Rule Britannia–a case study and thoughts on deities, hierarchy, and ontology

Britannia

Among the many, many–MANY–thoughts and feels rattling around my head at the moment, I decided to pick out one thread and brain dump it here to see if it amounts to anything. I had actually planned to write about this a couple posts ago but, you know, life.

This thread has to do with deities and/of hierarchy, our moral stance on that, and neo-Gnosticism. It’s a big topic. Not gonna lie, this could get long.

Hierarchy is understandably very unpopular with those of us who are not at the top of it, and we Americans like to pretend it doesn’t even exist. Not long ago a little debate about Jupiter flared up online (I already opined on it here), and currently I seem to be hearing about Gnosticism all over the place (this is but one example and this is another). Gnosticism is a pretty eclectic umbrella, though–the currently popular belief is basically that everyone bigger than us is out to get us. In a nutshell: The world is a horrible place for us, mostly due to “control systems” that are at minimum imposed by earthly archons and perhaps by nonphysical, even transcendental, ones as well. Knowing this is the first stage in becoming liberated from the control systems, but we also have to take actions to avoid control and resist/destroy it where possible.

I have to admit I’m a little…alarmed is maybe too strong a word, certainly a bit concerned…by this rhetoric. I don’t deny that life as we know it is full of suffering and drudgery, nor that earthly (at least) control systems exist in which murder, oppression, and exploitation are a feature not a bug. The past couple months I’ve been experiencing a sort of slow-burning existential horror at the thought of how much of my too-short life I am expected to devote to people, organizations, and causes I at best am indifferent to, and at worst actively despise, in the name of “earning a living.” So I mean, I get where the original Gnostics that held this belief were coming from, and why it’s relevant again today. What bothers me is that I’m not hearing any real philosophical engagement with it. If you believe that humans are essentially prey/slaves/farm animals, that implies a certain ontology which, I think, deserves to be more than implied but actually made explicit and critically examined. Inquiring minds want to know. (This goes for animism too, by the way. It’s not enough to say everything is alive–woopty-doo.)

Though I have ample personal experience of the earthly control systems, I haven’t seen any evidence to persuade me either way as to whether any transcendental archons exist, and whether or not any or all deities should be classed as such, let alone what exactly they do.

I have been listening to podcasts as I do my (control-system mandated) chores such as mowing the lawn, and my favorite continues to be Story Archaeology, which ticks so many of my interest boxes, including folklore, Irish culture, language, and mythology, etymology, landscape, storytelling, and women in all of those things. Though it’s not a pagan podcast, I think it’s absolutely essential listening for those interested in Gaelic polytheism or Celtic reconstructionism, because the research presented helps to blast through all those crusty unhelpful concepts like “sovereignty goddesses.” It is one of the only places where new information about these deities is being produced in English, and not just the same old-same old that circulates, citationless, around the internets.

So here’s my case study/thought exercise. The latest podcast about Brig a.k.a. Brigid (see also this earlier one) got some wheels turning in my head, as I heard it around the same time the Great Gnostic Jupiter Debate was in full swing. I knew that the name Brig refers to a high place in the landscape, and is probably linguistically related to the continental form Brigantia which is attested in many inscriptions and possibly place names and, through syncretization with the Roman Minerva and Victoria, has come down to us in the form of Britannia. But (stupidly, as it now seems to me) I had not made the connection between high places and the hillforts or oppida which are widespread throughout the “Celtic” regions of temperate Europe. (In fact, that’s why it’s impossible to really say whether the place names are derived from the goddess or simply refer to a hillfort.) Connections between Brig and Brigantia are only conjectural at this point, but taken together there is very suggestive evidence that Britain and continental Western Europe had a victory-cum-warrior goddess who was a patroness of hillforts and the people who made them. Oppida are not really urban centers, though they might be classed as proto-urban; there were some residences inside but most people in a given region would have lived on isolated farmsteads outside the hillfort. Archaeologically we know that they were centers of iron-working and were heavily defended, and we speculate that elites resided there. Ireland doesn’t have hillforts proper but does have hilltop elite settlements. If the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy is to be believed, there was an entire (large) tribe in Britain called the Brigantes, and the name of the Roman province derives from the word/name.

oppida distribution map
Source

So taken all together it looks likely that what we have in Brigantia is a goddess of the rulers, those who inhabit castles, essentially. People who live in castles generally go around oppressing people who live outside of castles. It makes sense that her name should appear in so many places and inscriptions, since castle-dwellers usually get to name all the things. But regardless of how Brigantia was perceived (or used) in the Iron Age, as Britannia she became a symbol of conquest and dominion right round the world. “Britannia rule the waves” indeed.

