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. 😍


COME ON A JOURNEY OF ANCIENT IRELAND WITH ME.

Join my mailing list and receive your free book, as well as getting your Monthly Myth Fix!

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.)


COME ON A JOURNEY OF ANCIENT IRELAND WITH ME.

Join my mailing list to receive your FREE book, and receive your monthly installment of my Marvelous Irish Myths.

 

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’.


Can't get enough Irish mythology? Let me feed your addiction.
COME ON A JOURNEY OF ANCIENT IRELAND WITH ME.

Click to join my mailing list and receive your free book, and a monthly newsletter crammed with more marvelous myths.

 

 

The Stone of the Big Man

I drove past it three times. Eventually, I stopped in the local village shop for a bottle of water and directions.

The young woman behind the counter gave me a friendly smile. “We’re always after getting visitors in looking for that stone,” she said. “Sell a lot of bottles of water that way.”

cuchulainns-stoneThe little old man who was flirting shamelessly with her when I walked in took me outside and pointed out the way, then mounted his equally ancient push-bike. “Used to pick ‘taters in that field when I was a lad,” he added. “The whole village turned out for it.” He gave me a wave and pedalled slowly off.

Surprisingly for Irish directions (I’m sure you know the old joke – ‘Hmmm… well, I wouldn’t start from here…’ 😭), they were spot on. A couple of minutes drive up the road, and over a stile on the right… how could I have missed it?

Because the bloody sign was tiny and hidden by an overgrown hedge, that’s how, and the stone was way off at the other end of a huge field and couldn’t be seen from the road.

It was well worth the trip, though. That thing is HUGE!

Clochafarmore, or Cloch an Fhir Mhóir in Irish means ‘the stone of the big man’, and is located in the townland of Rathiddy, at Knockbridge, in County Louth.

You might be thinking GIANT, and in a way, you’d be right… this particular man was a giant in reputation, if not in physicality. You probably know him as Cuchulainn, legendary hero of Ulster.

Cuchulainn was born Setanta, son of lightning God, Lugh Lámhfada and the mortal princess, Dechtire, who was the sister of Ulster king, Conchubar. Even as a child, he showed great skill beyond his years in the sports of wrestling, hurling, and the arts of warriors.

When he was seven, he went to train at the court of the king. It was during this time that he earned the name of Cuchullain – Cullain’s Hound – by killing Cullain’s fiercest guard  dog as the brute leaped to attack him.

But everyone knows that story, so I’m not going to tell it here. As everyone also knows the other story he’s most famous for, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, or the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, in which Queen Medb of Connacht starts a war with Ulster over possession of a bull, and how Cuchulainn holds off her army by fighting a series of single combats with Medb’s choicest warriors.

No, I’m not going to tell that one, either. You don’t have the time, and I don’t have the blog space for that epic.

But I will tell you how the Cloch an Fhir Mhóir got its name….

After a visit to his mother, Cuchulainn was returning to battle against the men of Connacht when he came across a woman crying and washing his bloody clothing in a stream. No matter how much she scrubbed at it, she could not wash out the stain of blood, and he knew it was an omen of his death.

He continued on his journey and after a while came across three old women roasting a dog on spits made from rowan wood, and they bid him sit down and eat with them. Cuchulainn was now in a quandary, for he was honour-bound by two geasa: never to eat dog meat, and never to refuse hospitality when it was offered.

So he decided it would be more dishonourable to refuse the food, and sat down with them to eat. But no sooner had the first bite of dog-flesh passed his lips, and he felt a weakness claim his body, and he knew this was an omen of his impending death.

After his meal, he continued on his way and soon came across his enemy who were arrayed in battle formation against him; they made a wall of their shields and strengthened it with their strongest men in the centre, and their Druids prepared to take his spears from him, for they had a prophecy in which three kings would be killed by those spears.

When Cuchullain saw them, he ordered his charioteer, Laeg, to drive straight at them…

“and Cuchulain came against them in his chariot, doing his three thunder feats, and he used his spear and his sword in such a way, that their heads, and their hands, and their feet, and their bones, were scattered through the plain of Muirthemne; like the sands on the shore, like the stars in the sky, like the dew in May, like snow-flakes and hailstones, like leaves of the trees, like buttercups in a meadow, like grass under the feet of cattle on a fine summer day. It is red that plain was with the slaughter Cuchulain made when he came crashing over it.”

from Lady Gregory’s The Death of Cuchulainn

“Give your spear to me,” called one of the Druids.

