The Aisling | Not so Sweet Dreams in Irish Mythology

In Irish mythology, Óengus Óg of the Tuatha de Danann is most famous for his dream. Granted, this dream changed his life. In fact, it almost killed him. It also went on a long time, a whole year in fact.

In it, he was visited every night by a beautiful young woman who played the harp for him before disappearing. He fell so deeply in love with her, that he refused to eat or take part in the every day activities of normal living. He lived only for the night, and the arrival of his mysterious dream maiden. So the life in him, which had been strong and bright and vital, began to fade. He was dying.

Do you think it is possible for a dream to have such an effect? Perhaps you think you never dream. Well here are some facts.

The scientific study of dreams (yes, there is such an ‘ology’, which shows just how important dreaming is to the human psyche) is called Oneirology. The average person will have between 3 and 5 dreams a night. That includes you, who never dream. 95% of dreams will not be remembered. Dreams take place during the sleep stage known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement, not the band, although they do tend to have that effect… on me, at least). Brain activity is at its peak during this stage of sleep, at a similar level as when awake. Dreams are usually only remembered if one is woken up during REM.

Nowadays, we believe that dreams are just the manifestations of an over-active mind attempting to process the events and experiences of our waking moments. In ancient times, however, they were generally seen as something far more significant, such as a way of communicating with the Gods or the ancestors (who were, perhaps, one and the same). They were thought to be messages containing predictions, revelations, or advice.

The ancient Egyptians believed they could communicate with their Gods through dreams. They had special temples where they could lie in a dream bed, and wait for the gift of dreams in which their Gods would show themselves and impart wisdom concerning healing, advice, success in love, or warnings of danger.

Similarly, the Greeks also believed in dream incubation, but they took it a stage further. They were said to have carried out rituals of sacrifice and gift-giving in order to please their Gods, and abstained from sex, eating flesh, and drinking wine in order to purify themselves in readiness to receive their dreams.

The early Christians associated dreams with divine inspiration, in fact, the Bible recounts many occasions when God passed on messages and instructions via dreams. It was only in Medieval times that dreams began to be seen as the work of the devil.

Some cultures, such as the  Indians of Guiana,  believed that when one sleeps the soul leaves the body and returns when one wakes. Similarly, the ancient Chinese thought that during sleep, the soul left the body to wander the land of the dead.

But where does this leave Óengus? From what I can gather, he seemed to have been awake not asleep when the maiden came to him. Her name was Caer Ibormeith (means ‘yewberry’). She was the daughter of a Connacht Sidhe chieftain, and had set her sights on Óengus, sending him dreams of herself. How do you make someone dream about you? Were they in the same dream at the same time? Was it a vision rather than a dream?

For most people, a dream is something they observe, or are a part of, but which is out of their control. Some, however, report experiencing lucid dreaming. This occurs when the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming, and may even be able to control to some extent the events of their dream. I know this can happen, as I have experienced it myself.

In Óengus’s dream, Caer Ibormeith stood beside his bed. When he reached out for her, she disappeared. Where they sharing a lucid dreaming experience? He reached for her, she realised she was dreaming and woke herself up?

In Irish mythology, dreams were often used as a means of seeking knowledge. In fact some of the practices utilised to achieve this share similarities with shamanic dreaming.

Imbas Forosnai is an ancient Irish ritual for looking into the future and seeking information through dreams. Imbas means ‘inspiration’, in particular the sacred poetic inspiration of the ancient Filidh, and forosnai means ‘illuminating’ or ‘that which illuminates’. According to a text named Cormac’s Glossary, it involved the use of sensory deprivation and the consumption of specific substances in order to pass into a trance or dream-like state. (You can read more about it here.)

