Mythology and Folklore | What’s the Difference?

This was something which confused the hell out of me when I first got into Irish mythology; what’s the difference between mythology and folklore, does it matter, and who cares anyway? They’re just a bunch of old stories, right?

Ancient text
Ancient text

The Oxford Dictionary defines mythology as…

“A collection of myths, especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition. A set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictitious. “

It describes folklore as…

“The traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. A body of popular myths or beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

Still confused? So much for the Oxford Dictionary. Clear as mud! I think the best way to do this is by giving you some examples.

But first, a bit of background; in Irish mythology, there are four collections of stories known as the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. These can be found in three 11th century and 12th century manuscripts called  Lebor na hUidre, the Book of Leinster, and the rather un-romantically named Rawlinson B 502. There are also many other ancient texts, but these are considered the most important.

Despite their relatively late date, the content of these documents has been identified via linguistics studies to originate as far back as the 8th century and the 6th century. Christian monks assembled these stories from the oral tradition of the Irish storytellers they were listening to at the time, to try to provide a history for Ireland, and so the tales were finally committed to writing.

Whilst we should be very grateful for their efforts, we must also be mindful that in so doing, many of the stories were ‘Christianised’ in line with their own beliefs, as they tried to stamp out pagan culture.

The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.
The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.

And so to my first example: the Dagda. According to mythology, he was a Druid and a High King of the Tuatha de Danann. He was the father of Bodb Dearg, Cermait, Midir, Áine, Óengus Óg, and Brigit. Bres and Ogma were his half-brothers, and his father was Elatha of the Fomori, his mother was Eithne of the Danann.

He had a staff called the lorg mór, a cauldron known as the coire ansic (one of the Four Treasures of Eirean), and a harp named uaithne. Of course, these were all magical items:  the staff was said to be capable of killing nine men with one swing, whilst with the handle he could restore life to the dead; the cauldron was said to leave no one unsatisfied, and the harp possessed the power to rearrange the seasons, and control the order of battle.

Replica of the Dagda's Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre
Replica of the Dagda’s Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre

In Irish, the Dagda means ‘the Good God’, because it was believed he protected the crops. He was also known as Eochaid Ollathair ‘All Father’, and Ruadh Rofhessa, ‘the Mighty Red One of Great Knowledge’. You can see from all this that he was considered powerful, wise and knowledgeable, and that he was looked up to, admired and revered.

In fact, according to a text known as Cóir Anmann, or ‘the Fitness of Names’, translated by Mary Jones, the Dagda is described as…

“He was a beautiful god of the heathens, for the Tuatha Dé Danann worshipped him: for he was an earth-god to them because of the greatness of his (magical) power.”

And then we come across this story; in preparation for the Second Battle of Moytura with the Fomori, the Dagda is sent by King Nuada to parlay with them.

“He was not a pleasant sight to behold: A cape which hung only to the hollow of his elbows; a brown tunic around him which only went as far as the swelling of his rump; a ragged hole in that tunic; two shoes on him of horse-hide, with the hair turned outside, and his private parts dangling in the air.

“He saw a fine-looking woman and of good shape, with tresses of beautiful hair on her head. The Dagda lusted after her but he was impotent because of his heavy belly. The girl began to mock him and to tussle with him. She hurled him so hard that he sank to his rump in the mud.”

Huh?

When I first read this, I did a bit of a double take. It just did not fit with any of the other things I had read about him. I realised that this piece could be a bit of ancient propaganda, designed to belittle and discredit the Dagda, and in fact all of the Danann.

But why? And by whom?

Well, the Christians were doing everything within their power to convert the masses to Christianity, and destroy the pagan Gods. This is a tale of greed, lust, slovenliness, weakness, certainly not a portrayal of a noble Danann god, and may have served some moral purpose, as well as mocking the Dagda.

Equally, it could have been an ancient folk tale. The Fomori were beaten in that battle by the Danann, and practically annihilated. The Dagda was High King at that time. Perhaps when the Fomori went home, it was a story they told themselves to feel better over their defeat… it would be quite a natural thing to do, to ridicule your hated enemy’s chieftain.

But of course, that’s speculation.

Let’s look at the Fenian Cycle; here we have a collection of tales concerning one of Ireland’s greatest mythological heroes, Fionn mac Cumhall. He was a mortal, a noble hunter-warrior, leader of the Fianna, and close friend of High King Cormac mac Art.

He was famous for catching the Salmon of Knowledge and cheating the Druid, Finegas, out of achieving all that knowledge and wisdom. As a boy, he single-handedly saved Tara from being burned by the fire-fairy Aillen mac Midhna, when no-one else could, and thus he was awarded his birth-right to lead the Fianna by Cormac.

