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COMING SOON: 

Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ancient Ireland, an exclusive free gift to all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. So if you haven’t signed up yet, now’s the time to do it!

Swanskin, a YA novella inspired by the beautiful love story from Irish mythology of Óengus and swan-maiden, Caer Ibormeith.

The Crow and the Phantom Queen

I am busy working on two book projects at the moment, and it’s very exciting to see them both approaching publication. As a result, I haven’t had much time for blogging this week, so I thought I’d dust off an older post, for the newer followers who might not have seen it. For those of you who have, walk on by this week, and I promise I’ll have some newness for you next time. Bye for now!


In the gathering of huge trees in the churchyard opposite my house lives a colony of crows. They are noisy and gregarious, and I enjoy their hoarse, wild calls and feathery antics immensely.

Apparently, though, they might not be crows at all. Crows are said to be solitary creatures, but my neighbours certainly aren’t. They belong to the Corvus family of birds, ranging from the small jackdaw to the much larger raven.

Perhaps surprisingly, they are considered one of the world’s most intelligent creatures, right up there with the dolphin and the ape. If you don’t believe me, watch this short video… it’s amazing!

 

In tests, they have been found able to count up to 5, use tools to obtain food, and are even thought to be able to recognise humans by their facial features.

They are omnivorous, and will eat anything. They are  most well known for the damage they cause in fields of crops, hence the ‘scare-crow’, and also for eating carrion. In fact, they have been seen to harass foxes and birds of prey in attempts to steal from them their fresh kills.

It is perhaps for this desire to feast on the flesh of the freshly deceased that the crow and the other members of the Corvus family have been so reviled in the past. Undoubtedly, in ancient times, when our ancestors were more war-like than we are today, the crows would have gathered over the battlefield to take advantage of the dead bodies laid out for their delectation, and this would been observed with dread and abhorrence by survivors.


In Mythology

Around the world, the crow has been associated with war, death, the Otherworld, or as a cunning trickster not to be trusted. Despite this, there has also been a grudging acknowledgement of its intelligence.

In Irish mythology, the crow is seen as a manifestation of the Morrigan (in Irish, Mór-ríoghain), meaning phantom/great Queen. She was seen as a deity signifying ‘battle, strife and sovereignty’, a harbinger of war and death, who spoke of the battlefield as ‘her garden’. It was said that she would often fly above a battle, her cry bringing courage and encouragement to her warriors, whilst simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of the enemy. Sometimes she would join in the battle in her human form.

There seems to be much confusion surrounding this particular deity. For a start, she has many names; the Morrigan,  Badbh (meaning crow), Macha, and Nemain are those most commonly used. Sometimes, the names Anann and Fea appear in conjunction with the others, too.

It is well known that the number 3 was held sacred to the ancient people, and so often she is depicted as three sisters, representing the three different aspects of the Goddess as mentioned above, but also perhaps the maiden, the mother and the crone. In that case, the term ‘the Morrigan’ is likely a title or epithet which could be applied to the threesome collectively.

In the Lebor Gebála Érenn, the tale of the first cycle of Ireland’s mythology, the Morrigan is said to be the daughter of Ernmas, and grand-daughter of King Nuada, who led the Tuatha de Danann into Ireland.

This is interesting, because one of the names given her is Macha, and Macha was actually Nuada’s wife, and mother of his four sons. She fought beside him in the Battles of Moytura, and was slain by Balor of the Fomori, whilst the Morrigan flew overhead in crow form, casting spells which bought forth strange poisonous fog and rains of fire and blood upon the heads of the enemy. She is also credited with various prophecies.

The Morrigan is also mentioned in the Tain Bó Cuailnge, Queen Medb’s famous Cattle Raid of Cooley, where she shape-shifts into the form of an eel, a wolf and a cow, as well as her more habitual crow. She has various interactions with hero Cúchullain, finally showing him an omen of his own death. Mortally wounded, he ties himself to a standing stone so that he can die on his feet,  whereupon she alights on his shoulder in her crow form to show his enemies he is dead.

The Morrigan is remembered in sites around Ireland which are named after her. In Co Tipperary, there is a fullachta fiadh called Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna ( the cooking pit of the Morrigan), and in Co Meath there are two hills known as Dá Chich na Mórrigna (the breasts of the Morrigan).

