Saturday, November 17, 2018

Outdwellers Among the Gods

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 Blest.

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)

Archaeological evidence 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). Anthropologically, 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 war.

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 win.

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 to Vanaheim.

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, which 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 the sources.

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 raiding.

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 slaves.

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 mythos.

The Romans

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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Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.

Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Jones, Prudence, and Pennick, Nigel. A History of Pagan Europe. New York, NY: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 1951. Print.

Littleton, C. Scott. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumezil. Revised Ed. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1973. Print.

Mallory, J.P.  In Search of the Indo-Europeans. London, New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 1989. Print.

Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1989. Print.

Rees, Alwyn and Rees, Brinley. Celtic Heritage. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 1961. Print.

Winn, Shan M. Heaven, Heroes and Happiness. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995. Print.