Category Archives: Medicine
Etymology: “Brilliant Flower” (Nahuatl)
Also Known As: Poinsettia, k’alul wits (“Ember Flower,” Mayan), Flor de Noche Buena, Christmas Eve Flower, Christmas Flower, Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, Mexican Flame Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Mexican Flame Tree, Painted Leaf, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Flor de Pascua (Spain), Pascua (Spain), Easter flower, Lobster flower, Crown of the Andes (Chile & Peru), Stella di Natale (Italian), and Weihnachtsstern (German)
For those of Western, European descent and from a country like the United States, this familiar red and green Christmas Flower is going to be more recognized by the name of Poinsettia. While there are over 150 varieties of cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia, the red poinsettia is the most popular Christmas plant right next to the Christmas Tree. During the months of November and December, the sales of these plants are huge with some 70 million being sold during a six-week period and making over $250 million within the U.S. economy. People are likely to hear misleading warnings not to let their pets eat the plant as the milky white sap is toxic to them. Then when the leaves turn yellow, the plant dies and almost everyone who’s bought one tosses them out to the landfills. Causing some to decry this horrific waste.
So how did we get this lovely holiday flower?
A Xochime Native To Mexico!
This beautiful red and green xochime or flower comes to us from Mexico, specifically southwestern Mexico and Guatemala where it grows in rocky areas like canyons. The Aztec King Montezuma would have cuetlaxochitl brought to what is now Mexico City in caravans as this flower couldn’t be grown in high altitudes. To the ancient Aztecs, this is a sacred flower connected to their celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Spanish chroniclers wrote of the hundreds of men who would carry cuetlaxochitl up to the temples in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital. Likewise, the Mayans were also known to make medicinal use of this plant.
What’s In A Name?
While I noted an etymology for “Brilliant Flower,” a more proper translation of the name cuetlaxochitl is “the Flower that withers, mortal flower that dies like all that is pure.” For the Aztecs, this flower was a gift from nature that one should admire, but never touch. The bright red leaves were seen as a symbolic reminder of the sacrificial offerings needed during the creation of the Fifth Sun. Said red color alluding to blood as what the Aztec gods required for their sacrifices.
There is debate as to what the word cuetlaxóchitl means. It has been noted that the translation of this name from Nahuatl means “leather flower” and references the red leaves used in dyes for animal skins and hides. Plus, the red leaves are as resistant as leather. There are several words in Nahuatl that all refer to leather in some way. Cuetlaxhuahuanqui for a tanner, cuetlaxtli for hide, cuetlaxtic for leathery, and cuetlaxmecatl for a leather strap to name a few. Another translation given is “cuitlatl” meaning residue or soil and “Xochitl” meaning flower so the whole word translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.”
Aztec Winter Solstice – Rebirth of the Sun!
For the Aztecs, the cuetlaxochitl was used in ceremonies to celebrate the birth of their war god, Huitzilopochtli, the Left-Handed Hummingbird at the Winter Solstice. Wild cuetlaxochitl in Central America come to full bloom close to the time of the Winter Solstice as the nights get longer, allowing them to bloom. Temples would be decorated with these flowers as their blooming coincided with Huitzilopochtli’s birth. The red of these flowers symbolize the sacred life energy of blood. The same red color also symbolized the blood of warriors who died in battle and their return to the world as hummingbirds or huitzilin to release the honey and nectar from the cuetlaxochitl flowers to bring back the light of the sun and restore the mother earth from the winter months. The star pattern of the red leaves symbolizes the sun’s rays.
Purity – Cuetlaxochitl symbolized purity and was very sacred, especially the red bracts or leaves.
For a good number of Westerners, we tend only to hear of this lovely xochime being “discovered” by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1800s. That was fine at first, when we didn’t know. There’s more history though!
Franciscan priests first used the cuetlaxochitl plants as the red and green colors are easily the same colors used in Christmas celebrations. During the 17th century, the Franciscan priests used the plants when decorating their nativity scenes while in the New World of Central and South America. Seeing when the plant blooms, it wouldn’t take much for the Franciscan friars and Catholic Church to use it to convert the local people to Christianity. The botanist Juan Balme made note of cuetlaxochitl in his writings.
Later, on Christmas Eve 1826, a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett and first US Minister to Mexico would introduce (there are some who will say he stole) the cuetlaxochitl to the U.S. while in the city of Taxco during Christmas. He came upon this intriguing flower at the Nativity scene in the local church. Poinsett asked the Franciscan monks about this bright flame-colored plant, and they gave him the name of “Flor de Nochebuena” or the Christmas Eve flower. It should be noted that Poinsett was a slave owner in his South Carolina home state and responsible for the displacement of numerous Native Americans from their lands. He held a lot of anti-Black, anti-Native American views that by today’s standards would see him booted from an office position sooner than later. Poinsett is the one responsible for instigating the Chilean civil war in 1814 that the British quashed. Poinsett held a lot of racist views and a belief that a country like Mexico could only govern itself if whites were in charge.
By the time Poinsett learned of the plant, Europe had already learned of the flower too, and described it. Cuttings of the plant had been brought back to Europe during Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 expedition. German botanist Wilenow gave cuetlaxochitl its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful.”
In 1825, Poinsett received an ambassadorship from then President Adams to Mexico in 1825. Because of what Poinsett’s mission and objectives were for: to acquire the territory of Texas from Mexico, keep Mexico from taking Cuba from Spain and reduce Britain’s influence in Mexico; those all worked to make Poinsett rather unpopular. Under President Jackson’s presidency, Poinsett was recalled back to the U.S. on December 25th, 1830. Poinsett would also later be a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution.
Poinsett’s interests in botany paved the way for his “discovery” of the cuetlaxochitl that he referred to as the “Mexican Flame Plant” and bring it back to the states where he would grow the plants and give them to friends in Greenville, South Carolina. It wouldn’t take much from there with the cuetlaxochitl blooming in December for people to quickly associate the green and reds with Christmas time. A florist, Robert Buist in Pennsylvania is the first to have sold cuetlaxochitl by its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima and in the ten years since the plant quickly became associated with American Christmas celebrations. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott who had just recently published the book “Conquest of Mexico,” came up with the name poinsettia as it became more popular during this time to honor Joel Poinsett’s “discovery” of the plant.
Poinsettismo – The meddling with Mexico’s policies, country, and relationships with another country (Britain for example, the first European country to recognize them) was so bad that Mexico and other Latin American countries came up with the term Poinsettismo to describe someone overly domineering, officious and intrusive in their behavior.
Moving forward to the early 1900’s, the Ecke family in southern California found a way to graft poinsettias so they would look bushier. They started with growing the plants outside for landscaping and as cut flowers. Paul Ecke Sr. began sending thousands of poinsettias out as gifts and donations to T.V. studios, including shows such as “The Tonight Show” and the Bob Hope Holiday Specials to promote the sale of poinsettia plants. Today, the Ecke family grows some 70% of poinsettias sold during the holiday season of Christmas which brings in some $250 million in sales.
Holiday Appropriation Or Appreciation?
Not all of history is going to be fun and enjoyable. If all we ever hear about are the good, comfortable, rosy parts to keep it all warm and fuzzy while sweeping the ugly bits under the rug; we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in the long run. Because of Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and his part in politics to destabilize a region over global, geopolitics that affected so many; we do have people, especially Hispanics, Native Americans, and other indigenous people who would like to reclaim the name Cuetlaxochitl instead of Poinsettia for this beautiful plant.
Knowing the full, if not more of the history of this flower does help to further enrich our understanding and how this flower connects to the Winter Solstice celebrations, not just Christmas. There are people who will go on about all the pagan traditions from Europe that have been rolled into Christmas. And yeah, we’re going to have those who will push to use the name Cuetlaxochitl and those who use the name Poinsettia either out of continued ignorance or it’s just easier to remember and default to.
In Mexico, with Franciscan monks seeking to convert the local peoples to the incoming religion of Christianity, the following legends and stories began to circulate as the cuetlaxochitl was adapted and given Christian symbolisms.
The star shape of the flowers are seen as similar to the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when seeking the infant Jesus. The green leaves represent the promise of life even in the dead of winter or the eternal life of Jesus with red representing the blood that he shed. Two colors that are also seen with Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries that ripen during winter.
For the Franciscans, they decorated their Nativity for Christmas. When the night for the observations came with priests and churchgoers present, much to their delight, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl turned red overnight that the Franciscans called it a miracle.
Christmas Flower – Mexican Legend
A young girl by the name of Pepita was on her way to church for the Christmas Eve observances. Being poor, Pepita realized she had forgotten to get a gift for the newborn Christ child, Jesus. Some versions insert that either her brother or a cousin comment that a humble gift will still work. Seeing some roadside weeds, Pepita gathered them up into a bouquet and brought them with her. When she arrived at the church, Pepita placed her bouquet at the base of the altar where the weeds transformed into the colorful blooms of the cuetlaxochitl. From that day forward, the cuetlaxochitl would become known as the la flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Flower.
Forbidden Love – Tlaxcala Legend
The Tlaxacalans are a people in central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs.
Once, there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a common man who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. However, the princess’ parents forbade her from seeing this common man. The princess’ heart ached such that from her longing, a beautiful red flower sprung forth from her chest as a reminder of forbidden love.
White Cuetlaxochitl – Aztec Legend
The Aztecs are known to have expanded their empire and territories, much like other cultures throughout history. One region is that of Taxco who also grew and cultivated cuetlaxochitl and that these flowers were white. When the Aztecs came through with their armies and annihilated the people around Taxco, leaving few survivors. When the following October came, the Aztecs were surprised to see the cuetlaxochitl turn red instead of white. For the locals, this was the gods of Taxco ensuring their people were remembered and that the conquering Aztecs would never forget.
This day falls on December 12th and is comparatively new. It’s a national day in the U.S. with the bill being signed in 2002 by the U.S. Congress. This particular date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of Poinsett’s death in 1851. The day is also to honor the Californian farmer, Paul Eckes who made a profitable market selling Poinsettias during Christmas time.
Most of the sites that I found discussing this day focus on a very American-centric history with Joel Poinsett’s “discovery,” how he found the plant at a nativity scene and sent cuttings home where eventually the plant finds its way as a seasonal, holiday flower.
December 12th is also the same day that Mexico celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, their title for the Virgin Mary and mother of Jesus.
Now, we go to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, the day to honor the cuetlaxochitl flower falls on December 7th.
Dying – The red leaves or bracts and bark would be used as a reddish-purple dye for fabrics.
Facial Cream – The white sap was used as a depilatory or hair removal.
Gardening – The Mayans and even among the Teenek people living in southeastern Mexico grow and decorate with their gardens with k’alul wits not just for aesthetics but for medical uses as well.
The holidays are over, time to toss out the poinsettia!
Wait, you don’t have to, you can actually keep your poinsettia longer and with the right care, get it to bloom for you next year!
It’s not known exactly how cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia are pollinated. The plant has been able to successfully grow in the wilds in several countries outside of Central America where seeds have been blown by the wind. It is thought that hummingbirds are a key pollinator for cuetlaxochitl in its native ranges where they can grow up to 15 feet, a little over 4.5 meters in height.
For the record, the flowers of a cuetlaxochitl are small and yellow while it’s the bracts that are red.
Ideally you will want somewhere warm for your cuetlaxochitl to grow with temperatures between 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit much like the tropical regions it hails from. You will also want to keep your cuetlaxochitl out of direct light, placing it near a window for about six hours of sunlight. Too much direct sun can cause the leaves to fade.
During the lengthening nights of winter is when the plant will begin to bloom, and the familiar red leaves and yellow flowers appear. Starting in late September, the cuetlaxochitl will need 14-16 hours of darkness and reaches full bloom by December. You can help your indoor cuetlaxochitl by placing it in a box and covering it with a cloth to simulate this dark period if you have it indoors.
When it comes to watering your cuetlaxochitl, only do it when the soil is dry, and don’t let your plant sit in that water as that will cause root rot. There is also no need for any fertilizer when the plant is blooming.
Warning – Do seek out an accredited source or learn from a traditional teacher who has extensive knowledge about any medical uses for cuetlaxochitl as the online sources are very limited.
The information presented here is a rough overview of how and what medical uses the plant was used for and there’s a solid lack of proper preparations listed here. Most of the sources were hesitant to mention doses or say not at all without seeking out that accredited source.
Toxicity! – Too often it gets passed around the toxicity of this plant to pets and not to let your cat, dog or even children chew on or eat the leaves.
Cuetlaxochitl aren’t that type of poisonous, as members of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family of plants, they do have a milky white sap that can be a source of skin irritation if you’re allergic to latex as this is the substance latex is made of.
As to the leaves, those aren’t very appetizing, they can cause upset stomachs and vomiting if you eat the leaves. However, you’d have to eat more than a pound of leaves to have any adverse effects.
On the safe side, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES!
Conjunctivitis – The flowers apparently could be crushed into a paste to use for treating this ailment. Another source says an infusion of the flowers to make a wash and then applied as a poultice.
Fever – The Aztecs used the white sap to treat fevers by dabbing it on. This helped with respiratory diseases, mumps, and heart conditions. Poultices or teas? I don’t know.
Hemorrhaging – The Mayans and the Teenek people have a remedy of boiling the yellow inflorescence and red bracts for treating either a woman’s hemorrhaging or bleeding.
Lactation – The Aztecs used the white, milky sap by rubbing it on women’s breasts to promote their milk flow. There was also rubbing it on the woman’s back. Another medicinal use was making a tea of the leaves for a woman to drink.
Skin Infections & Irritations – A poultice from the leaves would be made using the milky sap for treating various skin diseases.
Snake Bites – Boiling and drinking the root can reduce the effects of a snake bite.
Stomach Aches – Crushed roots in a paste helped with these ailments. Not too large a dose or vomiting could happen.
Warts – The latex that can be created from the sap can be used to get rid of warts. Much like a folk remedy with Dandelions and using its milky white sap to get rid of warts…
Still, without any accredited sources, I wouldn’t use or I’d be very hesitant to use any of these remedies. But they are interesting to note.
Also Known As: Benec, Vėlinas (Baltic, Lithuanian),Volos, Volusu, Volusu, Vyeles, Ganyklos (Lithuanian), Vlas (Russian), Walgino, Weles
Epitaphs: King of Bears, Lord of all Wolves, Master of the Forest, “Skotiybog“ (God of Cattle)
Etymology: “Uel-“ to see, fields, spirits of the dead. Also likely from the proto-Indo-European word “wel-“ wool
In Slavic beliefs, folklore, and mythology, Veles is a god of many things from storms and trickery to God of the underworld and domestic animals as well as the god of the earth and water. Veles is indeed a significant and major supernatural force within Slavic mythology and beliefs. Depending upon your source, some of it can seem rather contradictory.
Given the nature of Slavic beliefs, there isn’t much concrete documentation. There is still a lot of oral history and traditions about Veles found in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. All of this can get very confusing as for the longest time, first with the arrival of Christianity, a lot of local Slavic pagan beliefs were done away with and made to be seen as aspects of evil and the devil. Then later, when that’s no longer so prominent, there just isn’t a lot that has been documented and what survives has been by oral tradition and that, can vary widely by local, regional traditions that have managed to get passed on. We also hit on several dubious sources that over time have proven not to be reliable.
Naturally, this will be where I’ve got some mistakes and expect I Veles to be a post I will come back to correct several times and update.
Animal: Bear, Cattle, Crows, Dragons, Owl, Ravens, Rooster, Serpents, Wolf
Colors: Black, Blue, Green, Red
Day of the Week: Sunday
Directions: North, West
Element: Earth, Water
Gemstones: Bloodstone, Garnet, Jasper, Jet, Obsidian, Onyx
Incense: Cedar, Clove, Ginger, Wormwood
Month: February, March
Plant: Cedar, Hawthorne, Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, Pine, Wheat, Willow
Sphere of Influence: Cattle, Commerce, Divination, Fertility, Magic, Medicine, Music, Pastures, Underworld, Wealth, Wildlife
Symbols: Cattle, Horns, Serpents, Wool
Tarot: Cups, Pentacles
In some sources, Veles is described as a wolf-headed god. In other sources, Veles is described as a large serpent with horns that lives in the water or is pictured at the bottom of the Slavic World Tree with Perun in his eagle form at the top. Frequently, Veles is depicted as an elderly man with a gray beard and hair. As a shapeshifter, Veles often takes on the traits of those animals favored or associated with him such as horns and bear fur.
When in the form of a bear, Veles is regarded as the King of Bears. As a wolf, among the southern Slavs, Veles is the lord of all wolves.
Velinas – In the Balto-Slavic regions, a description is given that describes him as being a one-eyed god with a gift for divination and leader of the Wild Hunt, lord of the dead, and to whom people sacrificed to were killed with a spear. This version of Veles warrants having its own post as one source found, discusses Velinas as similar to, yet clearly different from Veles. Taking a look at the Mediterranean region among the Greek and Roman cultures, there were other culture groups like the Etruscans, the Dacians, Phrygians who have their own local deities who were similar to those of the Greek and Roman deities and would frequently be absorbed into the Greco-Roman pantheons and survive as epitaphs for the local region.
