Were There Giants in Ancient Ireland?

I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘giant’. The Oxford Dictionary is vague: ‘An imaginary or mythical being of human form but superhuman size’. It backs this up with, ‘An abnormally or extremely tall or large person, animal, or plant‘.

If you Google it, you will be told that Irish mythology is full of stories of giants. Despite popular belief, search a little more deeply, and you’ll find this is not true. More often than not, it is folklore which tells of giants, as last week’s post explains; Fionn mac Cumhall reduced to hiding in a crib dressed as a baby, even though he was so large he was responsible for building a road across the sea to Scotland, which we now know as the ‘Giant’s Causeway’; the giant witch-hag falling to her death as she leaped from crag to crag, carrying boulders in her apron which formed the cairns of Loughcrew, and so on.

giant2Clearly, from these examples, Irish giants were… well, fecking gigantic! But how ginormous is a giant, exactly? Here’s an interesting story, which might give us a clue.

DNA extracted from the teeth of a man named Charles Byrne, from Northern Ireland, who lived in the 18th century, proves that he had a genetic mutation which resulted in extreme growth. He was 7ft 7 ins tall when he died in the 1780s aged just 22. His skeleton can still be seen at the Hunterian Museum in the London headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.

By StoneColdCrazy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16500747
By StoneColdCrazy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16500747

What’s so intriguing about this case, is that the DNA matched with that of five Northern Irish families still living in that area today, and scientists believe they all inherited the gene mutation from the same common ancestor who lived up to 66 generations, or 1500 years, ago. Who knows, perhaps in the future, it will be traced even further back. If so, then perhaps we have just found the origin of the giant stories in Irish folklore. (You can read the full story here.)

The Tuatha de Danann were said to be tall, slender and powerful, although they were never described as giants. The Fomori, a sea-faring race who battled against the arrival of the Danann, were led by a King known as Balor, said to be a giant with one eye in the centre of his head which could kill people with one look.

Although the Fomori are portrayed as nasty and despicable, and really quite ugly, it is only Balor who is described as a giant. I would also dispute their ugliness; Elatha was so beautiful that when he appeared over the sea to Eriu in his silver boat, she consented immediately to sleep with him. Their resulting son, Bres, was also beautiful; in fact, that is the very meaning of his name.

Balor locked his daughter, Ethne, away in a tower on an island after hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his own grandson. Despite this, Cian of the Danann comes to her and they sleep together. She gives birth to triplet sons, but Balor orders them to be thrown into the sea. One of them is rescued by Birog, a druidess, and he grows up to be Lugh, God of Lightning. At the Second Battle of Moytura, Lugh does indeed kill his grandfather with a spear through his evil eye, and so the prophecy came to pass.

My favourite giant story, however, concerns the origins of the five sacred guardian trees of Ireland. I can’t help feeling that this myth has really really ancient origins. One day, a tall stranger, some say a giant ‘as high as a wood’, came to the court of the High King at Tara bearing a branch from which grew three fruits, an apple, an acorn, and a hazelnut.

The stranger’s name was Trefuilngid Tre-eochair, meaning ‘of the three sprouts’. From the description, he was clearly a descendant of the Otherworld;

“As high as a wood was the top of his shoulders, the sky and the sun visible between his legs, by reason of his size and his comeliness. A shining crystal veil about him like unto raiment of precious linen. Sandals upon his feet, and it is not known of what material they were. Golden-yellow hair upon him falling in curls to the level of his thighs.”

He requested of Conan Bec-eclach, a just and brave High King, that all the men of Ireland be assembled, and from them he selected seven of the wisest men of knowledge from each ‘quarter’ of the land, and also seven from Tara.

He taught them all about their history and heritage, and shared with them his knowledge, but during that time, not a drop of wine or morsel of food passed his lips, for he was sustained purely by the fragrance of the fruits of his branch.

When his work was done, he gave the fruits from his branch to Fintan, the White-Haired Ancient One, who extracted seeds and planted them in each quarter of the land, and one in the centre, at Uisneach. The trees which grew from these seeds became the five sacred trees of Ireland.

Searbhan was a giant who protected a sacred rowan tree in the forest of Dubros (in Co Sligo), upon which grew magical berries which had the power to restore youth to the old. During their flight from jealous Fionn mac Cumhall, Diarmuid and Grainne entered the forest, looking for a safe place to sleep. Being quite pregnant by this time, as soon as Grainne laid eyes on the glossy red berries, she was consumed with an insatiable craving for them.