Finally, here is a poem I wrote about crows; it’s called Carrion.

Carrion

Cold crow,
black crow
sits in the tree.
I’m not afraid of him,
he’s not afraid of me.

He flaps and
he watches
with dark beady eye.
He knows things about me
as I stumble by.

Bold crow,
black crow
feeds on death.
He knows it won’t be long
till I draw my last breath.

Patiently,
he waited,
while the action in the field
overwhelmed me.
Thus my fate was sealed.

Cold crow,
black crow
cares not for human strife.
Our woes and battles
are just the stuff of life.

His voice is hoarse,
his cry sounds
triumphant intent.
I look back with regret
and sorrowful lament.

Bold crow,
black crow,
my soul will be renewed.
For I go now to meet my maker,
my flesh will be your food.


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The Sacred Stones of the Hill of Tara

These lumps and bumps in the ground as you emerge from the churchyard onto the Hill of Tara belong to the Mound of the Synods.

I went to the Hill of Tara yesterday. I haven’t been in quite a while; the sun was shining, and I’d been cooped up in the house for a couple of days, and I just felt drawn, so off I went.

Going anywhere on my own these days is such a treat. And as I got nearer to my destination, I could feel the excitement mounting, until by the time I arrived, I was giddy as a schoolgirl!

In some ways, visiting Tara on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of July was a bit of a mistake; the Hill was packed. Not crowded, its much too big and open for that. But there was too much noise, human noise, and it was impossible to take a photo without it being invaded by unwanted guests.

Looking through the churchyard gate towards the Mound of Hostages.
Looking through the churchyard gate towards the Mound of Hostages. You can see how busy it is.

Don’t get me wrong; we all have an equal right to be there. But somehow, I had mixed feelings over the way this ancient monument and symbol of our heritage was being used. Mostly, people were sunbathing, or kids were running gleefully up and down the bankings, climbing over all the ancient monuments.

Harmless, and yet I’ll admit that a part of me was appalled; they can do that anywhere, why come to somewhere special and fragile like Tara to do it? It seemed so disrespectful. On the other hand, it was good to see so many people congregating there, and enjoying the site. Tara has not been forgotten. It still draws people, and is still being used today.

I had a really good wander, and discovered parts of the site I had never been to before. But what I really came to see was these two fellows…

You might be wondering what’s so special about them… they’re just two stones in a graveyard, right? Well, yes… and no.

These two particular stones aren’t decayed headstones marking someone’s grave; they’re standing stones. According to legend, these are the two stones known as Bloc and Bluicne. As part of his inaugural ceremony, the newly elected High King had to drive his chariot at full speed towards these stones, and if his claim on the throne was honourable, and he was the rightful heir, the stones would recognise him as such, and move apart, allowing him safe passage between them.

I know what you’re thinking; sounds ridiculous. But these two stones weren’t the only ones on Tara… there were others, too. Remember the Lia Fail, also known as the ‘Stone of Destiny’, which cried so loud in recognition of the rightful King, its voice was heard all across the land? According to author Michael Slavin, ancient texts revealed the names of other sacred standing stones on the Hill of Tara, all now lost: Dall, Dorcha, Maol, in addition to the three previously mentioned. I love that they all had names, and that their names are still remembered.

The taller of the two stones was said to have a carving of the Horned God, Cernunos. If you look closely, you can see a raised indistinguishable area which could have been a carving, but it is badly eroded now, and unidentifiable.

I’d love to think this was true. However, there was once a headstone in this area of the churchyard called the ‘Cross of Adamnan’. Adamnan was a C7th saint. I’m sure he’d be turning in his grave if he realised the likeness on his gravestone had been interpreted as an image of a pagan fertility God! That thought made me chuckle on and off all afternoon. 😤

These two companion stones remind me of the two sentinels which guard the entrance to Brú na Bóinne’s Knowthit’s thought that they represent fertility symbols, obviously the tall one is a phallus, and the shorter rotund one represents the rounded belly of the pregnant female form.

Entrance to main central mound at Knowth, showing the two sentinel stones, one phallus shaped, the other, well... not.
Entrance to main central mound at Knowth, showing the two sentinel stones, one phallus shaped, the other, well… not.

I’m just not convinced; we know from the stories and the grand monuments these people left behind that they were highly sophisticated and knowledgeable. They used complex engineering and calculations to build their cairns with lightboxes, and all their various other structures, all without the aid of computers and mechanisation, a feat most of us could not manage today.

