A hymn to Hibernia

The fumigation from turf.

Dea Hibernia

A 19th-century personification of Ireland, to which I have made some modifications of presentation.

I speak to thee, Hibernia,
irrepressible and unbowed,
goddess eternal,
invincible guardian:
nought but thy sacred vigil
could preserve thy people
through centuries of turmoil,
hunger, and loss.
Thy fingers pluck the strings
of thy sacred harp, moving thy listeners
to tears or to joy,
haply to rise up
and march ’gainst the foe.
Deep the tones of thy hound
echo through the vales,
a warning to the enemy,
a cry of defiance for those
who would heed the call.
A call on the wind,
wind at the sunrise,
rising of salmon,
a salmon in the stream,
streams swift from the hillside,
hills topped by cairns.
Hibernia, be happy, I pray you;
keep watch over your island’s children,
be they Gaels or newcomers,
denizens of the old land
or their descendants abroad.
For all may you remain
a bulwark against injustice
and to all may you yet
against any oppressor
bid resistance, joyful and true.

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A hymn to Epona

Following up on my theme from yesterday of experimenting with different metres for hymns for particular deities, below is a hymn to Epona.

Epona (polychrome)

Epona: polychrome version of my photo of a relief from Dalheim in Luxembourg, gussied up with woods and roses.

Hear me, majestic Epona my queen,
you who delight in the flying of hoofs
pounding the earth as the whinnies resound.
Those who adore you are blessed with your love,
just as the foal is held dear by the mare.
Springing in plenty from orchard and lea,
bountiful gifts we obtain through your grace.
Noble Epona, no care is beneath you:
lowly or lost, we thrive in your favour.
Kindly keep watch over me on the roadways,
twist though they may, unfamiliar or wild.
Roses I give you and offerings of mead,
apples presented at your sacred shrine:
tokens sincere from my grateful soul.

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A hymn to Mercury

So I’ve been playing around with metres lately, and it occurred to me that it might be fitting to fashion the metre of a particular hymn so that its cadence would be particularly evocative of the genius of the deity to whom it is offered. Below I have tried this in a hymn to Mercury. I make absolutely no claims that this is great poetry, but try reading the below aloud—I think the syncopation of the metrical scheme I came up with works rather well for Mercury. And see if you can do a stanza or two better than me!


Mercury and a goddess (Pax? Salus? Rosmerta?) from the Jupiter column at Mainz.

O god on whom the lofty firmament smiles
and who, in travellers’ garb, adventure seeks
on paths that, profaned by no mortal’s meandering,
welcome the certain and swift tread of a god.

Quick-witted, keen of eye, appraising the road,
you flit, alight, and again resume your course.
Encountering vistas and monuments thrills you
just like the savour of new words on the tongue.

Each twist and turn of every road is your haunt
no less than lofty Cyllene nor the Dôme—
wherever the voyager roams, you are true lord.
Mercury, fleet as the wind, wanderer, hail!

I praise you, noble traveller, purpose in your step,
undaunted herald of deathless gods’ decrees.
Receive now with favour the gifts that I make you:
happy am I to fulfil duly my vow.

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An Hibernian excursus


Nowhere a stranger: a bust of Mercury from Emo Court House, Co. Laois. (I am a sucker for neo-classical architecture.)

As attentive readers of this blog may be aware, I travelled to Ireland last May for a variety of causes. The immediate impulse for the trip was last year’s Brexit vote, which made me think that it might not be so easy or convenient to cross the Anglo-Irish border (or should I say intra-Irish border?) once Brexit takes effect. The breezy wilful blindness of Theresa May’s government, and its all too evident indifference to the Irish dimension of Brexit’s aftermath, have only confirmed me in my darkest apprehensions of what the outcome might portend for the future of Ireland. I do sincerely hope, however, that from one cause and another, May (or her successor) may be made to take Ireland seriously. The fact that her government now depends upon the goodwill of the DUP—the type specimen of partisans of ‘soft Brexit’—ought to give some urgency to such considerations.

