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. 😂

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Tree Lore | The Rowan

Right now, I am loving the Rowan trees. They’re always pretty, slender and delicate with beautiful soft fluffy-looking creamy blooms in spring, but at this time of year they really are the star of the show with their frond-like leaves and bright red clusters of berries.

I have two in my garden; they’re thin and lithe, like gawky teenagers, but they bring me great joy.

In Irish, they are known as Caorthann, but other names are ‘Quicken tree’ and ‘Witches tree’. They are a native tree to Ireland, can grow up to 18m tall, and live for over a hundred years. They produce their flowers in May and June, whilst the fruits appear in September and are ripe by October.

The wood of the rowan is hard and pale, and in times past was used to make bows, tools, plates and bowls.

The rowan also had a great many medicinal applications. A tea was made from the berries to treat urinary problems, haemorrhoids and diarrhoea. Berry juice made a great mild laxative, and soothed inflamed mucous membranes as a gargle. As they contained high levels of Vitamin C, the berries were also used to cure scurvy. Today, one of the sugars in the fruit is apparently sometimes given intravenously to reduce pressure in an eyeball with glaucoma. A decoction of the bark was thought to cleanse the blood, and was given as a treatment for diarrhoea, nausea, and upset stomach.

It's the winning combination of dark green frond-like leaves and thick clusters of glossy bright red berries which does it for me... gorgeous!
It’s the winning combination of dark green frond-like leaves and thick clusters of glossy bright red berries which does it for me… gorgeous!

Once revered by the Druids, it is hardly surprising that it later became associated with witchcraft, paganism and the supernatural. It was used in rituals associated with empowerment and protection, especially from fire and lightning. To increase virility and male strength, a small piece of rowan inscribed with ogham would be carried. Hung around the necks of hounds, it was believed to increase their speed, and it also possessed the power to protect from evil spirits and the prevent the dead from rising.

In the Celtic Tree Alphabet, the rowan is represented by the Ogham symbol luis. rowan6

Of course, it is not surprising that the rowan features quite a lot in tales of Irish mythology.

In the tale of the Hostel of the Quicken Trees, Fionn mac Cumhail and his men of the Fianna are invited to dine in the beautiful hostelry of the same name, described thus…

“It was a fair and beautiful building, with bright intricate carvings on the wood of its uprights and a fresh thatch that shone in the sun like gold, and all around it grew quicken trees with berries full and red on them. “

No sooner had they entered, then the walls became rough planks with gaps which the wind howled through, and all the finery disappeared. Most alarmingly, the one door was firmly locked. They were trapped. Fionn put his thumb of wisdom to his mouth, and activated his second sight. He divined that Midac Mac Lochlan had raised the enchantment against them, and was bringing a huge army to kill them. Pity he didn’t think to try that trick before he led his men inside the hostel. Anyway, there were many battles, but in the end Fionn was freed when Diarmuid (who later eloped with Fionn’s pretty young wife, the Princess Grainne) cut off the heads of their enemy and sprinkled their blood around the hostel. Yuk! 😝

Rowan blossom (c) wikimedia. By No machine-readable author provided. Olegivvit assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcuri
Rowan blossom (c) wikimedia. By No machine-readable author provided. Olegivvit assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcuri

According to Lady Gregory, when Grainne was brought to her wedding feast with Fionn, she was disappointed to fin him older than her father. But then her eyes fell on Diarmuid…

“Who is that sweet-worded man,” she said then, “with the dark hair, and cheeks like the rowan berry, on the left side of Oisin, son of Finn?” “That is Diarmuid, grandson of Duibhne,” said the Druid, “that is the best lover of women in the whole world.”

Hmmm… with a recommendation like that, it’s hardly any wonder that she jilted Fionn at the alter and ran off with Diarmuid. In all fairness, though, she wasn’t fickle. She and Diarmuid stayed together for twenty years until he was gored to death by the great boar of Benbulben, and they had a daughter and four sons together.

During their flight from the jealous Fionn, who was bent on vengeance, Grainne, who was by this time heavy with child, took a fancy for the rowan berries of a particular enchanted tree which was guarded by a giant.

