guardian of Irish mythology
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Introducing Sarah Brentyn, author of fantabulous flash fiction, deep thoughts and darkness, a brilliant blogger, and also a fine friend.
This is Sarah’s new book… great cover, isn’t it? And here’s a taster of what it’s all about:
Delve into the deeper reaches of the human condition and the darkness that lives there.
A girl haunted by her sister’s drowning. A boy desperate for his father’s affection. A woman forced to make a devastating decision. A man trapped by his obsessions.
Experience tales of love, loss, murder, and madness through this collection of flash and micro fiction.
Take a peek behind the smile of a stranger. Get a glimpse inside the heart of a friend. Scratch the surface and discover what is hidden beneath.
These stories will open your mind, tug at your thoughts, and allow you to explore the possibility that, even in the brightest moments, something is Hinting at Shadows.
Official trailer for Hinting at Shadows:
— Sarah Brentyn (@SarahBrentyn) November 17, 2016
She never had a home.
Not as an infant, left in soiled diapers. Or as a child, drawing pictures on the dusty floor of her closet.
Not even when they took her to a real house with her own bedroom, a kitchen that had food in it, and two grown-ups who tucked her in at night.
She was broken. Filled with so much shame she felt stuffed. Like a guilty scarecrow with clean clothes.
She was broken.
Filled with so much shame she felt stuffed. Like a guilty scarecrow with clean clothes.
Maybe they rescued the wrong girl. Maybe if they had gotten her out when she was younger. Maybe then, she’d feel at home here.
She stared at the empty album wondering again what kind of flower decorated the cover before her mind tried to find the word for the color then thought about the emptiness again.
Round and round like the seasons. In and out and back again.
Peach. It was peach, that hue. Pink. And the flower, a rose. Or carnation. Daisy. The emptiness. Pink. Flowers. Like spring. With things that are alive trying to sprout from things that look dead.
The album was closed but she knew they took the fading photos—black and white memories she was starting to lose.
I just did something unforgivable.
Shakespeare says, “What’s done cannot be undone.”
I know the pain of this truth.
I have felt the words “blind rage”. I don’t remember all of what I did in my fury.
No one talks about the confusion that follows, when you’re in a heap on the floor wondering what happened. Or the regret that scoops you out like a cantaloupe.
I am hollow.
How fortunate I am that regret has a serrated spoon. As an empty husk, there’s a chance I can live.
With the fragmented memories of this thing that I did.
Somewhere along the way, she lost the ability to hear her own words.
She watched from afar as tiny fissures formed each day—slowly shattering her mind.
When she spoke, it sounded as if a nest of hornets had been disturbed. A hollow, distant, buzzing noise that made her head feel full of cotton.
But he heard her clearly.
He loved her and she didn’t understand it. Not the love or the words.
Her thoughts were lucid, though. She watched from afar as tiny fissures formed each day—slowly shattering her mind.
She needed him to see that this life was crushing her but, though he listened with undiluted love, he was blind.
I wrote my first story when I was nine years old and never looked back. My work has appeared both online and in print in lit mags, newsletters, websites, newspapers, and anthologies. I have a master’s degree in writing and have taught all ages from Kindergarteners to adults.
When other girls dreamt of being a ballerina, I dreamt of scribbling my thoughts in a notebook and turning them into a book. I bleed ink.
You can find Sarah here:
It’s so hard finding a really good book these days, so when I find one which stands out from the rest, I just have to share it with you. So here it is, ‘Hinting at Shadows’ by Sarah Brentyn… your next great read!
Flash Fiction is like Marmite – you either love it, or you don’t. But that’s because it’s still a new genre, and the majority of the reading public are either unaware, or suspicious of it. I mean, really, how can you tell a complete story in just one or two hundred words?
The answer is… you can’t. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s a snapshot. A crystallized moment in time. Flash Fiction distills a story down to it’s most vital essence. The rest is told – hinted at – by implication. And as a reader, you are invited not just to passively read, but to read actively; Flash Fiction fires your imagination. So if you are one of those people who likes a linear tale told from beginning to end with a definitive character arc and every detail spelled out for you, well then Flash is probably not for you.
