Mogh Ruith, the Blind Magician

Mogh Ruith the Blind Magician http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting and mysterious figures from Irish mythology is the One known as Mogh Ruith. He’s right up there with Manannán, as far as I’m concerned. His name is said to mean ‘slave of the wheel’, curious in itself, and he was a blind Munster Druid who lived on Valentia Island  in Co Kerry, which is now part of the celebrated Wild Atlantic Way.

Mogh Ruith was the father of tragic Goddess, Tlachtga, who left her name in the landscape of Ireland  at a place anglicised as the Hill of Ward, sacred to the festival of Samhain.

He is perhaps most famous for his flying machine, roth rámach, meaning ‘the oared wheel’, or ‘rowing wheel’ (could be a helicopter, don’t you think?), in which night appeared as bright as day. For this reason, it is believed that he must have been a sun god. I don’t know about you, but that sounds too easy to me. Perhaps it was a space ship… remember, the Tuatha de Danann were said to have descended from great storm clouds in the sky.

However, blaming aliens for something we don’t understand is also too easy. It’s just as likely that in the long history of the existence of our planet, there must have been advanced civilizations elsewhere on Earth. Unless, of course, you believe that life only came into being 6000 years ago, as some poor children are now being brainwashed taught. But that’s a discussion for another time.

If ancient civilizations could build pyramids, and incredible temples that we still can’t explain, never mind replicate, today, why not flying machines?

Interestingly, there is much talk of flying machines in Sanscrit and Hindu texts; here, they are known as Vimana, in which the Gods are transported by flying wheeled chariots, sometimes pulled by animals. There are descriptions of wheels, spokes, and the colour gold.

It is intriguing that in the name of Mogh Ruith’s flying vehicle, roth rámach, we can see a reference to the Hindu deity, Rama. This could be coincidence, of course, but many people seem to see a connection between the Irish myths and Sanskrit. Personally, I am open to this.

After all, despite the recent preference for separatism, and white elitism, we all share a common Proto-Indo-European heritage… and yes, that includes you, White America, who are descended from a right cocked-up cocktail of us Europeans and native Americans, in spite of what you might think.

But back to the man in question. Mogh Ruith pops up at various intervals in Ireland’s pre-history, according to Medieval sources. The ancient text,  Lebor Gabála Érenn, claims he died some time during the 10th century BC; the Annals of the Four Masters date him to around 1651–1621 BC. According to Christian lore, he is the man who executed John the Baptist.

According to legend, he became blind when he lost an eye in the Alps, how, I don’t know. The other was destroyed when he tried to stop the course of the sun for two days.  Again, I don’t know why he tried to do this, but it seems feasible… we know today that looking directly at the sun can cause damage to the eyes.

Was he a historical figure? No evidence survives, but for an abundance of fascinating stories. In my view, stories are a way of keeping someone, or something alive. If not the personage himself, then certainly something he stood for, whether fictional or real.

Mogh Ruith and his daughter, Tlachtga, were said to have been students of Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Sorcerer. He was supposed to have helped them build their flying machine. Simon was a Samaritan and religious figure mentioned in the Bible, who lived c. 1st century AD, and who converted to Christianity.

He received a lot of attention, not particularly positive, from ancient writers, such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius, who regarded him as ‘the source of all heresies‘, and in fact,  the sin of simony (paying for position and influence in the church) is said to be named after him.

In addition to this less than glowing reputation, his three sons were said to have raped and impregnated Mogh Ruith’s daughter, Tlachtga. She fled from them to the Hill of Ward, where she gave birth to her three sons, Doirb, Cuma, and Muach, before dying from her injuries and a very hard labour.

So far, it’s not looking good for Mogh Ruith. Perhaps it’s time to have a quick gander at some of the stories about him.

Cormac mac Airt is one of Irish mythology’s most well known and best loved High Kings. He lived during the 3rd century AD. So loved was he, that the Christians tried to claim him as a convert, even though he lived well before the accepted age of Christianity in Ireland.

Cormac was contemporary with the legends of Fionn mac Cumhall. Fionn and his Fianna carried out much of the defence of the realm on Cormac’s behalf, and thus the High King rewarded him with the gift of marriage to two of his daughters, Aoife, and when she died only a year later, the young Grainne. Well, we all know how that went!

Anyhoo. In The Siege of Knocklong,  recorded in the Book of Lismore, dated 1480 AD, which was discovered hidden in the walls of Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford in 1814 (ooooh… isn’t that a fab story?)the King of Munster and Cormac go to war because Cormac has demanded too high a price of tribute.