Inevitably, Searbhan refused to give her any, causing Diarmuid to attack him in anger. The giant swung his huge club, but Diarmuid was a mighty warrior of the Fianna, and not only did he dodge nimbly out of the way, but he managed to relieve Searbhan of his weapon, and kill him with it.

Here in Co Cavan, folklore local to the Burren tells the tale of two sibling giants, Lugh (an important and well loved character from mythology, borrowed yet again) and Lag, who both fell in love with the same female giant. To see decide which one of them should win her, they challenged one another to jump over a wide chasm. They both succeeded. Lag then decided he would jump the chasm backwards, and of course, he fell to his death. He was buried in a wedge tomb beside the chasm, which to this day is known as ‘the Giant’s Leap’.


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The Hill of Slane | Faces in Strange Places

The Hill of Slane is famous for its role as the place from which St Patrick first defied the pagan Kings. The story goes that one day in AD433, possibly in spring around the time of the festival of Bealtaine, as darkness fell across the land, King Laoighaire prepared his Druids to light the sacred bonfires at the royal site of Tara.

However, before they could do so, a golden bud of flame burst forth on the distant hill of Slane. Furious that such a sacred rite could be so flagrantly disregarded, the King sent his warriors and a number of Druids to extinguish the fire and bring the culprit to him.

The fire was not put out, however. The Druids claimed that Patrick’s power was mightier than theirs, and they were unable to extinguish it. They warned the King that if St Patrick’s fire was not put out, it would burn forevermore in Ireland.

Impressed with the stranger’s magic, and the strength of his religious conviction, Laoighaire allowed Patrick to continue his mission. Even stranger, Erc, the King’s chief Druid and adviser was so enamoured of Patrick’s might, that he converted to Christianity at once, and became the first Bishop of Slane.

Surprisingly, Erc was said to have been buried under a dolmen, the remains of which can still be seen in the graveyard at Slane today. This is a decidedly un-Christian burial more in line with his pagan roots. Which begs the question, why? If the remaining stones really are what is left of a dolmen, of course, and I’m not convinced that they are. I’ll let you decide.

Wherever there is a Christian church, there was once a pagan sacred site before it, and Slane is no exception. In amongst the trees to the west of the hill lies a motte of Norman origin upon which once stood a castle. Beneath this motte there is a burial mound believed to be that of Sláine, a king of the FirBolg.

It was Sláine who was responsible for clearing the land so that the mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth could be built. Quite a legacy.

Sláine, son of Dela, was said to be the first High King of Ireland. He landed at Wexford Harbour at the mouth of the River Slaney with his four brothers and 5000 men. They carved Ireland into five provinces and ruled one each, with Sláine ruling over them all. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long: he died at Dind Ríg in Co Carlow and was carried back to Slane to be buried. He was succeeded by his brother Rudraige.

Newgrange and Knowth can be seen from Slane, and the Hill of Tara is only shrouded from view by a belt of woodland. Clearly, this area was once a very significant one.

According to legend, a holy well is located near Sláine’s mound, which was used as a well of healing by the Tuatha de Danann for their warriors during battle, much like that of Heapstown Cairn at Moytura.

Sadly, the mound and well lie beyond sight on private land, and cannot be accessed by the public.  I have heard that there are some large trees growing through the motte and mound, and that their roots are causing terrible damage. There does not seem to be any plan in place to repair the damage in the near future, so once again, a precious site of enormous value to Irish heritage is being allowed to crumble into obscurity.

A tomb with a view. You can see Newgrange, Knowth, Tara environs, the town of Drogheda, the Mary Macalees Bridge, the sea...
A tomb with a view. You can see Newgrange (red arrow), Knowth, Tara environs (yellow arrow), the town of Drogheda, the Mary Macalees Bridge, the sea…

Despite this, a visit to Slane is well worth it. The remains of the church, its tower, and the monastic college are impressive, and the uninterrupted views of the spreading landscape under a big sky just make you want to soar! The atmosphere is serene, and the light and energy of the site is compelling.


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The Sacred Stones of the Hill of Tara

These lumps and bumps in the ground as you emerge from the churchyard onto the Hill of Tara belong to the Mound of the Synods.

I went to the Hill of Tara yesterday. I haven’t been in quite a while; the sun was shining, and I’d been cooped up in the house for a couple of days, and I just felt drawn, so off I went.

