The Celts are not as ancient as many civilisations, but their cultural roots can possibly be traced all the way back to the Vinča culture in Serbia, who were sited along the river Danube (Belgrade modern day). The Danube basin was the site of some of the earliest human cultures and the Vinča culture goes all the way back to pre-history around 5700 BC. Why can we make the connection with the Celts?
Like the early Celts, they were are a very civilized culture. Agriculture, animal husbandry and hunting and foraging all contributed to the diet of the growing Vinča population. Compared to earlier cultures these practices were intense, with increasing expertise on high-yield cereal crops and with domesticated animals, consistent with the increased population density. They made greater use of barley than earlier cultures. These innovations increased crop yields and allowed the manufacture of clothes made from plant textiles as well as animal products (i.e. leather and wool).
There is evidence that Vinča farmers made use of the cattle-driven plough, which would have had a major effect on the amount of human labour required for agriculture as well as opening up new area of land for farming. Many of the largest Vinča sites occupy regions dominated by soil types that would have required ploughing.
Cattle were more important than sheep and goats in Vinča herds and, in comparison to the other cultures, livestock was increasingly kept for milk, leather and as working animals, rather than solely for meat. The Celts were noted for their drinking of milk (even up to recent times, especially in Ireland where it was sold in ale houses), much to the bemusement of the Romans, who considered milk a drink for children.
The Vinča subsistence economy still made use of wild food resources. The hunting of deer, boar and aurochs, fishing, fowling (still practiced in the fens of Eastern England and utilises feathers as well as the meat) and foraging of wild cereals, forest fruits and nuts, making up a significant part of the Vinča diet at some sites. Most settlements though were agricultural and wild resources were underexploited showing an advanced civilisation of farmers.
Some Vinča artefacts were made with considerable levels of technical skill. The Vinča site of Pločnik has produced the earliest example of copper tools in the world. Copper ores were mined on a large scale at sites like Rudna Glava, and mostly made into ornaments and trinkets rather than functional tools, which continued to be made from chipped stone, bone and antler. It is likely that the primary use of mined ores was in their powdered form, in the production of pottery or as bodily decoration.
However, the greatest link to the Celts is found in the Vinča pottery inscriptions.
Vinča pottery contains markings that correspond to Ogham symbols (named after the Celtic God of language and eloquence, Ogma). They also used the symbol of the sun cross, the sun represented by a circle with four rays emanating from the centre representing the four cardinal directions. The Celtic cross is the most widely used remnant of Celtic culture used today and is found in any graveyard in both Celtic and former Celtic nations. This was later used by the Christian church, who transferred worship of the Sun God to Jesus, preserving our pagan Celtic heritage.
Below are the markings found on Vinča pottery and underlined are the symbols that match stone markings found most commonly in Ireland, but also in areas of Scotland and Wales later inhabited by Irish Celts: –
So were the Vinča the ancestors of the Celts? We cannot say for certain, but the written language/ markings seems to fit in. The Celts were widespread over Northern Europe and came into contact with the Iberians from Northern Spain. The majority of recognised surviving Celtic nations today originate from Iberia and were Celtiberians, but many people in South Eastern European nations do have many Cultural similarities. And although records of the Celts go back to the 6th century BC we can see that their culture goes back to earlier civilisations going back over 7500 years.
[4.19.1] Heracles, then, delivered over the kingdom of the Iberians to the noblest men among the natives and, on his part, took his army and passing into Celtica and traversing the length and breadth of it he put an end to the lawlessness and murdering of strangers to which the people had become addicted; and since a great multitude of men from every tribe flocked to his army of their own accord, he founded a great city which was named Alesia after the “wandering” (alê) on his campaign.
[4.19.2] But he also mingled among the citizens of the city many natives, and since these surpassed the others in multitude, it came to pass that the inhabitants as a whole were barbarized. The Celts up to the present time hold this city in honour, looking upon it as the hearth and mother-city of all Celtica. And for the entire period from the days of Heracles this city remained free and was never sacked until our own time; but at last Gaius Caesar, who had been pronounced a god because of the magnitude of his deeds, took it by storm and made it and the other Celts subjects of the Romans.”
Extract from LIBRARY OF HISTORY BOOK IV by Didodorus Siculus
The Greeks were so in awe of the Celts that they took credit for their creation. Greek demigod Heracles, or Hercules was not only closely linked to the Celts, but he was credited as being their physical father. The Greeks were a lot shorter in stature to the Celts, so the Greeks believed the Celts spring up from a giant among them.
The Tenth Labour of Heracles
According to Greek mythology, to accomplish his tenth labour, Hercules had to journey to the end of the world. Eurystheus ordered the hero to bring him the cattle of the monster Geryon. This creature had three heads and three sets of legs all joined at the waist. He lived on an island called Erythia, which was near the boundary of Europe and Libya.
On this island, Geryon kept a herd of red cattle guarded by Cerberus’s brother, Orthus, a two-headed hound, and the herdsman Eurytion. Hercules set off on for Erythia, encountering and promptly killing many wild beasts along the way, and he came to the place where Libya met Europe. Here, Hercules built two massive mountains, one in Europe and one in Libya, to commemorate his extensive journey. These mountains became known as the Gates or Pillars of Hercules. The strait Hercules made when he broke the mountain apart is now called the Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco, the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.
Sailing in a goblet which the Sun gave him, Hercules reached the island of Erythia. Not long after he arrived, Orthus, the two-headed dog, attacked Hercules, so Hercules bashed him with his club. Eurytion followed, with the same result.
Another herdsman in the area reported these events to Geryon. Just as Hercules was escaping with the cattle, Geryon attacked him. Hercules fought with him and shot him dead with his arrows.
