Uisneach | Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Fires

It’s Bealtaine, the beginning of Summer according to the ancient Celtic Irish calender. The Hill of Uisneach is the sacred centre of Ireland, and the place where it all happened…

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UISNEACH Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Fires

I had very few expectations of The Hill of Uisneach (Cnoc Uisneach in Irish) when I went there for the first time, but as with Shee Mor, it turned out to be one of those ancient places of Ireland which just blew me away.

It’s hard to get an exact meaning for the name Uisneach. It derives from the Irish word for water, uisce (pronounced ish-ka) and a god of the Tuatha de Denann named Nechtan. Not a great deal is known about Nechtan; the name is possibly a variant of Nuada Argetlam, or some say another name for the Dagda. The Hill of Uisneach is said to be located near Nechtan’s well, which also happens to be the source of the River Boyne.

The interesting thing about Nechtan’s Well, is that it might also be the…

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Samhain The Original Halloween

Samhain, The Original Halloween. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Samhain, The Original Halloween.
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Here is an updated version of a post I wrote around this time last year, explaining the origins of 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. 

The ancient Irish divided their year into four seasons punctuated by the festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, according to the equinoxes and solstices. Samhain lies between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

At this time of year, the ancient people would have been very busy preparing for winter. They would have been storing their grain crops, bringing in their cattle and other livestock to lower winter pastures where they would be safer from starving predators; the weakest and least likely to survive the winter would be slaughtered for their meat, and so began the task of meat preservation. Firewood or turf would be collected and stacked up to keep the home hearths burning, homes shored up against the ravages of winter sure to come. Celebrating Samhain was a way of giving thanks for the bounty of Summer they had been given, rejoicing at the completion of all their hard work and preparation, and a time to welcome in the new year.

The lighting of huge bonfires was central to the celebrations. Not only did fire represent the nurturing heat and light of the sun, but it possessed cleansing and purification powers, and brought the blessings of the Gods. Evidence of these huge fires have been found at Tlachta on the Hill of Ward, an ancient site known to be associated with the festival of Samhain, and also at Uisneach, where fires were lit to celebrate Beltaine.

As with Beltaine, all hearth fires would be extinguished in anticipation of this most significant event. As the golden fiery orb of the sun slipped beyond the horizon and darkness took hold, huge communal bonfires were lit. Torches would be dipped into the sacred fire and carefully carried home to rekindle the hearth fires, thus representing the power of the sun keeping the dark winter at bay in peoples homes, and bringing the Gods blessings to the inhabitants. It must have been a quite magical and transformative experience.

It was believed that at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin, and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again. There seemed to have been no fear in this; the ancestors were welcomed by laying a place for them at the dinner table, or leaving out food for them.

It would seem that the traditions of Samhain in Ireland were very resistant to Christian influence. In the C9th, the Catholic church felt the need to move their celebration of All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st, followed by All Souls Day on November 2nd, perhaps as a way of gaining control over this popular pagan festivity. Eventually, all three celebrations merged into Halloween as we know it today.

Although the early Irish did not have a God of the Dead as such, Donn of the Milesians became known as Lord of the Dead, and was associated with this role. It was said that after their passing, the dead walked the earth until they heard Donn’s call on his horn at Samhain. They would then collect at his palace at Teach Duinne, from there moving on to their eternal home in the Otherworld beyond the ninth wave. The church, however, claimed these were the souls of the damned waiting to join the God of the Dead in Hell.

It is not surprising then, that this time of year came to be feared by the ordinary people. Rather than being the friendly souls of deceased ancestors, these Otherworldly visitors began to be seen as creatures of evil out to cause havoc and destruction. They had to be bribed with offerings of food and gifts, and kept at bay with superstition and ritual. So it was that people began to disguise themselves by dressing in scary costumes in the hope of frightening off any creepy ghouls or evil monsters intent on mischief. Dressed up in these costumes, people went door to door collecting food, and so the tradition of Trick or Treat was born.

Lantern carving was another way of keeping away misfortune. Turnips were hollowed out and carved with fearsome faces, after which a lighted candle would be dropped inside. The lanterns would then be placed in the home’s windows. An Irish folk tale claims that after tricking the devil into not taking his soul, a man called Stingy Jack was refused entry into both Heaven and Hell upon his death. The devil tossed him a burning ember to use for a light, which Jack placed in a hollowed out turnip, and so he was doomed to wander the earth for all eternity. This is how the Jack O’Lantern came into being. (Ed Mooney has a written a really cool version of this legend on his blog.)

