My paternal ancestors’ European journey – from the Caspian Steppes to Celtiberia

In a previous post, I used an analysis of my Y chromosome DNA to trace the journey of my paternal ancestors from Y-chromosomal Adam, who lived in West Africa around 275,000 years ago (275 kya), to the founder of the R1b sub-haplogroup R-L23, who was born on the Caspian around 4,400 BC (6.4 kya). In this post, I continue my paternal ancestral journey to the most recently identified haplogroup founder: a Celtiberian living in what is now Portugal around 510 BCE. The sequence of Y SNPs defining my haplotree are shown in the following map. It summarizes this journey from R-L23 (4,400 BCE) to the most recent haplogroup founder (510 BCE), and continues on from the map published in the previous post.

There is an immense amount of recent research on European Bronze Age genetics and migrations and a very considerable unfinished debate on how to interpret the evidence. New evidence is being published almost weekly, as increasing numbers of ancient European remains are analysed and Y haplogroup identified. So this post will only aim to describe the big picture as best I can summarize it, and details and perhaps even some of the big picture will likely change in the future.

As described previously (tracing-my-paternal-ancestors-through-y-dna), mutations on the Y-chromosome identify a sequence of haplogrou, each founded by one of my paternal line male ancestors. The estimated dates for haplogroup founders shown on the map are mostly taken from the SNP Tracker [1] and are interpolated from the dates in the Y haplotree on The latter use the updated method of Adamov et al [2] to estimate ages, based on the average SNP mutation rate parts of the Y chromosome expected to be stable in the mutation rate. Note that there is relatively large uncertainty in age estimates and locations of Y haplogroups. For calculating approximate degree of great-grandfatherhood, I have assumed that my average paternal line generation length is 31 years prior to 1000 CE, and 32 years after that [3].


The R-L23 haplogroup founder was born on the Western Steppe (Pontic-Caspian Steppe) around 4,400 BC (6.4 kya) and was around my great*200th grandfather. The Pontic-Caspian Steppe is  a distinct geographic and archeological region extending from the Danube estuary to the Ural mountains to the east and North Caucasus to the south. The Neolithic and early Bronze Age cultures in Pontic-Caspian steppe has been called the Kurgan culture (4200-2200 BCE), due to the lasting practice of burying the dead under mounds (“kurgan”) among the succession of cultures in that region. Horses were first domesticated around 4600 BCE in the Caspian Steppe, perhaps somewhere around the Don or the lower Volga, and soon became a defining element of steppe culture [4].

A kurgan on the Caspian steppe

R1b-M269 people had been living and blending to some extent with the local R1a foragers and herders for over a millennium, perhaps even two or three. The close cultural contact and interactions between R1a and R1b people all over the Pontic-Caspian Steppe resulted in the creation of a common vernacular, a new lingua franca, which linguists have called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The first clearly Proto-Indo-European cultures were the Khvalynsk (5200-4500 BCE) and Sredny Stog (4600-3900 BCE) cultures in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. The R-L23 founder lived right at the transition between the Khvalynsk (5200-4500 BCE) and Sredny Stog periods (4600-3900 BCE). Around 99% of Indo-European R1b descends from this L23 haplogroup [4].


My next haplogroup R-L51 founder lived on the steppe to the west of the Black Sea around 4,100 BCE and spoke early Proto-IndoEuropean (PIE). Over the following two thousand years as the steppe people migrated westward into Europe, regional dialects of PIE evolved into most of the ancient languages of Europe and today most of the native languages of Europe are descended from PIE. Linguists have been able to deduce this evolution from comparisons of grammar and vocabulary and have not only reconstructed the language tree of Europe, but have also reconstructed a version of PIE which it is possible to learn to speak (see website here for self-learning tools). Basque is the only surviving Pre-Indo_European language in Western Europe.


The Yamna period (3,500-2,500 BCE) is the most important one in the creation of Indo-European culture and society. The Yamnaya, largely descendants of R-L23, were nomadic herders in the late Copper Age to early Bronze Age and the next haplogroup founder, R-P310, lived in the early Yamna period around 3,400 BCE, and was likely part of the initial movement west from the steppe towards Hungary. From around 3,400 BCE to 3,200 BCE the Yamnaya expanded across the Pontic-Caspian steppe and into Romania and then the Danube valley.

Corded ware vessels

Contact between Yamna people and existing Neolithic inhabitants of Romania resulted inthe development of the Corded Ware Culture. This culture, also known as Battle-axe-culture, was an enormous Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and Early Bronze Age  archaeological grouping, flourishing ca. 3,200 – 1,800 BC. The Corded Ware culture receives its name from the characteristic pottery of the era; wet clay was decoratively incised with cordage, i.e., string. It was a natural northern and western expansion of the Yamna culture, reaching as far west as Germany and as far north as Sweden and Norway. The Corded Ware tribes expanded from the northern fringe of the Yamna culture where R1a lineages were prevalent over R1b ones [4].


The expansion of R1b people into Old Europe was slower, but proved inevitable. Around 3,000 BCE, at the time the Corded Ware was reaching Scandinavia, the Bronze Age R1b moved into the Pannonian Steppe of Romania, Hungary and Austria. There the next haplogroup founder, R-L151, lived around 3,000 BCE, likely in Austria.  During this period the Yamna invaders interbred with the indigenous Mesolithic and Neolithic populations. The new Proto-Indo-European R1b people would have lost most of their remaining Proto-Europoid or Mongolid features inherited from their Caspian origins (which were still clearly visible in numerous individuals from the Yamna period). Their light hair, eye and skin pigmentation, once interbred with the darker inhabitants of Old Europe, became more like that of modern Southern Europeans. In contrast, the northern Corded Ware predominantly R1a individuals would have retained their original lighter hair, eye and skin pigmentation in Northern Europe [4].