Going anywhere on my own these days is such a treat. And as I got nearer to my destination, I could feel the excitement mounting, until by the time I arrived, I was giddy as a schoolgirl!

In some ways, visiting Tara on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of July was a bit of a mistake; the Hill was packed. Not crowded, its much too big and open for that. But there was too much noise, human noise, and it was impossible to take a photo without it being invaded by unwanted guests.

Looking through the churchyard gate towards the Mound of Hostages.
Looking through the churchyard gate towards the Mound of Hostages. You can see how busy it is.

Don’t get me wrong; we all have an equal right to be there. But somehow, I had mixed feelings over the way this ancient monument and symbol of our heritage was being used. Mostly, people were sunbathing, or kids were running gleefully up and down the bankings, climbing over all the ancient monuments.

Harmless, and yet I’ll admit that a part of me was appalled; they can do that anywhere, why come to somewhere special and fragile like Tara to do it? It seemed so disrespectful. On the other hand, it was good to see so many people congregating there, and enjoying the site. Tara has not been forgotten. It still draws people, and is still being used today.

I had a really good wander, and discovered parts of the site I had never been to before. But what I really came to see was these two fellows…

You might be wondering what’s so special about them… they’re just two stones in a graveyard, right? Well, yes… and no.

These two particular stones aren’t decayed headstones marking someone’s grave; they’re standing stones. According to legend, these are the two stones known as Bloc and Bluicne. As part of his inaugural ceremony, the newly elected High King had to drive his chariot at full speed towards these stones, and if his claim on the throne was honourable, and he was the rightful heir, the stones would recognise him as such, and move apart, allowing him safe passage between them.

I know what you’re thinking; sounds ridiculous. But these two stones weren’t the only ones on Tara… there were others, too. Remember the Lia Fail, also known as the ‘Stone of Destiny’, which cried so loud in recognition of the rightful King, its voice was heard all across the land? According to author Michael Slavin, ancient texts revealed the names of other sacred standing stones on the Hill of Tara, all now lost: Dall, Dorcha, Maol, in addition to the three previously mentioned. I love that they all had names, and that their names are still remembered.

The taller of the two stones was said to have a carving of the Horned God, Cernunos. If you look closely, you can see a raised indistinguishable area which could have been a carving, but it is badly eroded now, and unidentifiable.

I’d love to think this was true. However, there was once a headstone in this area of the churchyard called the ‘Cross of Adamnan’. Adamnan was a C7th saint. I’m sure he’d be turning in his grave if he realised the likeness on his gravestone had been interpreted as an image of a pagan fertility God! That thought made me chuckle on and off all afternoon. 😤

These two companion stones remind me of the two sentinels which guard the entrance to Brú na Bóinne’s Knowthit’s thought that they represent fertility symbols, obviously the tall one is a phallus, and the shorter rotund one represents the rounded belly of the pregnant female form.

Entrance to main central mound at Knowth, showing the two sentinel stones, one phallus shaped, the other, well... not.
Entrance to main central mound at Knowth, showing the two sentinel stones, one phallus shaped, the other, well… not.

I’m just not convinced; we know from the stories and the grand monuments these people left behind that they were highly sophisticated and knowledgeable. They used complex engineering and calculations to build their cairns with lightboxes, and all their various other structures, all without the aid of computers and mechanisation, a feat most of us could not manage today.

Then in the next breath we accuse them of being so basic and crude as to worship their own penises and ovaries and immortalise them in stone. Ok, perhaps there are a lot of men out there today who secretly do worship their manhood and would love to see their body parts carved in stone, lol! But, you know what I’m saying.

Although Tara is most commonly thought of as the inaugural site of pagan kings, it also has strong Christian links. The church which stands there now is home to a Visitor Centre, and dates from 1822. It has a beautiful stained glass window. The first church was built in the early C13th, and was followed by a much larger one, the only trace of which remains is a crumbling section of wall, which you can see in this picture. You can also see Bloc and Bluicne close by.

The current church, now a Visitor centre, with the last crumbling remains of its predecessor in the foreground, with Bloc and Bluicne to the left.

Finally, I couldn’t mention the church without paying respect to the marble statue of St Patrick, which dominates the approach to the site. It’s weird; his eyes seem to follow you about and his gaze is piercing and none too friendly.  Given all the things he is supposed to have done for his religion, I shouldn’t be surprised.

I have so much to show you and tell you, but it will have to wait for another day. Have a great week, everyone!