“You are not so much in want of it as I am myself,” Cuchulainn growled in reply (love that… Lady G.’s words, not mine, however😜). With that he cast the spear at the Druid, and it went through his head and killed the men also on either side.

Lugaid, Cuchulainn’s enemy, retrieved the spear and cast it at Cuchulainn as he charged by on his chariot, but his aim was not true, and it pierced Laeg, and so it was that the King of Charioteers was killed that day by the Hound’s very own spear.

“Give me your spear,” demanded a second Druid, and Cuchulainn dutifully cast it at him. It passed through his head, and Erc took it this time, and fired it at Cuchulainn, but he charged by in his chariot too quickly for Erc. The missile missed and went through his horse, the great Grey of Macha instead, and so it was that the King of Horses died that day by Cuchulainn’s second spear.

“Give me your spear,” yelled a third Druid, and without delay, Cuchulainn hurled it at him as hard as he could, and it passed clean through the unfortunate man’s head. Lugaid siezed the weapon and threw it, and this time it found its mark: it passed through Cuchulainn’s body, and as he watched ‘his bowels came out on the cushions of the chariot’ he knew he had received his death wound.

‘Then he gathered up his bowels into his body’ and tied himself with his belt to a tall pillar-stone standing close by so that he would meet his death standing on his feet like a warrior.

His enemies gathered at a distance but did not dare approach; no one would be foolish enough to meet the great Cuchulainn in close combat, even with his death wound upon him. Three days they waited, until finally the Morrigan landed on his shoulder in her guise of black raven feathers, and they knew he was dead.

And so it was that the prophecy was fulfilled, and the great King of Heroes was killed by his very own spear.

Stones such as these are thought to have been set up in the bronze age, possibly as memorials to some special person or event, or perhaps as territorial markers. I’d also like to point out that not everything vaguely cylindrical and upstanding has phallic significance.

The area in which Cuchulainn’s Stone is located is named An Breisleach Mor in Irish, meaning ‘the Great Carnage’, and the field is still known locally as the ‘Field of Slaughter’.  Perhaps there really was a battle which took place there in the far distant past.

A bronze age spear head was found near the stone some time in the 1920s, and handed over for safekeeping to the parish priest, a Fr Seamus Quinn, after whom the local GAA pitch was named, and subsequently was lost. It’s a nice touch, though… another of those little life coincidences which connect us to the stories of the past.

Cloch an Fhir Mhóir stands over 3m (10ft) tall, and 1.3m wide. It has a deep fissure in it, which looks as if it could have been caused by a lightning strike, at least to my fanciful imagination, which would be fitting, since the Hound’s father was Lugh. I can imagine Lugh lashing out at the stone in fury and sorrow after his son was so cruelly killed there.

It’s a very peaceful place, full of light and space and wind and sky, set on top of a rolling hill, with a wonderful wide panoramic view across the valley. I leaned with my back against the stone, like the hero once did, and could almost see the approach of the army, watching and waiting fearfully for death.

No crow landed on my shoulder, and so far I’m still here…


Want more mythology straight to your inbox? Sign up to my mailing list.

COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.

Or try one of these…

The Truth About Irish Mythology

I learned something devastating last week, and it was not what I wanted to hear.

There is no such thing as Irish Mythology. It doesn’t exist.

Me last week, when I found out the truth about Irish mythology...
Me last week, when I found out the truth about Irish mythology…

Truth hurts, right? I wanted to crawl into a hole and cry. I actually want there to be some possible reality in heroes like Cuchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhall; in great ancient kings like Cormac mac Airt and Nuada of the Silver Hand, and in powerful women like Medb. I want the tales of Druids and magic and battles and tragic love to be based on some elusive fact. Not only do they help me escape from the horrors and hardships of the modern day world, but in looking back, those stories give me hope for the future: they tell us that even in dark times, there is a light in humanity that still shines. And that elusive quality, like mist drifting over still water, is what draws me in… I lost myself in that mist, and drowned in that water, and it was like swimming in wine… my favourite white sparkly kind! 😋

So what do we have, then? Those stories must come from somewhere.