The Tarbfheis, or bull feast, was a ceremony used to select the next High King. It involved the sacrifice of a white bull, after which the Druid, or poet, would ‘chew the flesh and drink the broth’. I’m assuming the meat was cooked, since broth was a component of the ceremony, however, the Imbas Forosnai was said to require the chewing of ‘red flesh’ ie raw, so perhaps it was required of the Tarbfheis too. Following this meal, the poet was wrapped in the bull’s raw hide to dream. If his dream was unsuccessful in identifying the new King, he faced death.

According to the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, on this occasion, the poet dreamed the future King would arrive in Tara naked and surrounded by birds. Young Conaire Mór was out hunting birds, when the leader of the flock suddenly threw off his feathers and revealed himself as the King of Birds, and Conaire’s true father. He advised Conaire of the details of the new prophecy, whereupon the young man immediately removed his clothes and set off for Tara accompanied by the Bird King and his flock. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled.

The Aisling is a dream or vision  in which a poet meets a beautiful, magical woman, probably a woman of the Sidhe, symbolising spring, the bounty and beauty of nature, and love. During the troubles of the C17th and C18th, the Aisling developed into a patriotic poetic genre in Irish language poetry, in which the fairy woman became a Goddess representing Ireland’s sovereignty.

I also came across a reference to a rather curious practice of seeking knowledge which involved sleeping and dreaming beside the tomb of one’s ancestors. In the C6th, poet Senchán Torpéist gathered all his poets to see which one of them could recite the whole of the Táin Bó Cúailnge,  also known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, but none of them could. His son, Muirgen, was said to have gone to the grave of Fergus mac Róich (King of Ulster and Queen Medb’s ally and lover), where he fell asleep, and thus learned the true story in a dream from Fergus’s ghost.

I’m assuming this is a type of dream incubation, as practised by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In fact, Herodotus, a Greek historian from the C5th BC claimed that an Egyptian tribe called the Nasamonians practised divination in exactly this manner, by sleeping in the graves of their ancestors.

As with Óengus, though, in the old stories, dreams are most often associated with love. Fionnbheara, King of the Munster Sidhe (don’t let them hear you calling them ‘fairies’) was so enamoured of a mortal woman named Eithne, that he cast a spell which sent her into a deep sleep. In her dreams, she was able to visit him in the Otherworld.

Immram Bran mac Febail, also known as the ‘Voyage of Bran’, is an C8th tale in which Bran journeys to the Otherworld. He falls asleep after hearing fairy music, and in a dream he sees a beautiful woman of the Sidhe who tells him to seek her at the Isle of Women. He journeys across the sea for a long time, having many adventures before finally arriving at his destination, where he is reunited with the woman of his dreams.

This story bears many similarities with that of Óengus. Let me just tell you that, unusually for an Irish love myth, with regard to Óengus and Caer Ibormeith, all’s well that ends well, but if you’d like to read the whole beautiful story for yourself, you’ll have to get your hands on a copy of my new book, Conor Kelly’s Legends of Ireland.

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64 Comments on “The Aisling | Not so Sweet Dreams in Irish Mythology

  1. Pingback: The Ritual of the Crane Dance Curse in Irish Mythology | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. A fascinating piece, Ali 🙂 I wonder if the stories that come to us out of nowhere are dreams we’ve dreamt but forgotten? And I’ve enjoyed the comments too – I’ve experienced sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming, both of which were quite unnerving! I’ve also had some other intriguing dreams, as you know…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting that you say you’ve been able to control your dreams, Ali. I’ve not been able to do that but I have on many occasions had my eyes wide open and found that I have not been able to move or speak. However, I know that during some of those moments I have been able to make the top of the duvet cover, nearest my face, move up and down quite fast as if it is being blown by the wind (a bit like sheets when hanging outside on a clothesline, and it is windy). It’s quite frightening and does not last very long. As soon as I am able to move it stops. Of course I could be dreaming it but I know exactly where I am as my eyes are seeing the bedroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like the sleep paralysis Éilis was talking about in her comments, Hugh. It does sound very scary, but maybe because you can’t actually move. It’s almost as if your brain has woken up too quickly for your body to catch up with. I only had one dream where I was lucid dreaming, it was extremely scary, even though I knew I was dreaming; I told myself I was dreaming and I had to wake up, so I did. It was most extraordinary. I’d like to do it again, but not in such a frightening dream.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Was it hard to bring yourself out of the dream and to wake up when you knew you were dreaming? I always find I have great difficulty in trying to come out of the dream and wake up even though I have my eyes open and know I am dreaming.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No I actually woke up immediately, but Hugh, I had a good incentive. I actually thought I was going to die in my dream and that if I did not wake up, my actual physical body would die too. It was very weird. Its never happened to me since. So I’m probably not the best person to ask. Now of a normal morning, I have a terrible job waking up lol!!! 😁