The R-L151 haplogroup gave rise to two major subgroups, R-P312 and P-U106 which appeared to spread from the Western and Eastern Rhine Valleys. Around 2,800 BCE, the founder of my ancestral haplogroup R-P312 was born in the western Rhine Valley in Germany [5]. He was approximately my great*152nd grandfather. During this period, agrarian towns had started to develop, and gold and copper had begun to be mined. The archeological and genetic evidence (distribution of R1b subclades) point at several consecutive waves towards eastern and central Germany between 2800 BCE and 2300 BCE.

At that time, Western Europe was largely occupied by the indigenous Bell Beaker culture (2900-1800 BCE) which had arisen in the late Neolithic/early Copper Age in the Iberian peninsula. During this period Bronze Age Steppe cultures spread from Germany in the opposite direction towards Iberia, France and Britain, progressively bringing R1b lineages into the Bell Beaker territory.

P312 is the monster brother of the L151 family. As of end 2020, the FTDNA database had 14,406 branches for L151 and 10,783 branches for P312. P312 contains 71% of the branches in the R1b Y-haplogroup in the FTDNA database (the blue/purple region of the R1b haplotree wheel below).

I belong to a subgroup of the haplogroup R-ZZ12_1, marked by the blue star. Credit for the P312 wheel. David Vance May 2020, R1b Project, FTDNA.

The spread of R-P312 people into Bell Beaker territory was closely associated with the spread of the Proto-Italo-Celtic language and the distribution of P-312 in Western Europe closely matches the distribution of Italo-Celtic languages (see Map below).

Map showing basal P-312 distribution in European Y-DNA.

The “Beaker folk” in the west of Europe expanded eastward as the R-P312 expanded westward and where the two cutures interacted, a new Bell Beaker people emerged around 2500 BCE, the All Over Corded (AOC) Bell Beakers.

AOC Bell Beakers carried R1b-P312 and Steppes autosomal DNA. Adapted from Lemercier [6] and Tiger Walsh [7].


My next Y haplogroup founder was born around 2,600 BCE somewhere in the interaction zone between the Bell Beaker people and the Corded Ware people. I’ve shown the location on the map as southern France. Possibly the R-ZZ11 founder was among AOC Bell Beakers heading back towards Iberia.

The expansion of the AOC Beaker culture coincided with population explosion during the 2000 year period from 4200 BCE to 100 BCE, with over 60% of European males descended from three Y-haplogroup founders (R1b-M269, R1a-M198 and I1-M253) [8]. The R1b lineage is particularly prevalent towards the Atlantic and is mostly R1b-M269>L23>L51. Mitochondrial haplogroups are primarily those of Neolithic farmers and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, showing that the R1b lineages were brought by primarily male incursions into Old Europe’s Neolithic populations. A lot of maternal lineages (mtDNA) also appear to be of Paleolithic origin (e.g. H1, H3, U5 or V) based on ancient DNA tests. My maternal haplogroup is U5, and my maternal ancestors tracked the retreat of the glaciers into Britain at the end of the last Ice Age (see previous post here).

Based on the X chromosome data obtained mainly from western Corded Ware-associated individuals, it was estimated that, for every female, around 4–15 males migrated from the steppe [9]. In the west of Europe, the expansion was mainly a male migration intermarrying with Neolithic women (at best, or raping them at worst).  The R1b Corded Ware population that expanded west were mainly various subclades of R-L51 for Y-DNA.

How is it possible that paternal lineages were almost completely replaced in Western Europe by R1a and R1b Y-haplogroups, while the Neolithic and Paleolithic maternal haplogroups remain very common.  An article on [10] discusses this in some detail. Key factors probably included the higher status of the horseborne Bronze Age warriors from the east, the superiority and the gender imbalance of mainly male invading armies, and that the women are more available to the winners than the losers, and a genetic disposition to produce more boys than girls. These factors would likely result in fairly rapid replacement of patrilineal lineages in a few generations. Particularly if the Bronze Age warriors of Europe were similar to those of the Old Testament in killing most of the men on the losing side, and raping their women. Celtic culture lasted for over 1000 years in Continental Europe before the Roman conquest putting an end to the priviledges of the chieftains and nobility. This is more than enough time for R1b lineages to reach 50 to 80% of the population.


The DF27 mutation on the Y-chromosome occurred around 2,300 BCE in the Pyrenees region or north-east Iberia. This man was approximately my great*142nd grandfather. According to recently published research, DF27 is found in frequencies of 40% in the general population of the Iberian Peninsula and in particular spikes at 70% among the Basques [11]. Overall in France it accounts for between 6–20% of the population but has a high level in the Pyrenees area and is thought to have originated there 4,300 years ago in north-eastern Prehistoric Iberia as the Neolithic made way for the Atlantic Bronze Age. Along with R-U152 and R-L21, the R-DF27 lineage is to a significant extent associated with Proto-Celtic, Celtic and later Celtiberian movements. The DF27 subgroups in particular correspond closely to the various pre-Roman kingdoms formed by the Celtiberians. North-east Iberia is the most likely place of origin of DF27 [11].

