The Celtic Diet – Part 2 – Beverages

The rich Mediterranean imports found in early Celtic sites between the seventh and fifth century BC in Southwestern Germany, Switzerland and Eastern France provide evidence of the role of consumption practices in feasting. Imported ceramic vessels have been interpreted as an attempt by the Celtic elite to imitate Mediterranean wine feasting. In the Mediterranean imported plant oils and grape wine was identified and evidence points towards Celtic appropriation of Greek customs towards these foreign vessels. Both Greek and local wares served for drinking grape wine and other plant-based fermented beverages. A wide variety of animal and plant by-products (e.g. fats, oils, waxes, resin) were also identified. Honey and millet were also common in beverages in early Celtic drinking practices, such as mead and millet bear.

The study suggests the early Celts used both imported and locally made drinking vessels to drink Greek wine and local beer. Whilst beer was drunk by everyone, warriors drank millet beer while the elites drank ale made from barley or wheat and imported wine (which they later produced).

A.T. Lucas states ale and mead were common intoxicants from ancient times. However, alcohol wasn’t really that important to the ancient Celts. It grew in popularity and Ireland’s oldest pub, The Brazen Head, in Dublin dates to 1198. Whisky in Ireland and Scotland (Whiskey) only goes back to medieval times and was widely distilled from the 15th century onwards. The Irish immigrants in America took the recipe over with them. Irish law prohibits unlicensed private distillation of whiskey, but like the moonshine in America, poitin is often illegally brewed in the hills of rural Ireland. The ancient history of alcohol production and use in Ireland provides some insight into how alcohol may have developed such cultural significance in the Celtic world over time. However, ancient Celtic binge drinking did not involve alcohol, but milk.

According to Caesar, The Britons “live on milk and flesh” and this is borne out in Celtic mythology. For example, as a baby, Brigid drank the milk of a sacred cow that came from the spirit world. Her association with the sacred cow reflects the Celtic reliance on the animal for sustenance; milk was an important theme throughout the year, especially during the cold winter months when hardship threatened. Cian owned a magic cow whose abundant milk made everyone want to possess her. Our early ancestors were besotted by milk, they worshipped it and their daily life revolved around it. Cows provided hide, meat, currency, and milk.

The ability to digest into lactose in milk into adulthood in modern Europeans is the result of a genetic mutation (genome) and is largely absent in other cultures. As cattle and other livestock have been farmed in western Eurasia since long before, you would expect such a mutation to already be widespread by the Bronze Age. But DNA samples taken from this period, shows that it only existed in 10% of the population, which indicates that the widespread use of milk and dairy products like cheese, etc. gradually increased.

In ancient Ireland hospitality was a duty, and milk held huge significance in our ancient hospitality rites. To refuse a drink in ancient Ireland would cause great offence and considered a hostile and aggressive gesture. In modern times, it is the equivalent of refusing a cup of tea. Milk was later to become affiliated with the miracles of early Irish saints. St. Fechin of Fore, St. Bridgid, St. Ciaran of Saigher, St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and St. Samthanne all performed miracles with milk.

The Celtic thirst knows no bounds and the Celts took to drinking tea with the same enthusiasm as they had for milk and alcohol. The Celtic love for liquids (whether it is tea, milk or alcohol) is engrained in our cultural fibre and identity.

When I was growing up, milk drinking was still encouraged to develop healthy bones and teeth and it is only in the last couple of decades that it has been link to high cholesterol. Full fat milk is now replaced by skimmed (basically coloured water) and semi-skimmed (which is a fair compromise).

Draíocht na Síoga na Samhna

Faerie Magick at Samhain

Lá agus Oíche

Leanaí ag súgradh

Amuigh sa ghairdín-

Déan deifir abhaile!

Tá an ghrian dula luí.

Sióga ag damhsa

Amuigh sa ghairdín-

Déan deifir abhaile!

Tá an ghrian ag éirí.

(“Oíche Mhaith” , Céim 1 Leabhar B, Duilleoga, An Comhlacht Oideachais Éireann.)

I circle the ancient stones clockwise from the portal to the axial mount, following the path of the sun. There I place my offering of milk and honey and I call to her…..

“An Ceann Sídhe, a Clíonadh naofa,

Banríon álainn na Múin agus na Shídhe, chuir do cluas orm.