When he carried away the oxen of Geryon, he visited the country of the Scythians. Once there, while asleep, his horses suddenly disappeared. When he woke and wandered about in search of them, he came into the country of Hylaea.
He then found Echidna in a cave. She was a monster, half-woman and half-snake and was the mate of the fearsome monster Typhon and was the mother of many of the most famous monsters of Greek myth. When he asked whether she knew anything about his horses, she answered, that they were in her own possession, but that she would not give them up, unless he would consent to stay with her for a time. Heracles accepted the request, and became by her the father of Celtos, Galatos and Iberus, the ancestors of the Celts, Galatians and Iberians.
The Battle of Alesia
The battle of Alesia in 52 BC that marked the defeat of the Gauls under Vercingetorix by the Romans under Julius Caesar corresponds with Diodorous’ description of a great Celtic city founded by Hercules. Caesar described the battle in detail in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Book VII, 69–90). The battle’s outcome determined the fate of all of Gaul: in winning the battle, the Romans won both the Gallic Wars and dominion over Gaul.
After being conquered by Caesar, Alesia became a Gallo-Roman town. It featured a town centre with monumental buildings such as temples, a theatre and a forum. The location of Alesia was unknown for many centuries until Emperor Napoleon III developed an interest in the location of this crucial battle in pre-French history. He was writing a biography of Caesar and saw the command of Vercingetorix over all Gaulish armies as a symbol of the French nation. At the same time he realized that the future French nation was heavily influenced by the Roman victory and centuries of rule over Gaul.
In 1838, a find with the inscription: IN ALISIIA, had been discovered near Alise Sainte-Reine in the department Côte-d’Or near Dijon. Napoleon ordered an archaeological excavation by Eugène Stoffel around Mont-Auxois. These excavations in 1861–65 concentrated on the vast Roman siege lines and indicated that the historical Alesia was indeed located there. It was protected by a wall enclosing the area, with at least two pincer gates and in 52 BC it possibly had a population of 80,000 including refugees and men under the command of Vercingetorix.
Later archaeological analysis at Alise-Sainte-Reine has corroborated the described siege in detail. The remains of siege rings said to match Caesar’s descriptions have been identified by archaeologists using aerial photography validating these findings and ending the long debate among archaeologists about the location of Alesia.
For many centuries, humankind has, for the large part, put themselves above nature. But consider the impact we have had on nature by considering our cultural habits and how we can change and learn for the future.
We are the ultimate predator, top of the food chain. Unfortunately, when predators become too numerous the food chain becomes out of balance and eventually will become unsustainable. Whilst the developed world has an excess of food (much of it processed) and related health problems through poor diet (type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, cancers), poorer countries with harsher environments have lower mortality rates due to lack of nutrition, disease and starvation.
The solution requires a total change in worldwide culture. We need to reduce population sizes by having less, or no children. We need to change to a basic diet, reducing carbohydrates, sugars, fats and salts in our diets, whilst developing countries need more carbohydrates and fats.
In developed countries, medical staff are extending life (which is commendable), but also means that the older population is increasing, but not necessarily with better health. This will eventually become unsustainable. For those countries that have “free” health care, their services will become stretched to the limit. Nothing is free in the world. The pension age will continue to rise to pay for the services, rising population and state pensions, but more people will be on sickness and disability benefits before they reach pension age and this will become unsustainable. Taxes will rise and people will then have to cut down on extravagant spending.
The consequence, though, will mean that poorer areas will not be able to afford the cost of living and there is already an increase in suicides, homelessness and mental health issues.
So, in effect, we need to reduce family sizes on a worldwide scale and change our consumer habits. Look at areas, such as Glencoe in Scotland, where the deer population is out of control. The result is overforaging, which leads to an unsustainable environment for deer and an increase in disease and death. Humanity needs to learn from nature. The solution is this problem is introduce predators into the wild and, as seen in Yellowstone, rewilding will take place naturally.
I’m certainly not going to attack vegans and vegetarians, but every choice we make has consequences. Farming cows has increased the amount of methane gas in the atmosphere. If we eat meat, then natural herds are a much healthier choice. In a country that has excessive deer populations, venison is a far more ethical choice than beef. Eat locally produced foods. As the population grows, distribution of food through delivery trucks becomes more and more difficult and adds to pollution.
We rely on too many oil based products and plastics. Deforestation, is a consequence of the amount of paper we use and wood. This increases green house gases, thus leading to an increase in temperature and sea levels. We are on the precipice of a global disaster. Pollution, though, is again a consequence of an increasing, unsustainable population and, whilst there are greener energy options, there is no such thing as totally green energy. The only true way to cut pollution is to reduce population sizes.
What Can We Do Individually?
It’s okay talking about all these issues, but we need to realise that we are also part of the problem and can be greener. I love music. In recent years music love have been returning to vinyl. So much so, that there is now a shortage of vinyl and vinyl recordings are becoming more and more expensive. The solution, change my habits. The reason for vinyl sales increase is clever marketing that works. Vinyl feels like something material (although you can’t best 10 inch shellac). It is not a need, it is a want. In fact, unless you have a top of the range record player, CD’s, downloads and streaming is far more sustainable and environmentally friendly. You need to distinguish between wants and needs and consider your choices.
That might seem a trite example, but it starts with small things. Are you recycling as much as possible? How full are your recycling bins compared to non recyclable waste? Are you reusing shopping bags? What kind of vehicle do you drive? How do you heat your home? Are you planning a family? What kind of future awaits your offspring?