What we have is a bunch of texts written during the medieval ages. Whilst they may be masterpieces in themselves, and they truly are, there is no evidence that they are anything more than the fiction of talented and imaginative medieval writers.

Think about it: those stories were written down between six and nine hundred years after the events they tell were supposed to have taken place. What did medieval scribes know about the Iron age? They had no books or writings from the peoples of that time, no archaeology to give them an insight. All they had was their imaginations.

I know what you’re thinking; what about the oral tradition these stories were copied from?

We have no evidence that such an oral tradition existed. Even if it did, and non-literate societies all have an oral tradition, so more than likely it did exist, but even so, we still have no evidence. We can make assumptions, but assumptions are not reliable, they are just guesswork.

And, as my lecturer explained, anthropological studies in non-literate communities in Africa, for example, have shown how stories from the oral tradition are subject to change, not only from one re-telling to another, or embellished in the individual style of each storyteller, but altered in quite monumental ways, from one generation to the next. If you ever played the game of Chinese Whispers as a child, you will know exactly what this means; words that are not recorded in some physical way are subject to distortion. It’s inevitable.

We cannot assume that these medieval scribes were fixing these spoken words in ink on vellum. It is quite likely that they were, but there is no evidence of that. What we have are faded manuscripts written by medieval scribes collected into ancient books preserved by subsequent generations and interpreted as history.

Even as late as the 1980s and 1990s, scholars believed that these texts offered a ‘window on the Iron age’. No one looked at them critically. But since then, a new way of thinking has developed. Archaeologists’ findings do not support the view that these medieval texts are describing the Iron age, and this has made people look more closely at the medieval writings. What they found was that these texts actually reflect medieval society; more than likely, they are commenting on their own society, but setting events in what they believe, or imagine, the Iron age to be like.

But why? Why would they do this?

Perhaps it was safer to criticize society by displacing it, and setting it in an earlier, far distant time.  Perhaps it is pure imagination, or speculation. Perhaps they wondered what Ireland was like before Christianity and civilization came and saved it. Maybe they wanted to show how tough and dangerous life was then. Maybe they just wanted to tell a good story. We just don’t know.

Maybe I should close this blog, get my coat, and go home.

But all is not lost, for I am the Guardian of Irish Mythology, remember?

In Celtic and Irish Medieval Studies at the moment, we are reading the 1st rescension of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, probably the most famous and well scrutinized of all tales of Irish mythology. It’s crazy-mad stuff, and I love it! I do wonder if these scribes were high on magic mushrooms when they were writing… perhaps that’s something a few of us modern writers should try. LOL!

Anyway, as you will know if you have been following this blog, Queen Medb is made out to be something of an egotistical, battle-crazed, irrational harlot who goes to war over possession of a big brown bull, just to prove a point to her husband, which is that she is just as equal as he in terms of wealth.

This story does not show women, particularly powerful ones, in a very flattering light. Medb consistently makes irrational decisions and judgements throughout the story and is rescued each time by the logic of her male companions, such as her husband, Aillil, and her lover, Fergus.

As my lecturer says, this story is designed to prove that women make bad leaders in battle, and bad Queens in general, that the female mind is incapable of strategy, logic, wisdom etc.

I don’t deny the story does this… it’s obvious. But I wonder why, in the Christian world of medieval Ireland, where women had been living a subservient and domestic role in society for hundreds of years, why was this message necessary? Women did not hold military power, and Queens were such in name only, usually through marriage. What was happening in the wider medieval period which necessitated the reinforcement of this message concerning a woman’s proper place?

Medb is given an inglorious death (click to read my post on 5 Weirdest Hero Deaths); she is killed by a cheese (yes, a cheese!) hitting her on the head while she is vulnerable and unprotected, just a weak and unaware woman bathing in a lake. A fitting end for the terrible Queen?

Could the Táin really have come from the tattered remains of a much older, perhaps popular, story after all, in which a Queen really did lead a battle? Was it taken and manipulated by medieval scribes to show that no; women make terrible leaders and should never be allowed such power? There is no evidence, so in my new guise as a student, I should not even be suggesting this. But I’m going to anyway.

The earlier part of my course focused on archaeology of the peoples labelled as ‘Celtic’ who lived in central Europe. We looked at the evidence of burials under huge mounds, particularly , at the most high status burials. Among them there are burials of women which clearly show they are of very high status indeed, equivalent to their male counterparts at the time; the burial of the ‘Princess’ at Vix, for example, and the chariot burials of women at Wetwang (video) in Yorkshire.