There are many, many stories of his adventures with the Fianna, of his battles and heroic exploits.

Giant's Causeway By Chmee2 - Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972
Giant’s Causeway By Chmee2 – Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972

And then we have the story of Fionn as a giant; he creates the Isle of Man by throwing a clod of earth into the sea, and builds a pathway across the sea to Scotland, which we know as the Giant’s Causeway. He is married to a woman named Oonagh, and dresses up as a baby and hides in a cradle to avoid an even bigger giant named Benandonner, who charges over the newly made pathway from Scotland to fight him.

Hmmm… again, we have here a story which clearly does not fit with the mythology of the Fenian Cycle. Finn is portrayed as a coward who would rather masquerade as a baby than face up to his enemy, even though he is inflated to the size of a giant.

What’s interesting, though, is that this story is attached to a particular location, and can be seen as an attempt to explain something the people could not understand, the creation of local landmarks, ie the strange columns of the Giant’s Causeway, and the Isle of Man.

And this is a typical feature of Ireland’s folklore stories; that a famous character would be taken out of context in a particular community and used to explain the unexplainable, or to highlight desirable/ undesirable behaviours and traits in a society, perhaps as a way of teaching moral conduct to children, for example.

Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew
Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew

My final example concerns a location closer to home, for me: Loughcrew, also known in Irish as  Sliabh na Caillaigh, meaning ‘the hag’s mountain’. At it’s highest point is the largest mound of the complex, known rather poetically (not!) as cairn T. At its base is a huge throne -shaped kerbstone called ‘the hag’s chair’, and it was from here that the ‘hag’ was said to have sat and surveyed her landscape.

Local folklore claims that the cairns of Loughcrew were formed when the hag, a giant witch, was carrying stones in her apron. As she leaped from one hilltop to another, she slipped and fell, the stones tumbling from her apron and scattering across the three hills to form the complex of monuments we can still see today.

Again, we see the same pattern repeated here; a community borrows a well known figure from mythology, in this case a Goddess of Winter, in an attempt to explain a prominent local feature in their landscape, and community. Note that she has also been elevated to the size of a giant, whilst at the same time, denigrated from Goddess to old hag.

Charming.

So… crystal, or still mud?


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The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree

Sounds like a sweet little piece of nonsense, doesn’t it? A fairy tale to amuse the kids. Well, not in Ireland. We take our fairy trees, and our fairy tales for that matter, quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we delay the building of a motorway by 10 years, and then end up completely re-routing it so that we avoid harming a well-known fairy tree.

Wait… what? Really?

Absolutely. You can check out the story right here, if you don’t believe me. Having spent some time in Co Clare this year, and last year, walking the Burren Way, I can confirm that it is a very magical and mystical place steeped in ancient lore, and it’s impossible to be there, and not be seduced by it. As with many of Ireland’s ancient places, there is magic there waiting for you.

So, what exactly is a ‘fairy tree’?

Well, they look like this…

Fairy tree at Loughcrew
Fairy tree at Loughcrew

You will often find one at an ancient pagan site, or a holy well. They are usually hawthorn trees, but not always. People leave prayers, gifts or a personal token of some kind attached to the trees branches in the hope of receiving healing, or good fortune, or having their prayer answered. It can be fascinating viewing the strange objects people leave; children’s toys, socks, photos, ribbons, messages scrawled on scraps of paper, balloons, even strips of fabric torn from their clothing.

The lone hawthorn standing in the middle of a field was treated with much respect, and some suspicion by farming communities. Whilst it was thought to be auspicious, bringing good fortune and prosperity to the landowner, it was also thought to belong to the magical folk of the Otherworld, the Sidhe. As such, it was never to be cut or harmed for fear of bringing their wrath upon the perpetrator.

This tree in the centre of a field has had boulders piled against its trunk to protect it from accidental harm.
This tree in the centre of a field has had stones piled against its trunk to protect it from accidental harm.

In fact, some farmers would go so far as to pile boulders around the base of the tree so as not to accidentally cause damage to the trunk whilst ploughing or reaping around it.

So, a little bit of background about the hawthorn itself: the hawthorn is a small, bushy tree which grows up to six metres in height, which can live to a grand old age of four hundred years. It is native to Ireland, where it is mostly used to mark field boundaries, and roadside hedgerows.

In Irish, the hawthorn is known as Sceach Gheal, from sceach meaning ‘thornbush/ briar’ and geal meaning ‘bright/ lumnious/ radiant’. According to the ancient Brehon Law, it was classified as a Peasant tree. In Ogham, also known as the Tree Alphabet, the hawthorn is represented by the sixth symbol called Huath(pronounced Hoo-ah).