Then in the next breath we accuse them of being so basic and crude as to worship their own penises and ovaries and immortalise them in stone. Ok, perhaps there are a lot of men out there today who secretly do worship their manhood and would love to see their body parts carved in stone, lol! But, you know what I’m saying.

Although Tara is most commonly thought of as the inaugural site of pagan kings, it also has strong Christian links. The church which stands there now is home to a Visitor Centre, and dates from 1822. It has a beautiful stained glass window. The first church was built in the early C13th, and was followed by a much larger one, the only trace of which remains is a crumbling section of wall, which you can see in this picture. You can also see Bloc and Bluicne close by.

The current church, now a Visitor centre, with the last crumbling remains of its predecessor in the foreground, with Bloc and Bluicne to the left.

Finally, I couldn’t mention the church without paying respect to the marble statue of St Patrick, which dominates the approach to the site. It’s weird; his eyes seem to follow you about and his gaze is piercing and none too friendly.  Given all the things he is supposed to have done for his religion, I shouldn’t be surprised.

I have so much to show you and tell you, but it will have to wait for another day. Have a great week, everyone!


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Knossos, Capital of Ancient Crete and the Legend of the Minotaur

“The walls of Knossos are tumbled now, long derelict and bleached by the sun like old bones. Roofed only by the sky, these once elegant rooms and cool graceful passages are still thronged with people, strangers who have come to admire what once was, a bygone era of which they have no comprehension. It is a world within a world, a fleeting glimpse into knowledge, power, artistry, skill, grandeur and mystery the like of which will never be seen again.

“I still wander there, but they pass right by me, their eyes pinned on stone, their senses unaware of that they can’t touch. Poor blind fools. I pity them. We were never like that. We knew how to live, really live.

“I am Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, Princess of Knossos, and my guilt and shame will not let me rest, even in death. For I did a terrible thing; I abandoned my family, betrayed my father and king, and slew my own brother, all for love of a man who used me and didn’t want me.

“We all did terrible things, believing ourselves omnipotent, like the Immortals. Now we have eternity in which to regret.”

******

I visited Knossos whilst I was in Crete recently. Knossos is said to be the ancient capital of Crete, home to legendary King Minos.

According to Greek myths, Minos was a fair and just ruler who received his learning from Zeus. He was the son of Zeus and a nymph named Europa. Zeus shape-shifted into the guise of a bull and abducted her, taking her to Crete, where three sons were born to them; Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. Later, Europa married the King of Crete, Asterios. He adopted her sons, and when he died, the oldest, Minos, inherited the throne.

Minos married Pasiphae, daughter of Helios and the nymph, Crete. They had four sons: Androgeus, Catreus, Deucalion and Glaucus, and four daughters: Ariadne, Phaedra, Xenodice, and Acalle.

One day, Minos decided to give thanks to the God Posiedon for his good fortune with an extravagant sacrifice. Posiedon sent him a magnificent white bull from the sea for this purpose, but it was so beautiful and noble, that Minos decided to keep it for himself. Furious, the God punished him by afflicting his wife, Parsiphae, with a mindless uncontrollable passion for the bull. Hmmm… sounds more like she was being unfairly punished for his misdemeanours to me.

She instructed Daedalus, a skilled craftsman, to build a wooden likeness of a cow, which she climbed inside. The bull mated with the wooden cow, and thus Parsiphae was impregnated. The resulting offspring was the Minotaur, a man with the head of a bull. Minus ordered Daedalus to build the Labyrinth and locked the monster inside.

In order to protect the identity of the Minotaur, and prevent anyone finding out the secret of the way out of the Labyrinth, Minos locked both Daedalus and his son, Icarus, inside the Labyrinth too. Later, they both escaped on wings made of wax and feathers, but Icarus flew too close to the sun. His wings melted and he fell into the sea and was drowned.

Meanwhile, Minos’s oldest son, Androgeus, went to Athens to take part in a sporting event. He won every game, much to the jealousy of the other competitors, who conspired together and murdered him. In revenge, Minos attacked and defeated Athens, and demanded tribute every nine years of seven young men and seven young women, which he sacrificed to the Minotaur by locking them in the Labyrinth to be eaten.