You know how pregnant women with a craving get; poor Diarmuid had no choice but to challenge the giant. Such was his strength and valour, he outwitted the giant and killed him. Grainne was now free to gorge on the bright red shiny fruit. Despite her condition, she and Diarmuid climbed high into the rowan tree, where the berries were sweetest.

Meanwhile, Fionn agreed  to a truce with his enemies, the Mac Mornas, if they brought him either Diarmuid’s head, or a handful of the magical quicken berries. Yeah, I think you can see where this is going, right?

When the mac Mornas reported finding the dead giant, and half the rowan berries eaten, Fionn knew at once who was responsible. He went straight to the tree, believing Diarmuid was hiding in it, where he challenged his son Oisin to a game of chess. Each time Fionn was about to make a move which would defeat Oisin, a red berry fell out of the tree onto the square Oisin should move to. In this way, Oisin beat Fionn at chess for the very first time, and Fionn knew with certainty that it was Diarmuid who had helped Oisin, for only Diarmuid could ever beat him at chess.

Diarmuid leaped over the heads and weapons of the Fianna and escaped to safety. Poor pregnant Grainne was abandoned in the tree, but fortunately for her, Óengus Óg, the God of Love, took pity on herplight, and like the true gallant gent that he was, he came to her rescue.

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Saint Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach #stpatricksday

Saint Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach
Saint Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! When I moved to Ireland, I was surprised at how low key the celebrations over here are. Whilst many towns and villages hold a parade of sorts, generally composed of a few floats and tractors, with a bit of face-painting and waving of flags for the kids, Paddy’s Day seems more of a holiday from work to spend drinking and eating with family and friends. I think it’s seen more as a bit of a reprieve from the deprivations of Lent, rather than a celebration of the Saint’s holy day.

He’s not even a saint. You do know that, right? At least, he was never officially recognised as one by the Pope. A little detail like that never stopped the Irish from making him their patron saint, however, or building a huge multi-million euro tourist industry around him, based on a bunch of  lies  imaginative stories.

He never used a shamrock to preach Christianity to the pagans. It’s more likely that he was a slave trader, rather than a poor unfortunate slave. He hung around with rich widows, convincing them to enter the nunnery whilst donating their wealth to funding his empire building more churches. And his only surviving writing exists in two letters, which protest his innocence over some unspecified mis-demeanour. His behaviour towards Ireland’s High King was inflammatory, to say the least. Christians were already living in Ireland by that time, probably as a result of peaceful immigration, and integration with foreign traders. Besides, Bishop Palladius had already been sent by Pope Constantine 1 to tend to the Christians of Ireland.

Still, it cant be denied that St Patrick has become a powerful symbol of Ireland and Irishness around the world. Here is one astonishing story about him which is said to have happened very close to home for me, at a place known as Magh Slecht. (I first posted this story in January last year.)

The Irish shamrock, which doesn’t even really exist!
how saint patrick ended human sacrifice in ancient ireland

Sandwiched between the Woodford and Blackwater rivers lies an area of Co Cavan known as Magh Slecht (pronounced Moy Shlokht), which means ‘Plain of Prostrations’. Overlooked by the scenic Cuilcagh Mountain and distant rounded shoulders of Sliabh an Iarainn, this panoramic vista of gentle rolling countryside is packed with an unusually dense concentration of megalithic monuments, including cairns, stone rows and circles, standing stones, fort enclosures and burial sites.

I had long known about the legacy of Magh Slecht, but it was a chance discovery reading through a translation of an old document, looking for something else entirely, which claimed that this iconic site was located in the county where I live.

I went to meet local historian, Oliver Brady, who recently assisted on an archaeological investigation of the region. We first went to see a replica of the Killycluggin Stone, which is located on the side of the Ballyconnell – Ballinamore road only 300m from where it was found. The original can now be seen in the County Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff.

The stone’s surface is covered in simplistic scrolling designs of the Iron-Age La Tene style, and, Mr Brady suggests, was probably once richly decorated with gold and colourful paint. These carvings look somewhat like stylised faces to me, or birds, but they have never been definitively interpreted. It looked very… well… innocent and unassuming, if such a thing can be said of a stone, particularly one with such a dark and turbulent history.

In fact, this stone is similar in style to the Turoe stone, a rare aniconic iron-age pillar stone found in Co Galway, about which little is known.