Flash does for the short story what haiku does for poetry; in a format in which every word counts, the Flash Fiction author will slash and slice ruthlessly until all that remains are the bare, beautiful bones, clinging together by the merest whisper of a thread. Only then is their true splendour revealed.
Bits of my life flutter in and out of my head and these memories lose their meaning.
– Dreams and Debris
That’s what Sarah Brentyn does. Good Flash is notoriously difficult to write, not that you’d know it from reading Hinting at Shadows, Sarah’s latest book. She makes it look deceptively easy. But the tales her words tell are anything but easy.
I was entranced right from the very first story: Emily. I had been warned that these stories make you stop and think, go back, and read them again, and it’s true… I had to go back and read Emily several times. Perhaps it touched a nerve. It reminded me of my relationship with my own daughter, at once a beautiful and happy and sad thing.
I turned the page to the next story: Regret, which ‘scoops you out like a cantaloupe’… who hasn’t felt like that at some point? Most of us are no strangers to regret.
And so on through the book. These stories may be short, but they explode in your brain like tasty little book-bombs, full of deeper meaning and intensity. They’re not for the faint-hearted. They will lead you into the shadows of human nature, and that’s an uncomfortable place many prefer not to tread.
I can see both lover and monster. This makes me wonder if the evening sunset shows him my face unmasked. The terror that hides beneath my compliance.
I loved this book. In some ways it was challenging to read, because I identified with so many of the stories. But it was also beautifully and richly crafted. Brentyn has a skill with the written word that just leaves you breathless and wishing you could write like that. Even the introduction is a work of art.
I also think she can see into people’s souls. How else can she lay so much of the reader open in the pages of her book?
Buy the book. Fall for flash fiction. Dig deep into the darkness.
A man borne of a virgin was destined for great things.
The virgin birth is not just a Christian ‘thing’… weird and wacky birth stories exist in ancient cultures from all around the world.
Forty five human virgin births were reported in the US in recent years.
Buddha, for example, entered his mother’s womb in the shape of a white elephant; Athena was born from Zeus’s forehead, Dionysus from his thigh; Vishnu descended from heaven into the womb of a mortal woman and was born as Krishna; the prophet Muhammad was born of a mortal woman but had no father; Coatlicue was unknowingly impregnated by a bunch of feathers which she found and stowed in her clothing, later giving birth to Aztec god Huitzilopochtli; in Japan, Momotarō was found inside a giant peach floating down a river, and so on.
Despite all these marvelous miracles, however, the pregnancy of a chaste and virginal woman is the most enduring and beloved tale of all. And unsurprisingly, the immaculate conception almost always results in the birth of a spectacular male child who goes on to achieve great deeds as an adult.
Usually, these offspring were fathered on a mortal woman by a God or divine being: Jesus born of Mary; in Chinese myth Jiang Yuan was impregnated by the God Shangdi and gave birth to Houji, a god of agriculture; according to the myths of Egypt, Isis was impregnated with Horus by a golden phallus she made for her dead, dismembered husband, Osiris.
Such stories may seem ridiculous to us now, but it’s worth pointing out that our ancient ancestors were by no means stupid; they certainly understood very well how reproduction worked. So why were these strange stories accepted and promoted throughout the ages as truth? They couldn’t possibly really have happened… could they?
I’m not joking… you can read the study here. Out of a sample group of 7870 young women who were followed for fourteen years, over 5000 became pregnant during the study period, and 45 of those claimed they were still virgins. Interestingly, more of these virgin mothers had previously made pledges of chastity than had non-virgin mothers. Perhaps they just didn’t want to admit they had broken their pledge.
According to this article, three quarters of Americans believe literally in the Mary and Jesus virgin birth story exactly as it is told in the bible. Anything is possible, as I am fond of saying, but then I also like to say ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ which translates here as ‘no pregnancy without nooky’.
Yes they do, but not usually in humans. It’s called parthenogenesis, from the Greek parthenos, meaning ‘virgin’, and genesis, meaning ‘creation/ birth’. It refers to the growth of an embryo from an unfertilised egg cell, in other words, a female can give birth to young without being impregnated by a male.
