The philosopher Plato recorded the last words of his mentor, Socrates, in a dialogue called the Phaedo. According to him, Socrates tried to console his followers by contrasting the nightingale and the swan. In myth the nightingale sang for sorrow, while swans only sang once, at their death. Socrates argued that swans sang because, as Apollo’s birds, they could foresee the joys of the afterworld.
Who tells the ages of the moon, if not I?
Who shows the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?
Who calls the cattle from the House of Tethra?
On whom do the cattle of Tethra smile?
This comes from the Irish poem The Song of Amairgen. It was sung by the ollamh (poet) named Amairgen Glúingel as he first set foot on Irish soil. (He was one of the Milesians, who conquered Ireland after the Tuatha de Danann.) It is certainly an enigmatic verse, but I will just tackle one riddle in this post: what are the cattle of Tethra?
Apollo seems to have made a habit of swallowing up other gods. He took over (or was given, according to later mythology) the oracle of Delphi, which had belonged to his grandmother, Phoebe. He seems to have taken over the healing role of a very early Greek god, Paean, and also an Italian god named Soranus.
We don’t know a lot about Soranus, but he was worshipped at Mt. Soracte in Etruria, an area sacred to underworld gods like Dis Pater. Like most of the Italian gods, he had a partner, Feronia, whose sanctuary stood next to his. Although his cult may have involved the otherworld and the dead, his name is probably connected to that of the Etruscan god Suri, a god of purification and prophecy.
Asteria is another Greek star-goddess, but of a rather different type. She was associated with oracles of darkness, such as prophetic dreams, astrology, falling stars, and necromancy. (Her daughter Hecate, the witch’s goddess, would follow in her footsteps.) She was sometimes blended with the night-goddess Nyx, an alternate mother for Hecate.
These Greek, Nordic and Celtic gods may not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they resemble each other in several ways, all of which illuminate aspects of their characters. All three are intellectual, associated with the arts, and have magical or oracular powers in addition to an unforgiving nature.
Helios, the Greek sun-god, doesn’t get much press. Compared to the oracle-god and plague-sender Apollo, he gets hardly any. I remember once watching Jeopardy with friends and being unable to convince anyone that Helios was the sun-god, not Apollo. (I was a bit disappointed in Alex Trebeck.)
The problem that Helios faces is that he is the sun; his name means “sun” and his role in Greek myth is to rise, shine and set every day. Unlike Apollo, he is too predictable to need buying-off. In the Odyssey, when his cattle are stolen Helios has to convince Zeus to raise a storm to punish the thieves. Apollo would’ve shot ’em full of arrows.
Celtic goddesses went in for divine polyandry (multiple husbands) in a big way. For every Rosmerta or Nantosuelta who kept to one god, there were several like Damona and Ancamna who doubled or tripled up with Gaulish, Roman, or “blended” gods like Apollo Grannus or Mars Smertios. (While it is true that the Roman gods Mercury, Mars and Apollo take on different names and partners, they are the ones who take on Celtic by-names, while the goddesses keep their own.)
Like Belisama, Solimara and Sulis, Sirona’s cult centers on healing water, whether hot springs, baths or wells. Her name, however, means something like “Great Star”, which would make her a star-goddess, rather than a solar one. She is linked to several gods, including the Roman sun-god Apollo, as well as the gods Grannus and Atesmertius.
The Celtic goddess Belisama comes from the south of France, where two inscriptions, from different areas, suggest that her cult was fairly widespread. One of them is to the goddess herself, while the other calls her Minerva Belisama. The first is signficant, since it shows that her cult was from pre-Roman times.