This particular stone was discovered buried in the ground in pieces in 1921 by the landowner, close to the Bronze-Age stone circle at Killycluggin. It is thought that originally it would have stood at the centre of the stone circle, which currently consists of eighteen standing stones, many of them fallen, and has a diameter of 22m.

Tall trees now encircle the stones protectively, casting them into deep shadow. Moss has draped a delicate mantle of soft green over them, shielding them from sight, and brambles bristle like a guard of honour; if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you could be forgiven for missing it altogether. A fine view of Cuilcagh dominates the horizon to the north, and the two entrance stones, once proud but now recumbent, look towards the rising sun in the east.

The circle and the stone share a dark and mysterious past, according to Irish mythology, for they have been identified as the site of pagan human sacrifice and the worship of the Sun-God, Crom Cruach.

Crom Cruach is also known as Crom Dubh, or Cenn Cruach, among other names. The meaning is elusive; Crom means ‘bent, crooked, or stooped’, while Cenn refers to the head, but also means ‘chief, leader’. Cruach could mean ‘bloody, gory, slaughter’ and also ‘corn stack, heap, mound’.

We know that there was a cult which worshipped the stone heads of their patron Gods and Goddesses in other areas of Co Cavan from finds such as the Corleck head, although nothing similar has been recorded as being found at Magh Slecht.

The ancient Irish considered the head as ‘the seat of the soul’, and warriors were said to have collected the heads of their vanquished enemies after battle as trophies. There are many tales of decapitated heads continuing to talk and impart great wisdom to the living.

The legend of Crom Cruach is a sinister one. The ancient texts of the Metrical Dindshenchas claim that the people of Ireland worshipped the God by offering up their firstborn child in return for a plentiful harvest in the coming year. The children were killed by smashing their heads on the stone idol representing Crom Cruach, and sprinkling their blood around the base. This stone idol has been identified as the Killycluggin Stone.

The manuscript describes the site as twelve companions of stone surrounding the idol Crom Cruach of gold. Other documents, such as the Annals of the Four Masters and the Lebor Gebála Érenn, confirm this, although none of them can be taken as a historically accurate record. They also describe how Saint Patrick put an end to this practice.

The story goes that one Samhain, the High King Tigernmas and all his retinue, amounting to three quarters of the men of Ireland, went from Tara to Magh Slecht to worship. There, St Patrick came upon them as they knelt around the idol with their noses and foreheads pressed to the ground in devotion. They never rose to their feet, for as they prostrated themselves thus, they were, according to Christian observers, slain by their very own God. This was how Magh Slecht won its name.

St Patrick destroyed the stone idol by beating it with his crozier. It broke apart, and the ‘devil’ lurking within it emerged, which the priest immediately banished to Hell.

The Stone does in fact bear evidence of repeated blows with a heavy implement at some point in antiquity, and was deliberately removed from its central position within the circle and buried. A sign now marks the site of its long repose.

St Patrick led the survivors to a nearby well, now known as Tober Padraig, and baptised them all into the Christian faith. He then founded his church adjacent to the well.

St Patrick’s Church still stands in the townland known as Kilnavart, from the Irish Cill na Fheart, meaning ‘church of the grave/ monument’, and indeed there is a megalithic tomb, flanked by two sentinel standing stones, no more than 250m from it.

The present church was constructed in 1867, replacing an older, thatched structure with clay floors. Interestingly, the church rises from the site of an prehistoric circular fort, once known as the Fossa Slecht, possibly the home of a local chieftain.

The site of the holy well, however, has sadly fallen into disuse, and lies somewhere close to the church in a patch of wasteland between two houses, and to which there is currently no public access. It is said that St Patrick moved from the stone circle to the holy well on his knees. Whilst not far, it can’t have been an easy journey.

Although the legend surrounding this site is quite gruesome, it should be noted that this is the only mention of human sacrifice occurring in ancient Ireland according to the early literature.

There are also some conflicts within the story; Tigernmas, for example, is listed in the Annals as having reigned for 77 years from 1620 BC. If this is so, he could not have been at Magh Slecht at the same time as St Patrick, who came to Ireland in the C5th AD.

In my view, this smacks of Christian propaganda. St Patrick was on a crusade to convert Ireland. If the Christians couldn’t reason with the local people and persuade them to give up their pagan Gods, they would absorb them and build churches on their holy places. If that didn’t work, they would punish them, denounce their practices as witchcraft, even kill unbelievers in the name of God, if necessary. We know these things happened; history tells us they did.