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The Sacred Rites of Kings

Sacred Rites of Kings www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Sacred Rites of Kings
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

So according to current scholarly thinking on ancient Kingship rights in Ireland, a new King had to shag a white horse, kill it and bathe in a stew made from it whilst eating its flesh. Then, if he was a bad King, or the crop failed, or he suffered an affliction which rendered him less than whole, his family and tribe sacrificed him to the Gods.

Intelligent, learned people actually believe this stuff?

Well. I read as much as I can about this kind of thing. I also spend a lot of time reading all the old stories from Ireland’s mythological cycles. And whilst many people dismiss them as pure fantasy (ahem… just look at that first para again!), if one plays close attention to what they tell us, we can actually learn from them.

Apart from Gerald’s gruesome ‘eye-witness’ account, I have not yet come across any more stories involving intimate relations with animals. Of course, that does not mean there aren’t any, just that I haven’t found them yet… cue the flood of helpful suggestions in my comments! Guys, where do you get your reading material from???

Ok, joking aside, here is a handy list of Kingship rituals I HAVE come across in the old myth stories, none of them gruesome. Maybe one of them is a little unsavoury, but nothing like what old Gerald would have us believe.

1. the tarb fheis

The Tarbfheis, or bull feast, was a ceremony used to select the next High King. It involved the sacrifice of a white bull, after which the Druid, or poet, would ‘chew the flesh and drink the broth’. I’m assuming the meat was cooked, since broth was a component of the ceremony. Following this meal, the poet was wrapped in the bull’s raw hide to dream. If his dream was unsuccessful in identifying the new King, he faced death.

According to the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, on this occasion, the poet dreamed the future King would arrive in Tara naked and surrounded by birds. Young Conaire Mór was out hunting birds, when the leader of the flock suddenly threw off his feathers and revealed himself as the King of Birds, and Conaire’s true father. He advised Conaire of the details of the new prophecy, whereupon the young man immediately removed his clothes and set off for Tara accompanied by the Bird King and his flock. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled.

This ceremony is also explicitly described in a story preserved in the Lebor na hUidre, or ‘Book of the Dun Cow’, c 1106 AD, in a story called Serglige con Culainn, or ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn’.

2. The wedding feast of kingship

Also known in Irish as banfeis rigi, the ‘wife-feast of kingship’, and when it pertains to the High King, who ruled from Tara, feis Temhra, the ‘feast of Tara’. Basically, sovereignty over the land was believed to be embodied in the Goddess. Thus in the ceremony, the king was ritually united, not just with his wife, and through her the Goddess, but also with the land, his kingdom. A King without a wife was seen as a king without sovereignty, or the right to rule.

Details are sketchy, but according to the myths, the bride/ Goddess offered the king a drink. Its quite likely that he then consummated his marriage with his Queen, the Goddess, and the land, thus indicating that the ceremony was, in part, a fertility rite.

Although the modern meaning of the word feis is ‘festival’, in the old days it meant ‘feast’ and also ‘to sleep/ spend the night’.

In the Baile in Scail, also called ‘the Phantom’s Ecstatic Vision’, Conn of the Hundred Battles and his companions wander into a blanket of fog and find themselves in the Otherworld, where they are greeted by Lugh. They are taken to his hall, where a beautiful woman named Flaith, meaning (‘Sovereignty’) serves Conn with a drink in a golden cup. He is thus made high king of Ireland.

3. The Coronation Stone

According to legend, the Lia Fail was made by Morfessa of the lost city of Falias, and was one of the Four Treasures belonging to the Danann, which they brought with them to the Hill of Tara when they came to Ireland. Also known as the Coronation Stone, and the Stone of Destiny, it was said its cry confirmed the coronation of the rightful High King of Ireland when his feet were placed upon it, and that its roar was heard throughout the land. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that it must have reclined upon its side in order to facilitate a man standing upon it, rather than standing tall as it does today. Additionally, the magical powers of the Stone were said to have rejuvenated him, and gifted him with a long reign. In fact, the Tuatha de Denann revered the Lia Fail so much, they named Ireland Inis Fail after it.

4. The guardian tree

It is thought that all clans possessed within their territories, their own sacred Guardian tree. It is believed that chieftains would have been inaugurated beneath their sacred tree, thus connecting them to both to the powers of below (the Otherworld) and above (the physical world). Thus the trees were seen as powerful, and representative of the success of the King and his tribe; they were the Guardians of their province, and this is what was meant when each tree was said to have ‘sheltered thousands of men’… it was meant symbolically, rather than literally.