Brigantia

Now it’s true, Brigantia might not be Brig, and both might not have come down to us as St. Brigid, to be re-deified as Brighid. But there are some possible links: According to the 9th-century Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic)–and it is the only source for this–there were originally three goddesses named Brigid, one a goddess of poetry, one of smithcraft, and one of healing. Brig only appears as more than a name check in one Irish story, in which she invents keening (a form of mourning poetry) as she laments the death of her son at the hands of a smith in a forge. (Her son couldn’t be healed because his people had just got done destroying the only healing well. If Brig had any healing powers, evidently they weren’t of any use on this occasion.) For her part, St. Brigid is associated with healing wells and holy virgins who keep an eternal flame.

Bear with me as I tease that out. As much as we think of holy wells as a quintessentially Celtic phenomenon, Mallery (2010) argues that the Irish cult of the holy well was adopted from Roman Britain, and that those Romano-British wells that evidence deposition are all located near Iron Age and early medieval “royal sites.” So (1) maybe Brigantia came to Ireland from Britain like Nodens/Nuada and the holy well cult, or direct from the continent like Lugus/Lug and Ogmios/Ogma. Ptolemy does say there were Brigantes in what is now Leinster, and while the Romans never conquered Ireland, archaeological evidence does suggest some Romans went there. After all, St. Patrick himself was a Romano-Briton. And (2) maybe holy wells were an elite phenomenon. (I’m reminded of Lewis Spence‘s suggestion that druids were specifically priests of a cult of divine kingship, not the religion of the Celtic everyman.)

Next, you have the holy virgins keeping an eternal flame. One can’t help but think of the Vestal virgins, and certainly the Irish medieval chroniclers would have known about them–Ireland was the center of European learning at the time, after all, and that included Classical learning. My point is that while these nuns and their flame could have been an indigenous development, or even something harking back to extremely ancient Proto-Indo-European roots, there’s no way we can be sure it didn’t come over from Roman Britain along with other things that we know did.

As for the smithcraft, archaeologically we know that iron-working was performed at industrial scale at some of the larger oppida. The abundance of ordinary iron agricultural implements shows that iron wasn’t restricted to elites, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t control manufacture and distribution. There’s really no way it could happen at an industrial scale, at the probable site of elite residence, without elite patronage and oversight. That isn’t to say that iron-working didn’t go on at a smaller scale, it certainly did; but there was likely also an elite-dominated production scale. And one of the main categories of things produced was weapons. Indeed, the Iron Age in Europe saw the first emergence (so far as can be determined from archaeological evidence) of standing armies and full-time professional warriors. It was also the first time metal became widely available–bronze was scarce and monopolized by elites–and there are a plethora of magical beliefs related to iron and iron-working from many cultures. In short, smiths were magical people who made necessary war tools for rulers–there’s every reason to think the rulers would want to keep tabs on them.

I could try to get even more hypothetical and point out that poetry was something “Celtic” and Irish elites were hugely preoccupied with (indeed only the very wealthy could afford a professional keener for their dead), and that the stories associating St. Brigid with livestock and agricultural fertility link her to the source of those elites’ wealth, and her much-vaunted hospitality to the competitive display of that wealth. But I think there’s enough material here already to hypothesize that Brighid/St. Brigid has her origins as (and, as Britannia, still is) a goddess of warlike imperialists and their archonic control systems. The meaning of her name alone is sufficient to convince me that she is a goddess of rulers (yeah, I know that link is Wikipedia, but this article is as good as they get over there; contrast it with the page on Brigid which is pure dreck). We know that Jupiter was a god of emperors; we have forgotten that about Brigantia.