There are many tales in Irish mythology which are recorded as taking place at Samhain; the Tuatha de Denann fought the Second Battle of Moytura at Samhain, whereas they fought the First Battle at Beltaine; Lugh Lamhfhada joined the court of Nuada at Samhain; Fionn mac Cumhall fought fiery Aillen of the Sidhe at Tara at Samhain;  the Cattle Raid of Cooley was said to have taken place at Samhain; the idol Crom Cruach was said to have been worshipped at Samhain, and there is a very interesting story about how King Tigernmas and three quarters of his men were killed during their devotions to Crom Cruach at Samhain. (If you wish, you can read my post about it here, Magh Slecht | Site of Human sacrifice or Holy Massacre?)

Incidentally, Halloween must be the only time of year when we actually encourage our children to take sweets from strangers, something far more potentially sinister in my view, than the visit of the spirits of our ancient forebears.

Enjoy the weekend’s freaky festivities everyone… Happy Halloween and a Super, Safe Samhain to you all!


 

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Irish Mythology | The Sacred Fires

 

There’s something hypnotic and beguiling about watching golden flames leap, fanning your face with melting warmth, whilst the hiss and pop as they consume their fuel, fills your ears, and clouds of fragrant wood-smoke drift around you… the experience of fire is quite a feast for the senses. A fire can be soothing and relaxing, or mesmerising and exciting, or uncontrollable and frightening.

Our ancestors were well aware of the effects of fire. Mastering this element had changed their lives, yet was fraught with danger. Homes were temporary affairs, constructed of degradable substances such as wood and thatch, and thus highly flammable. Even the landscape could be destroyed by the application of fire, or it could be revitalised.

Observing how fire consumed the living, and yet how new life sprang from the ashes, it’s no wonder that legends such as that of the phoenix were born.

And of course, the greatest fire of them all was that which rode through the sky each day, governing the seasons, separating day from night, bringing warmth and light to nurture seeds in the earth, and life from the womb.

Today, most people assume that the early Irish worshipped the sun as if it were a God. The fact that certain gods and goddesses are associated with the sun has more to do with scholars of later centuries, than any evidence left behind by our ancestors.

For example,  from Victorian times, Lugh Lamhada was thought to be a sun god, because the  Proto-Indo-European root of his name leuk means ‘flashing light’, and thus he is often surrounded by solar imagery.

However, in some parts of Ireland, thunderstorms are referred to as battles between Lugh and Balor, which would imply that he was actually a storm god. This fits more appropriately with the flashing light interpretation of his name, which perhaps more correctly could mean ‘lightning flash’.

Taken into consideration with his festival of Lughnasadh (1st August), and the celebration of the harvest, when the earth is depleted, and the weather is changing, winding down towards winter, the days shortening, storms blowing in bringing rain to renew the parched soil of summer, an association with storms and lightning carries far more weight.

Brigid is another deity associated with the sun. Her feast day is Imbolc (1st February), a time of renewal, regeneration, lengthening days, warmer temperatures, and the greening of spring. She founded a retreat in Kildare, which means ‘church by the oak tree’, and there in her honour the eternal flame was lit.

In 470AD, St Brigid founded a monastery on the Goddess’s site, and she too kept the flame burning. It was extinguished during the C16th, but relit in 1993 by the Brigidine Sisters, who keep it burning to this day.

Yet Brigid’s fire is not that of the sun, at all. Some say it is the fire of the forge, for she was thought to be gifted with the working of metal. However, among her many skills, she was a patron of poets and the poetic art. In that sense, I believe Brigid’s fire was that of poetic inspiration, in other words, the divine knowledge.

The ancient peoples of Ireland celebrated their major festivals with fire. Is this in honour of their sun Gods and Goddesses? According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, an ancient manuscript detailing Ireland’s waves of invaders, the first Bealtaine fire was lit on the Hill of Uisneach by the Nemedian Druid, Mide. Although ‘Druidical rituals’ were said to have taken place, there is no mention of sun-god worship.

You may point out that the word Bealtaine must be linked to to the gods Baal, Bel or Beli, or even Bilé, who was not a god but the father of Mil Espaine, the Milesians who invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuatha de Denann. In fact, beal means ‘bright/ brilliant’, and taine comes from the Irish word for ‘fire’, tine.

The fires may well have represented the importance of the sun in their lives, but these early people, whilst sensitive to nature and very spiritual, were practical and scientific. We know this by the many stone monuments they left in our landscape, extraordinary feats of engineering still standing strong today, built with technology even we, with all our knowledge and computers, can’t fathom.

We know they studied the stars, and from that the seasons, devising their Celtic calender from it. They left us beautiful artwork carved into rock, and wrought in metal tools and weapons, which archaeologists have dug out of the earth, or rescued from bogs and other watery places.