These are Iron age female burials, but they are not Irish Iron age female burials. However, they do indicate that some women could rise to power and hold as much wealth as men at that time.

I see no reason then to doubt that Ireland could have had its own powerful Queens during the Iron age, and if it did, undoubtedly there would have been stories circulating about her. Many of them may have been lost, perhaps deliberately, as they did not describe the ideal Christian woman. Others, such as the Táin, may have been retained, and ‘adapted’ to teach the true nature of a woman, and her proper place.

I’m just a newbie student at the beginning of my studies, but I think you know by now that I don’t just accept what I’m told, I question it. I’m quietly taking all this new information in, and digesting. The cogs are whirring, albeit loudly and rustily. I have no evidence to support that last paragraph, but I’m sure going to look for some.

By the way, scholars who believe that the medieval texts do in fact refer to the Iron age are called ‘nativists’; those who don’t are called ‘antinativists’. Apparently, people get quite passionate and heated during conferences and debates, even leading to fisticuffs! Who knew mild-mannered and studious bookish people and scholars could get so aggressive over their points of view? A little bit of the spirit of Cuchulainn still lives on in those who study him, I guess. 😂


 Want more mythology straight to your inbox? Sign up to my mailing list.

COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.

Or try one of these…

The Fairy Folk of Ireland

What kind of image does that expression, ‘the fairy folk’ conjure up when you hear it? Something a bit like this…

Maybe you see something a little more ‘Tinkerbell’, a sweet pretty little thing with gossamer wings, so tiny it could fit in the palm of your hand?

That’s the traditional view, but let me tell you, Ireland’s fairies are a whole other kettle of fish. Oh, and by the way, don’t ever refer to them with the ‘F’-word, as I have done here… they are not over-fond of the term, and may do you a mischief you may come to regret!

In Ireland, these magical beings are known as ‘the Sidhe’ (prounounced Shee), also the Aos Sí, and Daoine Sídhe, and in Scottish lore, the Sith, although it’s still pronounced the same. They are named after the mounds which dot the Irish landscape, and which are said to lead to their homes below the ground. In folklore, they are often referred to as ‘the Fair Folk’ (hence fairy), or the ‘little people’, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Well. You know what I mean.

They are not tiny. They never were. In fact, they were larger than the indigenous people of Ireland. Think of the elves from Lord of the Rings: beautiful, terrible, tall, slim, powerful, magical… well, where do you think Tolkien got his ideas from? He borrowed from many mythologies to create his masterpiece, and he wasn’t the only one… Star Wars, anybody?

According to the Lebor Gebala Erenn, an ancient medieval text describing Ireland’s history as its Christian scribes understood it, the Danann were a supernatural race of people who invaded Ireland and defeated the Fir Bolg people, who ruled at the time. You can read more about them in my posts, Who were the Tuatha de Danann Really? and The Tuatha de Danann Come to Ireland.

In the Book of the Dun Cow and the Book of Leinster, the Tuatha de Danann are described as ‘gods and not-gods’. This is interesting because it seems to imply that whilst they possessed many of the powers one would expect of a deity, they were god-like, rather than actual gods.

I’d just like to point out here, that although it is popularly believed that the Danann constitute a pantheon of Celtic/ Irish pagan gods, the ancient texts such as Lebor Gabála Érenn and Cath Maige Tuireadh name them not as Gods but as Kings.

Now whilst this could simply be a case of demotion by monks who believed there could only be one true God, we must also consider the fact that perhaps these really are the tales of remembered chieftains, warriors and heroes of times gone by. My personal opinion is that the antiquarians of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries interpreted their archaeological findings, and the ancient texts, using the only model they had: their education in the Greek and Roman classics.

Now, back to the ‘not gods’. An example would be the question of immortality. The Danann were long-lived, but they did not live forever. They could be killed by injury, as in battle, or sickness, like any mortal, but not by old age, as they did not seem to age at all. This can be very confusing, if you think of immortality in its absolute sense, ie life everlasting.

High Kings held the crown for extraordinarily long terms. The Dagda, for example, was said to have reigned for 80 years. He eventually wasted away from a sickness caused by a wound he had received in battle from a poisoned sword.