Distribution map of haplogroup R1b-DF27 in Europe

The age of R1b-DF27 is firmly grounded around 4000–4500 ya, which coincides with the population upheaval in W. Europe at the transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. Before this period, R1b-M269 was rare in the ancient DNA record, and during it the current frequencies were rapidly reached-with almost total replacement of Neolithic Y-DNA by Bronze Age steppe Y-DNA (see figure below). Today, R1b dominates Spain and Portugal, reaching over 70% in parts of Spain and up to over 90% in Northern Portugal. R-DF27 constitutes much more than the half of the total R1b in the Iberian Peninsula.

Proportion of ancestry derived from central European Beaker/Bronze Age populations in Iberians from the Middle Neolithic to the Iron Age (table S15). Colors indicate the Y-chromosome haplogroup for each male. Red lines represent period of admixture. Modified from Olalde et al [12].

R-ZZ12_1 and R-Z225

In the next century around 2,200 BCE, there were two further mutations in the Y-DNA of my paternal ancestors, leading to sub-haplogroup R-ZZ12_1 and then R-Z225. In the next 200 years, there were another three mutations, the last dated to around 1,980 BCE (with a quite wide uncertainty range of plus or minus 38%). These are shown in the map extract below, along with my final Iron Age haplogroup founder (c. 510 BCE), discussed in the following section.

Iberia did not become a fully-fledged Bronze Age society until the 13th century BCE, when the Urnfield culture (1300-1200 BCE) expanded from Germany to Catalonia via southern France, then the ensuing Hallstatt culture (1200-750 BCE) spread throughout most of the peninsula (especially the western half). This period belongs to the wider Atlantic Bronze Age (1300-700 BCE), when Iberia was connected to the rest of Western Europe through a complex trade network. During this period, DF27 radiated more evenly around Iberia and ended up, following Atlantic trade routes, all the way to the British Isles, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

I have assumed that my haplogroup ancestors during the period from around 2,000 BCE to 1000 BCE lived in the central northern part of the Iberian Peninsula inhabited by the Celtiberians and other Celtic peoples. The map below shows the ethnology of the Celtic Iberian Peninsula during the period prior to the later Carthaginian and Roman conquests.

The Celtiberian language The Celtiberians, Gallaecians, Astures and other Celtic tribes of Iberia predominantly practiced cattle-herding with seasonal movement between summer and winter pastures, protected by a warrior elite centered in the hill-forts, locally termed castros, that controlled small grazing territories. These populations spoke a number of Celtic languages related to the other Celtic languages of Gaul and the British Isles as shown in the language tree below.

The Borritora Plaques discovered in Spain in 1970 contain the longest known inscriptions in the Celtiberian language, and are dated to the late 2nd century BCE. They are written using a form of the Iberian alphabet adapted for the Celtiberian language. The Iberian alphabet was in turn derived in part from the Greek and/or Phoenician alphabet, but was unusual in that it was partly alphabetic and partly syllabic, with symbols representing consonant and vowel together (eg. separate symbols for ga and ge, as with Japanese kana). This possibly unique writing system is called a “semi-syllabary”.

Celtiberian inscription of the Borritora I plaque, dated to the late 2nd century BCE.

My most recent Y-haplogroup ancestor

My most recent Y-haplogroup ancestor lived around 510 BCE and most likely in the Celtic region of the Iberian peninsular. There are only two Y-DNA samples for this haplogroup in the FTDNA, mine and another from someone whose oldest known paternal ancestor was from Portugal. Two is the minimum number of samples needed to confirm the existence of a new haplogroup, these two must share the same set of prior mutations defining earlier haplogroups in the haplotree. Otherwise, the two samples are just people who happen to have the same random mutation in the Y-DNA, but are in different Y-haplogroups.

The Castro de Elviña is a typical fortified settlement of the pre-Roman, Bronze Age Celtic culture of the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula.

One of the Celtoiberian helmets discovered in Aranda de Moncayo. Dated to between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC.

While there is a wide uncertainty range for the date of this haplogroup founder, I will assume that he did indeed live around 510 BCE, or around 2,530 years ago, making him my great*81st grandfather. This was in the Iberian Iron Age, which began around the late 8th century BCE during which Celtic culture expanded across Iberia. Starting around this period, Phoenician and Greek colonies established some cities on the eastern coast of Iberia and following the Punic Wars of the third century BCE when the Carthaginians briefly extended their control over the interior of Iberia, the Roman Empire began itsconquest of Iberia in around 200 BCE. In 195 BC, part of Celtiberia was conquered by the Romans, and by 72 BC the entire region had become part of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior. The subjugated Celtiberians waged a protracted struggle against the Roman conquerors, staging uprisings in 195–193, 181–179, 153–151, and 143–133. In 105 BC, Celtiberian warriors drove the Germanic Cimbri from Spain in the Cimbrian War (113–101 BC) and also played an important role in the Sertorian War (80–72 BC). The Romans completed the annexation of the whole Iberian peninsula in 19 BCE.

From Iberia to Britain and Ireland

My earliest known paternal ancestor is my great-great-great grandfather Samuel Murphy who was born around 1790 and lived in Armagh in Northern Ireland. The family tradition holds that the family is of Scottish origin and that either Samuel or his father was a migrant from Scotland to Northern Ireland. How did my paternal ancestors get from Iberia around 500 BCE to Scotland and/or Ireland 2000 years later?

The Irish people’s own legendary stories of their settlement of Ireland have them coming from the Basque regions of the Atlantic European coast, albeit at a much earlier time.  It is known that there were Atlantic trade routes connecting the British Isles to Iberia and the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. And in the Iron Age Roman period there was substantial trade between southern Britain and the Roman Empire, particularly for tin mined in Cornwall and Wales. Some have argued that there was a movement of Celtiberian people northwards along the Atlantic Coast to Britain and Ireland [13], but the evidence for this is at best speculative, and the genetic evidence relates mostly to the earlier movement of R1b Celtic people northwards from Europe into the Isles.

