Pangur Bán, the White Cat, and Other Pets in Irish Mythology

Pangur Bán, the White Cat and Other Pets in Irish Mythology. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Pangur Bán, the White Cat and Other Pets in Irish Mythology.
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

I read a post on Facebook yesterday which claimed that animal behaviorists now believe that hugging your pet is harmful for them, as it causes their stress levels to rise. Apparently, they prefer tummy rubs, stroking and treats. Well, it’s hardly surprising; they haven’t evolved to hug each other, but instead show affection by licking and grooming each other, by sharing food and curling up together to sleep. I reckon not hugging your pet is going to upset you far more than your pet.

Which got me thinking… did our ancient ancestors form the same kind of relationships with their animals as we do, or did they see them merely as a source of food and income, or beasts of burden?

Well, take a look at this…

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

translation by Robin Flower

This poem was written by a Christian scribe in the ninth century in Irish in the margins of his practice book. They learned their trade by copying religious texts, usually Latin, into their practice books, and these have been the source of many amusing anecdotes and fascinating insights into Irish life in the distant past.

This poem is preserved in the Reichenau Primer, which is kept in St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal, a Benedictine monastery in Austria. It is thought the scribe may have fled there to avoid Viking raids on Ireland, who were particularly fond of attacking religious institutions and carrying off their wealth.

This is the page on which Pangur Bán is written. By The original uploader was Dbachmann at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1821591
This is the page on which Pangur Bán is written.
By Dbachmann at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1821591

In this poem, the author is talking about his pet cat, Pangur Bán, bán meaning ‘white’ in Irish. Pangur means ‘fuller’, a tradesman involved in the production of woolen cloth, in which it is cleansed of oils, dirt and impurities, making it thicker. Perhaps this was a reference to the cat’s thick, white, clean fur. The author is comparing Pangur’s skill at hunting mice with his own industriousness as a wordsmith. It is quite clear from the poem that Pangur is his pet, and that there is fondness and companionship between them.

Saint Colman was the son of an Irish chieftain, Duagh, in the late 5th/ early 6th centuries AD. He became a priest, and according to legend, he kept three rather unusual pets: a rooster to wake him for prayers in the morning, a mouse to wake him for prayers during the night, and a  fly to act as a sort of book mark and keep his place when he was called away from reading his prayer book.

Unfortunately, a fly’s life is short, and Saint Colman was devastated when his faithful little friend passed. He wrote to  Saint Columba expressing his grief, to which Columba replied, “You were too rich when you had them. That is why you are sad now. Trouble like that only comes where there are riches. Be rich no more.” That was how Colman learned that one can be rich even without wealth.

A century earlier, the King of Leinster had a little pet fox that he was extremely fond of one. One day, a servant out cutting wood in the forest killed the fox, thinking it was a wild animal. The King was so furious, he had the servant imprisoned, intending to execute him.

I visited St Colmans Holy Well in the Burren last summer.

The poor man’s wife appealed to Saint Brigid, who charmed a fox cub from the woods as a gift to the King in exchange for the servant’s life. The King was so entranced by the little fox and its clever tricks, that he immediately agreed. The fox, however, ran off into the forest at the first opportunity, and although the King sent all his hounds and best huntsmen after it, it was never found.

In Irish mythology, many characters had particular animals they were associated with.

Ulster’s hero, Cuchulainn, had two special horses which pulled his chariot. Their names were Liath Macha, meaning the ‘grey of Macha’, and Dub Sainglend, the ‘black of Saingliu’. They were said to have emerged from the pool of Linn Liaith in the mountains of Sliabh Fuaid as a gift from the Goddess, Macha. This association with water clearly indicates their Otherworldly origin. Cuchulainn leaped onto their backs and rode them around the whole of Ireland in just one day, after which they were tamed.

Fionn mac Cumhail had two magical hounds that he loved above all others, and it is said that he kept up to 200 of them. Bran and Sceolán were the unborn children of his aunt, Tuirean. She was abducted by a woman of the Sidhe and transformed into a hound whilst pregnant. She gave birth to two pups, which were then sent to Fionn as gifts.

