The Wild Boar in Irish Mythology

The wild boar was hunted into extinction in Ireland back in the C17th, although it seems likely that it was probably not truly ‘wild’ at all, but introduced by man in early prehistoric times. Ireland’s rich forest land  provided a perfect habitat, where it foraged and fed on acorns and nuts, roaming in large herds watched over by semi-nomadic swine-herds, often credited with mysterious magical abilities. Wild boar meat was highly prized, and even today in Ireland, big events such as fairs and festivals feed the crowds with a whole hog roast.

Not surprisingly, the wild boar features significantly in Irish mythology. Although it is a shy, placid creature, in mythology it came to be associated with ferocity, courage and the warrior. Perhaps this is because it defended itself so fiercely when hunted, thus earning so much admiration and its place in legend and song.

This association with battle prowess can be seen in the popular design of the boar’s head on the carnyx, or Celtic war horn. According to Wikipedia,

“The carnyx was a wind instrument of the Iron Age Celts, used between c. 200 BC and c. AD 200. It was a type of bronze trumpet with an elongated S shape, held so that the long straight central portion was vertical and the short mouthpiece end section and the much wider bell were horizontal in opposed directions. The bell was styled in the shape of an open-mouthed boar’s, or other animal’s, head. It was used in warfare, probably to incite troops to battle and intimidate opponents.”

By Johnbod - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15618697
By Johnbod – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15618697

In Irish mythology, Torc Triath was the King of Boars, an Otherworldly creature who belonged to the Goddess Brigid. It is thought that he could be cognate with the boar of Welsh legend, Twrch Trwyth, the son of Tared Wledig, a prince of Wales, who had been cursed and transformed into a wild boar. He was hunted by King Arthur and his hound, Cabal, and driven into the sea off the Cornish coast, where he perished. Perhaps he swam to Ireland instead, and took refuge with our kindly Brigid! 😁

The motif of men being transformed into wild boars reappears often in mythological tales. The Great Boar of Ben Bulben was once a boy; he was the half-brother of Diarmuid O’Duibhne.

Diarmuid’s father, Donn, never liked the child, as he was the product of his wife’s infidelity with another man. One night, when a fight broke out in his hall between two hounds, in the confusion, Donn seized the boy, crushed him to death, then tossed his body into the melee, hoping everyone would assume he had been killed by the dogs.

The boy’s father, Roc, was not so easily fooled. He quickly realised what had happened, and distraught and angered, he performed a magical rite which brought his son back to life in the form of a boar.

He did this to seek his revenge against Donn; he knew of the prophecy which foretold that Diarmuid would one day be killed by a boar.

After betraying Fionn mac Cumhall by running off with his beautiful young bride, Grainne, Diarmuid settles in Sligo where he and Grainne live a long life together and have four sons and a daughter. When Fionn seeks a reconciliation, Diarmuid jumps at the chance, and recklessly agrees to join the Fianna on a boar hunt.

The mighty Ben Bulben. (c) Conor Walker
The mighty Ben Bulben, dusted with snow. (c) Conor Walker (my lovely husband 😍).

Sure enough, Diarmuid comes face to face with the enchanted boar, his half-brother, on the slopes of Ben Bulben. In a mighty battle, Diarmuid slays the beast, but is himself badly gored in the process by the creatures tusks. By the time the Fianna finds him, he is bleeding to death.

Fionn has the power to heal his old friend by offering him a drink of water from his healing hands. Twice, he lets their enmity come between them, and allows the water to drain from his hands. On the third attempt, he finally finds forgiveness for Diarmuid, but he is too late: Diarmuid is dead.

It is interesting that there are places in Ireland’s landscape which still bear reference to the importance of the wild boar: Kanturk in West Cork comes from the Irish Ceann Toirca, meaning ‘boar’s head’, and Ros Muc in West Connacht comes from the Irish word muc for ‘pig’. Mag Triathairne, on the other hand, is a place legend claims was named after Torc Triath himself, but I’m afraid I have no idea where this is.

The wonderfully intriguing Black Pig’s Dyke, or Claí na Muice Duibhe as it is known in Irish,  is a series of huge earthworks running through counties Leitrim, Longford, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Cavan, where I live. Archaeology has revealed the remains of wooden palisades dating to  390–370 BC upon a bank measuring 9m (30ft wide), with an external ditch and in inner ditch both approximately 6m (20ft) deep. All sorts of theories abound as to the purpose of this structure, such as that it once marked the boundaries of ancient Ulster, or that it was constructed in an attempt to halt cattle raiding. However, no one really knows.

