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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Knowth | Legend of a Forgotten Queen

I call Knowth the Forbidden Mound because no one is allowed inside. I’m not sure why this is. From my image below, you can see how safe and unrestricted the passage is. According to the archaeologist, George Eogan, who excavated the site in the 1960s, the passages and inner chambers were accessed with relative ease on the days they were discovered. I can’t help but wonder, what could be in there that no one wants us to see?

Of the Bru na Boinne complex, Knowth holds for me the most mystique and allure. Roughly on a size and scale with the more famous Newgrange, Knowth contains not one but two long passages opposite each other alighned east/ west. The eastern passage is forty metres long, while the western passage is thirty four metres long. Surrounding this large central mound are eighteen smaller ones, all facing inward.

In Irish mythology, Knowth (sounds like mouth), from the Irish Cnoc Bui, meaning ‘Hill of Bui’ is said to be the final resting place of Bui, or Buach. a wife of the God of Lightning, and High King of the Danann, Lugh Lamfhada.

I have had to piece her story together from several legends, as sadly, it seems to have been lost in time. She was the daughter of either Daire Donn, known as the King of the World, who led a great battle against Fionn mac Cumhaill in the C3rd, or of Donn of the Milesians, who later came to be known as Lord of the Dead. In terms of time periods, the latter fits far better.

She was said to have had an affair with Cermait Milbél (which means ‘honeymouth’), a son of the Dagda. Lugh was so furious that he challenged Cermait to a duel and killed him. Cermait’s three sons decided to avenge their father’s death, and killed Lugh in, or beside the lough named after him on the top of the Hill of Uisneach. A cairn was raised over his body there.

If this wasn’t tragic enough, Óengus Óg who was Cermait’s half-brother, discovered that Lugh’s poet, who is not named, had told Lugh a malicious lie; Buach and Cermait had not slept together, after all. He avenged the deaths of his brother and Lugh by killing the poet. What became of poor Buach is not known.

Knowth and the rest of the Newgrange complex are known collectively as Brú na Bóinne, which means ‘the bend in the River Boyne’; you can see this quite clearly in the map, the Boyne cradling the ancient sites like the curve of an arm.

In Irish mythology, the river Boyne is named after the Danann goddess, Boann. Her name, from the Old Irish Bo Find, means ‘white cow’. According to an ancient text named the Lebor Gabála Érenn she was the daughter of Delbáeth of the Tuatha De Danann, and she was married to Elcmar.

She had an affair with the Dagda, and thus conceived her son, Óengus Óg. In order to conceal their infidelity from Elcmar, the Dagda made the sun stand still in the sky for nine months; therefore, Óengus was conceived, gestated and born in one day, and sent to be fostered with Midir all before Elcmar came home.

Boann was killed when she went against her husband’s wishes seeking knowledge from Connla’s Well, where the nine enchanted hazel trees dropped their nuts into the water for the salmon to eat. The water rose up at her defiance and carried her out to sea where she perished, and that was how the River Boyne was formed.

The River Boyne is thought to be linked to the Milky Way; in old Irish, it was known as Bealach na Bó Finne, meaning the ‘Path of the Bright/ White Cow’. Interestingly, it was also known as ‘Lugh’s Chain’, or Slabhbra Lugh.

Could it perhaps be then, that Knowth with its many satellite mounds represents planets going around a sun? Or a constellation of stars? Perhaps it is simply the burial site of an ancient beloved Queen.

Irish Mythology | The Red Headed Folk

The Red Headed Folk | Irish Mythology http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

In Irish mythology, the Tuatha de Denann and the Sidhe are described as being tall and beautiful with red or fair hair, pale skin and blue or green eyes. Their appearance played no small part in elevating their status to that of Gods.

Ireland has the highest proportion of redheads in the world. As many as 10% of the population have red, auburn, or strawberry blond hair, and up to 46% of the Irish population carry the rare redhead gene.

Red hair is the rarest natural hair color in the world; only 1–2% of the human population are lucky enough to have it, although this increases slightly to 2–6% in north western Europe.