But how did the hawthorn come to be regarded as a fairy tree? Well, because it flowers in the Spring, it was associated with the festival of Bealtaine, a sacred time to the ancient Irish and to the Sidhe (the fairy folk, but don’t ever let them hear you call them by the F-word, they’d be most insulted, and I’m sure you’d rather live out your days as a human rather than something… else! 😂).

As a tree sacred to the fairies, the hawthorn was never to be messed with, damaged, or cut. Ill fortune would surely befall the fool who took such a chance, and offended the tree’s owners. Poised thus between the Otherworld and the physical world, the hawthorn eventually came to be regarded with fear, and it was said that witches made their brooms from its branches.

The fairy tree at St Co
The fairy tree at St Co

According to Druidry.org, this is what can happen when one destroys a fairy tree…

“Earlier in this century, a construction firm ordered the felling of a fairy thorn on a building site in Downpatrick, Ulster. The foreman had to do the deed himself, as all of his workers refused. When he dug up the root, hundreds of white mice – supposed to be the faeries themselves – ran out, and while the foreman was carting away the soil in a barrow, a nearby horse shied, crushing him against a wall and resulting in the loss of one of his legs.

“Even as recently as 1982,workers in the De Lorean car plant in Northern Ireland claimed that one of the reasons the business had so many problems was because a faery thorn bush had been disturbed during the construction of the plant. The management took this so seriously that they actually had a similar bush brought in and planted with all due ceremony!”

Consider yourself warned!

Did you know: Wands made of hawthorn are said to be extremely powerful. The blossoms are said to be highly erotic to men… which perhaps explains why Ireland did such a roaring trade in exporting hawthorn flowers in the past. May poles were originally made of hawthorn.

The hawthorn was often seen as a gateway into the fairy realms. Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish poet in the C13th claimed to have met the Fairy Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Otherworld for a short visit, but when he emerged, he found that seven years had passed.

Be careful if you are ever out walking in the countryside and think you may take a nice little nap under that inviting shady hawthorn tree… you may wake to find yourself whisked off to the Otherworld, and it’s highly likely you won’t find your way back…


Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for my blog in the Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards last week. I was overwhelmed and humbled by your support, good wishes, and sharing on social media… this WordPress author community is a great thing to be part of. Oh, and if you haven’t voted, but might like to, there’s still time: you can vote by hitting this button…

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Equinox at Loughcrew

On Sunday morning, I visited Loughcrew (in Irish Loch Craobh) to greet the dawn of the autumn equinox. It was still pitch black when I left the house, and I was glad to see the stars shining bright and clear. It meant there would be a good chance of seeing the sun rise.

There was just enough tremulous starlight to guide my way up the hill. I couldn’t help feeling that by following in the footsteps of our distant ancestors I was enacting some kind of ancient ritual, winding my way through the still velvety darkness as they would have done, perhaps earning the right to be there by participating in that steep, breathless climb at such an early hour of the day.

Meanwhile, the faint stain of dawn was already caressing the horizon in the east, and I wondered at the mysticism of the event I was about to witness.

Although the tiny car park was full, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of people waiting in anticipation, as I rounded the stony bulk of cairn T. They were queuing all the way around it, and the hum of their chatter and laughter seemed loud in my ears after all that silence.

There were people everywhere; photographers with huge cameras on tripods, dogs on leads, children running, men climbing on top of the cairn, even people on horses. Above our heads, a remotely controlled device flew around buzzing noisily and flashing red and green lights; it probably contained a camera. I felt uncomfortable, restless. I’m not one for crowds at the best of times.

I watched a small group perform a pagan ritual. No doubt it was disconcerting for them that a small crowd had gathered to watch their ceremony, but when they dress in long robes and cloaks, and process around a public place carrying wooden staves, they have to expect they are going to draw curious onlookers, I suppose. They seemed somewhat lacking in confidence.

The sun rose, but hid her face behind a thin veil of cloud that refused to budge. Still, people waited. I suspected that if there was even a hint of a sunbeam, there would be a mad rush to try and get into the cairn chamber, and I did not want to be a part of that. The cairn was open, so I asked to go in.

It was dark and empty, except for one huge spider. I shone the light from my phone on the familiar symbols, and relaxed. It didn’t matter if the sun entered the chamber or not, or how many people there were waiting outside for something stupendous and glorious to happen; this was where the magic happened, and this was what it was all about, in the dark, on my own, with the symbols and the ancestors.

Others followed me in, but I didn’t stay long. I didn’t need to. I’d paid my respects, as I always did every time I visited, not just once or twice a year at the equinox. I realised how lucky I was; I could come here any time. If the cairn was closed, I could even get the key. This is Ireland, after all. We don’t fence our monuments off and forbid people to touch and experience them.