Magh Slecht was clearly an important site in relation to religious activity and rites of sovereignty, the number of ancient structures located there are evidence of this. Perhaps the High King, whether it was Tigernmas, or someone else whose name time has erased, refused to obey St Patrick. The priest obviously wanted to lay his claim on the site very badly. Perhaps he came there with an army. Perhaps the men of Ireland died in the act of their devotions because a holy army fell on them while they were unarmed and at prayer. Perhaps there was slaughter at Magh Slecht, pagan blood was spilled, not in sacrifice to Crom Cruach, a God feared by his worshippers, but because he was so beloved by them, they refused to give him up.

Indeed, there is some debate over the identification of this cruel deity with the character of Crom Cruach. In some stories, he is represented as a pagan chieftain who eventually converted to the new faith, and as such was well known to St Patrick, and even considered as his friend.

In Co Kerry, it is told that St Brendan asked Crom Cruach, a rich local chieftain, for help with funding the building of his church. As an ardent pagan, Crom refused but gave St Brendan his evil-tempered bull instead, in the hope it would kill the Christians. They, however, managed to tame it, and suddenly afraid of their power, Crom agreed to convert to their faith. Before doing so, the monks punished him by burying him for three days with only his head above the ground.

The Ronadh Crom Dubh, or ‘the staff of Black Crom’ is a standing stone associated with a stone circle at Lough Gur in Co Limerick, where offerings of flowers and grain, not blood and death, are left at harvest time.

Crom Cruach/ Dubh has a festival day on the last Sunday of July called Domhnach Chrom Dubh, where vigils and patterns are held at holy wells around the country in his memory. An association with St Brigid is recognised in an all-night vigil still held on Crom’s feast day at her holy well in Liscannor near the Cliffs of Moher.

This seems surprising when one thinks of the terrible deeds once committed in his name. It would imply he was loved and respected to be thus remembered into modern times, rather than a God who was feared and hated.

As I stood blinking in the bright sunshine in the centre of the plain of Magh Slecht, having relived its legacy at each prehistoric structure, with the green fields vibrant against the blue sky, Sliabh an Iarainn and Cuilcagh a hazy purple smudge on the horizon, I was struck by the great sense of peace and serenity which lay over the land.

These monuments practically stand in people’s back gardens, yet from the road which meanders by, they cannot be seen. They are, in effect, hidden in plain view. It seemed to me that nature, the age-old Gods, the Sidhe, perhaps Crom himself, had all conspired to keep them safe.

Our ancestors certainly knew how to pick a site. It was hard to equate this place with such a perpetual dark scene of violence. I couldn’t help but wonder if such events had ever taken place at all. Perhaps it wasn’t children who were sacrificed here, but truth.

I would like to thank Mr Oliver Brady for taking the time to show me around the magnificent Magh Slecht. If you would like to know more about this site, archaeologist Kevin White has undertaken a very comprehensive study of the area.

Other posts relating to Saint Patrick’s Day

Patrick, Saint or Sinner?

St Patrick was a Slave-Trader and tax-Collector

Symbols of Irishness

The Harp in Irish Mythology


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5 Sacred Symbols of Christmas and their Pagan Origins

5 sacred symbols of Christmas and their pagan origins
5 sacred symbols of Christmas and their pagan origins

It has started; the Christmas decorating. In this house, it takes a week, and finally culminates in the dressing of the tree. And year on year, the same symbols abound throughout the festive season; Santa, the reindeer, the stable and the manger, hanging up the stocking etc, to name just a few. But have you ever wondered where they came from? It might surprise you to know that they derive from some pretty ancient, pre-Christian traditions. Here are my top 5.

1. The Christmas Tree

The tree we proudly decorate and display today is an invention of the Victorian days, introduced from Germany. Prior to this, the tree which most symbolised mid-winter is most likely to have been a Holly bush.

Imagine how winter must have felt to our ancestors; harsh and bleak, a time of hardship, a struggle for survival. The return of summer’s warmth and plenty seem a distant memory, an elusive dream . It’s dark, cold, wet and maybe frosty or snowy. All the deciduous trees and plants have died or are hibernating. Crops cannot grow in frozen or flooded ground. Food stores are running low. Many animals are hibernating or have migrated so hunting is difficult. The days are short, the nights are long. Life seems to have slowed.