Local folklore claims it was created by the tusks of a HUGE black boar, rooting in the earth for food. The story goes that a wicked schoolmaster was transforming his pupils into animals using a big black book of spells. When challenged by a student’s father, the schoolmaster demonstrated his skills by shapeshifting into the form of a big black pig. The father immediately snatched up the book and tossed it into the fire, and thus without the source of his magic, the schoolmaster was doomed to live the rest of his life as a pig. In a blind rage he rampaged across Ireland, gouging out the ditch and churning up the earth into the rampart we see today with his great snout.

There are other stories of wild boars in Irish myth, too. The Tale of Mac Da Thó’s Pig forms part of the saga of the Tain bó Cuailnge, and centres on disputes which arise over the champion’s share of meat, known as curadmír, a matter of great honour amongst warriors.

Also part of the Tain bó Cuailnge, is the Quarrel of the Two Swineherds: Friuch (who is named rather amusingly after a boar’s bristle) and Rucht (who is named after a boar’s grunt) are two swineherds minding their masters’ herds, when they begin to quarrel. A fight breaks out, in which they assume many animal forms in order to gain mastery of each other, finally becoming two worms. These are promptly swallowed by two cows grazing nearby, which then give birth to the two bulls Finnbhennach and Donn Cúailnge.

Also, the Dagda, who was a much-loved and well-respected High King of the Tuatha de Danann, was said to have possessed two magical pigs,  one of which was always growing whilst the other was always roasting.

Sounds like a metaphor for typical Irish hospitality, if you ask me…


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From Goddess to Grotesque

We probably have a false impression when we think of the Irish Celtic pagan Goddess. If she originated with the Tuatha de Danann, who are popularly considered to comprise Ireland’s pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, then she must have been tall and beautiful, fair or red haired, blue eyed, pale skinned. Terrible and gorgeous, all at once.

Whilst a woman like this may appear desirable, if she were a fertility Goddess, you might expect that she would show signs of fecundity, the firm round belly of pregnancy at least. Maybe something like this…

You probably wouldn’t be expecting this…

sheelanagig

This little charmer is an example of a sheelanagig,  commonly thought to represent pagan fertility Goddesses. They are usually found on churches above doors or windows, although some have been found in the walls of buildings, possibly removed from their original location. This one was found somewhere in Co Cavan, and is now on display in the Co Cavan Museum.

The word ‘sheelanagig’ first appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840–44 with reference to a stone carving in Co Tipperary. The origins of the word are much debated, as it does not directly translate into Irish. Here are a couple of suggestions; Sighle na gCíoch, meaning ‘old hag of the breasts’, (although most sheelanagigs are not depicted with breasts); Síle ina Giob, meaning ‘Síle on her hunkers’. It is thought that the term may never have been used for the carvings when they were in use, but came into popular use during the nineteenth century.

It is popularly believed that the Goddess has a triple aspect, that is maid-mother-crone. I don’t know why this is so, but I suspect it is a modern interpretation. In Irish mythology, the triune Goddess is usually represented by three sisters, such as the Morrigan composed of the sisterhood of Macha, Badb, and Nemain. Eriu, Banba and Fódhla are another example, who collectively represent Ireland’s sovereignty.

Brigid, most well-known and beloved of all the Irish Goddesses was said to have had two sisters also called Brigid, but the interesting thing about her triple aspect is that it represented her skills; poetic inspiration, the fire of the forge, and her healing power. Definitely not maid-mother-crone.

Just thinking logically for a minute… why would a fertility Goddess be represented by a dried up old crone? Surely she would be better represented by a nubile and fertile young maid, or the ripe swelling mother? In fact, if you look at the carving again, there is no suggestion of femininity other than the vulva. If she does represent a Goddess, I kinda get the feeling she’s been seriously demoted.

There are stories in the mythology, though, where an old hag demands kisses or sex of a young man, and if he obliges, she transforms into a beautiful young woman who bestows the sovereignty of Ireland upon him and his line.  This is shape-shifting, however, not a representation of maid-mother-crone.

Foe example, when Niall and his brothers are out hunting one day, they stop at a well for a drink. The well is guarded by an ugly old hag who offers to exchange a cup of water for a kiss. The brothers refuse in disgust, but not Niall… he’s willing to sleep with her, he’s so desperate for a drink! She immediately transforms into a beautiful young woman, identifying herself as the sovereignty of Ireland, and confers the right of kingship upon him and his line.

This is a motif which often appears in the old stories, the deal usually sealed with the newly appointed king accepting a cup or drink from the Goddess. Perhaps it refers to an ancient half forgotten kingship ritual, but it does not explain the ugly old sheelanagig.

A more plausible interpretation is that these carvings were placed on churches to warn an illiterate congregation against the evils of female lust. It is thought the tradition was probably brought over from Europe by the Normans during the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century. Sheelanagigs have been found not only in Ireland, but all over central and western Europe.