It was Theseus, Prince of Athens, aided by Ariadne, Minos’s own daughter, who later killed the Monotaur, thus ending the tribute. Furious beyond reason, Minos sought retribution by chasing Daedalus, who had taken refuge with the King of Sicily. Minos was killed by the King’s daughters, who poured boiling water on him as he was taking a bath. What a way to go!

The legends of Minos and his family are many, and I can’t tell them all here. Whether he really existed, or is just a figment of some ancient poet’s imagination cannot be known, but certainly the Minoan civilisation flourished during the Bronze Age, between 3300BC and 1000BC.

What amazes me is that people could emerge from the Neolithic (stone) Age, building such masterful and magnificent, sophisticated complex dwellings as the palace at Knossos. It had plumbing and flushing toilets, for goodness sake! Neolithic man was still building simple mud huts on stone foundations with clay floors, or living in caves, and only acquired the skill of metal working between 3800 and 3300BC. It kind of beggars belief, really.

Nowadays, the remains of the palace and city lie in the foothills, surrounded by shady scented pines which dance in the breeze. The site is vast, covering 6 acres, and the palace complex contained a theatre, 1300 rooms including royal apartments, extensive store rooms, and a plethora of workrooms for craftsmen.

It had three separate water management systems, one for supply, one for run-off (torrential rains) and one for removing waste water. It also had a ventilation system of porticoes and air vents. The walls were covered with colourful paintings called frescoes.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that the stone throne in the throne room was carved to fit the buttocks of a female, rather than a man! Also, there were many figurines of women found among the ruins, some holding snakes, suggesting priestesses of a snake cult. According to Wikipedia, ‘Minos’ is the Cretan word for ‘king’, and therefore it may just have been a title, rather than a name. It also suggests that royal succession in Crete passed from mother to daughter, her husband becoming the ‘minos’, or warrior-chieftain.

I would have to look into this; certainly the Greek versions of the stories bear no references to female power. As with the Romans, women were considered chattels and possessions, the keeper of domesticity and child-rearing. But it all reminds me of legends closer to home; the Irish tarb-fheis, or bull feast; the milk white cattle of the Danann; the cattle raid of Cooley, the many women of power in Irish myths, and the snakes that St Patrick was so keen to ban from Ireland.

There are also connections with the Sanskrit, which caught my attention. For example, the name of the main god listed on tablets found at the site, Asirai, is said to be the equivalent of Sanskrit Azura. The name mwi-nu (Minos) is thought to come from the Sanskrit muni,  meaning ‘ascetic’, with reference to the legend of Minos sometimes living in caves. It’s all speculation, but intriguing nonetheless.

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I hope you have enjoyed my little foray into Cretan mythology. Next week, we return to Irish soil, with a post about Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, the sea-god Manannán’s famous white horse, who pops up in many myths and legends of Ireland.

To my blogging friends, an apology; you won’t notice me around so much over the next few months, as I have several projects on the go at the minute which require more of my attention. That means no more writing challenges for a while, no matter how much I love them, fewer posts, and less of a presence on social media. I will try and keep up with your blogging as much as I can, but it might not be as much as before. Hope you all have a lovely summer!


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The Giant Irish Elk That Wasn’t

I am flying back home to Ireland today, hopefully bringing some gorgeous Cretan blue sky and sunshine with me to brighten my return. I’ll be  bringing you something new and just a bit different next week, but until then, here’s an oldie, but a goodie, one of my fave posts which I suspect not many of you have seen yet.


Why are all things ancient and Irish always so complicated? For the Giant Irish Elk turns out to be neither exclusively Irish, nor an elk. He was a species of Megaloceros,  and was the largest deer that ever walked this planet. He actually roamed across the plains and lowlands of Europe, Africa and Asia, but became known as the Irish Elk due to the large number of skeletons found in Irish bogs.

The average male stood about 2 metres tall at the shoulders (that’s nearly 7ft!), and his antlers would have extended up to 4 metres across (12ft), and weighed up to 40 kgs (88lbs)…that’s huge! His antlers were palm-like in structure, much like those of a fallow deer. It is quite likely that they would have been shed every year, just like those of the modern deer. Despite its great size, its skeleton suggests that it was built for long distance running, so it would have been able to outrun predators without tiring.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was always assumed that the Irish Elk became extinct during the last ice age, along with the woolly mammoth, however, new evidence has come to light in recent years that would indicate otherwise… for both species. Mammoth remains discovered on an island just off the Arctic Siberian coast during the 1990s were carbon dated to only 3600 years ago. Similarly, new analyses of elk bones and teeth lead experts to believe that the Irish Elk may also have survived beyond the last ice age up until 5000 BC.