Lugh of the Long Hand, another Danann High King, was murdered in a revenge attack, yet still popped up several centuries later to father Cuchulainn on mortal woman, Dechtire. Some years later, when Cuchulainn was grievously wounded, he returned to tend his son’s wounds for three days, and nursed him back to health. Not something a ghost could do, methinks.

In the end, the Danann were defeated and tricked out of Ireland by a race of mortal man known as the Milesians, or Sons of Mil. The Danann were forced to retreat to that half of Ireland which lay below ground, whilst the Milesions took ownership of the surface. You can read this story in my post, The Retreat of the Tuatha de Danann. From then on, the Danann and their descendants became known as ‘the Sidhe’.

According to the Book of Leinster, the Danann then took revenge on the sons of Mil by destroying their wheat and souring their milk. This apparently forced a treaty in which the Milesians were to supply the Danann with milk and butter, and no doubt other goods they no longer had access to.

The Sidhe did not disappear altogether, however; there are many stories in which they interacted with humans, although not always favourably. But as time passed, inevitably a distance grew between men and the Sidhe, and with it, distrust.

The Christians, when they came, severed any final loyalties and friendships that remained, by claiming them as devils, demons, evil spirits, and the like. This fostered fear, resentment and the rise of superstitions; gifts/ bribes would be left out in order to placate ‘the Good Folk’, for example, and fairy forts, mounds and certain trees thought of as the Sidhe’s property would not be harmed, for fear of earning their wrath.

Apart from their long lives, and apparent eternal youth, the Sidhe possessed other powers humans could not explain. They could shape-shift; the Morrigan was famous for transforming into a crow and flying across the battlefield, crying harsh encouragement to her men, and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy.

When her amorous advances were spurned by Cuchulainn, she shifted into a red-eared heifer and tried to knock him over whilst he was engaged in combat with another warrior; then she turned into an eel, wrapping herself around his legs, before finally becoming a grey wolf which lunged for his sword arm. Unperturbed, Cuchulainn managed to keep his enemy at bay whilst, of course, he defeated her every attack; he broke the cow’s leg, trampled the eel underfoot, and poked out the wolf’s eye, and went on to kill his opponent shortly after. What a hero! 😍

They also had strange, inexplicable magic. What we might call technology. Nuada was fitted with a bionic arm an arm of silver when his limb was cut off in battle; he also carried a light sabre sword of light. They arrived in spaceships dark thunder clouds in the sky and lighted on the mountain Sliab an Iarainn. Lugh had a flame-thrower burning spear. They had a sound system to rival any current band a talking rock which announced the rightful king in a roar which could be heard across the land.

Ok. It’s a bit disrespectful calling the Lia Fail a talking rock. Sorry. But you get the picture. Oh, and the Dagda had a bottomless cauldron from which everyone went satisfied, ie he fed them till they were full… any ideas on what that particular piece of technology could be?

Visitors from the Otherworld crop up often in the old stories. They often took mortal lovers. Niamh of the Golden Hair appeared on a white horse to Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhall, to confess her love for him, and took him back with her. Ciabhan, Prince of Desmond,  risked his life in a little fisherman’s curragh on the stormy high seas, chasing after Cliodhna, having spent a few hours of passion with her on the beach. And Cuchulainn actually had an affair with Fand, the wife of Manannán, the sea-God… the audacity of that man!

Interactions between man and Sidhe were not always so benign. As a boy, Fionn mac Cumhall was the only warrior capable of slaying the fire-fairy, Aillen mac Midhna, who for many years had been laying waste to the Hill of Tara with fire every Samhain festival.

Often, the Sidhe would fight amongst themselves, and sometimes, humans would be caught in the crossfire. This happened on one occasion to Fionn, when he and five members of his Fianna were hosted overnight by the Sidhe after getting lost whilst out hunting. The next morning, they awake to find they are expected to fight on behalf of their hosts against the massive Sidhe army led by Bodb Derg lined up outside the mound. Of course, being particularly honourable humans, they don’t hesitate to jump into the fight.

And that’s your lot. I could go on, but it’s nearly midnight already, and I have uni in the morning… doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? 😜


Want more mythology straight to your inbox? Sign up to my mailing list.

COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.