The ‘wrongness’ that I felt lifted as I walked back down. It came to me that the reason it all felt wrong, was that there was no peace on the hill. I had always felt comfortable there, but the crowd had unnerved me; I was used to having the place almost to myself. Was I being selfish, possessive, or just protective?

Because in ancient days, inevitably a crowd would have gathered to witness rituals and the dawning of the sun. But they would have had a common purpose, a shared goal and belief, and they no doubt understood their place in it all better than us, even if they couldn’t explain the mystery.

Today’s crowd didn’t have that. We were a gathering of individuals, some walking our dogs, some riding our horses, some celebrating our rituals, some curious, even part of a drunken wedding party straight from the reception, stinking of booze and out for a laugh.

We all came for the same thing, the dawning of the equinox, but we all wanted to experience it in our own way. That’s not a bad thing; we should be celebrating our diversity. I have probably been quick to say that no one cares any more about our ancient sites, but here I was proved wrong.

Whatever their motivations, whether it was honouring the ancestors, or mother earth, or just curiosity, people had got out of their beds before the dawn and climbed up a steep hill to be there. Nothing else matters but that. I don’t know if any of us got what we wanted, but I hope that at least some of us did.

It was a beautiful, perfect morning. At the foot of the hill, I got a fabulous coffee in the new Loughcrew Megalithic Centre, before driving home. You can read more about Loughcrew here.

Sacred Trees of Ireland | The Yew

Sacred trees of Ireland | The Yew http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

The Yew tree, one of Ireland’s native evergreens, enjoys a high status in Irish mythology. In Old Irish, it’s name is Ibar, but in modern Irish it is known as an Iúr.

The yew is a long-lived tree; it is thought it can survive to the ripe old age of 9500 years, although it is hard to accurately date due to the unique way in which it grows. Branches reach earthward to touch the ground, forming new stems which entwine around the main central trunk, which is often hollow, eventually becoming inseparable from it.

I visited the yews at Loughcrew Gardens this weekend. Loughcrew was the birthplace and home of St Oliver Plunkett, Ireland’s most recent saint. These magnificent specimens were planted in the 1660s.

Yews have soft dark needles, twisted gnarly trunks and flaky bark. They are very tactile. The male trees produce cones, the females produce red berries, each one containing only one seed.

Interestingly, the leaves, bark, wood and seeds are highly poisonous, and yet the very substance, taxol, which makes them so toxic has also been found to have beneficial effects in treating cancer. Taxol inhibits cell growth and division, but it would take ten 200 year-old trees with trunks ten inches in diameter, to produce enough taxol sufficient for a single dose.

The yew was revered by our ancient ancestors for its longevity, and because it remained green and vibrant, thriving in the harshness of winter when all other trees succumbed.

In those times, it was more plentiful and grew in mixed woodland. The deep shade beneath its dense needles and branches combined with the toxins secreted through its roots ensured not much grew within its vicinity. These natural open spaces were perfect locations for conducting pagan ritual and ceremonies. Thus the yew was seen as a ‘holy’ or sacred tree, and in time was adopted by the Christians, who built their churches and abbeys around them. We still see yew trees growing in churchyards today.

The yew tree fell out of favour as cattle and livestock became more important as an indication of wealth and status. Only a tiny amount of poison from a yew was enough to kill a cow or horse, and so many of the trees were eventually destroyed.

The three oldest trees in Ireland happen to be yews. The yews of Crom Castle, Co Fermanagh are said to be over 800 years old.

At Maynooth College, there is a yew which is said to be between 700 -800 years old, and the yew at Muckross Friary in Killarney is 670 years old.

The oldest yew tree in Ireland, (Plmerstown, Dublin), was thought to be over a thousand years old when it finally fell during storms back in the 1880s. Dublin boasts another famous yew tree; it is located at the Old Glebe, Newcastle, and is named The Dean’s Tree after the writer Jonathon Swift (1667-1745), who would sit penning his works beneath it.

In Irish mythology, the yew was one of five sacred trees brought into Ireland from the Otherworld when the land was divided into its five provinces. It was protected under Brehon Law as one of the seven Chieftain trees.

The Druids chose yew from which to make their wands, or staffs. Being so long-lived, and yet also so toxic, it was seen as having powerful magical properties, a tree associated not just with death, but also longevity and rebirth.

Poets also used staves of yew as memory aids when learning long incantations and poems. It is said that these rods were very long with eight sides, each one inscribed with ogham characters.

In a version of The Wooing of Etain, the Druid, Dalladh, divines that Etain is at the court of King Midir by making two rods of yew wood and inscribing them with ogham spells.