Ginger map of Europe - Imgur
Ginger map of Europe – Imgur

It results from high levels of the reddish pigment pheomelanin, and is usually associated with pale skin, freckles, light eye colour such as grey, blue, green and hazel, and a tendency to burn rather than tan in the sun. Redheads are said to be fiery tempered.

It is thought that lighter pigmented skin colour and red hair may be an advantage in cold northern climates where there is less sunlight, as it encourages the higher production of Vitamin D, and helps retain heat better than darker skin.

This would fit with the arrival of the Denann in Ireland around four thousand years ago; they were said to have come from Lochlann, which is generally accepted as the ancient name for Norway. They were described as tall attractive people with pale skin, high foreheads, long red hair and large blue eyes. Other descriptions indicate blonde or golden hair with blue eyes.

When the Denann were defeated by the dark Milesians, they retreated into their Sidhe mounds. They were called the ‘Fair Folk’ due to their fair hair and complexion, which eventually became ‘Fairy Folk’.

The Christians later relegated them to devils and demons, and were afraid of them, thus in Medieval times, red hair and green eyes were thought to identify witches, werewolves and vampires.

In ancient times, red and blonde hair have been discovered in the most unlikely places. For example,  caucasian mummies with red hair have been found among the Tocharians of the Tarim basin in China, dating to the 2nd millennium BC.

The well preserved mummies of Yuya, key adviser for Egyptian Pharoah Amenhotep II, and his wife,  Tjuyu, were both found to have blonde hair. Rameses II, at 87 years of age, was white haired when he died, yet microscopic examination showed that the roots of his hair contained natural red pigment.

Some say that the mummification process is responsible for altering the mummies hair colour, yet interestingly, this argument fails to explain how statues of these characters are painted with blue eyes…

In Irish mythology, Nuada of the Silver hand led his people, the Tuathe de Denann into Ireland. A poem in an ancient text called ‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland’, or Lebor Gabála Érenn in Irish, describes him and his people thus:

“A space of seven years, Nuada noble
stately over the fair-haired company,
the rule of the man large-breasted,
flaxen-maned, before his coming into Ireland.”

His wife, Macha, said to be one aspect of the female triple deity, the Morrigan, was as fierce as any man in battle. She was described as ‘Macha the Red’.

 freckled red haired girl
To me, she is beautiful

The Dagda, which means the ‘Good God’, referring to his many talents, was also known as Ruadh Rofhessa, the ‘Mighty Red One of Great Knowledge’.

In Irish, the word for ‘red’ is dearg, but the word rua is specific to the coppery-red colour of hair, which in English, we describe as ‘ginger’. It is used for all living things of that colour, ie animals such as foxes and deer, and heather, for example.

The name Ruairi (pronounced Roo-ree) is a popular Irish name for boys, anglicised to Rory, which means ‘red haired king’. Ruadhán (Roo-awn) means ‘little red one’.

Some of the Sidhe were famous for their fair hair. Niamh of the Golden Hair fell in love with Oisin, Fionn mac Cumhall‘s son, and is said to have carried him off into the Otherworld on the back of Manannán‘s white horse, Aonbharr.

Fionn himself was half Sidhe, half mortal, and was well known for having a mane of shining fair hair, in fact, that is the very meaning of his name, Fionn – ‘white/ bright/ fair’.

Although his wife, Sadbh, was a shape-shifter, and lived much of her life in the form of a deer, when in human form, she was also said to be blonde.

The Irish Redhead Convention, held annually in August, attracts people from all over the world. The celebrations include crowning the ginger King and Queen, competitions for the best red eyebrows and most freckles per square inch, music concerts, and carrot throwing competitions.

PS. The picture at the top of the post is my son Cai, taken in 2012 when he was ten years old. I must admit that I cried when he chose to have his glorious hair cut short. I was ginger as a small child, too, but my hair gradually got darker as I got older, which I believe is not that uncommon.


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So what did we do in Winter before the Christians invented Christmas?

Superb Fairy-Wren (Malurus Cyaneus)
Drui-en, King of the Birds, the Wren.

We all love Christmas! For the religious, it celebrates the important Christian event of the birth of Jesus. If you are not religious, like me, it’s a time for giving, for getting together with family and friends, for feasting, watching movies, playing games, and generally having fun. We need this respite, as winter tightens its dismal icy grip about us.

