Throughout history, we have learned the stories of changes
in power, typically as told through the eyes of the victors. A common phrase,
“on earth as it is in heaven,” or “as above, so below,” reminds us that similar
battles occur among the Deities to whom we devote our prayers. This lecture
covers a few of the most prominent changes in power in our shared mythology.
The Titans and the Olympians
The story of Kronos and Rhea is well-known. Rhea bore Zues
many children, and each child she bore, he devoured, because of a prophecy that
told of his son rising against him to take his place. Lovely Hestia he devoured
first, then Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. When Rhea was pregnant with
Zeus, Gaia conspired with her to replace the babe with a stone of like size and
weight, which Kronos gobbled up without a second thought. Gaia fostered Zeus
among the richest gardens in his youth until he came of age. He fought his
father valiantly, and at last, Kronos spat up his siblings in the order he
swallowed them: Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia. Zeus further freed
those his father had enslaved, including his grandfather, Ouranos, and the
Kyklopes, who gifted Zeus with the thunder and lightning bolt in tribute.
Kronos was fettered in chains and sent to the outermost edges of the world to
live with his wife, Rhea, in the land set aside for them, on the Isle of the
Once Kronos was out of the way, the Titans, who were loyal
to him held their own, fighting from atop Mt. Othrys against the children of
Kronos who fought from atop Mt. Olympus. Several of the Titans decided to fight
with Zeus and the Olympians, and when the Olympians won, the remaining Titans
loyal to Kronos were enchained and thrown into Tartaros, deep within the earth
and covered over by the roots of the earth and the sea. Those who were loyal to
Zeus were permitted to keep their stations, Hekate, Eos, Helios, Selene, Nyx,
and Gaia. It is important to note that the names of those who did not choose
the side of the Olympians are lost to us. (Kerenyi, 24-25)
shows that Ancient Greece has been inhabited since the Paleolithic age,
including some of the earliest settlements that transitioned from hunting and
gathering to an agrarian way of life. The agrarian ways seem to have originated
in the Fertile Crescent to the east, since none of the grains (barley, wheat)
or chief domesticated animals (goats, sheep) were native to the area. Once the
area was settled, however, there is little evidence of much change from
surrounding cultures. The largest changes where those of the peasant cultures
from the Danube Valley beyond the Balkan Mountains in the fourth millennium. It
was during the Bronze Age that the peoples we refer to today as the Hellenes
came into the area and made it their home (Burkert 10).
these tales harken to a time before the Greeks can remember. It is speculated
that the people of the “Titans” were those Paleolithic folks from before the
Etruscans came and settled in what became Greece proper. The names of the
peoples are not recorded and are as lost to the annals of history as the names
of the Titans who died with them.
The Aesir and the Vanir
In the "golden era" of the distant past, the gods
lived in harmony, playing games in the meadows. One day, Gullveig of the Vanir
visited Óðin in his hall at Ásgarð. Gullveig could talk of nothing but her love
for gold. The Æsir loathed listening to such talk, and decided that the world
would be better off without her. They seized her, riddled her body with spears,
and threw her onto the fire in the center of the hall. She burned to death, but
stepped whole out of the flames. Twice more, she was seized, killed, and
burned. Twice more, she walked whole out of the flames. She was a seer and
enchantress, a mistress of magic.