Species known to reproduce this way are certain types of insects, including some bees and wasps; also some types of fish, such as hammerhead sharks, amphibians, reptiles and even birds.
However, reproduction by parthenogenesis in mammals does not occur naturally, although the process is used in the lab to reproduce human stem cells. If you’re interested, you can find out more about the science of parthenogenesis here.
Hold your horses, I’m just getting to that! Irish mythology is full of sex, but it also has its fair share of virgin births. The two most famous, of course, are those of Étain, and Cuchulainn, so let’s look at those first.
Cuchulainn was the champion of Ulster, and most famous for his almost single-handed defence of the province against Medb, Queen of Connacht in the tale of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The tale of his conception and birth is a curious one. Dechtire, his mother, was half sister of King Conchobar mac Nessa, was married to an Ulster chieftain named Sualtam.
One night, a mayfly landed in her cup of wine, and she swallowed it without realising. She fell into a deep sleep during which Lugh Lamfhada, God of Lightning, visited her, and claimed that he was that mayfly and had impregnated her. He then transformed her along with fifty of her serving women into a flock of birds and flew them to Bru na Boinne (Newgrange).
She gave birth to a son there, and named him Setanta. The men of Ulster then came for her and escorted her home. Setanta grew up to become the hero, Cuchulainn. Without a doubt, he was a spectacular and precocious child, with battle skills and prowess to match that of any adult warrior. Although he died very young – some stories say seventeen, some say thirty years of age – he achieved fame and admiration which is still told of today.
In any case, as the child of an Irish deity and a mortal mother, he was clearly of semi-divine heritage, what the ancient Greeks called a demi-god, and destined for great things.
Of all the stories I am going to tell you, this one is the most unusual and stands out for me the most, because Étain is the only female virgin birth I have come across so far in Irish mythology.
When Midir of the Tuatha de Danann fell in love with Étain, his jealous first wife, Fumnach, transformed her into a butterfly. After many adventures, Étain fell into a cup of wine in the hand of the wife of Étar, an Ulster chieftain. Unaware, the woman drank the wine and swallowed the butterfly. She then became pregnant, and Étain was reborn, one thousand and twelve years after her first birth.
However, she had no recollection of her previous existence, and much of the story is concerned with how Midir wins her back from her mortal husband through typical manly pursuits such as challenges and gambling.
That said, it is actually a very beautiful and moving story. You can read my impressions of it here.
What is interesting here is not the presence of a divine being as father – there isn’t one – but the swallowing of some other living creature which penetrates the mother’s womb and impregnates her. Possibly remnants of a pagan belief in reincarnation, shape-shifting, and ancestor worship perhaps.
I know. You think I’ve lost the plot just a teensy bit by now, don’t you? Admit it. I can hardly blame you… reading and studying this stuff day in and day out (how lucky am I?) does send you go a bit loopy after a while.
This is the story of warrior and hero Conall Cernach. His mother, Findchoem, and father, Amairgin mac Echit, had a childless marriage until advised by a Druid to visit a certain holy well. Findchoem bathed in the waters, and drank from them, but unbeknown to her, she swallowed a worm lurking in the precious fluid. It entered her womb and impregnated her with Conall.
Naturally, he went on to become a mighty Ulster hero. Sadly, though, he suffered from leprosy in his later years, and went to Medb of Connacht, his enemy, for treatment. Whilst there, he agreed to Medb’s request to kill her husband, Aillil, for having an affair. This satisfied his desire for revenge, for Aillil had killed his friend Fergus mac Róich, a much admired Ulster warrior.
He in return, was killed for his crime by the men of Connacht, at the ford of Ballyconell in Co. Cavan.
Nessa was the daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, king of Ulster, and was married to Cathbad, a druid and warrior. One day, she asked Cathbad what the day was good for, and he answered, “Conceiving a king.” So they did. But not in the normal messy way, oh no! She also swallowed worms in a drink of water, and thus she conceived.
