Crom Cruach: Ireland and the Fetters of Cronos
Story of Cronos
The story of Cronos is relatively straightforward. He is a prominent figure known for reigning over the primordial world of titans. He began his existence as the son of Uranus and Gaia. His father was cruel and imprisoned his children. Seeing the barbaric practices of her husband, Gaia motivated Cronos to depose his father by castrating him. It is interesting to note that in medieval and Celtic culture, a maimed king was unfit to rule. Returning to Cronos, he assumed his father's position and ruled in his stead. However, being aware of his own patricidal tendencies he feared the same outcome from his own children. As a result, he swallowed his offspring, thereby continuing his father’s legacy. This pattern eventually ceased when Cronos’ wife Rhea decided she would hide Zeus, tricking Cronos into thinking that the baby was a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Cronos subsequently consumed it. After being secreted away, Zeus matured and returned to overthrow his father. Subsequently, his siblings were released. Zeus then imprisoned Cronos on a remote island.
Classical Historians and Cronos
As with most mythology, a kernel of truth exists at the core of this tale. Classical historians came to associate the British Isles with Cronos. It was believed that the island that Zeus had banished him to was located within proximity to Britain. In one passage Plutarch claims: “The natives have a story that in one of these (islands) Cronus has been confined by Zeus, but that he, having a son for gaoler, is left sovereign lord of these islands ... Cronus himself sleeps within a deep cave resting on a rock which looks like gold. Birds fly in at the topmost part of the rock, and bear him ambrosia, and the whole island is pervaded by the fragrance shed from the rock.” Also found in the works of Plutarch “The inhabitants of Britain located the land of the dead in adjacent small islands” further, “There is one island where Cronos is prisoner, being guarded in his sleep by Briareus, for sleep has been devised as fetters to bind him, and there are many deities about him as satellites and attendants.” This far-flung location is further evidenced by Hesiod who stated “'Zeus the father decreed for certain of the heroes a stead at the world's end, far off from mortals, where reigneth Kronos.'
The accounts referenced by Plutarch appear to be emphatic, that Cronos was imprisoned within an Island off the coast of Britain. One might wonder why a Greek deity was so far from the Greek homeland. However, the more likely scenario is that there was a native god and tradition in the British Isles that was conflated with Cronos due to similarities in the mythic structure. With the fragmented nature of what remains of Celtic mythology, it might be somewhat difficult to ascertain which native god this deity might be. It is possible that he could be either Irish or British. When one looks at the characteristics of Cronos, one can find a similar being in Irish myth. To begin with, Cronos was a chthonic deity. He was imprisoned within a cave, and was thus associated with the underworld. It is possible then that this deity might have similarity to chthonic deities of Irish and Welsh myth. In Britain Arawn and Gwyn are most noted for their chthonic tendencies, whereas in Irish myth one finds Aed and Crom Cruach.
Of the aforementioned gods, Crom Cruach seems to have the most similarity to Cronos. Much of what we know about Crom Cruach comes from the hagiography of Saint Patrick. In a 12th century Dinsenchas poem, this confrontation between Crom Cruach and Patrick is evidenced “He plied upon the Cromm a sledge, from top to toe; with no paltry prowess he ousted the strengthless goblin that stood here." Noted Celticist Marian MacNeill believed that Saint Patrick was a late addition to a pre-existing story that likely originally involved Lugh being pitted against Crom Cruach to win the harvest. In this scenario Patrick would have just been added as a veneer onto older pagan myth, thus assuming the role of Lugh. If this were indeed the case, it would then be possible to see Balor as Crom Cruach, (being that in the mythological cycle, Lugh killed Balor). This is a sensible conclusion considering that Balor was of the Fomorians (a Titan like race), and sought to prevent the birth of a child who was prophesized to kill him (Lugh). All of the previous points align nicely with what is known of Cronos’ battle with Zeus.