Our ancestors needed it even more than we do. For them, winter was harsh and bleak, a time of hardship, and a struggle for survival. The return of summer’s warmth and plenty was not, for them, guaranteed.

But then something remarkable happened beneath that cruel, cold wing of seemingly eternal shade. The Winter Solstice was the turning point upon which their fortunes hinged. Light triumphed over darkness as the days lengthened and the nights grew shorter. The sun was growing stronger in the sky. It was a sign, a promise of better times to come. And that was something worth celebrating.

Nollaíg to you, too!

In Ireland, Christmas is known as Nollaíg, which in literal terms means ‘the hinge’ of the year, the turning point of the winter solstice. The solstice is also called Grianstad an Gheimhridh, although you may also hear references to Meán Gheimridh, which means ‘mid-winter’.

Elsewhere, neo-pagans around the world know this festival as Alban Arthuan. According to Druidry.org, this is a Welsh term for ‘light of winter’. Art, however, is an old word used in both Welsh and Irish to mean ‘bear’, and is thought to reference the constellation of the Great Bear, and King Arthur of Holy Grail fame.

To say ‘Happy Christmas’ in Irish, you would say “Nollaig Shona Duit” (pronounced No-lig Ho-nuh Ghwich).

How was the Solstice celebrated?

The ancient Irish were fond of lighting their huge bonfires at festival times. I see no reason why the winter solstice should be any different. In fact, I should think it very likely that in the darkest heart of deep winter, fire would be summoned to represent the heat and light and power of the returning sun.

No doubt there was feasting, drinking, dancing and all sorts of revelry and merry-making. But alongside this, there would have been the more serious overtones of religious ceremony and ritual. Thanks would be given for the return of the Sun-God, and prayers made and blessings sought for bountiful crops and provisions. Perhaps sacrifices were made.

There are many weird and wonderful traditions, some peculiar to Ireland, some more well known, many forgotten, but some adapted and still in use today, which herald from these distant pagan days.

Newgrange

Known in Irish as Brú na Bóinne, meaning ‘the bend in the (River) Boyne‘, and arguably one of Ireland’s best loved and iconic tourist attractions, Newgrange is a large burial mound which is aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice. Older than the Pyramids of Giza, and a thousand years older than Stonehenge, this extraordinary example of ancient engineering is the site of a strange phenomenon.

On the morning of the solstice, as the sun rises, a beam of light enters the mound via a ‘roof-box’ above the main entrance. Over the course of 17 minutes, this sun ray moves along the passage into the central chamber. It’s a magical experience.

Some have explained this as a representation of a fertility rite; the Sun God penetrates the womb of the Earth Mother, thus bringing forth new life. Personally, I am sick of everything which can’t be understood by our modern mindset being reduced to mere phallic symbolism. Our ancestors were more sophisticated than that.

Nearby Knowth, and Loughcrew also have monuments which align with the winter solstice. It’s no happy accident, but reinforces how important this occasion was to our ancestors.

Sun God and Earth Mother

The Dagda and Brigid are the deities supposedly connected with the winter solstice. The Dagda was a High King of the Denann. He was associated with Newgrange and the Winter Sun Standing, which is a reference to the position of the sun at the winter solstice. He could control the seasons with his magical oak harp, Uaithne. He was known to the ancient Irish people as ‘the Good God’ and ollathair, which means ‘all-father’, for his warrior-strength, protection, and generosity.

Brigid was his daughter. Her name is thought to mean ‘fiery arrow’, and indeed she was associated with flame in as much as she was a patron of the forge and smith-craft. At her retreat in Kildare, a flame was lit in her honour, and attended by 19 women, who never allowed it to be extinguished. Brigid was extremely well loved by the people, who refused to give her up and accept Christianity. In time, the tending of the flame was taken over and maintained by nuns in honour of the now Christianised St Brigid.

It surprises me that of all the Irish gods, these two would have such significant roles at this festival. Undoubtedly they were two of the most popular, but there are others more well known to be Earth or Sun connected than these; Anu/ Danu and Eriu, for example, have always been considered Ireland’s Earth Mothers, and Bel or Lugh would have been seen as Sun Gods, although it must be said that Lugh’s name refers more to a ‘flash of lightning’ rather than the light of the sun.