Yet despite the ‘death’ of winter, the evergreens continue to push stoically through the snow, bracing their stunning shield of vibrant green against the cruel onslaught of winter. How do they flourish in the deep dark season, when all else hides or fails? What magical powers do they possess which ensure their survival? They must surely be blessed by the Gods and full of potent power.

No doubt the evergreens were seen as a sign of hope, and a promise of new life to come in the lush and bountiful impending spring and summer. Until then, homes were decorated with boughs of bright holly and fragrant fir, clinging fronds of ivy and sacred sprigs of mistletoe to guard against misfortune and bring good luck upon the household.

2. The Star

The Star of Bethlehem has generally been presumed to be the North Star, but this is highly unlikely. If you think about it, the North Star is constant; how could it have suddenly alerted the Three Wise Men to the birth of Jesus?

Modern thinking is that the Three Wise Men were probably astronomers accustomed to studying the stars, much like the ancient Druids of Ireland. It is more likely that a series of unusual happenings in the night sky aroused their suspicions of an unusual and auspicious impending event.

It is now known that in March of the year 5BC, a nova was visible for approximately seventy days. A nova is a star which suddenly increases in brilliance. This could have caught their attention and led to the belief that it represented something of great significance, such as the birth of a new and powerful king.

3. Candles

Christmas wouldn’t be the same for me without a myriad gentle flickering candles. They create such warmth and atmosphere. Our ancient ancestors celebrated their festivals with the lighting of great bonfires on hill tops, where they would have maximum effect. These fires may have been lit to appease the sun God, thus ensuring his return, or simply honoured the golden life-giving orb of the sun. It may be that they offered light, warmth and reassurance in the dead of winter when they were lacking.

The arrival of the new religion eventually put an end to this practice, but candles were lit instead to symbolise the need-fire. Pacing a candle in the windows of one’s home was thought to warn off evil spirits, while welcoming friends and visitors.

Robin in the snow4. The Robin

I have a resident robin in my garden. In winter, when food and shelter is scarce, he flits ever closer to the house  on his daily territorial wanderings. The robin is often depicted on Christmas cards. His fiery red chest, and his determination to survive harsh winter conditions must have been seen as inspirational and a sign of hope, endurance and renewal to our ancestors. He represents the beginning of the New Year and Spring, and regular visits from a robin are said to signify the presence of a departed loved one watching over you.

According to Christian lore, the robin tried to remove the thorns from Jesus’s crown, but only succeeded in snagging its own breast, and has worn its red feathers as a badge of honour ever since.

5. The Stag

Sadly, I don’t have a stag in my garden. But this noble animal with his heavy crown of antlers takes my breath away with his grace and power. Recently, he has become very popular as a symbol of Christmas, but this should not come as a surprise.

Cernunnos, the Horned God, sometimes known as Herne the Hunter, is a Celtic deity depicted on the Gundestrop Cauldron with a stag at his side. This may indicate that he could shift between the forms of stag and man at will. He is thought to be a God of peace, nature and Lord of all wild things. Cernunnos was linked to the ancient Germanic mid-winter festival of Yule, a celebration of the Wild Hunt in which a spectral group of huntsman raced across the frozen winter sky. In Ireland, it was said to be Fionn mac Cumhaill leading his Fianna in the Wild Hunt.

A white stag was thought to come from the Otherworld and signified dramatic life changing events.

You can read more about the origins of Christmas in my other seasonal posts;

Holly, King of Winter

So What Did We Do In Winter Before The Christians Invented Christmas?

The Pre-Christian Origins of Christmas Decorating

And if you’re looking for a Christmas gift for a loved one, you could do worse than one of these;

Find them on, and Smashwords.

Irish Mythology and Reincarnation

Druid greets the dawn at Stonehenge

The Druids left us no written record of their religion, or the belief system of our ancient Irish ancestors. What we know has been patched together from later Christian interpretations of the myths and legends, and the writings of observers such as Julius Ceaser, but none of it can be proven to be fact.