None of this is intended to tarnish the reputation of Brighid/St. Brigid. Elites write the histories and inscriptions in which their gods and goddesses are going to be prominent, so statistically, there’s a much better chance that after the attrition of thousands of years, those are the gods and goddesses who will make their way down to us. The priests of divine kingship are the ones we’re mostly going to know about. The pastimes and concerns of the elites are going to become our idea of what was important to the whole damn culture. You see the same thing with some of the Shinto kami, e.g., the only mythological texts in existence were written to legitimize imperial hegemony; Amaterasu is the best-known and most powerful kami because she is the royal ancestress. Nonetheless, everything evolves, including the tiny facets of deities that we can look at and comprehend. I put it to you that there will probably never be a form, or stratum, of human society that can’t find a relevant facet of Brighid/Brigid/Brigantia with which to connect.

So going back to the quasi-Gnostic worldview I mentioned at the beginning (never trust anything bigger than you), and its manifestation via the Jupiter debate (don’t trust anyone the elites like), I guess one could argue that Brighid does not have our best interests at heart and should be chucked out along with all other archons. For all I know, maybe that’s true; but there sure are a lot of people–including poor, marginalized people–in the Irish, pagan, Christian, and Vodou religious communities that love their manifestation of Brighid/Brigid/Brigitte. For me to assume they are all mistaken or selling out to the enemy feels too much like those fundamentalist Christians who say that when your dear granny visits you from beyond the grave it’s really Satan trying to deceive you. Or skeptics convinced that all the thousands upon thousands of people who report seeing ghosts or UFOs are ignorant green-teeth hillbillies and deluded victims of pseudoscience.

I don’t care whether you worship Brighid or any deities–that’s between you and them. But I do want to see these neo-Gnostic and animistic ontologies really opened up and explored. What happens to our ontology of predator/prey relations if we accept another common Gnostic belief, that reality as we perceive it is illusory and subjective and we are ill-equipped to recognize, let alone understand, it? To extend William James’ metaphor, just because we cats are miserable in the library, does that tell us anything about the library, let alone what’s in the books, let alone the librarians? Could it be that at least some of that misery stems from the fact that we fundamentally can’t conceive of a library, rather than it being malevolent? What if we are not even cats in the library, what if we are more like bacteria?

The entire concept of gnosis (as I understand it) was to connect with the real reality that is hidden by the sham reality we experience through ordinary consciousness. That can’t be done by reason alone, nor by faith alone, nor by observation of “the facts” we can perceive. If it were that easy, everybody would be enlightened. We will not succeed in (to borrow a phrase from Circle Thrice) “jailbreaking our minds” through clumsy, cat-specific predator/prey or pseudo-Marxist magical-class-war models of reality. If our models, or our deity worship, aren’t helping us see beyond cat-world, they are really not much use.

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6 thoughts on “Rule Britannia–a case study and thoughts on deities, hierarchy, and ontology

  1. I like the conclusion. I kinda lost you when you linked Brigantia and Britannia though. The transition during the first phase is probable but there’s a lot of time between Roman Britannia -as some sort of Interpretatio Romana knock-off of Athena adapted to the local style? looksit doesn’t it?- and 18th c. Imperialist Britannia that rides the waves and stuff. Is it supposed to be a metaphysical connection? The late phase I’m talking about is more of a nationalist symbol of identity cohesion, like the similarly English John Bull, the French Marianne, Uncle Sam and so on. Given how UK national identity has gone through some pretty hardcore changes from the time of the Roman occupation all through the invasions, until the Normans came over and French’d the island, I’d say that a connection isn’t necessarily direct. It was just what was at hand at the time (18th c. and onwards) for strengthening an emerging and distinct national identity. That’s as far as history goes. Not sure about the metaphysical traits of late-phase Britania. That would be too chaos-magicky and I’ve stopped believing that anything with a name immediately acquires existence of some sort.

    If your theory about Brig evolving into Brigantia really corresponds with social structures, remnants of these social structures might have survived until Venerable anal-Bede’s time and he might have recorded clues to them, but he’s so damn boring it would be a hard task looking for them. I don’t think though that elites would control iron production in any similar manner to modern times. There are class systems in antiquity but not centralised elite control of the means of production, because there weren’t any centralised means of production. At best, antiquity reached the manufacturing period of small or large workshops and guilds but never passed into central production. Is there some reversed Marxist argument underlying this? If chieftains controlled the forts, then they must have controlled something and that was probably iron production? I don’t remember my UK prehistoric archaeology very well but one of the few things I remember is that forts controlled trade routes. Mines and production sites might have been close to the forts and in their sphere of influence but their essential operation in the iron age was to leach off of traders passing through. And that it’s too damn windy on top of those hills.