Whatever their intended meaning, we cannot now know. Personally, I don’t like them. To me, they are crude caricatures, parodies of the female. They make me shudder, and if anything, they seem to mock all that is woman, not glorify it.

From Goddess to Grotesque indeed.

Warrior Women of Ireland

Warrior Women of Ireland www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Warrior Women of Ireland
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Irish mythology is riddled with powerful women, yet they are quite an enigma. On the one hand, we have feisty Queens like Medb, fearsome Goddesses like the Morrigan, gifted healers like Airmid, female smiths like Brigid, respected Druidesses like Bodhmall,  and knowledgeable lawgivers like  Brigid Brethach. On the other, we have the helpless heroines such as Etain, Deirdre, and Grainne, who seemingly did little but lure men with their beauty into tragedy and catastrophe.

We already know from the Brehon Laws that in ancient Ireland, women enjoyed far greater freedoms than those elsewhere. A woman could enjoy equal status with her husband in marriage; she had the right to divorce him if he did not fulfil his marital obligations, and if so, she was entitled to take with her all her own possessions and half of their joint property, plus a portion for damages. Women were also entitled to enter all the same professions as men.

Which meant that ancient Ireland had its fair share of warrior woman, and some of them were quite kickass, by all accounts!

Now before we go any further, a warning. You know how much I love researching. I can get quite lost in it at times. Even so, when it comes to researching women in Irish mythology, there’s a bit of a black hole. You might assume that society was quite patriarchal, yet we know from texts such as the Brehon Law, and a few others that still survive, such as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, that this is not so. At least, not to the extent you might have thought.

The stories were all written down by Christian monks, and without offending any Christians reading this blog, it’s a fact that they did alter stories, and even earlier written texts, to fit in with their beliefs. The Danann and the Sidhe, for example, were seen as demons and dangerous; and women in the old stories were either ignored, left out completely, or re-written as demure, beautiful, mindless voiceless creatures whose sole aim in life was to marry, have babies, serve the men in her life and God.

So for example, we have few Queens, because powerful women were not tolerated. Key women remain nameless, such as Etain’s mortal mother, who swallowed Etain when in her butterfly incarnation, she fell into her cup of wine. She was known only as ‘the wife of’. This treatment of women in Irish mythology is quite common. And frustrating. Such details were just not seen as important.

And so I have come across references to warrior women, but can’t tell you anything about them, because they were dropped from existence. Often, even really key women, as you will find out, are only mentioned in relation to the male hero of the tale, rather than in her own right. As you will see…

There are two famous bands of warriors in Irish mythology; Fionn mac Cumhall’s Fianna, and the Red Branch Knights of Ulster.

The women of the Fianna were known as banféinní, meaning ‘female warrior-hunter’. It’s not clear whether they had their own battalion, or whether they were ranked alongside their male counterparts, but I suspect it to be the latter.

There are not many women  warriors mentioned by name in the stories of the Fianna. Ailbhe Gruadbrecc is one; her name means Ailbhe (Al-va) ‘of the freckled cheeks’, and she was a daughter of High King Cormac mac Art. It is thought she was a wife, or lover, of Fionn mac Cumall, one of Ireland’s greatest legendary heroes, but died after only a year. One might assume that she died in childbirth, being a young woman, but I suspect that as a warrior, she was more likely to have died either in battle, or on a hunting expedition. It was also said of her that she was ‘the third best woman who ever laid with a man’. Nice way to be remembered! Despite being the High King’s daughter, and married to Fionn, she clearly wasn’t important enough to bother mentioning the manner of her passing. Creadue/ Creidne was the name of a another female warrior in the Fianna about whom I could find out absolutely nothing.

Interestingly, Fionn’s incredible military and hunting success can be attributed to two women. As a child, his care was entrusted to his aunt Bodhmal and another woman named Liath Luachra. They disappeared with him into the forests of the Slieve Bloom mountans to keep him safe from his father’s killers. Bodhmal was his father’s sister, a Druid and warrior. Liath Luachra was a shadowy warrior-woman, skilled in training men for battle and hunting. Her name means ‘the grey one of Luchair’. So here we have a fine example of two high-born women of skill so exceptional, they made their charge into a famous hero, and yet all we know about them is their names.

I have found no reference to women serving in the Red Branch Knights; these were the men of another great Irish legendary hero, Cuchullain. He was a killer and a womaniser. Men wanted to be him (or kill him), and women wanted to be with him. Yet there is almost no other nuance to his personality, save one; he didn’t kill women.