5. challenges

Candidates for the High Kingship of Tara had to perform certain tasks to prove their eligibility, according to some legends. For example, they had to drive their chariots at full speed towards a pair of standing stones which had only a hand’s breadth between them. The stones would only part for the rightful king to pass through. Sounds a bit risky to me.

 

So what happened to bad kings? The ones who failed to fulfil their promises, or live up to expectations? The ones who got sick, or maimed in battle? Were they really sacrificed?

Not according to the myths. King Nuada lost his sword arm in battle, yet thanks to the skill of his great physician, Dian-Cecht, he survived. He wasn’t given a savage death in honour of the Gods though. A new king was elected, whilst Dian-Cecht set about making a fully functioning ‘arm of silver’ for Nuada. No dishonourable death for him. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he must have been held in great esteem and high regard if they bothered to go to all the trouble and expense of creating the world’s first ever bionic/ prosthetic arm for him.

Meanwhile, the newly elected king, Bres, proved to be a tyrannical, power-crazed maniac. After enduring seven years of his rule, during which Bres reduced the Danann to little more than slaves and forced them to pay  hefty tribute to his father’s people, the Fomori, the Danann finally rebelled and deposed him.

Notice how even a bad king was not sacrificed, or even harmed. The worst that happened was that a poet satirised him. He was allowed to leave, and return to his father’s people. Nuada, now whole, was reinstated.

The Danann and the Fomori went to war. The Fomori were defeated, and Bres taken captive. You’d think they might finally get around to sacrificing the tyrant at this point, but no; he was pardoned, and given the role of agricultural advisor.

So much for sacrificing  bad or maimed kings. Here’s another story for you.

Fergus mac Léiti received a facial disfigurement after fighting the sea-serpent known as the Muirdris in Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay). Instead of sacrificing him for not being whole, his people decided to hide the truth from him, and removed all mirrors from his home. For seven years, he was unaware of his deformity, until one day he beas a servant girl and she maliciously revealed the truth. Fergus went back into the sea to kill the Muirdris once and for all and succeeded, but died from exhaustion soon after.

Hmmm… a deformed king who wasn’t sacrificed.

Archaeology provides us with the most amazing discoveries and fascinating insights into what life was like for our ancestors. But it is not an exact science; it is open to interpretation, which can vary wildly from one person to another. Just like the old stories. They’re not merely entertainment, they can teach us a lot about the lives and mindsets of our ancestors. Instead of dismissing them, they should be layered with the archaeology, two powerful tools working together to unlock the secrets of the past.


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A Samhain Story | Lugh, Master of All Arts


lugh


Lugh was said to have joined the Danann in battle against the Fomori on the eve of Samhain. This is my retelling of how it happened, taken from my first book, Conor Kelly and The Four Treasures of Eirean.


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.”

Lugh’s companions muttered angrily amongst themselves, and shifted restlessly. The wind blew cold, and the lowering sky held the threat of rain. They did not wish to be caught in it. Lugh shook back his red-gold hair, and motioned for them to stay calm.

“We are warriors come from afar to join Nuada’s army. We wish to join him in battle against the Fomori. What kind of hospitality is this?” he called.

“Go away,” the voice shouted. “The King is at table with his council. My orders are to let none in. Come again tomorrow.”

“This is an outrage,” yelled one of the companions, kicking at the gate. “Do you know who you are talking to?”

Lugh pulled him away from the gate. “Hush, my friend,” he admonished him. “I would win my place on merit, not by my name.” Despite his calm words, his blood was rising in anger. To the gatekeeper, he said, “We will not leave. We have travelled many days to lend Nuada our skills and arms. Is this the way you would treat us? Does the army of Nuada have no need of men brave and true?”  Continue reading

A Samhain Story | Fionn mac Cumhall and the Sidhe-Prince of Flame


Fakir


“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.

When he was sure he had their full attention, the Filidh continued, his voice rising, throbbing with the emotion and power of the words he brought to life before his audience. He stared round at them all, as if daring someone to disagree, his eyes boring into the soul of every one of them, or so it seemed.

 “Samhain is the night when all good people stay indoors, for on this night, the Sidhe will rise up and cause their mischief, as it has always been since the days they were banished by the race of mankind to their lands beneath the hills.  Continue reading