Ag Damhsa ag an gCrosbhóthar i mí Lúnasa

Dancing at the crossroads in August

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.

Seán Ó Tuama.

An Gréine, an Tarbh, an Foladh, agus an Fómhair.

The Sun, the Bull, the Blood, and the Harvest.

Bull Stone outside Rosscarbery

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.

Áenach Tailteann and Lughnasadh

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.

Representation of Tailtiu, Goddess of cultivation and the harvest

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.

In 1924 the ancient Celtic Tailteann Games named after Queen Tailte, the foster mother of Ireland’s first High King, Lugh of the Long Arm were revived by the Gaelic Athletic Association. These games were supported by the new Irish Free State, staged in Croke Park and were open to all amateur athletes of Irish birth. The Games were staged again in 1928 and 1932.

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.

Handfasting ceremony

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?

Blessings to all

Filtiarn x

The Way Ahead

Sean and myself have been looking at the success of the Order of Celtic Wolves and it is indeed something to celebrate.

Sometimes, though, you have to look at what works for our members and what doesn’t. Then evaluate what direction we go in. This is a natural process and, indeed, as time goes own, an Order takes on a gestalt personality.

We have discussed the lessons and found that people lose interest and may find them laborious to work through. They are also a great investment of our time and, rather than putting together and researching a lesson that takes ages to put together, it is far easier to put out bite sized chunks.

We have experimented with this recently and found the bite sized articles get far more interest and views than the large pdf lessons. So have decided that this is the direction we should take.

Don’t worry, we’ve no plans to remove the lessons that are there at the moment, but a lot of the material will be published in bite sized chunks.

When I created the Order of Celtic Wolves I had no idea how successful it would be, or how it would resonate with so many people. We are so grateful for all the contributions on the Facebook group and ask that you continue to participate.

In fact, if you want to write an article for us, we are more than happy to publish it on our Web page, which is shared on our Twitter and Facebook accounts. All our posts are shareable. We are not a secret society, neither do we think a path should be exclusive, but open to EVERYONE who is interested.

Sometimes, when you put too much structure into something, it feels forced, like it has to rigidly stick to a theme. By having educational and posts about experiences (which Sean excels at), along with selected tales from Celtic Mythology, poems and submissions we suddenly enter a realm where possibilities are endless.

It is our hope that you will, eventually, form groups around the world and meet up. You are free to use things you have learned on here and we will post up rituals, that you can copy and change to suit you. Think of the Order of Celtic Wolves as a framework, an inspiration to help you achieve your spiritual goals, connect with nature and honour the ancestors.

I know we originally planned to set up reviews and you could apply to be recognised as a Bard, Vate or Druid in the OCE. However, who are we to make such assignments? Who decides who is qualified to do these roles? It is a personal decision and it is YOUR personal path, not that of any organisation.

At the outset, I said that a spiritual journey has to be one that fulfills the needs of an individual. When you start becoming too structured and introducing rules, you run the danger of crossing the line between someone taking the lead in providing spiritual inspiration and cult leader. There is nothing wrong about being a leader, but the goal should always be to help others become leaders rather than be someone who controls.

Setting up groups can be daunting, so feel free to ask how others have done it. Contact us using the links on this page and thank you for your continued support.

Regards

Filtiarn

The Celts – Part 1 – Introduction

Many see the Celts as a ancient civilisation. Indeed, a lot of our Celtic culture has been lost because of invasions by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Recent genealogy has discovered that a major part of genetic pool now in Britain is Anglo Saxon. Quote from article: – “The majority of eastern, central and southern England is made up of a single, relatively homogeneous, genetic group with a significant DNA contribution from Anglo-Saxon migrations (10-40% of total ancestry). This settles a historical controversy in showing that the Anglo-Saxons intermarried with, rather than replaced, the existing populations.”

Many of us still have Celtic DNA mixed with other DNA and although there is radical differences, the Celts survive through their descendants. Celtic Reconstructionist movements work hard to educate us in the ways of the Celts. Schools in Cornwall and Wales teach children about their Celtic ancestors. DNA shows that much of the
Celtic DNA of Britain is from Celtiberia and the closest related Europeans today are
from the Basque region of Northern Spain. Sadly, virtually everything has been eradicated about the Celts from that region, with the arrival of Christianity.

There is a lot of discussion about who can rightfully be called Celts today. However, it is a general consensus that there are 6 remaining Celtic nations today and they are
Scotland (Alba), Ireland (Eire), Isle of Man (Mannin), Wales (Cymru), Cornwall (Kernow) and Brittany (Breizh). These are areas where Celtic languages and/ or cultural traits have survived.

However, there are people with Celtic DNA scattered throughout Europe. There are others from far distant lands who also embrace the Celtic culture because it represents a time when human tribes worked with and were a part of nature.

Tales have been passed down from generation to generation and are available in modern translations for us to benefit from. The Celts were not one single group, but many tribes each with their own languages from as far East as Northern Turkey (Thrace), to the La Tene region of Central and Western Europe to much of Northern Europe. Roman propaganda would have you believe that the Celts were backwards savages who fought naked. However, archaeology shows that they were very advanced and in the early formation of Rome outmatched Rome.

There is lots of material to look up about the Celts, not all of it true. Although British Celts had both male and female Druids, who were described as magi, lawyers, priests, kings and queens, or counsellors, these appear to be indigenous to ancient Briton and parts of France. Modern Druidry has changed considerably, with many following a path that is now recognised as Druidry. The Druids, however, were the spiritual and sometimes physical leaders and the religion of the Celts did not have a name, as far as we are aware.

The Celts had a strong social structure and had both solar and lunar festivals, such as Samhain, which was a three-day festival around the full moon around October/
November during the lunar month Samonios. This marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The Celtic month began on the 6th day (compared to other cultures that started their month on the first visible moon), around the time of the moon’s first quarter and the 15th day of the month would be the third quarter. The second part of the month was called the returning night.

We don’t know with absolute certainty how ancient rituals were performed, however both circles and spirals feature frequently in Celtic culture. We have many remnants of stone and a few timber circles that show that circle gatherings were important.

Archaeology shows that the Celts built houses in a circle around burial mounds. The treatment of bones and bodies show that the Celts not only venerated the dead, but they were an integral part of the tribe.

A depiction of Celts in battle

Archaeological evidence indicates that Celtic culture started to evolve circa 1200 B.C. Julius Caesar later referred to the Celts as “Galli,” which had come to mean barbarians (although it originally referred to the Phrygian priestly class of Eunuchs devoted to Cybele). However, where the Celts actually barbarians? And does anything remains of Celtic culture today?