Fionn, Bran and Sceolán were inseparable; they hunted and fought beside him, and appear in many stories together. They were certainly more companions to him than beasts, although the stories never mention if Fionn knew their true identity, or if they could communicate in any way other than any man does with his dog.

My favourite story, though, is a sad one…

Boann strides up the path, her 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.

Poor Boan, and poor little faithful Dabilla. Nevertheless, we can see from all these stories that in ancient Ireland, people formed attachments to animals, and loved their pets just like we do. 😍


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Teenage Angst Poem for Sarah

Ok Sarah Brentyn, you asked for it! I rise to the challenge and dare to post my teenage angst poem…

life’s love lost

Now you’ve abandoned me;
Love lost forever.
Life’s web of pathways,
don’t care where they lead.
They all look the same:
bleakness, blackness.
It’s over now,
and all is nothing.

Wow, I must have been such a fun kid to be around… no wonder I was a bit of a loner! 😁 Please feel free to join in the fun and tag your #teenangstpoem so me and Sarah can read it.

The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir

Last week, I listened to one of my lecturers read aloud a poem in Old Irish, and I learned a few things:

  1. Old Irish is a language which is meant to be listened to.
  2. Listening to someone read poetry aloud in Old Irish, even when you don’t understand what the hell he’s saying, is… well, let’s just say it’s very pleasant. 😉

The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir is a romantic tragedy, and a story I had not yet come across. It is told, as many old Irish stories are told, in both poetry and prose, with the poetry normally being reserved for speech, or to emphasize a particularly important point, or exchange. And because February is the month of love (just look at all the people born in November and tell me it isn’t!), I thought I’d share it with you.

Linguistically, the story dates to the ninth century, but is set back in the seventh century. It concerns two poets, and the love which grew between them, and how it ended in tragedy.

Líadain of Corco Duibne was a lady poet (see… women could be poets in ancient Ireland!) who was touring the province of Connacht, where she met  Cuirithir mac Doborchu, a local poet. Well, it was love at first sight, and being lusty Irish, they spent the night together.

Cuirithir wanted more than a one night stand; “Why do we not make a union, o Líadain? Brilliant would be our son whom you would beget,” he entreated her, no doubt alluding to their combined skills as poets.

Líadain had fallen even more deeply in love, but something held her back… her love for God (you might know he’d poke his nose in at some point, if St. Patrick wasn’t available).

She told him to come for her at her home when she has completed her tour as a poetess. This he does, and the couple then approached Bishop Cummine for guidance.

He was not kind. He instructed Cuirithir to renounce his love and banished him to a monastery far away over the sea. Líadain takes the veil, but never forgets her passion for her lost love.

As he crossed the sea in his coracle, she mourned the cruel loss of her lover from a vantage point on a boulder overlooking the bay, and died of a broken heart.

The Bishop then placed the stone over her grave. What became of Cuirithir, if he ever learned of his lover’s death, we don’t know.

This is part of the poem Líadian composes about Cuirithrir:

I am Líadain,
I loved Cuirithir.
It is as true as they tell it.

It was a short time that I was
in the company of Cuirithir.
Towards him, my companionship was good.

The music of the wood
used to sing around me when I was with Cuirithir
with the sound of the blood-red ocean.

I would have thought
that nothing of whatever things I might do
would bring Cuirithir against me.

One shouldn’t hide it:
he was my heart’s desire,
even if I loved everyone besides him.

A roar of fire
has broke my heart.
It is known that it will not live without him.

I think these words are so poignant, so sad and heartfelt. The passing of centuries has not diminished them. She clearly regrets having turned him down, having let her fear of God come between them. It is a lament that she hurt the man she loves so dearly… look how often she repeats his name: she is obsessed. I really feel for her.

There does seem to be some confusion in the story; the delay to their getting together is attributed to both her desire to become a nun, and her desire to continue her tour as a travelling poetess. Clearly, it can’t be both, so which is it?

