aliisaacstoryteller

I nearly didn’t go. I had a handful of essays on the go for uni at the time, but it was Samhain, and Treasa had been kind enough to invite me a second time, and I couldn’t believe it was already a year since the last time I was there. That was a euphoric experience, and I wondered, how would it be second time around, now that I knew what to expect.


Sliding into the mouth of Oweynagat.
Sliding into the mouth of Oweynagat.

Oweynagat is an incredibly female site, in its physicality, its mythology, and in its energy, something I was immediately struck by on my first visit, and so it felt right that this was a women-only experience. Queen Medb was born in its dark depths, and the Morrigan is said to use the cave as a conduit between this realm and the Otherworld.



This is how Queen Medb describes the cave in her story from my latest book, Mavourneen:

 

“There is a cave at Cruachan. Its small dark mouth yawns at your feet beneath a shroud of hawthorn bushes, and is never lit up by the sun. You can slide your way in, if you dare. The only way is supine on your belly, sinuous as a snake in the thick blackness, or on your back, enclosed so closely that the rock wall brushes your skin as you pass, the weight of the earth pressing on your consciousness, on your lungs, filling you with the fear of rockfalls, of demonic creatures which burst through from the Otherworld, of the terrible Goddess of strife and death we call the Morrigan, of the dread that once inside, you will become trapped, unable to ever return to the surface. Your heart begins to race, and you pant for breath, lungs squeezed flat in your chest. This is a potent place; a deep, dark cleft in the earth which men fear, a place associated with powerful women, sacred women, sorcerous women, women who command all the skills and strengths which men feel should belong to men alone, alongside the dark, disturbing female magic they cannot comprehend. That is why they call it ‘the Hell–Mouth of Eire’. They fear to penetrate it, they fear what is born out of it. But when you, the brave feminine, have traversed its uterine passage, have felt the energy pulsing in cold moist, glistening, flesh–coloured stone, have slid through the glutinous membrane of mud which lines the inner, womb–like cavity, have listened to the earth breathe around and beneath and above you; when you leave, then you will feel reborn. And you will know me, for I am Medb, and this cave is where my mother, Cruachú Crobh-Dearg, lowly handmaid to Étain, squatted to bring me forth into the world.”

And if you think that sounds dramatic, know that is exactly how it feels, how it looks. The mud that coats you as you leave is like the blood of birth. The experience changes you. Perhaps that is the same of all deep, dark places. I don’t know. But there is something special about Oweynagat, something addictive, a braving of one’s fears perhaps, or the communion with something not quite of this world, made all the more special by sharing it with this unique group of strong, spiritual women. I think, I hope the Great Queen approves.

Oweynagat 2018

I would like to thank Treasa for inviting me on this special journey once again, and I’m looking forward to next year’s adventure already. Treasa operates the Full Moon Walking Tour of the Hill of Tara, Spiritual Tours of the Hill of Uisneach, and private guided tours of Loughcrew, and Glendalough. You can find out more on her Facebook page, Sacred Sites of Ireland.


Living on the edge of Táin territory, Dún Dealgan is a place I’ve long wanted to visit. A couple of weeks ago, I got my chance, as I was writing a piece about his long-suffering wife, Emer.

If this was where Cuchulainn was based during his heroic escapades of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, this is where he must have brought her after they were married, although it seems from the tales that she spent much of her time at the ‘Royal Site’ of Emain Macha.


 


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I‘ve been channelling Emer this weekend for my manuscript, Mavourneen, so as I live on the edge of Cuchulainn country, I thought I’d head down to their neck of the woods and see some of the sites associated with their legend.

As the wife of Cuchulainn, Emer spent much of her time at the court of King Conchobar at Emain Macha, but originally she was from Lusk, which is just down the road from where I used to live when I first came to Ireland, Skerries.


Dún Dealgan, Cuchulainn's Fort, www.aliisaacstoryteller.com


However, according to the old stories, Cuchulainn had his own dún near the town we know today as Dundalk, and as such, it is reasonable to expect that Emer would have spent at least some of her time there. The site was later developed by the Normans; the stone tower we see today would not have stood there in Cuchulainn’s day. I’ll write more about this wonderful site another time.

What I really want to show you is this… Read More

I needed to get some air. Clear my head. Breathe. Feel the wind ruffle my hair. Listen to the sound of birds, let the slap of water on the shore soothe away my tension. I needed to feel small and inconsequential in that vastness of space and light, a part of it, but not the hub. To stand on the periphery and see it all, feel it, relax and enjoy it.

To watch the trees stoop and lower trailing, knotted branches into the water like aged fingers gnarled with arthritis. To listen to the protest of their rustling leaves as they are pulled into autumn and cast off. To follow their bright drifting path from sky to earth, lighting up the chill with their last flare of fiery russet glory. To watch the clouds gather, then melt apart. To watch the sunlight dance on wind-rumpled water. To travel the winding path. To rise and descend the sloping shoulders of the gently rounded, green-robed hills. To remember the warmth of summer which leaves us too soon. I just needed to be. Read More

To listen to the way people talk, you’d think abortion and birth control were a modern phenomenon. Not so. As  John M. Riddle, J. Worth Estes and Josiah C. Russell say in their paper, ‘Birth Control in the Ancient World’, it’s been going on ‘ever since Eve’. And believe it or not, it was big business.

Silphion, known in later times by its Latin name, Sylphium, was grown in the seventh century BC  by Greek colonists who founded the city of Cyrene in what we know today as Libya. Silphium was a member of the genus Ferula, commonly known as the giant fennel.