For many years, historians put great stock in Julius Caesar’s words, which have since been proved to be military propaganda. According to Caesar, The Britons “live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins…dye themselves with woad…and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip.” Their ancestors had actually been farming for hundreds of years and they were not clad in skins. Bronze Age sewing implements meant they made their clothing (they wore tartan trousers before kilts were invented) and not every Britain covered themselves in woad. Archaeological discoveries show that they were skilled craftsman, wearing ornate jewellery, such as torcs.

Julius Caesar said that the Celts of ancient Britain were “fearless warriors because they wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another…”

Prior to Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the Romans both respected and feared the Gallic tribes. The Gauls were both civilized and wealthy. Many had contact with Roman merchants and some had stable political alliances with Rome in the past.. The Gallic Wars were a series of military campaigns waged by Julius Caesar against the Gauls. They lasted from 58 BC to 50 BC and resulted in the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 BC. The Roman victory was both genocidal and brutal. Although Caesar stated the invasion as being a pre-emptive and defensive, historians agree that the wars were fought to boost Caesar’s political career and to pay off his massive debts. His invasion of Britain, however, was unsuccessful and he withdrew.

A second Roman invasion nearly a century later was successful, but large areas were unconquered. As a result, many Celtic cultural traditions remain in present-day Ireland, Scotland and Wales to this day. They have even influenced Christian celebrations and saints. The Galatians, in Northern Spain also successfully fought off invasions by both Romans and Moors and their descendants still stage ancient outdoor dances, accompanied by bagpipes, an instrument that is more commonly associated with more well-known Celtic regions like Scotland and Ireland. Celtic tradition also continued in Brittany, which was geographically isolated from the rest of France. Many Bretons wear traditional Celtic lace hats called coiffes and one quarter speak Breton, a language similar to Welsh.

An Scéal a Trí Sliabh

A Tale of Three Mountains

“Some paths are easier than others, but if you take the mountain path you get a better view.”

Filtiarn the Druid.

Sliabh a hAon

I recently took up the challenge for cycling 300km within the month of July for Vision Sports which is a division of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. I completed it within 8 days and my final leg turned out to be a 102km loop from my house to Banteer, Mallow, and then back home to Cork City. I was told by a colleague at work that the trip to Banteer was a uphill gradient which is tough to cycle. He neglected to tell me one thing which I will come soon to.

Going uphill from Ballyshoneen to Banteer was very tiring and it was early in the morning with a soaking drizzle. You can imagine how sapping that is and it was also 15C which made it like a sauna inside my all-weather jacket (we are not used to this heat in Ireland). I was sorely tempted to turn around and give up a good few times, but then something happened. An adult fox and two cubs crossed the road just up in front of me. I forgot about everything and watched them zigzag around and finally disappear. I stopped for a breather and then looked to my left or rather down. I was looking down into a valley and realised that I was halfway up a mountain. I carried on more and I came across the Duhallow Trail which meant that on the other side was Knocknacoille and Johns Well where I normally conduct my decompressions. I could see the turnstile at the top which can be seen from the other side. This spurred me on and in no time I was freewheeling down towards Naad and onto Banteer. At this point I was midway on my journey and there was no way I was turning back. Was my experience on the mountain spiritual or psychological? That’s for you to decide for yourself but the end result was elation that carried me on to attaining my goal.

Sliabh a Dhó

I decided to make a pilgrimage to conduct a decompression as a means of gratitude and decided to make a day of it as it was the last few days of my holidays and take my little seoíge (síoge is the Irish word for faerie) along as she loves coming along on these trips. Instead of Knocknacoille, we travelled along the West Cork coast to the larger stone circle of Ardgroom. I hadn’t taken that road in over 10 years and had forgotten about what it was like (or how long it was). We took Healy’s Pass between Glengarrif and Ardgroom which is a series of hairpins up a narrow road along a mountain. The scenary was fantastic. Even the little one was jumping out of the car every so often just to look at the view. At the top, there is a monument depicting the Passion which is understandable for Christians to erect when you look at the surrounding beauty from atop. Once off Healy’s Pass, I took a little detour to a d-style stone circle that was signposted (Shronebirran). This took us along a narrow boreen nestled between the mountains. The stone circle is actually right next to a farmhouse where we were greeted by the owner who invited us to visit the ruins of a famine village that was 2km further down the road. I regretfully declined the offer for another time as time was getting on. Finally, we reached Ardgroom where I performed my deasghnáth buíochas and myself and my seoíge placed small offerings. Again, not only was the decompression a profound experience but the mountain journey.

Sliabh a Trí

At this stage time was getting on so I had to take the quicker route back to Cork City. Drove back to Kenmare and turned for Glengarrif/Bantry. The small one was getting tired as well to boot. Again we were going up the mountains and as we were going to Cath’s Pass we had to stop at Banane. There is a heritage park that has a large 14 stone circle, free standing series of menhirs as well as other monuments of interest. We got out at Radharc na Drugaí or Druids View. Again the views were spectacular and these were the valleys on the other side of the Paps of Anú. We carried on through the short mountain tunnel and back home. As I write this a few hours later, the seoíge is sleeping peacefully ( as would all kids after a 9 hour day of travelling and hiking through fields) and I have still this sense of elation and being awestruck with what I had experienced throughout the day.

When we journey on our individual paths to attain our goals in life, we do come across unexpected or forgotten mountains. We do get jaded with the effort put in and feel like quitting there and then. But we can stop and look back, see how far we have come. There are small but significant events that can occur to make us appreciate what we are doing or why we are doing it. It drives us forward. Enjoy the views. The crest is approaching.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama a léamh.

Seán Ó Tuama.

The Bards

Of all the roles in Celtic society we know most about the Bard. This is because Bardic schools continued in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland to the middle of the seventeenth century.

Julius Caesar mentions large schools run by druids for the youth of Celtic Gaul in the first century BCE. However, we know little or nothing about the education of poets and other men of learning in early Ireland before the eighth century CE.

Around this time, poets were graded according to their literacy levels. Before this, the ‘oral’ poets of traditions lived as travelling minstrels, with songs, poetry, accompanying harpists and legendary tales.

Higher grades of poet, the filid, used written Old Irish texts to study grammar, prose, genealogy and history. There were poets (fili), experts in Irish traditional history (senchae), and judges of customary law (brethem), who became clerics, or a teachers in church schools.

From the late tenth to the twelfth centuries, even higher levels appeared as we see from court poets, some of whose verses in praise of Irish kings still survive.

Many ancient Celtic tales have survived to this day, through patient translation by modern day Bards. It took many years of diligent study to become a Bard. However, we have schools today that teach us comprehension of literature, oral language, essays, grammar, poetry and stories.