My paternal and maternal DNA analyses show that I have a substantial maternal heritage from Paleolithic Ice Age hunter-gatherers and a substantial paternal heritage from Bronze Age R1b invaders from the Caspian Steppe whose descendants Y-DNA came to dominate the Celtic tribes of the Bronze Age Iberian pensinsula. This is confirmed by a recent FTDNA analysis of my autosomal DNA which estimated that 50% is derived from pre-Ice-Age Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, 41% from Neolithic farmers, and 9% from Bronze Age steppe warriors.

My R1b Y-DNA heritage leading down to Celtiberian ancestry may explain my relatively olive skin complexion and black curly hair, which when I was a young man in Sydney on several occasions led migrants from Greece and other Mediterranean countries to assume I was from their country.

Another presentation of the R-L23 descendent tree. My Y-Haplogroup is marked by the blue star.


  1. Rob Spencer. SNP Tracker. [INTERNET]
  2. Adamov, Dmitry & Gurianov, Vladimir M. & Karzhavin, Sergey & Tagankin, Vladimir & Urasin, Vadim. (2015). Defining a New Rate Constant for Y-Chromosome SNPs based on Full Sequencing Data. Russian Journal of Genetic Genealogy. 7. 1920-2997.
  3. International Society of Genetic Genealogy (2015). Generation length. ISOGG Wiki
  4. Hay, Maciamo. Haplogroup R1b (Y-DNA). Genetics, Last updated January 2021.
  5. Myres NM, Rootsi S, Lin AA, Järve M, King RJ, Kutuev I, et al. (January 2011). “A major Y-chromosome haplogroup R1b Holocene era founder effect in Central and Western Europe”. European Journal of Human Genetics. 19 (1): 95–101. doi:1038/ejhg.2010.146
  6. Lemercier, Olivier. (2018). Think and Act. Local Data and Global Perspectives in Bell Beaker Archaeology. 10.12766/jna.2018S.5.
  7. Tiger Walsh. Bell Beakers meets Corded Ware in Central Europe. R1b All Subclades Project, FamilyTree DNA, December 2020.
  8. Batini, C., Hallast, P., Zadik, D. et al. Large-scale recent expansion of European patrilineages shown by population resequencing. Nat Commun 6, 7152 (2015).
  9. Juras, A., Chyleński, M., Ehler, E. et al. Mitochondrial genomes reveal an east to west cline of steppe ancestry in Corded Ware populations. Sci Rep 8, 11603 (2018).
  10. Maciamo Hay. How did R1b come to replace most of the older lineages in Western Europe?com Genetics, Last updated January 2021.
  11. Solé-Morata, N., Villaescusa, P., García-Fernández, C. et al. Analysis of the R1b-DF27 haplogroup shows that a large fraction of Iberian Y-chromosome lineages originated recently in situ. Sci Rep 7, 7341 (2017).
  12. Olalde I, Mallick S, Patterson N, et al. The genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the past 8000 years. Science. 2019 Mar 15;363(6432):1230-1234. doi: 10.1126/science.aav4040. PMID: 30872528; PMCID: PMC6436108.
  13. McKeown, Marie. Blood of the Irish: What DNA Tells Us About the Ancestry of People in Ireland. Owlcation. Aug 19, 2018.


How long ago were the events of The Lord of the Rings?

As I discussed in my previous post, Tolkien set out to create a mythology for the English in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), the Silmarillion and related writings on Middle-earth. He presented himself not as the author of LOTR, but as the translator of various histories written by Bilbo, Frodo and others in the Third and Fourth Age of Middle-earth. This makes Tolkien quite unusual among modern writers of fantasy in presenting it as set in the real work but in an imagined prehistory. What happened in that period before the Earth’s actual recorded history is otherwise remembered down through the generations as folk myths and legends, especially among the Old English. Tolkien’s life work was an attempt to reconstruct our prehistory, and more specifically the prehistory of the English. Critics Lee and Solopova commented that “Only by understanding this can we fully realize the true scale of his project and comprehend how enormous his achievement was” [1].

Tolkien described the region in which the Hobbits lived as “the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea” in LOTR, ie. essentially Europe (including Britain). However, as he noted in a letter [2], the geographies do not match, and he did not consciously make them match when he was writing. In another letter [3] he became much more specific, saying “If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.” In the Prologue to LOTR, Tolkien also notes that “Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed…”

Fascinated by the detailed chronologies and calendars set out in the Appendices to LOTR and elsewhere, I have naturally wondered how long ago from now the events of LOTR took place. About 15 years ago, I came across an article in the Journal of the Tolkien Society [4¡ which deduced that the Fourth Age began on Wednesday 18 March 3,102 BCE.  The events of LOTR took place during the preceding year.  Despite the bizarre exactness of this, I was quite impressed by the argument, which I summarize here briefly.

The history of Middle Earth is marked by two cataclysmic restructuring events: the sinkingof Beleriand which marks the end of the First Age, and the catastrophic transition from a flat to a spherical world and the sinking of the island of Numenor which marks the end of the Second Age. One or both of these are clearly intended to be the event still remembered by the legend of Atlantis.