In the beautiful and tragic love story of Baile and Aillinn, a yew tree grows from Baile’s grave which bears the likeness of his face in its bark. You can read Jane Dougherty’s haunting version of this story for free in the book that she and I wrote together, Grá mo Chroí, Love Stories from Irish Myth.

Here is a series of Twitter poems (#gramochchroi) I wrote back in May in honour of the legend;

He lies beneath a weight of stones

in the shadow of love and loss

and from the hill a yew tree grew

now aged and covered in moss

 

Sacred apple, fruit of womb

falls from the branch like tears

while silent in his cold dark tomb

her lover sleeps away the years

 

Yew boughs twined together

Lovers’ limbs interlace

Twisted, tattooed with ogham

In the bark, an image of a face

 

From that tree a branch was took

his story for to tell

of life and love and death and loss

and the woman who loved him well

There is a strange story about a yew tree in the Historical Cycle of mythology. An old yew tree, said to have been wrought by Sidhe magic,  stood in a place called Ess Magh. Three brothers, Mac Conn, Cian and Eogan, fell under its spell and greatly desired to own it. They took their dispute to King Aillil, who awarded it to Eogan. Consumed with jealousy and anger, Mac Conn fought two battles with Aillil over his poor judgement. Many brave warriors were killed, including Mac Conn himself, and all of Aillil’s seven sons. Mac Conn’s daughter, Sadbh, was poisoned by the yew tree’s toxins. What became of Cian and Eogan is not told. I guess the moral of this story is not to mess with the Sidhe and their property, nor to underestimate their magic.

It should be noted that the name Eogan actually means ‘born of the yew’, so it’s not surprising Aillil gave the yew to him.  The yew has given its name to many places in Ireland. Co Mayo, for example, comes from the Irish Magh Eo, meaning ‘Plain of the Yew’. The village near where I live is called Virginia, but in Irish its name is Achadh an Iúr, which means ‘Field/ Meadow of the Yew’.

Incidentally, the townland I live in is called Billis, which in Irish is na Bilí, meaning ‘sacred tree’. Just down the road from my house is the hugest yew tree with the broadest trunk I have ever seen. It stands on private land, so I knocked on the owner’s door, hoping to find out a little of its history, but no-one was home. Could it possibly be the sacred tree Billis is named after?

Yew Billis

Irish Mythology | The Rough Month of the Cuckoo

scairbhinThe Scairbhín ( pronounced skara-veen) is an Irish weather phenomenon I know only too well, but until very recently, did not know it had a name. It translates as ‘the rough month of the cuckoo’ from the phrase garbh mi na gcuach, and refers to the period comprising the last two weeks of April, and the first two weeks of May.

These few weeks are often rampant with changeable extremes of weather patterns. In Ireland, we say you can expect to experience all four seasons in one day, and this is certainly true of the Scarbhín.

Our ancient ancestors who worked the land and were much closer to the seasons knew this as ‘the hungry time’ of the year. This is because they were busy planting and tending their crops which were too young and immature to produce food as yet.

But the Scairbhín was actually nature’s way of ensuring the crops success. Initial ‘unseasonal’ warm weather would enable seeds to germinate, a sudden cold snap would then serve to ‘harden off’ the young plants, and the howling gales which followed would distribute pollen.

So what has this to do with cuckoos?

Well, the Scairbhín coincided with the return of the cuckoo. The call of the cuckoo is often heard when the bird itself cannot be seen, which lends it an air of mystique. It was therefore seen as something of a herald of early spring and the milder weather which was sure to come, but which had not yet quite appeared.

Of course, the ancient Irish had quite a store of cuckoo lore; it was considered lucky to hear its call whilst out walking, but if you were to hear it whilst lying in your bed, you were sure to experience illness in the family before the cuckoo departed Irish shores for the winter.

If you heard the call whilst you had no money in your money, you were likely to remain poor for the rest of the year. Hmmm… so that explains it; I hear cuckoos most often whilst out walking with Indi, and I never carry money on me when walking the dog…

There are places in Ireland which have acquired their names through their connections with the weather. One of my favourites is Magha an tSamraidh, which means ‘the Plain of Summer’, and is located in Co Kerry within view of the twin peaks of the Paps of Anu, I believe. Incidentally, Tir na tSamraidh means ‘Land of Summer’, and is the name of one of the Otherworld lands… heaven on earth, perhaps?

Cnoc Firinne in Co Limerick means ‘Hill of Truth’, and is so named for the accurate weather predictions made on it over the millennia, based on cloud cover and formation, visibility,  and such like.