Nessa gave birth on the banks of the River Conchobar as she traveled with her husband to visit friends. Cathbad told her to hold on till the following day so that her son would be born on the birthday of Jesus Christ… I’m detecting a bit of Christian interference here… oh, you too? 😁
For God’s sake, Nessa, just cross your legs and hold him in till tomorrow, can’t you?
So Nessa dutifully sat on a flat stone as she was bid and held in all night the child which was ripping her apart to get out. Maybe she crossed her legs, or something. The next morning, she popped out a son she named Conchobar, after the river he was born beside. Which he fell into as he was born, apparently. Or maybe the power of water birth was well known to our ancient female ancestors.
Bear in mind that this is the same Nessa who prior to her pregnancy, single-handedly as a woman raised a war-band of 27 warriors and took off after her father’s murderers with them, intent on revenge and killing. What a creature of contrast she is!
Of course Conchobar goes on to be the famous King of Ulster around whom the tales of the Ulster Cycle revolve.
Beware, ladies, you don’t even need to swallow a worm to get pregnant. Just the holy water on its own is powerful enough. And how! King Diarmuid had a wife who was barren… yes, of course the problem was hers, its never his, right? She, poor thing, was not even worthy of recording her name… maybe she never had one.
Anyway, one day Wife of Diarmuid (as we will call her) was given a drink of holy water by St. Finnian, and lo! Her belly was filled with life! She gave birth to… wait for it… a lamb! Naturally, Diarmuid was somewhat disappointed with this… he had been hoping for a son and heir, not a tasty dinner.
So St Finnian gave Wife of Diarmuid another drink of holy water, but this time she birthed a trout, although other versions say it was a salmon. Regardless, it definitely wasn’t the desired boy-child.
Never mind, third time lucky, said St Finnian, who by this time must have been doubting his ability to perform miracles, or else God was having a laugh at his expense. Wife of Diarmuid drank a third draught of wretched holy water, and this time she really did pop out the much anticipated son and heir.
He was named Aed Slaine, and what do you know, but he grew up to become High King of Ireland in 594 AD, and founded a dynasty of great kings. Wonder what became of his older siblings, Lamb and Trout…
Manannán mac Lir, the Sea-God, was well known for being a bit of a prankster, and causing mischief and mayhem when the mood took him. Although he didn’t normally approve of meddling in the affairs of mankind, when it came to sex with beautiful mortal women, it seems he was willing to let his self-imposed rules slide a little.
In any case, he fancied Cáintigern, the wife of seventh century king Fiachnae mac Báetáin. Fiachnae was away on a military campaign against the Saxons which wasn’t going so well, and Manannán persuaded Cáintigern to sleep with him by promising to lend aid to her husband on the battlefield.
The Sea-God kept his word, and thus saved Fiachnae’s life, however Cáintigern got a bit more than she bargained for: she ended up with a bellyful following her liaison with Manannán, and nine months later gave birth to a son she named Mongan.
The child went to live with his divine father in the Otherworld until he was sixteen years old, where he learned magic and the art of shape-shifting. During this time, Fiachnae was killed by Fiachnae mac Demmáin… yes, I know, they share a name, but trust me, this is another Fiachnae who was only King of Ulster for one year from 626-627. However, the Ulstermen demanded that Mongan return to be their leader, which he did. He married Fiachanae’s daughter, then later kills his father-in-law to avenge his mortal father’s murder. Confused?
There are two interesting things about this story; one is that these characters feature in the Irish annals, although nothing is recorded about Mongan save his death in 625 AD. The annals, however, conflict with this story by recording both Fiachnae’s deaths after Mongan’s.
The other interesting fact is that Mongan is said to be a reincarnation of legendary Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhall. He thus was indeed a most intriguing and spectacular character, but in the end, he was killed by a thrown stone.
Well, it’s central to the representation of important and powerful men. These men possess qualities which place them above other men. They are not the same as ordinary men. Therefore, they can not originate from the same humble beginnings.
Powerful and important men could not originate from the same humble, messy beginnings as ordinary men.