The Downfall of Númenor and the Changing of the World. Ian Alexander. From

The Fall of Numenor (Darrell Sweet)

Steele discovered that according to the Theosophists, Atlantis sank beneath the waves in 9,564 BCE [5] and that much later the Kali Yuga (or Fourth Age of the present world) began in 3,102 BCE [6]. So these events are separated by 6,462 years. He then pointed out that the sinking of Beleriand (not Númenor) is separated from the beginning of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth by precisely the same time span, 6462 years. The maths is simple. According to Tolkien’s chronology, the Second Age lasted 3,441 years and the Third Age lasted 3,021 years and 3,441 + 3,021 = 6,462. Steele concludes that “The chances of Tolkien hitting on this number by accident are astronomical, especially when in both the Middle-earth mythology and Theosophical doctrine this period is opened by the submergence of a huge landmass, and is closed by the beginning of something called the ‘Fourth Age’.” So we can immediately calculate that the Fourth Age began in 3,102 BCE or 5,122 years ago.

In writing this post, I checked the sources for the Theosophical dates and indeed their date for Atlantis sinking is only a slightly more accurate date than that given by Plato, who described it as sinking into the ocean around 9,600 BCE. For more information on Theosophy see my earlier post here. The durations for the Ages of are also correct, I checked them with a number of websites that have compiled full chronologies of Middle Earth [7-11]. One or two of these have durations that differ by 1 year, probably because of assuming that the first year of an Age was labelled Year 0 rather than the actual practice of calling it Year 1 [12].

So did the events of LOTR occur 5,122 years ago at a time when the Early Dynastic (Archaic) period started in Ancient Egypt and the first stages of Stonehenge were being constructed?  And coincidentally, the time when the oldest currently living organism, a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, was undergoing germination? In a letter written in 1958, Tolkien places the beginning of the Fourth Age some 6,000 years in the past [13]. However, in the History of Middle Earth [14], Tolkien also said “The moons and suns are worked out according to what they were in this part of the world [i.e. England or thereabouts] in 1942 actually…. I mean I’m not a good enough mathematician or astronomer to work out where they might have been 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, but as long as they correspond to some real configuration I thought that was good enough.”

So I think we can conclude that Tolkien did not have a specific length of time between the events of LOTR and today, but that it was of the order of 6 to 8 thousand years ago. While Steele may be correct in seeing a link with Theosophist dates as far as the duration of the Ages is concerned, his actual date BCE for the end of the Third Age is thus not accurate. If we push the LOTR date back to somewhat over 8,000 years ago, not only do we avoid clashes with the beginnings of documented history, but it allows for the flooding of Doggerland and the cutting off of Britain and The Shire from the rest of Europe that occurred 8,500 to 8,200 years ago. I have described the flooding of Doggerland and the massive tidal wave of 8,150 years ago in a previous post.

Returning to the astonishing coincidence of Middle Earth chronology with Theosophist chronology, is there any evidence that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, had an interest in Theosophy?  Curiously enough, there is. Tolkien was a member of the Inklings, a group of Oxford scholars who met regularly to discuss Christianity and mythology in the early 1900s [15]. While the central three were C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Tolkien, the Inklings also included Lewis’s close friend Owen Barfield. Barfield embraced Theosophy as a young man. Although he became a Christian in late middle age, he retained Anthroposophic beliefs and a belief in reincarnation. He influenced C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams in particular, but some critics have also claimed to see Theosophist ideas in Tolkien’s mythical world, particularly that of “ascended masters” who are sent back into the world to guide receptive humans [16].

From left: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

C.S. Lewis borrowed Tolkien’s concept of “Numenor and the True West” which appears as “Numinor” in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, published in 1945 before LOTR. Lewis actually provides a footnote that says those who wish to know more about Numinor must await the publication of Professor Tolkien’s forthcoming book. I think I have read somewhere that Tolkien was somewhat annoyed at this appropriation. That Hideous Strength [17] is the third novel in a trilogy set on Mars, Venus and the Earth successively.

The novel is set in post-war England and draws on the intensely British myth of King Arthur. Logres (the Arthurian ideal) fighting Britain (secular reality) symbolizes the war between good and evil. The hero of the novel, Dr Ransom, is the Fisher King, and it is filled with Arthurian literary discussions. Merlin re-awakens later and his magic is described as “a last survival of something older and different – something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the relations between mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know.” Merlin comes back as Merlin of the fifth century, but he brings back the last vestiges of Atlantean magic which long pre-dated the druids.

Pan paperback cover

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis combined his own cosmic mythology with Theosophical elements, Grecian planetary deities, the Fisher-King of the Grail legend, and Merlin and the Pendragon of the Arthurian legend. He was also heavily influenced by Charles Williams and his conception of Logres. I thoroughly enjoyed C. S. Lewis’s planetary trilogy when I was younger, and also read Charles Williams’ novels, and did not really notice the Atlantean-Theosophical aspects.

In conclusion, I think its quite likely the Inklings discussed Atlantis and Theosophical ideas of Ages and Tolkien may have been influenced by dates for these events picked up from Owen Barfield.


[1] Lee SD, Solopova E (2005). The Keys of Middle-earth: Discovering Medieval Literature Through the Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. Palgrave. pp. 256–257.

[2] Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #169 to Hugh Brogan, 11 September 1955

[3] Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #294 to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 8 February 1967

[4] Steele, Tony. The Chronology of Middle-earth. Mallorn (the Journal of the Tolkien Society), Issue 42, August 2004. Text available at

[5] Arthur E. Powell, The Solar System: A Complete Outline of the Theosophical Scheme of Evolution. London: The Theosophical Publishing House (1930). Chapter 50, The fourth Aryan sub.race: The Keltic pp. 308-316.