Irish Mythology Sources

Page from book of Leinster

The three main manuscript sources for Irish mythology are: –

  • Late 11th/early 12th century Lebor na hUidre, meaning Book of the Dun Cow. Sadly only 76 pages remain
  • Book of Leinster compiled c. 1160 CE
  • Bodleian Library, also referred to as Book of Glendalough. The first part written c.1110 CE and the second compiled in the mid-12th century.

Despite the dates of these sources, examination of the language used date most of the material further back to the 8th century and may even go back to the 6th century from even earlier oral retellings. Other important sources are: –

  • The Yellow Book of Lecan (which contains the missing material from Lebor na hUidre) written in two parts in 1391 and 1401.
  • The Great Book of Lecan, written between 1397 and 1418 (which contains transcribed material from the Book of Leinster)
  • The Book of Ballymote transcribed 1390 or 1391 (a compilation of older works, loose manuscripts and valuable documents handed down from antiquity).

It has to be noted that most of the manuscripts were created by Christian monks (especially the later works), whose religious hostility to pagan beliefs resulted in some of the ancient stories being adapted and reworked to fit in with accepted Greek or Biblical genealogy (see Sean Twomey’s series of articles on Irish Pseudohistory and the Lore of the Master Poets for a more detailed study).

Welsh Mythology Sources

For most of us, Wales represents a beautiful country of mountains, hills, valleys and a majestic coastline. Ynys Môn, once connected by land, but now separated by the Menai straits, was once a holy Druid stronghold and numerous megalithic sites,
show that humans lived there since prehistory. It should be noted that the divisions of Wales, England and Scotland did not exist in early Celtic times and the earliest known title for Britain is Albion. In Scottish Gaelic Scotland still retains the name Alba.

Like Irish mythology, Welsh mythology and history was passed down orally by Bards and Druids. As invaders and settlers have arrived much of the oral record has been lost or altered. This needs to be borne in mind when looking at medieval Welsh manuscripts. However, the following still provide a treasure of Welsh Celtic legends and mythology: –

  • Llyfr Aneirin c. 1265. Believed to be a copy of an original manuscript, attributed to the late 6th century poet, Aneirin.
  • The Book of Taliesin dating from the first half of the 14th century, though many of the fifty-six poems are believed to originate in the 10th century or earlier.
  • The White Book of Rhydderch c. 1350 is the earliest collection of Welsh prose texts and poetry.
  • The Red Book of Hergest – written between 1382 and 1410 preserves a collection of Welsh prose and poetry, particularly the tales of the Mabinogion.

Other notable sources include: –

  • Historia Brittonum c. 828 – A history of the British (Brittonic) people.
  • Historia Regum Britanniae c. 1136 – A history of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Scottish Legends7

A lot of Irish mythology was imported to Scotland, and some was probably written in Scotland. The Ulster Cycle is a group of heroic stories centres around the Uliad, people from North East Ireland. The Ulaid had close links with Gaelic Scotland, where Cúchulainn is said to have learned the arts of war.

The myths and legends of Scotland reflect the nature and seasons of the land. For instance Beira, the Queen of Winter, who raises storms during January and February to delay the arrival of spring. Beira was a tough and brutal old woman who brought deep snow, overflowing rivers and created lochs and mountains. When it gets warmer, she steps aside for the Dual Lord and Lady who share equal power during the following season. Scottish deities were not glorified or widely worshipped, unlike those of other ancient cultures, but more linked with nature, being connected with specific rivers, wells and mountains, etc.

The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper 1912

Scotland, though, does have a wealth of mythical creatures such as selkies and kelpies. There are quite a few tales of Changelings, fairy folk, who stole babies from the crib and substituted them with another fairy. The Wulver, a creature with the body of a man and a wolf’s head was a benevolent creature, who enjoyed fishing. He left fish on the window-sill of the poor. In the present day Scotland is still full of legends, including the Loch Ness Monster.

The Hebrides are an isolated group of various sized (largely uninhabited) islands off the Western coast of Scotland. The surrounding sea is important to sustain the small communities on these remote islands and are abundant with stories of unusual and magical (especially sea) creatures. This is a list of the most well-known of these: –

  • Kelpies – shape-shifting water spirits that appears as a horse, but can adopt human form.
  • Blue men of the Minch (also known as Storm Kelpies) – inhabiting the sea between the Hebrides and mainland Scotland (known as the Minch). Although they are blue, they look human. They create storms and seek out unsuspecting vessels to sink. In fine weather sleep and float on the water.
  • Seonaidh (Shoney) was originally a Celtic Sea God (before Christianity relegated him to a water spirit), who took offerings of ale from the inhabitants of Lewis.
  • Merpeople – appear as human with the tale of a fish. Mermaids usually appear as unlucky omens, foretelling disaster and provoking it, even with murderous intent. Occasionally some teach humans how to cure certain diseases. Mermen are wilder creatures and ugly unlike Mermaids, but have no interest in humans.
  • Werewolves – a human that shapeshifts into a wolf. A family of werewolves occupied an island on Loch Langavat. If their graves are ever disturbed legend says they will rise from the dead.
  • Will-o’-the-wisp – strange lights that float around the sea when a local resident is about to pass. They are especially associated with Sandwick in the Shetland Islands.
  • Fairy hound – on the Isle of Harris a Cu Sith (fairy dog) leaves oversized paw prints on the sand which mysteriously vanish half way across the beach.

Cornish Legends

Cornish mythology consists partly of folk traditions developed in Cornwall and mythology shared with the Breton and Welsh peoples. Many ancient tales of the Bards, such as the Arthurian Cycle and tales from the Mabinogion take place in the ancient kingdom of Cornubia (Cornwall). The original kingdom of Dumnonia was centred in Devon and also included Cornwall and parts of Somerset. Cornubia was a sub-kingdom created around 443CE.

Legendary creatures from Cornish folklore include: –

  • The Bucca – a merman, connected with sea storms. It has suggested that originally Bucca was an ancient Celtic deity of the sea because fish food offerings were left on the beach by fisherman to appease him.
  • Piskies (Pixies) – Piskies are concentrated in the high moorland areas around Devon and Cornwall and are believed to inhabit ancient underground ancestor sites such as stone circles and barrows.
  • Giants – Many of the unusual features in Cornwall such as the granite rock on Bodmin Moor, the staggering sea cliffs seascape and St Michael’s Mount are explained as the work of Giants. Eighteenth century tales such as Jack the Giant Killer were probably based on much older oral folk tales.

King Arthur has a very strong connection with Cornwall and a lot of events associated with Arthurian legend happened in Cornwall: –

  • Tintagel – on North Cornish coast thought to be the birth place of Arthur. A ruined Norman castle on a steep, craggy hillside marks the original Celtic fortress where Uthyr’s famous son was born.
  • Dozmary Pool – thought to be the lake in which Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur to The Lady of the Lake.
  • The Tristan Stone – set beside the road leading to Fowey in Cornwall, marks the story of Arthur’s knight Tristan and his lover Iseult.