If anything, their roles are reversed; the Dagda would be connected more with the earth, grain and harvesting, and there are those who believe Brigid originated as a sun goddess. Besides, if the light entering Newgrange is indeed a fertility rite, this would indicate an incestuous coupling between the two deities. According to Irish mythology, our ancestors were fairly free with their love, but this would be taking it a step too far…

Ancient Interior Decorating

At the winter solstice, the ancients would decorate their homes with evergreens. You can read more about this here. These plants, which thrived in deep mid winter when everything else died were thought to possess powerful, magical properties.

The Druids would carry out a symbolic cutting of mistletoe, a rare plant they revered for its healing and protective qualities, which they would distribute among the people to be hung up in their homes. In later years, the use of mistletoe was banned by the church on account of its association with Druidry.

Holly was also prized for its glossy green leaves and blood red berries. It was used for medicinal, protective and decorative purposes. After the dreariness of winter, these fresh bright colours must have had quite a rejuvenating effect on one’s spirits.

Battle of the Kings

At the solstice, the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King would often be re-enacted. Nowadays, this fight often takes the form of a battle of wit and words rather than swords. The Holly King represented the old year, his death the fading of winter. The Oak King stood for the return of spring, the new year and new sun.

Cool Yule

bealtaine fire (2)Yule has its origins in pagan midwinter festivals of Germany. One of their customs seems quite universal, however; the Yule log. In Ireland, it is known as bloc na Nollaíg. This huge chunk of wood would burn in the home’s central hearth for the duration of the festivities, about twelve days. It would be lit with a piece saved from the previous year’s log, thus continuing the cycle of the seasons and of the sun. It would smoulder until the end of the festival, when it would be extinguished. Its ashes would then be used to nourish the seeds of the new spring planting, and a sliver reserved to light the following year’s log.

Carol Singing

Yes, even this innocent, harmless practice originated with the ancient pagans, and these songs were sung in celebration of the winter solstice. The word ‘carol’ derives from either the French carole, or the Latin carula. It means ‘circular dance’. These songs were probably sung as communities joined in dance around their huge celebratory bonfire, or sacred monuments.

Believe it or not, caroling was actually denounced by the church for hundreds of years for being a sinful remnant of heathen practice. However, as with all other pagan customs, eventually the songs were adopted and adapted by the Christians into the religious Christmas songs we know and love today. Even our secular Christmas songs are categorised as carols.

Betrayal

In Ireland, the day after Christmas Day is known as St Stephen’s Day. Stephen was a C1st Christian martyr who was stoned to death when discovered hiding from his enemies. It is said that he was betrayed by the song of a wren. It is also said that many years later, it was a wren which led to the massacre of Irish soldiers by Viking invaders, when it alerted the enemy to the advance of the Irish by beating its wings against their shields.

In return, as punishment for its crimes,  every year at the winter solstice, a wren would be caught and stoned to death by a band of boy hunters. It would then be attached to the top of a long staff and paraded through the village. This event was known as Lá an Dreoilín, or Wren Day. It’s a strange custom, one that’s hard to see through to the sense of it, but one explanation is that it could derive from some kind of Samhain or Midwinter sacrifice.

That the poor little wren should be so maligned could have more to do with Christian animosity to its Druidic associations than betrayal. It was a sacred bird, it name coming from drui-en, which means ‘bird of the Druids’. To the Druids, it symbolised wisdom and divinity. In various European languages, its name meant ‘king of birds’, as it continued to sing throughout the deep winter. To my mind, that would give it as much potency as the evergreens which continued to thrive when all else withered; it’s unlikely that the ancestors would have sacrificed such a sacred bird.

There is a lovely story in Celtic mythology about the wren. A contest was held to decide who should be the King of the Birds. The wren suggested it should be whoever could fly the highest. The eagle jumped at this chance to showcase his mighty aerobatics, and launched himself up into the sky. However, he didn’t realise that he had a passenger; the crafty wren had hitched a ride hidden among his feathers. When the eagle reached the limits of his journey, the wren hopped out of hiding and flew up just above the eagle’s head, proclaiming loudly, “Behold your King!” Thus the tiny cunning wren won his place as King of the Birds.