What’s In A Name?
According to the linguist Roman Jakobson, the name Veles comes from the word “uel-“ and “esu-“ while the name Volos comes from another root word for where “-el” changes to “olo.” The root word “uel” or “wel-“ can have variable meanings and refer to any number of words such as “to die,” “grass,” “to see,” “to want,” “to turn,” “to cull,” “tepid”, “hair,” “wool,” “forest,” and “deception” as in magical deceptions. The book “The Mythology of All Races” published in 1918 says that Veles’ name comes from “weles” for wolf.
The root word “uel” is also related to the proto-Germanic word “walaz” that is also seen in the old Norse “valr,” “valkyria,” and “Valholl” all words related to the Norse god Odin who is known too by the name “Valfǫðr.” In the Baltic dialects and language, we see this reflected in the word “vėlės/veļi” for the “spirits of the dead,” “shade of the deceased,” and “shadow of death.”. This is reflected in the Baltic god’s names of Vėlinas, Velnias, and Velns. A connection of the word “uel” from “ṷélsu-“ for meadow or pasture has been made with the Greek Elysium, the fields of the blessed dead.
Where “uel-“ relates with “to see,” there is a connection in the name of the seeress Veleda. Going off this, in Norse mythology there is a “Völva,” a seeress connected to water and foretelling known as “Völuspa.” The word “Völuspa” is connected to spinning or braiding the Thread of Fate of those whose futures have been seen. “Völva” is also the cognate for a “Wheel” or “Spinning Wheel.”
In the proto-Indo-European language, etymologists have found the root word “wel-“ meaning wool and likely where the English word “wool” comes from. The Russian word for “hair” is “volos.” As a god of horned cattle and other livestock, this makes sense.
First off, “The Primary Chronicle” is the main source and historical record that provides us with evidence for Veles’ importance and worship. Veles is one of the Slavic gods that can be concretely confirmed while there are several others that have been disproved or there’s still information being gathered to confirm them.
Veles is worshiped in two distinct forms. One as Veles and one as Volos. This makes sense as that can be a way to break down all the aspects of what Veles is a god of and the domains he presides over. Scholars and etymologists suggest that Veles and Volos are two different gods being referred to. However, that does make sense for a need to see two different deities once the Slavic regions began to be Christianized and there’s a split of Veles’ dualistic nature.
Cocks or Roosters would be sacrificed to Veles at the rivers or lakes sacred to him.
During the later 10th century, Vladimir I, the Prince of Kiev erected seven statues in his city, of which Veles was one of them. However, Veles’ statue is the only one that didn’t stand up on the hill next to the other statues and castle. Instead, Veles’ statue could be found in the city in the marketplace. This placement indicates strongly Veles’ importance to commerce. Plus, it also shows that the worship of Perun and Veles needed to be kept separate as Perun’s shrines and worship were to be conducted up high with Veles’ place down in the lowlands. Among the Southern Slavs, Veles’ name is often found in place names.
Triglav – Veles was worshipped as an aspect of the three-headed Slavic god Triglav and the Slavic trinity consisting of Perun, Veles, and Svarog.
With the arrival of Christianity in the Slavic regions and countries, the aspect of Veles has largely been suppressed, at least the aspects connecting him to the Underworld and as a trickster. He has been equated with the Devil with his name becoming the same word for ghosts and devils. There is a record of Czech’s referring to Veles as a devil in the 16th century. An idol was thrown in the Pocayna River. Veles is used frequently in medieval curses from Bohemia.
Due to Veles’ dualistic nature, we see a split in his name with Veles and Volos. The name Veles under Christian influence holding a more negative connotations and associations. Whereas with Volos, he is held more benignly, and this aspect survives, becoming associated with different Saints.
St. Blaise – Or Saint Vlas, Saint Vlaho, St. Blaz, or St. Vlasiy, he is connected more to the aspect of Volos, he is a shepherd and patron saint cattle and domestic animals. Icons of St. Vlas were placed in cattle sheds for their protection. The Saint’s name day is February 12th and, on this day, cattle are treated to a special feed to eat. In Yaroslavl, the church built on the site of Vele’s shrine was dedicated to St. Blaise.
St. Nicholas – Veles is associated with this saint who is a patron of merchants, fishermen, and mariners. There is also this connection due to the association with water and being a snake who is slain by St. George, a motif similar to the enmity between Perun and Veles.
Parentage and Family
Father – Rod, the creator god in Slavic beliefs.
Mother – Zemun, a divine or celestial cow.
Sometimes Veles’ parents are given as Svarog and Lada.
Perun and Dażbóg
Depending on the region or the source cited, Veles is married either to Mokosh, the goddess of the earth, or to Devana, a goddess of the wilds and hunt.
Mokosh – She is somewhat conflicting as in other stories Mokosh is the wife to Perun and whom Veles kidnaps in their never-ending feud.
Devana – Or Dziewanna was forced to marry Veles after she rebelled against Perun.
Jarilo – A fertility god raised by Veles after being kidnapped. So he may not really count.
The struggle against Chaos; this is a familiar motif found throughout the world in many different regions and mythologies of a culture hero or God going up against a creature of chaos. This creature is often shown as and takes the form of a great serpent or dragon. This is the familiar Knight slaying the Dragon seen in many European mythologies. Parallels to this concept are even found in other cultures.
This aspect is seen in the descriptions of Veles where he is a serpent with horns and the battle that he has with Perun. It’s a dragon or serpent-slaying motif seen with the story of Saint George slaying the dragon.
Storm Myth – Battle With Perun, the Storm God
As previously mentioned above under Chaoskampf, this story is perhaps the best-known Slavic story, especially as it fits into the Christian ideas of a hero slaying the dragon or evil or order triumphing over chaos.
Russian scholars and philologists Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov have reconstructed this mythical battle of Perun and Veles with comparative studies to various Indo-European myths, Slavic folk tales, and songs.
Perun, the god of thunder battles against Veles in his dragon form. Depending on the story, Veles has stolen either Perun’s son, wife, or cattle which leads to their conflict.
As a challenge, in the shape of a huge serpent, Veles comes up from the underworld of Nav and wind his way up the Slave World Tree towards the heavens and Perun’s domain. Naturally, Perun responds by sending lightning bolts so that Veles flees back down and turns himself into various animals, people, and even trees to escape from or ambush Perun as they battle it out.
In the end, Veles is slain by Perun and the person or thing that Veles is to have stolen is released from within his body and it comes out in the form of falling rain from the heavens.
Scholars have commented that this “Storm Myth” is probably how the ancient Slavs would explain the changing of the seasons throughout the year. Any dry periods would be seen as Veles’ theft with the storms and lightning being interpreted as a divine battle up in the heavens and Perun’s ultimate triumph over Veles with the arrival of rain and Perun establishing order over chaos.
The Slavs have a saying that wherever lighting strikes, that is Perun attacking Veles.
Variation 1 – In the stories where Veles kidnaps Perun’s son, it is Jarilo, the tenth son who is stolen. Veles then raises Jarilo as his own son, who when he is older, becomes a god of fertility and heralds the arrival of spring when he returns to the lands of the living.
Variation 2 – It is Perun who is stolen as an infant and raised in the underworld. Once Perun is grown, he battles many creatures in order to fight his way back up to the mortal world.
Since the “Storm Myth” is cyclical and repeats every year. It connects Veles as a god of fertility and a god who dies and then is resurrected. The snake or serpent aspect of Veles would be him shedding his old skin or old life to be reborn as the year changes.
The “Storm Myth” and battle with Perun places Veles in a more negative role as one who brings chaos. Certainly, change is chaotic, but there is a pattern that emerges and soon you can make sense of that pattern and bring about a certain order to things so it doesn’t get destructive.
For the ancient Slavs, Veles wasn’t evil, he was the god of the wilds and nature which can appear to be very unpredictable if you’re not careful or respectful.
Later Christian influences will place him as evil and why in so many places Veles’ name does become synonymous with the devil and evil. But we do see where Veles appears as a Saint such as Saint Nicholas to save a poor farmer’s cattle from the destructiveness of St. Elias, a representative of Perun.
While Perun is more associated with agriculture, there is a Russian custom during harvest season to cut the first ear of wheat and tie it into an amulet that would protect crops from evil spirits. This was known as “tying the beard of Veles” which meant to invoke good fortune and wealth.
Duality – Ultimately the conflict of Perun and Veles is the duality in the clash of good and evil and the cyclical nature of the passing of the seasons and year. Veles represents the earth, water, and physical world and Perun represents fire, the heavens, and spirit.
Marriage To Devana
Also known as Dziewanna, she is a goddess of the wilds and hunt. As punishment, Devana found herself forced to marry Veles after she rebelled against Perun. Wanting to be wild and free, Devana didn’t initially love Veles at first despite the two having a domain that’s very similar to each other. After a bit of thought, Veles managed to win Devana over when he changed into a basil flower and calmed her. While they’re still not really in love, together they do watch over the lowlands of the wilds and are a force not to be taken lightly.
God of Mischief
Like Loki, Veles is considered a god of mischief and trickery. This ties strongly to the association of Veles’ use of magic, shapeshifting, and the arts. This aspect holds where Veles is seen as a god of chaos and a disruption during any long periods of dryness, or no rain as primarily seen in the “Storm Myth.”
Magic & The Arts
In this aspect, we see Veles the god of divination, magic, music, poetry, the earth, and water. Oaths would be sworn in Veles’ name. Traveling musicians, skalds, bards, and poets were known to pray to Veles for his protection as they traveled.
As a god of poetry, divination, and the arts, Veles has been equated with the Norse Odin. There is a 12th-century Russian epic, “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign,” where the character Boyan the wizard is referred to as Vele’s grandson. Poetry, music, and magic were closely linked in both Nordic and Slavic beliefs.
Veles is regarded as a protector of traveling musicians. Up into the 20th century, in some wedding ceremonies held in northern Croatia, the music won’t begin playing unless the groom while making a toast, spills some of the wine onto the ground, especially near the roots of a tree. This tradition would be musicians making a toast to their patron deity.
The Slavic magician-priests were called: volhov, volchvi, vlъsvi and volъsvi. They were not priests of an elite religion like those belonging to Perun. Rather, these magician-priests were known to be seers, soothsayers, poets, magicians and sorcerers as well as healers and herbalists. It is thought the etymology of volchys connects them to Volos.
God of the Underworld
Veles is a god of the Underworld, in charge of the spirits of the dead whom he would send out as his messengers. In his connection to the earth, Veles is also a god of all the bounties and riches of the earth, growing above and found below.
Nav – Also known as Nawia, this is Veles’ abode in the underworld. Incidentally, the word nav could also refer to the spirits or souls of the deceased who had premature deaths or poor deaths such as drowning, or being murdered, or if you were a murderer or warlock, these were all spirits that would come back as demons to afflict the living. The navias could take the form of birds. In Bulgaria, there is folklore that says twelve navias could suck the blood from a pregnant woman. The navias were also the demonic representation of the 1092 plague in Polotsk, Belarus.
Very similar to Norse beliefs, the Slavs also believed a huge world tree connected the mortal world to the heavens and the underworld. The roots of the world tree formed the roof of the underworld as they stretched out.
Where Perun was seen as either a hawk or eagle sitting in the branches of the world tree looking out over the heavens, Veles was seen as a huge serpent coiled around the roots ruling over the underworld.
Unlike descriptions of other underworlds, Nav was viewed as a beautiful place in folktales as a place where it’s forever Spring with green, grassy plains and plenty of water. Many fantastical creatures could be found here, not just the spirits of the dead who watched over Veles’ herds of cattle.
For the Slavs, Nav was described as being somewhere “across the sea” and was the place where migrating birds would go to every winter. In folktales, we find a different name, Virey or Iriv and that Jarilo, the god of fertility and vegetation lived here during winter and would return when it was time for spring. Jarilo would cross the seas, returning to the lands of the living bringing spring and birds back.
The Separation Of The Human World & Underworld
This story concerns the separation and boundary separating the mortal, living world with that of the underworld and lands of the dead. A shepherd pledged to Veles to sacrifice his best cow and to keep the god’s prohibitions. From this, Veles divides the human world and the underworld with either a furrow that he plows or groove over the road that the shepherd carves with a knife to prevent evil or negative powers from crossing.
God of Cattle
As Volos, he is known as “skotiybog,“ the god of cattle who watches over and protects flocks, cattle and all domestic animals, keeping them from harm. The name skotnyi bog is also the name for livestock in general. This aspect of Veles survives and continued under Christian influence well into the 18th century as Saint Blaise where he is a protector of shepherds and their flocks or cattle.
It must be noted too that it isn’t just domestic animals that Volos watches over, but all wild animals, connecting him to the image of him as a horned serpent and thus, horned gods like Pan or Cernunnos who watch over the forests and animals. In addition to the horns associated with either a bull or ram, there is also sheep’s wool that is used as a symbol for Veles.
The Koledari would sing that they come to “weaving black wool.” There is some folklore involving wool and the expressions, “presti vunu” meaning weaving wool, and “crnu vunu presti” meaning the weaving of black wool. These are illusions to magical crafts and Veles’ role as a god of magic.
God of Commerce & Wealth
Given how cattle were regarded as a sign of wealth and influence, it’s not hard to see Volos become the god and patron of commerce, business, prosperity, trade, and wealth. Merchants would seal their agreements by swearing Volos’ name and even legal documents would sometimes have oaths to him. If you broke an oath, you could be sure of Volos’ punishment and retribution.
A Rus-Byzantine Treaty of 971 is the earliest record we have where signers swore by Vele’s name with violators being warned of a punishment. They would be killed by their own weapons that would become “yellow as gold.” It is thought that this meant they would be cursed with a disease.
Veles’ Feast Day
Or the Festival of Veles, this festival is celebrated either February 11th or 24th for the observance of midwinter. In Christian folk rituals, this festival corresponds with Saint Blaise’s feast day. In the Orthodox traditions, St. Blaise as the protector of cattle is said to have defeated Winter or Morana. Among Catholic traditions, St. Blaise is the patron of throat diseases and apples and candles are blessed to provide protection from those diseases. In Catholic tradition, St. Blaise’s feast day is February 3rd and apples would be sacrificed to him by feeding them to cattle.
Prayers would be offered to Veles for the protection of livestock and their health by sacrificing milk. The festival would be held near a place of worship. During this time, it is forbidden to eat veal. The food eaten during this time is groats seasoned with fat. Ritual fights would also be held during this festival.
The best part is knowing that this held close to Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia!
The Great Night, in Slavic beliefs, following a lunar calendar, the first day of the New Year would begin on what corresponds with the Gregorian calendar of March 1st to celebrate the end of Winter and return of Spring. This festival could last from Christmas all the way to the end of February. After the arrival and Christianization of many Slavic countries, for those Slavs falling under the Orthodox Churches, this day came to be known as Velik Dan or the Great Day. For the Catholic Slavs, this day became Velika Noc, still the Great Night. Both names correspond with the day or the week in which Easter is observed.
In pre-Christian worship, Velja Noc is the night that the spirits of the dead walk the earth and would enter villages and homes to celebrate the New Year with their living relatives. It is believed that Veles, as the god of the underworld would send out the souls of the dead to the living world to act as his messengers. One tradition has young men known as koledari or vucari would dress up in long coats of sheep wool and wear grotesque masks as they went around the villages making a lot of noise and singing songs. They would be wet and muddy to symbolize the wet underworld of Nav and the ghosts of the dead. In the koledari traditions, they would visit different homes and people presented them with gifts as if they were messengers from Veles to gain his favor for wealth and fortune in the following year.
Which I find very fascinating as this all sounds very much like the Irish celebration of Samhain and Halloween with spirits of the dead passing over to the world of the living and dressing up in costume. Plus, the spirits visiting living relatives is a lot like celebrations of Día de Los Muertos in Mexico and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, France.
Apsat – A Georgian or Sarmatian deity and god of cattle and herds who has been equated with Velese.
Cernunnos – A god of the druids in Celtic myth, he is symbolized as a horned snake and god of nature and horned animals.
Hermes – A trickster god and messenger of the Greek pantheon, Veles has been compared to them.
Loki – Veles has been compared to the trickster god Loki from Norse mythology.
Mercury – The trickster and messenger god of the Roman pantheon.
Odin – Some descriptions of Veles also sound just like Odin with his one-eye and gift of prophecy.
Triglav – A three-headed underworld god worshiped by the Pomeranians and some of the Polabian Slavs in Szczecin, Wolin and Brandenburg. It was a short-lived cult confirmed by St. Otto of Bamberg in his biographies.
Vala – A demon who opposes the thunder god Indra in the Vedas.
Vėlinas – A Baltic deity who is very similar in appearance to the Norse Odin and not just Veles.