          Liked by 1 person

  4. This dream of Óengus Óg is a beautiful treasure I just uncovered here with your post…I humbly admit I’ve never heard of him. But this dream, it is at times something I feel I’ve lived through at certain times in my life (those puppy love days). As for dreams, I love them…every morning I like to reflect on what I remember, although often like mist breaking up in the sunshine – I never can quite recall it all.

    What fascinates me in your post, is that very rarely do I dream of someone I do not know. But when it happens it is an Aisling, just as you describe: a dream or vision in which a I meet a beautiful woman, and there is some magic in meeting here. Now I know it is probably a woman of the Sidhe 🙂 Perhaps I will have to travel back to Ireland and resolve this little mystery of mine.

    Or, I suppose I could dive into your book “Conor Kelly’s Legends of Ireland” and resolve it tonight 🙂 Beautiful writing Ali, very much enjoyed the images and tangential thoughts I had while reading your prose. Wish you a great week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a beautiful dream! I wonder who she is? Do you still dream about her? My favourite dreams are the ones I didn’t even mention in this post, the inspirational ones. I love waking up in the night, or the following morning feeling instantly wide awake, with a fully formed poem in my head, that I just have to get up and write down instantly, before it fades. They don’t happen often, but when they do, they’re special, and make me feel happy. In fact, the last poem I wrote, Missing the Point, was given to me in just that way last week. Thanks for stopping by, love chatting to you Dalo, and have a great week yourself.


      • It is strange, I suppose I dream about her occasionally ~ but she never looks the same (if that makes sense), but definitely familiar 🙂 She does not come by too often, so I guess there is truth in ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and there is always some creative and interesting I grab at after having such dreams. I will have to check out ‘Missing the Point’ and wish you sweet dreams!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, she is your Muse, if she is bringing you creativity and inspiration. And by changing her appearance she is telling you not to take her for granted!


  5. Were you dissing REM? I nearly stopped reading at that. I may forgive that egregious slip of good taste because the post is fascinating. I see Sue has talked about the hallucinogenic properties of the berries so no point me mentioning that! Of most interest to me is the lucid dreaming. I’ve written how when i was working as a lawyer, at points of especial stress I’d wake early. What happens when I’m really stressed is, before that early waking, I have vivid dreams which I know are dreams, but they have me in a complete panic. There is what feels like a long period when I cannot stop myself dreaming by waking up but I suspect it is a very short. When I wake I recall exactly what the dream was about and the panic remains. If however I get myself upright it fades almost instantly. Quite exhausting and one reason why I’m delighted I’m no longer putting myself through it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you try to wake yourself up but can’t? Sounds like sleep paralysis. You’re mind is conscious but your body is literally paralyzed: that happens so you don’t thrash around and enact your dreams out while you sleep. Dogs don’t have this phenomenon which is why they bark and kick around while sleeping. 🙂 Anyway, what happens is that you can’t stop the dream, or wake up even if you yell at yourself to do just that. Usually it’s accompanied by a lot of fear. I get that a lot, particularly if I have low bloodsugar toward the end of the night. I usually have nightmares. Even after I knew what it was, it still hasn’t fail to scare me, it feels totally real. And yes, I still remember those dreams, even right now if I wanted to recall them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That about sums it up. I just knew it was a dream, I knew if only I could break the cycle it would be ok but I couldn’t, not immediately anyway. And I was in a panic, the disaster would happen and nothing I cold do would stop it. Interesting about blood sugar. These would follow long, often 16 hour plus days at work, sometimes all nighters when I ate erratically and badly. Maybe there was a link there.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Wow that does sound exhausting and stressful in itself! Lucid dreams mean that you know you are dreaming… sometimes that means you can interact in a deliberate way, but not always, and not everyone. Interesting that it fades away once you are up and about. And probably a good thing. 😊 Well, it was only a dream. Or was it…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad I no longer get them with the consistency of before, that’s for sure. I suppose they may be different to lucid dreams but they are- or were- intense