Renewal

Whether you choose to call it Alban Arthuan, Nollaíg, Grianstad an Gheimhridh, or Christmas, the message behind the festival is clear; it’s about renewal, welcoming the new and letting go of the old. It celebrates the return of the sun, whether seen as the Divine Child, Jesus, or the pagan sun god. It’s about the rebirth of light, warmth, life. It’s about fertility of the earth, animals, and people. It’s survival, and giving thanks for it. Whatever your religion, when it comes down to it, we’re not all that different.

wpid-20141213_212246.jpg

Nollaíg Shona Daoibh

“Happy Christmas to all!”

Ali

Irish Mythology | The Dagda’s Cauldron

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

Irish mythology tells of four mysterious artefacts the enigmatic Tuatha de Denann brought with them when they invaded Ireland. These items were known collectively as the Four Treasures of Eirean, and consisted of Nuada’s Sword of Light; Lugh’s Spear; the Lia Fail, and the Dagda’s Cauldron. They were said to be talismans of enormous magical power.

I always felt that the Dagda’s cauldron seemed a little ‘out of place’ amongst these treasures; the Lia Fail was the sacred stone of knowledge which recognised and proclaimed the High King’s right to rule, the sword and the spear were symbols which upheld this right, testament to his strength and power.

But the cauldron is surely a domestic item. Not only that, but it is also a very female one. So how did it wind up in the hands of one of ancient Ireland’s best loved Kings and deities, and why was it considered such a precious treasure?

We know that ancient peoples venerated fertility, of the land, of animals and of themselves; it was fundamental to their success and continuity. Fertile land meant plentiful crops and food to sustain them. Fertile livestock perpetuated that theme. According to the Temple of Danann, the cauldron, chalice and cup are feminine symbols which represent the womb, the ultimate place of creation, and thus cannot possibly be owned by a male, but protected by him.

We see these exact qualities represented in the Celtic Horned God, Cernunnos. In Irish mythology, he was called Uindos. As the Lord of the Hunt, he was associated not only with animals, but with abundance, virility and fertility. He was also the Consort of the Mother Goddess, in other words, not her husband, king or master, but her guardian and protector. He was the defender of the sacred womb which ensured the success of those mortals who worshipped her.

Now the importance of the cauldron and all it represents begins to make sense, and we can see why it has earned such a lofty place among the treasures of the Gods.

The most famous vessels which spring to mind are the Holy Grail of Arthurian fame, and the Gundestrup cauldron.

The former is a mythical chalice associated with Joseph of Arimathea, the Last Supper, and the crucifixion of Jesus. Joseph was said to have received it from Jesus in a vision and sent it with followers to Great Britain.

Some dispute that this object was ever a cup at all. Building on the theme of the sacred womb, some believe that the Holy Grail was in fact Mary Magdelane, who was pregnant with Jesus’s child. This theory has been made popular by the writings of Dan Brown, for example, in his novel The Da Vinci Code.



The Gundestrup cauldron is a real silver vessel discovered in a peat bog in Denmark. dating back to the La Tene period of the Iron Age (200-300 BC) and measuring 69cms in diameter, it is richly decorated on its exterior and interior surfaces, indicating ceremonial use rather than practical. The depictions show several bearded male figures and several females accompanied by various animals and mythical creatures. Cernunnos is represented on one of the inner engravings.

Interestingly, there is also a scene in which a large being is holding a smaller one head first in a cauldron; some say this represents ritual sacrifice by drowning, but if one considers the cauldron as a symbol of the sacred womb, it is more likely to symbolise a kind of baptism or rebirth.

But what of the Dagda’s cauldron? Well, the Dagda was seen as something of a protector and father-figure to the ancient people. In fact, one of his epithets is Eochaid Ollathair, meaning ‘all-father’.  He was many-skilled like Lugh, a big powerful man with great magic and knowledge, a warrior and accomplished harper, and became High King of the Denann, ruling for seventy to eighty years. He certainly sounds like a fitting candidate for the guardianship of the cauldron.