Over the period of a year, Cormac lays siege to Fiacha Moilleathan, King of Munster, and they engage in five battles. Finally, Cormac resorts to magical means; he calls in his Druids, who dry up all the rivers and wells in the region. The Munster men are almost defeated, until King Fiacha employs Mogh Ruith. But the services of Mogh Ruith do not come cheap. This is what he demands…

A hundred bright white cows in milk, a hundred well-fattened pigs; a hundred strong working oxen; a hundred racehorses; fifty soft white cloaks; after the project is over, the daughter of the first lord of the East or the most prominent after him, to bear me children the first place in the files of Munster’s army for my successor who shall have in perpetuity the rank of a provincial king…; that the King of Munster should choose his counsellor from among my descendants;… that I am given the territory of my choice in Munster.

quote from Shee-Eire

He then restores all the water in the province so that man and beast may drink. With his breath, he blows up storms, and turns Cormac’s Druids to stone. He raises fire, and stone and sand storms, and eventually wins the day for the Munster men. He then chooses the territory Fir Maige Féne, which comes from the Irish for ‘men of the monastery of the plain’, later known as Fermoy, for his own.

There is an Iron Age hill fort at Fermoy, one of only three in northern Co Cork, called Carntierna, which means ‘Tigernac’s cairn’. It is named after legendary Munster King, Tigernac Tetbannach, who was said to have reigned during the time of Conchobar mac Nessa. A great cairn crowns the hill’s summit, supposedly the king’s burial-place. Perhaps this king and his people could have been Mogh Ruith’s descendants.


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

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

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

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

Well, take a look at this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

translation by Robin Flower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite story, though, is a sad one…

Boann strides up the path, her face composed with fierce determination, her little dog Dabilla trotting faithfully at her heels. The way is winding and covert, meant not for the feet of the uninitiated, but Boann has learned its secrets; thus she feels she has earned the right to visit this most sacred of places, the Tobar Segais, also known as the Well of Wisdom.

The pool is silent and dark, reflecting neither sky nor earth, an upwelling of water from the deepest reaches of the Otherworld, bringing with it all the arcane knowledge and mysteries contained therein. Around it stand the Nine Ancient Hazels of Knowledge. Boann catches her breath in awe as she gazes at them, for their branches are laden with blossom, fruit and leaf all at once.

As she watches, nuts fall into the shaded water with a hushed splash, and the five spotted salmon which reside there rise up gently to eat them. Dabilla rushes to the water’s edge and snaps at the benign creatures excitedly, but they just flip their tails at her and sink back down to safety.

Boann’s heart is pounding; should she catch a salmon, and eat of its flesh to gain the knowledge she seeks? It feels like sacrilege, and besides would take time she might not have, for every moment she delays, she risks capture. Perhaps she should just eat the nuts, but how many would she need in order to gain enlightenment?

The fear of discovery, her long search for knowledge, and the proximity to her heart’s desire stir up a heady concoction of exhilaration and turmoil in her blood, which causes her to throw caution to the wind.  She begins her circuit of the lake, chanting as she goes, but her perambulations take her widdershins rather than deasal-wise.

Perhaps this is her undoing, or perhaps her presence uninvited violates this holy place. Perhaps she is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case, the waters begin to rise and stir. Wavelets grow into watery mountains which slop at the banks which contain them, chafing at their restraints like caged beasts.

Boann falters in her enchantment, gripped with sudden fear. Even as she turns to run, she knows in her heart escape is futile; she risked the wrath of the Gods, now she must pay. The roaring water towers above her, streaked with white foam and fury. It runs much faster than she; it sweeps her up as if she were no more than a feather, devouring everything in its path as it cascades down the hillside toward the call of the stormy grey ocean. Little Dabilla is tossed from wave to wave, like a sliotar between hurlers.

They say retribution was cruel; Boann lost an eye, an arm and a leg, her faithful pet, some even say her life in the lakeburst which carried her out to sea. And thus the River Boyne was formed and named after her, so that the tragic Goddess lives on forever in the landscape, and in the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland, gone but never forgotten.

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


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For the love of GOLD

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Wild Boar in Irish Mythology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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Conor Kelly and The Fenian King | An Excerpt

So sorry if anyone just received a blank post notification from me… somehow in the seconds between finishing this post and hitting the publish button, wordpress managed to lose my entire content. There have been some weird things going on at wordpress lately,,, gremlins in the machine?