Positive steps – grow your own fruit and vegetables, even if they are in pots. Donate to charities and food banks, to help those in worse circumstances than yourself. If you have land, plant trees.
Sign petitions, write to politicians, oppose things that destroy ancient woodland, such as HS2. Vote for parties with greener policies, support rewilding, etc.
Even though our efforts may seem fruitless, remember it starts with me.
The next Equinox is on Wednesday 22 September at 20:20 (GMT+1) and marks the exact moment the Sun is directly over the Equator and begins its journey to the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere (approximately 23°27′ S of the Equator for the academics among us). In fact its latitude is currently 23°26′11.3″ (or 23.43647°) south of the Equator and it is very gradually moving northward, currently at the rate of 0.47 arcseconds, or 15 metres, per year. That is because the Earth’s axis isn’t fixed and actually wobbles.
Less than 3% of the world’s population lives south of it; this is equivalent to about 30% of the population of the Southern Hemisphere. The further North from the Equator you are the longer the nights will be from now until the next Equinox. So for those nearest the North Pole there is almost 6 months of night. Conversely in the Southern Hemisphere it is the lighter part of the year.
When the Tropic of Capricorn line of latitude was named over 2000 years ago centuries BC, the Sun was in the constellation Capricornus at the December solstice. This is the date each year when the Sun reaches zenith at this latitude, the southernmost latitude it reaches for the year. However, due to the precession of the equinoxes the Sun currently appears in Sagittarius at this solstice and these means at the Equinox the Sun is in Virgo rather than Libra.
Ancient cultures didn’t have clocks to calculate minutes of daytime and nighttime, but they could measure the sun’s position geometrically.
People observed that the sun’s rising and setting points moved slightly each day of the year. The summer solstice would occur when the sun reached its northernmost point, marking the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun’s southernmost point marked the winter solstice, or shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, when the North Pole was tilted the farthest from the sun. The two days of the year when the sun rose exactly due east and set exactly due west marked the equinoxes.
A number of prehistoric sites were used by ancient peoples to track the position of the sun and predict equinoxes and solstices. These sites include Stonehenge and Newgrange in the UK and the Majorville Medicine Wheel in Alberta, Canada, along with many other circles and mounds, which have various alignments with the Sun.
Although, there is no record of how the Celts celebrated the Equinox, we know that circles are prolific in all the areas they lived and inhabited, so it is likely they continued indigenous traditions.
To the ancient Greeks, the September equinox marked the return of the goddess Persephone to the darkness of the underworld, where she is reunited with her husband Hades.
The full moon that falls closest to the autumnal equinox is sometimes called the Harvest Moon. The Chinese began celebrating the fall harvest at the Harvest Moon centuries ago, during the Shang dynasty. Ancient Chinese celebrated the successful harvest of rice and wheat and made offerings to the moon.
Ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese people still celebrate the Harvest Moon or Mid-Autumn Festival. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, lanterns adorn streets and family and friends gather to give thanks, share food and watch the moon. Round pastries, called mooncakes, are often enjoyed at this time.
Higan is a holiday celebrated by some Japanese Buddhists. It takes place twice a year, during the fall and spring equinoxes.
During Higan, Japanese Buddhists will return to their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors. Higan means “from the other shore of the Sanzu River.” In Buddhist tradition, crossing the mythical Sanzu River meant passing into the afterlife.
The people of the British Isles have given thanks at fall harvest festivals since recorded pagan times. Harvest festivals traditionally were held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon and were adopted by the Church as Harvest Sunday. Primary School children used to bring donations of food, which were then donated to elderly relatives and others in the local community (a Harvest basket).
Early English settlers took the harvest festival tradition with them to America. These tradition festivals, once celebrated around the equinox, formed the basis of American Thanksgiving, which is now celebrated in November.
Aidan Kelly gave names to the summer solstice (Litha) and equinox holidays (Ostara and Mabon) of Wicca in 1974, which were subsequently promulgated by Timothy Zell through his Green Egg magazine. Interestingly Kelly’s own neopagan group, New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn didn’t adopt the term, but instead called the Fall Equinox “The Rites of Eleusis”.
Although, Mabon has become widely used across the pagan community it is a terrible choice of name that has little to do with the Equinox celebration. The story of the abduction of Mabon in the Mabinogion is relatively obscure and there is absolutely zero historical connection between Mabon and the Autumn Equinox.
Many Druid Orders use Alban Elfed (Hyfed) as the name to celebrate the Autumn Equinox. Alban Elfed translates from Welsh as Autumn Equinox (Alban can translate as Equinox or Solstice) and Elfed means Autumn. Many Druid Orders including ADO and OBOD state it translates as “light of the water”. But as far as I can see from translations this is incorrect, but maybe Welsh speakers might want to correct me.
How to Celebrate The Autumn Equinox today
The Equinox is a time of balance and of equalising, when the day and night are of the same time everywhere in the world. It is the second Harvest festival following Lughnasadh. Remember those in need. Donate to the needy and food banks.
Celebrate with friends by praising and giving thanks to your God(s) or Spirits or the Earth Mother for the Harvest and keeping well fed and nourished, either in ritual or informally. Enjoy eating Autumn berries, or a fruit pie or crumble.
Share stories, sing songs, do meditations of balance and enjoy yourselves.
Whatever you wish to call it, Equinox blessings to you from North West England 🙏
Unlike the figure known today, Geoffrey of Monmouth actually combined two characters to create the more famous Merlin. His writings combined existing stories of Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin the Wild) and historical Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. He created Merlin Ambrosius (Myrddin Emrys in Welsh) who became extremely popular, especially in Wales.
