In ancient Ireland, our ancestors found significance and meaning in everything, not just people and animals but in such things as the seasons, the wind, dreams, and so on. It’s hardly surprising, then, that certain numbers took on sacred meaning too.
Probably the first which comes to mind is the number 3; you don’t have to know much about Irish mythology to be aware of that. Think of the Triune Goddess, for example; many female Irish deities were represented in threes, the most famous being the Morrigan, Goddess of War and Strife, represented by the three sisters, Macha, Anann and Badb.
But today I’m going to tell you about the number 5. It crops up quite a lot in Irish mythology, yet it’s not quite as in your face as the number 3, so you may not have noticed it.
The Celtic Fivefold Symbol may be a good way of explaining the significance of this number. It consists of four interlocking circles with a fifth in the centre containing the points at which all four circles meet.
Please excuse the standard of the illustration; I made it myself, and it’s the first I have ever made that is not hand drawn, but I think it at least gives you some idea of what the symbol represents.
The first four circles represent those aspects of our world which come in fours and thus represent wholeness, and which exist outside of us, for example the elements fire-air-earth-water; the directions South-North-East-West; the seasons spring-summer-autumn-winter.
Here is where the symbol seems a little out of sync with Celtic thinking to me; circle no.1 starts with the rising sun in the east at spring. Well, the Celts, or at least the early Irish, believed that the new year began in the dark of midwinter just as the day began at sunset, not with the rising sun. Also, they believed life rose from the womb of the mother earth. It would make more sense to me then that the symbol should be skewed round by one circle, and no.4 be at the top. Just my thoughts, I am no expert on the matter.
So what was the 5th element which unified them all? It’s something esoteric and indefinable, something which exists within us and everywhere, a balanced uniform power which can be accessed by the human mind, which represents the centre of all, transition, transcendence, ascension, spirituality, balance, knowledge of all. I don’t even know if it has a name of its own, enlightenment perhaps, or the divine. Someone reading this will know, I’m sure.
So now we know why the number 5 was so auspicious. But here is another more practical application which demonstrates an alternative use of the number. We’re going back to the Ogham alphabet. You can read more in depth about Ogham in my post, Ogham The Secret Code of Our Ancestors.
Basically, though, the letters consist of a number of marks above, below or crossing a base line, like this…
The concept of numerology, or as Wikipedia puts it, ‘belief in the divine, mystical relationship between a number and one or more coinciding events’, has been around since ancient times. It is used repeatedly in the Bible, and also throughout Irish mythology.
In numerology terms, the true meaning of a word can be determined by assigning its letters a numerical value. With Ogham, as you can see from the image, each letter can easily be represented by a numerical value. No letter has more than 5 lines. And because Ogham is a set of letters representing sounds, it can be applied effectively to any language. Ogham really is the secret code of our ancestors.
So what? Well, it just demonstrates another mystical/ practical use of the number 5. According to Patricia Monaghan in The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, the ancient Celts counted in fives, and tens – the number of digits on both hands and feet – and multiples thereof. She states that…
‘although there is no written evidence of a numerological system whereby each number was given a specific mystical meaning, the repetition of certain numbers suggests such a belief. The iteration of numbers 3 and 5 in various mythological contexts is an especially strong indication that such numerology originally existed and has been lost.”
So without further ado, I would like to present to you my 5 favourite fives in Irish mythology, starting with…
The 5 Fifths of Ireland
Today there are four provinces, Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht, but in ancient times, there was also a fifth called Mide, which literally means ‘middle’. They no longer serve any political or administrative purpose, other than as cultural, historical, and sporting units.
These five provinces were known as cuig cuigidh na hEireann, the ‘five fifths of Ireland’. Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all combinations of the old Irish names with a Viking influence, the Old Norse word staor, meaning ‘land of’;
- Leinster, from Laighin and staor.
- Munster, from Mumhain and staor.
- Ulster, from Ulaidh and staor.
Connacht comes from Connachta, which was the name of a large tribe which ruled that province.
According to mythology, Ireland was split into five kingdoms by five brothers of the Fir Bolg tribe, who ruled before the invasion of the Tuatha de Danann. It was thought that the borders of all provinces met at the Ail na Mireann, the Stone of Divisions, which is located at the Hill of Uisneach, and was considered the very centre-point of the land. You can read more about the Hill of Uisneach in my post, Uisneach Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Festival.