According to the Lebor Gebála Érenn, the cauldron was made in the northern city of Muirias by a skilled druid named Semias, and was known as the Coire Unsic, or ‘the Undry’, because it never ran dry of food. It says of the cauldron that ‘no one ever went from it unsatisfied’. It’s power was so potent, that it overflowed with abundant food, could heal any wound, and even restore life to the dead.



So what did it look like? Well strangely, I have not as yet been able to find a description for this wondrous object, other than that it was large. Perhaps this has something to do with the Christian scribes who collected and wrote down these stories, who refused to see the divine or the magical in such feminine symbolism, or perhaps such knowledge has simply just been wiped from memory by the passage of time.

A four foot granite stone basin found in the great central mound at Knowth, part of the Brú na Boinne complex (also known as Newgrange) has been tentatively identified with the Dagda’s cauldron.  The interior is decorated with a rayed solar design. The outside has a band of seven horizontal grooves running around it, and is bisected on the front by an engraving of a circular solar or lunar motif. There are also four vertical grooves carved on the outer right hand side of the cauldron. Archaeologists think it is more likely to be a repository for the cremated remains of the dead.

A Swedish academic by the name of Ulf Erlingsson believes that the circular engraving on the outer surface of the vessel depicts the three concentric lakes of the city of Atlantis as described by Plato. It is an interesting theory which raises more questions than it answers. He’s certainly not the first to have suggested Ireland as the location for this mystical island.

If you want to see the cauldron for yourself, you can view a replica in the Visitor Centre at Newgrange. The original artefact remains buried deep within the mound where it was found, safe from curious mortal eyes, or so we are told. After all, whilst such a powerful magical object ‘from which all leave satisfied’ could do much good in the world, just think of the harm it could do if it fell into the wrong hands…

Dealan-Dé | The Butterfly in Irish Mythology

Image (c) Adrian Jones, Dreamtime
Image (c) Adrian Jones, Dreamtime

This week, I have had to rescue four five six butterflies from becoming entrapped in my home. Although I have lived in this house seven years now, and keep my doors and windows open all day during summer, I have never had to do this before… moths, yes, plenty of times, and various other flying insects, but butterflies have never previously ventured into my space.

It felt strangely significant to me; what could this gentle invasion mean?

Although the Irish word for butterfly is féilearcán (pronounced fell-er-kun), dealan-dé is a more ancient term for these delightful creatures in the ancient Irish language. It’s precise meaning, however, is somewhat elusive, for as well as meaning butterfly, it also refers to the brightness or lightning of the Gods, and to the magical flame of the Beal-fire, or the need-fire. That the butterfly shares the same name as the fire of the Gods must somehow indicate great magnitude, but if it does, that knowledge seems lost to us now.

What is known, is that in Irish folklore, it was believed that butterflies could readily pass through the veil between this world and the magical realm. In the 1600’s, it was considered very bad luck indeed to kill a white butterfly, for it was thought to be the bearer of the soul of a dead child.

There is a lovely story about a butterfly in Irish mythology, called the Tochmarc Étaín, or The Wooing of Étaín. Although some versions tell of a ‘purple fly’; the description however, is more suited to that of a butterfly, in my opinion. The name Étaín means, appropriately enough, ‘passion’ or jealousy’, but she was also known by the epithet Echraide, or ‘Horse-rider’.

As Irish sagas go, it is rather long and convoluted, and I get the distinct impression that two individual stories may have been melded together at some point in history, whether accidentally or purposefully I don’t know, but I shall attempt to tell the bones of it here. Please note, there is much more to this story than I can relate here, so if you’d like to read the original version (translated, of course!), this is as good a place as any.

The Wooing of Étaín

Étaín was the beautiful daughter of mortal King of Ulster, Aillil. Midir, a chieftain of the Denann fell in love with her, and she became his lover. Unfortunately, Midir was already married, and when his wife, Fumnach heard of this she grew extremely jealous. Using her magic, she transformed Étain into a gorgeous butterfly, and cast her adrift on a storm for seven years.

Eventually, the poor butterfly found sanctuary with Aengus, son of the Dagda, at Brug na Boynne. He was quite fascinated by her, and built her a tiny crystal chamber to keep her safe.