Legends of Brittany

From the third century, Celts from Wales and Cornwall began to emigrate to the area named Armorica during Roman occupation, but later named Brittany, in North East France.

Brittany was split between five Celtic tribes. Breton mythology is the collection of heroic tales originating in Brittany. The Bretons had many gods and mythical creatures associated with nature. This mythological background was accepted by Romans, but when Christianity arrived lots of grand epics were lost and pagan landmarks were either destroyed or Christianised.

However some Breton Celtic folklore has survived such as: –

  • Ankoù – a grim reaper type figure that collects the souls of the deceased. The
  • last person to die in a parish takes over the role of the Ankou. The Ankou appears as a tall, haggard skeleton with long white hair and a revolving head, enable to see in all directions, who drives a cart and stops at the house of someone who is about to die. It knocks on the door (sometimes heard by the living), before it takes away the dead in the cart with help from two ghostly companions.
  • Bugul Noz – a fairy spirit who lives in the woodlands of Brittany. He is the last of his kind, but his ugly appearance is so awful that woodland animals avoid him. He is kind and gentle, but always alone. He cries out to warn humans of his approach, so not to frighten them. In fact, some humans have instantly died on seeing him.
  • Cannard noz (“night ducks”) – three small, webbed feet washerwomen, dressed in green who go to the water’s edge at midnight to wash shrouds of those about to die.
  • Korrigan – water spirits that dance around fountains and wells. They are very beautiful at dusk or night with long flowing hair and the power to make men fall in love with them, but lure them to their death. However they avoid being seen during the day when their true appearance is as red-eyed, white-haired, wrinkled hags.

Many Arthurian legends also take place in Brittany. For example: –

  • Sir Lancelot spent his childhood in the forest of Brocéliande, Brittany.
  • Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan Le Fey, after being betrayed by her lover, put a spell on Le Val Sans Retour (“The Valley Without Return”), causing unfaithful lovers to be imprisoned in the valley.
  • Tristan married a Princess in Brittany, breaking the love enchantment put on him by Iseult.

The Bards of old would recount tales of old, in their own way. No doubt the tales varied, but the fact that the essence of the tales of legendary heroes has existed to modern times is a testimony to these ancient legends. Did these ancient heroes and deities exist or were they created?

We’re all stories in the end and we know that a lot of stories start out from actual events, that are embellished over the years. Robin Hood is a prime example of this. Godfrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian tales also differ greatly from accounts in the Book of Taliesin.

But whether we write songs poetry, or stories that entertain let us always remember the Bards of old. And remember stories work on many levels. A lot of Celtic tales were precautionary, warning of the consequences of our actions.

Bards would be skilled in the tales of old, but would also keep records of their tribes and create new tales. We have many storytellers who carry on this tradition today, transporting us into far, distant lands and times past, present and sometimes predicting the future.

Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 6

As a form of hangover of the outmoded idea that the filid were ‘Christian druids’, a phrase to guarantee so called experts to come out of the woodwork, there is a tendency to imagine that the order of professional poets and men of learning remained basically the same between the 6th and 11th Centuries. Scholars have demonstrated that this is not the case, and that the role of the learned poets within the literate landscape was always changing. In short, it is possible that while the filid did not believe that the Tuatha Dé were Gods, “though we enumerate them, we do not worship them”, from the middle of the 9th century they became increasingly attached to them as allegories, mnemonics, and images of that within their body of learning which was not shared ecclesiastical scholars (‘The Three Things required of a Poet’ J Carey). The Gods added to the aura of romantic antiquity which had become convenient for the filid to stress, and ‘Pagan@ supernatural tropes were invoked to underline their supposed roots in the ancient past and so assert their professional distinctiveness.

If this is so, then the potential ramifications are thought provoking. In the previous part, E Boyle has stressed that reading for non-literal levels of meaning was an essential part of training for the learned, and that it arose directly from the way the Bible was interpreted. She makes the case that the Irish men of learning wrote, on occasion, as they had been taught to read, by implanting layers of metaphorical meaning into vernacular texts. And if the Gods, once the religious framework of Irish Paganism faded, were available to the literati for recycling as a stock of metaphors and personifications, then we are faced with the fundamental problem that we have no way to guage how conservative or radical that process was for any particular Divinity (‘Abstract narrative in Ireland’ Snowcroft). In other words, the fact that some among the filid seem to have thought in terms of a “pantheon of skill”, including former Deities such as Brighid and Ogma, may not be a holdover from Irish Paganism. Instead, it might be a development entirely of medieval scholarship, and thus tell us literally nothing about these Gods had been envisioned in the pre-Christian era. Further research is needed, but this painstaking possibility must be taken seriously to be successful.

On the other hand, there is certainly evidence that there were different schools of thought about the Gods and their pedigrees among the filid, although this is difficult to say whether this was down to variation over time or between poetic authorities in different parts of Ireland. We find hints in two places that some filid thought in terms of a special group of 7 or 8 ‘skilled Gods’ with whom they were prone to identify, hinting at conceptual or metaphorical structures within the pantheon itself. Again, this is probably not ancient, as ‘Lebór Gabála’ is full of groups of eight, largely thanks to the Biblical tale of Noah in which 8 humans took refuge on the Ark from the Great flood (‘Leabhar Gabhála; Part 2’ Snowcroft). 7 is also an important number in the Bible, and in medieval Christianity, we have 7 days of creation, 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, 7 Sacraments, etc, etc.

In some versions  of Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’, the Tuatha Dé are said to have followed Bethach mac Iarbonél and ‘seven subsidiary leaders’. These are termed the seven sons of Ethliu/Ethlenn, normally the name of Lúgh’s maternal Fomór mother and this turns the genealogy into nonsense because the seven are revealed as not just Lúgh, but also the Dagda, Dian Cécht, Credne, Luchtaine, Núada, and Goibnenn/Goibniu. It is possible that the female name Ethlenn/Eithliu has become confused with Elatha, the father of the Dagda (‘Caith Maige Tuired’ EA Gray). The ‘seven sons of Elatha’ would still be unusual in terms of the normal family tree, but not outlandish (‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey).

This group of eight is reminiscent of one that occurs in ‘Lebór Bretnach’ or the British Book, a late 11th Century Irish translation of the Latin ‘Historia Brittonum’, which contains a crucial version of the invasions-schema. Dating to the early 9th Century, it attests to a time when the Tuatha Dé had not yet been integrated into its structure. When medieval scholars, perhaps Irish, but possibly Scottish, translated the Historia into Irish, they updated its version of the pseudohistory and inserted the Tuatha De into their conventional place (‘Scotland, the Nennian Recension of the Historia Brittonum and the Lebor Bretnach’ TO Clancy). Some versions of the ‘Lebór Bretnach’ attribute the translation to Gilla Cóemáin, one of the four master poets of the ‘Lebór Gabála’, but the version of the Tuatha Dé in the ‘Bretnach’ differs to the ‘Gabála’. It is either Cóemáin was not the translator, or his views changed.