“Connacht in the west is the kingdom of learning, the seat of the greatest and wisest druids and magicians; the men of Connacht are famed for their eloquence, their handsomeness and their ability to pronounce true judgement.
Ulster in the north is the seat of battle valour, of haughtiness, strife, boasting; the men of Ulster are the fiercest warriors of all Ireland, and the queens and goddesses of Ulster are associated with battle and death.
Leinster, the eastern kingdom, is the seat of prosperity, hospitality, the importing of rich foreign wares like silk or wine; the men of Leinster are noble in speech and their women are exceptionally beautiful.
Munster in the south is the kingdom of music and the arts, of harpers, of skilled ficheall players and of skilled horsemen. The fairs of Munster were the greatest in all Ireland.
The last kingdom, Meath, is the kingdom of Kingship, of stewardship, of bounty in government; in Meath lies the Hill of Tara, the traditional seat of the High King of Ireland. The ancient earthwork of Tara is called Rath na Ríthe (‘Ringfort of the Kings’).”
Taken from a poem called Ard Ruide. the Dinnseanchas
the five sacred trees of ireland
The five sacred trees of Ireland were known as The Guardians of the Five Provinces. It is believed that chieftains would have been inaugurated beneath their sacred tree, thus connecting them to both the powers of below and above. Sadly, records show that all five sacred guardian trees mysteriously fell together at some point during the C7th, although no reason was ever given.
The Eo Mughna – Eo is the old Irish word for the yew tree, yet legend claims the Eo Mughna was actually a mighty oak. It was said to have been a son of the original Tree of Knowledge. It was the only one of the five reputed to have borne the three fruits, apples, acorns and hazelnuts, just like the branch from which the seeds were originally obtained. It was supposedly located at Bealach Mughna, on the plain of Magh Ailbhe, now known as Ballaghmoon in Co Kildare.
The Bile Tortan – Said to be an Ash, the Tree of Tortu stood at Ard Breccan, near Navan in Co Meath.
The Eo Ruis – The Yew of Rossa was said to have stood at Old Leighlin in Co Carlow.
The Craeb Daithi – The Branching Tree of Daithe was also a great Ash, located at Farbill in Co Westmeath.
The Craeb Uisnig – This sacred tree, another Ash, was to be found at Uisneach. The Craeb Uisnig was sacred to Lugh, and was known as the ‘Tree of Enchantment’, as Druid’s wands were often made from ash. You can find out more in my post, Guardians of the 5 Provinces.
the five roads of ireland
In Irish mythology, the Annals of the Four Masters claim that there were five main roads, or slighe (pronounced slee) radiating out from the Hill of Tara to various parts of Ireland.
Slighe Asail (pronounced slee ass-il) ran west from Tara to Lough Owel in Westmeath, and may have continued in a north-westerly direction.
Slighe Midluachra (pronounced mee-loo-hra) went north from Slane, past Dundalk, round the base of the highest of the Fews mountains called Carrigatuke (but formerly known as Sliabh Fuad) near Newtown-Hamilton in Armagh, to the ancient Navan Fort (Emain Macha), and on to Dunseverick on the northern coast of Antrim.
Slighe Cualann ran south-east through Dublin, crossing the River Liffey by the hurdle-bridge that gave the city the ancient name of Baile-atha-Cliath (pronounced Bol-ya ah Clee-ah, meaning ‘the town of the hurdle-ford’). It then passed what is now known as Donnybrook, before heading south through the old district of Cualann from which it took its name, and then heading up the coast to Bray.
Slighe Dala ran south-west from Tara through Ossory in Co. Kilkenny.
Finally, Slighe Mór, also known as An tSlí Mhór, (meaning ‘The Great Way’) led south-west from Tara, joining the Esker Riada near Clonard, along which it continued until Galway. The current M6 motorway also follows this route.
“And one time Manannan’s cows came up out of the sea at Baile Cronin, three of them, a red, and a white, and a black, and the people that were there saw them standing on the strand for a while, as if thinking, and then they all walked up together, side by side, from the strand. And at that time there were no roads in Ireland, and there was great wonder on the people when they saw a good wide road ready before the three cows to walk on. And when they got about a mile from the sea they parted; the white cow went to the north-west, towards Luimnech, and the red cow went to the south-west, and on round the coast of Ireland, and the black cow went to the north-east, towards Lis Mor, in the district of Portlairge, and a road opened before each of them, that is to be seen to this day.”