Pronounced: BRIJ-id or BREE-id
Etymology: “Exalted” (Old Irish), “High”
Also Spelled: Brigit, Brid, Brig
Also Called: Brigantia, Brid, Bride, Briginda, Brigdu, Brigit, Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, Brighid Conception of the Waves, Brighid-Sluagh (or Sloigh), Brighid of the Immortal Host, Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brighid of the Slim Fairy Folk, Brighid-Binne-Bheule-lhuchd-nan-trusganan-uaine, Song-sweet (melodious mouthed), Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles, Brighid of the Harp, Brighid of the Sorrowful, Brighid of Prophecy, Brighid of Pure Love, St. Bride of the Isles, Bride of Joy
Titles & Epitaphs: The Bright One, Fiery Arrow, Fire of the Forge, Fire of the Hearth, Fire of Inspiration, The Powerful One, The High One, Great Mother Goddess of Ireland, Lady of the Sacred Flame, Eternal Flame of Life, Flame of Inspiration, The Mistress of the Mantle
The goddess Brigid is an ancient Irish goddess who pre-dates the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. A member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the daughter of the Dagda, Brigid’s influence was such that after Christianity’s arrival, she would be adopted as a Saint when Catholicism couldn’t wipe out the old beliefs.
It has to be noted that a lot of early Celtic, Irish history has been lost and what we do have that survives about Brigid is through the filter of Christianity.
Animal: Oxen, Boars, Serpents, Sheep, Domestic Animals
Colors: Black, Blue, Green, Red, White, Yellow
Element: Fire, Water
Gem Stone: Agate, Amethyst, Carnelian, Fire Agate, Jasper
Metal: Brass, Copper, Gold, Iron, Silver
Month: February (“Mí na Féile Bride” or “The Month of the Festival of Brigit”)
Patron of: Arts & Crafts, Cattle, Domestic Animals, Smithing, Poetry, Healing, Medicine, Sacred Wells, Spring
Planet: Sun, Venus
Plant: Bay, Broom, Chamomile, Corn, Crocus, Dandelion, Heather, Oak, Oat, Pumpkin, Rosemary, Rushes, Sage, Shamrock, Snowdrop, Straw, Thyme, Trillium
Sphere of Influence: Agriculture, Divination, Domesticated Animals, all Feminine Arts, Fertility, Healing, the Hearth, Inspiration, Knowledge, Love, Martial Arts, Poetry, Prophecy, Protection, Smithing, Wisdom
Symbols: Brigid’s Cross, Corn Dolly
There are several aspects attributed to Brigid. Some of these are easily figured out from the myths and stories surrounding Brigid. Others do not appear to be so cut and dry as they vary based on individual Wiccan and modern Pagan traditions.
What’s In A Name
I’m sure there are more than a few who saw the title and immediately popped off how there are other spellings to the name Brigid. And they are correct. The spellings of Brigid, Brighid, and Brigit are all variations of the same name. Notably, the spelling of Brigit is the old Irish spelling with the others representing more modern spellings. A spelling reform in 1948 sees the name changed to a spelling of Brid.
It’s of interest and note the Proto Indo-European word “brgentih” (and I’ve likely got that spelling wrong still) that’s the feminine form of “bergonts” meaning “high.” This is similar to the Proto-Celtic word Briganti meaning “The High One.” This is taken to be a cognate of the ancient British goddess Brigantia. In Sanskrit, there is the word Brhati that also means “high” and is the epithet of the Hindi dawn goddess Ushas. This has caused the suggestion by the scholar Xavier Delamarre that Brigid could be a continuation of an Indo-European dawn goddess.
From there, you can see the potential of how this word has continued in various European languages, the first bit of evidence is pointed towards the Medieval Latin spelling of Brigit for its written form. This connection continues with all the modern English spellings of Bridget and Bridgit, the Austrian Bregenz, the Finnish Piritta, the French Brigitte, the Gallacian Braga and Bragança, the Gaulish Brigindu, the Great Britain Brigantia and Brigantis, the Italian Brigida, the Old High German Burgunt, the Scottish Brighde and Bride, the Swedish Birgitta, and the Welsh Ffraid, Braint or Breint.
The Sanas Cormaic or Cormac’s Glossary gives the name Breo Saighead that’s supposed to mean “fiery arrow.” This etymology is considered suspect by scholars today.
Epitaph Versus Proper Name
Further, one thing I found, focuses on the etymology of the root word or syllable “brig.” The name has been noted to appear in a lot of places with numerous, regional variations. When going back to the ancient Celts, this word “brig” is said evoke a sense of power with just the meaning of “Exalted” or “High.”
Noted too is that there are at least three goddesses with the variation of brig in their names. Brigindo in Gaul, Brigantia in Northern England, Brig of Ireland, and Bricta. This has caused some to come to the conclusion that all of these goddesses are the same one.
Parentage and Family
Father – The Dagda, an All-Father figure, King or Chief and Druid of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Mother – Danu, the Mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Other sources will list the Morrigan as Brigid’s mother.
Cermait, Aengus, Aed, Bodb Derg, Brigid the healer, and Brigid the smith, Midir
Bres – A Fomorian, appointed King by Nuada in order to bring peace.
Tuireann – Another story places Brigid having married him.
Ruadán – Brigid’s son with Bres, he would later be killed by Goibniu.
Brian, Iuchar, and Irchaba – Brigid’s sons with Tuireann. These three sons slew Cian, the father of Lugh of the Long-Arm while transformed into a pig.
Tuatha Dé Danann
Or the people of Danu, they are considered the original inhabitants and gods of Ireland. It should be of little surprise that Brigid is from this lineage of deities. In some sources, Brigid is identified as being Danu herself.
Birth Of A Goddess
Brigid is an ancient goddess worshipped throughout much of Ireland. The few legends that survive, hold that Brigid was born at the exact moment of dawn. That Brigid rose up into the sky with the rising sun with rays of fire or light coming from her head. Wherever Brigid walked, flowers and shamrocks would grow. As an infant, Brigid was fed milk from a sacred cow of the Otherworld.
Otherworld – Liminal Boundaries
As a goddess of the dawn as that is the time of day that Brigid was born, she has a connection to the Otherworld. In the Celtic world, that is the land of Faery. Brigid also owned an apple orchard in the Otherworld and bees would bring her their nectar to the earth.
As a goddess and guardian of domesticated animals, the most common are cattle or oxen. The animals belonging to Brigid are said to cry out warnings. As a goddess of the land, when the land was in turmoil, Brigid’s sacred animals would keen for it.
Cirb – the “king of wethers,” one of the rams that belong to Brigid. The plain of Cirb is named after this ram.
Fea & Femen – These are two of the ox that Brigid is said to have. The Mag Fea, the plain of the River Barrow, and Mag Femin, the plain of the River Suir are both named after them. Other sources will name these oxen as being from Dil and are “radiant of beauty.”
Torc Triath – the “king of boars” also belongs to Brigid. The plain of Treithirne is named after this boar.
Goddess of Blacksmithing
The art of blacksmithing and forging metal has been held as a mystical art in many older cultures and religions. By today’s standards that doesn’t seem so mystical. It does still require a lot of strength, skill, and knowledge to shape and bend molten metal into various forms.
As a goddess of blacksmithing, this aspect of creation also extends itself to other crafts and arts.
Goddess & Protector Of The Hearth
Some have seen in the perpetual fires kept at Kildare, that this also connects Brigid as a goddess of the hearth. Much like the Roman Vestia and Greek Hestia who kept the hearth. The women of the household would keep the home fires going, going over it at night to seek out Brigid’s protection of the home.
With Brigid’s connection to her celebration at Imbolc, she is seen as a fertility goddess as this spring celebration held in February saw many livestock having given birth for the coming year. As a fertility goddess, Brigid is also a mother goddess who would protect mothers and babies.
It is also interesting to note, with Brigid’s name, we see one shortening of the name to Brid or Bride from which the English word for a bride, for marriage comes from. Certain stories out of Celtic lore strongly show the tie that a King has with the land. That there would need to be a marriage to the goddess of the land to ensure the strength and welfare of the kingdom.
The snake enters here as a symbol of regeneration and renewal, connecting her to Spring.
Goddess Of Healing
As a goddess of the arts and crafts and see in Saint Brigid of Kildare, the goddess Brigid is also a goddess of healing, who knows all the herbs and arts needed for healing.
Goddess Of Poetry & Wisdom
As a goddess who oversaw many numerous aspects of early Irish life, it’s little wonder that many people feel an affinity for Brigid. Even in Cormac’s Glossary, written in the 9th century C.E., Christian monks wrote how Brigid is “the goddess whom poets adored.” Lady Augusta Gregory also describes Brigit as a woman of poetry and whom poets worshiped.
There isn’t much known about how the ancient Celts and their beliefs. As a goddess of poetry, Brigid could easily be a goddess who oversaw the passing on of oral traditions and stories. Brigid could also be the goddess who inspires creativity much like the Greek muses.
Filid – This is a class of poets who are known and said to have worshiped Brigid.
Brigid – Deific Title
Back to Cormac’s Glossary, this source explains how Brigid has two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. The book further explains that the name Brigid is a title that all Irish goddesses hold. It would explain the proliferation of the name Brigid and the numerous spelling variations as a personal name.
The Lebor Gabála Érenn
Also known as The Book of Invasions, this text chronicles the origins of the Tuatha Dé Danann and their battles against the Fomorians and Firbolgs.
Cath Maige Tuired – During the First Battle of Magh Tuiredh, King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann lost his hand the battle against the Fomorians. As a result, by the Tuatha Dé Danann customs, Nuada wasn’t seen as a whole and could no longer lead.
As a final act with abdicating the throne and hoping to bring peace between the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomorians, Nuada appointed Bres of the Fomorians king and Brigid of the Tuatha Dé Danann married Bres to seal the alliance.
Side note: During this era of Irish history, lineages were matrilineal, so it really is not as much of surrendering to the Fomorians as it appears.
Second Battle of Moytura – Brigid and Bres’ union would result in a son, Ruadan who later on is killed by Goibniu. When Ruadán died, Brigid began keening, a combination of singing and wailing as she mourned her son’s death. Keening is the Irish custom among women to wail and mourn the loss of their relatives.
Brigid is also noted for the invention of a whistle used for traveling at night.
Either as a goddess or as a saint, many holy wells throughout Ireland were held sacred by Brigid. A practice is known as Well dressing, where rags would be tied off on trees next to trees were the means by which to petition Brigid for healing from her sacred wells or to honor her.
Places, where the water came up from the earth, were seen as portals to the Otherworld and the source of Brigid’s power of divining and prophecy.
Wishing Wells – Water is symbolic of wisdom and healing. There was a custom born from the belief that Brigid would reward any offering to her. Offerings of coins would be tossed into her wells. This custom would become the custom of wishing wells and tossing a penny into a fountain of water.
Brigid’s Well in County Clare – Located near the Cliffs of Moher, this well is located at a church and is near the church’s cemetery.
Brigid’s Well in Kildare – Perhaps the most well-known of Brigid’s wells, the waters of this well were believed to heal any ailments or wounds.
Also called a triskele, this is a three or four-armed cross that is made from rushes or straw. It is an ancient symbol that would be set over doors and windows to protect the home from harm. One tradition says this cross will protect the home from fire.
Also known as Candlemas and called Latha Fheill in Gaelic, this is Brigid’s feast day that is held either February 1st or 2nd, it is a festival that celebrates the first day of Spring within Irish tradition and marked the beginning of the year. Brigid’s connection to the element of fire and as a Sun goddess shows her connection with this celebration. In the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, and Eastern Orthodox Church, this day is known as Saint Brigid’s Day.
Modern Observances of this day outside of modern Paganism and Wicca often know February 2nd to coincide with Groundhog’s Day, the day when the groundhog comes out and sees its shadow or not will predict a longer or shorter winter. In the Carmina Gadelica, a snake coming out of a mound on Latha Fheill to predict a longer or shorter winter.
On this day, people are known to create the Brigid’s Cross for the protection of the home. A dolly made out of straw or corn that represents Brigid is invited into the house by the matriarchy of the family. This dolly is dressed in white and placed in a basket to bless the house. Offerings of loaves of bread, milk, and a candle are left out. A cake known as a bairin or breac would be baked by farmer’s wives as they invited the neighbors over to enjoy the festivities of a long winter over and the arrival of Spring.
Farmers were known to give gifts of butter and buttermilk to their less fortunate neighbors. Other farmers will kill some of their sheep livestock to send the meat to those in need. Brigid herself, either as a goddess or Saint was known to travel around the countryside on the eve of Imbolc, blessing the people and their livestock.
Scottish Story – In this story, Brigid as Bride is kidnapped by Beira, the Queen of Winter. Bride was held prisoner on the mountain Ben Nevis. In order to free Bride, a spell would need to be cast, a spell that would take three days from the month of August. Freed, Bride the goddess of the sun is now able to bring back the sun and light and thus Spring.
It has been noted that Brigid has two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. There’s a strong suggestion that Brigid may have been revered as a triple goddess. Even in modern Wicca and Neo-Paganism, she is a goddess often identified with the Maiden aspect of the Goddess. In this aspect, Brigid is worshiped alongside Cernunnos in many traditions. It has also been commented that as a triple goddess, it could account for there being so many local goddesses who may have happened to share the same name.
Darlughdacha – Dr. Mary Condren has suggested that Darlughdacha may have been the original name for the goddess Brigid, that Brigid as the “Exalted One” is a title.
The name Darlughdacha appears again when Brigid is Christianized as Saint Brigid. Here Darlughdacha is a very close friend and companion of Saint Brigid, even so far as to share the same bed.
Hmm… very interesting. This Darlughdacha becomes the abbess of Kildare after the first Saint Brigid’s death. For it was custom that the abbess of Kildare would take the name Brigid when taking up that role.
Saint Brigid – Catholic Saint
If you can’t beat them, join them! Plus, you can’t discuss the goddess Brigid without talking about her survival as a Saint. Given the name Brigid and its many variations, there may indeed have been a real person who would become the Catholic saint. Though given all of the similar attributes that this ancient Irish goddess and Saint have, Saint Brigid is easily an adaptation by the Catholic Church, where if they couldn’t get people to stop worshiping Brigid. There is even a feast day held on February 1st that corresponds with a pagan festival of Imbolc. In the end, one and the same being.
Mortal Origins – When held as separate from her divine origins, Saint Brigid is said to be the daughter of the druid, Dubthach. Her father brought Brigid from the Isle of Iona, the “Druid’s Isle” to Ireland.
Saint Patrick – Most people know of Saint Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland and the story of his driving out the snakes. What most may not be familiar with, is that Saint Brigid is considered a contemporary to him, sharing equal status with him as Ireland’s Patron Saint.
Saint Brigid of Kildare – This is the title that Saint Brigid is often known by. She is associated with the eternal sacred flames attended to by nineteen nuns in her sanctuary of Kildare, Ireland. These nineteen nuns would tend the sacred fires of Kildare for nineteen days with Brigid herself, being the one who kept the fire going on the twentieth day. The site for Kildare was chosen due to its elevation above a grove of oaks. Oaks were held to be so sacred that no weapons were permitted near them. Kildare was reported by Giraldus Cambrensis and others to be surrounded by a hedge that could drive men insane who tried to cross it or to become crippled or die. This tending to a sacred flame is not unlike the Greek goddess Hestia or the Roman Vesta who also tended the hearth and sacred flames.
With what appears to be a strong survival of a Celtic tradition of vestal priestesses, these women were trained and then would go throughout the land to attend various sacred wells, groves, hills, and caves. This was originally thirty years of service where they would then be allowed to leave and marry. This thirty-year period was divided into the first ten years in training, the next ten years practicing their duties and responsibilities. The last ten years would be spent training and teaching others. This wasn’t just keeping a sacred fire going, this was a study of the sciences and healing arts and possibly the laws of the state.
An interesting note is that Kildare comes from the words “Cill Dara,” meaning the Church of the Oak. The area around it was known as Civitas Brigitae or “The City of Brigid.” The abbess of Kildare was seen as the reincarnation of Saint Brigid and would take her name on investiture. The sacred flames of Kildare would burn continually until 1132 C.E. when Dermot MacMurrough decided to have a relative invested as the abbess. Due to politics, Dermot’s army overran the convent to rape the current abbess and discredit them. Kildare wouldn’t be the same after that, losing much of the power it held and King Henry VIII finally had the sacred flames put out during the Reformation.
Law Giver – During Kildare’s heyday, when the saint Herself reigned, Brigid went from being a Mother Goddess to a Lawgiver, much like the Roman Minerva. During this time, when laws were written and then codified by Christianity, it is Brigid herself who made sure that the rights of women were upheld. Before, these laws had been committed to memory by oral traditions.
The Lives of the Saints – In this text, Saint Brigid is placed as the midwife to Mary and was thus present at Jesus’ birth. Saint Brigid places three drops of water on the infant Jesus’ head. It comes across pretty clear that this is a Christian adaptation of Celtic myth with the birth of the Sun and the three drops representing wisdom.
