Last night, while reading the introduction to Peter Berresford Ellis’ Celtic Myths and Legends he mentioned something that a lot of others have before him and it caught my attention, namely the extraordinary similarities between those few surviving celtic myths and the ancient Vedic stories, down to the similarities between the names of river gods (the Thames in London is named after a cognate to the Sanskrit word Tamesa, which means ‘the dark river’), and both Krishna and the goddess Boann (who lent her name to the Boyne River) have a strikingly similar epithet…Boann was known as guou-uinda, the cow-finder, whereas Krishna is often called Govinda. The ancient celts had a horse rite which symbolized the union of a horse and a ruler involving a King and a mare, and the vedics had a similar rite involving a Queen and a stallion. This isn’t wholly surprising, of course, since both the celts and the vedics are defined in great part by their languages, and those languages are ancient dialects reaching back into the mother-stream of Indo-European. One would expect some degree of similarity. One might not expect the felicity of the ur-transfer, with the cattle and horse rites, the river worship, the calendar and the astrology based on the 27 lunar mansions…the similarities are striking, and put one in mind of others. The barrow tombs that litter Eurasia, stretching all the way to Siberia and Mongolia, with red-haired corpses and rotten tatters of tartan cloth…the similarity between the invasion of the Heraclidae in Greek myth, the origin of the Scythians as the descendants of Heracles, the Irish book of invasions (Leabhar Gabhala) and the tales of the Vedic gods and heroes in the Mahabharata…in each, a divinely inspired or ordained or descended race is sent forth to conquer those that would keep them from their destiny. In each, a mythology of cattle raiding, woman stealing and mobility, the power of the horse as servant to the king, of epic battle of champions springs up…the similarities between the chariot warfare of the Iliad and the Mahabhrata (albeit the Iliad tends to be less flashy, and what with all the gods and demigods involved in that tale, that’s saying something, but any myth with Krishna in it is going to have some cowherd females seduced and some monsters killed, he was just that kind of avatar) and the tales of Cuhullain (the Cattle Raid of Cooley) and other Irish heroes…the bull of the sea sacred to Poseidon that brought ruin upon a King that coveted him and the bull of Cooley that destroyed the army of a Queen that coveted him.
We tend to think of the past as a stationary place, where people lived their whole lives in one region. Possibly this is due to the medieval mindset created by the advent of the Catholic Church yoked to our subtle prejudice against those who lived in an era without jet travel, where journeying far took months or years instead of days or hours. Yet the evidence for a long-distant society of roving nomads, dependent on the horse, the ox, and rivers to move them from place to place and holding those avatars of expediency as sacred and divinely mandated to follow where they led seems to be growing…waves of peoples connected by language moving into areas held by settled folk and sweeping over them, displacing, assimilating or destroying. Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro vanish. The People of the Sea wash along the shores and the Heraclidae push the Pelasgian peoples of Greece further and further south, eventually merging in a union of languages that would give birth to the Hellenic civilization that would culturally sweep all the way to the border of the Ganges, a sacred river. The people of the goddess Danu (whose name survives in the Danube and the Rhone, called Rhodanus in ancient times) would make their way to Ireland and make war with the children of Domnu, the fomorii who already lived there. This idea of divinely mandated travel and settlement in a new land, even if it meant war with those already there, can even be seen in the Bible as the Hebrews come into the land of Caanan and do battle, destroying Jericho as their entry into their promised land, promised to them by their tribal God just as Inisfail was promised to the Tuatha de Dannan, just as the Heraclidae were destined to take back Hellas, just as the Scythians and ancient Veda did battle to take hold of their new homes. Nomads, bringing their gods along with them, traveling ever onwards…I’ve mentioned my theory that the Hyksos invaders of Egypt may well have been survivors of the lost Mohenjo-Daro/ Harrapan civilizations before, bringing their hero-cult with them to be mixed with the native gods of ancient Egypt and resulting in the image of Set as a red haired god of foreigners and storms attempting to steal the rightful rule of the Ennead from Osiris and Horus…a red haired storm god, a fit companion to Zeus and Thor and Indra (indeed, it was first noticing how similar Set and Indra were that I began to wonder if the Hyksos came to Egypt from India, from the deserted cities at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro…although to be fair it should be pointed out that the Hittites are one of the older strains of this indo-european linguistic-mythology heritage as well, so that’s a possible relation to consider) and other indo-european gods, like Baal the lordly son of El, the allfather (ollathir, whispers another nomadic tongue) of the Caananites pushed aside by the Hebrews come up out of that self-same Egypt, who spoke of the bene-ha elohim and who, too, spoke of El as one of the names of their nomadic tribal god, a sky god who took them out of bondage in Egypt following the triumph of Horus over Set…so many possibilities, so much lost to time, gods leading their people again and again over the horizon into new lands and new wars and in the process alloying them to new ideas and new peoples, changing and forging them again and again.