        Liked by 1 person

    • I lucid dream… Or I did as a teen anyway, ALL the time. I dream less often now (or perhaps remember them less) but when I do dream, they tend to be lucid, or if not then so intense so real, It is almost like the indians Ali mentioned – as if I have stepped out of my body to travel somewhere else. But lucid dreaming in itself is pretty cool – I know I am dreaming, and thats a comfort rather than something to be panicked about. It means I can take control of some things in my dream, I can make decisions, enjoy the ride. Not always mind, but usually!!

      Fascinating about the Egyptians Ali – obviously I loved that bit – interesting that they had dream chambers – I wonder what their practices and rituals were… I bet there is something in that. *rubs chin* hmmmm

      Liked by 2 people

      • Haha! Knew you’d like that little reference to the ancient Egyptians, Sacha! I think you have a great attitude to the lucid dreaming, yes it should be a comfort knowing that you are only dreaming. To be in control of your dream is a rare experience and a gift, so we should make the most of it if we get the chance. Of course, it depends on the circumstances of the dream, though… my lucid dream was so terrifying that I knew I had to wake myself up or something terrible was going to happen. I wouldn’t want to have that kind of dream again, although on the plus side, at least I was able to wake myself up and get the hell out of there before it was too late! LOL!


  6. Dream lore fascinates me. I think I must wake in REM a lot because I usually remember my dreams. I guess I’m not a very sound sleeper….probably why I’ve had lucid dreaming experiences several times.