Tugaim brontannas báinne agus míls duit mar mhalairt ar bhrontannas dom.

Go raibh maith agat banríon iontach as do bheannacht.”

Another method is to go to the Hawthorn and bring your supplication as the humble tree is also known as  the ‘Giving Tree of the Sídhe’. But to continue their blessings, a gift of milk and honey must be left outside the home each night or the pact is broken.

  Irish mythology has evolved over time where the old Gods become faerie type creatures and Megalithic and Neolithic sites as well as certain tree species have become their doorways between worlds. The various medieval texts have evolved their tales overtime as well. Samhain, the new year, is just around the corner and even the Fenian Cycle mentions Samhain on more than one occasion. Andrew posted a version of it with Fionn mac Cumhail’s rise to being leader of the Fianna and his famed deposing of an Dagda’s son at Tara during Samhain. Another is during the ‘Flight of the Lovers’, where Diarmuid and Gráinne flee the wrath of an aggrieved Fionn. It is mentioned that ‘the sídhe come from the other world for a friendly game of hurle every Samhain’. This time of year, mythology suggests is the best time for magick to occur (I’m still not sure where dancing around in the freezing moonlight without a stitch of clothing has come from).

There are two perspectives of magick. Psychological and supernatural. Which one it is up for you to decide, no one else. Both sides will agree that magick is the method of using one’s will as a catalyst to create an outcome desirable to the practitioner. Now this is my personal theory and has always been how I perceive and utilise. It’s what works for you in the end which counts.

A few years back, I managed to quit smoking for just under a year. It was hard at the start and I had to hand my wallet over to my partner so I couldn’t give into temptation. It worked after a month and continued, well, until a lot of things happened towards the end of that year and I was back on them again. I spent the last two years trying to give them up ( I was a pack a day person) and even used a service that is available at work (I work for the HSE) in which a nurse rang me everyday for encouragement and progress while sorting out nicotine replacement therapies. That was a waste of time for me as my personality doesn’t take too kindly to constant lectures and broken records. Also still having nicotine in my system doesn’t really make sense to me even if it’s a gradual decreasing of levels process. It has to be cold turkey full stop. Nicotine replacement therapy does work for some but not me.

In Ireland, the concept of the sídhe being faerie type beings only came about roughly about the time of the Ulster Plantations which also brought about the concept of witchcraft. There is a saying that goes back to that era, “To the protestants their witches and the catholics, their faeries”. I will touch on this another time. Sióga is a relatively modern Irish word which has been constructed from a marriage of ‘sídhe’ (too obvious to explain) and ‘óg’ (young). There is a name Séoige derived from it as well which I nickname my small one.

I am lucky that I travel to a sacred site regularly (when weather permits) at Knocknacoille in West Cork and also where I grew up, there are still many Hawthorn trees. One Sunday morning, my séoige was in the back of the car as we were travelling up to Knocknacoille, and she asked why did I smoke, did I have to and it makes me stinky. The usual. When we arrived, I finished off the pack before we walked up to the Stone Circle. Up at the site, I made a ‘pinky-promise’ with the séoige which was the physical reality ( in my minds eye it was the evocation of the Munster Goddess and her various evolved archetypical aspects as I wrote about at the start of the written piece). It was hard for the first few days especially at work in the hospital and I always had my wallet with me. My partner didn’t realise that I had stopped until she noted that I wasn’t smelling constantly of stale Marlboro’s after a week. She had questioned the small one but just got giggles and “Daddy and me have a secret so not telling!”. She was shocked that I had lasted so long without having a meltdown or entrusted her with my finances. It’s tough going. I still get the odd psychological craving (it takes 3 days for the body to clear out the nicotine so physical withdrawals occur then) but just look at the séoige and remember the pact.

I have benefitted greatly. I spend more quality time with the small one and now she’s like Daddy, cycling like a big person without stabilisers. I have attacked a new project where I am starting my leabhar draíocht anew by making it look like a medieval text as much as possible for my own taste (Andrew has seen the beginnings). It’s going to take a lot of time. I also registered for a charity cycle (120km Fort to Fort from Crosshaven to Whitegate and back or Cork harbour). I spent a lot of time training and completed it. It was hard and nearly gave up in Whitegate ( that is a very tough area of steep hills and lunar surfaced back roads and the event was nearly cancelled due to the high winds). But I just thought of that Sunday with the séoige up in Knocknacoille. I have found that my endurance had increased a good bit and I wasn’t stopping every half hour to have a smoke break. I finished the challenge with a good time of 4 and a half hours cycling time.