St Patrick and Crom Cruach
In a 12th century Dinsenchas poem, Crom Cruach is given sacrifice of first-born children in order to ensure a plentiful harvest (grain and milk) “For him ingloriously they slew their hapless firstborn with much wailing and peril, to pour their blood round Cromm Cruaich.” To outsiders (Greeks) this ritualistic child sacrifice mentioned in The Annals might have appeared similar to Cronos eating his children. Further evidentiary support of connections between Cronos and Crom Cruach comes from the fertility associations of both figures. Cronos was a deity who ruled over a Golden age. There was no want during his rule. One of the emblems of Cronos was the scythe (a grain harvesting tool), which could also be seen as a tool of death. In Athens the festival of Kronia was celebrated, wherein Cronos was the central figure. This was a harvest festival. Similarly we find agricultural associations with Crom Cruach in the aforementioned poem.
We know relatively little of Crom Cruach. However, the little information that does survive fits closely with Cronos. In addition to the sacrifices to Crom Cruach previously mentioned, there is reference to the fact that his statue was plated in gold and was at the center of 12 other statues of gods. “Tis there was the king-idol of Erin, namely the Crom Cróich, and around him twelve idols made of stones; but he was of gold. Until Patrick’s advent, he was the god of every folk that colonized Ireland. To him they used to offer the firstlings of every issue and the chief scions of every clan.” This passage is eerily similar to this quote from Plutarch regarding Cronos: “There is one island where Cronos is prisoner, being guarded in his sleep by Briareus, for sleep has been devised as fetters to bind him, and there are many deities about him as satellites and attendants.” The other passage then mentions: “Cronus himself sleeps within a deep cave resting on a rock which looks like gold.” Both quotes could have been written precisely about Crom Cruach’s shrine in Ireland.
Crom Cruach had at least two variants of his name (Cenn Cruiach, and Crom Dubh). In the etymological origins of these names it is possible to see where the Cronos association might originate. Specifically, Cenn Cruach might be rendered as “Head of the mound” or “Head of the Stack of Corn” Head in this instance means to be in charge of, such as the “head” of a family. Both options would be descriptive of Cronos, being a fertility deity, and head of the Gods (fairy mound). Cruach can also mean “bloodthirsty,” and “dubh” means dark or black or together “Bloodthirsty Dark One,” this also being quite fitting. The Annals Of The Four Masters further supports the central importance of Crom Cruach , “It was by Tighearnmas .... At the end of this year he died, with the three fourths of the men of Ireland about him, at the meeting of Magh Slecht, in Breifne, at the worshiping of Crom Cruach, which was the chief idol of adoration in Ireland. This happened on the night of Samhain precisely. It was from the genuflections which the men of Ireland made about Tighearnmas here that the plain was named." Not only does this quote detail the importance of Crom Cruach, but it also associates the deity with Samhain (the end of the harvest season). Geoffrey Keating would later state that the plain where this event occurred was known as “Magh Sleacht.” This could translate to “Plain of prostration” or “Plain of Slaughter”… Being that a slaughter can be viewed as a type of harvest, it is not too far of a stretch to see this as a third interpretation.
In one of the most convincing pieces of evidence, in the old Irish tale of “The Siege of Druim Damhgaire,” Crom Cruich is associated with Moloch. It is impossible to determine how far back this association goes. However, it appears to be well established by the medieval period. Needless to say, the Greeks (Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and Cleitarchus) identified Moloch as Cronos due to his child eating tendencies. It would be no stretch of the imagination to assume that Greek travelers in the west would have done so with a Celtic god that exhibited the same child eating tendencies.
Although Crom Cruach might be an indigenous God of the Irish, it is also possible that he was adopted into the pantheon due to acculturation. In southern Gaul, the Celts lived in the immediate vicinity of the Greek colony of Marseilles. The Celts of Gaul were known to speak Greek and were exposed to not only the language but also philosophy and religion. Therefore, it might be possible to conclude that the Celts of the continent could have disseminated information regarding Cronos to their insular cousins. However, from all of the descriptions that we possess of Crom Cruach, it appears that he has a long history of being worshipped in Ireland, most likely extending far before the Irish and Gauls had contact with the Greeks.
Irrespective of whether Crom Cruach was an indigenous god of the Irish Celts or if he was an adaption of the Greek Cronos, it would appear that he figured prominently within the pre-Christian religion of Ireland.