In Ireland, though, the stories are… ahem… a bit more realistic. No matter how special, these men were born of mortal women; they didn’t spring fully formed from the innards of a giant peach, no matter how womb-like it may appear.
The uterus and the birth canal it is, then. The stories may not even have recorded the mother’s name, as she formed only the vessel. Her importance, once birth had taken place, was over. But she had to be seen as pure and untainted in order to be a worthy enough vessel to carry such an exalted personage.
NB> Here is an original thought you might like, suggested by Jane Dougherty: Not having a father is a huge help. There’s no one to be measured up to, no brothers to dispute your claim, no history except your mother’s, (and that is pretty secondary). You start with no baggage, nobody could point the finger at ancestors who might have been not up to snuff, just your own talents.
And in medieval Christian times, sex was seen as a huge evil, usually instigated by women. The Church was obsessed with sex, or at least with abstinence, and the holiness of resisting. I’ve just spent the last semester studying the Law Tracts and Penitentials of Early Medieval Ireland and Wales, and to go into that much detail over sexual offences definitely constitutes some kind of unhealthy obsession!
So the mothers of these exalted men conceived by swallowing other living creatures, or by drinking holy water, or were forced/ manipulated/ misled by Gods, who of course must be submitted to.
Virgin mothers were an enigma, creatures of paradox who set a standard impossible for ordinary women to aspire to.
It should be remembered that in those days, the application of the word ‘virgin’ is different to how we understand it today. A woman could have had several husbands, lots of sex, borne many children, then become a nun and abstain from sex, and still be referred to as a virgin.
These virgin mothers are something of an enigma, creatures of paradox: both virginal, yet bearers of children; unspoiled by sex, yet still mothers; pure, yet submissive wives. They set a standard for ordinary women which was impossible to achieve. They always give birth to exceptional men, never women, who are powerless and valueless like themselves.
Yet there are exceptions: the wife of Étar gives birth to Étain, a woman, after swallowing Étain in her form as a butterfly. Étain does nothing special, like the men of such births do, but goes on to give birth to a daughter, who in turn also gives birth to a daughter, who gives birth the High King Conaire Mór.
In this case, his mother conceives him when a strange man flies into her room through the window in the guise of a bird. According to ‘the rules’ of all the other virgin birth stories, there is no purpose to the virgin birth of Étain, unless that part of the story was abandoned, and lost… perhaps because it showed a woman in a position of power and strength. Étain is extraordinarily weak and subservient in the story as it now exists.
Similarly, I can’t help but wonder at this portrayal of violent and bloodthirsty Nessa, who raised and led a warband to avenge her father’s murder. Here, she is relegated to little more than a sacred virginal vessel for the birth of Conchobar; she meekly obeys her husband’s outrageous and impossible command to delay a birth that had already begun, simply so that the child would be born on a more auspicious date… a woman like Nessa in the pangs of labour was more likely to tell him to f*** right off! 😁 Or worse, if there was a weapon handy.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of virgin births, this article is an excellent place to start.
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Who was the Cailleach Bheara? She appears as a mysterious and shadowy figure hovering around the edges of Irish folklore and myth, yet very little is known about her.
The word cailleach has come to mean ‘hag’, or ‘crone’, yet in Old Gaelic it actually means ‘veiled one’. This conjures up images of early Medieval Christian nuns, yet it is possible that the word has more ancient origins and could refer to the wise-women or female Druids of pre-Christian and maybe even pre-Celtic times.
The legend of the cailleach can be found not only in Ireland, but in Scotland and the Isle of Man, too. She is associated with Winter, and the creation of the landscape.
In Scotland, it is said that if St Brigid’s day (1st February) dawns clear and bright, it is because the Cailleach is out collecting firewood to keep herself warm through a long, cold and stormy winter to come. But if the day dawns wet and wintry, the Cailleach is still sleeping, and therefore the winter will be a short one. Sound familiar? US friends may see something of Groundhog Day in this myth.
