 results for her – varying from bonkbuster and soft porn to a rather nice children’s book by Victoria Turnbull, in which Pandora is a fox in a dress.

Victoria Turnbull’s book

A more appropriate recent tribute is that Her name is used for the ‘idyllic’ planet portrayed in the 2009 film ‘Avatar’. The beautiful inhabitants live in harmony with nature and worship a mother-goddess named Eywa. I feel very uncertain as to the ‘message’ of this film – can’t help feeling that a subtext is the impossibility of such life for we humans.

The usual tale derives from the 7th-century bce Hesiod whose works could be considered the ‘party line’ of ‘Greek mythology’. I don’t believe that we should think of these stories as ‘myths’ – at least if we equate the word ‘myth with ancient Pagan religion – but rather as ‘just-so stories’, that is, something ‘deliberately made-up’. Hesiod’s material is reproduced without question by most writers today, as if it were definitive. However, anyone attempting a serious study of ancient Greek religion must soon realise that things were vastly more complex. The Hesiod story of Pandora has a substantial presence in our culture, which one could even describe as obsessive, but ancient Greeks seem to have largely ignored it, as did most Roman mythographers. Other writers, Theognis for example (and also Aesop) told a quite different story in which a Jar of Blessings was given by Zeus to humankind (or ‘man’ – sic) but that a man (so not Pandora) opened it, and all but Hope skipped off back to heaven!

The similarity of the stories of Pandora and Eve is deeply suspicious. Both are ‘first women’, both are made of clay (Eve indirectly, after Adam), both are given responsibility for the presence of evil in the world. Early Christian writers saw this clearly and John Milton made the connection in his ‘Paradise Lost’ some 350 years ago, but all these would have thought the Eve story as written millennia before that of Pandora. The early feminist Mary Wolstonecraft recognised clearly how these stories have been used:

We must get entirely clear of all the notions drawn from the wild traditions of original sin, the eating of the apple, the theft of Prometheus, the opening of Pandora’s box, and the other fables, too tedious to enumerate, on which priests have erected their tremendous structures of imposition, to persuade us, that we are naturally inclined to evil.”

Mary Wollstonecraft (1792), A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (quoted from’s+box)

More recently, it has become generally accepted that the Israelite story dates to something nearer to 500 bce, around some two hundred years after that of Hesiod. Palestine at that time was something of a crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa – far more ‘cosmopolitan’ than ‘sunday school history’ would suggest. It is therefore entirely plausible that the Pandora story is directly the precursor for that of Eve – both are still used remorselessly to this very day as misogynistic propaganda.

 Nearly all websites and books will just repeat the same nonsense of Pandora as ‘the first woman’ – apparently, prior to that point, humankind really was just ‘man’. For me, a reference source’s approach to Pandora is a good test of its reliability. Philosophers who accept the Hesiodic story can at best only waffle about the ‘riddle of femininity’ and the meaning of Hope remaining in the Jar. The majority seem to think Hope is delusory, rather than a comfort. A few might suggest that the difficulties of mortal life can be a worthwhile challenge to spiritual growth.

Birth of Pandora, between Athena and Hephaestus, vase painting, illustration from Histoire des grecs, volume 1, Formation du peuple grec, 1887, by Victor Duruy (1811-1894)  She is tagged as ‘Anesidora’ in this image

So how do we recover Pandora? What might her imagery and story be ‘really’? As it turns out, we don’t have words, but we do have pictorial evidence. The birth of Pandora was represented on the pedestal of the statue of Athena situated at the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens – hardly the location for a sadly moralistic fable. Long after Hesiod, vase painters continued to illustrate Her more properly.

The first modern scholar to break open the box seems to have been Jane Ellen Harrison, a Classics scholar at Newnham College, Cambridge in the early years of the 20th century ce. She was a feminist and a pacifist, a fighter for women’s educational rights (herself denied degree and professorship), much abused by male scholars unable to challenge her scholarship. It would be nice to think of her as a proto-Pagan, but though her work is of great value to us, she remained an atheist-humanist, and did not truly celebrate the Goddesses she liberated. She generally sees the myths as ‘explanations’ of ancient rites, the real nature of which – differing from Olympian religion – had been forgotten.