The major oddity is that the ‘Bretnach’ focuses in a pared-down pantheon consisting only of seven prímelathnaig or chief-skilled ones among the Tuatha Dé. It should be noted that the word elathnaig is the plural for elathnach, which is derived from elatha or art, and we have seen this used as Elatha the father of the Dagda. Interestingly, the list differs slightly from that in Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’, comprising  Ogma, Etan, the Dagda, Dían Cécht, Credne, Luchtaine, Lúgh, and Goibnenn. Etan, the only female, has been added but Núada is not present. The passage is in a mixture of Latin and Irish, and is quoted because it is very rare to see Latin attributes added to the Gods:

“After that the plebes deorum [god-people], ie the Tuatha Dé Danann, conquered Ireland. Among them there were the chief skilled ones: Etan, Luchtaine Artifex [the artificer], Credne Figulus [the craftsman], Dían Medicus [the physician],-Etan moreover was filia eius [his daughter],ie the foster mother of the poets; Goibnenn Faber [the smith], Lúgh son of Eithne, who possessed all the arts, the great Dagda, son of Elatha, son of Delbaeth, the king, Ogma, the kings brother for it was he who invented the alphabet of the Irish.”

(‘Lebor Bretnach: The Irish version of the Historia Brittonum ascribed to Nennius’ AG van Hamel)

Putting this together, we can tentatively theorise that the filid were prone to identify the after-images of certain Gods as the patrons and personifications of the particular professional skills proper to the áes dána. Possibly, but by no means necessarily, they were building on genuinely ancient elements in particular cases. However, as their order increasingly risked complete assimilation into the ranks of the ecclesiastical literati, foregrounding the native Gods may have been a strategy to bolster their archaic mystique and distinct identity. By the mid 11th Century, and maybe much earlier, there are signs that this concept had developed into the idea of an exclusive club of seven or eight allegorical Gods who were specifically the prototypes and originators of the major áes dána professions (‘The Annals of Inisfallen’ MS Rawlinson). In Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’ the list of the seven Divinities is immediately followed by this statement:

“….they studied knowledge and the art of the filid, for every secret of skilful art, and every technique in medicine, and every trade secret in poetry- all indeed derive their origin from the Tuatha Dé Danann.”

(‘Lebor Gabála Eireann’ RA Macalister)

Effectively, these figures became cultural heroes for the filid on some level, the primordial investigators of human resource. This reflects the general obsession of Irish men of learning with accuracy regarding origin stories. The accounts we have betray the fact that we are looking at the lore of poets, and not the áes dána professions like physicians, specifically because poetic Divinities are to the fore. The ‘Lebor Bretnach’ octad, either written by or perhaps dedicated to Gilla Cóemáin, is bookended by two such Deities, Etan the female poet and Ogma the inventor of the ‘letters of the Irish’.

There may be a chance to have a glimpse at the outline of the filid’s cognitive ideology. It is striking that the 8 ‘Lebor Bretnach’ Divinities can be divided into 3 categories; those associated with the shaping of speech ie Etan, Ogma, and the Dagda; those associated with crafts ie Credne, Luchtaine and Goibnenn; and the one associated with medicine ie Dían Cécht (‘Early Irish Metrics’ G Murphy). One God, being the master of all arts, Lúgh rounds off the list as minister of portfolio (‘Mercantile Myth in Medieval Celtic Traditions’ JF Nagy). This precisely mirrors the division embodied by the 3 Brighid’s, daughters of the Dagda, in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’  being Brighid the female Poet, Brighid the female Smith, and Brighid the Physician. There is a specific resonance between Etan and Brighid as we see that in ‘Lebor Bretnach’, Etan is muime na filed or foster mother of the filid, and in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’, Brighid is “the Goddess whom the filid used to worship”. The glossary’s triple Brighid persona and ‘Lebor Bretnach’s  octet of Divinities both embody a division of the arts into 3 basic branches (‘Pagan Past and Christian presence in Early Irish Literature’ K McCone). Brighid and Etan, both Divine women, share a particular patronage for the filid, emerge as a central force within the enterprise.

This suggests that the same ideological elements recurred in different combinations, due to maybe regional variations among the filid. This may be reflected  in the quote mentioned above on Brighid from ‘Cormacs Glossary’, as it is important to remember that the Irish glossaries were mostly creations of the Munster province, and perhaps may reflect southern interpretations of the mythologies and mythological beings. Nowhere else is Brighid so richly described, and in the absence of independent evidence from other texts we cannot assume that the account of Her importance given there would have been universally recognised. The entry itself seems to implythe contrary, saying that almost all the Irish people recognised Brighid as a Goddess. This maybe a southern overstatement, but it might be that Brighid, who embodies the threefold division of the arts, but is the Patroness of the filid and sometimes the mother to “the 3 Gods of Art”, was to the poest of Munster what Etan (poetess, mother of Coibre the poet, and foster mother of the filid), daughter of Dían Cécht, was further north. Once again it is important to remember that in terms of medieval Irish writings, which we currently have is likely to be a fraction of what probably once existed, the possibility that our current understanding of the Gods is seriously askew by mere accidents of survival that must be always reckoned with (‘ Cath Maige Tuired’ EA Gray).

Among all these poetic allegories, one figure is absent, and He is another child of the Dagda, Óengus, the Mac Óc. While one would might expect him to be among the 7 (or 8) “primary skilled Ones”, or associated with Brighid, Brés, and Elathaas one of the filid’s pantheon of skill, he does not appear except for ‘The Annals of Innisfallen’. He is a noted personality in Irish literature especially in “The Wooing of Étaín” and is the central character of “Aislinge Óenguso” or the Dream of Óengus, composed possibly in the 8th Century (‘Knowledge and Power in Aislinge Óenguso’ T Ó Cathasaigh).