Of course, Cuchullain is most famous for opposing the war efforts of Queen Medb of Connacht. The Cattle Raid of Cooley is one of the most enduring and best loved of Irish mythological stories. I have mentioned Medb loads of times in this blog, so I’m not going to go into any great detail here. Suffice it to say that she went to war over possession of a bull, in order that she could claim her husband, Aillil, did not possess more wealth than her. I guess she had a pretty big ego, that she was prepared to risk so many lives for her pride; either that, or she was made to look like an evil cow (sorry, pardon the pun), an example of what can happen when women get into power.

What I love about her story though, is how earthy it is. It holds nothing back. For example, she had many husbands and lovers, and was said to require 30 men a day to satisfy her sexual appetite, if her lover Fergus wasn’t around. I guess virility was linked with power and strength, even among women. Even her menstrual cycle is mentioned;

“Then her issue of blood came upon Medb and she said: ‘Fergus, cover the retreat of the men of Ireland that I may pass my water’. ‘By my conscience’ said Fergus, ‘It is ill-timed and it is not right to do so’. ‘Yet I cannot but do so’ said Medb, ‘for I shall not live unless I do’… Medb passed her water and it made three great trenches in each of which a household can fit. Hence the place is called Fúal Medba (Medb’s piss). “

Táin Bó Cúailnge from the Book of Leinster

As well as directing the battle, making decisions on military strategy, deals and alliances (which often included the offer of her ‘friendly thighs’), it seems Medb was also involved in the actual fighting, as Cuchullain tells his physician of a spear wound she gave him.

Yet again, we find that this famous hero was trained by a woman. Scathach (Ska-ha) was a female warrior who had a military training academy, Dún Scáith meaning ‘fortress of shadows’ on the Isle of Skye. Doesn’t sound very inviting, does it? And indeed, the only way Cuchullain can enter is by leaping across a deep ravine, thus risking death. He makes it, however, proving himself worthy. Students travelled far and wide to train under her. Cuchullain had many adventures whilst he was there, including becoming the lover of Uathach, Scathach’s daughter after breaking her fingers… don’t ask! When Aoife, Scathach’s sister and rival threatens her, Cuchullain fights Aoife in single combat. When he defeats her, he is so turned on by her battle skills, that he spares her life if she sleeps with him. Subsequently, she becomes pregnant with his son, Connla. Connla’s story is tragic and beautiful, one of my favourite legends, but I’ll not tell it here. It needs its own page.

When Cuchullain completes his training, he returns to Ulster to claim Emer as his bride. He kills her father, and carries her off in triumph, only to be confronted by an army led by another warrior woman, Scenmed, Emer’s sister or aunt, who attempt unsuccessfully to rescue her.

Nessa, Queen of Ulster, was another fiery and scheming warrior woman. She deceived Fergus out of his throne and installed her son Conchobar upon it, whereupon Fergus went to Connacht to join Medb and became her lover. She was originally called Assa meaning ‘gentle’. When her foster-family are ruthlessly murdered, she forms her own band of 27 fianna to track down the killer, and changes her name to Ní-assa, meaning ‘not gentle’. And if that’s not kickass, I don’t know what is.

Muirisc was a lesser known female warrior. She was the daughter of Úgaine Mór, known as Hugony the Great, who was the 66th High King of Ireland, according to the Annals. She had 22 brothers and 2 sisters, and her father, being fair-minded, divided Ireland into 25 portions allotting one to each of his children. This arrangement was said to have lasted 300 years, until the provinces were established by Medb’s father, Eochu Feidlech. Muirisc’s domain extended over Mag Muirisce in Co Mayo, and her Dun lay beneath the slopes of Cruachan Aigli, the Conical Mountain, later to be called Croagh Patrick. She was a sea-captain and a warrior, famed for her bold and daring deeds.

Of course everyone has heard of the Morrigan, the triple aspect female deity said to preside over war-mongery, strife and sovereignty. She was said to have flown over the battle field in the form of a crow, crying harsh encouragement to her men, and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy. I suspect she was pretty nifty with a  weapon, too.

I’d particularly like to mention Macha at this point. Sometimes, she is mentioned as one of the Morrigan sisterhood, sometimes not. She was the wife of Nuada Argetlam, who led the invasion of the Tuatha de Danann against the Fir Bolg to claim Ireland. She participated in both battles, and was finally killed as she defended her fallen husband from the Fomori giant-king, Balor of the Evil Eye. That’s devotion for you.

Finally, I couldn’t draw this post to an end without mentioning Brigid. Brigid was the Goddess of Spring, and is associated with wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, blacksmithing, healing ability, and druidic knowledge. She was particularly well loved for her kindness and gentleness. For me, she is the epitome of mythological womanhood; not only did she embody all the much sought after female attributes, including fertility as the Goddess presiding over Spring, but she could conduct herself with skill and aplomb in the forge. Not only could the girl forge a sword, but she could wield it like a maniac too; her skill in warfare is often overlooked in favour of her more ladylike ones.