When the Vanir heard how the Æsir had treated with Gullveig,
they swore vengeance and began to prepare for war. Óðin, sitting in his high
seat in Valaskjálf, saw the preparations, and soon the Æsir, too, prepared for
The gods moved against each other. Óðin cast his spear into
the host of the Vanir. Thus, the first war began. The Vanir quickly gained the
upper hand. Using magic, they reduced the walls of Ásgarð to rubble. The Æsir
moved forward, and caused similar damage to Vanaheim. The battle raged, and the
longer it went on, the more clear it became that neither side was likely to
The gods wearied and decided to meet to discuss terms. They
argued about the origin of the war, and whether the Æsir alone were
responsible, or whether both sides were entitled to tribute. In the end, they
decided to live together in peace. To enforce this agreement, leaders from the
two sides were exchanged as hostages. Njorð, his son Freyr, and his daughter Freyja, who were the
leading Vanir, traveled to Ásgarð. In exchange, the Æsir sent Hœnir and Mímir
The Vanir appointed Hœnir to be one of their leaders. With
the wise Mímir at his side, Hœnir was unfailing. But without Mímir, Hœnir
seemed incapable of making a decision. "Let someone else decide," he
would always say. The Vanir suspected that they had been tricked, and that they
had gotten the worse part of the bargain in the exchange of leaders. For
revenge, they hacked off the head of Mímir and sent it by messenger back to
Óðin and the Æsir. Óðin cradled the head, smearing it with herbs and chanting
magical charms over it. The head was preserved from decay and given the power
of speech, so that Mímir could always share his wisdom with Óðin.
Freyja taught Óðin the magic called seiðr
carried great power. He could learn men's fates, see the future, bring death
and misery, or transfer intellect and strength from one man to another. But
this magic was so unseemly and effeminate that it was thought shameful for men
to have anything to do with it. (Davidson, 78-84)
Though there seems to be more of a balance of power, the
Vanir took a much larger beating that the Aesir, and Óðin remained the High
One. Again, the names of those who were not loyal to the Aesir are lost to us.
It is useful to note that Loki, who has become a despised
character among many American heathens, is Óðin’s blood brother, but also a
half-breed, and as such, he is never allowed to fit in. Óðin’s son, Thor,
swears to protect the realm from giants, and in order to be accepted, Loki
assists Thor in outwitting the giants, typically leading to their demise, time
and time again. How must Loki feel to betray his own kind to fit in, just
because they are not the same as those with the most power?
Anthropologically, it was during the third wave of the
Indo-European expansion, the Kurgan peoples migrated through the Balkans,
eventually settling in the river valleys east of the Rhine (Winn 342). The
theory to explain the driving force behind the migrations centers on the Kurgan
practice of animal husbandry. As their people expanded and their herds grew,
they would need to seek further resources to meet the demand of their
semi-nomadic, pastoral society.
During their migration, the Kurgan peoples interacted with the
people known as the Trichterbecher (TRB), the “Funnel-Necked Beaker” culture, a
non-Indo-European people of Old Europe named for the funnel-necked pots they
crafted. The TRB peoples not only kept and bred animals like the Kurgans, but they
also engaged in agricultural practices as a means to support their society—a
practice that was not common at such an early time among the IE peoples who
were more nomadic. The TRB peoples introduced the social concept of more
permanent living spaces as well as introducing several different forms of
tools, the plow and the wheel (Adams 596-598).
The archeological findings that date before 3000 BCE
show that the TRB Culture buried their dead in communal plots with little to no
personal possessions, but the Kurgan influence is evident in the later findings
where personalized burials like those of their counterparts. There remains
speculative evidence that a battle waged between the two cultures led the
Kurgan peoples to move on and may possibly be the root of the epic battle
between the Aesir (Kurgans) and the Vanir (TRB peoples) found in the Germanic
lore (Adams 596-598). The Indo-European language maintained prevalence during
this migration, as well as the societal structure based on patriarchy and a propensity
for war (Winn 351).
Even with the influences of the TRB agriculture society, the
Kurgans maintained their lust for exploration long after they settled into
Germania. The Germanic peoples assumed few words into their language from
surrounding peoples, preferring to “conquer and assimilate” those they invaded.
The languages in the various Germanic hearths, such as Norman and Anglo-Saxon
show distinct similarities that indicate the language evolved in a modestly
linear fashion with variations easily attributed to the different peoples with
whom they traded (Mallory 84-87).
