The Sun, the Bull, the Blood, and the Harvest.
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.
Seán Ó Tuama.