Genii Cucullati As Gatekeepers

A Third Century Carving of the Cucullati from Northumbria

I have been slowly trying to discern what my pantheon might be. This involves an iomarca of reading and patience in equal measures as my method is to read all I can about different deities while paying close attention to that distant, transcendent spark within me that jumps and flickers, glows hot and cools almost impersceptibly at different ideas. My basic assumption in this and one which I have no reason yet to doubt (rather I have amassed over the last twenty years a fair amount of support for trusting in it) is that my nature, beholden and fostered as it is and must have been by certain divine forces, responds to the traces of those forces here in the world.

This is, of course, all a means of defending what is my first blatant example of UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis). Perhaps it would be better considered a personal choice as part of a project of determining my own terminology and iconography of divinity, but really I simply have no scrap of evidence to support what I am about to assert beyond the experience of my own instinct.

As part of my dedicacy, I am to determine my own understanding of the divinities to which ADF offers in the course of a rite. One of the more ill-defined divinities in the rites is that of the Gatekeepers, those entities who gaurd the borders and the points of contact between one place and another. There are many exmples like Janus in Roman religion or Heimdall in Norse mythology, but for some reason it has been the Cucullati who have time and again risen to my awareness when I think of who stands on the boundaries between one place and another.

The official word on these spirits as defined by Miranda Geen in her Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend is that one deals with a single genius (the Latin word for a spirit or power specific to a place, person or station and creepily close to the collective Arabic noun, djinn) whose manifestation took on the tripartite image so often associated with IE cultures. So far as I can tell, her perspective is based on an inscription which reads genio cucullato, ‘to the cloaked genius’. It’s a difficult situation, since on the one hand there are any number of instances where these three individuals appear, particularly in Irish literature, but the cognates from other cultures favor a single individual.

The three Dé Domnann, for example, were three noble brothers whose entourage was largely allegorical with their druids being ‘clear thought’, ‘good memory’ and the like. Not to be confused with the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the name of these three brothers, described as wearing typical otherworldly garb of green cloaks over red tunics, might well be attached to the word for the world: andomhann being a term for the otherworld built off of the emphatic particle an- and the term for the world: domhann.

The Cucullati are here shown attending what M. Green considers to be a goddess of plenty.

Their garb is ultimately what makes me identify them as gatekeepers. The cloak they wear, the cucullus, is a simple woolen cloak with a hood, and they often carry either items indicating fertility or martial prowess. This is exactly what one would expect warriors who guard the borders to wear. The military association is obvious, but the fertility association, while less so, makes sense in that such warriors are protecting the land as represented by the sovereignty goddess.

How then do I reconcile the three depicted here above with single gatekeepers such as Heimdall? Well, not very easily, but it is in fact possible. The guardian of bifrost had nine mothers, all sisters, and was considered the progenitor of the three social stations of Germanic society: nobility, farmers and slaves. Here is a figure who is perpetually on the border, so that his exposure to the elements gives rise to his epithet of ‘wet back’ (lacking the cloak of his Celtic analogue), and whose nature clearly resonates with tripartition.

It seems fairly cut and dried to me …

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7 responses to “Genii Cucullati As Gatekeepers

  1. Have you read Hilda Ellis Davidson’s “Hooded Men in Celtic and Germanic Tradition,” Cosmos: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society 5 (1989), pp. 105-124? It’s got some good further info on the genii cucullati, by whom I’ve always been intrigued…

    • The name rings a bell, but if I have I’ve forgotten. I will definitely track it down, though, as I’ve found little enough on them in the past. Thank you!

  2. I have read that a Geen is a being of a giant like race of men that inhabited the fair isles in ancient times. This is a pre Julius Ceasers invasion legend. I have wondered if they were of Germanic decent because they would have been much larger people than the natives of the Fair Isles. The Geens were known as fierce warriors and your mention of what looks like Cuhullan who was a legendary warrior of ancient Ireland as in the hounds of Cuhullan. Any insight ?

    • Can you post your source? I’ve not come across anything called a ‘Geen,’ but there are plenty of invasion legends for the islands. Cú Chulainn ‘lit. the Hound of Culann) was one warrior, though his name is part of an ongoing tradition that could well be tied to a cult of combat, divinizing the forging of weapons and the training of warriors as a common process. The word Cucullati doesn’t actually refer to Cú Chulainn at all, but is a reference to the hoods these genii wear — in Latin these are termed cuculli, giving cochall in Irish. While the terms are similar, the phonology governing the languages of the time prevent any confusion. It would be like saying that ‘hot’ and ‘hate’ could be confused nowadays.

    • If these indeed are “pre-Julius Caesar,” then they can’t be Germanic, as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were not invading until several centuries after Caesar. Further, if it is indeed a legend that is that old, how can one be certain that it is since there was no recorded narrative before the Christian period?

  3. Ah, I see where you’re going with this, Melanie: Genii = Geen. This isn’t quite right, though, as the term ‘genius’ really means a kind of spirit or tutelar deity. The idea of giants (at least in my mind) goes back to very powerful beings connected to geomorphic forces of creation and destruction. The earliest traditions we have show them changing size from immense to minute and playing tricks on even gods who act as manifestations of a community’s social bond.

    I wonder if you’re reading something like Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ or other legendary material, as these often talk about races of giants living prior to later ‘races’ invading. Usually this has as its basis an early idea that each generation gets a little smaller, a little weaker than the previous, so one’s ancestors are naturally one’s better’s in every way: size, strength, intelligence, etc.

  4. I too had come across these obscure and odd trio of little creatures in a work by Miranda Green, only in her book The Gods of the Celts (Bramley Books, 1986) pp.90-91. Since then they seem to pop up on rare occasions. A Cumbrian folklore site had an article on one example: http://esmeraldamac.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/the-genius-cucullati-or-the-original-hoodie/ , and there was even an exhibition at the University of North Carolina in 1998 dedicated to them: http://www.unc.edu/~css/start.html

    A book on Merlin and Wales a few years back connected them with a Welsh tradition about “the three ploughmen” but as that book is so full of Joseph Campbell-speak, I’m not sure its reliable.

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