So there you have it; equality of the sexes on the battlefields of Irish mythology. Who would have thought it?


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Goddess of Spring

Goddess of Spring www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Goddess of Spring
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Happy Imbolc! Today is the first day of Celtic spring, a tradition known in Ireland as Imbolc. This weekend we’ve had snow, we’ve had torrential rain, we’ve had wild winds, and we’ve had fog… it certainly doesn’t feel spring-like, and I wonder if the seasons have gradually slipped out of sync with the calender.

Today I was going to bring you to somewhere special, to a place associated with Brigid, but I’ve been ill this week, and so have my kids, a voyage of discovery out in the countryside just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m going to tell you a little bit about Brigid.

I feel a connection with many characters from Irish mythology, but of them all, Brigid is the one I am most drawn to. Brigid was the daughter of the Dagda, a Druid and High King of the Tuatha de Danann, an advanced race with seemingly supernatural powers, who invaded Ireland some 4000 years ago.

Her feast day is celebrated at Imbolc, which falls half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and is usually held on the first day of February to welcome the arrival of Spring.

Imbolc (pronounced I-molk) is one of four ancient Celtic/Gaelic festivals, the others being Beltaine, celebrated on May 1st; Lughnasadh, on Aug 1st; and Samhain, held on Nov 1st.

These major festivals were celebrated with the lighting of huge fires. My favourite explanation of the Old Irish word Imbolc comes from imb-fholc, meaning ‘to thoroughly wash/ cleanse’. To me, this is clearly a reference to the ritual cleansing and purification of fire and smoke.

However, it is generally accepted to mean ‘in the belly’, with reference to the pregnancy of ewes. Indeed, the C10th manuscript known as Cormac’s Glossary explains it as oimelc, or ‘ewe’s milk’. As such, Brigid has popularly become associated with the onset of the lambing season.

Sheep are not a native species of animal to Ireland; they are thought to have been introduced by Neolithic settlers some time after 4000 BC, so there would certainly have been sheep around in Brigid’s day. However, they don’t get much mention in Irish mythology, which is highly unusual; almost every other animal, wild or domestic, did.

The Danann were well known for their milk-white cattle, indeed, cattle were highly prized among our ancient ancestors, as the many stories of cattle raids, real and mythological, through the ages will attest. Queen Medb was famous for going to war over a bull, as told in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, for example. Cows were used as a measure of currency, as a measure of value, and as a measure of wealth.

In the ancient text known as the Lebor Gebála Érenn, Brigid was said to have kept  two royal cattle called Fea and Feimhean, the Boar King known as Torc Triath, and Cirba, who was King of the wethers. In case you don’t know, a wether is a castrated male sheep. She owned a number of castrated male sheep. No lactating ewes.

So it’s very interesting that in the tower on Glastonbury Tor, there is a carving which depicts her milking, not a sheep, but a cow.

Brigid was herself credited with the gifts of healing, of poetic inspiration, and metalworking. As with many of the Irish female deities, for example, the Morrigan (Badb-Anann-Macha), and the Sisters of Sovereignty (Eriu-Fodhla-Banbha), she was a Triune Goddess, meaning she was one and three all at the same time.

This triple aspect of their femininity related to the stages of womanhood, namely maiden-mother-crone. Unusually, Brigid’s triple aspect revolved around her skills, poetry- smithcraft-healing. I like that she stood out from the crowd, and I like her combination of skills.

Whilst we are on the subject of the triple nature of the Goddess, Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach, or Crone, gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. If she intends to make the winter long and hard, she will bless Imbolc with a bright sunny day, so she can gather plenty of firewood to last her a long time. If Imbolc is a day of foul weather, it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.

The name Brigid means ‘bright/ exalted one’, from the Sanskrit brahti, and is thought to refer to her association with fire and the sun. When she was born (at sunrise), a tower of flame was said to have extended from the top of her head to the heavens, giving her family home the appearance of being on fire. This is how the C10th text, Cormac’s Glossary describes here;

“Brighid, a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. She is the female sage, woman of wisdom, Brighid the Goddess whom poets venerated as very great and famous for her protecting care. She was therefore called ‘Goddess of the Poets’. Her sisters were Brighid the female physician, and Brighid the female smith; among all Irishmen, a goddess was called ‘Brighid’. Brighid is from breo-aigit or ‘fiery arrow’.”

I like the description of the fiery arrow. I think it is more fitting for her role as a poetess, that she would receive divine inspiration or knowledge in this way. It also corresponds with the glowing white-hot iron she would have manipulated in the fire of the forge, and the light she would have used as energy to conduct her spiritual healing. However, modern scholars are not in agreement with Cormac.