Harrison’s article “Pandora’s Jar”, published in 1900, first lifts the ‘great lid’. She links the Pandora story to the festival of Anthesteria (timed around the January or February full moon. The three days of the feast were called Pithoigia, Choës, and Chytro – all words related to ‘pots’. She shows how the festival, rather than being an excuse to open new wine, was rather, or was formerly, a celebration of the spirits of the dead – sometimes known as Keres.


This vase shows Hermes, in his role as psychopomp, alongside spirits emerging from the pithos, one of which is returning to it. (redrawn by Jane Harrison after original in a dissertation by Paul Schadow, 1897)

Pandora’s jar is specifically called a ‘pithos’ – this is basically the sort of ‘Grecian Urn’ one finds in garden centres nowadays for people to make into water features. A pithos is actually a very large jar, too heavy for anyone to just carry, typically situated on the ground, or partly within. A smaller jar would have been referred to as an ‘amphora’ or perhaps ‘urnula’. To use a pithos as water feature in this way is not inappropriate. The flowing, and ever-cycling waters are a good invocation of Pandora, for She is the One from Whom All Gifts Flow, and to whom all returns.

Harrison writes more of Pandora in her book “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion”. She castigates Hesiod as ‘pessimistic’ and ‘bourgeois’ and as having ‘ugly malice’. The name ‘Pandora’ means “the All-Giving”. It’s neither an ‘Olympian jest’ nor a sarcastic euphemism. Hesiod tries to switch the meaning into passive mode, as ‘all-gifted’. Wordplay of this nature is typical of mythic inversion. Harrison argues convincingly, from the evidence inscribed on the ancient pottery, how ‘Pandora’ is a title of the Earth Mother, in Her ‘Anodos’ – as Koré, the Maiden Uprising. Another name inscribed by Her image is ‘Anesidora’ – ‘sender-forth of gifts’.

Pandora Rising. From an Attic Red Figure krater (wine dish) in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Catalogue No. Oxford V525275165

As well as for storing the physical gifts of the Earth, the pithos was also used for funerary purposes – a practice not so dissimilar to the ‘Canopic Jars’ of Egyptian rite. Pithoi were often partly sunk into the ground. So the pithos is also the grave. The belly of the Jar is the Womb of Pandora. Images on surviving Greek pottery show pithoi as containing the ‘Keres’ – not ‘demons’ but the souls of the dead that are in Pandora’s care. The Keres are depicted as little winged beings – She sets them free.

The hubris exhibited by Hesiod is quite breathtaking. He has transformed the Mother of the Gods into their created plaything, a foolish, disobedient girl. He has turned Her Gifts into things of fear and contempt. He has turned our Mother into a vengeful curse upon humankind – “a woe for men who live on bread.” And clearly Hesiod doesn’t approve of curiosity – of asking questions. All of this is a perfect example of what Robert Graves calls ‘iconotropy’ –the re-interpretation and perversion of ancient religious images in the service of a contrary dogma. Poor Eve has much the same problem with Her Tree, Her Snake and Her Apple of course! We might feel a little sorry for this pathetic woman-hater and his unhappy private life, were it not for the torrent of bile for which he is responsible.

Pandora greeted by friendly satyrs. From an Attic Red Figure Skyphos in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Catalogue No. Boston 01.8032

A tantalising hint from an ancient writer remains. We are told that Sophocles wrote a play entitled ‘Pandora or the Hammerers’. Sadly, the text has been completely lost; all we have is this title. Sophocles’ creation was apparently a ‘satyr play’ – we might think of this as equivalent to a farce, so some incongruity is plausible. The few writers who mention the play seem to think that the hammers might be used in breaking the earth, to free Pandora. Clearly they have never actually used a sledgehammer (which is what is depicted on the pottery). Hitting the ground with one of these things either splatters oneself with mud, or serves to compact the soil (not good for fertility). They could be used to break rocks, but that doesn’t make sense either, except for the use of marl to ‘sweeten’ acidic soil. ‘Clods’ are just too soft for hammers, and would need more than bashing to get into fertile receptivity. No one has considered what seems to me to be an obvious answer – the Hammers are used to smash the pithos in a ritual enactment, either setting free the spirits therein, or in the metal-working context discussed next.