There are important dimensions to ‘Aisling Óenguso’ that have not yet been fully understood, and this is a seperate examination for another time. For this rather long essay on pseudohistory and the poet creators, we are looking at how Óengus undergoes  an emotional transformation on one hand, but he is a crafty, verbally sly figure on the other. He is adept at getting both himself and others into as well as out of difficult situations. Homer’s adjective for his hero Odyssus, polutropos (of many twists and turns), would fit Óengus well. Two of the God’s schemes depend on play with literal and metaphorical meanings, which bring Him into the realm of the filid’s language and figuration. He wily gains the Bruig by insisting that ‘ day and a night’ means ‘all time’, because ‘it is in days and nights that the world is spent’ (‘Celtic Heroic Age’ J Carey). He also advises his father, the Dagda, on how to kill the parasitic Cridenbél, who has been demanding on a daily basis that the Dagda hand over to him ‘the three best bits’ of his dinner. Cridenbél expects bits of meat, but on Óengus’ advice the Dagda hides three gold coins in the food, his ‘best bits’ in a limited sense, which clog up Cridenbél’s stomach and eventually kill him (‘Cath Maige Tuired’ EA Gray).

Poetry involves play between surface and depth, or the literal and metaphorical, and Óengus appears at least in one story, maybe others I could have missed, as an allegorical personage connected with poetic art. This is blatant in a Middle Irish anecdote, ‘Bó Bithblicht meic Lonán’ or ‘The Son of Lonán’s Unyeilding Milking Cow’ (insert pun here) (‘A Story of Flann mac Lonáin’ O Bergin). In it Flann mac Lonáin, a distinguished historical poet, who was killed in 896, meets a crudish peasant to whom he ends up owing a cow (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston). The peasant will only be satisfied with a cow that gives endless milk, and after a year he turns up at Flann’s house with four cronies, all of them armed with woodcutting tools, to demand it. They are unpleasant guests, beating the households women, servants, and dogs. Flann asks the peasant his name, which he gives as Fidbadach son of Fid Rúscach (woodsman son of bark covered wood). In a panic, as he had no cow of such to give, Flann composed a poem reflecting his predicament. Before I continue, I must point out that churl originally means a rude peasant. And thus comes the inevitable final narrative:

“It was then the churl said: ‘That’s the cow always rich in milk that I sought- for poetry is always rich in milk, and I who have come to you am Óengus, son of Bóand, the Mac ÓC, and no churl am I’.”

(‘Bó Bithblicht’ edited and translated Clifford)

That Óengus is supposed to have some deep connection with poetry is clear in the text’s constant punning on the word fid or wood/tree, which can also mean a word (and I stress only one word) of the ogham alphabet, and also represents filidecht itself. The peasant’s or churl’s name, woodsman of bark covered wood, can equally be seen as ‘a man of the ogham letter, son of a poetic letter’ (see ‘Bó Bithblicht’ edited by Clifford again). Flann frets about his guest ‘destroying the trees’, for Óengus carries a small billhook, used for cutting small branches, but he does quite the opposite and is metaphorically a custodian of that letter. The lesson that Óengus imparts is about metaphor, ‘poetry is a cow that is never dry’, which embodies the God’s own speciality, namely the ability to use the gap between the literal and the figurative.

Óengus is never involved in creating verse in the sagas that survive, but there are points of similarity between his experiences in “The Dream of Óengus” and descriptions of poetic composition from the Gaelic world. In the story of Flann’s encounter with the God incognito, the poet is vexed by the time his unpleasant guest spends lounging abed, “…awful his lying in his bed…fierce his length of time in bed” (see ‘Bó Bithblicht’ again).  Likewise, in “The Dream of Óengus”, the God languishes in bed yearning for the love of a woman he has dreamed about. The is very late evidence from 18th Century Scottish sources that Gaelic poets composed in darkness out of habit, lying in their beds for extended periods (‘Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview’ JF Nagy). Evidence that this was customary of the filid in early Ireland is scarce, although JF Nagy points out that ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ describes a ritual which involves the filid (Cormac) awaiting inspiration by covering his face with his hands and laying down to sleep.

It is a possibility that the filid might have interpreted the depiction of the God’s suffering in “The Dream of Óengus” as a metaphor for the process of composing poetry itself. There are strong points of similarity. First, the saga gives us a fugitive vision which cannot be forced to return by an act of will, followed by an intermediary period of inarticulate, bedbound socht or stupor, plus consultation with authorities of greater knowledge. At the last comes exaltation, which is the God’s recovery of the woman from his vision and full possession of that which initially had been fleeting (‘Knowledge and Power’ Ó Cathasaigh). If the saga was not originally intended to be an allegory of poetic composition, it may have been irresistible to the poets of later centuries to be read as one. This would have helped to foster an image of Óengus as an archetype of the poetic profession.

Elusive but intriguing hints that Óengus was used by the filid to symbolise the the subjective experience of verse composition are found in other places. The best evidence comes from a famous anecdote in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’. It tells of a male ‘spirit of poetry’ appearing to the ardfili Senchán Torpéist, chief ollam of Ireland (‘Sanas Cormaic’ edited by Meyer). A mysterious youth, shouting at them from a beach, insists on accompanying Senchán and his troupe of filid and apprentice poets on their trip to the Isle of man. His appearance is not pleasant;

“He had a hideous shape, first of all, when he used to put his finger to his forehead a gush of foul pus would come from his ears down to his neck. There was suppuration [?] from the crown of his head to the gristle of his two shoulders. Everyone who saw him thought it was the upper layer of his brain that had broken through his skull. Each of his two eyeswere as round as a blackbirds egg, as black as death, as quick as a fox.” (‘The Prull Narrative’ M Ní Dhonnchadha)

As the whole company approach the island, they “see a great, old, grey haired woman upon the rock”, combing the beach for seaweed. Unknown to Senchán’s group, she is a long-lost Irish poet. Senchán is unable to best the riddling half-quatrain that the woman calls out to him, and instead the youth answers, telling the old woman that it is him, rather than Senchán, she should address. Thanks to the youths intervention, Senchán realises who the woman is and orders for her to be bathed and dressed in finery befitting her high status. But it is the end of the narrative that is most significant, as while all this happens the mishappen youth undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming “a youth with yellow golden hair, wavy as the scrollings on harps. He was clad in royal apparel, and had the finest appearance ever seen on any man” (‘Tromdám Guaire’ Late Middle Irish tale anon.). He then circles Senchán and his group clockwise and vanishes. “…..he has never appeared since that time. Thus there is no doubt that he was the spirit of poetry [poematis spiritus].”

There are obvious similarities between this anecdote and and the story of Flann’s encounter with Óengus. Both describe the manifestation of a loathsome man into a distinguished fili, in a way that makes life difficult for them. In both, the man is revealed as being supernatural and connected with poetry itself, though in either case it is not obvious to begin with. There is an achievement attained in both accounts where Flann composes one of his best poems and in the other, a lost poet is recognised and has her status recovered.