This is a trip that I’ve had in mind for a long time, however. Like many Irish Americans, I feel a deep and sincere attachment to the island and to its people(s). I had visited Ireland once before—in 1998! how time flies—and learned from that encounter to value highly both Irish hospitality and the natural and cultural beauties of the island. The mythology of the land adds an additional attraction, and I had long wished to see Ulster, my ancestral province, and in particular the region of South Armagh and the Cooley Peninsula, so rich in associations with Cú Chulainn and the Táin, which my great-great-grandmother left, and to visit ancestral places of memory so pregnant with associations both heroic and divine.

I’m no longer an assiduous or systematic worshipper of the gods of Ireland, and indeed many of the rhetorical positions I’ve taken with respect to Gaulish and Gallo-Roman religion have been to warn against too eager and naïve a Hibernicizing tendency. (I defy anyone to read Arbois de Jublainville’s paper identifying Cernunnos with Conall Cernach, for example, and not agree with me that this has at times been taken too far.) My primary religious focus in Ireland was, therefore, geared more to ancestor veneration than to worship of the gods—although I did pray daily to Éire, Banbha, and Fóla, offer gifts to themselves and to Lugh Lámhfhada and to the spirits of the land, etc. My journey took me through quite a number of places associated with Lugh: Naas, the northern Moytura in Co. Sligo, Dunlewey (in the Poisoned Glen of Co. Donegal, where Lugh is said to have slain Balor), Slieve Gullion, etc. I sincerely regret not having made it to the Hill of Tara; but driving rain and road closures on the day in question kept us from the site where Lugh assumed the high kingship after demonstrating his excellence in all the arts—but this just gives me a further spur to return to Ireland at no very distant date.


The Poisoned Glen at Dunlewey, Co. Donegal.

In other respects, Ireland proved itself again one of the most all-around congenial destinations I’ve ever been to. I found local people remarkably friendly, unaffected, and good-natured almost without exception. It’s easier in Ireland to forget that one is a foreigner than in nearly any other country I’ve been (the other strong contender being Luxembourg). I’ve often wondered to what extent I’m favoured in this respect by a North American accent and an appearance plausibly betokening some Irish descent—but whatever the reason, I feel less out of place there than I often do in my own native land (thanks, GOP voters!).


Atop Slieve Gullion. The Cailleach Bhéirre’s lake is to be seen in the top left.

The emotional (and altitudinal) high point of my visit was climbing Slieve Gullion. There is an intersection here of the natural and the supernatural, the legendary and the historical, that is extraordinarily rich and satisfying. You climb up this winding and at times rather tortuous path till you finally get to the summit of the mountain—at which point you are immediately at the southern cairn/passage tomb complex. There are also dramatic views of the Mourne Mountains, the Cooley Mountains, South Armagh, etc. Then, if you shlep northwards on the summit, the ground becomes gradually boggier, until you’re squelching through mud that can suck you right in up to your knee (or at least it can if you’re me!). Having braved these perils and twisted and turned a fair distance down the path, you reach the sacred lake of the Cailleach Bhéirre. Maybe there’s some innocent hydrological explanation for what this lake is doing at the top of a mountain, but to my eye it looks flatly otherworldly. The deep blue of the lake looks both dazzling and totally out of place on the summit of County Armagh’s highest mountain—and legend gives an account of how it was enchanted by an otherworldly lady called, in one version, Milucra. (Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s hair was turned white after he was tricked into taking a swim in it.) Then on the far side of the lake is the northern cairn, which also has a passage tomb.


A view of Derry (looking towards the Bogside from the city walls). One of the more exciting cities I visited, Derry exudes youthful vitality and optimism as well as forthright resistance.

In other news, I confess to feeling a good deal of contentment with the outcome of the French elections this year. Marine Le Pen was kept out of power—and thus the lie was given to the notion that far-right ethnic nationalism is now universally unstoppable. In default of Le Pen, the presidency did not end up falling to another right-winger, François Fillon, himself tainted with scandal and avowedly sympathetic to Thatcherism. Instead, we have a centrist (even centre-left?), pro-European president in Emmanuel Macron who has only succeeded in completely reshaping the party political landscape—with which absolutely everybody was profoundly fed up—and giving a new élan to internationalism and progressivism of a certain (social-liberal) stripe. Macron’s politics are not mine, but they are at least compatible with the integrity of the rule of law in the French Republic. Meanwhile, my man, Benoît Hamon, has founded his own movement (M1717), so we can hope that the one candidate in this last election who had any fresh ideas is not going away.