    I love the way you did promo for your new book with this post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fascinating. I’ve often found resolutions to various issues in dreams. I remember them in pretty great detail. Did not know of the “ology”, but it makes sense to me. A great post. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! There’s probably an ‘ology’ for just about everything, just they’re not all accepted in the scientific world. This one is, surprisingly. You are lucky to remember all your dreams. I rarely do. I sleep like the dead! But a few really stand out, and I still remember them very clearly indeed, which is good going for me, as I have a particularly poor memory.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. So many great tales wrapped up in one, I have to saw that Sue is most likely on to something regarding the connection to the Yew and the effect of its properties. Many Tribal cultures including the Gaels are known for their use of certain natural substances to aid them in their endeavours.
    With modern day man using so little of our potential brain capacity, the limitations of what we can do are endless. Fasting, dehydration, phycological or physical trauma can all effect our brains and cause them to act in dfferent ways to their normalmundane everyday operation. I always find that a bad dose of the flu will affect my sleep and dream state.
    Lucid dreaming can be a wonderful experience, but itsrather hard todo at will for some reason. There seems to be alot more going on behind the scene regarding Óengus Óg and Caer Ibormeith. To me it sounds like both were involved in some form of astral projection, either knowingly or not? We all do it, and most dont even realise its happening. Did you ever wake up from a nap with a sudden jolt??? Thats your astral body jumping back into place after your concious mind realises your gone and gets a shock 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s interesting, Ed, because that happened to me twice the other day when I was AWAKE! So how do you explain that? I’m not sure if I like the idea of my soul leaving my body… what if it can’t get back? I wrote about that in my second Conor Kelly book… he left his body to do some exploring (only way when he can’t walk) and some other spirit jumped into his body and stole it! Of course Conor handled it far better than I would have done lol! I’m certain the Sidhe and the Danann would have been very skilled at such practices however.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think you have to worry, Ali. 🙂 I’ve astral projected several times as well, I have always been safe. It’s been described to me that there’s a cord between your body and your soul. You actually wrote about that, too, come to think of it, when Nemane was controlling Bran and Sceolan with the cords. Conor did something quite advanced beyond the usual kind of astral projection. If you ever wanted to do something like that, which is quite deliberate and wouldn’t happen spontaneously, creating a sacred space first with the intention that you will be protected and even that someone in the otherworld would keep a watch on you would prevent anyone from hijacking your body. 🙂 In most cases of astral projection, at least the kind I’ve done, part of your consciousness stays in your body while the rest goes elsewhere. You can verify if that’s true if you go back and think about the experience and find you have an awareness of where you were while you were projecting elsewhere in a kind of dual awareness. The cord always connects you to you, the exception to this is when you die. So you will find your way back and not get lost. So far I can only pull it off when there’s a real need, maybe one day I’ll have more forethought control, lol.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Awesome, glad I made sense! I’m not too great at it myself, perhaps because I very much prefer to inhabit my body. It’s kind of a nice thing to enjoy while being a physical person. Also I can interact with everyone I care about without having to leave and wander about to be with them. But occasionally I have felt that a physical friend is in trouble, in that case I’ll get into a meditation and journey to them, and see what I can do. In both those cases when it’s happened, I’ve then called up the friend to make sure she’s okay. And both times my friends said they knew they weren’t alone and when I described what I saw, it was completely accurate. That was particularly cool because I’d never been to the places where my friends were at the time. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps you had wandered off, it’s much harder too do but still possible. I don’t think of it as your soul, perhaps just one part of it, the fact that you jumped back like you did suggests a strong connection to the physical plain, so I would not worry about getting back. I still have to get my hands on book 2, I’ve heard about that happening before but not in Ireland, no doubt they were proficent in such practices

        Liked by 1 person

  9. That she was called ‘yewberry’ may be significant… the hallucinogenic properties of a tree seen as sacred means it would almost certainly have been used a s a theogen, so perhaps she was a ‘daughter of the yew

    Liked by 3 people

  10. That she was called ‘yewberry’ may be significant… the hallucinogenic properties of a tree seen as sacred means it would almost certainly have been used a s a theogen, so perhaps she was a ‘daughter of the yew’?

    Liked by 2 people

    • That could be true, Sue. I know that much of the yew is toxic, but perhaps in just the right quantity, it has hallucinogenic properties. Erm… not so sure I fancy giving it a try although… although I’d probably prefer it to the raw flesh of a dog, or any animal, actually! That’s enough to give me nightmares, never mind dreams lol!


  11. Another possible facet of the Stones… dream communication. A lot of people who spend time at the big sites i.e. Stonehenge and Avebury report an increase in dream activity or at least an increase in dreams vivid enough to be remembered. At the tomb of Fergus is a standing stone… known as an Ogham stone and also a ‘ghaist stane’ and in one version of the story the Chief Culdees of Erin were sent to the stone to spend time (nights) with it and to put to it questions in order to retrieve the Tain… Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Well Stuart, you were hiding that little light! I had no idea you knew so much about Irish mythology! That’s very interesting indeed! Ghaist stane… sounds Scottish lol! I didn’t know that all those places had the power to affect people’s dreams. Have you tried it?


      • Yes, the ‘ghaist stane’ is the scots name for such standing stones…
        An all night vigil at a stony place has been on the cards for a long time but alas, so far it hasn’t happened.

        Liked by 1 person

    • It was a bit cheeky! But when I write a new myth story I get heavily involved in it, and I’d been wanting to write about dreams for a while. The story of Óengus and Caer Ibormeith just seemed the perfect way to introduce it, and I couldn’t mention them without mentioning the book, now, could I???

      Liked by 1 person

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