The stories continue with Saint Brigid being a foster mother to Jesus. Fostering was a common practice among the Celts. When Herod comes to kill all the male infants, Saint Brigid is there to save Jesus from death. From this story, Saint Brigid wears a headdress of candles to light their way to safety.
These stories have earned Saint Brigid the titles of “The Mary of Ireland” and Muime Chriosd, “Foster Mother of Christ.” This is interesting to note as in Celtic society were held in high regard, much like the Italian custom of godparents.
The Two Lepers – There are many stories of Brigid’s miracles and healing. This popular story involves two lepers who arrived at Kildare seeking healing. Brigid informed them that they should bathe each until their skin healed.
When the first leper was healed, they felt revulsion towards the other and refused to touch them or bathe them. Angry, Brigid caused the first leper’s disease to return. Then she took her cloak and placed it over the second leper, instantly healing them.
Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas – An excluded book from the “standard” Bibles, Thomas claims that a web was woven to protect an infant Jesus from harm. Something that is in keeping with Saint Brigid’s deific connections to domestic arts such as weaving wool from her lambs.
Athena – Greek Goddess
A Greek goddess of war, wisdom and women’s crafts such as weaving, Brigid is frequently seen as a Celtic counterpart to this goddess.
Brigindo – Gaulish Goddess
A Gaulish goddess of healing, crafts, and fertility, Brigindo has been equated as a continental cognate to Brigid.
Brigantia – British Goddess
A British goddess during the Roman occupation of Britain, she is a personification of the Brigantes in Northern England and Wexford Ireland. While there are plenty of attempts to link the two as the same goddess, there’s just enough evidence to show that Brigid and Brigantia are two separate and distinct goddesses.
Brigantia is seen as the patroness of warfare or Briga. Her soldiers were called Brigands. This connection sees some scholars linking Brigantia to the Roman Minerva and Greek Athena.
Bricta – Gaulish Goddess
A Gaulish goddess; it has been suggested this name is more a title and belongs to Sirona, a goddess of healing. The name or title of Bricta has been connected to Brig and thus Brigid.
Maman Brigitte – Haitian Goddess
Saint Brigid has been connected to Maman Brigitte as a syno-deity. Maman Brigitte is a Voodoo goddess or Loa who protects those graves within a cemetery marked with a cross. She is the wife to Ghede or Baron Samedi.
Minerva – Roman Goddess
A Roman goddess of war, wisdom, and women’s crafts such as weaving, Brigid is frequently seen as a Celtic counterpart to this goddess.
Oya – Yoruban Goddess
A mother goddess who is a patroness of many aspects such as winds, lightnings, violent storms, death, cemeteries, rebirth and the market place. It is Oya’s role as a Warrior Queen as a protector of women and justice that there connects her to Brigid and Saint Brigid the strongest.
Sulis – Romano-British
A local Celtic Solar goddess of Bath or Somerset. She is a goddess of the healing spring found there. Sulis has been equated with Brigid.
Other Names: All-Heal, Birdlime, Devil’s Fuge, Donnerbesen, Druid’s Herb, Golden Bough, Herbe de la Croix, Holy Wood, Lignum Sanctae Crucis, Misseltoe, Mistillteinn, Mystyldyne, Thunderbesem, Witches’ Broom, Wood of the Cross,
Deity: Apollo, Balder, Cerridwen, Freya, Frigga, Odin, Taranis, Thor, Venus
Sphere of Influence: Defense, Dreams, Exorcism, Fertility, Health, Hunting, Invisibility, Locks, Love, and Protection
Symbols: Friendship, Peace
Victorian Language of Flowers: “I surmount difficulties, I send you a thousand kisses.”
What Is It?
Mistletoe is the common name for plant that is parasitic (hemiparasite) in that it grows by attaching itself to the branches of a tree or shrub, taking water and nutrients from the host plant. The mistletoe species, Viscum album is the one referred to in folklore is that is native to Great Britain and most of Europe. It is characterized by having a smooth-edged, oval shaped evergreen leaves set in pairs along the stem and white berries that are known to be poisonous.
There are a variety of other species of mistletoe plants found in other countries of Europe such as Spain and Portugal and on other continents. American Mistletoe is also known as False Mistletoe as the homeopathic remedies and uses are different from the European Mistletoe. Over time, the term mistletoe has come to include other species of parasitic plants. Even plants get parasites…
Despite mistletoe’s parasitic nature, it does have an ecological benefit with being a keystone species in that it provides food for a variety of animals that feed on it as well as providing nesting material for various birds.
There used to be all sorts of folkloric beliefs about how mistletoe would come to grow on various shrubs and trees. By the sixteenth, botanists had it figured out that seeds were passed by the digestive tracts of birds who fed on mistletoe or by the birds rubbing their bills on trees to get rid of the sticky seeds. An early reference to this is in 1532, an Herbal book by Turner.
What’s In A Name
One etymology for mistletoe that seems fairly accurate are the Anglo-Saxon words for “mistel” meaning “dung” and “tan” meaning “twig.” Making the meaning of mistletoe as “dung-on-a-twig.” Which makes sense, people observed that mistletoe grew wherever birds roosted and thus did their business.
The Latin word “viscusas” and the Greek word “ixias” both refer to the white coloration of mistletoe berries and being thought of to resemble sperm. The same words “visand ischu” mean “strength” In the Greek and Roman mindsets, sperm was connected to strength and vitality and thus to fertility for life springing seemingly out of nowhere. Mistletoe berries harvested from Oak trees were believed to have regenerative powers.
Mistletoe is a plant strongly associated with Christmas, Yule and other Winter Celebrations where it is used in decorations for its evergreen leaves that symbolize the promised return of spring.
Hanging Mistletoe – Anyone standing beneath the mistletoe can expect to be kissed. This probably originates in Druidic beliefs where mistletoe is strongly connected with fertility as the white berries of the mistletoe resembled semen. Now, proper etiquette says that when someone is kissed beneath the mistletoe, a berry needs to be removed until all have been plucked, at which point, there are no more kisses.
One tradition holds that if any unmarried woman went unkissed after the hanging of the mistletoe, they would not be able to marry for a year.
British farmers would feed a bough of mistletoe to their livestock on January 1st, believing it would ward off any bad luck for the coming year. Alternatively, a farmer feeding mistletoe to the first cow calving in the New Year was what brought good luck.
In some regions of Britain, mistletoe would be burned on the twelfth night after Christmas to ensure any boys or girls who didn’t get kissed could still marry.
Celtic Druidic Mythology & Traditions
In the Celtic language, the name for mistletoe translates to “All-Heal” as they believed this plant to have healing powers that could cure a number of ailments and held the soul of the host tree. By Mistletoe was held the chief of the Druid’s sacred seven herbs. The other sacred plants were: vervain, henbane, primrose, pulsatilla, clover and wolf’s bane.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is attributed to the Druids who held the plant as being sacred. It held a magical virtue and served as a remedy to protect against evil. Mistletoe found growing on Oaks were especially sacred. Ovid’s writings mention how Druids would dance around oak trees with mistletoe growing on them. If mistletoe were to fall to the ground without being cut, it was considered an ill omen.
In Between – Seen as a tree that was not a tree. One of the things making mistletoe sacred was its seeming ability to spring forth out of nowhere. It represented the “in between” or a gateway to other worlds and spirit.
Harvesting – Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, circa 77 C.E. notes how the Druids revered the mistletoe. Pliny goes on to explain how white-clad Druids would use a golden sickle when harvesting mistletoe; taking great care to make sure that none hit the ground, believing that the plant would lose its potency and sacred powers. The sacrifice of two white bulls would follow. Pliny’s accounts are the most well-known documentation of Druid beliefs regarding the sacredness of mistletoe. Either the Midsummer or the Winter Solstice were the times to harvest and collect mistletoe. Better when done so on the sixth day after a waning moon.
Oak King & Holly King – This is a particularly old folkloric belief. With the Oak King and Holly King being personifications for the cycle of the year. Mistletoe berries found on an Oak tree were thought to be representative of the Oak King’s semen. So when the Oak King’s power waned and gave way to the Holly King, the harvesting of mistletoe and it’s berries off of Oak trees was symbolic of emasculating the Oak King. Hence, why two bulls would be sacrificed, to compensate the Oak King.
The white berries of mistletoe would be made into fertility potions as they were thought to be regenerative as on the Winter Solstice, the Oak King would be reborn, gaining power again as the new year progressed.
Fire & Lightning – It was thought that mistletoe would grow on an Oak tree that had been struck by lightning. For this, mistletoe was believed to be able to stop fires.
French farmers would burn mistletoe in their fields in order to have a successful harvest with the coming year.
Maidens would place a sprig of mistletoe beneath their pillows so they could dream of their future husband.
Herbe de la Croix – In Brittany, there is a legend how the cross that Jesus is to have been hung on was made from the wood of mistletoe. After Christ’s death, mistletoe is said to have been cursed or degraded to become a parasitic plant. Now days, thanks to 16th century Botanists discoveries, it’s better understood how the seeds of mistletoe or spread.
Immortality – Asclepius, the son of Apollo and god of medicine was greatly renowned for his healing skills to the degree that he could even bring people back from the dead. This knowledge of healing came about after Glaucus, the son of King Minos of Crete had fallen into a jar of honey and drowned. Asclepius had been called onto the scene and while there, saw a snake slithering towards Glaucus’ body. Asclepius killed the snake and then saw another snake come in and place an herb on the body of the first snake, bringing it back to life. After witnessing this, Asclepius proceeded to take the same herb and place it on Glaucus’ body and bring him back to life.
This herb is said to have been mistletoe. Now armed with this knowledge, Asclepius brought Glaucus back to life. Later, he would bring Thesues’ son, Hippolytus after the king’s son had been thrown from his chariot.
This angered Hades enough that he complained to Zeus that humans would become immortal and that there wouldn’t be anyone entering the Underworld. To prevent people from becoming immortal, Zeus agreed to kill Asclepius, doing so with a lightning bolt. Later, Zeus placed Asclepius’ image up into the heavens to become the constellation of Ophiuchus in honor and memory.
Golden Bough or Mistletoe is the plant Aeneas uses to enter the Underworld to Hades’ realm.
Saturnalia – Many traditions regarding mistletoe and the Christmas traditions are believed to trace their origins to this ancient Roman festival once held on December 17th of the old Julian calendar.
The Death Of Balder
This is one of the bigger, more well-known Norse stories. Balder’s mother Frigg, the goddess of Love had received a prophesy concerning Balder’s death, who was the most beloved of all the gods. Wishing to try and avoid this fate, Frigg got an oath from all living things that they wouldn’t harm her son. In her haste to do so, Frigg overlooked the mistletoe, believing it to be too small and inconsequential.
Leave it to Loki to learn of this oversight and to test the validity of the prophesy. Depending on the source, Loki either makes an arrow or a spear out of mistletoe and hands it off to the blind god Hod, instructing him to aim it at Balder. This act doesn’t seem so unusual when taken into account that many of the other gods were taking aim at Balder to test his invulnerability.
Hod then, unknowingly of Loki’s true intent, fires the mistletoe weapon at Balder and impales the god who soon dies. Frigg is grief stricken and Hermod rides off on Sleipnir down to the Underworld to plead for Balder’s release from Hel, how everyone loves him. The Underworld goddess replies that if this is so, then every being in the living world will weep for the slain god. If everyone does weep, then Hel will release her hold on Balder and allow him to return.
Hermod returns with the news and every creature on the earth cries for Balder. All, that is except for an old giantess by the name of Tokk (or Þökk, meaning “Thanks,”) she was most certainly and likely Loki in disguise.
With this failure to have everyone weep, Balder remained in Hel’s domain.
Some variations to this legend have mistletoe becoming the symbol of peace and friendship to make-up for it’s part in Balder’s death.
In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant–making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
The white berries of mistletoe are to have formed from Frigg’s tears when she mourned Balder’s death. Shakespeare makes an allusion to the story of Balder’s death by referring to mistletoe as “baleful.”
Peace & Love
Due to the above story, the Norse held the belief that hanging the mistletoe would be a symbol of peace, indicating that any past hurts and anger would be forgiven. Enemies would cease fighting each other for the day.
Under the incoming Christian religion as it spread throughout Europe, the symbolism of the mistletoe would be converted to have Christian meanings as older pagan beliefs and traditions would get adapted and changed.
For example, in the Norse story with the death of Balder, mistletoe would keep its meanings as a symbol of life and fertility.
Wearing sprigs of mistletoe is believed to help conceive, attract love and for protection.
During Medieval times or Antiquity, branches of mistletoe would be hung to ward off evil spirits. Mistletoe would be hung over the house and stable doors to protect from witches and keep them from entering.
Mistletoe could also be worn in amulets, bracelets, and rings for its magical qualities of protecting from evil, witches, poisoning and even werewolves!
Yes, there are medical uses for mistletoe. However, the white berries are poisonous as they do cause epileptic type seizures and convulsions. Keep the white berries away from small children and pets who might decide to try and eat them.
Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some information has changed.
Homeopathic Remedies – Due to the nature of the poisonous berries, it causes many cultures such as the ancient Celts to use mistletoe berries in remedies for treating convulsions, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia and heart conditions. Some Native American tribes used a tea wash for bathing the head to treat headaches and infusions for lowering blood pressure and treating lung problems.
Warning – Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some medical experts disagree about the applications of homeopathic remedies and information is likely to change with better data and research.
Mistletoe is seen as an all-purpose plant and has been attributed a wide variety of magical uses and even a number of herbal and homeopathic remedies. A lot of it ending up very contradictory and suspect as to which to see as accurate. Further, you want to make sure you have the right mistletoe species.
Etymology: “Unseen” or “The Unseen One”
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Ἁιδης, Αιδωνευς, Áïdes (Ionic and Epic Greek), Aïdoneús, Áïdos, Áïdos, Áïda, Ais, Eubouteous, Háides, Klymenos, Pluto or Ploutos (“wealth” or “the rich one,”) Pluteus,Pluton, Ploutodótes, Ploutodotr (“Giver of Wealth”), Pylartes, Stygeros, ‘unseen’, Zeus Katachthonios (“Zeus of the Underworld”)
Epithets: Agesander, Agesilaos (“fetcher of men,” “carries away all” or “leader of men”), Chthonian Zeus, Clymenus (“notorious,”) Eubuleus (“good counsel” or “well-intentioned”), Hegesilaus, Polydegmon (“Reciever of Many Guests”)
Hades is an ancient chthonic deity who best known as the God and Ruler of the Underworld, so much so, that the Underworld would come to be known by his name.
Animal: Black Rams, Dog, Rooster, Screech-Owl, Serpents
Patron of: The Underworld, the Dead, Wealth
Plant: Asphodel, Cypress, Mint, Narcissus, Pomegranate, White Poplar
Sphere of Influence: Death, Grief
Symbols: Cerberus, Cornucopia, Scepter, Narcissus, Key of Hades
Early Greek Depictions
In early Greek art and even mythology, Hades doesn’t make many appearances as this is a deity whom the ancient Greeks didn’t want to attract the attention of.
Most of Hades’ early representations in art are mostly pottery and statuary where he’s not always clearly defined. The classical era of art, especially those that depict the Rape of Persephone will show Hades with varying ages depending on the artist. Sometimes Hades is shown as looking away from the other gods to represent their disdain for him.
In Greek pottery, Hades is often shown having a dark beard and shown as a stately figure seated on an ebony thrown. In Greek statuary, Hades is often shown with his three-headed dog Cerberus for quick and easy recognition.
Hades is known to drive a chariot, drawn by four black horses, which makes for a fearsome and impressive sight. Hades is often thought of as being very dour and stern, unmoved by prayers.
When identified and represented as Plouton, Hades is seen in a more positive light. As Plouton, he is shown holding a cornucopia that represents the riches and fertility of the earth.
Cult & Worship
Hades was a grim and fearsome seeming deity that living humans did not mention by name lightly. As the god of the dead, one simply did not mention Hades by name lest they draw his attention and potentially an early death. Instead, Hades would be called by a few different euphemisms and epithets.
Such was the reluctance of any followers that people were hesitant to swear oaths in Hades’ name and would avert their gazes when performing sacrifices to him. The sacrifices made to Hades were black animals like sheep. Human sacrifices to Hades were outright rejected even though other sources will try to say that such human sacrifices were done. The blood from the animal sacrifices would be dripped into a pit or cleft in the ground. The person offering the sacrifice would turn away their face. When propitiated, people would slap or hit the ground to make sure that Hades heard them. Finally, every hundreds, festivals would be held to honor Hades. These were known as the Secular Games.
Temples – Hades was worshiped throughout Greece and Italy. It is known he had a sacred grove and temple in Elis. This temple would only be opened once a year. Another temple is known to have been in Pylos Triphyliacus near Mount Menthe. Finally, there was a sacred grove to the Erinnyes in Athens and another grove in Olympia.
Hades does have a part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. Hade’s role in the mysteries comes in the story of his abducting Persephone to the Underworld to be his wife and Queen. The Mysteries concern more the worshiping of Demeter and Persephone.