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    1. The direct link between Brigantia and Britannia is purely etymological, going something like this: Brigantia –> Brigantes –> Britannia (Latinized form of Brigantia as the name for the place where Brigantes lived) + Brigantia-Victoria-Minerva (an apparent deity, via Interpretatio Romana). So there’s no direct historical connection between Brigantia the pre-Roman/Roman period goddess and Britannia the personification of the nation (except via language).

      But while this is not a case of direct continuity, I don’t think the connection is coincidental. I would map it something like this: There is what we can call, for lack of a more precise or nuanced term, a goddess associated with fortified hilltops and, I conjecture, those who reside there/control them. Whether there was any kind of tribal or ethnic connection there, we’ll probably never know. At some point, the name of this goddess (Brigantia) became an ethnonym or cultural or status identity (Brigantes) which the Romans, at least, associated with certain territories. They applied the cultural/ethnic name to the territory, giving us Britannia. But we also have indigenous cognates for Britannia (such as Welsh Prydain) so that says that either the native peoples already used a version of that name for themselves/their territory, or they started to after the Romans (I suspect the latter).

      So then the name “Britain” (and cognates thereof) was just used for the territory and its denizens, because they were all at least nominally Christian at that point (early middle ages onward) and presumably didn’t worship any goddesses.

      In Ireland, there was a very different trajectory because while Brig and Brigid are etymologically linked to Brigantia (i.e., they mean high-status elevated people/places), there are no other obvious connections. And of course Brig/Brigid never came to be used as ethnic or territorial names in Ireland.

      Historically, I would say the 18th-century-and-later imperial Britannia figure is just a reference to the Roman empire and Romanitas as the inspiration for the British empire. But she *converged* on the old Brigantia by (1) being represented as a warrior-goddess with almost exactly identical accoutrements to the Romano-Celtic representations of Brigantia-Victoria-Minerva, and (2) representing elites and their eliteness, and possibly (3) being associated with an ethnic/cultural identity (that’s only a possibility because as I said, we don’t know to what extent or exactly how that might have been the case with Brigantia).

      So yeah–convergence rather than continuity. I guess I could have made that clearer. But as I said, on some level I don’t think that’s merely coincidence. But why, I don’t know. Is there an entity that really loves Brits, British sovereignty, elites, and imperial adventurism, who keeps turning up like a bad penny? (shrug)

      It occurs to me that although hillforts were associated with elites (e.g., references to “kings” living there, and archaeological finds of expensive and exotic goods), and even though we still use adjectives related to “highness” to refer to elites, it’s possible that hillforts were regarded as territorial hearts of the broader cultural/ethnic group. If so, then Brigantia could have been a personification, not of nationhood but some other level of sociocultural identity, from early on. As a place name it is incredibly widespread throughout Continental Europe and Britain. I don’t think everybody had the same goddess Brigantia but they might have had a shared or parallel concept of divine protectors of a central high place. There’s also a chicken-or-egg question, were these perhaps holy places co-opted by elites, or elite places legitimized through religion? Well, now I’m just speculating.

      As regards iron production and hillforts, I don’t know to what extent that was the case in Britain but it definitely was on the continent. I remember Manching in particular produced a large number of iron artifacts and evidence for large-scale production. I’m not an expert on hillforts but my understanding is that the continental ones were much more centralized/centralizing and often much larger and more heavily fortified than those in Britain. I believe there are archaeologists who would argue that the oppida were basically towns, but I think they can more accurately be classed as proto-urban or urbanizing; and I think their relationship to iron manufacturing was similarly not fully centralized but centralizing. But again, that reflects what I know of Continental oppida and you could be quite right about the British hillforts being more about controlling trade and transport. At any rate I don’t think the elites of the hillforts fully controlled iron manufacturing at any point, but in some places they certainly sponsored and promoted it.

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      1. Okay got you on Brigantia – Brittania. I’d be interested to see if Brig- has any IE roots that might illuminate this thing better.