So what is recorded about Myrddin Wyllt? Myrddin was born in the ancient town of Carmarthen in South Wales. Like his contemporary and friend, Taliesin, he was a Bard and wrote several poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest. Later in life, Myrddin served King Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio as Chief Bard in the late sixth century.
Gwenddoleu ruled in Arfderydd (now Arthuret) in the area of South-West Scotland and North West England in the area around Hadrian’s Wall and Carlisle. In 573 the Battle of Arfderydd was fought. An allied army of various forces came up against Gwenddoleu, including King Riderch Hael of Strathclyde. After Gwenddoleu was defeated and killed, Myrddin went mad and fled into the Caledonian forest and lived among the animals. Subsequent assassinations and defeats lead to the collapse of Celtic kingdom alliances before the Scots, Angles and Picts.
Although driven mad, whilst living among the animals, Myrddin drew close to nature and developed the gift of prophesy. He predicted future victory for the Celtic peoples of Britain and a time when they would join together and drive the Angles and later the Normans back into the sea. A single Latin translation (from a lost Cornish-language) Prophecy of Merlin exists in the Vatican library.
St. Kentigern (also known as Mungo) comes across Myrddin as a naked, hairy madman in a deserted place. He explains that he was condemned to wander in the company of beasts, because he caused the deaths of all persons killed in battle on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok.
Myrddin then leaps up and flees back into the wilderness. He reappears several times more and on the last occasion asks St. Kentigern for the Sacrament and prophesies his own triple death.
Later that same day shepherds of King Meldred capture him. He is beaten with clubs, cast into the river Tweed and then pierced by a stake, thus fulfilling his prophecy.
Merlin, has of course, become a literary figure through Geoffrey of Monmouth, who connected him with King Arthur. However, looking at the earliest history of Merlin, there are no records of him serving Arthur. That doesn’t mean he never knew Arthur. Merlin is recorded as a friend of Taliesin, who does accompany Arthur into the Celtic Underworld, on a dangerous voyage, so would have been aware of Arthur and it is likely that their paths crossed at some point. We’ll leave that to the writers and poets.
Whilst a lot of people know about the revolt of the Southern Iceni tribes during the time of Roman occupation of ancient Britain, less people know about an equally influential queen, Cartimandua and a revolution that took place in the vast Northern Kingdom of Brigantia. Cartimandua was the original strong Northern woman. Although many view her as a traitor, others view her as strengthening her Kingdom through allying with a strong Roman force that protected the land and territory from invasions by the Picts.
Brigantia took it’s name from the Goddess Brighid, who survives today as the symbol of Britain in the form of Brittania. These lands we live in are steeped in history and it is good to preserve the earliest records of our ancestors. Although many despised the Romans, when they left, Brigantia was suddenly at the mercy of the Picts and Saxons, which changed the face of Brigantia forever. This is a quote from Tacitus: –
“Inspired by these differences between the Roman forces and by the many rumours of civil was that reached them, the britons plucked up courage under the leadership of Venutius, who, in addition to his own natural spirit and hatred of the Roman name, was fired by his personal resentment towards queen Cartimandua. She was ruler over the Brigantes, having the influence that belongs to high birth, and she had later strengthened her power when she was credited with having captured king Caratacus by treachery and so furnished an adornment for the triumph of Claudius Caesar. From this came her wealth and the wanton spirit which success breeds. She grew to despise her husband Venutius, and took as her consort his squire Vellocatus, whom she admitted to share the throne with her. Her house was at once shaken by this scandalous act. Her husband was favoured by the sentiments of all the citizens; the adulterer was supported by the queens passion for him and by her savage spirit. So Venutius, calling in aid from outside and at the same time assisted by a revolt of the Brigantes themselves, put Cartimandua into an extremely dangerous position. Then she asked the Romans for protection, and some of our auxiliary troops, cavalry and infantry, after meeting with indifferent success in a number of engagements, finally succeeded in snatching the queen from danger. The throne was left to Venutius, the war to us.” Tacitus (Histories iii, 45).
In our recent series of articles (Pseudohistory and the Lore of the Master Poets) we considered how Irish pseudohistory was developed and shaped both by the filí and the monastic clerics of medieval Ireland. We discussed how the filí were able to use a method on how to mentally retain all the names, personalities and attributes of the native Deities. And we also saw how every saga and legend was recited orally by the filí. ‘Imbas forosna’ is a Middle Irish term (dated from late medieval Ireland up to the late 19th Century) meaning “light that illuminates”. There is nothing in Old Irish found recorded so far that is its equivalent in Irish texts dating 11th Century and back, which indicates that this was a new term brought into medieval Irish and given to the intellectual elites of both the wandering filí and the monastic clerics.
Who were the filí and why was the art of filídeacht so important in Irish society?
The filí were wanderers comprised of a master, acolytes and apprentices who travelled from Tuatha (Old Irish “people”, “tribe” or nation) to Tuatha across the country. They were given great receptions and banquets while reciting their art. A Tuatha chieftain held them with respect as hosts. To turn the filí away or accuse them of anything was detrimental to their reputation as the filí could tarnish their names to neighbouring Tuatha by reciting verse of ill character attributed to these chieftains.
Filídeacht was about painting mental imagery using words to their audience and it was important to keep within the narrative of their sagas hence why names and places were ingrained into the cognitive capacity of the filí. In one of the parts of the Pseudohistory series, Seán mentions an account of a rite of passage between a master and apprentice in which the apprentice outshone and passed their test before a panel. The apprentice used the same narrative but was inspired to paint a bigger picture using the technique he had learned to use but with subjective thinking. That was the test and he passed.