Brigid married Bres, of mixed Danann-Fomori heritage, with whom she had a son, Ruadan. Bres was an unpopular High King; he was mean and a tyrant, and after seven years, the Danann opposed his rule and reinstated Nuada as their leader.

Bres enlisted the help of his Fomori relatives and attacked the Denann. During the battle, Ruadan entered the Denann camp on a mission to kill Goibniu, their master-smith, but was himself killed in the attempt. According to an ancient text known as Cath Maige Tuireadh, Brigid collapsed in grief over her son’s body, crying her sorrow, and was thus said to have invented the act of keening (in Irish caoine, or cine) for the dead.

It is thought that following Bres’s death, she later went on to have three sons, Ichvar, Ichvarba and Brian, with a man named Tuirean. After that, her name seems to drop out of the stories.

You can read more about Brigid and Imbolc in my other posts…

Irish Mythology The County Cavan Cult of Brigid

Irish Mythology Brigid, Queen of Imbolc

Today it’s Imbolc, and of course it’s SNOWING!

Irish Mythology The Tuatha de Danann Come to Ireland

Ireland also has a Saint Brigid, whose feast day is also celebrated on 1st February. Some say she is the Christianisation of a much loved pagan Goddess that the Irish people refused to give up. It is also said that she started out as a Druidess who tended the eternal flame at the Shrine of Brigid, and was responsible for bringing about its conversion to Christianity. However, that is a post for another day…

Irish Mythology | The Rough Month of the Cuckoo

scairbhinThe Scairbhín ( pronounced skara-veen) is an Irish weather phenomenon I know only too well, but until very recently, did not know it had a name. It translates as ‘the rough month of the cuckoo’ from the phrase garbh mi na gcuach, and refers to the period comprising the last two weeks of April, and the first two weeks of May.

These few weeks are often rampant with changeable extremes of weather patterns. In Ireland, we say you can expect to experience all four seasons in one day, and this is certainly true of the Scarbhín.

Our ancient ancestors who worked the land and were much closer to the seasons knew this as ‘the hungry time’ of the year. This is because they were busy planting and tending their crops which were too young and immature to produce food as yet.

But the Scairbhín was actually nature’s way of ensuring the crops success. Initial ‘unseasonal’ warm weather would enable seeds to germinate, a sudden cold snap would then serve to ‘harden off’ the young plants, and the howling gales which followed would distribute pollen.

So what has this to do with cuckoos?

Well, the Scairbhín coincided with the return of the cuckoo. The call of the cuckoo is often heard when the bird itself cannot be seen, which lends it an air of mystique. It was therefore seen as something of a herald of early spring and the milder weather which was sure to come, but which had not yet quite appeared.

Of course, the ancient Irish had quite a store of cuckoo lore; it was considered lucky to hear its call whilst out walking, but if you were to hear it whilst lying in your bed, you were sure to experience illness in the family before the cuckoo departed Irish shores for the winter.

If you heard the call whilst you had no money in your money, you were likely to remain poor for the rest of the year. Hmmm… so that explains it; I hear cuckoos most often whilst out walking with Indi, and I never carry money on me when walking the dog…

There are places in Ireland which have acquired their names through their connections with the weather. One of my favourites is Magha an tSamraidh, which means ‘the Plain of Summer’, and is located in Co Kerry within view of the twin peaks of the Paps of Anu, I believe. Incidentally, Tir na tSamraidh means ‘Land of Summer’, and is the name of one of the Otherworld lands… heaven on earth, perhaps?

Cnoc Firinne in Co Limerick means ‘Hill of Truth’, and is so named for the accurate weather predictions made on it over the millennia, based on cloud cover and formation, visibility,  and such like.

Closer to home, Loughcrew, also known as Sliabh na Caileach in Irish, or ‘Mountain of the Hag/ Crone’ is the site of a quaint Spring legend. It is said that if Imbolc (the Goddess Brigid’s feast day and first day of Spring, February 1st) dawns fine and bright, it means that winter has not yet relinquished its cold wet grip, and the crone is out and about collecting firewood to keep her warm. If, on the other hand, Imbolc dawns cold, wild and wet, it is a good sign, for it means the crone has no need of extra firewood, and is sleeping in her bed.

Irish Mythology | The Swan

 

castle in the ocean with swans and waves

Swans feature often in tales of Irish mythology, the most famous of which is undoubtedly that of the Children of Lir.

At over 1.5 metres in length, weighing over 15 kilos, and with a wingspan of up to 3 metres, the swan is considered one of our largest flying birds.  There are seven species of swans around the world, but in Ireland we are graced by the presence of the Mute Swan, which can be identified by its characteristic orange bill with its ‘bump’ at the base, and its striking black facial markings.