Oh, and Daesh has been struck dead. Why does this get so much less press than than the very occasional (if admittedly horrifying) terrorist attack in the West? In the past few weeks, Mosul has basically been liberated (some isolated Daesh pockets notwithstanding), while Raqqa has been fully encircled and is already being liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces. This can only be cheering news for those who care about religious liberty, human rights, and cultural heritage. Lest anyone feel too sanguine, however, Turkey—even more nakedly authoritarian than when I used to live there—has broadened its military activities in both Iraq and Syria, attacking Daesh’s enemies on a variety of fronts, including on sacred Mount Shingal. A valued NATO ally if ever there was one.

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Ode to Maia

Seven are the daughters of Pleione,
whose stars bedazzle the winter sky—
      most beautiful of all the seven
      is Maia, daughter of Atlas.
She it is who rejoices in May flowers’ bloom,
the lengthening days, and the growing warmth.
      She makes the heart to quicken
      as desire swells in mortals’ souls—
and not in mortals’ alone, but you too,
thundering father Jove, could not resist her.

How did Jove effect his tryst with modest Maia,
dwelling in her cave in wind-swept Arcady?
      Let none divulge what passed therein;
      let none undo her wise discretion.
But all may know and celebrate her offspring,
glorious child of Maia, swift-footed messenger,
      clever in his charming words,
      subtle in his wily deeds—
for you, august Mercury, were born on Mount Cyllene,
born to gentle Maia, bedecked with flowers.

She it was first took you in her arms and nursed you:
nourishment from the most nurturing of goddesses.
      From her the mischievous babe
      learned wisdom as well as wit,
for on your first day, O Mercury, you stole the cattle
of your proud brother, brilliant Apollo of the fearsome darts.
      Maia drew you back;
      gently she rebuked you,
teaching you justice and reconciliation: and the lyre,
seven-stringed, you made a peace offering to Apollo.

The nurturing mother of that godly nuncio
took Arcas in to foster—glory of Arcadia,
      resistless huntsman
      now translated to the stars.
A grandson of blessèd Maia, the wandering Evander,
first planted her worship in the western lands
      upon the sainted hill
      above the rolling Tiber.
More grandsons of yours, O Maia, the twin Lares
were rightly honoured at every Roman hearth.

Glory of spring, fosterer of growing things,
most exalted of the sister Pleiades,
      you I praise:
      to you I offer this hymn.
Mountain-dwelling Maia whom Jove adored,
daughter of the strong-shouldered titan,
      hail to you in Arcady
      and in every land.
Let all who love the god of travellers, Argus’ bane,
rejoice in you and offer pleasing gifts.

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Novena prayer to Mercury

While doing my annual Festivus shopping this year,* I noticed that Galina Krasskova’s novena book In Praise of Hermes had hit the shelves, so naturally I swallowed it up greedily. I was delighted to find myself among the people in the Acknowledgements, and more delighted still with the general layout and structure of these books, which really seem inspired. They’re equally adapted for the lifelong votary who wants to do something special for their belovèd deity, and for the newbie who wants to get better acquainted with a deity who’s just come into their life.

So the novena book arrived, and I realized that I had two options: (i) tell myself “Ooh, this is a great idea that I might eventually put into practice!”, or (ii) begin the very next day. I opted for option (ii), and I’m now pleased to say that it is the day for me to write a prayer of my own for Hermes/Mercury (Day VI of the nine) and post it on the interwebs.