#Abortion and #BirthControl in ancient #Ireland. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com


It was so effective as a contraceptive and abortive agent, that it was featured on coins, in plays (Aristophanes in The Knights), in poetry (the Roman poet, Catullus), and in medical and botanical literature (Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, and Greek botanist Theophrastus). Read More

In October 2015, I had a very strange experience at Tlachtga, the Hill of Ward. As I walked the site, I became increasingly dizzy and developed a powerful headache. Half an hour after driving away from the site, the headache had gone and I felt fine.


Tlachtga, Hill of Ward. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com. #ancient sites #ireland

Google Earth view of Tlachtga, showing all that remains of its quadrivallate ditch and embankment system


I don’t believe I’m very receptive to picking up the energies and vibes of a place. I’m often in the presence of people who are, and it irritates me immensely that I don’t feel the power they are feeling when we stand together on an ancient site.

I was deeply affected by what I felt that day at Tlachtga, however. Here is what I wrote about it at the time: Read More

According to legend, there were five great roads which led to the Hill of Tara. One of them runs between the north and south campuses of my university at Maynooth, and I’ve been crossing it almost every day for the last two years. Of course, it looks a bit different today; it’s tarmacked for a start, cars drive along it instead of carts, and it has rather a lot of traffic lights. You can read more about the five great roads in my post, The Ancient Origins of the Irish Road, but since then I’ve learned a whole lot more about them which I’d like to share.

It has always been believed that the Hill of Tara was the royal residence of the High Kings of Ireland; after all, we have inherited a vast wealth of early Medieval literature which tells us so. However, since the 1980s, a new school of thought began to emerge which interpreted these medieval tales as a reflection of the times they were written rather than the Iron Age which they claim to portray.


Mound of hostages, black and white images, people standing on top of it.

Mound of hostages at Tara. (c) Ali Isaac


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Following my recent posts on Macha and the site of Emain Macha, it occurred to me that I have referenced, but never really elaborated, on the concept or function of the sovereignty goddess in Irish myth.

To be honest, she’s quite a hard character to pin down. She is thought to represent the land, and sovereignty over the land. A would-be king was expected to unite with her in order to legitimise his right to the kingship. Feasting would be involved, and sex. Another important feature was the offering of an alcoholic drink by the goddess to the king.

According to Muireann ní Bhrolcháin, the sovereignty could manifest in three ways, and an element of transformation was always involved;

  1. She appears to the king as an ugly old hag, who becomes young and beautiful when he completes the challenge she sets him, usually sex or a full-on kiss, at least.
  2. She appears as a woman who loses her mind and then regains it.
  3. She appears as a woman who loses her status, but regains it.

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Returning to the raison d’etre of this blog, and to Incredible Irish Women in particular (most apt in light of recent happenings in this country), I’d like to introduce you to MACHA.

There are several women by the name of Macha in Irish mythology, and with the exception of King Nuada’s wife, they are all associated with the ancient ceremonial site of Emain Macha, also known today as Navan Fort (even though it is nowhere near Navan).

Emain Macha (Listen here for pronunciation) is a site much like the Hill of Tara, and shares many of its characteristics, but I’ll tell you more about that next week. According to legend, it was once the site of the provincial palace belonging to King Conchobar of Ulster, and thus associated with the tales of the Táin and the Ulster Cycle. However, archaeology has shown that, contrary to popular belief, Emain Macha was never a site of habitation, just like Tara and Cruachan and Dun Ailine.

What has this to do with Macha? Read More

You may remember these two young ladies:


Incredible Irish Women. The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma


And you may remember also the block I had when it came to writing the next post in my Incredible Irish Women series, and how I was given to believe that I had ‘unfinished business’ to complete before I could move onto my next subject.

I decided to go to the site where Eithne and Fedelma had been baptised by Patrick, and where they were said to have to have immediately ascended to heaven afterwards. Let’s just say it was not at all what I expected. Read More

You may have noticed there was no blog post from me last week. I try really hard to keep the blog updated as often as I can, but sometimes things happen which change that, and this was one of those times.

I had been planning to introduce you to a particular lady from Ireland’s history, and indeed, the post is actually half written. I thought it would be an easy post to write, because I already know something about her. However, so many obstacles popped up during the writing of it, that I gave up; I felt it wasn’t meant for me to write, or at least not yet.

It wasn’t writer’s block, but that all my research seemed to contradict itself, no matter what angle I approached it from. I was frustrated and puzzled.

I was driving home from uni on Thursday, wondering about this, when the following thought came into my head: “You have unfinished business.” Those were the exact words, and here’s where you might think me slightly mad… Read More

Eithne and Fidelma were sisters who lived in the time of St Patrick. Their story is incredible, although it may be argued that the two young women themselves were not. They were pagan princesses, daughters of Laoghaire, High King of Ireland in 432AD, when Patrick is said to have lit his paschal fire in defiance of the King, pagan custom and ritual.

When Patrick first approached the King, the sisters, known as Eithne the Fair, and Fidelma the Red, were not at court. Following tradition, they were fostered out at Cruachan, also known as Rath Croghan, in the province of Connacht, made famous as the royal residence of Queen Medb.

There, the two girls were in the process of being educated by two Druids, Maol and Caplait, who were said to be the wisest men in all of Ireland at that time. Clearly, then, they were being trained as Druids, an education which is believed to have spanned over twenty years. Read More