Reincarnation is a Latin word, meaning ‘entering the flesh again’. As far back as the C1stBC, Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor wrote that the Gauls teach “that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a fixed number of years they will enter into another body”.

Julius Caeser wrote of the Celts in his ‘De Bello Gallico’ that “the principal point of their doctrine is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another….. a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed.”

Although these writers are referring to the Celts of Europe, it is reasonable to suppose that the Irish people of the same time period may have held similar beliefs. Indeed, there is much evidence to support this in the stories of Irish mythology.

In the Tochmarc Étaíne, ‘The Wooing of Étaín’ from the Mythological Cycle, Etain is transformed by magic into a butterfly. After fourteen years, she lands in a cup of wine which is drunk by the wife of Etar, a warrior of the Ulaid. Etar’s wife swallows the butterfly and becomes pregnant, and thus Etain is reborn into human form a thousand years after her first birth.

This story illustrates the Celtic acceptance of transformation, ie the temporary taking of another shape, and transmigration, when the soul transfers into another body following an actual rebirth.

A similar story is told about the birth of Cuchullain. Dechtire drank a cup of wine in which a mayfly had landed. That night she was visited by the God Lugh in a dream, who told her that the mayfly was him, and that she would soon give birth to a boy child. When she awoke, he transformed her into a swan, and took her to his halls in the Otherworld, where she duly gave birth to Setanta. She returned with him to Emain Macha in Ulster, where he was raised, and went on to become the hero known as Cuchullain.

The biggest difference to the Etain story, is the presence of the God Lugh. It implies that not only did the deity father a son on a mortal woman, but that he was actually reborn as his own son, thus manifesting himself again in the mortal world.

Most people are familiar with the story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, one of the most popular tales of Irish mythology. It tells how Connacht Queen Medbh and her husband Aillil waged war on Ulster over possession of the mighty bull Donn Cúailnge. At the end of the saga, Donn Cúailnge fights the white bull Finnbhennach and kills him before dying of exhaustion.

It is interesting to note that these were no ordinary beasts. In the Tale of Two Swineherds, Friuch and Rucht are minding livestock belonging to the Gods Ochall and Bodb, 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.

Unrequited love is often associated with reincarnation in Irish mythology. In the Fenian Cycle, hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhal, rescues a small deer in the forest, which turns out to be a Sidhe Princess named Sadbh. She had been transformed by the mysterious figure known only as the Dark Druid, for refusing to marry him. In the safety of Fionn’s fortress, she is able to return to her true form. She and Fionn fall in love, and she becomes pregnant, but when Fionn is away at battle, the Dark Druid returns and steals her away, returning her to the shape of a doe. She is never seen again, but apparently gives birth to a human child, a son named Oisin, whom Fionn finds on the slopes of Benbulben after seven years of searching.

Similarly, in the popular Irish legend of The Children of Lir, Aoife transforms Lir’s children into swans as she is jealous because he loves them more than he loves her. They are doomed to spend 900 years as swans, during which time St Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity. A monk was able to baptise them and turn them back into humans, but unfortunately, they were so old, they died. Another version, possibly pre-Christian, claims that the marriage of Lairgren and Deoch broke the curse.

Another Aoife, daughter of Daelbeth, and Luchra, daughter of Abhartach, both fell in love with Illbreac, but he had eyes only for Aoife. In a fit of jealous rage, Luchra turned Aoife into a crane, whereupon she flew to the lands of Manannán and lived there for 200 years. When she died, Manannán was so sad, he used her skin to make the crane-skin bag in which he kept all his magical treasures.

Mongán mac Fiachnai was a Prince of the kingdom of Cruthin who is recorded in the Annals as dying in 625AD. Little is known about him, except that he was said to have possessed remarkable shape-shifting powers, and had access to the Otherworld. One curious tale claims that, although fathered by Sea-God Manannán, he is in fact the reincarnation of hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall.

It might be that the concept of reincarnation served to perpetuate those ancestors, kings or heroes most admired and beloved, that perhaps the ordinary folk were loath to let go. Certainly, the characters reputed in mythology to have transformed or to have been reborn seem to arise from nobility, royalty, deities or the hero-warrior, rather than commoners.