Closer to home, Loughcrew, also known as Sliabh na Caileach in Irish, or ‘Mountain of the Hag/ Crone’ is the site of a quaint Spring legend. It is said that if Imbolc (the Goddess Brigid’s feast day and first day of Spring, February 1st) dawns fine and bright, it means that winter has not yet relinquished its cold wet grip, and the crone is out and about collecting firewood to keep her warm. If, on the other hand, Imbolc dawns cold, wild and wet, it is a good sign, for it means the crone has no need of extra firewood, and is sleeping in her bed.

Irish Mythology | Friday 13th… Unlucky for Some?

moon
The moon is associated with the divine femine as the feminine cycles were linked to the phases of the moon. In Ireland, Aine was Goddess of love, growth, cattle and light. Her name means “bright” as she lights up the dark

There is a deep-rooted fear in many cultures that Friday 13th is a very unlucky day, yet no one knows where this superstition has come from, or why it is so widespread.

It is certainly true that some pretty rotten things have happened in the past on this day, which have earned it such a terrible reputation. For example, on Friday 13th October 1307, hundreds of Knights Templar were rounded up and put to death in France.

In the Bible, Judas was the thirteenth person present at the Last Supper. Jesus was crucified the very next day, which was a Friday.

In numerology, the number 12 is considered to be a number of ‘completeness’; there are 12 months in  year, 12 hours in a day followed by 12 hours of night, there are 12 signs of the zodiac, etc.

In comparison, the number 13 is seen as irregular, imbalanced.

There is a Norse myth which tells that twelve Gods were dining in the great hall of Valhalla, when the trickster-God Loki turned up uninvited. He proceeded to convince the blind God of Darkness, Hoder, to shoot Baldur the Beautiful, God of Joy with a mistletoe-tipped arrow, thus we have another example indicating why the ancient people may have believed the number 13 to be unlucky.

By contrast, the ancient Egyptians actually believed the number 13 to be very fortunate indeed. They thought that man experienced twelve phases during his mortal life, but the 13th was to ascend to eternal after-life, which was considered a joyous event, even though achieved through death.

In the C19th, a man named William Fowler set up the Thirteen Club, in an effort to disprove the fear of Friday 13th. They met in groups of 13 for dinner, walked under a ladder before sitting down to eat in Room no 13, which was decorated with open umbrellas, ensuring much salt was spilled on the table, which no one bothered to throw over their shoulders. Their first meeting was held on Friday 13th January 1881. Interestingly, there is no record of anything remotely unlucky having ever happened to any of the club’s members.

Although the origins of this superstition cannot now be traced, some say it goes right back into our distant pagan past. Ancient pagan religions were matriarchal; they believed in the Goddess and Mother Earth, and venerated the ability of the female to bring forth life. The year was counted by lunar cycles, unlike today’s Gregorian calender, of which there were thirteen, and also thirteen menstrual cycles in a year.

As the priests of the new religion, Christianity, tried to wrest control from the pagans, they suppressed the power of the female; fertility and the sexual act was seen as unclean. Where childbirth was once seen as joyous and miraculous, the new religion considered the new mother unclean and she was not allowed into the church until she had been ritually purified forty days later.  I’m pretty sure the thirteen menstrual cycles were seen as unclean, as well!

Over time, this dislike of the number 13 may have adopted a more sinister tone, as the pagans associated with it became thought of as evil devil-worshippers.

For the ancient Celts, everything was interconnected, even numbers. All numbers had meanings, or associations, here are just a few;

No2 represented service and commitment, ie the loyalty as shown by Fionn mac Cumhall’s two hounds, Bran and Sceolán.

No3 we know was considered a very sacred number, and seen in such concepts as birth-life-death; mind-body-spirit; beginning-middle-end; sun-moon-earth; thought-word-deed; past-present-future, and of course the Triple Goddess maiden-mother-crone.

No4 was connected with wholeness, as represented by the four seasons; the four winds; the four directions; the four elements, and even the four provinces of Ireland.

To the ancient Celts, trees were very important, and were also associated with particular qualities which could be interpreted to be of good or bad fortune. The oak and the hazel were considered trees of knowledge.

There were nine hazel trees around Nechtan’s Well at the Source of the Boyne. They would blossom and bear fruit at the same time. These fruit, the hazel nuts, would drop into the water where they would be eaten by waiting salmon. If one was to eat the flesh of the Salmon of Knowledge, one would acquire all of his wisdom, but they weren’t easy to catch. The old Druid Finegas tried in vain for many years, only to be cheated out of his reward by the boy-hero Fionn mac Cumhall.

The ash and the rowan were esteemed for their powers of protection. Eating rowan berries were thought to induce longevity, and brought youth and happiness. In old Irish, the rowan was called Fid na nDruad, ‘Tree of the Druids’. Later, Christians adopted the habit of putting branches in their homes on Good Friday to ward off evil.