If she becomes a nun first and then sleeps with Cuirithir, then clearly they have both sinned, which explains the Bishop’s harsh decision. But if she becomes a nun after Cuirithir leaves her, then clearly her decision to put her career as a travelling poetess first offended him deeply, in which case she should forget about the selfish arse!

If the former is true, then the story is one of chastity, punishment, love of God, and that most heinous of crimes, female lust. But if the latter is true, more than likely the story has an older source, and is a tale of love and tragic misunderstanding which has been tampered with by Christians to suit their moral code.

Was Líadian a historical figure? It’s hard to say. Her name means the ‘Grey One’, or the ‘Grey Lady’, perhaps in reference to the nun’s habit she wore. Her name does crop up elsewhere in the company of three other female poets, but there is no actual evidence that she really existed.

However, medieval writers were wont to put their stories in the mouths of historical personae as speakers of history. It may even be that her story is true, but she did not write it, at least, not in the version which currently exists. Linguistically, some of the rhyme in the text has been found to date specifically to the ninth century.

So, till next time, Myth Lovers…


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Film Trailer (video) for ‘The Search for the Seanachaí’, and I’m in it (briefly) 😁!

Last spring, I was interviewed by film maker, Peter McGee, for a new project he was working on, entitled ‘The Search for the Seanachaí‘. Here is the trailer for the film, see if you can spot me! 😁

For the love of GOLD

When I first visited the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, I was stunned by the sheer amount, and quality, of ancient gold artifacts on display… there is a whole floor  of the stuff.

My youngest son, who was about 8 years old at the time, scrounged my phone and busied himself taking photos of it all… he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, either!

Now put Ireland and gold together in the same sentence, and most people immediately think of pots of gold at the end of a rainbow guarded by a little red-bearded man dressed in green. *shudders* Ugh! How I loathe that little creature.

But here you go. The word ‘leprechaun’ is derived from the Old Irish luchorpán. The leprechaun first makes its apearance in an ancient medieval tale known as the Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus son of Léti). Fergus, King of Ulster, falls asleep on the beach and wakes to find himself being dragged into the sea by three tiny lúchorpáin. He captures them, who grant him the ability to swim under water in exchange for their freedom.

Over time, the leprachaun, clearly originally a sea-creature, became distorted into the drunken little shoemaker fond of causing mischief and mayhem, who hides his gold in that famous pot of gold. Of course, you can see how that happened… its a natural progression.

Hmmm…

Anyway, back to the gold. The ancient Irish adored the stuff, particularly during the Bronze Age (c.2500-500 BC). More Bronze Age gold hoards have been found in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe.

By Jononmac46 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36570957
By Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36570957

One of the most famous discoveries is the Mooghaun North Hoard found in County Clare. It is considered one of the greatest Bronze Age hoards of gold ever found north of the Alps. Sadly, much of it was sold off and melted down, but 150 items were rescued, and some of them can now be seen in the National Museum.

The earliest evidence of metal mining in Ireland is provided by Bronze Age copper workings at Ross Island, Co. Kerry in southwest Ireland. These workings, dated at between 2,400 – 2,000 BC constitute the oldest recognised in northwest Europe.

However, evidence of ancient gold mining and smelting materials and equipment has been found in a bog near Limerick. Scholars are unsure though, where the majority of Ireland’s gold has come from.

Scientists measured the chemical composition of some of the oldest known gold artifacts in Ireland to find that they were actually imported from Cornwall in Britain. It seems the English were not quite so fond of their gold bling at the time, and readily traded with the Irish in exchange for… you’ll never guess… tin.

The National Museum of Archeology in Dublin houses over 500 pieces of gold work, including golden collars, torcs and bracelets, mostly from the Bronze Age. It’s quite incredible, glass case after glass case of it.

But what of the mythology? Yes, gold makes an appearance in the old tales of Ireland too, as well as in the land’s archaeology.

This is how Niamh of the Golden hair is described, when she comes to confess her love for Oisin, Fionn mac Cumhall’s son, and carries him away with her into the Otherworld…

She wore the garb of a queen; a crown of gold was on her head, and a dark brown mantle of silk, set with stars of red gold, fell around her and trailed on the ground. Silver shoes were on her horse’s hoofs, and a crest of gold nodded on his head.