The Hammerers are Pandora’s immediate connection to Hephaestus – he is always depicted with hammer in hand. His involvement opens a different or complementary thread of inquiry. According to Hesiod, Hephaestus is Pandora’s creator – other stories tell of his creation of metal-working automatons (we might call them ‘robots’ ). He is also assigned ‘patron god’ status for pottery. Hephaestus is generally considered ‘pre-Greek’ (that is, worshiped by people in the area prior to the arrival of Indo-European Greeks), as also was his parthenogenetic mother, Hera, Queen of Heaven. If we apply a process of ‘mythic re-inversion’ – a questionable methodology maybe, but which at least gives us a different perspective – we could have Pandora ‘correctly’ as Hephaestus’ mother.

Perhaps the strangest of the vase paintings – this design on a black-figured krater in the Paris Bibliotheque National shows two Hammerers striking the head of a colossal woman rising out of the earth. The columns show that the action is located in a temple or sanctuary. (Copied from ‘Prolegomena’)

This makes more mythic sense than you might initially think. Pandora herself is usually considered mother of the first mortal woman, Pyrrha. Together with her husband Deucalion, Pyrrha survives a Greek flood. It has been suggested though that Pyrrha and Deucalion are something of a fire / water allegory rather than ‘real characters’. ‘Pyrrha’ means ‘fire’, as in our various ‘pyro-‘ words. But in some non-Hesiodic stories, Pyrrha is credited instead as Pandora’s mother. Pandora is also closely associated with Fire via the Prometheus story – basically as the ‘pay-back’ and equivalent for Prometheus’ stealing fire from the Olympians Gods. We might easily say that Fire was the First Gift – that which facilitated our own species’ transformation from ‘animal’ to ‘human’. It is surely the case that Fire is the Mother of Pottery. Further though, metal-working was developed thousands of years after pottery, and could not have done so without the high-temperature technology of the kiln. Molten metal requires a container – specifically a robust pot. In some techniques, the container needs to be smashed in order to obtain the metal. We call such metal-holding pots ‘crucibles’ and we continue to use this word as a metaphor for the context of spiritual change. Breaking the mould is usually unavoidable when the intended result is a casting, such as a statue. So, additionally, the Pot is the mother of the Bronze.

Pandora’s Fire is a mix of Ancient Greek choral storytelling with a modern twist, perhaps intended mainly for school audiences.  See It’s somewhat off mythologically,  since starts from the Box, but shifts so to completely subvert the victim-blamming of Hesiod. I love the ending:

Burn, burn, Pandora’s bright fire,
Dazzle the world with your light.

The modern writer Daniel Ogden makes the fascinating suggestion that ancient Greeks understood the Jar (maybe smaller than the usual pithos) as a container for Pandora’s child – a ‘teras-baby’, that is, ‘deformed’, lame or just ugly. Strangely he does not name this child as Hephaestus, despite the precise match that God would make to these labels. If all this mixture of imagery is confusing, well, that is precisely the nature of most true myth – they are an attempt to set down a coalescence of spiritual visions.

Fascinatingly, the ancient Greek word for ‘pot’ relates not only to ceramics, but also to chasms and fissures in the Earth, just as in the English ‘pothole’. Springs, the waters of life, flow from such pots. Even the phrase “gone to pot”, meaning ruin and destruction, translates similarly. We know that Persephone the Koré descends through such a place and returns thereby in Her ascent, Her Anodos. So the Jar is not just the holder of Pandora’s Gifts – it is also Her embodiment and Her gateway into epiphany.

I had always thought of Pandora as primarily an ‘Earth Goddess’, Waters too, but on reflection She would seem at least tri-faceted – like Persephone she is involved in Death / Rebirth but also, uniquely in Greece I think, but maybe not unlike Irish Brighid, in Fire, pottery and metalwork. If we take the view that Goddesses do not always have quite the same uniqueness of identity that we believe of ourselves, then Pandora would be a title not only of Gaea / Rhea or Persephone, but also of Hera.

I first made my own dedication to Pandora many years ago. Back in the Typewriter Age I published a magazine, itself titled “Pandora’s Jar”. At the same point in time, I rededicated my Fellowship of Isis hearth or Iseum as the Centre of Pandora, and I made dedication to Pandora at my ordination in the FOI. In addition to the factual material presented by harrison, I was very much moved by Charlene Spretnak’s retelling of the Pandora myth. I wrote back then that the reclaiming of the truth of Pandora is a good metaphor for the task we face. It is even more urgent now. Instead of dominating, fearing and cursing the Earth (and women) our society needs once again to live in harmony with the gifts She so freely provides. We also need to understand that the creatures that we find inconvenient or which sometimes bring us sickness are Hers too, older than We. The great gift of life is matched by the gift of surcease, of death, that we may live again, renewed in vigour.