Fairy Tree on the way up to Loughcrew.
Fairy Tree on the way up to the burial mounds of Loughcrew.

The hawthorn tree was thought to guard the entrance to the fairy realm, and it was thought to be very bad luck to cut one down. Even today, you will often find hawthorns known as ‘fairy’ or ‘rag’ trees at holy wells and other ancient sites, where people leave a small gift, rag or prayer attached to the tree as a votive offering to the ancient gods of that place.

Today’s popular saying ‘Touch wood’ to invoke good luck stems from this ancient Celtic respect of the trees.

Many cultures still consider the rabbit to be a symbol of good luck, and this goes back also to Celtic times. In Ireland, the rabbit was thought to have special powers to thwart those of the Tuatha de Denann, as like them, it lived below ground. Therefore,  carrying a part of a rabbit, such as its foot, on one’s person at all times was considered to ward off fairy evil. Not so lucky for the rabbit, I think.

There are many examples of the hare having connections with the Otherworld in Irish mythology and folklore. Hares are associated with spring, thus with the Goddess of the season, and represented love, fertility and growth. In Europe, that Goddess was Eostre, after whom Easter is named, but in Ireland Brigid is the Goddess of Spring, or Imbolc, which starts on February 1st. February is when the hares start racing through my garden, driving poor old Indi wild!

I came across a story of a huge red-eyed hare which used Loughanleagh as its entry point into the magical realm. Oisin was once said to have hunted a hare, wounding its leg before it disappeared through a doorway into the ground. He followed it through a long passage, eventually emerging in a great hall where he found a beautiful woman bleeding from her leg. Not only does this story show a connection between the Sidhe and the hare, but also indicates a belief in transmigration.

Apparently, in order to ensure victory, Boudicca was said to have carried a hare into battle under her cloak, from where it proceeded to scream like a woman (or perhaps a banshee?) throughout the duration of the conflict.

Eventually, Christian superstition was to work its transformative magic over pagan traditions yet again, for the threatening spring hare was reinvented as the much less fearful Easter Bunny… although the notion of a bunny laying chocolate eggs around the garden seems infinitely more scary to me.

black-cat

When it comes to the black cat, messages are somewhat confused. We all know how highly the ancient Egyptians thought of their moggies, but around the rest of the world, it was a different story. Once, the cat was much admired for its independence, stealth and hunting prowess. In medieval times, this love of cats, particularly black cats, was considered a sign of witchcraft, and the cats were burned alive, along with the women who owned them, or were thought to own them.

The mythical Cait Sidhe is a large black cat said to be the size of a dog. It was thought that witches could transform themselves into a Cait Sidhe eight times, but that on the ninth, they would remain in their cat form. Thus we have the origin of the cat with nine lives, and the fear of black cats and their associated witchy owners.

So this Friday, keep away from witches, black cats, and spring hares; don’t tempt fate by walking under ladders, spilling salt, or opening your umbrella before you leave the house; try carrying a piece of wood around with you instead of a rabbit’s paw, and you might, just might, avoid any bad luck that’s whirling around in the ether.

May the luck o’ the Irish be with you!


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Loughcrew | Mountain of the Hag

Image by Loughcrew.com
Image by Loughcrew.com

It only takes 20 minutes to drive from my home to Loughcrew.  Situated over three hilltops, Carnbane West, Carnbane East, and Patrickstown, Loughcrew (Loch Craobh in Irish) is a cluster of 25 passage tombs dating to approx 4000BC.  Thought to have been built by a community of Neolithic farmers, these structures have been found to align with the rising sun of the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. They certainly picked a spectacular site; I know it’s a cliché, and as a writer I should have a better grasp of language, but the scenery is simply stunning! You can’t help but stand and feel a sense of awe at their achievement and drive, and a sense of serenity as you gaze out across the landscape.

A set of shallow steps lead from the car park.
A set of shallow steps lead from the car park.
Through the kissing gate and out onto the hill. The first thing you see is this fairy tree.
Through the kissing gate and out onto the hill. The first thing you see is this fairy tree.
Cairn T, affectionately known as the Hag's Cairn, with the guide's sun-chairs and equipment arranged at the entrance.
Cairn T, affectionately known as the Hag’s Cairn, with the guide’s sun-chairs and equipment arranged at the entrance.
The Hag's Chair. Looks like a huge kerb stone, this was used as a mass rock in more recent history.
The Hag’s Chair. Looks like a huge kerb stone, this was used as a mass rock in more recent history.

You wouldn’t think it when you arrive, because the site is so undeveloped, but Loughcrew actually falls into the same category of importance, in terms of Irish archaeological sites, as the more famous Brú na Boinne (Newgrange), Carrowkeel, and Carrowmore. The mounds mostly consist of long, narrow passages ending in a set of chambers, forming a cruciform shape. These have then been covered over with stones, thus creating the familiar domed cairn.