And this is how Queen Medb was described by Cethern to Cúchulainn, when he was wounded by her in battle…

A tall, fair, long-faced woman with soft features came at me … She had a head of yellow hair and two gold birds on her shoulders. She wore a purple cloak folded about her, with five hands’ breadth of gold on her back. She carried a light, stinging, sharp-edged lance in her hand, and she held an iron sword with a woman’s grip over her head – a massive figure. It was she who came against me first.

No shame there, it seems, to have been beaten in battle by a woman. Just sayin’.

Criomthan Nianair was a King of Ireland, and the son of Lugaidh Sriabhdearg ‘of the Red Stripes’, who was famously Cuchulainn’s foster son. Criomthan was said to have brought back a golden chariot and a cloak woven with golden threads as plunder from his adventures in Gaul.

Lugaidh was an interesting character. He was said to have been born of a night of incest between Clothra and her three brothers, Breas, Nar, and Lothola, and was described as ‘beautiful to behold, and stronger in bodily strength in infancy than was usual for a child of his age’. It was said that Clothra feared her family’s line would be wiped out in battle, so she seduced all of her brothers in the hope of producing an heir. When her son was born, he was divided in three by red wavy lines, and each third of him resembled that portion of one of his three fathers.

Clothra need not have worried. Far from being punished for their incestuous behaviour,  one hundred and seven of their descendants went on to rule as Kings.

In Ireland today, there are many places which bear the Irish word for gold, óir, in their names: Slieve Anore (Mountain of Gold), in Co Clare; Tullynore (Little Hill of Gold), in Co Down; Coomanore (Hollow of Gold), near Bantry in Co Cork, and Glenanore (Glen of  Gold), also in Co Cork. Does that mean gold was found or worked there in ancient times? Who can say? I’d like to think so.

Finally, I just thought you might like to know that the letter ‘O’ in the Ogham alphabet, the Beith-Luis-Nin, is called Onn, or Oir, which is also the Old Irish word for ‘gold’. (Learn how to pronounce it here.)


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Curadmír | The Champion’s Portion

No, it’s not what you think… my, you all have such dirty minds!

Concentrate.

Curadmír comes from the old Irish word curad which means ‘of a hero/ champion/ warrior’, and also from the word mir which means ‘morsel/ ration/ portion’.

In Irish mythology, the champion’s portion was all about honour amongst warriors. We already know that in ancient Ireland people lived by a defined code of honour and this was certainly true amongst the warrior class.

The curadmir consisted of the choicest cut of meat, usually the thigh, and was awarded to the bravest and most accomplished of a king’s warriors during a feast. It was considered a sign of great honour and privilege.

In fact, so highly regarded was the curadmír, that warriors would fight to the death over it. Not just in stories and myths, either: Althenaeus, a Greek scholar of the late 2nd/ early 3rd century quoted an earlier Greek historian, Posidonius, when he claimed that the Celts gave a hindquarter of pork to their bravest man, which would be settled by single combat to the death.

Diodorus Sicculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century also claimed that the Celts gave joints of meat to their most distinguished warriors.

Yeah, the ancient Greeks had a bit of a fascination with the Celtic peoples, but sadly, they are not reliable. Historians have not been able to identify a people who called themselves Celts, but there is much similarity between their accounts and the people of the Hallstatt and La Tene periods in Central Europe.

And then there are the Irish myths, which seem to confirm this strange custom. Why are you not surprised, huh?

The Tale of Mac da Thó’s Pig, or Scéla Muicce Meicc Da Thó, as it is known in Irish, comes from the Ulster Cycle, and survives in six manuscripts dating between the 12th and 18th centuries, but has been dated linguistically to the 8th century. It tells of a dispute which arose between the men of Connacht, and the men of Ulster.