[6] Wikipedia contributors. “Root race.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Jan. 2021. (accessed 27 Jan. 2021).

[7] Krishna S. ‘Lord of the Rings’ Timeline Explained: Middle-earth from ‘The Silmarillion’ to ‘The Hobbit’ & Beyond. Dec 31 2020. Available at

[8] LOTR Project. Timeline of the History of Middle-earth.

[9] A chronology of Middle-earth.

[10] The LOTR Wiki. Timeline of Arda.

[11] Wikipedia contributors. “History of Arda.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Jan. 2021. (accessed 27 Jan. 2021).

[12] When I first read Steele’s article, I calculated the duration of the Ages myself from the information in the LOTR Appendices and got an answer that differed by 2 years. At the time, I thought this might be sufficient grounds to dismiss Steele’s argument, but I now realize I was counting Year 1 as Year 0 in each Age.

[13] Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #211 to Rhona Beare, 14 October 1958, last footnote.

[14] Tolkien, Christopher (ed.) The History of Middle Earth. A 12-volume series of books published between 1983 and 1996 of Tolkien’s evolving writings on Middle-earth.

[15] Carpenter, Humphrey (1978). The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[16] The Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and Barfield explore Theosophy and Reincarnation. (accessed 27 Jan 2021)

[17] Lewis CS. That Hideous Strength: That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. UK: The Bodley Head, December 1945.

On re-reading the Lord of the Rings 50 years later

My first encounter with Middle Earth was when I came across The Hobbit in my first year of high school. The Hobbit gave me the same sense of the numinous and of “Northerness” as earlier had C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I had borrowed it from the local library, did not remember the name of the author and only several years later as a teenager did I discover the Lord of the Rings (LOTR).  It was originally published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955, 18 years after the Hobbit was published in 1937. The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s with the publication of the Ballantine paperback editions, and in North America, the publication of the Ace pirated edition.  I first read it in 1969, when I purchased the 1968 first edition of the George Allen and Unwin one volume paperback with cover illustrations by Pauline Baynes:

But LOTR is in a different class to the Hobbit. Without the Hobbit’s narrative tone of telling a tale to children, it describes an epic struggle of good and evil in a fully realized world, with a depth of history, mythology, poetry, beings and languages that was unparalleled in any previous fantasy literature. Despite some literary critics turning their noses up at fantasy, it was greeted with acclaim by others and now has a substantial body of critical and academic work. LOTR is ranked among the greatest books of the twentieth century or of all time in a number of lists (see for example here or here), and its popularity has been boosted among new generations by the Peter Jackson trilogy of LOTR movies.

I loved LOTR so much that I must have read it somewhere between 10 and 15 times in the years after I first read it. While I collected a number of editions of LOTR and The Hobbit, in English, French and German, I almost always read the one volume paperback I’d bought in 1968. Its now almost falling to bits (see photo below). It did not include the Appendices, and when I went to Sydney University in 1971, I photocopied the Appendices from the three volume edition I found in the Fisher Library and immersed myself in the study of all things relating to Middle Earth. During my University days, I was a keen bushwalker, rock-climber, canyoner, and many is the wilderness campfire around which friends and I discussed LOTR and Middle Earth. Among many other things, the LOTR is the story of one of the greatest long distance wilderness walks on record!

I kept a record of the first 8 times I read it, and I had read it 6 time in the three year period 1969-1972. After several readings, I decided to read it slowly and savour the writing, the details, the poetry. But after I got about halfway through, the momentum of the tale swept me up and I speed-read the rest of it*. In December 1972, I decided to record how long it took me to read the LOTR. I kept a record of reading times in the back of the paperback, and consulting it now, I see that it took me 21 hours and 20 minutes. As LOTR is 481,103 words long, that is an average reading speed of 376 words per minute.

I joined the UK-based Tolkien Society and collected a fairly comprehensive library of works by and about Tolkien and Middle Earth. For a few years, I think I had a fairly complete set of published academic papers relating to Middle Earth, and did my own research among the medieval and earlier literature of Britain and northern Europe, sources of much of Tolkien’s mythological themes, names, languages, etc.

One of the things that appeals to me most about the LOTR is how it conveys the reality of Middle Earth and its immense history through glimpses of a coherent and much more expansive world, both in time and space, than is actually experienced in the narrative of LOTR itself. And that more expansive world has workable languages (that can actually be learnt and spoken) that are aesthetically pleasing, and complex political/social organizations and various different sentient species with their own detailed cultures and characteristics. It also includes an expansive geography populated by forests, marshes and mountains which play a key role in the narrative but also clearly extend beyond the playing field of the narrative. This is rarely seen in other works of science fiction or fantasy, where names and languages are made up randomly and give no sense of belonging to a coherent culture or actual language, and where there is often little development of place and history beyond that needed for the story.

Of course, the reason LOTR is so successful in the creation of the world of Middle Earth is that Tolkien actually spent many years working on the languages, history, geography and mythology of Middle Earth before writing The Hobbit and later LOTR. And as a professional philologist specializing in the literature of early Britain, Tolkienwas uniquely placed to do this. Tolkien was quite critical of his friend C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, because Lewis mixed features from different mythological backgrounds. Greek fauns lived in Narnia along with Northern giants and trolls.