As the Milesians in their fleet of ships neared the shores of Ireland, intent on wresting it from the Tuatha de Denann, their poet Amergin chanted this verse, which begins:

“I am the wind which blows over the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the bull of seven battles,
I am the eagle on the rock…
I am a boar for courage,
I am a salmon in the water…”

At first glance, these words seem to confirm a belief in transformation, or shape-shifting, but perhaps they had nothing to do with reincarnation at all. It occurred to me that this poem could just as easily have been an example of Dichetal do Chennaib, a technique of the ancient Fili, or poet, involving chanting to achieve an altered state of being, or knowing, much as the warrior before battle would invoke the riastradh, or battle frenzy. Perhaps he hoped to achieve each of these qualities, or perhaps it was simply boastful talk designed to strike fear into an enemy which well understood the qualities each of the entities quoted.

The mythology we have inherited is ambiguous at best, and hard to decipher. Whilst it is certainly possible that the Celts and ancient Irish people may have believed in the concept of reincarnation, although not quite in the way we understand it today, it is not something we can say with any certainty. Whilst to some, this may be a source of frustration, for me, it is its strength; it is open to interpretation, thus it can be whatever you want it to be.

Seanchai | The Irish Storyteller

In keeping with my newly restored fascination with the poetic, I have re-blogged an older post about the Irish Seanchai (storytellers) and Fílí (poets). On Friday, I will be discussing Irish poetic inspiration.

LiffeyDublinOn my first ever trip to Ireland, I remember strolling along the banks of the River Liffey with my now husband, when we encountered a group of skateboarders harassing an old man sitting on a bench. At least, I thought they were harassing him, but as we drew closer, I realised that he was talking, and they were listening. His voice rose and fell in melodic, hypnotic waves, and the teenagers milled about, their growing bodies restless, but their faces rapt. We passed by, on a mission of places to be and things to see, but to this day, I have always wondered about the story he was telling them.

skateboardingAs the recently departed Seamus Heaney could arguably be called Ireland’s most famous and best loved poet, so his equal in terms of storytelling must be Eddie Lennihan, an Irishman famous for his tales of Ireland’s folklore and mythology.

You can see him in action here.

The Seanchai ( pronounced ‘shawnshee’) was a traditional Irish storyteller. They memorised and recited epic stories and poems from Irish mythology for the enjoyment of their audiences. You have to remember, in those days, there were no movies, tv, radio, computer games. Few had access to books, or could read.

seamus heaneyIn pre-Christian Ireland, there were two types of poet; the elite class of the Fili, and the lesser caste of the Bard. They normally served a clan chieftain, keeping all their clan’s lore and history, and were highly respected. Some belonged to a community, and served at community ceremonies and events, while others belonged to no particular area or lord, but travelled, offering their skills in return for board and lodging.

Fili meant ‘seer’, so it is not beyond the realms of possibility that part of their role revolved around the foretelling of the future. In fact, originally the Fili may have served many functions, such as sorcerer, judge, keeper of law, chieftain’s advisor as well as poet and storyteller. At some point, these responsibilities seem to have been divided, with the Brehons specialising in the legal aspects, the Druids taking on the religion and ritual, and the Fili concentrating on history and poetry.

eddie lenihanThe chief Fili in each province was known as the Ollamh (pronounced Ollav), which means ‘most great’, and would have been equal in status to the provincial King. Over all, presided the Ollamh Eirean, who was ranked equal to the Ard Ri, or High King of Ireland, so there was plenty of scope for promotion.

The advent of Christianity, however, put quite a strain on the Kings’ resources, as not only did they have to provide lands, titles and funding to the Fili, but also to the bishops. In the 6th century, the decision was taken to limit the number of Fili purely to those families where the position of the poet was seen as a birth right. This was the beginning of the end for this role in Irish society, and much lore was lost. Fortunately, however, the Christian monks did their best to conserve as much as they could, and so what was left of the ancient Irish oral tradition was finally put into writing.

I would like to think I am contributing to this effort in my own small way, by bringing Ireland’s fascinating mythology to life for a whole new audience out there.


Long live Irish Mythology!

You can find out more about Eddie Lenihan on his website. You can read some of Seamus Heaney’s work here. As for me, well, you know where to find me!

The Shamrock, the Shillelagh and the Leprachaun; Symbols of Irishness for St Patricks Day, or Sad Stereotypes? #stpatricksday