Did you know that an adult male is called a ‘cob’, a female is called a ‘pen’, and the young are called ‘cygnets’? A group of swans is known as a ‘bevy’, but when in flight, they are called a ‘wedge’. The Irish call them Eala (pronounced ellah). Did you know also that they can live up to twenty years of age in the wild, much much longer in captivity?

close up with white swans

Swans beaks have serrated edges that enable them to tear at the aquatic plants and algae they love to eat, but they will occasionally also consume molluscs, small fish, frogs and worms.

Rather strangely, swans are able to drink salt water.  An unusual gland located beneath the skin near their eyes extracts salt from their bloodstream, concentrates it into a liquid, and removes it from the body by expelling it from the nares, the holes in the bill.

Swan meat was considered a great delicacy in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, reserved for the wealthy and the noble.  Today, the British Monarch still retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, a tradition which is thought to go back as far as the C12th, and which was formalised with the Royal Charter of Edward IV, passed in 1482.

Indi and the swans
The mutt-hound meeting two curious, gentle swans on Lough Ramor. They actually swam up to him, it was a beautiful moment.

Swans are seen as a symbol of love and fidelity around the world because of their custom of mating for life. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that in many cultures and mythologies, the swan is associated with music, love, purity and the soul.

They are also seen as a symbol of light, often because of associations with sun deities, but in Ireland it is because they return from their migrations at the very beginning of Spring, just as the days are lengthening, and the sun is regaining its strength. In this way, the swan is connected with Imbolc, the first day of Spring, and thus also with the Goddess Brigid.

Interestingly, the Swan was sacred not only to the Druids, who saw it as representing the soul, and thought it able to travel between the mortal realm and the Otherworld, but also to the Bards. In ancient Ireland, the bards were very highly esteemed in society, and as a mark of their privileged position, they would wear a special ceremonial cloak. It was called a tuigen, and was made of songbird feathers, but the neck, or cowl, would be composed of the skin and feathers of a swan.

In Irish mythology, swans are usually depicted as shape-shifters, capable of transforming into human and bird form at will. They could be distinguished from normal  swans by the gold or silver chain which hung about their necks.

This can be seen in the Tochmarc Étaíne,  also known as the ‘Wooing of Étaín’,  an early text of the Irish Mythological Cycle.

Midir of the Tuatha de Denann falls in love with beautiful Étaín, daughter of Ailill, mortal king of the Ulaid. They are married, but his jealous first wife, Fúamnach, casts a spell on her, turning her into a purple butterfly. After many years of aimless wandering, poor Étaín falls into a glass of wine, where she is swallowed by the wife of Étar, a warrior of the Ulaid, and is reborn.

In time, Étaín is married to the High King Eochu Airem, but Midir hears of this and wants her back. He challenges the king to a game of fidcheal, losing every game and having to complete forfeits. Finally, they agree to play for an kiss from Étaín, and this time, Midir wins. As the two embrace, they are transformed into swans, and so make their escape.

P.W. Joyce relates the myth of the Swan-Woman of the Boyne in his book ‘The Wonders of Ireland’ (1911). In it, he tells how  the tenth century poet Erard Mac Cossi threw a stone at a swan which fell to earth and transformed into a woman. She claimed to have been stolen by demons as she lay on her deathbed, and that they also travelled in the shape of swans. Clearly, the word ‘demons’ refers to the magical folk, who were regarded with fear and suspicion in Christian times.

The Children of Lir is a very popular Irish legend from the Mythological Cycle. When Lir’s wife, Aoibh, dies, leaving four young children, the family is distraught. Lir remarries, but Aoife is jealous of the children, and plots to get rid of them. She turns them into swans, and banishes them for 900 years. Only the sound of the new God’s bell can restore them, and there is just time to baptise them before they die. (this story has been heavily altered to suit later Christian beliefs… can you tell?)

In another story, Aengus, the God of Love, falls in love with a girl he has seen in his dreams. It took three years of searching the length and breadth of the land before the girl of his dreams was found. Her name was Caer Ibormeith. Every second Samhain, she and 149 other girls, chained in pairs, were magically transformed into swans for a year.

Aengus was told he could marry her if he could identify her in her swan form. Aengus turned himself into a swan and recognised her at once. They flew away together, singing beautiful music that put all listeners asleep for three days and nights.

There is another reference to the singing of swans in classical literature; the ‘swan song’ is an ancient Greek metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death, based on the belief that the silent Mute swan sings a beautiful song in the moment just before death.

With that beautiful, sad and romantic notion in mind, I leave you with this…

 

 

Irish Mythology | The County Cavan Cult of Brigid

Replica of the Corleck Head, Co Cavan Museum

Easter is the festival of the pagan Goddess of Spring, Eostre, or Ostara, which was adopted by Christians as the resurrection day of Jesus. In Ireland, the beginning of Spring is celebrated by the festival of Imbolc on February 1st, which also happens to be the feast day of the Goddess Brigid.