Relevance of ‘Imbas Forosna’ today
Fast forward roughly a millennium and we can see how ‘imbas forosna’ has evolved to mean different things to different individuals. To the medieval intellectual elite, it was a means to create and progress their art or profession. To us it means that “light bulb” moment that inspires our individual creativity, whether in our professional lives, or our individual creativity. It comes in many forms depending solely on our individual subjective perspectives.
Back in the early noughties, Seán purchased a book titled “The Celtic Book of the Dead”, which contained a lot of divination and visualisation techniques. It was expensive at the time, very ornate and had various ‘bits-and-bobs’. Of course he had to have it back then. However, as Seán developed in his spiritual path, the book is long gone since as he now views it as “các an tarbh” (English transalation “bs”).
Sadly, in some circles, some “practitioners of the ways of the ancients” try to convince others that hallucinogenics are the way. The Order of Celtic Wolves neither promotes or condones the use of recreational drugs as part of your spiritual path. Seán works in the Irish front line health care sector and has witnessed in Accident and Emergency the dangers of substance abuse on both physical and mental health of users, along with the devastating effect to those around their loved ones. How, then, can we get inspiration or “imbas forosna” if we don’t listen to these self declared “authorities” of the subject?
It’s easy. Do whatyou enjoy. A few examples of Seán’s are going out on his bike with music that he enjoys on the headphones, going out on his kayak listening to the water, travelling to and from various sacred sites and just meditating on his surroundings. It’s amazing how the human mind operates. Your body goes on autopilot and your mind runs on a different dimension as it relaxes. Little flashes of “imbas forosna” just jump at you. Even other not so strenuous activities can have the same effect. Activities like fishing on the riverbank, walks in parks and woods, or even sitting on a bench staring at the horizon can do the same. (Filtiarn – I also feel inspired by reading ancient texts and learning about ancient customs/ lifestyles, but music and dancing is my first love).
Be warned, there are plenty of “authorities” who are out to make a quick buck and there is sadly a huge audience of naive people, who get taken in and then further spread misinformation. Seán would like to leave you, however, with some optimistic food for thought. It is a memory that remains still with him and hopefully will continue to remain.
“A few years ago, I was walking in a woodland (Sir Walter Raleigh’s former estate in East Cork) with my family. This is located a few kilometres from where I grew up in Killeagh, county Cork and is traditionally frequented by families every Bealtine. There is a small river that flows through it. My partner and I sat down on the grass by the bank watching the seoíge play amongst the wildflowers. Insects hummed by the river, the small one chased butterflies that flitted about the flowers and the sound of the river filled the air. The sun shone down reflecting on ripples on the waters surface and created columns of light in the shadows between the trees. The breeze gently rustled the leaves. A willow hung its weeping limbs over the running water. It was a perfect moment in time. I looked over at the seoíge laughing and dancing with little winged beings darting playfully around her. A hedgehog snuffled out of the long grass with a ting rider on its back towards the river. Someone was gently humming at the riverbank. I looked over and saw a woman bent over the bank combing her hair singing to herself.”
To have that moment of ‘imbas forosna’ takes time and will hit us when the moment is right, like when the Greek philosopher Archimedes streaked down the street shouting “Eureka!” on discovering displacement in his bathtub. It’s just a matter of being patient. It will happen (just don’t get arrested for running about the place starkers).
In olden times (yes, I did attend such a chéileadh as a child with my grandparents. I’m middle-aged not old), rural Ireland had a small gathering celebration at August weekends in the evening at crossroads. It was a tradition where families would meet with other ones at crossroads that were halfway between their homes and come together for merry making until dusk of music, food, and ,of course, dancing. In the 21st Century, rural Ireland is no longer awash with such as it has decreased a lot in size and the convienance of modern entertainment, has all but deleted this annual get-together.
The start of this event was always after the first bank holiday weekend of August (it’s the first weekend of the month in Ireland) which , traditionally, is the start of the three month harvest ending at Samhain. In the modern calendar, August is Lúnasa, September is Mhéan Fómhair (Mid Harvest), and October is Dheireadh Fómhair(End of Harvest). Obviously before the advent of the Calendar, these times were marked by the observance of both the solar and lunar cycles in stone circles. The smaller d-style stone circles were for observing the solar cycles at sunset and lunar cycles whereas the larger stone circles were mainly for observance of the solar cycle at sun rise. Even some passage tombs were purpose built indicating equinoxes and others the solstices. This has been demonstrated by archaeologists at different megalithic sites. Development in modern farming and use of different crops that have different maturing phases compared to traditional crops, this is no longer required but remains to this day, a very accurate clock of Nature’s cycle. The chéileadh normally lasted for four weekends which, I am only personally guessing, would roughly equate from the first new moon after the Summer solstice to the next new moon. There is also a solar indication of Fhéileadh Tailitú(Lughnasadh)/ Cenn Dhú. The Irish folklore tales of Lugh’s Fir Bolg foster mother, Tailitú dying and laying on the cereal field before the first reaping, and the bull carrying the sun upon his back through the portal stones, hint to us how important this time was to the early Irish especially on the reaping of the harvest in time before the onset of harsher conditions.