A set of shallow steps lead out of the tiny car park, through a kissing gate, and then you are out on the open moor. It’s very steep, and there is no path, save for a faint dirt track made by the passage of visitor’s feet. The scars of several ditches and embankments cut across the slope must be traversed as you climb. In winter it can be quite slippery, but I prefer it then, when there is no one else about, only mildly curious grazing sheep, and distant birds of prey for company.

Entrance to the passage leading into Cairn T.
Entrance to the passage leading into Cairn T.
Stone slab on r/h of passage bearing tiny cup marks; could this be a map of the stars?
Stone slab on l/h of passage bearing tiny cup marks; could this be a map of the stars?
More ancient artwork.
More ancient artwork.

During the summer months, the main central cairn (cairn T, also known as the Hag’s Cairn) on Carnbane East is open, and there is a guide waiting to show you around, all for FREE! In the winter, the cairn is locked, but you can collect the key from the cafe at nearby Loughcrew Gardens, and have your own private viewing… only in Ireland! (Love Ireland!) Usually, in the winter there is no one else around, so you can stay as long as you like, admiring the inner carvings which look as fresh and sharp as if they were only chiselled yesterday.

You can see more on this brilliant interactive 360* video and and map… just click the orange dots on the map, and the video will automatically show you that part of the site.

Cairn L on Carnbane West, arguably the most spectacular of the cairns, is privately owned and not open to public viewing (just don’t get me started Grrrr!). Cairn L is spectacular and unique, because it contains a limestone pillar, or standing stone, and it is this which is lit up by the rising sun entering the chamber at Samhain and Imbolc. We may not be able to witness this for ourselves, but you can view a series of images depicting this incredible event here.

Every time I visit, I learn something new. As you pass through the entrance and up the passage, there are two highly decorated orthostats on either side.

I couldn't get a clear enough picture of the back stone lit up by the equinox; this one is from Knowth.com
I couldn’t get a clear enough picture of the back stone lit up by the equinox; this one is from Knowth.com

“See all the cup marks?” The guide asked me, tracing them with her fingers. I looked more closely. They were indeed cup marks, but so small I had never recognised them as such.

“When the mound was first discovered, they found lots of tiny white chalk balls littering the ground beside these stones, but didn’t know what they were,” she continued, but my mind was already leaping ahead.

“It’s a map of the stars!” I yelled excitedly in her face, and she grinned at my explosion.

They mapped the stars. But why use cup marks and chalk balls, instead of just carving them them as images directly into the stone? Perhaps they were tracking the movement of the stars, and this was a way of moving them around the map, like moving playing pieces on a board game.

The crazy angle of the outer kerb stones of Cairn U (I think!)
The crazy angle of the outer kerb stones of Cairn U (I think!)
Cairn U (I think!) now open to the elements.
Cairn U (I think!) now open to the elements.
Decorated stone still clear even though open to the elements. From the r/h rear chamber of Cairn U.
Decorated stone still clear even though open to the elements. From the r/h rear chamber of Cairn U.

There are carvings on the back wall of one of the chambers which I had always assumed to be flowers and leaves… well, that’s what they look like. Or rather, what I thought they looked like. Now that I understand a bit more, they clearly look like stars, the larger the rays (petals), the bigger, or more prominent the star as it appeared to them. Of course, these carvings look quite random to us, but it’s interesting that on the equinox, the beam of light starts in the top left symbol, and traverses across the stone panel over the course of an hour, finishing at the bottom right symbol, which looked extraordinarily like the sun, to me. You can share in this experience our ancestors created by watching this amazing time-lapsed video, while listening to the beautiful and haunting voice of Jillian LaDage.

Heading back down. You can clearly see the embankments and ditches in this image.
Heading back down. You can clearly see the embankments and ditches in this image, and the outline of more cairns on the hilltop beyond.

Another name for Loughcrew is Sliabh na Caillaigh, which means ‘Mountain of the Hag’. Local folklore tells of a hag, or witch, leaping from hill top to hill top carrying stones in her apron.  As she did so, some of the stones fell from her apron and landed on the hills below, thus forming the cairns of Loughcrew. I have heard this same story told of the Morrigan, in her triple aspect of the Crone.

I can’t explain what draws me to these ancient places. Rooted in the past, they somehow connect me to this land, and the real people who made them; it is like we are holding onto the opposite ends of the twisted strands of time. I think of all the people who drive past Loughcrew, and other places like them,  on a daily basis, unaware and not caring that they exist, and I feel glad that there are people out there, just like me, who do care, and still come.