According to the Cath Maige Tuireadh and the Lebor Gabála Érenn, two ancient documents containing Ireland’s mythic origins, Brigid was a princess of the Tuatha de Denann, and daughter of the Dagda. She was married to the tyrant-king, Bres, who turned his back on the Tuatha de Denann in favour of his Fomori heritage.

Patron of poetry, smith-craft and healing, she was deeply loved and revered by our Irish ancestors. It came as no surprise to me, therefore, to learn of a cult which had worshipped Brigid from pre-Christian times well into the C19th… but what did blow me away was that this took place in an area of Ireland only ten minutes drive away from where I live.

In 1855, an extraordinary artefact was unearthed in a small quarry on Corleck Hill near Bailieborough in Co Cavan. This unusual early Iron-Age stone head was 32cms high, made from sandstone, and had three faces, each one almost identical with a narrow mouth, bossed eyes, and a rather enigmatic expression.

Corleck Hill, also known as the Hill of the Three Gods of Art
Corleck Hill, also known as the Hill of the Three Gods of Art

Corleck Hill, from the Irish corr, meaning ‘round hill’ and leac, meaning ‘flat stone/ rock’, has a long association with the worship of the old Gods. It is also known by another name, Sliabh na trí Dána, meaning ‘the hill of three Gods’.

In Irish mythology, the term ‘Trí de Dána’ refers to the Three Gods of Art; Goibniu the smith, Luchtaine the carpenter, and Credne the goldsmith. Could the stone head with its three faces represent this trio of  skilled craftsmen/ deities, after which the hill of its resting place was named?

But what does this have to do with Brigid? Well, as one of the Denann, and daughter of the Dagda, she was contemporary with the Three Gods of Art. When the Denann invaded Ireland and fought against the Fir Bolg, Brigid was with them.

Now it gets really interesting; they settled in an area called Magh Rein. And guess where Magh Rein turns out to be? Only right next door to Magh Slecht (where St Patrick was said to have defeated Crom Cruach), on the borders of Co Cavan and Co Leitrim. From there, it’s not a long trek to Corleck, even without modern modes of transport.

Brigid’s festival was known to have been celebrated with huge fires on Corleck  Hill at Imbolc. Even more intriguing, the Corleck head was not the only such idol to have been discovered there…

The Stone Head of Brigid was said to have been worshipped as a triple deity at a shrine on top of the nearby Hill of Drumeague. Interestingly, her triple aspect celebrated her skills as a poet, a smith and a healer, rather than the typical maiden, mother and crone of womanhood, and thus we see another connection with the crafts of the Trí de Dána.

It’s certainly possible that the Denann could have roamed into the region now known as Bailieborough in the search for raw materials to supply their trades. Perhaps the arrival of Brigid and the Three Gods of Art into their homeland so impressed the local people, that they honoured and remembered them in their rituals of worship.

When Christianity claimed Cavan, the head of Brigid was hidden in a Neolithic tomb. Brigid was well loved for her protection and care; it’s quite likely that her followers were reluctant to give her up for the new god. But eventually, perhaps inevitably, her stone head was brought into the local church, where she was canonised as St Bride of Knockbride.

The 'new' Church of Knockbride.
The ‘new’ Church of Knockbride.

Unfortunately, this treasured idol has since sadly gone missing, but there is a curious tale attached to its disappearance.

When the church was rebuilt in its current position, Fr Owen O’Reilly, who was the parish priest between 1840 and 1844, brought the head from the old church in the west of the parish to the new one in the east.

He claimed that as he was passing Roosky Lake, the head ‘jumped’ out of the carriage of its own accord and fell into the water, never to be seen again.

Roosky Lake... who knows what secrets lurk beneath those still waters?
Roosky Lake… who knows what secrets lurk beneath those still waters?

However, there is also a story which says it lies buried beneath the new church, nestled among the foundations, perhaps in the hope that she will continue to bring her blessing upon those who worship there.

It is interesting to note that at some point between 1832 and 1900, the passage tomb, stone circle and large 64m embankment which crowned Corleck Hill, was systematically demolished and removed. It could be that this was where Brigid’s head was originally hidden to keep her safe from Christian priests.

Whether this act of destruction was instigated by zealous Fr O’Reilly, who was so keen to banish Brigid’s influence, or was simply the effect of farming on the landscape, we’ll probably never know. Although I would add that cattle graze very happily around other ancient monuments in Ireland.

Although the stone head of Brigid is now lost to us, the Corleck Head can be seen at the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, and a fairly authentic looking replica stares rather disconcertingly out of a glass case in the local Co Cavan Museum.