This kind of discipline is wonderful for a number of reasons. While simple and cheap, it requires your mind to focus on a specific devotional goal each day—not just for one day, or three, but for longer than a week. Each day sets the devotee a straightforward, achievable task that nevertheless requires a bit of planning and a bit of effort. I’ve also been mentally doing this double, reading over the day’s task and the day’s prayer in the morning and then actually doing it in the evening. This, in addition to keeping closer track of my dreams than I otherwise would, has really helped heighten my Mercury-consciousness throughout the day—weekends and holidays as well as work days, sleep time as well as wake time. So a thousand thank yous to Galina for launching this series! (I’ll be needing a copy of the novena book for the Mothers too ere long as well…)

And now, the prayer:

Hail, Mercury of many names,
god of many disguises,
god who walks many paths,
god who knows no boundaries,
god who admits no constraint,
friend of many deities,
friend of brilliant Apollo,
friend of transcendent Cernunnos,
friend of inspiring Bacchus,
friend of crafty Minerva,
sometimes more than friend of golden-tressed Venus.
Hail to you of the worn traveller’s cloak,
hail to you of the shining herald’s staff,
hail to you of the flying feet,
patron of athletes,
patron of diplomats,
patron of scholars.
I sing your praises beneath the wing of the sparrowhawk.
I sing your praises under the shade of the strawberry-tree.
I sing your praises where the crocus grows.
I sing your praises beside the gentle, subtle tortoise,
and the proud and lusty billy goat,
and the dauntless discerning boar,
and the cocksure rooster,
and the emissary serpent adorned with the horns of a ram.
Your gifts are boundless.
Your words are keen.
Your spirit is unbreakable,
though it bend a thousand ways.
You, son of Maia, are the god who in the thick of battle
turned to your opponent, for combat matched,
and told her frankly you had no quarrel with her,
the gentle lover of your own august father,
and agreed with her to quit the field,
in honour undiminished to you both.
You are the god who never fears to speak
words of truth and warning, however unwelcome,
to heroes and to mortals,
assuring them of what is to come,
exhorting them to effect what must be.
You are the god who came to Tyana,
travelling with your father in disguise,
kindly receiving the hospitality of
that couple who alone would take you in,
refilling their wine-jar, sparing their goose,
and finally bestowing on them
prosperity and glory,
peace and safety,
eternal togetherness,
and the right to serve the two of you all their days.
I do not pretend, august Mercury,
to the merits of Baucis and Philemon.
I cannot demand such sweet deserts.
Only let me serve you in my turn,
contributing what I can,
seeking to walk in harmony with your fleet steps,
and let your glory shine forth unhindered
throughout this world and those beyond.

Mercury of Metz

Mercury of Metz (Espérandieu 4411)

* All right, to be totally honest, I mean Christmas shopping. But it has pretty much nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, however, the way we celebrate it in our family.

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Taurobolium lugudunense

Cybele (Madrid)

The famous statue of Cybele, Great Mother of the Gods, in her chariot drawn by lions at Madrid’s Fuente de Cibeles.
(Photo by Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA)

Today, the 9th of December, commemorates an interesting foray into Phrygian religion on Gaulish soil. On this day in the year 160 CE, under the ægis of the divine Antoninus Pius, a public taurobolium was celebrated for the first time (as far as may be determined) in what is now Lyon. The taurobolium is a rite that permits the sacrifice of a bull in place of the self-castration that had characterized the galli or Phrygian priests of the Great Mother of the Gods from time immemorial. I say ‘Phrygian’, although other nationalities were doubtless represented—however, Roman citizens were not, because Roman law forbade the castration of citizens. Starting with the taurobolium of Lugdunum, the priesthood of the Great Mother was now open to Roman citizens—and indeed the high priesthood or office of archigallus. A citizen worshipper could thus be ritually reborn in the Great Mother—bathed, if Prudentius is to be believed, in the blood of the sacrificial victim, in lieu of that flowing from the act of castration.

With this innovation, the cultus of the Great Mother (Magna Mater deorum Idumæa) enjoyed a considerable accession of its prestige. The most high-born of citizens were now able to participate fully in its institutions. This was an ancient cultus that was felt to link Rome back to its Trojan origins, and the Great Mother figures in that context in the Æneid as a deity safeguarding the interests of Æneas and the Trojan exiles. The goddess with the lion-drawn chariot and the evergreen trees is identified in that poem as the mother of Jupiter (in place of, or in this context identified with, Rhea). Certainly public and private devotion to Magna Mater, including annual public outpourings of grief for the death of Attis, was widespread enough (near Trier, for example, a high-quality bronze statuette of Attis was ritually deposited in the Moselle). Catullus had earlier concluded his longish poem on Attis owning the Great Mother’s majesty and wishing to avoid for himself her cultus’ more sanguinary aspect:

Dea, magna dea, Cybebe, dea domina Dindymi,
procul a mea tuos sit furor omnis, era, domo:
alios age incitatos, alios age rabidos.