Like a blade folded for strength, nomads come and settle, and then new nomads come and merge or devastate, and the process happens again and again. The past was livid with travelers, tracking their ways across the plains and alongside the rivers, following the call of their gods, who always seemed to have some new home for them over the horizon. From the Hittites to the Agade/Akkadians, the Veda and the Celts, the Etruscans, the Phoenecians who became Carthaginans, the Germanics who washed over Latin and Celt alike …and how ironic that a people created by these invasions, descended from Celt and Saxon and even Norman, should one day occupy the Indus itself and not see that they’d traveled from Thames to Tamesa, from dark river to dark river, a circle spoken of in the Book of Invasions itself, when Domnu scolded her sister Danu for making war against her. All life is transitory. Even your children are not immortal, my sister. The time will come when they will be defeated. The time will come when no one will want gods and goddesses to nurture them, when they will be driven into the darkness, like my children have been this day. One imagines endless waves of men and women pounded against each other like raging surf…and when they die, their gods die with them, die or are twisted as surely as Lugh the Long Handed became Lugh-Chromain, a cobbler and a craftsman and eventually just the poor leprechaun. A long way to fall, from all knowing sun god to rainbow chaser searching for that pot of lost gold…and in a way, a very fitting fate for a god of a people who always marched to tame new places across the horizon. In time, will all the gods worshipped today be degraded genius loci while new religions rise? Is the proto-goddess who inspired the Morrigan, the cackling crow goddess of the battles brought about by this nomad urge, remembered today as an old crone with a hut that can walk on giant chicken feet, the Baba Yaga of the Russian Taiga where the barrow-tombs attest that once the travelers fell and were left on their endless march?
It’s not like travel has ever really left the religions that sprung up relatively recently in the wake of these elder ones, either. Both Christianity and Islam keep to their own idea of pilgrimage…indeed, Islam so kept to it that even today the hajj is considered one of the five pillars. The rihla, a book of travels, was once the height of Islamic literature, and the world of Christendom had its own travel narratives, divided pretty equally between the relatively accurate sort left behind by Marco Polo and the totally fabricated fantasies of Sir John Mandeville (and yes, I prefer the latter), and pilgrimage to the Holy Land was what originally sparked off that little matter of the Crusades (Deus Vult! Deus Vult! It is the will of God! Yet again a god sends armies into lands sacred to them, a march the Heraclidae might have approved of had it not spelled the end of Byzantium and a long decline for Greece), which in their way were probably inspired by the military means used to spread the Dar al Islam all the way into Iberia. Back and forth we march for the gods, it seems.
Horses and cattle and rivers and the sea…Poseidon and Zeus, Nuada and his mate Macha and the Gaul Esus, Krishna and Indra (known as Asura, Asvapati, and possibly cognate with Esus, a surviving remnant pair from an older deity)…those things that make civilization possible, and bring about its destruction, the double headed axe the Minoans (also great lovers of travel and cattle) so prized and feared, like the axe that once burned in the fire of blackthorn and could not hurt one who spoke the truth (appearing both in the Upanishads and Celtic myth)…like the cycle of death and rebirth known to Pythagoras, to the seanachaidhe and cyfarwydd who led the dead down the dark river Tamesis to the gate of the great oak Bile, sacred consort of Danu, the tree god who took the dead on their journey from this world to the next, the Otherworld where our dead were born again and whose dead were born in this world…and if we see this figure reflected in the World-Ash that took the dead to Hel or Valhalla, in the Tree of Life that emanated the divine spark from the worldly prison of Malkuth back up to Kether, the true world, or in the reincarnation of the soul of those given to the river Ganges through life after life…well, it does seem to be there to be seen. Ancient trackways have left their prints in us.
ljtherock wrote:Thank you for the post, very informative and interesting.
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