Ali Isaac - Conor Kelly and the Fenian King

Hugh from Hugh’s Views and News has very kindly featured my book, Conor Kelly and the Fenian King as his Book of the Month… cue sparkly lights and glitter! Yaaay! Thanks, Hugh! In tandem with this, you can find the book at only 99c/ 99p on Amazon, and completely FREE on Smashwords and associated retailers. And now, here is an excerpt…


Chapter Forty Two – The Disappeared

the present day…

 

Conor coughed and spluttered as the dust rose in clouds around him, then admonished himself; his body and lungs were safe in his aunt’s little Micra at the bottom of the hill. As a free roaming spirit, he couldn’t be harmed by clouds of dust, or collapsing masonry, or landslides, or whatever it was that had caused Sidhe Finn to cave in.

But Ciara could. What if she was killed, crushed beneath a fallen orthostat? What if…

Conor felt waves of panic swell inexorably through him like the tides of the sea. He couldn’t find her. He couldn’t see her. Even with his spirit eyes and his supernatural senses, he couldn’t detect any sign of her presence. It was as if she had simply vanished.

But that was impossible. Maybe she had got up and wandered outside, dazed and confused. Maybe she had a head injury, and didn’t know where she was. She could be out there, floundering about in a state of bewilderment.

Oh my God! She could fall off the cliff and plunge to an untimely death in the quarry…

He had to get out, had to find her. He took another quick look around. Many of the orthostats had fallen inward, held up from the floor only by the central pedestal which supported the coffin. A couple of the ancient stones had cracked in two. The coffin had been smashed into matchwood, but Conor saw no evidence of bones. Fortunately, much of the loose rubble which traditionally comprised the infill between the chamber ceiling and the mound had been removed by Aylmer’s builders, and replaced with blocks and mortar, thus forming a secure foundation for the tower. The old mortar had cracked and crumbled in places, releasing some of its bricks, but had mostly held firm. The devastation was not as terrible as he had expected.

But his heart jumped into his mouth when he realised that one huge, carved orthostat had collapsed directly onto the spot where Ciara had crouched the last time he had seen her. Its fall had not been halted by the softness of a body beneath it; no pool of blood lay spreading on the ground around it. The relief Conor felt on observing that was short-lived. Where was she?

Beside the stone, the flagstone with the Ogham symbol lay smashed into several pieces. It had been lifted from its resting place, and placed beside a small pit. Which, Conor noted with disappointment, was completely empty. Had Ciara found the missing mouthpiece and removed it? Or had she lifted the flagstone to find only an empty space and a sense of despair? He had to find her. Where was she?

Convinced at last that the chamber was completely empty, Conor allowed himself to drift up through the ceiling and into the circular chamber above. The stairs leading down from the entrance had collapsed into nothing more than an unstable pile of rock. He floated over it and out through the devastated doorway.

It was dark. The weak wash of moon and stars showed Conor that the hillside was deserted. After the explosions and collapse of the tower, it was eerily silent, almost as if nature itself was shocked at this traumatic turn of events.

He wandered around the remains of the tower, dejected and overwhelmed with guilt. There was no sign of Ciara.

Am I to blame? Did I cause this with the ferocity of my lightning attack on the tower? Or was it the quarry? I’m surprised the hill didn’t collapse years ago after such extensive mining. Surely it was an accident just waiting to happen; we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time…weren’t we?

Pushing his way carefully between the yellow gorse bushes, Conor stood on the edge of the cliff and contemplated the drop. Was Ciara down there, broken and battered and bleeding? Far beneath him, a tear trailed down his face as, in the car, his inert body responded to his desolation.

The only way to find out was to leap down after her. Even knowing that he could not fall or be hurt, it took Conor a good few moments to find the courage to jump over the edge. He found it much easier to control his descent this time around. As the ground rushed up to meet him, he saw that the quarry men were running about in a panic. Alarms were sounding, people were shouting, but the drills were silent, and the trucks which transported rock and rubble lay abandoned.

Hmmm…looks like there’s been a bit of a disaster down here.

Conor levelled out a couple of metres from the ground and glided slowly along the base of the cliff, searching for Ciara. Eventually, elated, he had to conclude she had not fallen. His only other option was to search the path on his way back to the car. Perhaps she was already waiting there for him. With his spirits lifting, Conor retraced his journey. But Ciara was not there.

For what felt like the hundredth time, he wondered where on earth she was.

The car was waiting on the far side of the car park, just as they’d left it. Conor felt anxious now; for Ciara, and also for himself. His body was lying in wait for him on the back seat, but what if he couldn’t get back into it? He hadn’t stopped to contemplate how that part of the process was achieved. He might not be able to do it. What then? He had been outside of his body for quite a long time. He might not be able to readjust to its rhythms and limitations.