Goddess, great goddess, Cybebe,* O goddess (who are) lady of Dindymon,
far from my house, O mistress, may all your fury be:
let others be roused, let others be driven into madness.

As a person admittedly squeamish about the idea of self-castration—or self-mutilation generally, I must say—I appreciate the divine Pius’ giving devotees of Magna Mater other options. Let us therefore join with Catullus and the divine Pius in our praise, thanks, and gifts to the eternal Mother of the Gods!

The taurobolia of Lyon are one of several phenomena exhibiting interesting intersections between Gaul and Anatolia or its environs (others include the worship of Diana of Ephesus by the Massiliots and the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus by the Rhine legions). The divine Pius was himself a Roman citizen from Nîmes and was, perhaps, particularly sensitive to the potential for rolling out a new religious program in a place like Lugdunum. That city was a citizen colony, founded by L. Munatius Plancus, peopled in part by soldiers and their descendants, enjoying a peculiar Augustan prestige for a number of reasons,† and frequented by administrators, traders, and travellers from all parts (the Syrian community there was numerous, for example). The taurobolium of 160 was avowedly undertaken pro salute Imperatoris Cæs. T. Æli Hadriani Antonini Aug. Pii P. P. liberorumque eius et statús coloniæ Lugudun. ‘for the well-being of the emperor Cæsar Titus Ælius Hadrian Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of the country, and (that) of his children,‡ and also (that) of the condition of the colony of Lugudunum’ (CIL XIII: 1751), thus involving the imperial family as well as the city itself in this sacrifice to Magna Mater.

This connection with the divine Pius reminds me that I had promised to unveil a polychrome version of the Faustina the Elder statue in the Mount Holyoke Art Museum. I do wonder whether the divine Faustina would have intimated something to Antoninus Pius about his devotional engagements with the Great Mother, or for that matter with Dionysus, Jupiter, and other deities associated with that prince.
In any case, here is one such polychrome image (we’ll call this CC-BY):

polychrome Faustina the Elder

Polychrome version of the statue of the divine Faustina the Elder at Mt Holyoke.

I used to think that Faustina the Elder’s distinctive hairdo must be, in part, a sort of crown or bonnet. However, it turns out that people who are vastly more clever with their hands than I am can do this just with braids, a few bodkins, and (get this!) needles and thread! Yes, these braids would have been sewn together by some astonishing sleight-of-hand:

Finally, as a word geek, I have been delighted to learn that, as in French one may term the cult of Isis isiaque, that of Mithras mithriaque, and that of Dionysus dionysiaque, so the cult of Magna Mater has an evocative adjective in métroaque. I don’t believe I’ve seen ‘Metroac’ used in an English-language context (though we do have ‘Isiac’, ‘Mithraic’, and ‘Dionysiac’)—except perhaps as an expression of dismay towards a public transportation system?
* ‘Cybebe’ is a variant of the name ‘Cybele’ obviously closer to the original ‘Kubaba’. Even ‘Kubaba’, I believe, however, is less a name than a geographic epithet—like Idumæan or Dindymon.
† The federal cultus of Rome and Augustus took place at Condate, facing Lugdunum, as I have often had occasion to mention. This was first inaugurated by Drusus, the stepson of the divine Augustus (often rumoured to be the latter’s natural son, although the timing makes this unlikely). Augustus and Agrippa both, in turn, made extensive stays in Lugdunum, and Drusus’ son Claudius—the future emperor—was born there. The famous Tables claudiennes, commemorating one of Claudius’ speeches, were publicly displayed at Condate. In sum, modern-day Lyon enjoyed a curious density of Augustan (and Claudian) associations.
‡ The children of Antoninus Pius alive at this time would have been Faustina the Younger, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus (the latter two both sons by adoption).

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