Fast forwarding to the early 1980’s, I used to spend a lot of Summers at my maternal grandparents in Barryscourt, a townland of Carrigtwohil in east Cork. From what I can remember, I always used to look forward to this particular Bank Holiday weekend and the fun that came with it. For those not native to these times, the only gaming system available was the Atari, there was only two TV stations (which only broadcasted for certain lengths daily) for those not lucky enough to have a UHF ariel (to get the English stations), and the radio only had three stations on FM (RTE1, 2FM, and Rádio na Gaelteacht). The good clothes or Sunday best was donned in the afternoon and then a hike to Carrigtwohil through the grounds of Barry’s castle( at that time it was a ruin and the local unofficial playground) and into the common grounds just outside the Girls National school. And like every year, the Merries (travelling fairground) had arrived. To a young country lad, this was one of the highlights of the year. The bumper cars, helter skelter, spinning cups, hook-a-duck, waltzer as well as candy floss, sticky apples and ice cream cones come fondly to memory. The day ended as soon as it got dark and then the tired trek back to my grandparents house stopping at the well on the castle grounds to wash down the sweet morsels. For the rest of the week, it was business as usual, helping my grandmother feed the hens and collect eggs after the ritual pecking of the hands, pick blackcurrants to make jam, weed the furrows of the vegetable acre, climb trees and generally do what kids do, play until called in. In front of my grandparents house there was a little plot of land locally known as the Gooses Acre (now long gone) at the cross roads of Cobh road, Carrigtwohil road, Ballintubber road, and Ellis’s Quarry road. After the August Weekend, the following four Friday evenings, the neighbours would gather and have a bit of a chéileadh. Everyone brought something to the table. Bodhrán’s, tin whistles, flutes, pipes and even spoons were played. Everyone danced. Tea was downed by the gallon, apple and rhubarb tarts gobbled. I still can taste the jam covered homemade scones and soda bread to this day. This was a very Catholic community yet still celebrating the very essence of a very old tradition.
Looking back fondly on these memories even my woeful shrill notes on the tin whistle, it would be a crying shame to see this tradition disappear completely. The crossroads don’t have a deep spiritual beginning or a native Deity associated with it. It’s an idea of getting together socially and celebrating the harvest regardless of culture or creed. Even a different religion couldn’t wipe it’s memory. It became engrained into Irish society. The only real danger is letting modern convenience make us forget our cultural roots. I forgot about it as well. I have no intention of making the world suffer from my musical prowess and getting people to meet halfway over anything is a harsh enough task as it is getting them to gather together in an agreed designated spot. Maybe if we do one small thing as a tradition with family and friends in honour of this time and for those who went before us. The Gooses Acre is long since tarmacked over for a bigger road, my Grandparents are long passed as is their small farm land, Barryscourt castle is now a Bord Fáilte tourist attraction, a Dual Carraigeway bisects the route from Barryscourt to Carrigtwohil, the travelling Merries are now long gone and the common ground is a carpark with a Community Centre. A distant memory but sometimes when I park there and my little seoíge jumps out of the car, I hear the repeat jingles and smell the sticky apples. Cycling past what is now my uncle’s family home, sometimes I can remember my time there with my Grandparents and the annual chéileadh. The music is playing and the food is prepared. Take my hand and join in the dance at the crossroads. The memory is there to be awakened.
Go mbeadh amhrán agus damhsa an Fhómhair go deo i do chroí.
It is generally accepted as a common belief that Lughnasadh is the beginning of the Harvest and the festivities associated with this time of year. Andrew Gibbons already posted this today especially on Lugh Lamhfáda’s foster mother, an Tailitú, which is in nearly everyone of the medieval manuscripts. Like other countries, Ireland (even with it’s size) had many deities and very localised to various tuatha’s and regions. During the compiling of the early manuscripts, the filí and the Christian clerics put together a family of Gods and sagas based on the local legends and even combined deities of similar archetypical traits to create one that fitted into their narratives in their pseudohistorical creations. In early Christian Ireland( Paganism was still strong up until the 11th Century as noted in the annals of Ballymote), a lot of the compiled data was based on the Eastern side of the country. The west wasn’t fully explored by the holy intellectuals as it would seem. This is where native deities then were inserted at later times in newer stories as demons or evil creatures that battled with saints. This is one such deity.
So who is Crom Cruach/Dubh? Crom Cruach is also known as Crom Dubh, or Cenn Cruach, among other names. The meaning is elusive; Crom means ‘bent, crooked, or stooped’, while Cenn refers to the head, but also means ‘chief, leader’. Cruach could mean ‘bloody, gory, slaughter’ and also ‘corn-stack, heap, mound’. Crom Dubh is a name that evolved from the Fertility god Crom Cruaich and is synonymous with dark practices and folklore. It is believed that as well as the ritual slaughter of bulls in the name of the ‘Crooked One’, human sacrifices were also offered up to ensure prosperous crops and fat, juicy cattle. According to some of the medieval annals, Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé. A Milesian known as Tigernmas settled in Ireland and was one of the first of the High Kings/Ard Rí. He brought the beginnings of structure to the hierarchy, including a system of coloured clothing, the more dyes, the higher your status. He also introduced idol worship and in particular the worship of the sacrificial god. In this story from Irish folklore commission archives, Crom Dubh offers a bull to St Brendan as an animal to be sacrificed during the building of a church.
“Saint Brendan and his brethren are erecting a church at Cloghane, at the foot of Mount Brandon, county Kerry. They ask the local pagan chieftain, Crom Dubh, for a contribution. He volunteers a bull, knowing full well that the bull is wild and dangerous. Brendan’s monks attach a halter to the bull’s neck and lead the animal placidly away. The bull was slaughtered and his meat was eaten by the workers and his blood was used for mortar. Crom Dubh is furious and demands the bull’s return. Brendan writes the words Ave Maria on a slip of paper and suggests to Crom Dubh that the paper weighs more than the bull. Nonsense, asserts the pagan chieftain. A scale is arranged and, sure enough, the paper outweighs the bull. Crom Dubh is so impressed that he submits to conversion, along with all of his tribe.” In another version, Crom is buried up to his neck for 3 days by the monks as penance (this may hint as a reference to the stone head in the ground).