From Of Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory
the five streams of ireland
The five streams of Ireland flow from the Well of Knowledge, but it has many names, such as the Well of Segais, and Connla’s Well. There seems to be much confusion over where this well might be located; it is attributed to be the source of the River Boyne, but equally, it has been said to be found at the source of the River Shannon. It was also said to be located at the centre of the Otherworld, Tir na Nog, thus being everywhere and nowhere.
The Well of Knowledge was said to be a pool of crystal clear water in which swam five salmon. Surrounding the pool were nine sacred hazel trees which were in leaf, in blossom and in fruit all at the same time. They dropped their nuts into the water, and these were eaten by the salmon. Anyone who ate the nuts or the salmon, or drank the water would receive knowledge.
Fionn mac Cumhall ate a salmon of knowledge, and thereafter, every time he bit his thumb, he was able to access his second sight, and thus seek the knowledge he required. Boan was drowned trying to visit the well in search of knowledge.
Each stream was said to represent one of the five provinces of Ireland, but even more interestingly, they were said to represent our five senses, without which wisdom, or knowledge, cannot be acquired.
I love that last phrase; today, our knowledge comes from books (or computers, tv etc). Our ancient ancestors knew that true wisdom could only be acquired by utilising all of our senses, and thus by individual experience.
In the story of ‘Cormac’s Adventure in the Land of Promise’, Cormac finds himself surrounded by fog. When it lifts, he is wandering through the Otherworld. Manannán shows him the Well of Knowledge with its five streams flowing out into Ireland, and says of it, “Everyone drinks from these streams, but only the poets and those skilled in the arts drink from both the streams and the well itself.”
I’ve not yet come across any text which names the five streams, but I suspect the Boyne and the Shannon were probably two of them.
the five invasions of ireland
According to an ancient text named the Lebor Gebála Érenn, there were five invasions of Ireland in antiquity, the invasions of Cessair, Partholon, Nemed, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danann.
Cessair, grand-daughter of Noah, arrived in Ireland forty days before the Great Flood with fifty female and three male companions. They landed at the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry. It wasn’t long before two of the men died, leaving Fintan alone in charge of fifty women. Unable to cope, he fled, and poor Cessair died soon after of a broken heart.
With their leader dead, and all the men gone, it wasn’t long before the other women followed suit. Fintan, however, went on to survive the flood and live into St Patrick’s time. He was a shape-shifter, managing to transform into the figure of a salmon, a hawk and an eagle, among others. Thus he acquired great wisdom, and went on to advise many of Ireland’s High Kings.
Several hundred years later, Parthalon fled Greece after killing his parents in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the crown from his brother. He arrived in Ireland with his extended family, and after thirty years of peaceful settling, he eventually died. His descendants continued to prosper for a further 520 years until they numbered over 9000 people, but unfortunately, they were completely wiped out by plague inside of a week. Except for Tuán mac Cairill, Parthalon’s nephew, who seemed to play a very similar role to Fintan.
Thirty years later, along came Nemed. By this time, the sea-faring Fomori race had moved in to lay claim to Ireland, but Nemed fought them off over the course of three battles. When he died, the Fomori attacked his descendents. Only thirty managed to escape with their lives. Interestingly, Semeon, a grandson of Nemed’s went to Greece where he settled and fathered the Fir Bolg race, who were later to return to Ireland. Another grandson, Beothach, fathered the Tuatha de Denann people.
When the Fir Bolg arrived in Ireland, they divided the land into fifths, and Ireland prospered under their rule. However, after only 37 years, the Danann arrived and defeated the Fir Bolgs in the First battle of Moytura. You can read more about that, if you’re interested, in my post, Irish Mythology | The Tuatha de Danann Come to Ireland.
Other ‘famous fives’ in Irish mythology…
- the five sacred names of Tara
- the five-pointed spear of Ailill mac Máta
- the five Urgriu brothers said to have killed Fionn mac Cumhall
- the five paths of judgement in Brehon law
- the five celebrated hostels of Ireland
- the smallest family unit consisted of five people and was called a geilfine.