While we don’t know as much about the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries are another matter as there have been plenty of surviving Orphic Hymns and texts that have been found and translated. There’s plenty of evidence that has been left behind found through out all of southern Italy. Much of which is the connection of Dionysus’ death and resurrection symbolisms in myth.
Hades = Dionysus!?!
In connection to the previously mentioned Eleusinian Mysteries, starting with the philosopher Heraclitus; he states that Hades and Dionysus are merely the same deity with different aspects to them, the essence of life. A Karl Kerenyi points out that in her grief, Demeter refused to drink wine, a symbol of Dionysus, especially after Persephone’s abduction. Further, one of the Dionysus’ epithets is Chthonios, meaning “the subterranean.” Demeter knows full well that its Dionysus who has abducted her daughter and that Hades is merely an alias.
Though this is just one level of the Orphic tradition trying to explain a deity who has a dual nature. Many of Hades epitaphs are also the same epitaphs used for Dionysus. Names such as: Chthonios (“the Subterranean”), Euclius (“glorious” or “renowned”) and Eubouleus (“Good Counselor”)
Speaking of Eubouleus, that epitaph is also applied to Zeus…. When covered as a deity by himself, Eubouleus is depicted as a youthful representation of the Lord of the Underworld.
Zeus Katachthonios – Zeus of the Underworld
Another important epitaph of Hades in the Orphic tradition. By calling Hades the name: “Zeus Katachthonios” they could connect him to his brother Zeus and why there are stories of Zeus and Persephone coupling up to have children like Melinoe and Zagreus.
Homer calls Hades “the Infernal Zeus” and “Grisly God”.
It all makes for an interesting connection. Hades as the God of Death, Dionysus as the God of Life and Zeus tying them both together to represent the birth, death and resurrection of a deity.
What’s In A Name
The exact origins for Hades’ name have been lost to antiquity. It is however been agreed to translate as: “The Unseen One.” Plato’s dialogue of Cratylus has an extensive section devoted to the etymology of Hades’ name. Socrates argues that the name doesn’t mean “unseen,” but instead means: “his knowledge of all noble things.” More modern linguists lean towards the “unseen” meaning though another idea put forward is the meaning: “the one who presides over meeting up” referring to death.
Given his role as Lord of the Underworld, Hades is the deity liked least and people were reluctant to speak his name lest they bring unwanted attention to themselves. Even the other gods are said to have avoided Hades’ company.
In the 5th century B.C.E., the ancient Greeks began calling Hades by the name of Plouton, meaning “wealth” or “riches.” This name served more as a euphemism as the Greeks didn’t want to draw the attention of the God of Death. In addition, not only is the Underworld were the dead go and that’s who Hades rules over, but wealth and riches in the form of gold, silver and various gems can be found there.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Persephone – The daughter of Demeter whom Hades himself abducted. She is the Goddess of Spring, Vegetation and Fertility before becoming Queen of the Underworld.
He is the fourth child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
It should be noted that by some accounts, Hades being the God of the Underworld is thought to be infertile, so any of Hades and Persephone’s children are the result of Zeus coming to have sex with his brother’s wife… and his own daughter. If you ask me, that’s a bit limited in thinking, just because Hades is lord of the Underworld, doesn’t mean he will be infertile. Of course, Zeus as the father works in the Orphic tradition when you want him to be the father of everyone.
The Erinyes – Also known as the Furies, they are sometimes called the daughters of Hades, though they’re actually earth-born.
Macaria – Death or Blessed. It’s just known that she is a daughter of Hades. There is a proverb: “Go to blessedness.” This is a euphemism for death as it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead.
Melinoe – A chthonic goddess identified with Hecate. In the Orphic tradition, she is the daughter of Persephone and Zeus in the guise of Hades. So, she’s not really Hades’ daughter and it’s possible Persephone claimed her as Hades if she didn’t know of Zeus’ ruse.
Zagreus – A minor deity in Greek mythology, he is called the “first Dionysus” in the Orphic tradition. In the Orphic tradition, Zagreus is the son of Zeus and Persephone, he is torn apart by the Titans and reborn later. The earliest mentions of Zagreus have him as a consort to Gaia and the god of the Underworld. The Greek playwright, Aeschylus connects Zagreaus with Hades so that they are either Father (Hades) and Son (Zagreus) or that they’re the same deity. Linking Dionysus into the myth of being Hades seems to stem from the myths of Zagreus.
As much as Hades is a major Greek Deity, as his domain and realm is that of the Underworld where he rules over the dead, he isn’t one of the Olympian Gods.
Simply because that isn’t where Hades spent all his time. Except for the one time that he happened to be above ground and fell in love with Persephone, Hades spends all his time underground.
Attendants of Hades
Ruling the Underworld isn’t easy. There are all those souls of the deceased coming in. While Hades is sure to have the help if his wife and queen, Persephone, there’s still a lot to be done.
Cerberus – A Most Loyal Hound
Cerberus is the three-headed dog of Hades that guards the gate to the Underworld. It is with amusement that Cerberus has the meaning of “spot.” There’s something very humanizing and endearing in a deity naming their dog Spot.
Also known as the Furies, they are an earth-born trio of chthonic deities whose job is to mete out retribution and vengeance. If you went against the natural order of things, perjured, broke an oath, murder, unfilial conduct, a child upsetting their parent…. These are the deities who came to deal with you. In their connection to Hades in the Underworld, the Erinyes would torment the souls of criminals.
I think its fair to say I wouldn’t want them angry with me, that way lays madness and likely some horrifying illness.
Judges of the Dead
The three judges of the dead are: Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus. These three judges would sentence the souls of the dead, determine their guilt on if they would go to Tartarus or if deemed innocent enough, to pass on to the Elysian Fields.
In Plato’s Gorgias, a story is told to Socrates that the reason that there are three judges is so that everyone who dies will be judged fairly. The original judges had been there since Cronos’ time and were prone to letting anyone who was wealthy enough, dressed fanically enough and had witness who would claim that an undeserving, wicked soul was being allowed to pass on to the Elysian Fields. As these judges were judging people while still alive on their last day on earth.
Hades and the overseers in charge of the Isles of the Blessed came before Zeus with a complaint about this.
Zeus said he would put a stop to this practice and decreed that there would be stop to anyone having any foreknowledge of their death. The dead would be stripped bare of everything before judgement and would stand naked. The judge too would likewise be naked… clearly a metaphor for the naked truth and nothing hidden. The judge would hold the soul of the deceased in their hands to determine it’s worthiness without any of the entrapments of life. Aeacus and Rhadamanthus would determine a soul’s fate with Minos to act as a tie breaker if there were any doubt to where a soul’s final destination would be.
Birth Of A God
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Hades and all his siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronus that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronus eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, so that later, when he is older, he can come to fulfill the prophecy by killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia. Incidentally, Hades is the last of Cronus’ children that is either regurgitated or comes out after Zeus splits their father open.
In other versions I have found of this story, Zeus meets with Metis who concocts a drug for Zeus to give Cronus so that he disgorges or vomits up the stone and all of his children.
There is a ten-year long divine war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Hades and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
During the war, Gaia gave a prophesy to Zeus that he would have victory over the Titans by freeing the Cyclops who were then prisoners in Tartaros. Zeus slew Campe, the jail-keeper of the Cyclops. As a reward and thanks for releasing them, the Cyclcops forged weapons for the three brothers. Thunderbolts for Zeus, a Trident for Poseidon and a Bident for Hades along with a magical helmet of invisibility.
During this war, Hades used his helmet of invisibility to sneak into the Titans’ camp and destroy their weapons. After the war, the Titans were imprisoned within Tartoros and the Hecatoncheires were placed in charge of guarding the new prisoners.
Dividing the Spoils of War – After defeating Cronus and all of his father’s followers, the three brothers, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus divided up rulership of the cosmos between them. Hades would become ruler of the Underworld, Poseidon would become ruler of the seas and Zeus would become ruler of the air. The earth, the domain of Gaia, would be available to all three gods.
Iliad – The Iliad describes the three brothers as pulling lots to determine who would rule which realm.
Hades & Typhon – While not exactly a flattering story of Hades; the story is that of Zeus battling the giant monstrous serpent Typhon during or after the Titanomachy. Hesiod’s Theogony describes Hades as cowering down below in the Underworld while Zeus is busy hurling thunder bolts and battling Typhon to take his place as king of the Olympian gods.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone.
After Hades’ birth and the dividing up rulership of the realms, this story is the most well-known regarding this deity.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden. As Kore, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires were known.
This didn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this was love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (also Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call nowadays, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes, and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love at first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually, she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties of creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – Regarding the Narcissus flower, Zeus commands Gaia to create it to distract Persephone when she is out picking flowers. As it is far from any lakes or rivers where her Naiad friends can follow, Persephone is all alone for when Hades comes. Sure enough, when Persephone picks this strange new flower, a chasm opens underneath her, and she falls down into the waiting arms of Hades and the Underworld.
Version 3 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Plouton, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility.
Homeric Hymn – More like a side note, this hymn tells how the shepherd Eumolpus and the swineherd Eubuleus see a girl being carried away to the Underworld in Hades’ chariot. Eubuleus looses his pigs to the Underworld as they fall into the chasm that opens up for Hades on his descent below.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when he is released, Demeter turns him into an owl.
Altered States of Mind – Most people think of rape as having to be something violent for it to be valid? I’m sure the in the original Greek tellings of the story, it’s obvious what Hades’ intent is. Never mind later retellings that seem to gloss over and not really make it clear as they want to give you a happy fuzzy feeling that Persephone just accepted her fate and this is how we got the four seasons of the year.
Looking at the older, archaic definition, this is the forcible carrying away of a woman to have sexual intercourse with her. So, looking at how the story of Persephone’s Abduction is originally titled and knowing older definitions of a word, I’d say it’s pretty clear.
Before his marriage to Persephone, Hades does seem to have had a couple of love interests. Not as many as Zeus, that’s for sure, just a couple though.
Hades & Minthe
Hades had a mistress by the name of Minthe, a nymph. In an act of hubris, Minthe boasts about how she is more beautiful than Persephone and that she would manage to win Hades back.
Persephone takes exception to this boast and to prove her power, might and indignation, she turns the nymph into a plant of the same name.
By Ovid’s account, Hades is still pursuing Minthe, which would explain a moment of jealousy on Persephone’s part to make sure her man remains loyal.
Mmm…. Mint. Gotta love that sweet smell.
Hades & Leuce
Leuce was a nymph and the daughter of Oceanus. She was carried off by Hades and ravaged, according to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Though we know what really happened, rape. Alas things were not meant to be and Leuce died. On her death, Hades turns Leuce into a white poplar, a tree that would later be sacred to Hades. Hercules is said to have been wearing a crown of poplar leaves when he returned from the Underworld.
Theseus & Pirithous – Would-Be Suitors
Even though Persephone is married to Hades, that doesn’t stop the heroes Pirithous and Theseus from descending down to the Underworld with the aspirations of Pirithous marrying Persephone.
The two had it in their heads that they would marry daughters of Zeus. They clearly didn’t think the plan through. Of course, Theseus had the bright idea of being the one to try kidnapping Helene, Zeus wasn’t happy with that. Some accounts have the mighty Zeus sending a dream to the two with the idea of going off to have Pirithous marrying Persephone.
Hades is there to welcome the pair sure enough. Soon as they are seated, their chairs magically bind and holdfast the would-be suitors. There they would remain prisoners until the hero Hercules comes to the Underworld to free them. Most versions, it’s just Theseus who is freed.
Just let that be a lesson, don’t mess with another man’s wife or daughters if he thinks you’re unworthy of such a thing.
Molossians – King Aidoneus
There’s a version of the story of Theseus and Pirithous were they journied to the Molossian in Epiros where a King Aidoneus rules. Coincidentally, Aidoneus has a wife by the name of Persephone, a daughter named Kora and a dog named Cerberus. Pirithous conspires to kidnap Kora and when Aidoneus learns of this plot, he seizes both men. Pirithous is killed by the dog Cerberus and Theseus is held prisoner. In this version of the story, Herakles (Hercules) was a guest of Aidoneus and when he learned of what happened; Herakles pleaded for Theseus’ release. In gratitude, Theseus built an alter to Herakles.
So perhaps this shows a bit of taking an actual event and making it larger than life involving the god of the Underworld, Hades.
The Twelve Labors Of Hercules
In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules was tasked with a series of twelve labors by King Eurystheus that needed to be performed as penance for the killing of Hercules’ family. One of Hercules’ tasks and the final one, was to descend to the Underworld to retrieve the three-headed hound Cerberus.
In a more extended version of the event, Hercules goes to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. This had to purposes, first to absolve Hercules of his guilt for the death of all the centaurs, and secondly, it would allow him to learn enter and return from the Underworld.
Hercules found the entrance to the Underworld in Taenarum. With the help of the gods Athena and Hermes, Hercules was able to make the descent down and back. Being sensible, Hercules goes and asks Hades if he can take his dog, Cerberus rather than outright steal it. Hades only consents to Hercules taking his beloved dog on the condition of not harming Cerberus. Specifically, Hercules is not to use any weapons. When leaving the Underworld with Cerberus, Hercules passes through the Acherusia cavern.
In some accounts, it is said that Persephone, not Hades is who allowed the hero to take the hell hound. While Hercules was at it, Persephone also allowed the hero to free Theseus from his confinement. Other accounts will say that Hercules wounds Hades with an arrow, though that sounds like that’s from another story.
In Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Hercules decided it was a good idea to slaughter one of Hades’ cattle in order to give the souls of the dead some fresh blood. Menoetes, Hades’ keeper of cattle challenged the titular hero to a wrestling match. It is only after Hercules breaks the ribs of Menoetes that the hero sets him down at the behest of Persephone.
In the versions told by Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History” and Pseudo-Hyginus’ Fabulae, Hercules frees both Theseus and Pirithous.
In Seneca’s Hercules Furens, Hera complains about Hercules having broken down the doors to the Underworld and dragging the hound, Cerberus up to the living world. Hera asks why doesn’t Hercules lord it over Hades, saying that the law of the shades has been nullified. That a way for ghosts or spirits of the dead to return from the Underworld has been opened up. That the mysteries of Death are available for all to see. Seneca’s Hercules Furens also ignores that Hercules was not to harm Cerberus with any weapons and says that the hero does use his club.
Hercules & Alcestis
This is the second encounter that Hercules and Hades have.
Queen Alcestis was the wife of King Admetos. He didn’t want to die and seems to have gotten some special permission from the Fates.
The Fates told Admetos that he could escape his time to die if someone else would take his place. That person ended up being Alcestis. Wise to the shenanigans, Persephone sent Alcestis back to the living world.
Another version has the mighty Hercules coming to fight Hades so Admetos can be released back to the living world.
Look, when your time comes, it comes.
Hercules & The Siege Of Pylos
This is the third time that Hercules and Hades encountered each other. During the siege of Pylos, Hercules hurt Hades who was there to gather up the souls of the deceased. Some later accounts would place Hades as defending the town of Pylos. Most accounts of this story have Hades wounded by an arrow.
Orpheus & Eurydice
In the story of Orpheus’ descent to the Underworld, wherein he hoped to bring back his wife, Eurydice back from the dead. Both Hades and Persephone takes compassion on Orpheus and allow him a chance to try and bring his deceased wife back to the lands of the living.
Seven Against Thebes
During this event, Hades and Persephone ended up sending a deadly plague to the city of Thebes when King Creon refused to bury any of the dead warriors. When two maidens, the Coronides, daughters of Orion sacrificed themselves to appease Hades and Persephone, they were transformed into a pair of comets.
Well, you’re gonna get a plague and diseases if you leave a bunch of corpses out rotting in the field of battle and don’t bury or clean them up.
Hades & Sisyphus
Ah Sisyphus forced to forever roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down on him.
Before dying, Sisyphus has tied up Thanatos so that men would cease to die. It would take the god Ares to come to the rescue and release Thanatos before turning Sisyphus back over to the god of Death.
Just before getting taken away to the Underworld, Sisyphus had told his wife, Merope to just have his body be thrown out into a public square, where eventually his body made its way to the river Styx. Sisyphus then tricked Hades into allowing him to return to the living world, so he could scold his wife for not giving him a proper burial.
Naturally, the trick worked and once Sisyphus “told off” his wife, he refused to return to the Underworld. It took the god Hermes to forcibly drag Sisyphus back to the Underworld.
Another version of the story has Sisyphus simply pleading to Persephone that he was taken to Tartarus by mistake and the Queen of the Underworld orders his return.
Some people just don’t want to face the music.
Lord Of The Underworld – Hades
Hades was so well equated with the Underworld that the very place came to be associated with his name. Small wonder then, that the Greeks would start calling him Pluto to distinguish between the deity and the place.
The Underworld was known as the Unseen Realm where all the souls of the dead, not just of humans, but all living things. Once there, there for good, there’s no leaving.
As ruler of the dead, Hades forbid anyone from leaving the underworld. A few such as Hercules and Orpheus are among the few living to have claim to entering and returning to tell about it. Others, such as Pirithous and Sisyphus learned the hard way that you don’t dare try to cheat death or there would heavy consequences to pay.