A pattern (patron saint day) to Crom Dubh’s honour is held in the village of Ballybran on the last day of every July ever since. It is called in Irish Domach Crom Dubh (Crom Dubh Sunday). In the old days, the turas (pilgrimage) was made at dawn. That would mean a night climb or a vigil on the hill. The ’rounds’ consisted of praying at the ruined oratory and then encircling it and the pillar-stone and the ‘graves’ nine times while saying the Rosary, and ended by taking a drink from the well. When these exercises finished, pilgrims went down the eastern slope to the village, where a famous Patron was held. Some villagers add that the Patron used to take place in the graveyard around the head which represented Crom Dubh. Márie MacNeill (journalist, historian and folklorist 1904-1987) attested to the antiquity of the head and surmised that the stone was probably taken to the top of Mount Brendon for the harvest festival of Lughnasadh. In the Ordanance Survey Name Books for this parish, dated 1841, there is a note indicating that Croum Dhu was the god of the harvest whom pagans worshipped. Symbolically this describes the conversion of the Irish to christianity, the defeat of Crom Dubh, the Old Sun God of the Irish. This defeat of Crom Dubh is usually in the in the southern part of Ireland attributed to St Brendan and in the northern half of Ireland to St Patrick. Sliabh Brandon has an older name, Slíabh Daghda, The Mountain of The Daghda, reveals its earlier association with the good God of the ancient Celts. And the festivities that still take place each year on its summit celebrate the Celtic season of Lughnasadh, traditionally associated with the sun god Lugh Láimhfada who rode the skies in his burnished chariot drawn by golden horses, and strode up The Daghda’s mountain when the corn was ripe, to slay Crom Dubh with his spear of light and protect the harvest for his people. The stone of Crom Dubh was taken in 1993 and yet has to be returned.
Sandwiched between the Woodford and Blackwater rivers lies an area of Co. Cavan known as Magh Slecht. Overlooked by the scenic Cuilcagh Mountain and distant rounded shoulders of Sliabh an Iarainn, this panoramic vista of gently rolling countryside is packed with an unusually dense concentration of megalithic monuments, including cairns, stone rows and circles, standing stones, fort enclosures, and burial sites. One such stone, which is a replica, the Killycluggin Stone, which is located on the side of the Ballyconnell – Ballinamore road only 320 yards from where it was found. The original can now be seen in the County Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff. The stone’s surface is covered in simplistic scrolling designs of the Iron Age La Tene style.
“One Samhain, the High King Tigernmas and all his retinue, amounting to three-quarters of the men of Ireland, went from Tara to Magh Slecht (county Cavan)to worship. There, St. Patrick came upon them as they knelt around the idol with their noses and foreheads pressed to the ground in devotion. They never rose to their feet, for as they prostrated themselves thus, they were, according to Christian observers, slain by their very own God. So Magh Slecht won its name, which means ‘Plain of Prostrations’. St. Patrick destroyed the stone idol by beating it with his crozier. It broke apart, and the ‘devil’ lurking within it emerged, which Patrick immediately banished to Hell.”
The Stone does, in fact, bear evidence of repeated blows with a heavy implement and was deliberately removed from its central position within the circle and buried. A sign marks the place of its long repose. St. Patrick led the survivors to a nearby well, now known as Tober Padraig, and baptized them all into the Christian faith. He then founded his church adjacent to the well. St. Patrick’s church still stands in the townland known as Kilnavart, from the Irish Cill na Fheart, meaning ‘church of the grave/ monument’, and indeed there is a megalithic tomb, flanked by two sentinel standing stones, no more than 275 yards from it. The present church was constructed in 1867, replacing an older, thatched structure with clay floors. Interestingly, the church rises from the site of a prehistoric circular fort, once known as the Fossa Slecht, possibly the home of a local chieftain. The site of the holy well, however, has sadly fallen into disuse and lies somewhere close to the church in a patch of wasteland between two houses, and to which there is currently no public access. It is said that St. Patrick moved from the stone circle to the holy well on his knees. Whilst not far, it can’t have been an easy journey. Although the legend surrounding this site is quite gruesome, it should be noted that this is the only mention of human sacrifice at a specific site occurring in ancient Ireland according to the early literature. There are also some conflicts within the story: Tigernmas, for example, is listed in the Annals of the Four Masters as having reigned for 77 years from 1620 BC. If this is so, he could not have been at Magh Slecht at the same time as St. Patrick, who came to Ireland in the 5th century AD.
Also the last Sunday in July, thousands of pilgrims will climb Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain, located in County Mayo. Known as Reek Sunday, the pilgrimage is held in honour of Saint Patrick who it is said, in the year 441, spent 40 days fasting on the mountain. However, what many of those who are making the trek up the mountain may not be aware of, are the ancient, pre-Christian origins of the pilgrimage.
“Reek Sunday is also known as Domhnach Crom Dubh and was originally a ritual associated with the harvest festival of Lughnasadh. According to the myths here in the West of Ireland, the Crom Dubh (the dark crooked one), was an evil deity who wanted to keep the harvest for himself while Lugh tried to claim it for mankind. Sometimes, this was portrayed as a struggle over a woman called Eithne (also known as the daughter of Balór and Fomór mother of Lugh), meaning ‘kernel’ or ‘grain’, who represented the harvest, in which Lugh fights and defeats the Crom Dubh who represents drought, famine or blight. On the last Sunday of July, the Crom Dubh rises from deep out of the earth bearing Eithne upon his crooked back in order to lay claim to his share of the harvest, before sinking down again for the Winter. Part of the ritual of Crom Dubh Sunday was the ‘cutting of the first corn’ which involved the first sheaf of corn cut from the years harvest being brought to a local hilltop or mountain summit and buried as an offering to the deity, so that he would not look upon the tribes of the Gaedhil.”