Or try one of these…

Flower Power in Irish Mythology

The fields and hedgerows are awash with the blaze of wildflowers right now. Sadly, I don’t think many people see them, as we are always in such a hurry to get from A to B; we are focused on the destination, not the journey.

One fellow you can’t possibly miss at the moment, though, is this…

It’s called Rosebay WillowherbIt grows taller than me, up to a height of 2m, in great swathes of vibrant eye-popping purple, and it’s everywhere! Roadsides, embankments, railway sidings, bogland, woodland, building sites, and anywhere the ground has been recently disturbed. It brightens up all the abandoned, un-loved forgotten places, and I just love it!

In ancient times, it was the first plant which grew on the hillsides after the gorse had been burnt back, which is why it was named Lus na Tine in Irish, meaning ‘fireweed’. This has become its popular name. Medicinally, its root was powdered and thought to stop internal bleeding, whilst an infusion brewed of its leaves was used to treat asthma.

Despite its proliferation, however, I could find no mention of it in Ireland’s myths, even though it is a native plant. Hopefully, someone out there with more knowledge will enlighten us in the comments.

Other wild flowers I am loving right now, and which are prolifically and delightfully in full bloom are MontbretiaFealeastram Dearg in Irish, and Fuschia, Fiúise or Deora dé in Irish, although neither of these are native to Ireland.

Montbretia in Co Kerry

In Irish mythology, Cuchulainn suffered from alternating bouts of malaise and rage. It was quite possibly drug induced, perhaps through use of Amanita, but according to the stories, he was treated by being bathed in infusions of Meadowsweet.

Meadowsweet

Its Irish name is Airgead Luachra, which I believe is translated as ‘Cuchulainn’s Belt’… perhaps he always carried it with him in a little pouch attached to his belt in case of emergency; this was how physicians of the time carried their medicines.

Interestingly, it is from this plant that aspirin is derived; meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which is a disinfectant, pain-killer and anti-inflammatory. Right now, the hedges are a-froth with its downy creamy flowers, and insects love its heady sweet scent.

In Irish, the Bluebell is known as Coinnle Corra. Of course, these delicate spring-blossoming wild flowers are long gone, but they have their place in Irish mythology: on her wedding night to Fionn mac Cumhall, Grainne was said to have mixed bluebell with tormentil and secreted it into the wedding guests’ wine, thus sending them all to sleep so she could elope with her beloved Diarmuid.

Although it was traditionally used to stop bleeding, and also as a diuretic, I can’t find any reference to it as an anaesthetic. Apparently, in ancient times, the bluebell’s sticky sap was used as a glue to bind books, and to stick feathers to the ends of arrows.

Tormentil is a little yellow flower which looks similar to a buttercup, and which commonly grows all over Ireland between May and September. It was used for pain relief and to treat digestive problems.

In Irish, its name is Néalfartach; neal meaning ‘depression/ gloom’, and fartach meaning ‘hurt/ injury’. In Co Cork, however, it was known as Lus an Chodlata, meaning ‘herb for sleep’, suggesting that it may well have been used for promoting sleep.

According to mythology, the warrior Nera disappeared into the Otherworld at Samhain, the beginning of winter, yet returned bearing summer flowers: wild garlic, golden fern and primroses, Sabhaircín in Irish.

This is a strange and convoluted story in which Nera receives a violent vision from the Sidhe showing the awful fate of his people if they don’t destroy the Hill of Cruachan. He warns Queen Medb and convinces her that he speaks the truth by giving her the summer flowers he brought back from Tir na Nog.

Honeysuckle, known as Féithleann in Irish, is associated with the tragic love story of Baile and Aillinn. These two lovers both died unnecessarily from grief, believing the other already dead. An apple tree grew from Aillinn’s grave mound, and a yew from Baile’s. These were eventually cut down, and tablets made from them, engraved with their stories. When these tablets were brought to King Cormac’s house in Tara, they sprang together and cleaved to each other as tightly as honeysuckle around a branch and could not be parted.

Finally, the foxglove, known as Lus Mór in Irish, meaning the ‘great herb’, is used to describe the beautiful blush of the pure cheeks of Étain, Deirdre, and warrior Conall Cernach.


Want more mythology straight to your inbox? Sign up to my mailing list.

COMING SOONConor Kelly’s Guide to Ancient Ireland, an exclusive free gift to all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE??? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.

Mini-Guide

Or try one of these…