On the other hand, each story has one element that the other has not. Only the glossary anecdote indicates to us the central figures transformation from hideous to divine. Likewise, the story of Flann makes it explicit that the churl is Óengus, whereas in the Glossary anecdote the identification is only implicit. Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha also notes that half of the stories various versions actually identify the spirit of poetry as Christ. That said, in 1927, the English poet, scholar, Celtist, Anglo-Saxonist, and Irish language translator Robin Ernest William Flowers 1881 to 1946 (affectionately nicknamed Bláthín), made the connection between the two anecdotes and noted the similarity between the story of the Spirit and Modern Irish tales in which Óengus lends his aid in an initially disruptive or mischievous form ( ‘Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum’ R Flower). The Sirits great beauty, for which Óengus is famous for, also fits. In short, scholars have noted that in both these anecdotrs we are dealing with the mythopoetic aspects of poetry (‘ The Blind, the Dumb, and the Ugly; Aspects of Poets and their Craft in early Ireland’ PK Ford). It is physically trying until one reaches enlightenment; then it becomes divine. They are not just stories about poetry but how it feels to train to become a poet.

Taken together, these anecdotes may help to make sense of one of the most puzzling of all medieval Irish references to a native God. Under the year 1084, the normally laconic Annals of Tigernach contain an unusual entry, which reads with an almost similarity to the writing style of WB Yeats in ‘The Celtic Twilight’ (‘Archaeology and Celtic Myth :An Exploration’ J Waddell). In a serve from the usual annalistic focus on battles and deaths, we learn of:

“A great pestilence in this year, which killed a quarter of the men of Ireland. It began in the south, and spread throughout the four quarters of Ireland. This is the causa causans of that pestilence, namely demons that came out of the northern isles of the world, namely three battalions, and in each battalion there were three thousand and thirty, as Óengus mac ÓC, the son of the Dagda, related to Mac Gilla Lugáin, who used to frequent the síd-mound every year at Samain. And he himself beheld at Maistiu one battalion of them that were destroying Leinster. In the same way they were seen by Mac Gilla Lugáin’s son, and wherever their heat and fury reached, their venom was taken, for there was a sword of fire out of the gullet of each of them, and every one of themwas as high as the clouds of heaven, so that is the cause of this pestilence.” (‘The Annals of Tigernach’ translated W Stokes)

That a God should convey supernatural insight to a mortal was a staple of the earliest Irish narrative prose. But on the face of it Mac Gilla Lugáin’s interview with the Mac Óc seems to be accepted by the annalist as not only genuine occurrence, but as contemporary. It is also accepted that the Mac Óc’s intelligence is accurateas he does identify the cause of the plague, The implications of this passage are, at first glance, startling, and commentators have on the whole not known quite how to take it, given that it seems to confirm the persistence of Pagan practices in 11th Century Ireland. Edel Bhreathnach says this passage helps us to “begin to experience a ritual culture, replicated in so many other societies, that existed outside, and was feared by those who sought to control social and religious mores in early Irish society” (‘Ireland and the Medieval World’). The archaeologist John Waddell is impressed that Mac Gilla Lugáin “should still apparently be a regular and persistent visitor to the otherworld mound of Óengus at the great feast of Samhain, when he evidently communed with the son of the Dagda” (‘Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration’).

Should we take these enigmatic passages literally? It is unusual that a Clonmacnoise cleric should have unhesitatingly accepted that there were those among his cotemporaries who had spoken with Pagan Deities should be considered to be in some sense on our side. An alternative way to view this might be as follows. The evidence examined above tells us that it was entirely possible in the Middle Irish period ( circa 800-1200) to compose an anecdotein which a famous poet encountered, and was enlightened by, the God Óengus, probably reflecting a habit of using the Deity to allegorise the difficulties and rewards of the filid’s profession. Might Mac Gilla Lugáin , of whom nothing is known, have been a member of the fili? There is nothing in the annal entry to suggest this. On the other hand, the story depicts him as the possessor of supernatural vision (etymologically fili means seer), inherited by his son; the practise of filidecht ran in families. Furthermore, all of this takes place when among the professional poets were deliberately playing up their connections with the pre-Christian past. There is no reason to think that the names of every significant medieval Irish poet are known to us, and every reason to think that they are not. Therefore, it is tempting to suggest that Mac Gilla Lugáin was no half-pagan throwback, but an assertively secular fili who composed an account of contemporary travails within a demonstrably pre-existant subgenre which we can call “The Poets encounter with Óengus”. If there was once a text called “The Colloquy of Mac Gilla Lugáin and the Mac ÓC”, we will never know. Perhaps Mac Gilla Lugáin’s ostentatious innovation was composing an autobiography, whereas Senchán Torpéist and Flann mac Lonán, the stories of their supernatural encounters were the creations of later generations for whom they were revered figures. In short, this profoundly odd annal-entry may have more precise cultural context than has been recognised, and its affinities should be recognised as being fundamentally literary, not literal.

It is time to pull some strands of this argument together before continuing. As the story of Mac Gilla Lugáin suggests, it is important again to emphasise that using Divinites in this way as symbols, rhetorical personifications, and allegories was not Paganism. It might, in fact, have been a long way from Irish Paganism as it actually had once been. Instead it was a kind of meta-mythology for intellectuals, a local analogy to the myriad ways that the classical Deities were put to use by poets and thinkers throughout the Middle Ages, and beyond. Unquestionably devout Christian poets regulary used Greek and Roman Deities as figures of speech, allegores, or useful fictions, while scholars massaged Christian monotheism to finda place for the ancient Gods as beings of genuine power. Invoking Apollo or the Muses is a classic example of the former process; in the latter case, one thinks of the power medieval thinkers ascribed to the planetary Deities and to the Goddess natura, nature personified (‘God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages’ B Newman). Irish poets, I suggest, were more than capable of similarly sophisticated strategies with their own native Gods, although this measure of actual existence they accorded to Brighid, for example, is probably irrecoverable, and indeed may have varied between individuals.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.

What is a Vate?

Vates is a Latin word denoting seers, prophets, soothsayers, diviners and fortune tellers. According to the Ancient Greek writers Strabo, Diodorus Siculus and Poseidonius, the Vates (οὐάτεις) were one of three classes of Celtic priesthood, the other two being the Druids and the Bards. As previously discussed, the Vates performed sacrifices under the authority of a Druid.

The word Vate means “to inspire” or “spiritually arouse”. In pagan Rome the Vates resided on the Vatican Hill, the Hill of the Vates. The Vatican Hill takes its name from the Latin word Vaticanus, in reference to the Vates, who delivered their messages on the Vatican Hill.

The Germanic god Wōđinaz (Woden in old English and Odin to the Norse) may be an early loanword based on the Celtic Vates.

Celtic Witches

If you look up witches, the word only seems to go back to the Anglo Saxon words Wicca and Wicce and dates from the eleventh century. However, if you look at the Vates they were indeed ancient versions of witches. Modern Bible translations use the term “witch of Endor” who could communicate with the dead prophet Samuel. Egyptians certainly used magic and even the Bible states that they were able to copy some of the feats of Aaron’s mystical rod.