Even so, feared and disliked as he is, Hades was known for being very stern and sometimes seemingly cruel at times. He was still just in all his dealings, even when he had someone like Sisyphus repeatedly trying to cheat death.
The Underworld – Hades
As a physical locale, there are many regions in the underworld. The Greek mythographers weren’t consistent with the geography of the Underworld.
Getting to the Underworld isn’t so easy as it’s located beneath the earth, obviously. In the Odyssey, the entrance is described as being at the edge of the world, across the ocean. Other Greek and Roman poets would describe the Underworld’s entrance being found in deep caverns and deep lakes.
Homer describes the Underworld as being a vague and shadowy place occupied by ghost where nothing is real and any existence, such as it is, was miserable. Well then….
Later descriptions better define what the Underworld looks like with having the Elysian Fields where “good people” go and Tartarus where “evil people” go. Firstly, the god Hermes in his role as a Psychopomp would lead the souls of the dead down to the river Styx. There, assuming the dead had been buried with a coin, the souls would pay the ferryman, Charon to take them across the river Styx to the gates of the Underworld.
An unlucky soul who wasn’t buried with the proper coin, the Greek obol, a small denomination coin much like an American penny, would be condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost
Guarding the gates to the Underworld would be Cerberus ensuring that anyone can enter, but no one is getting back out. Once in, the souls of the dead would stand before the Judges of the Dead to determine where they would be spending the rest of eternity.
A soul deemed to have been good would be taken to the river Lethe where they would drink and forget all the awful things that happened to them in life before being sent to the Elysian Fields. A soul deemed to be bad or unworthy would be seized by the Erinyes and taken to Tartarus where they would be tormented forever.
Acheron – Meaning woe or sorrow, it is one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Asphodel Meadows – Or the Fields of Asphodel, this is the first region of the Underworld. The shades of heroes wander here. Lesser spirits gather around them. The libations of blood offered to them by those in the living world are able to reawaken these spirits for a short period to what it had been like to be living.
Avernus – In Roman myths, the entrance to the Underworld is found at Avernus, a crater near Cumae. This is where the hero, Aeneas journeyed on his descent down to Hades. Incidentally, the name Avernus is sometimes used as the name for the Underworld.
Cocytus – Meaning lamentation, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Elysium – Also called the “Islands of the Blessed,” those souls deemed blameless or heroes would come here to reside in the afterlife.
Erebus – This area is described as being a gloomy and misty place where the dead reside. This is the place where every living person goes when they die. Few are those who have entered that leave. This place is the area most associated with Hades and would be called by the deity’s own name. Here, two pools were to be found. The first being Lethe, the souls of the dead would drink from to erase the memories of their former life. The second pool is Mnemosyne or “memory” that initiates of the Mysteries would drink from.
Hades and Persephone’s court is found here, where three judges of the Underworld, Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus sit in judgment of the dead. In addition, the trivium, a spot sacred to Hecate was found. From the trivium ran three roads. The souls of the dead would be judged here. If a soul was judged to be neither virtuous or evil, they would be sent to the Asphodel Meadows. If a soul was judged to be evil or impious, they would be sent to Tartarus. If a soul was judged to be virtuous or “blameless”, they would be sent to Elysium.
Erytheia – An island found in the Underworld. Hades kept a herd of cattle here who are attended to by Menoetius.
Lethe – Meaning oblivion, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Phlegethon – Meaning fire, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Styx – Meaning hate, an infamous river of the Underworld. One of five rivers, Styx forms the boundary between the living world and the lands of the dead. The newly dead would pay the fare of an obolus or small coin to Charon, the Ferryman to be ferried across to the Underworld. The Greeks would make propitiatory offerings to help those born paupers or without friends and relatives to have a proper burial; thus, preventing their return to the living world. Once to the other side of Styx, the dead would pass by Cerberus, through the gates of the Underworld to be judged and sent on their way to where in the Underworld they would reside. The gods would swear their oaths on this river and is the same river that Achille’s mother dipped him into in order to grant her son invulnerability.
Tartarus – If a soul were deemed evil, they would be sent to Tartarus. Infamous inmates of Tartarus are: the daughters of Danaus who must try to fill a sieve with water, Ixion who is tied to a constantly spinning wheel of fire, Oknos who forever braids a piece of rope while a donkey eats the other end, Sisyphus who must forever roll a rock up a hill, and Tantalos who is unable to ever quench his thirst.
Judaism & Hades
Continuing on the theme of Hades’ name becoming synonymous with that of the Underworld. The Hebrew word, Sheol which means “Unseen” is also the name for the Jewish Underworld. And Hades’ name means “Unseen” as well. It could be easy to see a linguistic translation could cause confusion and could cause people to start calling the Underworld by the name of Hades and giving the deity the name Pluto to keep it straight.
Christianity & Hades
It wasn’t just the Greeks, later Christians would also refer to Hades when wishing someone to go to Hell, they might say “See you in Hades” as an alternative.
The name Hades appears ten times in the Bible, particularly the New Testament; specifically, the newer King James Version and the original Greek texts, where the name Hades is frequently interchangeable with the Christian idea of Hell or for the body’s decay and destruction in death. At times, certain verses seem to indicate the god Hades, not just the place. Later translation will replace the name Hades with that of Hell.
Evil Vs. Well… Neutral
Because Hades is the ruler of the Underworld and God of the Dead, there’s a strong tendency to equate him as being evil. The Underworld, that’s where Hades rules and people down below to Hell where Satan, the devil dwells. Hades must be evil!
Not so, Hades is more altruistic in that he prefers to keep balance. Sure, he comes off as stern and dour and when dealing those like Sisyphus, you have to lay down the law.
There’s a lot of movies and T.V. shows that tend towards showing death and going to the Underworld as some sort of negative thing. When really, it’s just another place, another state of being and plane of existence. Hades was all about maintaining balance.
The television show: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys seems to be the only series I know of that portrays Hades in a positive light. The main episode in question being Hercules helping his Uncle Hades properly win and earn Persephone’s love, not just flat out abducting her. A retelling of Hades’ abduction of Persephone to the Underworld.
Thanatos – Death Personified
Just a quick note to throw in, yes Hades is the God of the Underworld and the Dead, he is not Death personified, that distinction belongs to Thanatos.
Sibylline Oracles – This was a curious mixture of Greco-Roman beliefs and Judeo-Christian beliefs. Here, Hades is noted as the name for the realm of the dead. If one played fast and loose with the etymology of the name Hades, they would derive the name of Adam, the first man due to his being the first to die and enter the afterlife.
Asclepius & Hades
As mentioned before, Hades being the God of the Underworld doesn’t allow the souls of the living to return to the living world lightly. So, it should come as no surprise when, Asclepius, a famous healer, finds himself in trouble with Hades.
Asclepius’ healing abilities were so great, that he could bring the dead back to life. This angered Hades, who, one of his few trips to the upper world, brought his grievances to Zeus. Hades accused Asclepius for the decreasing number of dead who entered his realm.
Siding with his brother, Zeus kills Asclepius with a thunderbolt.
Aesop Fable #133
As a bit of a side story, this fable has a reference to Asclepius’ story. In it, a physician who knows nothing about medicine, informs a patient that they will die and to get his affairs in order.
Even though this patient had other people telling him this bought of illness would go away.
A short bit later, the physician runs into the patient again and asks them how everyone down in Hades are doing. The patient responds that everyone is doing well, however Persephone and Hades are angry, ready to denounce all physicians with the physician at the top of the list as people were no longer getting sick and dying. The patient goes on to say that he stepped forward, grasping their scepters and sword that his was nonsense as the physician was no doctor of at all.
Key Of Hades
This symbol is often used in art to represent Hades’ power and control over the Underworld. The key serves as a reminder that the Gates to the Underworld are always locked. That while souls are free to enter, they are not allowed to leave. Even if the Gates are opened, that Cerberus is right there, guarding the exit to prevent any escapees.
A bident is a two-pronged weapon that Hades is often shown with. That claim though, for antiquity remains uncertain even though a bident does appear in various Greek art and literature and there are a few examples of bronze weapons from Greek culture.
It has also been pointed out that Poseidon has a trident, a three-pronged weapon, Hades has a bident, a two-pronged weapon and that Zeus has his thunderbolt, that is a one-pronged weapon. Just in case someone thought there should be some sort of connection.
With this bident, Hades could shatter anything in his way, much like Poseidon does with his trident.
Helm Of Darkness
Better known as the Cap of Invisibility, the Cap of Hades and Helm of Hades, it is either a cap or helmet that can turn whoever wears it, invisible. The Greek name for the Cap of Invisibility is: Ἅϊδος κυνέην, which translates into “dog-skin of Hades.” The 1st/2nd century text: Bibliotheca mentions Hades having this helmet. A Rabelais refers to this helmet as the Helmet of Pluto and Eramus calls it the Helmet of Orcus. Both names clearly connect this cap or helmet as belonging to the god of the Underworld.
The Helm of Darkness is said to work by creating a cloud of mist, allowing the wearer to become invisible to any supernatural being. The Elder or Uranian cyclops created the Helm of Darkness for Hades to use in the war during the Titanomachy. A gift and thanks for freeing the cyclops from Tartarus.
Hades isn’t the only one to wear the helmet. The goddess Athena wore the helmet during the Trojan War when helping Diomedes fight her brother, Ares. Diomedes succeeds at wounding Ares with a spear.
Then you have Hermes who wore the Helmet when he battled the giant Hippolytus. Lastly is the hero Perseus who received the Helmet from Athena, along with a set of winged sandals when he was on his way to go slay the gorgon, Medusa. Another variation to the story has Perseus getting the Helmet and sandals from the Stygian nymphs. After slaying Medusa, Perseus used the helmet to escape the wrath of her sisters, Euryale and Sthenno.
Plouton – God of Wealth & Riches!
When Hades is known as Plouton, he becomes connected with that of wealth and riches. Seeing as it is underground where gold, silver, precious gems, etc. are all going to be found, that makes sense. It also makes some sense too when partnering Hades up in his role as Plouton with Persephone to spread and share the bounty of the earth. Not just in mineral wealth, but the fertility and growth of the land as well.
Eleusinian Deity – Ploutos is originally a god of wealth as it concerns agriculture and later just wealth and riches overall. Of which, Ploutos is the Demeter’s son by way of Iasion. Which when you know the genealogy and who Ploutos mother is and who Persephone’s mother is, I don’t think the ancient Greeks were thinking through this pairing of deities very well.
Which is what they did when referring Hades by the name of Plouton to try and connect him to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Of course, that could be why Hades is said not to have any children directly and why the mother of Persephone’s children are fathered by someone else. Even then….
It’s just the Greeks playing theological games with throwing everything in a blender and trying to have more minor deities absorbed into the worship of a more influential deity to become an epitaph of said deity.
This connection also comes about too, as the Greeks didn’t like to refer to Hades by name. A euphemistic name would be used instead; Plouton. This alternate name for Hades started seeing use in 5th century B.C.E. The name Plouton would be adopted by the Romans and Latinized to become Pluto.
Aita – Etruscan
A cognate for Hades in the little-known Etruscan beliefs and mythology.
Pluto – Roman
Pluto the Latinization of Plouton. Other Roman names used for Pluto are: Aidoneus, Dis, Dis Pater (“the Rich Father”), Dives and Orcus.
In the Roman retellings of the story, Pluto (Hades) is out riding in the mortal realms, inspecting the land to make sure that after the fall of the titans, the borders to his realm in Tartarus are still secure. When Venus and her son Cupid see the lord of the Underworld out riding, the opportunity is too much for them and Venus instructs her son to hit Pluto with an arrow so that when he sees Proserpine, he is stricken with such love and lust that he carries her off to his shadowy realm of Tartarus. The rest of the story is much like the Greek versions where Ceres sets off in search of her missing daughter.
Alternate Spellings: 黄帝, Huang Di, Huangdi
Also known as: Gongsun, Kung-sun, Xuanyuan, Xuan Yuan, Hsuan-yuan, Huang Ti, Hwang Ti, Yellow Emperor, Yellow Thearch, the Yellow God, the Yellow Lord
Etymology: the Yellow Emperor, The character 黄 Huang, means “yellow” and is a homophony for the character, 皇 Huang, meaning, “august”, “creator” and “radiant”, Di “emperor”
Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor ruled during a golden age of Chinese history and mythology. He is the first of five legendary Chinese emperors. Tradition has Huang-Di beginning his rule during 2697 B.C.E. and ending 2597. An alternate date is 2698-2598 B.C.E. These dates were first calculated by Jesuit missionaries studying the Chinese chronicles. They have been accepted by later scholars looking to try and establish a universal calendar.
There are a number of different legends surrounding Huang-Di that tell of his greatness as a benevolent ruler and establishing Chinese civilization. Huang-Di is to have ruled in a Golden Era of history before written Chinese history was established so many of his stories were passed down orally first. Just as Britain has its King Arthur, China has Huang-Di, the greatest ruler of all time that everyone looks up to and reveres.
What’s In A Name?
This gets a little tricky. Depending on the Chinese character used and its pronunciation; depends on what the word is translated to mean.
The character for Di, is used to refer to the highest deity from the Shang dynasty. During the Warring States period, the term Di came to be associated with the gods of the five sacred mountains and colors. After this era, about 221 B.C.E. the term Di came to refer to earthly emperors.
The character for Huang can be translated a couple different ways. Either Yellow or August. Scholars and historians seeking to emphasize the more religious meaning to the name Huaung-Di will translate the name to mean “Yellow Thearch” or “August Thearch.”
Some scholars such as Sima Qian in his “Records of the Grand Historian” compiled in 1st century B.C.E. have given Huang-Di’s name as Xuanyuan. The 3rd century scholar Huangfu Mi have said that this is to be the very same hill that Huang-Di lived and takes his name from. Liang Yusheng, from the Qing dynasty has argued that the hill is named after the Huang-Di. In Chinese astronomy, Xuanyan is the name for the star Alpha Leonis or Regulus.
The name Xuanyuan is also references Huang-Di’s birthplace. Huang-Di’s surname was Gongsun or Ji.
The name Youxiong is thought to be either a place name or clan name. Several Western scholars and translators have given their ideas on what Youxiong translate to. The British sinologist, Herbert Allen Giles says the name is from Huang-Di’s principal heritage. William Nienhauser, in translating the “Records of the Grand Historian” has put forth that Huang-Di is the head of the Youxiong clan who lived near Xinzheng in Henan. The French historian, Rémi Mathieu translates the name Youxiong to mean “possessor of bears” and linking Huang-Di in mythology to bears. Rémi isn’t the only one to make a connection to bears. Ye Shuxian also makes a connection with Huang-Di to the bear legends found throughout northeast Asia and the Dangun legend.
As a culture hero, Huang-Di is seen as a wise and benevolent ruler who introduced government and laws. He is also seen as having taught people several different skills and to have invented several things such as clothing, building permanent structures such as palaces and houses, music, the wheel, armor & weapons, carts, ships, writing, digging wells, agriculture, taming and domesticating animals, astronomy, calendars, mathematics, cuju (a sport similar to football), the compass and currency.
At some time during Huang-Di’s rule, he reputed to have visited the Eastern sea where he met Bai Ze, a supernatural talking beast that taught him the knowledge of all supernatural creatures. Bai Ze explained to Huang-Di there were 11,522 (or 1,522) different types of supernatural beings.
San-Huang – The Three Sovereigns
Also, known as the Three Emperors, they are a group of god-kings and demigod emperors who are believed to have lived some 4,500 years ago. Huang-Di is counted as being part of this group and the leader of their number to have once ruled over China. Other’s counted among this number are Fu Xi, Nuwa and Shennong.
This is another mythological and historical group of rulers important to Chinese culture. These five emperors were virtuous rulers of outstanding moral character. Taihao, the Yan Emperor, the Yellow Emperor (Huang-Di), Shaohao and Zhuanxu are considered among the Five Emperors in this group.
But that makes four with the Three Sovereigns! The math is off! There are a number of variations as to who is counted among these numbers and it all depends on which text and source is used. It will even flip-flop too as to where Huang-Di is placed as either one of the Three Sovereigns or Five Emperors.
Parentage and Family
Huang-Di’ parents are given as Shaodian as his father and Fu Pao as his mother.
According to the “Discourses of the States”, Shaodian is sometimes mentioned as being Huang-Di’s step-father.
Huang-Di seems to have had several different wives:
Leizu – Of Xiling, she is the first wife, she is the most notable with any information as she is the first person to have domesticated silk worms for their silk. With Leizu, Huang-Di had two sons.
Fenglei – Second wife
Tongyu – Third wife
Momu – Fourth wife
Huang-Di is reputed to have had 25 sons. 14 of these sons all started clans of their own with their own surnames.
Shaohao – Also known as Xuanxiao, he would become the Emperor after Huang-Di’s death.
Changyi, who in turn is the father of Zhuanxu who would succeed his uncle, Shaohao as the next Emperor.