The Fomorians, Nemedians, Fir Bolg, and Tuatha De Danaan
According to the Annals of the Four Masters the Fomorians have been variously
described as God-like beings, spirits of chaos and nature, giants,
more descendants of Noah, farmers, or just plain old pirates from
Africa. They settled Ireland after the demise of Cessair, daughter of Noah, and
remained there until the arrival of even more descendants of Noah:
the followers of Partholon, a man from Greece or the Middle-East depending on
Three years after arriving in South Kerry (and after he had
caused several lakes to spring up from the ground miraculously) Partholon and
the Fomorians came to blows in the first recorded battle of Irish “history”. The Fomorians, led by Cichol, were, apparently, a simple
people who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, while Partholon and his crowd
were farmers, that is, more advanced. The battle between the two took place at
least two millennia before the birth of Christ. Numbers are not made clear, but
Partholon had less than 10’000 followers total. Cichol had 800 at the battle. Outnumbered,
Cichol and his Fomorions were defeated and wiped out to a man, but it was not
the last time that race would pop up as Irish mythologies stock villain.
30 years later, a relative of Partholon, Nemed, arrived in
Ireland from the Caspian Sea. He wasn’t there long before more Fomorians, this
time under Kings of the name of Gann and Segann began to harass and raid the
island yet again, leading to Ireland’s first proper war. Nemed was a leader of
some renown and his people were fierce warriors. He defeated the Fomorians at
Ros Fraechain where both of their Kings were killed. It would seem clear that
the Fomorians just weren’t that great in battle, or were more used to simple
But things were soon looking up for them. The old enemy –
plague – stuck the Nemedians hard nine years after their arrival, killing three
thousand of them, including Nemed himself. The Fomorians had gained great
leaders of their own, in the form of two brothers, Morc and Conand. They had
established a mighty tower on Tory Island and from there, were able to oppress
what remained of the Nemedians, extracting huge amounts of tribute in goods and
So things remained for over two centuries (people lived long
lives back then) before the Nemedians, all 60’000 of them at this point, had
enough and rose up in rebellion. Led by three great champions, Semul, Erglan and
Fergus Red-Side, they attacked the Fomorians, reached Tory Island, and pulled
down Conand’s tower, killing him and, conveniently, all his heirs too. Morc
still remained, and the two sides fought a great sea battle nearby. Whatever it
was, bad weather or divine intervention, the seas rose and both fleets were
wrecked, only 30 or so Nemedians surviving out of both forces. Those survivors
left Ireland, leaving the land desolate once again.
Next up were the Fir Bolg, who, depending again on who you
read, were descendants of the surviving Nemedians, oppressed Greeks,
or former settlers of Belgium fleeing persecution from the Gaels. They held
Ireland (or “Eriu” as it was at the time) for 37 years, split into three
different nations. But their famous arch-rivals, the Tuatha de Danann (“Peoples
of the Goddess Danu”) then arrived to upset the apple cart.
Other descendants of Nemed, they arrived in 300 ships off the west of
Ireland, then immediately pulled a Cortez, burning them, signalling their intent
to stay and fight for the island. The Tuatha de are heavily associated with
magic and sorcery, the usual tale being that they were specialising in those
things during their exile in “the islands of the north”.
The Tuatha de were led by a King named Nuada (who gives his
name to modern day Maynooth) who faced off with the Fir Bolg at the Battle of
Magh Tuireadh, near Cong, County Mayo. Before the battle, the Tuatha de
demanded half the island or for the Fir Bolg to fight: fight they did and for
four days too. The Tuatha de were victorious, though Nuada’s hand was lopped
off. Subsequent negotiations with what was left of the Fir Bolg resulted in
them getting Connacht to rule, leaving the rest for Nuada’s people. The Fir
Bolg simply vanish from the myths after this.