This is where it gets interesting for me, because there are several references to the giant deer (known in Irish as Fiadh Mór, literally the ‘great deer’)  in Irish mythology, particularly around the stories of Fionn mac Cumhall. Fionn was reputed to have owned 500 Irish wolf hounds, his favourites being the magical pair, Bran and Sceolán. Wolf hounds were used in battle to pull enemy warriors from their horses and chariots. They were also used for hunting deer and boar, and were said to be more than capable of bringing down a giant deer.

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

In  a C12th manuscript called the Agallamh na Seanórach (the Colloquy of the Ancients, or Tales of the Elders), which tells many stories of Fionn and the Fianna, it mentions that Diarmuid killed a giant deer so large, that when he rested one of its antlers on his foot, it extended way above his head, even though he was exceptionally tall.

Despite this, no remains have been found in Ireland which date later than 11000 years ago, which means they probably died out long before Fionn and his men were hunting the hills of Ireland. I would like to stress, though, that just because they have not been found,  does not mean that they weren’t around; it simply means that it cannot be proved.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Undoubtedly, they would have been a popular source of food with early hunter gatherers, due to the large amount of meat found on just one animal. Cave paintings of the Irish Elk have been found in France, and across Europe, suggesting its importance to early man. It is probable that the size of its antlers restricted it to more open pastures, and would have made it easy for potential hunters to spot. It’s possible also, that this factor prevented it from escaping predators by taking cover in woodland, for risk of entanglement.

So just why did the great Irish Elk become extinct, if not because of the last ice age? It’s not really known for sure. Climate change would certainly have had an impact, as food became increasingly scarce, with more competition from other animals. The rapid advancement of mankind could also be blamed, not just in terms of hunting, but also the destruction of habitat due to farming and settlements. After all, it wouldn’t be for the first time, would it?


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Legends of the Burren Gleninagh Castle, Co Clare

Gleninagh comes from the Irish  Gleann Eidhneach, which means ‘valley of ivy’. The castle itself stands overlooking Galway Bay, in the shadow of the Black Head, called in Irish Ceann Boirne, which means ‘Burren Head’.

Gleninagh Castle viewed from the Black Head.
Gleninagh Castle viewed from the Black Head.

Gleninagh Castle was the stronghold of a powerful  local clan known as the O’Loughlins. They ruled much of North Co Clare well into the late C19th, and styled themselves as ‘the Princes of the Burren’. Continue reading

Summer Solstice 2016 | Infographic showing Irish Celtic Traditions

I can’t believe it is that time of year already… the summer solstice takes place between June 20th and June 22nd, depending on which hemisphere and what time zone you’re in.  From now on, the days start getting shorter, and the nights longer, although you won’t notice it for quite some time yet. But just knowing it always makes me feel a little sad. I never want summer to end. Although living in Ireland, it quite often never seems to even get started at all!

This beautiful infographic has been designed by John Cunningham of CelticCrossOnline, who very kindly allowed me to share it with you, and it will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the Summer Solstice. You may also want to check out his website; John designs the most exquisite jewellery in silver and gold based on Celtic Cross designs. You can find him at http://www.celticcrossonline.com/… please do take a moment to click through. Enjoy!

Infographic (c) John Cunningham.
Infographic (c) John Cunningham.

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Legends of the Burren | Corcomroe Abbey

We finished our hike through the Burren at Corcomroe Abbey. It was wonderful to get my boots off, then wander round this peaceful ancient monastic site located in such a lush green valley with the evening sun gleaming on the bald limestone tops of the hills we had descended from.

The Abbey takes its name from an ancient tribe whom once ruled the Burren, known as Corcamruadh, from the Irish Cor, a ‘district’, Cam, a ‘quarrel’, and Ruaidh, meaning ‘red’. They sound pleasant, don’t they? Not.

The Red Book of Kilkenny states that in 1194, Domhnall Mór O’Brien, King of Munster and great-great-great grandson of Brian Boru, founded the monastery for Cistercian monks, and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary. Continue reading