Rivendell – The Last Homely House East of the Sea

Tolkien has made clear in some of his letters and other writing that his main intention with the creation of Middle Earth and its narratives was to develop a mythology native to England separate from the mythologies of surrounding cultures. He felt that England lacked such stories bound up with its languages and landscape, such as found in Celtic, Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian and Finnish mythologies.  He explained this in his letter #131 (in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), going on to say that the Arthurian world was powerful but imperfectly naturalized. Its “faerie” was too lavish, fantastic, incoherent, and repetitive. More importantly, it involved and explicitly contained the Christian religion. That seemed fatal to Tolkien. Myth and fairy-story must reflect and contain parts of moral and religious truth or error, but not explicitly as in the real world.

When the Peter Jackson movie trilogy came out in 2001 to 2003, I loved them and have also watched them several times.  Jackson made a lot of effort to be faithful to the world depicted in Middle Earth, with a lot of attention to detail and landscape. Although aspects of the story were modified and to a certain extent departed from the intent of Tolkien, the world depicted largely meshed with my imagined Middle Earth and there were few outright clashes. In particular, Jackson’s imagining of the various races, Elves, dwarves, Numenoreans, orcs, and various monsters, was inspired as were his casting choices for most of the principal characters, particularly Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Elrond, Aragorn, Faramir and Eomer. Their faces are the ones I see now when I think of the characters, and the Elves of the movies are what I see when I think of the Elves of Middle Earth. Though I don’t think he really succeeded with his depiction of the Ents. I try to ignore the unfortunate “Hollywood” moments that crept in, such as when Legolas runs up the side of the Oliphaunt and does gymnastics in the air around it. Fortunately, there was not too much of that. Which can’t be said of the Hobbit trilogy which was substantially spoilt by ridiculous action scenes, including a roller coaster ride inside Moria which would have been over the top for Indiana Jones.

Galadriel and the Gates of Argonath

The last time I read LOTR was probably around 1980, a couple of decades before the movies came out. Recently, I was looking at my Tolkien bookcase and realized I had never read the de luxe one volume edition that I bought in 1972. So I decided to do that, and to look more closely at elements that were left out of or distorted in the movies.

The one volume De Luxe edition of The Lord of the Rings was published in 1969 by George Allen and Unwin on India Paper with a black slipcase. The cover is black buckram cloth and has Tolkien’s design depicting the Numenorean throne with ‘Elendil’ in tengwar, stamped on it in gilt, silver and green. As  I was reading it I quite often had to struggle to turn the page, as the paper was so thin that I usually picked up two pages together. In the one inch thick volume are included two large foldout maps of Middle Earth shown in the photos below. Only the 1st and 2nd impressions were issued with the slipcase, and I have the 2nd impression, printed in 1972. My copy is as-new, it has sat on the bookshelf protected in its slipcase for 49 years and only now have I taken it out and read it.

I completed the three volumes last night, after a week of reading it mostly in the evening for a hour or few. As usual, my reading sped up as I got further into it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and came across many passages that I had lost all memory of, I think replaced by the memory of the movie version.  Of course, I knew that there were some major episodes such as the visit to Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest that were completely omitted from the movies, but there were many other episodes where I realized the movies had made substantial changes. I give just one example. In the third movie, Aragorn demands that the spirits of the dead oath-breakers come with him to fulfil their oath, and they arrive outside the walls of Minas Tirith as battle rages with the armies of Sauron. The dead rout the enemy from the battlefield, so that Gondor wins the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and are released from their oath. In the book, Aragorn uses the army of the dead only to win the Corsair ships from mercenaries and pirates chiefly through fear, before Aragorn frees them, sailing upriver to Minas Tirith with Legolas, Gimli, the Dunedain and some Gondorian forces.

Aragorn and the army of Gondor

Apart from plot lines, two other aspects of the book struck me in this re-reading. Firstly, the beauty and power of Tolkien’s writing, and the wide range of styles he used with good effect. From a homely, humorous style when concerned with hobbits, to lyrical word portraits of landscapes, to high saga when concerned with the deeds of the great, and sprinkled liberally with songs and poems in many styles. While I had remembered many of the poems in LOTR, and indeed can still recite some from memory, there were many more that I had not remembered from my earlier readings, and this time I did slow down and savour them.

Secondly, there were many details of information about Middle Earth and its history and inhabitants than I had remembered, and some I don’t recall reading before. For example, when the Hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and ask him who he is, he describes himself as the Eldest, “here before the river and the trees”, before the Elves and the other races.  But later in the book, after Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard, Gandalf describes Treebeard as “the oldest of the Ents, the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-Earth”. There are many theories as to the nature of Tom Bombadil (see for example here), but the apparent contradiction is resolved when we realize that Treebeard is a living thing (the Ents were created at the same time as the dwarves) whereas Tom Bombadil is likely a spirit, not a living thing. In my view, Tolkien included Tom as an archaic nature spirit rather like the English Puck, a mystery who does not fit within the hierarchy of spirits and beings of Middle Earth (Eru Iluvatar, Valar, Maia, etc).

The Forest of Fangorn

So what of Middle Earth now that I have revisited it 50 years later?  I enjoyed LOTR as much as the first time I read it and my appreciation of Tolkien’s skill as a writer and the brilliance of his creation has deepened. I feel that Tolkien largely succeeded in his quest to create a mythology for the English. And my only caveat would be that he left the job unfinished, with a large volume of partly written legends and history that are not fully consistent, and have now been published in huge detail by his son Christopher Tolkien, creating confusion more than clarity with various succeeding iterations and evolutions of the opus all being explained in enormous detail.