Witches are from the dawn of time. As long as there has been magick, there have been witches. They are attuned to the spirit world and accounts show that Vates went into a trance like state and could not remember their utterances after speaking them. This is similar to the Shamans.

Shamanism was first recognized by Western observers working among traditional herding societies in central and northern Asia, and it is from the language of one of these societies, the Tungus speaking peoples of Siberia, that the term “shaman” is derived.

The earliest known depiction of a Siberian shaman, by the Dutch Nicolaes Witsen, 17th century. Nicolaes Witsen based this drawing from experience of a stay among the Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking indigenous peoples of Siberia.

However, because higher spirit beings can communicate with those who are gifted, shamans live wherever there are people. Some animals, such as wolves, dogs and cats also have a natural connection with spirit.

Sometimes staring at something we cannot see, these animals are observing spirit. All living beings are a container for spirit and when we die that spirit is released and for a time can be contacted through a natural or trained medium.

To be a Vate, you need to be gifted. Training will only bring out that divine gift which is present. Most of us, though, are gifted in some way, but a Vate is an expert with the gift. The gift is for sharing and that is why it has been bestowed. It presents evidence of the spiritual realm and their involvement in our lives.

It also explains why civilisations separated by thousands of miles, such as Native Americans, have similarities.

One of the gifts that can be shared and used, is the knowledge of herbs and healing. Once a secret of the Vates, this knowledge is now widely available.

Who Were The Druids?

“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree… A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.” Pliny the Elder, 1st century
Roman historian.

“The Druids are in charge of all religious matters, superintending public and private sacrifices, and explaining superstitions. A large crowd of young men, who flock to them for schooling, hold the Druids in great respect. For they have opinions to give on almost all disputes involving tribes or individuals, and if any crime is committed, any murder done, or if there is contention about a will or the boundaries of some property, they are the people who investigate the matter and establish rewards and punishments. There is one arch-druid of supreme power. On his death, he is succeeded either by someone outstanding among his fellows, or, if there are several of equal calibre, the decision is reached by a vote of all the Druids. At a fixed time of year they assemble at a holy place…Anyone with a grievance attends and obeys the decisions and judgments which the Druids give. The general view is that this religion originated in Britain and was imported into Gaul, which means that any keen student of Druidism now goes to Britain for information.” Julius Caesar, 54 BC

So, who were the ancient Druids and what do we know about them?

Firstly, Druids are magicians. Greek philosopher Diogenes Laërtius compares the Druids to the Persian Magi, which is an equivalent Greek word to the Latin word Caesar used to describe Druids as magicians. The Magi are Astronomers/ Astrologers belonging to the Zoroastrian religion.

Whilst it is part of the role of Vate was to perform rituals, it is the Druid role to conduct and oversee rituals. They explained the purpose of rituals, so those taking part understood the importance. There were both public and private rituals. These were special occasions and following sacrifice; they held a banqueting. We learn that
they closely followed the lunar cycles (cutting mistletoe on the sixth day of the moon) and were expert timekeepers. The discovery of the lunisolar calendar in Coligny, France tells us a lot about the Druid calendar and times of rituals.

They looked at the moon as a healer and even had a branch of Astrologer concentrating purely on the moon. The mistletoe was collected from a hard-timbered oak, and the word Druid means “oak knower”. Since oak trees are connected with longevity and wisdom, this gives the impression of a Druid being a wise, old sage. This is borne out in Julius Caesar’s account of schooling young men. Although it appears from Caesar’s quotes that Druids was largely a male role, in Ireland at least, there were female Druids called bandruí (“woman-druid”), found in tales such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Caesar only had limited exposure to Britain, so only had limited information about the role of male and female Druids.

The Druids were in charge of religious matters, they were the High Priests of the Celts. People brought matters to their attention and they gave judgments after fully investigating a matter. In fact, in Ireland, the law of the Druids was written into what
is known as Brehon law. There was a democracy among Druids and an arch Druid was voted in from their number.

They were philosophers and wanted the best for their tribes and people. They were envoys of peace. The role of Druid is a very important role, but comes with great responsibility. Like the politicians of today, people looked at the words of the Druids and the role of Druid is that of a diplomat.

The practice of the Druids was first noted in two Greek works over two thousand years ago in around 200 BCE, although both works were since lost. In 50 BCE Julius Caesar wrote that Druids originated in Britain. Some claim that Druids could be found across much of Europe, from Ireland in the west to Turkey in the east, however, modern scholars have concluded this is unlikely.

Druids were probably native just to the British Isles, Ireland and western Gaul (now France). Although written accounts seem to have begun 2,200 years ago, Druidry was probably in existence for a good deal of time before then, and Druids may have evolved from earlier pre-Celtic cult practices.

On the Gower Peninsula, near Swansea, the Paviland caves have revealed one of the earliest magick religious sites in the world, where around 26,000 years ago a group of humans carefully interred a skeleton, wrapping the body in red cloth or rubbing it with red ochre and laying with it mammoth-ivory rods, which may be the earliest magic wands ever found.

Red Lady of Paviland

17,000 years ago the Lascaux caves in France were decorated with paintings of animals which survive to this day. The caves were almost certainly used in ritualistic ways and many believed that they were representations of the constellations of the night sky, including an ancient Druid zodiac.

Thousands of years later a classical writer claimed that Druids met in caves, and today the symbolism of caves and of animals is still used by many modern Druids.

During this period of history, prior to the evolution of Druids, tribes were migrating across Western Europe. Some may have come from the areas now known as the black sea area of Russia, Turkey, or even from the Vinča civilisation. These brought their own religious customs and knowledge, which was animistic and shamanistic.

Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria, England

Around 6,500 years ago people were starting to build stone monuments in western Europe – particularly in Ireland, the British Isles, and in Brittany. The Druids have always been associated with stone circles such as Stonehenge. Academics, however, until recently dismissed this idea. Historians used to say that the Druids couldn’t have used Stonehenge and all the other stone circles in Britain, because the Druids were the priests of the Celts, and the Celts only arrived in Britain around 500 BCE.

In the sixties many historians changed their minds. They realised that the origin of Celtic tribes was far more complex than originally presumed, and suggested instead that early Celts were probably in Britain as early as 2000 BCE, when the great stone monuments were still being built and that they became involved in their use or construction, integrating it into their practises.

We can, therefore, connect the Druids as the priests and priestesses of the stone circles, which is strengthened by the importance of ritual astronomy in the construction of these monuments, aligning stones with the Sun and moon at solstices and equinoxes.

We also know that Druids also held rituals in sacred groves that were clearings surrounded by sacred trees, including the Oak.