In Ireland, the cailleach lends her name to many features of the landscape. For example, Loughcrew is known in Irish as Sliabh na Caillí, meaning ‘the Hag’s Mountain’. It is said that the cairns were formed as the cailleach leaped between the three hill-tops, carrying rocks in her apron. When she stumbled and fell to her death, the rocks tumbled out creating the ancient ruined structures which cluster upon the three hills as we know them today.
She is also commemorated in the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, where one cliff is named ‘the Hag’s Head’ (Ceann Caillí in Irish); ‘the Hag’s Cliff’ (Aill na Caillí) in Co Galway; the Calliagh Birra’s House, which is another cairn on Slieve-Gullion in Armagh; the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb in Co Cork, known as Leabhadh Chailligh, meaning ‘the Hag’s Bed’, and which is said to be her burial place (although she is also said to be buried at Loughcrew).
These are just a few examples; if you google her, you may find more. It is amazing that, for a character so elusive, her presence is so prevalent in the naming of the landscape.
But who was she? A Goddess, a Queen, a witch? And why is she associated with so many passage tombs and cliffs?
Well, as Goddess of the dark half of the year, she can be seen as the opposite twin to Brigid; perhaps they are even opposite aspects of the same deity. However, as most Irish goddesses are said to have a triple aspect – maiden/ mother/ crone (Brigid’s triple aspect is related to her skills, not her femininity) this idea does not quite seem to fit. I guess there will always be exceptions.
Female deities are popularly associated with fertility, or sovereignty, yet the cailleach, as an old hag, is associated with the dark and decay of winter. From the darkness of the womb, the light of life is born, and the dark, silent inner chamber of the cairn can be likened to the womb; in fact, sometimes these burial mounds are actually referred to as ‘womb tombs’.
Perhaps the dead were carried into these tombs to the cailleach to allow their bodies to decay while their souls were reborn. However, ashes found in many of these cairns suggest that the dead were usually cremated prior to interment.
To me, it would seem more fitting if the womb tombs were associated with the bountiful maiden of spring, of growth and regeneration and rebirth, rather than the barren old hag of decay and cold, dead winter. And yet they are not.
It is interesting that, consistent with the notion of womb tombs, some designs carved into the orthostats of some of these cairns have been interpreted as female symbolism. The elliptical carvings at Loughcrew, for example, have been described as vulvas, yet I have also heard others speak of these same symbols as boats.
Why would we have water symbolism at the top of a hill like Loughcrew? It is true that Goddesses in Ireland are often associated with rivers: Boan and the River Boyne; Sionan and the River Shannon, but there is no river at Loughcrew.
Personally, ever since I saw the complex patterns of cup marks in these stones, and then heard of the tiny little chalk balls originally found on the ground beside them, I thought the makers of the tombs were monitoring the stars. The elliptical carvings reinforce this, in my opinion, as they represent the elliptical orbit of comets around the sun. But I digress…
The cailleach of Loughcrew was named Garravogue (Garbhóg in Irish), which is also the name of a river in Sligo. Originally, this river was called An Sligeach, meaning ‘the place of many shells’, and is one of the oldest attested place-names in Ireland. The town which grew up along its banks in the thirteenth century was named after it, and later, also the county.
So, although we now have an association of the cailleach with a river, we know that Garravogue is a more recent naming of the river, and so cannot be associated with a pre-Christian Goddess.
Other names by which the cailleach has been known throughout history include Milucra in the Fionn mac Cumhall tale, ‘the Hunt of Slieve Cuilinn’; Biróg, in the tale of ‘the Glas Gaibhnenn’; Buí/ Bua(ch), who was also the wife of Lugh, and Digde, from the beautiful 8th century poem, ‘the Lament of the Old Woman’.
Was one woman known by all these diverse names in different regions of Ireland, or do they represent a collective of many different wise old women? A religious order, perhaps, be it Christian or pagan.
Some stories say that at the end of winter, the cailleach turns into a great grey rock beside the sea. Others, that if she reaches the sea in time and bathes in it, she will not be turned to stone. There is a great deal of language relating to the sea, and much sea imagery in the poem ‘The Lament of the Old Woman’, corroborating her role as a creator of the landscape.
But why the sea in particular, and why the hilltops and cliffs?