I will now watch the three LOTR movies again as the current Swiss lockdown proceeds, to appreciate their separate pleasures and perhaps to clarify the differences in my mind so that I no longer have a Jackson overlay on my memory of the real story, but that exists as a separate set of memories with their own artistry. The LOTR is the perfect story for the current crisis that besets the world. Set in a world of epic heroes and villains but focusing on the ordinary folk, the hobbits, who aren’t made for adventure, but when it comes down to it, do the right thing and persevere with no real hope of success. They just keep going, because they understand that there’s good in this world worth fighting for. Frodo teaches us about endurance and compassion, because it is ultimately his compassion (and at a key point, Sam’s also) which spares Gollum and that ultimately saves the world. Like the hobbits, we are dealing with a crisis that is upending our lives, and we wish it had never happened. But as Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such time, but that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”


*  Probably at around my average reading speed for fiction of around 400 words per minute. In late high school, I did a one week speed reading course run by a friend of my father’s and got my reading speed for fiction up over 1000 words per minute. But I did not enjoy reading at that speed and didn’t try to keep it up, apart from books that I just wanted to essentially skim for the story. And speed reading is fairly irrelevant for technical writing, where comprehension of a page may take many minutes or hours.

New Year skiing in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland has kept its ski resorts open while all neighbouring countries closed. Hardly surprising that 4,200 British skiers turned up for the Christmas-New Year period just after the new faster spreading covid-19 virus took British new cases through the roof at exponential speed. The Swiss then imposed a retrospective quarantine on the British visitors after they arrived, and almost all of them snuck out during the night and left. Left a lot of anti-British feeling behind.

I and my boys are of like mind that it would be madness to go to one of the major resorts like Verbier, where many British go. Likely the people there are now incubating new infections. But my neighbours packed their car and head up to Verbier today, confident the virus left with the British. I’ve spent a number of New Years at Verbier, particularly back in the noughties (2000-2009) during part of which I rented a studio apartment in Verbier so I could go up for weekends and longer holidays whenever I wanted. Here are some photos from those days.

Two parapenters fly above the mountains at Verbier

View from the top of Mont Fort (3330 m). The three peaks on the horizon from are Dent Blanche (4356 m), Matterhorn (4478 m in niddle) and Dent d’Hérens (4171 m)

On top of Attelas (2727 m). The Olympique restaurant is on this summit, from which a number of pistes descend, as well as off-piste routes.

On a quite difficult off-piste descent from Attelas

Me on Attelas quite late in the afternoon

Heading down as the sun sets on another wonderful day skiing at Verbier

The Indian Transmission of Zen Buddhism

A previous post examined the Zen tradition of “lineages” of teachers transmitting enlightenment person-to-person and documented the lineages of my Zen teachers down from Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an (Zen).  In this post, I examine the Zen tradition of an Indian lineage which reaches back from Bodhidharma through 27 ancestors to the the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth and death dates are somewhat contested, but 563-483 BCE seem to be the most generally accepted dates.

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Christmas skiing in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland has angered neighboring countries by keeping the ski slopes open this winter, despite the risks associated with skiing and the coronavirus pandemic. However, national and cantonal restrictions apply, and Les Portes du Soleil where the boys and I have often skied has set a quota for the numbers of skiers allowed on the slopes. I’ve decided to avoid the ski resorts this winter, at least until the covid situation improves or we have been vaccinated.

Its snowing here on Christmas Day in Geneva, though not quite enough to ski on. I’ve  been skiing around the Christmas-New Year period quite a few of the years I’ve been in Geneva. Here are a few photos from two Christmas’s spent at Arosa in northeast Switzerland in 2001, 2005 and 2007. Good times.

Below left: looking down the Hörnli Express to the village of Arosa. Right: Hörnli 2511m.


Enjoying the winter sun on the piste in December 2001

Lamp post in the forest near our hotel. I think I must have gone out through the wardrobe.

View from the summit of Weisshorn (2653 m).

The shadow of Weisshorn on the clouds

Lone snowboarder heading down from Weisshorn

WIth my two young boys at Arosa, Christmas 2007.

Relaxing in the outdoor spa at our hotel after a day on the snow

A sleigh ride through the forest in the Arosa valley

Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures”

I’ve mainly been doing shikantaza “just sitting” during the pandemic, but I recently started re-reading “Zen Koans: learning the language of dragons” by James Ishmael Ford. This is an excellent general introduction to Zen, the range of Zen methods of meditation, and particularly working with koans. Ford was given dharma transmission by my first Zen teacher, John Tarrant, who was the first Australian authorized to teach Zen.

Ford discusses the concept of Zen lineages in his book (pages 28-30) and this reminded me that I had collected information on the lineages of the teachers I have worked with, and inspired me to update it and turn it into a set of charts. These trace the transmission of Zen from India to China to Japan and then to my Western teachers. I’ve updated these and posted them below.

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Prevalence of pre-modern values across the world

In a previous post, I described my use of the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) to develop a measure of pre-modern religious values (approximately corresponding to “fundamentalism”). I have used this to calculate the prevalence of pre-modern religious values using data from waves 5-7 of the surveys, covering the period 2005-2020, but with most results relating to the recent decade 2010-2020. I somewhat arbitrarily chose a cutpoint of 6.45 on the religious values scale to classify people as having pre-modern values (<6.45) versus modern values (>=6.45). The value 6.45 was chosen as the point where the distribution of scores for individuals 2 and 3 (described in the  previous post) crossed over.

The following graph shows the prevalence of pre-modern values (as % of adult population) for countries in waves 5-7, ranked from lowest (Denmark at 13% and Sweden at 14%) to highest (Bangladesh, Myanmar and Qatar at 100%).

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