        There’s an underlying assumption though that I’d like to pick at, a little bit. Other than material culture, I’m not sure there are many good primary sources on pre-Iron Age religion in the British Isles. The first written accounts all come from outsiders like the Romans, who on some level can be said to be hostile -in the “here be dragons and barbarians” manner-, then moving later on to christian missionaries who were extremely hostile to local customs. Anyway, the assumption that religion is always a control system used by elites to subjugate the underlings has far more to do with Imperial periods and the modern era than these societies. It’s like an anachronistic Gramscian analysis on religious culture, only that we hardly know anything about that culture to make the claim that religion was associated with elites, which used it as an instrument of control. Comparing Greece for example, the same religious framework was used to support vastly different political systems, so I personally wouldn’t ascribe to that view. From what I’ve seen from ancient pagan societies, their social and religious structures differ significantly from the monotheistic christianity. For religion to function as a system of control, the priesthood must have some sort of political power and that’s not always a given.

        I’d also like to point out that even though there might have been a common religious framework, there were no Brits at the time. That was a very fragmented society with as many “identities” as there were tribes, which I think is also shown by linguistic variance. Hell, linguistic variance survives even today and it retains social identification functions.

        At least in Britain, hillforts belong in the same class as brochs, crannogs, wheelhouses, etc (comparing with the Scottish north). At least in the late-prehistoric era. Hillforts aren’t forts in the military sense. It seems that family structure favoured the extended type, with multiple people living in large fortified structures, though the defensive capabilities of those structures were pretty much crap. They could go inside and lock the door but most brochs didn’t have access to water so they wouldn’t be able to withstand even a week-long siege. They did look impressive as structures go and for some decades now, it’s what their function is assumed to have been.

        The materials unearthed from these structures are similar to other large farms and don’t show evidence of widescale trade, manufacturing or war. It’s basically what you said, proto-urban structures although if I remember right, they have also been said to be meeting places for (religious?) festivals. One of my own theories that specific brochs had religious functions was shot down though, probably because archaeology has moved forward from attributing everything unexplainable to religion. I wasn’t very sad about that at the time.

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      2. Well, as “chance” would have it, after I wrote my last comment I ran across the information that John Dee is the person who originated the idea of Britannia as the personification of the British Empire, as well as the idea of the empire itself. If anyone would be conjuring up old deities, whether that was the intention or not, it would be him.

        I am actually very opposed to the idea that religion is a control system used by elites, though it is popular with a lot of archaeologists, and I didn’t intend to convey that. Rather, I believe people or factions will make use of any good opportunity for advancing their own interests, and religion can be one such opportunity. You can see that happen time and time again historically. In the case of Brigantia specifically, the connection to elites is encoded within her name (“highness,” with all the status connotations thereof, if the linguistic reconstructions are to be believed). I guess arguably that might not have been the case originally. It’s certainly possible that high places were important for some other reason before they came to be used as elite settlements and centers of proto-industry (on the Continent) or influence on trade (in Britain) or so-called “kingly places” in Ireland. Ireland is archaeologically really weird compared to the rest of “Celtic” Europe but in the Irish literature, places like Tara, Emain, etc. are always both elite and either sacred or at least highly symbolic and I think there is probably always some overlap like that.

        But even if Brigantia didn’t start out having explicitly elite connections, I really don’t see how she could have remained outside that orbit given (1) her overt association with places occupied by elites, (2) the linguistic history whereby topographical “highness” and social status “highness” were, or came to be, represented via the same word, and (3) her martial accoutrements in the Roman representations.

        I mean, religion need not be a tool of the elites but they have their religion too. They have deities that are explicitly connected with their own interests either through location, action (e.g., warfare, rulership), ethnic or cultural or kin identity, and so on. I think Brigantia was one of those, who came to be more widely embraced among non-elites (even if that only happened in modern times). And I think that process has happened with other deities because deities the elites liked are the ones most likely to have made it into writing and thus persisted (even if only as a name) through Christian times. Hence as you point out, we know pretty much nothing about religion in late pre-Roman Iron Age Britain, but we have a few placenames and a few inscriptions with deity names because some wealthy person or high-ranking military officer mentioned them.

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  2. High and low places also indicate liminality, which I think is the original quality that made them special. Caves, hilltops and mountaintops and so on.

    I’d say more on all this and I agree with many of the things you said in your last comment but seeing how Britannia crashed and sunk on the European coast today, I’ve lost the mood to think very much.

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