Boann strides up the path, face composed with fierce determination, her little dog Dabilla trotting faithfully at her heels. The way is winding and covert, meant not for the feet of the uninitiated, but Boann has learned its secrets; thus she feels she has earned the right to visit this most sacred of places, the Tobar Segais, also known as the Well of Wisdom.
The pool is silent and dark, reflecting neither sky nor earth, an upwelling of water from the deepest reaches of the Otherworld, bringing with it all the arcane knowledge and mysteries contained therein. Around it stand the Nine Ancient Hazels of Knowledge. Boann catches her breath in awe as she gazes at them, for their branches are laden with blossom, fruit and leaf all at once.
As she watches, nuts fall into the shaded water with a hushed splash, and the five spotted salmon which reside there rise up gently to eat them. Dabilla rushes to the water’s edge and snaps at the benign creatures excitedly, but they just flip their tails at her and sink back down to safety.
Boann’s heart is pounding; should she catch a salmon, and eat of its flesh to gain the knowledge she seeks? It feels like sacrilege, and besides would take time she might not have, for every moment she delays, she risks capture. Perhaps she should just eat the nuts, but how many would she need in order to gain enlightenment?
The fear of discovery, her long search for knowledge, and the proximity to her heart’s desire stir up a heady concoction of exhilaration and turmoil in her blood, which causes her to throw caution to the wind. She begins her circuit of the lake, chanting as she goes, but her perambulations take her widdershins rather than deasal-wise.
Perhaps this is her undoing, or perhaps her presence uninvited violates this holy place. Perhaps she is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case, the waters begin to rise and stir. Wavelets grow into watery mountains which slop at the banks which contain them, chafing at their restraints like caged beasts.
Boann falters in her enchantment, gripped with sudden fear. Even as she turns to run, she knows in her heart escape is futile; she risked the wrath of the Gods, now she must pay. The roaring water towers above her, streaked with white foam and fury. It runs much faster than she; it sweeps her up as if she were no more than a feather, devouring everything in its path as it cascades down the hillside toward the call of the stormy grey ocean. Little Dabilla is tossed from wave to wave, like a sliotar between hurlers.
They say retribution was cruel; Boann lost an eye, an arm and a leg, her faithful pet, some even say her life in the lakeburst which carried her out to sea. And thus the River Boyne was formed and named after her, so that the tragic Goddess lives on forever in the landscape, and in the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland, gone but never forgotten.
One of the things I love about where I live is that on a clear night, the stars are intense. We are far enough away from collective civilisation that we have no light pollution. The stars really do look like glittering diamonds lit up and scattered across a black velvet curtain. It takes my breath away. How often do we raise our eyes and look?
Our ancestors did. There are many references to the stars in Irish mythology, and they left much evidence behind in their stone monuments which indicate their abiding fascination with the sky and the celestial bodies found in it.
The most well known is perhaps that of the Goddess Boann and the complex of monuments known as Newgrange, or Brúgh na Boínne in Irish, which is popularly translated as ‘the bend in the Boyne’. Some believe it means ‘home of Boann’, or even ‘womb of Boann’, and for obvious reasons; the dark chamber of the mound can be seen as womb-like, but what mysterious wonders did it give birth to?
Boann was a woman of the Tuatha de Danann people, Goddess of the River Boyne, and her story is told in the Lebor Gebala Erenn, and the Dindshenchas. She was the daughter of Delbáeth, and granddaughter of Elatha. Her husbands are variously given as Nechtan, Elcmar and Nuada, although not all at once, and I suspect some of this may be attributed to the ‘Chinese whisper’ effect of thousands of years of the oral tradition of lore keeping, and later scribe confusion or mistranslation.
Her name derives from the Old Irish Bó Find, meaning ‘white cow’. In Ptolemy’s book, Geographia, written during his life c. AD100-170, the River Boyne is referred to as Bubindas, from the proto-Celtic Bou-vinda, also meaning ‘white cow’.
Interestingly, the galaxy we know as the Milky Way was known in Irish mythology as Bealach an Bó Finne, which means ‘the way of the white cow’, and its shape in the sky was thought to be mirrored on earth by the route of the River Boyne.
Dowth, one of the monuments of the Newgrange complex is said to be where Boann’s body was laid to rest. Originally known as Dubad, meaning ‘darkness’, it won its name when King Bresal commanded all the men of Ireland to build him a tower tall enough to reach the sky. A disease had afflicted all of Ireland’s cattle leaving only seven cows alive. It seemed that Bresal was looking to the sky to find an answer for this serious problem.
His sister, who was a druid, secretly stopped the sun in the sky so that the tower could be built in a single day. As the men continued working, they became exhausted. However, the spell was broken when Bresal and his sister committed incest, (Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of an odd one!). Night immediately fell, and the men abandoned their work, claiming the mound would be known forever more as ‘Darkness’.
Dowth has several decorated kerbstones, one of which displays what appears to be seven rayed suns or stars, six of them enclosed within circles. It is thought that Dowth could therefore be linked with the constellation of Taurus, which contains a group of stars called Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. These seven suns/ sisters are thought to represent Bresal’s seven surviving cows.
My favourite story is of the Lightning God, Lugh, and his grandfather, Balor, giant-king of the Fomori. Lugh defeats his grandfather in battle by killing him with a spear through the eye. Some say this story is a version of the David and Goliath story.
In any case, it is represented in the stars: Lugh is the constellation Bootes, his sling (or spear) is the Corona Borealis, and Balor is the constellation of Orion. It is suggested that this story is of Sanskrit origin, dating to about 3500BC, and is supported by scenes found on the Gundestrop Cauldron.
Lugh is also associated with the constellation of Perseus, with which Pegasus, the white winged horse is also linked. In Ireland, he is known as Aonbharr, and belonged to Manannán, God of the sea, who was said to have fostered Lugh, and loaned him Aonbharr and various other magical possessions on occasion.
In Celtic myth, Orion the Hunter was known as the Horned God, Cernunnos (possibly called Uindos in Irish); the Irish called this constellation Caomai, meaning ‘the armed king’. Cernunnos appears on the Gundestrop cauldron seated in a decidedly lotus-like position.
I see Orion and the Big Dipper most regularly over my house on a clear night. To be honest, my eyes just aren’t good enough to recognise any others. The Big Dipper forms just a part of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear. The two stars which form the outer edge of the Big Dipper’s bowl point towards the Pole Star, also known as the North Star, and Polaris. In Irish, it is known as an Mól Thuaidh, but I prefer its other rather more poetic name, An Gaelin, ‘beam that lights the way home’.
Danu, also known as Anu/ Aine, is thought to be the mother Goddess of the Danann and as such appears in the night sky as Llys Don, meaning ‘the court of Don’. This constellation is more well known as the W-shaped Casseopeia.
Not much is known about Danu. No stories of her seem to have survived, which is very strange, considering the role ascribed to her. It’s nice to think though, that even if mankind can erase her memory, she still lives on in our stars.
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