Ancestor Of The Chinese
A lot of emphasis and importance has been placed on Huang-Di as many Chinese dynasty rulers would trace the rights of their sovereignty to him. The Chinese Han claim being descendants of both Yandi (The Flame Emperor) and Huang-Di. Eventually, Huang-Di would be seen as the ancestor to all Chinese. A many Dynasty Emperors would all lay claim to Huang-Di’s legacy to prove their rightful claim to the throne.
It should be noted that the earlier mentions of Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor is on a fourth century bronze inscription for the royal house of the Qi. This inscription claims Huang-Di as an ancestor to the Qi. The scholar, Lothar von Falkenhausen has suggested that Huang-Di is likely created as an ancestral figure in order to claim that all the ruling clans from the Zhou share a common ancestor.
Birth Of A Legend
Per myth and legend, Huang-Di is the result of a virgin birth. His mother, Fubao become pregnant with him while walking out in the countryside and was struck by lightning from the Big Dipper constellation. Fubao would give birth to her son after a period of twenty-four months on either Mount Shou or Mount Xuanyuan. It is for mount Xuanyan that Huang-Di would be named.
In Huangfu Mi’s account, Huang-Di is born at Shou Qiu or Longevity Hill near the outskirts of Qufu in Shandong by modern times. Huang-Di lived with his tribe near the Ji River, a mythological river and later migrated with his tribe to Zhuolu near modern Hebei. As a cultural hero, Huang-Di tames six different animals, the bear, the brown bear, the pi and xiu. The pi and xiu get combined to become a mythological animal known as the Pixiu. He also tames the chu and tiger. I’m not sure which creatures all of these are or the difference between a bear and brown bear is, but there we have it.
Other legends surrounding Huang-Di hold that he could speak shortly after his birth. That when he was fifteen years old, there was nothing that he didn’t know. Huang-Di would eventually hold the Xiong throne.
Trouble In Paradise
Huang-Di’s rule wasn’t completely problem free. One god decided to challenge Huang-Di’s sovereignty. This god was helped by the emperor’s son, Fei Lian, the Lord of the Wind. Fei Lian sent fog and heavy rain to try and drown the Imperial Armies. The emperor’s daughter, Ba (meaning drought) put an end to the rain and helped to defeat Fei Lian and his forces.
The Yellow Emperor And The Yan Emperor
Despite there being some 500 years between Huang-Di and Shennong rules, both of these emperors’ rules near the Yellow River. Shennong hailed from another are up around the Jiang River. Shennong having trouble with keeping order within his borders, begged the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Di for help against the “Nine Li” lead by Chi You and his some 81 brothers who all have horns and four eyes.
Battle of Zhuolu – Shennong was forced to flee Zhuolu before begging for help. Huang-Di used his tame animals against Chi You who darkened the sky by breathing out a thick fog. Huang-Di then invented the south-point chariot to lead his army out of the miasma of fog.
In order to defeat Chi You, Huang-Di calls on a drought demon, Nüba to get rid of Chi You’s storm.
This story sounds a lot like a variation of the previous story where Huang-Di calls for his daughter Ba to defeat Fe Lian.
Battle of Banquan – It is at this battle, that both Huang-Di and Shennong finally defeat Chi You and his forces and replace him as ruler.
Death & Immortality
Huang-Di ruled for many years and is thought to have died in 2598 B.C.E. Legend holds Huang-Di lived over a hundred years, by some accounts this was 110 years. Before he died, Huang-Di met a phoenix and qilin before he rose to the heavens to become an immortal or Xian. He is considered the very archetype of a human who merges their self with the self of the Universal God; how a person reaches enlightenment and immortality.
Another account of Huang-Di’s death is that a yellow dragon from Heaven flew down to take up Huang-Di up. Huang-Di knew that he could not deny destiny and went with the dragon. On their way to fly back to Heaven, they flew over Mount Qiao where Huang-Di asked to be able to say goodbye to his people. The people cried out, not wanting Huang-Di to leave them and they pulled on his clothing to try and keep. Surprisingly, Huang-Di slipped free of his clothing and got back on the dragon to fly up to the heavens. As to his clothing, they were buried in a mausoleum built at Mount Qiao.
Two tombs commemorating Huang-Di were built in Shaanxi within the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor. Other tombs were built in Henan, Hebei and Gansu.
Huang-Di is the founder of Taoism, one of the main philosophies and religions found in China.
As Huang-Di began to age, he began to allow his court officials to handle matters and make decisions. Huang-Di moved out into a simple hut in his courtyard. There, as he fasted, prayed and meditated, Huang-Di discovered Tao, or the way, a philosophy that would lead to the ideal state of being.
In some of the older accounts with Huang-Di, he is identified as a god of light and thunder. The name Huang and Guang, meaning “light,” making him a Thunder God. However, Lei Gong or Leishen is the name of another deity and he is seen as Huang-Di’s student.
The legend and origins for Haung-Di have been cast into doubt by many. The scholar Yang Kuan, a member of the Doubting Antiquity School has argued that Huang-Di is derived from the god, Shang-Di from the Shang dynasty. Yang says that the etymology of Shang-Di, Huang Shang-Di and Huang-Di all have a connection to the Chinese character of 黄 Huang, which means “yellow” and its homophony of, 皇 Huang, which means “august,” that to use the character for 皇 Huang, was considered taboo.
Other historians have disputed this claim like Mark Edward Lewis and Michael Puett. While Mark Edward Lewis agrees that the two characters are interchangeable, he has suggested that the character 黄 Huang is closer to the character wang phonetically. Lewis puts forth the idea that Huang might have referred to a “rainmaking shaman” and “rainmaking rituals.” He uses the Warring States and Han era myths for Huang-Di, in that these were ancient rainmaking rituals, as Huang-Di held power over the clouds and rains. Huang-Di’s rival, Chiyou or Yandi held power over fires and drought.
Lord Of The Underworld Or The Yellow Springs
Further disagreements with Yang Kuan’s idea of equating Haung-Di with Shang-Di is the Western scholar, Sarah Allen who has stated that the pre-Shang myths and history can be seen as changes to Shang’s mythology.
By this argument, Huang-Di was originally an unnamed Lord of the Underworld or Yellow Springs, the counterpart to Shang-Di in his role as the supreme deity of the sky. Continuing this theme, the Shang rulers claimed their ancestor as the “the ten suns, birds, east, life and the Lord on High. Shang-Di had defeated an earlier group of people who were associated with the Underworld, Dragons and the West.
After the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang dynasty in the eleventh century B.C.E., the Zhou rulers began to change out the myth, changing the Shang to the Xia dynasty. By the time of the Han, according to Sima Qian’s Shiji, Huang-Di as Lord of the Underworld had now become a historical ruler.
During the Warring States era of texts, the figure of Huan-Di appears intermittently. Sima Qian’s text, Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) is the first work to gather all of the fragments and myths surrounding Huan-Di into a coherent form and narrative. The Shiji would become a very important and influential text for the Chinese and the start of their history.
In the Shiji, Sima Qian he says that the state of Qin began worshiping Huang-Di during the fifth century B.C.E. along with Yandi, the Flame Emperor. Alters had been established in Yong, the capital of Qin. By the time of King Zheng in 247 B.C.E., Huang-Di had become the most important of the four “thearchs” worshiped in Yong.
During the late Warring States and early Han eras, Huang-Di’s cult became very prominent as he is regarded as the founder of the arts, civilization, governing and a supreme god. There have been a number of texts such as the Huangdi Neijing, a classic medical text, and the Huangdi Sijing, a group of political treatises that Huang-Di is credited with having written.
While his influence has waned for a period, the early twentieth century saw Huang-Di become an important figure for the Han Chinese when trying to overthrow the Qing dynasty. For some, Huang-Di is still an important, nationalist symbol.
Huángdì Sìmiàn – Yellow Emperor with Four Faces
In the Shizi, Huang-Di is known as the Yellow Emperor with Four Faces. Other names that Huang-Di is known by are: Sìmiànshén, Four-Faced God or the Ubiquitous God. The name Sìmiànshén is also the name for Brahma in Chinese.
As Huángdì Sìmiàn, Huang-Di represented the center of the universe and his four faces allowed him to see in everything that happened around him and in the world. In this aspect, he communicated directly with the gods for prayer and sacrifice. When traveling, Huang-Di rode in an ivory chariot pulled by dragons and an elephant. He would be accompanied by a troop of tigers, wolves, snakes and flocks of phoenix.
Wufang Shangdi – Five Forms of the Highest Deity
In Chinese texts and common beliefs, the Wudi (“Five Deities”) or Wushen (“Five Gods”) are five main deities who are personifications or extensions of a main deity.
Zhōngyuèdàdì – Huang-Di, when he becomes an Immortal or Xian and deified, is one of the Wudi. As Zhōngyuèdàdì, the “Great Deity of the Central Peak”, he is the most important of the Wudi, representing the element of earth, the color yellow and the Yellow Dragon. He is the hub and center of all creation upon which the divine order found within physical reality makes way for possible immorality. Huang-Di is the god of the governing the material world, the creator of the Huaxia (Chinese) civilization, marriage, morality, language, lineage and the primal ancestor to all Chinese people. In addition, he is a Sun God and associated astrally with the planet Saturn, the star Regulus and the constellations Leo and Lynx. The constellation Lynx in Chinese star lore, represents the body of the Yellow Dragon.
Huángshén Běidǒu – the “Yellow God of the Northern Dipper”, connected to this constellation, Huang-Di becomes identified as Shangdi or Tiandi, the supreme God or “Highest Deity.”
Further, Huang-Di is the representation for the hub of creation, the divine center and the axis mundi for the divine order in physical reality which opens the way to immortality. He is the god who is the center of the cosmos that connects the San-Huang and the Wudi.
Huángdì Nèijing – The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon
Also, spelled as Huang Ti Nei Ching (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine).
This medical text forms the foundation for traditional Chinese Medicine. it comprises of the theories of the legendary emperor Huang Di who lived around 2600 B.C.E. This tome preserved a lot of ancient medical knowledge and is compose of two volumes. The first one is a dialogue between Huang Di and his minister, Qibo. The second one has the descriptions of anatomy, medical physiology and acupuncture. The real author of this book is unknown.
Huangdi Sijing – Four Scriptures of the Yellow Emperor
In this text, it is explained how regulating the heart and one’s emotions, they will never allow oneself to get overly emotional and carried away. Huang-Di had accomplished doing this during his three years at the refuge at Mount Bowang in order to find himself. Doing this, creates an internal void where all the forces of creation gather, where the indeterminate they stay, the more powerful these forces of creation will be. In more simpler terms, this is self-mastery and self-control.
Other Books –
Other books attributed to Huang Di are: Huángdì Yinfújing (Yellow Emperor’s Book of the Hidden Symbol) and the Yellow Emperor’s Four Seasons Poem that is found contained in the Tung Shing fortune-telling almanac.
As a Sun God, Huang-Di as Zhōngyuèdàdì is associated astrally with the planet Saturn, the star Regulus and the constellations Leo and Lynx. The constellation Lynx in Chinese star lore, represents the body of the Yellow Dragon.
Going Back To Where It All Began!
As previously mentioned earlier, tradition has Huang-Di begin his rule during 2697 B.C.E. and ending in 2597. An alternate date is 2698-2598 B.C.E. These dates were first calculated by Jesuit missionaries studying the Chinese chronicles. They have been accepted by later scholars looking to try and establish a universal calendar.
It should be noted that the traditional Chinese calendar didn’t mark years consecutively. Some Han-dynasty astronomers have tried to determine when Huang-Di ruled. Under the reign of Emperor Zhao in 78 B.C.E. a court official, Zhang Shouwang calculated that some 6,000 years had passed since the time of Huang-Di rule. The court however rejected this claim and said that only 3,629 years had passed. Comparisons with the Western, Julian calendar place the court’s calculations to the late 38th century B.C.E. for Huang-Di. Nowadays, the 27th century B.C.E. is accepted by many.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
Getting anything for reliable accuracy and the historical context of China before the 13th century B.C.E. is difficult. There is a lot of reliance on what archaeology can provide and prove. The earliest Chinese writing and records date to the Shang dynasty around 1200 B.C.E. This system of writing is the use of bones for oracles. Even any hard evidence for the Xia dynasty is hard to find, even with Chinese archaeologists trying to link this dynasty to the Bronze Age Erlitou sites.
Many Chinese historians view Huang-Di to have a stronger historical basis than other legendary figures like Fu Xi, Nuwa and the Yan Emperor. While many legendary figures and ancient sages have all been considered to be historical figures, it is not until the 1920’s that members of the Doubting Antiquity School in China began to question the accuracy of these legends and claims.
Warring States Era
These early figures of Chinese history, as Gu Jiegang from the Doubting Antiquity School, as stated are mythological in origin. They started off as gods and then became depicted as mortal during the Warring States era by intellectuals.
Yang Kuan, another member of the Doubting Antiquity School, has commented that it is only during the Warring States era that Huang-Di is mentioned as the first ruler of China. Yang goes on to argue that Huang-Di is really the supreme god, Shang-Di, the god of the Shang pantheon.
Even the French scholars Henri Maspero and Marcel Granet, in their “Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne” (“Dances and legends of ancient China”) have commented that early Chinese legends have more to do with the period to when they were written than to when they are supposed to have happened.
From God To Man
Huang Di’s status as a god faded during the 2nd century C.E. with the rise and reverence of Laozi. Huang Di will still be regarded as an immortal and the master of the longevity techniques and a deity who would reveal new teachings in the form of books like the Huang Di Yinfujing in the 6th century C.E.
Nowadays, many scholars accept the view that Huang-Di and other figures like him started off as a god of religious importance and then become humanized, mortal during the Warring States and Han periods. Even though Huang Di’s status as a god faded during the
Chang Tsung-tung, a Taiwanese scholar has argued, that based on a vocabulary comparison between Bernhard Karlgren’s Grammata Serica and Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, there is a connection with the Old Chinese and the Proto-Indo-European etymologies. That there is a strong influence of Indo-European languages on the Old Chinese language around 2400 B.C.E. Chang goes on to say that the Shang dynasty was founded by Indo-European conquerors and identifies Huang-Di as an Indo-European god. Chang says that the “yellow” in Huang-Di’s name should be interpreted as referring to blond hair. That as a nomad of the steppes, Huang-Di encouraged road construction and horse-drawn carriages to establish a central state.
This idea, to me, seems farfetched. Since it is one of the ideas I came across, I’ll include it here.
Thanks to the French scholar, Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, many Chinese historians got hooked on the idea Chinese civilization getting its start in 2300 B.C.E. by Babylonian immigrants and that Huang Di would have been a Mesopotamian tribal leader. This idea has been rejected by European sinologists, however the idea was advocated for again by two Japanese scholars Shirakawa Jiro and Kokubu Tanenori in 1900.
The ideas certainly seem to held on to by anti-Manchu intellectuals who are looking for the truth of China’s history and wanting to prove the superiority of the Han over the Manchu and the importance of Huang Di as the ancestor of all Chinese.
The Mausoleum Of The Yellow Emperor
Also called Xuanyuan Temple, this mausoleum is the most important of ancient mausoleums in China and praised as “the First Mausoleum in China.” The mausoleum is located at Mount Qiao, north of the Huangling County of Yan’an some 200 kilometers north of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. According to historians, the mausoleum was first built on the western side of Qiao during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) It was later restored during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) It had been damaged by floods and moved to Qiao’s eastern side by the Emperor Song Taizu of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1234 C.E.)
During the Qingming Festival that is held on April 5th, Chinese people from all over gather to hold a memorial ceremony to commemorate the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Di. Yan’an also earns the distinction of being considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization.
Etymology – Greek – ophis (serpent), ekhein or okhos (holder), “Serpent-Bearer”
Also known as: Ὀφιοῦχος (Greek), Anguitenens, Serpentarius, Hebitsukai-Za (Japanese, “Serpent Bearer”, the Serpent-holder, the Serpent Bearer, the Serpent Wrestler, or the Snake Charmer
The constellation of Ophiuchus is represented as a man holding a snake, seen in the constellation of Serpens. The body of Ophiuchus divides the Serpens constellation in half to Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda.
The ancient Greeks saw the god Apollo in the constellation of Ophiuchus, contending with a large snake that guarded the Delphi Oracle. Many others have seen various legendary healers from Joseph and Aaron from the Bible, Imhotep and Asclepius in this constellation.
Astronomy & Astrology
Much of the foundations of Western knowledge regarding the fields of Astronomy and Astrology owe its roots to Ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Many ancient cultures studied the stars, seeing in them patterns that are called constellations. These ancient astronomers could make predictable, annual turnings of the heavens that they could divide and mark for the passing of the Seasons and time. For the ancients, Astrology served as a precursor to Astronomy and they believed that by studying the heavens, they could foretell future events and even a person’s life path.