It’s at this point where I have to add that magick is only as strong as the effort that you put in and it only lasts as long as you keep up the effort. That is why I always think of our little pact when I look at my small one and just to be on the safe side, I leave a small offering of milk laced with a drop of honey outside by the flower bed every night. You just never know.

The last of the harvest is completed and they are beginning to prepare the memorial pyre of Tlaghta. The New Year is approaching and it is the time of the crossing of both worlds. Remember your loved ones and prepare a place by the hearth for them. Remember to have something special for the sídhe in their various guises. Enjoy the celebrations.

Arís eile, go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an phíosa scríofa seo, agus beidh na beannachtaí Samhain oraibh.

Seán Ó Tuama.

A Tale for Samhain – Aillén the Burner

The 12th century text Macgnímartha Finn (Boyhood Deeds of Fionn) recounts the boyhood exploits of Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The story begins with the death of Cumhal, leader of the Fianna, at the hands of Goll mac Morna. Cumhal’s wife Muirne was pregnant at the time and eventually gave birth to their son, Demne. Fearing for his safety, she sends him to be raised by Cumhal’s sister, the druidess Bodhmall, and her companion Liath Luachra. The two warrior women raise him and accompany him on several adventures, including one in which he receives his nickname, Fionn (the fair; the pale).

He developed great wisdom after inadvertently tasting the salmon of wisdom which granted universal knowledge to whoever consumed it. The salmon, which dwelled in the pool of Fés, was coveted seven years by Finn’s mentor, the poet Finn Éces. Finn cooked the salmon, obeying his mentor’s instruction not to partake any of the salmon before serving it to him, but burnt his thumb while cooking and sucked it, thereby receiving its gift of wisdom. (Though it is not stated, it is inferred that this was a Salmon of Wisdom that ate the hazelnuts at the Well of Segais.)

Fionn travels to the capital of ancient Ireland, Tara, which for the last 23 years had been set aflame each Samhain by Aillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, often described as an evil goblin. Aillén played the harp and was known to sing beautiful songs. Aillén’s annual visitation to Tara was from an underwater, otherworld paradise realm inhabited by deities, from which few mortals were granted access, Mag Mell (Magh Meall – modern Irish), ruled over by Manannán mac Lir.

The ruler who had killed Fionn’s father, Goll mac Morna, and the Fianna are powerless to stop Aillén’s destruction since he puts everyone to sleep with a magical tune.

Fionn inhales poison from his own spear to prevent sleep, and laid in wait for Aillén to get near. As soon as the goblin was in striking distance, Fionn stabbed him with the spear, killing the goblin to the joy of many.

Fionn then reveals his true identity to the court, and the king grants Fionn his rightful position as leader of the Fianna. Goll steps down, and engages in a truce.

From that day forward, the event was celebrated with a huge Bonfire that acted as a beacon of hope atop the Hill of Tara. When the flames were seen other bonfires were lit, uniting ancient Ireland in it’s celebration of Samhain as a remembrance to its wise ruler, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The Celts – Part 3 – The Vinča Connection

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

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.

Celtic Cross gravestone in Chagford Churchyard, Devon

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.

Celtic Tribes in South East Europe 50 BC

The Celts – Part 2 – Alesia, the Mother City of Celtica

[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.

Hercules and Geryon (ancient Greek vase)

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.

The Pillars of Hercules (land on right is Morocco, left is Gibraltar)

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

Julius Caesar’s Seige 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.

Napoleon III, First President of France 1848-52 and Emperor 1852-70

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.

Living in Harmony with Nature

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.

Population Increase

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.

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.

Ancient Celebrations of the Equinox

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

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.

Mabon

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 🙏

Filtiarn xx

Celtic Legends – The Real Merlin – Myrddin Wyllt/ Merlin the Wild

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.

Cartimandua – Traitor or Survivor

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.

Cartimandua, Queen of Brigantia (Northern England)

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).

What is Imbas Forosna

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 Bard Before The Royal Family, Huxoll Anton

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?

Cycling on the Ring of Kerry

It’s easy. Do what you 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).

Seán Ó Tuama (edited by Filtiarn)