Yet the meeting of sea and land, or sky and land, is a liminal space, a dangerous place, a place where magic can happen. Beyond the sea, over the ninth wave lies the way to the Sacred Isles, Manannán’s Land, the Otherworld. Where else might a seasonal Goddess go, once she has relinquished her power to her opposing force?
Her association with cliffs then makes some sense.
‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’ is a very (long and) beautiful old poem. Here are a selection of my favourite verses, but you can read the full version here.
Ebb-tide has come to me as to the sea;
old age makes me yellow;
though I may grieve thereat,
it approaches its food joyfully.
I am Buí, the Old Woman of Beare;
I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed;
today it has befallen me, by reason of my mean estate,
that I could not have even a cast-off smock to wear.
When my arms are seen,
all bony and thin!
-the craft they used to practise was pleasant:
they used to be about glorious kings.
The maidens are joyful
when they reach May-day;
grief is more fitting for me:
I am not only miserable, but an old woman.
I have had my day with kings,
drinking mead and wine;
now I drink whey-and-water
among shriveled old hags.
I see on my cloak the stains of age;
my reason has begun to deceive me;
grey is the hair which grows through my skin;
the decay of an ancient tree is like this.
Some things, it seems, don’t alter with the passing of hundreds and thousands of years. As a woman who has just turned fifty, I can appreciate how women of a certain age lose their value in society, effectively becoming invisible.
So it is with the author of this poem. James Carney places this poem in the mid eighth century, and we know that in medieval Christian Ireland, women were not well thought of. Understatement of the year! A woman past childbearing age had no value whatsoever. The author is clearly lamenting the toll of age, not just on her body and beauty, but on her status and wealth also.
I love how her bony thin arms once clasped kings, and how pleasant this was to her. Not a singular king, mind you, but plural. Many. Clearly not a chaste Queen and demure Christian woman. Was she a courtesan, a prostitute, or simply a noblewoman who was free to take lovers as she pleased?
She fixates on her association with kings. She drank mead and wine with them. In other words, she carroused with them at a time when women were expected to be demure, chaste, and did not take part in male feasting rituals. In Celtic times, only those of highest elite status drank wine. One only has to look at the Celtic burials of Vix and Hochdorf to appreciate the importance of wine and mead drinking as evidenced by the spectacular huge vessels used for wine mixing, and the array of high quality vessels and tools required for its consumption. that she took part in such events indicates her power and status.
Clearly, she was desired by kings, and she makes no secret of her beauty, or of her sexual liaisons. But is beauty enough to explain why all these kings wanted her? I suspect not. Beautiful girls were as ten a penny then as now, I’m sure. There has to be more. Annoyingly, the secret is not revealed in the poem.
There seems to be no shame or stigma regarding her sexuality. In fact, her regret seems not so much to do with the promiscuity of her heady younger days, but with the lack of kingly consorts and the sexless void of old age. In any case, neither option fits with the era in which the poem was written, so could it perhaps have been based on something older?
Two striking features of the poem are the persistent metaphor of the tides of the sea with the inexorable advance of old age – I include only one verse showing this here – and the explicit declaration of her identity – Buí, the old woman of Beare.
We have already discussed the importance of the sea, but who was Buí (pronounced Bwee)?
Well, she was the wife of the God Lugh, and her burial mound is at Knowth; in Irish, it is known as Cnocba, meaning the ‘Hill (or burial mound) of Buí’.
She was the daughter of either Daire Donn, known as the King of the World, who led a great battle against Fionn mac Cumhaill in the C3rd, or of Donn of the Milesians, who later came to be known as Lord of the Dead.
She was said to have had an affair with Cermait Milbél (which means ‘honeymouth’), a son of the Dagda. Lugh was so furious that he challenged Cermait to a duel and killed him. Cermait’s three sons decided to avenge their father’s death, and killed Lugh in, or beside the lough named after him on the top of the Hill of Uisneach. A cairn was raised over his body there.
If this wasn’t tragic enough, Óengus Óg who was Cermait’s half-brother, discovered that Lugh’s poet, who is not named, had told Lugh a malicious lie; Buach and Cermait had not slept together, after all. He avenged the deaths of his brother and Lugh by killing the poet. What became of poor Buach is not known.