When Fumnach discovered this, her jealousy and rage knew no bounds, because Aengus had been her and Midir’s foster son. Furious at his lack of loyalty, she blasted the butterfly with another wild wind for seven further years, blowing her all the way to Ulster, where she fell into a cup of wine and was consumed by the wife of warrior, Etar. So it was that one thousand and twelve years after she was first conceived by Aillil and his wife, Étaín was reborn, even though she had only been in exile for fourteen years… (are you still with me so far?)

Meanwhile, when Aengus discovered what Fumnach had done, he hunted her down and killed her by ripping off her head, although some say it was Manannán who did this, and that he burned both parts.

Étaín grew up lovely to behold and completely unaware of her past life. She married High King Eochu, and went to live with him and his brother, Aillil ( yes, but this one is not her father). Aillil had also fallen in love with her, and sickened with unrequited love. When Eochu went away on Kingly business, Aillil confessed his desire and the two agreed to a tryst out under the stars.

However, unbeknown to Étaín, Midir cast a sleeping spell on Aillil, and assuming his appearance, took the prince’s place. On the occasion of their third meeting, he confessed, begging her to return to him. She agreed, but only if he persuaded her husband to give his permission.

Some time later, Midir came to the court of Eochu and challenged him to a game of Fidchell. He lost game after game, Eochu setting him more and more outlandish forfeits to complete. Eventually, Midir suggested they play for a kiss from Étaín. Unaware of Midir’s past  relationship with his wife, Eochu agreed, flush with the success of his winning streak. This time, Midir won the game, and as he and Étaín embraced, they turned into swans and flew away.


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The Power of the Harp in Irish Mythology #stpatricksday

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The Irish harp is recognised worldwide as being the Ireland’s national emblem. We see it everywhere, from our pint of Guinness to the flag of Leinster; on our coins, our stamps, our passports. Nowadays, this symbol of ‘Irishness’ is known as the ‘Cláirseach’, but its origins go much further back.

Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland (he died in 1014) was said to have been an accomplished player. It is reported in an ancient document known as the ‘Accallam na Senorach’, that St Patrick (5th century) is said to have remarked about Irish harp playing, “Nothing could more closely resemble Heaven’s harmony…but for the twang of the Fairy spell which infests it.”

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By Fairy, he meant the Sidhe, who in Irish mythology were descended from the Tuatha de Denann, a semi divine race of beings who ruled Ireland about four thousand years ago. The Denann themselves had many famous harpists; Nuada himself was said to have been a fair player, Lugh, the Dagda, Cas Corach, Aongus Óg, were all skilled harpists. It was thought their playing could inspire and teach; destroy their enemies; summon animals or spirits; heal the sick; protect one’s home, even increase prosperity.

Traditionally, the strings of an Irish harp would have been made from wire, usually brass, but Aongus Óg’s harpstrings were said to have been made of silver. These wires would have been plucked with the finger nails, producing a very clear, sharp sound. The resonating chamber of a traditional harp would have been carved from a single log of wood, usually willow. The Dagda’s harp was called Uaithne, was carved from oak, and richly decorated with a double headed fish design, studded with jewelled eyes.

There is a lovely story about the Dagda’s harp, which clearly explains the power harp music was believed to have. After their defeat by the Denann in the Second Battle of Moytura, some of the Fomori stole Uaithne and made off with it. They believed Uaithne was so powerful that its music could put the seasons in order, and even command the order of battle.The Dagda gave chase, and came upon them in their feasting hall.  No-one had been able to play the harp, for the Dagda had cast a spell so that it answered only to him. When he called to it, it flew across the hall into his hand, killing nine men along the way who happened to stray into its path. The Dagda strummed his fingers across the strings, and began to play the ‘Three Noble Strains of Ireland’. First, he played the strain of weeping/melancholy, known as the ‘Goltrai’, and everyone who heard it was moved to tears; then he played the strain of joy/merriment, the ‘Geantrai’, and everyone who heard it fell about in fits of great mirth. Finally, he played the soft and soothing ‘Suantrai’, and everyone who heard it fell deeply asleep. Then he was able to make his escape with his beloved harp back in his possession.

It is interesting to note that the word ending ‘trai’ actually means ‘enchanter’. Very apt, in my opinion.


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