Recent reading makes me feel further that the Giving of Gifts is actually the basis of human culture, not some add-on twice a year. Pandora as All-Gifting becomes then more than metaphor, rather the origin of whence we have come, and the focus to which we need to return.

Pandora, Anesidora, Koré,
Crowned With Flowers, First of the Graces,
ou that bestow all things necessary to life.

From your never-emptying Jar
Come all the Gifts of Earth in season.

When we are constrained in rigidity
May your Hammerers Strike,
Set us free to grow.

May Your Hope Uprise Within Us like Your First Gift of Fire.
Rise Up O Flame
May we be transformed in Your Crucible
As Gifts of Beauty, Wisdom and Joy.


If you’re as fascinated by Pandora as I am, you might be interested in these sources – if you find others, of interest beyond the same old stuff, please let me know:

Clear Horizon


View of Mynydd Llangyndeyrn from south-east, after snowfall.

Here in Wales our winters are becoming increasingly soggy. All too often they are grey and depressing. But today, after a light snowfall, skies are blue and the horizon is clear. Hearts sparkle again like the snow on each twig.

Feels like cue a song!

Winter calls a clear horizon
Like the sea calls to the port
Like the sky calls to the desert
Like a love calls too the heart.

(That’s “Clear Horizon” by Jan Harmon 1985.
Listen here: Clear Horizon by Libana, from Libana’s album ‘Fire Within’. Buy the track or cd here: Fire Within)

Saint Lucy by Adèle Söderberg –

Imminent in the festival calendar, leading up to Solstice, are the various festivals of ‘Saint Lucy’ tomorrow on December 13th.  A northern version is that known as Lussi Long-Night. Read more here: Lussi Long-night in Maria Kvilhaug’s blog.  Maria’s page includes a further link to a recipe for luscious-looking Lussi-cat buns. We have lots of wood cut, and my cake is baked, so hopefully Lussi won’t find the household unready, and give her blessing to the baking.

Here in the UK the annual orgy of consumerism, debt, drunkenness and over-eating is well under way. I prefer to use the name ‘Xmas’, which though perfectly legitimate in origin, in modern usage has the connotations of secular tawdriness that I want to express. In addition, saves me having to use the C-word any more than necessary. The UK stands out from other ‘formerly Christian countries’ in the massive distortion of the festival calendar towards this single event.

Those of us who are Pagan, of whatever form, often hate this time of year. On the one hand we want to be enthusiastic about our festival of Yule (or whatever), and do our best to tell the noisy rabble of street revelers just how spiritual it all is really. For ourselves, we want to actually contact some of that spiritual meaning. If we are parents we want to try to share something of the ‘real magic of it all’ with our children – we are convinced this isn’t plastic and electronics. But on the other hand, we cannot avoid being swept along by the pressure of commercial advertising and media mania. We struggle not to be defined as ‘Scrooges’ (or Grinches maybe, as a more recent literary creation), or as boring party-poopers. We know that if we try to call out that the whole thing is ‘humbug’ (Dickens-speak for cant and hypocrisy) then the world just laughs at us.

Did you know that the prophet ‘Jeremiah’ inveighed against taking trees from the forest and decorating them (J chap 10, 1-25). So we can be sure that Yule trees are Pagan!

All this tends to bring on (hopefully non-clinical) depression. Much about the season pushes us that way in any case. In Carmarthenshire, Wales, where I live, the weather has been very grey, most days filled with rain that has varied from penetrating drizzle to full-on horizontal. The ground is sodden. Work in the garden is largely impossible (even though my standing joke is of gardening as ‘playing in the mud’). A walk on the hill, where the weather would certainly blow or wash ‘the cobwebs away’, all just seems far too much effort. One might try a little Hypericum as remedy – derived from a beautiful golden-yellow flower traditionally linked to Midsummer – in the hope of recapturing a little of summer’s light. We hope for clear horizons on the day of Solstice Dawn, December 22nd . (here in the UK). We’ll be lighting a fire to greet the Sun.

For some further thoughts and inspiration, you might be interested in the next posts on the themes of

  • Winter Solstice – believe it or not?  – what do we actually believe?
  • Santa’s Sacked  – so we do we do then?
  • Winter Solstice Meditation
  • Mother Earth’s Winter Solstice Colouring Book