He went first to the front of the car, half expecting to see Ciara sitting there, impatiently waiting for him. She wasn’t.

What do I do now? Do I re-join my body, and wait? Or do I go out looking for her again? I’m really tied by my mobility if I re-enter my body at this stage. But the longer I leave it, the harder it’s going to get.

Conor wavered between his choices. Then the decision was snatched from him. When he looked in at the rear window, his body was gone.

smashwords-button  kindle-button


allen-collageAylmer’s Folly and Sidhe Fionn are real places. I visited them when I was researching for this book. You can read about them in my post, Almu | Home of Irish Legendary Hero Fionn mac Cumhall.


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Halloween or Samhain?

girl vampire in retro dress, in a black cloak, in the forestI recently watched a video on Youtube where the expert in the film kept pronouncing Samhain as it looks… Sam-hain. An easy mistake to make, you might think, and I would agree. But not if you profess yourself to be something of an expert on the subject. Then you have a duty to get it right. He should have known better.

If you don’t already know, it’s pronounced like this… sau-win. Don’t you think it sounds so much better?

I’ve written about Halloween and Samhain so many times, but don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat myself again. But for all my new followers, here are links to the existing posts, which you probably haven’t as yet read. On the big day itself, I will have something new and spooktacular for you, I promise.

Enjoy the season, and Happy Half-Term, if you’re off! 😜


Samhain | The Original Halloween

For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain (pronounced sau-win, and believed to derive from the Old Irish sam, meaning ‘summer’, and fuin, meaning ‘end’) began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st. Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter, not halfway through it, as ours does today. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb.


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Tlachtga | Goddess of Earth and Fire

At Tlachtga, I felt a great sense of peace. I know you will say it’s because it all happened so long ago, in fact, probably never happened at all, because these are just ancient stories. But I think forgiveness washes a place clean, floods it with peacefulness and makes it wholesome again.

It didn’t even feel like a hill, but as I walked out onto the summit, I was amazed at the wide open 360* panorama which unfolded around me. From here, other famous ancient sites can be seen, if you know where to look, such as Tara (19kms), Loughcrew, Slane (23kms) and Teltown (12kms).


An Irish Ghost Story for Halloween | Sabina of Ross Castle

My father was not known for his kindliness; the Black Baron, they called him, and with good reason. He couldn’t abide lawlessness, demanded obedience, and ruled with an iron hand.

That grim, grey castle was not the place for a young girl to grow up in. For the most part, I was left alone, save for my poor governess. I was always tricking her with false errands, that I might escape her sharp eyes and those unforgiving walls.


Human Skull with silver Crown

Samhain Legends | Donn, Lord of the Dead

As far as we can tell, the ancient Irish people  never had a God of the Dead. The Otherworld was said to be the domain of Manannán, God of the Sea, but the myths and legends do not tell of him being a God of the Dead. However, there is someone, a mere mortal, who has come to be associated with this role.


Aillen of the Sidhe sprays fire from his mouth upon the roof of Tara.A Samhain Story | Fionn mac Cumhall and the Sidhe-Prince of Flame

“Tomorrow is the eve of Samhain,” whispered the Filidh, the High King’s Royal Bard. The crowd stilled, straining to hear through the smoky atmosphere of the King’s hall.

It was the night before Halloween. As always, the High King had invited all his favourite nobles to celebrate the festival at Tara. They crowded his hall, feasting at his table. The air was thick with smoke from the hearth fires, the scent of candles, the aroma of roasting meat, chatter, music and song. Now, when bellies were full and hunger sated, folk sat back and turned to their cups. It was time for the storyteller to weave his magic.


A Witches LamentA Poem for Samhain | A Witches Lament

They hide the truth,

these gaudy costumes,

the carved lanterns,

the trick or treat…


A Samhain Poem | The Princess on the Hill

She lies upon the hill, ragged and torn,

Borne of the night her three sons bold.

Told a story heartless and cruel,

Fuel for revenge of an act most foul…


warrior-2A Samhain Story| Lugh, Master of All Arts

Lugh hammered loudly on the palace gates, his men gathered about him. They had been travelling many days, and darkness would soon be falling. They had no intention of spending yet another night sleeping on the hard ground with just their cloaks to warm them.

“Be off with you!” someone shouted down to them from the shadows atop of the palisade wall. “The gates to the King’s palace are closed for the night. We are accepting no visitors this Samhain Eve.”


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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.

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