These ancient cultures would also meet and exchange ideas frequently and in this fashion, when the Greeks encountered the Persians, there was an exchange of knowledge regarding Astronomy that becomes the constellations and zodiacs so many know today. Eventually, there is no clear distinction between what ancient Mesopotamian Astronomers and Greeks Philosophers knew. Even in current, modern times, the influence of these ancients is still known.
The constellation known as Ophiuchus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 11th in size and located near the celestial equator. Ophiuchus was previously known as Anguitenens and Serpentarius; which in Latin has the same meaning as the modern name.
Constellations bordering with Ophiuchus are: Aquila, Libra, Scorpius, Serpens and Hercules. If you know where in the night sky that Orion is, Ophiuchus on the opposite. The best time to spot Ophiuchus is during the month of July in the Northern Hemisphere.
The ancient Babylonians have a constellation known as the “Sitting Gods” that might have been in the same location of the night sky that Ophiuchus is found.
The Sumerian god, Enki has also been suggested as who the constellation is based on.
In his book, Babylonian Star-lore, Gavin White suggests that Ophiuchus has a connection to the ancient snake god, Nirah, who is sometimes depicted having the upper body of a man and snakes for legs. This idea seems a bit farfetched as there aren’t too many other scholarly works to validate or refute it.
Ophiuchus, combined with Serpens was known as Nu-tsir-da.
Arabic & Islamic Astronomy
According to 10th century C.E., Azophi’s Uranometry, the constellation of Ophiuchus is known by the name of Al-Hawwa’, the Snake-Charmer.
An Arabic title for Ophiuchus is Suille. Herodotus mentions a tribe of snake-charmers known as Psylli in North Africa. This part offered up some confusion keeping this straight. Again, as there’s some conflicting information and research. I found a “le Psylle” that refers to an insect. This may be to a lot of confusion with languages and translations.
To the ancient Chinese astronomers, Alpha Ophiuchi is known as Hou, a senior assistant to the Emperor. The Emperor’s thrown, Dizuo is located directly north in the Hercules constellation where it corresponds with the star Alpha Herculis. What exactly Hou’s role is, is rather unclear. Some have referred to him as an overseer, an usher bringing in guests and possibly an astrologer.
The stars Iota and Kappa Ophiuchi formed Hu, a measuring cup for liquids, this constellation is found further in the Hercules constellation.
For the ancient Chinese, the southern part of Hercules, most of Serpens and Ophiuchus were viewed as a celestial market place, Tianshi. To the left of Tianshi, there is an eastern wall that starts in the constellation of Hercules and heads south through Serpens Cauda and ending in Ophiuchus at Eta Ophiuchi. To the right of Tianshi, a western wall runs southward from Hercules, through Serpens Caput and ends in Ophiuchus with stars Delta, Epsilon and Zeta Ophiuchi. The stars 20 Ophiuchi and Chesi are seen as market stalls along the right wall. The stars Lambda Ophiuchi and Sigma Serpentis made up Liesi, an arcade where jewelers shops could be found.
Comprised of stars Mu, 47, 30 and a much fainter star formed a six-star loop that represents a hall or a tower housing the trading standards office. Finishing out this shape are the stars Omicron and Nu in Serpens Cauda.
Zongzheng, Zongren, and Zong
These three constellations are found to the south of Hou. Zongzheng is noted by the stars Beta and Gamma Ophiuchi and Zongren is noted by the stars 66, 67, 68 and 70 Ophiuchi. These two constellations are seen to represent a governor and his aides who are supervising the younger members of the royal family. Zong is noted by the stars 71 and 72 Ophiuchi and is seen to represent a revered ancestor to the royal family.
The stars Phi, Chi, Psi, and Omega Ophiuchi formed Dongxian found outside the market walls. Dongxian is the western door to the steward’s room, used for investigating on any trade infractions. The eastern door, Xixian is found in Scorpius and Libra.
Marked by Theta Ophiuchi and three other stars, this constellation is a celestial river, located in the Milky Way and thought to control the waterways.
Lying next to Tianjiang, this constellation is composed of eight faint stars found in Ophiuchus and Sagittarius. It is thought that Tianyue lays directly on the ecliptic and represents a keyhole or lock that the Sun must thread itself through every year. It lays directly across the heavens from Tiangun, a gate found on the ecliptic within the Taurus constellation.
In later symbolic literature for Christianity, the imagery of Ophiuchus and the serpent is used in the story of the Garden of Eden. In his Paradise Lost, John Milton uses Ophiuchus as a major simile where he compares Satan to a comet that burns through the length of the constellation.
Again, with the strong imagery of the figure holding a serpent, some astrologists have connected the story of Joseph from the Biblical Book of Genesis and his interpreting dreams for the Pharaoh. Another story connecting Ophiuchus to the bible is that of Aaron and his casting down his rod to become a snake.
Due to the rise of interest in Ophiuchus as a 13th Astrological sign, many have been quick to identify the Greek physician Asclepius in this constellation. In turn, discussion extends to an earlier Egyptian healer, Imhotep that Asclepius is based on.
The 4th century B.C.E. Greek poet, Aratus has the earliest mention of Ophiuchus in his Phaenomena, which in turn is based on earlier works by Eudoxus of Cnidus. While Aratus didn’t know much about astronomy by Greek standards of the day, he was very well known for his poetry and descriptive imagery for the constellations.
The ancient Greeks saw the god Apollo in the constellation of Ophiuchus, contending with a large snake that guarded the Delphi Oracle.
The son of the god Apollo, Asclepius is the figure most often seen and identified in the constellation of Ophiuchus. Elevated to the status of a demi or lesser god, Asclepius was greatly renowned for his healing skills to the degree that he could even bring people back from the dead.
This knowledge of healing came about after Glaucus, the son of King Minos of Crete had fallen into a jar of honey and drowned. Asclepius had been called into the scene and while there, saw a snake slithering towards Glaucus’ body. Asclepius killed the snake and then saw another snake come in and place an herb on the body of the first snake, bringing it back to life. After witnessing this, Asclepius proceeded to take the same herb and place it on Glaucus’ body and bring him back to life.
Another story of Asclepius bringing people back to life is the resurrection of Thesues’ son, Hippolytus after the king’s son had been thrown from his chariot.
Asclepius had been raised by Chiron, the immortal centaur and god in his own right. From Chiron, Asclepius learned the art of healing and in one story, Asclepius received the blood of the slain gorgon Medusa from the goddess Athena. The gorgon’s blood reportedly held some mystical qualities. The blood taken from the left side of Medusa’s body was a poison while the blood taken from the right side would be able to resurrect people, bringing them back from the dead.
This caused enough of a complaint from Hades to Zeus that humans would become immortal and that there wouldn’t be any one entering the Underworld. To prevent people from becoming immortal, Zeus agreed to kill Asclepius, doing so with a lightning bolt. Later, Zeus placed Asclepius’ image up into the heavens to become the constellation of Ophiuchus in honor and memory.
Ophiuchus is part of the Hercules Family of constellations. The myth I found making this connection, has the famous hero Hercules kill Kaikias, the Blinding One. Kaikias or Caecius is the god of the North East Wind who is shown carrying a large shield that scatters hailstones upon the earth.
Other Greek myths see the figure of Laocoön, a Trojan priest of Poseidon. Laocoön had tried to warn the other Trojans about the Trojan Horse and the fact that the Greeks were hiding within it. He would later be killed by a pair of sea serpents sent by the gods to punish Laocoön.
Another Greek myth links Phorbos with the constellation of Ophiuchus. The son of Triopas and Hiscilla, Phorbas became the hero of the island of Rhodes when he saved the people from a plague of serpents. Sometimes this is interpreted to have been dragons, but snakes is often referred to or meant in the story. An oracle had told the people to call on Phorbas who came and rid the island of snakes.
Renaissance And Early Modern Depictions
Inspired by Aratus’ description of Ophiuchus stepping on the constellation of Scorpio with his feet, others such as Renaissance artist such as Albrecht Dürer and astronomer Johannes Kepler continued this idea.
For the Romans, the legendary healer, Asclepius is Romanized to the Latin spelling of Aesculapius. The Ophiuchus constellation is known by the Latin name of Serpentarius.
The constellation of Ophiuchus, along with 18 other constellations of: Cygnus, Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
These constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
The connection extends from Donald H. Menzel, the director of the Harvard Observatory, who in his A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, takes groups of constellations based on where in the night sky they are located and grouping them by the very same location.
Stars Of Ophiuchus
Alpha Ophiuchi – Also known as Rasalhagues or Ras Alhague, meaning “Head of the Snake Charmer” or “Snake Collector” in Arabic, is the brightest star in the Ophiuchus constellation. It marks the head of Ophiuchus.
Beta Ophiuchi – Also known as Celbalrai. Cheleb and Kelb Alrai, it comes from the Arabic word kalb al-rā‘ī, meaning “the shepherd dog.” Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the right shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Gamma Ophiuchi.
The Arabs saw a Shepherd in the star Alpha Ophiuchi with his dog, the star Beta Ophiuchi guarding sheep in the area.
Delta Ophiuchi – Also known as Yed Prior, the word “yed” comes from the Arabic language meaning “the hand.” Along with the star Epsilon Ophiuchi, these two stars mark the left hand of the Serpent Bearer, holding the head of the snake.
Epsilon Ophiuchi – Also known as Yed Posterior, this star along with Delta Ophiuchi mark the left hand of the Serpent Bearer.
Eta Ophiuchi – Also known as Sabik is the second brightest star in Ophiuchus.
Gamma Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the right shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Beta Ophiuchi.
Iota Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the left shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Kappa Ophiuchi.
Kappa Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the left shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Iota Ophiuchi.
Barnard’s Star – This is the second or third closest star to our own sun about 6 light-years away. The only other stars that are closer are those found in the Alpha Centauri binary star system and Proxima Centauri. Banard’s Star is located just north of a V-shaped group of stars that form a now obsolete constellation known as Taurus Poniatovii or Poniatowski’s Bull, specifically 66 Ophiuchi.
Taurus Poniatovii – Obsolete Constellation
According to Ptolemy’s The Almagest, the stars 66, 67, 68, 70, and 72 Ophiuchi made a short-lived constellation that formed a bull. The constellation has since then been combined wiwth Ophiuchus to form the right shoulder and tail of the serpent.
First off, what is a Superbubble? It’s an astronomical event that happens when area of space, often hundreds of light years in distance has been created by several stars going supernovae and stellar winds blowing in interstellar gas. It’s basically what’s left over after the star or stars have finished going nova.
2005 saw a group of astronomers using information from the Green Bank Telescope to discover and identify one such Superbubble or Supershell. This particular superbubble is so large it reaches out beyond the furthest edges of the galaxy.
Also, known as Keplar’s Star. On October 9th, 1604, Johannes Kepler observed a supernova near the star Ophiuchi. Johannes would study this nova so extensively that it would eventually be named after him. The book, De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (On the New Star in Ophiuchus’ Foot) contains all of Johannes’ studies and finding on this nova.
Galileo used this nova’s brief appearance when countering Aristotelian dogma and beliefs that the heavens were unchangeable.
Little Ghost Nebula
This is a planetary nebula found in Ophiuchus by William Herschel. It is about 2,000 light years away from the Earth.
Dark Horse Nebula
Also, known as the Great Dark Horse is a nebula found in Ophiuchus. This nebular is so named as its shape looks like the profile of a horse. It lays near the border with the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius. The Dark Horse Nebula is one of the largest and with the right conditions, it can be seen without the aid of binoculars.
This nebula is part of the larger Dark Horse Nebula and is considered to form the hind legs or quarters of the Dark Horse. Like the Dark Horse, the Pipe can be seen without any aid from telescopes or binoculars, but its still helpful to use them.
Yet another nebula found in Ophiuchus. Like the Pipe Nebula, the Snake Nebula is also part of the much larger Dark Horse Nebula. It is about 650 light years from the Earth. While small, the snake is easily found for its distinctive s-shape near the bowl part of the Pipe Nebula.
Twin Jet Nebula
Also, known as Minkowski’s Butterfly or the Butterfly Nebula, it was first discovered by German-American astronomer Rudolph Minkowski in 1947. The nebula is so named as it appears like either a butterfly or a pair of exhaust pipes on a jet.
There are four meteor shows associated with the constellation of Ophiuchus. They are the Ophiuchids, the Northern May Ophiuchids, Southern May Ophiuchids and Theta Ophiuchids.
Ophiuchus In Astrology?
The 13th Sign of the Zodiac!
Not so fast there! It may sound great and exciting, but such is not the case.
The idea of a 13th Sign for the Zodiac quickly caught fire in the imaginations of many aspiring astrologers, New Agers and assorted others.
Even from the expert astrologers, it must be remembered that Ophiuchus is a constellation, not a new Zodiac Sign. You don’t have to worry about going to bed, believing you were a Scorpio or Sagittarius and suddenly, everything has changed and you’re now an Ophiuchus. Nothing of the sort.
Yes, Ophiuchus is one of thirteen constellations that crosses the ecliptic as the earth makes it monthly journey around the sun and appears to move from one Zodiac Sign to the next. There is a huge difference though between a constellation and a Sign within the Zodiac. Traditionally the classical Greek Zodiac is set up into twelve Signs that stretch along the earth’s ecliptic path with each sign having roughly a month’s time. Especially in the Western traditions. The set up for the for the Signs also follow the changes of the seasons so that the March equinox will fall on the day when the celestial boundary is between Aries and Pisces.
Constellations on the other hand, vary in size and are based on the positions of the stars. Due to the precession of the equinoxes over the millennia, a Sign and constellation no longer directly line up and correlate to which Zodiac is in the heavens.
A History Lesson
Ptolemy, in his book Tetrabiblos, 170 C.E., mentions only 12 Signs. Yes Ophiuchus and some of the fixed stars got used by some of the ancient astrologers for the more significant celestial events. The 1st C.E. poet Manilius for example, in his Astronomica, describes Ohiuchus in an astrological poem. Later, Manilus goes on to discuss the astrological influence of Ophiuchus, commenting that when this constellation is rising, a person will have an affinity for snakes and be protected from their poison. Of course, a later 4th century astrologer known as Anonymous of 379 will make the association of Ras Alhague, the brightest star in Ophiuchus, as the star of doctors, healers and physicians.
Alright, so I can see where some people will jump up and down getting excited for: “See! It is the 13th Sign!”
In more modern 20th and 21st century, the IAU (International Astronomy Union) in 1930 came up with the idea of 13 astrological Signs due to “the Sun is in the sign of Ophiuchus” between November 29th and December 17th with where the constellation boundaries lay. This continues with Stephen Schmidt in 1970, when he suggested a 14-Sign Zodiac, which includes Cetus as a Sign. Later, in 1995, the 13-Sign Zodiac is put forward by Walter Berg in his “The 13 Signs of the Zodiac” and Mark Yazaki in Japan. There, the concept of Ophiuchus took off in Japanese pop culture appearing in a number of video games, notably Final Fantasy and the anime and manga series known as Fairy Tail.
People’s imaginations got fired up for a 13th Sign when an astronomy professor Parke Kunkle from the Minneapolis Community and Technical College explained to his local paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about the precession of stars over time and that eventually, old markers for time with the changes of the season altered.
The specific quote is this – “Two thousand years ago the Sun was ‘in’ whatever it was in. Now it’s about a whole constellation off from that.” It’s a quote that went viral and got picked up by various media news sites. And for the lay person who first gets into Astrology or doesn’t know anything at all, there’s the assumption that it’s all based on the constellations and not the Signs.
But It Must Be A Sign!
If you’re insisting it must be a new Zodiac Sign, here we go –
The time for Ophiuchus is from November 29th to December 17th. This takes up a good chunk of the time that’s for Sagittarius that typically runs from November 23rd to December 21st. Perhaps you can see why this is problematic.
As a 13th Sign, Ophiuchus doesn’t have an opposite Sign like all the others do. Adding Ophiuchus makes the use of the Zodiacs more Constellation based or sidereal. The use of sidereal astrology is more typical of the Vedic Astrology. Walter Berg states that the Sun is the Planet associated for this Sign. Many also place a strong emphasis on Ophiuchus’ role and affinity with healing through the use of imagery with Asclepius, Imhotep and to a lesser degree others like Joseph of Biblical fame for his interpretation of dreams and the Babylonian god Enki.
Ophiuchans are described as: seekers of wisdom and knowledge, they’re known for having a flamboyant or brightly colored wardrobe, they get along will with authority and supervisors, a seeker of peace and harmony, dream interpretation, premonitions, medical affinity, likely to have a large family though possibly have left their own home at an early age and have an eye for design and construction. The number 12 is considered an Ophiuchan’s lucky number and people may or may not be a bit envious for their progress and advances in life.
Pronunciation: OHR-fee-us or OHR-fyoos
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference to Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. The last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician, and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There are typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus, and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or a demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus are also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer nor Hesiod mentions him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue its true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to God and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Another gift that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, is often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play it. Calliope, Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophecy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This is the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus’ fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations of how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, and he looks back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would then later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld, and Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize, and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay, or other supernatural beings.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually, Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as to why would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death of Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophecies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come and tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures in Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their descent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.