So, Mac da Thó, King of Leinster, owns a hound named Ailbe which is famed throughout the land for its fierce guarding skills. Queen Medb of Connacht (yes, she of Táin bo Cúailnge fame, who goes to war over possession of a bull) decides she wants this mutt… surprise, surprise. However, her old arch enemy, Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, also wants to get his hands on Ailbe. I think you can see where this is going, right?

Mac da Thó holds a feast and invites both parties. When they arrive, they are not happy to be seated in the same hall as their enemies. Mac da Thó also owns a mighty pig, which had been fed for seven years by sixty milch cows, and was as wide across as forty oxen. Said beast was now roasting merrily, and the warriors were instantly attracted to it, and began discussing how best to carve it up, and who would get the Caradmír.

As you can imagine, a whole lot of boasting takes place, and many heroic deeds and victories are recounted. Eventually, Cet mac Mágach of the Connacht warriors declares himself the champion, but as he draws his knife to carve the pig, Conall Cernach of the Ulster men leaps to his feet and challenges him, much to the roars of delight from his fellows.

Cet concedes that of the two, Conall is the better warrior, but adds that if his brother,  Anlúan, was there, he would whoop his hide in combat. He says to Conall…

‘It is our misfortune that he [Anlúin] is not in the house.’

‘Oh but he is,’ said Conall, and taking Anlúan’s head from his wallet he threw it at Cet’s breast so that a mouthful of blood spattered over the lips.’

Quoted from Wikipedia

Conall claims the pig’s belly as his curadmír, enough to feed nine men, and after the rest of the meat has been shared out amongs his fellow warriors, only the trotters are left for the Connacht men.

Naturally, a fight breaks out. Mac da Thó unleashes Ailbe to see which side the hound will choose. It fights for the Ulster men, but is beheaded by Fer Loga, a charioteer of Connacht. He mounts Ailbe’s head on top of a spear, and thus the place of her death is known as  Mag nAilbi, or ‘Ailbe’s Plain’ (a real place, the valley plain bordering the River Barrow from County Laois and County Carlow to County Kildare).

If you thought that was weird, wait till you read the next bit! 😛

Clearly fearing the wrath of his King and Queen, Aillil and Medb, for killing the dog, Fer Loga hides in the heather. When King Conchobar rides by in his chariot, Fer Loga leaps up behind him and seizes the King’s head in a mighty grip.

Conchobar promises Fer Loga anything he wants, obviously thinking the man is about to kill him, and this is what Fer Loga demands: that he be taken to Emain Macha, capital of Ulster, where the women of Ulster and their nubile daughters are to sing to him each evening, ‘Fer Loga is my darling.’

Told you, didn’t I? Weird!

The story ends a year later with Fer Loga riding away from Ulster towards Ath Luain with the gift of two of Conchobar’s horses decked in fine golden bridles.

Nora Chadwick believes this tale was created for men, and was designed to be told orally, which is interesting to me personally. What is also interesting is that, even thought this story draws on many of the characters of the Táin bo Cuailnge, it never mentions Cuchulainn, who was said to be Ulster’s greatest hero.

In another story also from the Ulster Cycle, Fled Bricrenn, or the Feast of Bricriu, the allotting of the curadmir also causes much havoc. Bricriu holds a feast for the men of Ulster, and offers the champion’s portion to three of them: Cuchulainn, Conall Cernach, and Lóegaire Búadach. They are obliged then to compete against each other in order to decide who is most worthy.

Many challenges are set, with Cuchulainn emerging as the winner each time, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire accept this. In the end, Cú Roí, a magician from Munster, transforms himself into a giant and challenges each of the three warriors to behead him, on the condition that they then allow him to behead them in return the next night. Only Cúchulainn is brave and honest enough to show up on the second night, so he is deemed as the winner, and judged worthy of the curadmír.

Bricriu was a bit of a troublemaker who appears in several other stories of the Ulster Cycle. In the end, he is trampled to death by the two bulls fighting in the Táin bo Cuailnge. Loughbrickland, a village near Banbridge in County Down, is thought to derive from the Irish Loch Briccrend, meaning ‘Bricriu’s Lake’. He is supposed to have built his home there overlooking the lake, a ring fort named the ‘Watery Fort’.


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