The single carved standing stones known today as bull-stones could represent the head of Crom Cruach. Modern folktales tell us that human sacrifice was prevalent with the worship of the ancient Solar/Agriculture god. In the 6th Century manuscript Metric Dinnsenchas and also in the Book of Leinster, it is mentioned that the Early Irish would sacrifice 1/3 of their first born. In other folktales, this is conflicted as bulls were associated with him for sacrifice. In the Lebor Gabala Eirinn, the Nemedians gave tribute of 1/3 of their first born, livestock and grain produce to the Fomór. There was no mention of human sacrifice except slave labour. Archaeological digs have produced remains of bulls at the stone circles but not human child remains that have trauma such as crushed skulls as the two manuscripts mention.
I was very fortunate this year to be holidaying in Clonakilty in west Cork this year. My partner, on a whim had booked a weekend break here for the Lugnasa (August as gaeilge) Bank Holiday. I had originally planned to take them on a day trip to Banone Heritage park or go back up to the Tobar Naofa and Knocknacoille like I did last year with my little seoíge. This year, I decided to give them a break and went to Drombeg Stone Circle in the early hours of the morning. Rosscarbery is 10km away from Clonakilty, and Drombeg is 6km off that town. As the sky was slowly brightening, coming into Rosscarbery, I took notice of a large angular rock as you come into the town along the coastline which had me thinking of the ‘Bull-stones’ of Cenn Dhú and the bull rising with the sun on his back shining through his horns, bringing good omen of a bountiful harvest to come.
I arrived to a deserted carpark and made my way down to the site. It was beginning to brighten and the dawn chorus had begun. You could hear the horse in the adjoining field snort every so often. For a change, it was nice to have the area to myself as the last time I was here, there was a load of tourists. After my decompression and a quick video with photos of the area, I sat in front of the axial stone and faced the portal stones imaging what may have happened before. Although the sun was not set to rise for another half hour, I could picture the image of the silhouette of a bull being led between the portal stones against the blaze of the rising sun. I will leave the next bit to your imagination but as the meat of the sacrifice is being cooked, the feast with the last of the Summer’s bounty heralding the 3 month harvest. People dancing and making merry. Warriors showing their skill and prowess in athletic sports. The imaginative prose of the filí and song of the éigse fill the air filling everyone with the solemn and joyous image of the Goddess pouring her very essence into the grain. As I drove back eastwards to the hotel, I was greeted by the sunrise, a portent of good things to come.
Be it the celebration of óenach Tailteann or Cenn Dhú but this Lughnasadh may all your endeavour’s reap bountiful crops agus beannacht an fómhair go léir.
Tailtiu was the daughter of the king of Spain. She married Eochaid, of the Fir Bolg who became High King of Ireland when he overthrew Fodbgen. He was the first king to establish a system of justice in Ireland. During his reign no rain fell over the land, but there was dew and a harvest every year. Eochaid loved his wife so much that he named his capital after her (Teltown, County Meath). She became the foster mother of Lugh.
When Tailtiu died of exhaustion from clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture, Lugh honoured her memory by establishing funeral games Áenach Tailteann, in her honour. This took place in the last two weeks of July and were followed with a celebration of the first harvest, Lughnasadh. These games were held continuously until c. 1169-1171 CE when the Normans invaded Ireland. They were revived in 1924.
During Áenach Tailteann, the dead were honoured, Brehon laws were proclaimed by the Druids, funeral games were played and there was entertainment. The honouring of the dead took place on the first three days. Guests attending would sing Guba (mourning chants) and then skilled Druids would improvise songs in memory of the dead (Cepógs). The dead would then be cremated on a funeral pyre. The Brehon laws were read to the guests by Bards and Druids and then another massive fire was lit. These were a celebration of life, though, and there was rejoicing after the funeral with the Cuiteach Fuait, games of both mental and physical ability.
Similar to the Olympics, games included the long jump, high jump, running, hurling, spear throwing, boxing, sword fighting, archery, wrestling, swimming, and horse drawn chariot racing. For the more intellectual and artistic there were also included competitions in strategy, singing, dancing and story-telling. There were also skilled crafts competitions for jewellery makers, weavers and armourers.
Young couples who met for the first time would have a handfasting. This was a temporary marriage that lasted up to a year and a day. During that time couples were free to separate, or then make a permanent bond with a second handfasting a year later.
At the end of the two weeks Lughnasadh would be celebrated. There was an offering of the first fruits to the Gods, a harvest feast, a bull was sacrificed, a ritual play was danced portraying Lugh providing a harvest for mankind. Afterward the feast people would climb up hills and mountains.
What about modern times? Since 1953, the annual Rás Tailteann cycle race was established. For over 400 years, the Auld Lammas Fair is a traditional fair held in Ballycastle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, every year on the last Monday and Tuesday of August. The All-Ireland Senior Football Championship (SFC) (Craobhchomórtas Sinsear na hÉireann sa Pheil) is the premier competition in Gaelige football. An annual tournament organised by the GAA is contested by the county teams and known as the Tailteann Cup, founded in 1887. So, although the games may not have been fully restored, Lugh’s foster mother is commemorated to this day in one way or another. Also, as people return to their pagan roots, disillusioned and uninspired with mainstream religion, throughout the world celebrations of Lammas and Lughnasadh grow each year. Why not include some games as part of your celebrations?