So, what does Buí’s story have in common with the old woman of Beare? Um… good question. Sex, affairs and infidelity, and kings for sure. Perhaps poor old Buí sought refuge in the nunnery in Cork where this poem is said to have been written.
Join me next time, when I’ll be discussing the women poets of Ireland.
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And it’s bigger and better than ever! We have a lovely venue for you, which is central and easy to get to, and this year, we have focused on bringing some REAL blogging experts to you, people you know and love, who will share the secrets of their success and expertise with you.
Plus… it’s going to be a whole heap of fun!
So, are you joining us at the Bloggers Bash? Have you got your ticket, booked your transport, and decided what to wear? If not, it’s still not too late to get yourself a ticket. You can do that here.
Curious about what we’ve got planned for you on the day? Here’s what we’ve got lined up…
Of course that’s not all that’ll be going on, oh no! There’ll be lots of hugs (mostly from Hugh), conversation, the beginning of new friendships, the renewal of existing ones, laughter, learning from each other, the sharing of blogging tips and experiences, more hugs, more laughter, perhaps a few tears, some eating and drinking, and maybe a few surprises along the way.
One thing is for sure, if previous Bloggers Bashes are anything to go by, you will leave the event with that warm fuzzy feeling that something special just happened, and you were a part of it.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the blogging world is only a virtual one, that online friends are not real, or genuine.
They are. They really, really are. And we’re all proof of it. ☺
You can find out more about how to get to the venue here.
Hey! Did you know there’s ONLY 2 DAYS LEFT to get your Bloggers Bash votes in? I know, time is flying! Make sure you’ve got your tickets if you’re planning on coming. Can’t wait to catch up with old friends from last year, and make some new ones! See you there…
I was very honoured some months ago to be asked by friend and fellow blogger, Sacha Black, to beta-read her new book, ‘13 Steps to Evil: How to Craft Superbad Villains’.
Well, I almost cried when I read it because I realised just how bad my villains are… and I don’t mean that in a super-bad good way, if you know what I mean!
Like most other authors, I had concentrated on my hero and was all loved-up with my brave, magical, flawed CK. The baddy, by comparison, now seems shallow and unconvincing.
How I wish this book had been available before I started to write my first book! Sigh. However, all is not lost… I have learned a lot, which I will be using in my future novels. And if you are a first -time author about to release your beautiful book-baby into the big bad world, go and grab yourself a copy of Sacha’s book quickly, and read it cover-to-cover (virtually, if its on Kindle) before you press that big ‘P’ button.
So, what’s it all about, and why’s it so special? Quite honestly, there isn’t a really good, comprehensive book on baddies out there. Until now.
Black takes us into territory I had never previously considered when it comes to creating literary villains, starting with the following statement:
‘The hero is not the most important character in your novel. Your VILLAIN is.’
Huh? Wait, what? That can’t be right! The hero is… well, the HERO… the whole story revolves around the hero, right? Wrong. Black is right, and forty thousand words later, you will have a clear understanding why.
We all love to hate villains. It’s their evil, dastardly plans that have us rooting for a story’s hero, not how good–looking and manly the hero is, or how beautiful and kick–ass the heroine is.
In her book ‘13 Steps to Evil’, the author shows us exactly how to manage this process, from creating villainous traits and motivations, to an in–depth analysis of the villain’s mental health, and how to make his villainy authentic and believable.
She also makes a couple of very useful side–trips along the way into clichés and tropes, creating conflict and climax, and how to write fear.
Through it all, there is a hefty sprinkling of examples of popular and lesser–known villains from the literary and movie worlds, as well as from history, to highlight her points. Add in Black’s unique mix of humour and metaphor, and we have a highly entertaining and informative read.
My favourite chapters were the ones on anti–heroes and antagonists, and personality traits.
Black writes from a background in Psychology and Cognitive Neuropsychology, so she knows her stuff. All writers should have this book in their arsenal of writing tools. It’s a future classic!