Although they never left us any writings of their own, we also get glimpses of these skills in the remains of the legends as written down by Christian monks, in documents such as the Annals of the Four Masters, and the Lebor Gabála Érenn.

So, what did the ancient Irish actually do at Bealtaine? The festival was certainly connected with fertility of the land, the crops, and the people; the rituals were about protection and purification.

The bonfires were constructed from wood held sacred, such as rowan, apple, dogwood, juniper, pine, holly and oak, and kindled by Druids with great ceremony. Cattle were then driven between the fires and through the smoke, thus cleansing, blessing and protecting their health and milk yield.

People would also pass between the fires, some even leaping the flames. All household fires would have been extinguished, and embers from the Bealtaine fire carefully carried home to relight the hearth, and heart of the house, thus bringing the blessing and protection over all who lived there.

It is also thought that flames from these bonfires could have been ceremonially applied to the fields, as a quick way of clearing and preparing them for spring planting, a method which has been used until fairly recently, when the world became concerned with global warming. (Watch this space to find out more about Bealtaine!)

But Bealtaine was not the only festival celebrated with fire; so was Samhain, Mid-Winter, in fact all the ancient Irish festivals.

The sun was considered to bring great healing energy. Walking three times ‘sun wise’, or cor deiseil, around a fire represented the circling of the sun, and was a potent ritual invocation of the sun’s healing power. We know from the number of monuments which align with sunrise on a festival morning that this part of the day was greatly revered; no doubt feeling the full force of the rays of the rising sun, as well as being spiritually uplifting, was considered beneficial to one’s healing process.

There are some interesting folk traditions in Ireland concerning fire. For example, it was thought very unlucky to put out a light while people were at the dinner table, as this would mean there would be one less person at the table before the end of the year. It was also considered unlucky to carry fire out of a house where a person was ill, as it would also remove the blessing from the house. It may have been thought that the fire represented a person’s spirit, thus removing or extinguishing it also extinguished the invalid’s spark of life.

Samhain | Ancient Irish Celebration of New Year

samhain

I’ve never really liked Halloween. I never understood why people got excited about  dressing up, or visiting the homes of strangers and demanding ‘Trick or Treat’. I never enjoyed the gaudy decorations, or the references to vampires, witches, werewolves, etc. It just felt like a superficial, commercial event designed to make money. Yes, Halloween is big business, just like Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day… and the pressure to conform or be a killjoy is immense.

Strangely, although not a Christian, I love Christmas, so at least Scrooge is not a label anyone can level at me.

I was surprised when I came to Ireland at how big Halloween is over here. Then I learned about Samhain, and it all fell into place for me. And before you ask, no, I’m not a pagan either.

For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain 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. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb.  Continue reading

Ancient Places | A Poem

What cities lie buried beneath each hill?

Monuments born of ancient times,

Forgotten and lost but standing still,

Neglected, disconnected, these are our crimes.

*

What histories are etched into ancient stones?

Tales decayed with the fall of walls,

The sag of dynasty, the crumble of bones,

The march of ghosts through tumbled halls.

*

If we could learn to unlock the past

What shrouds would unfurl from our eyes?

Would realisation be ours at last?

Understanding the what, when, who and why’s.

*

The power was strong, up on Shee Mor,

I felt at great peace, content.

At Moytura, where warriors fought their war

no harm for me was meant.

*

At Uisneach, by the lough where Lugh was drowned

I grieved for Eire’s loss, watched Beltaine fires leap.

Then to Tara, where High Kings were crowned,

the Sacred Stone sadly lost in eternal slumber deep.

*

These places, their magic floods my soul,

washes me clean of the now.

Their stories surge through me, re-make me whole,

ancient voices tell of the how.

*

Ancestors sing and call me home.

I would go if I knew the way.

Under my feet, beneath the loam

stirs blood, beats heart of a by-gone day.

Uisneach | Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Fires

UISNEACH Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Fires. http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

I had very few expectations of The Hill of Uisneach (Cnoc Uisneach in Irish) when I went there for the first time, but as with Shee Mor, it turned out to be one of those ancient places of Ireland which just blew me away.

It’s hard to get an exact meaning for the name Uisneach. It derives from the Irish word for water, uisce (pronounced ish-ka) and a god of the Tuatha de Denann named Nechtan. Not a great deal is known about Nechtan; the name is possibly a variant of Nuada Argetlam, or some say another name for the Dagda. The Hill of Uisneach is said to be located near Nechtan’s well, which also happens to be the source of the River Boyne.

The interesting thing about Nechtan’s Well, is that it might also be the same pool where Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge (more about him later) ate the nuts which fell from the nine enchanted hazel trees into the water, and thus acquired his knowledge. I would so love this to be true! Continue reading