Things didn’t turn out so great for the victors though, as
Nuada relinquished the Kingship because he was not “whole”, with a fellow named
Bres taking his place. Bres happened to be half-Fomorian (yup, they popped up
again) and before too long, the old raiders were back in force, holding the
Tuatha de as subjects under Bres’ rule. The Tuatha de grew restless and
rebelled: Bres fled to another Fomorian leader, “Balor of the Evil Eye” for
assistance in regaining his Kingdom. In the meantime Nuada, with a new silver
hand from the Gods, became King of the Tuatha de once more.
Balor, a giant with one eye in his forehead (that could spit
fire or something) and another on his back, was a powerful guy, and had soon
raised a massive army to face Nuada. The two sides met at the Second Battle of
Magh Tuireadh, where Balor killed Nuada before being killed in turn by his own
grandson Lugh, another half-Fomorian fighting on the Tuatha de side. Balor
could apparently destroy people with the gaze of his front eye: he used it to
kill Nuada, before Lugh tore it out and used it against the other Fomorians.
Defeated, they fled, leaving Lugh as the new King of the Tuatha de Danaan.
Peace reigned for over a century, before the Tuatha de faced
trouble from more invaders. The Milesians, held to perhaps be representative of
the Celts, were a nominally Iberian race, who invaded the land to avenge the
death of Ith, a Milesian wizard, at the hands of Tuatha de. The Milesian army
landed in the south and fought their way to Tara, the traditional seat of power
in Meath, to demand their claim over the island be recognised.
The Tuatha de struck a deal: the Milesians could be rulers
of Ireland if, after three days of being anchored at sea, they could land on
the island. The Milesians duly sailed out, only to be caught in a magical storm
of the Tuatha de’s creation. Only a small number of the Milesians, led by the
brothers Eber and Emiron, survived and these led the Milesians to final victory
over the Tuatha de at the Battles of Tailtiu, Meath and Sleigh Mis, Antrim. The
land was divided between the two, north to Erimon and the south to Eber.
One last battle of this mythic age was yet to be fought, as
Eber grew unhappy with his lot and made war against his brother for the whole
island. They fought the Battle of Airgetros, somewhere in Kilkenny, where Eber
was defeated and killed. Thus, Erimon won control of the whole island, becoming
the sole “High King”, still over a thousand years before the birth of Christ. (Rees, 32-37)
These are claimed as the “History of the Irish People,” and
there are some who believe, much like the Greek and Germanic IE followers, the
Deities are actually deified humans who took on an immortal persona for the
good, or at least memorable, deeds that they performed—and Irish sort of Hero
Cult, if you will.
Again, we see the
names of the conquered people always as the evil characters, and the victors
seen in a positive light. These stories have more names in them than the
Germanic and Hellenic, because of the unapologetic Christianization of the
The Romans have a well-documented history, moving through
miles after mile, conquering the peoples, resulting in assimilation to the ways
of Rome or the adoption of the Deities the conquered people refused to stop
worshipping into the Roman pantheon. Rome sometimes adopted a deity, usually a
war-god, because they liked what they stood for, and rebranded them to fit the
Roman cause. Once the Roman elite converted to Christianity, it became
increasingly difficult for the polytheist folks to maintain their identity.
Entire tribes were wiped out, or near to it, if they refused to convert. The
Balts were almost completely lost to us during the crusades.
Over time, the Christian Romans overtook the old holy days,
Saturnalia lost it’s name, but most of the symbols remained, again, rebranded
to fit the Roman cause. The church eventually adopted all of the pagan feast
days and rebranded them for the Roman calendar. With the Pope-figure as the
“new Ceasar,” religious rule made it easy to justify crimes against the
remaining pagan folk, with words like “barbarian” added to the language, so
used because of the “bar bar bar” that marked the sound of their language to
the Roman ear, trained to the lyrical latin.
Fortunately for us, the Roman scholars had a thirst for
preservation, and we did not lose all the myths.
What patterns do you see here that directly relate to patterns we see
currently? If we look at the migration of the American Christian across the plains,
we can see the repetition of the new God(s) replacing the conquered people.
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