Mythology

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Belfast has a bright new star in writer Laurence Donaghy, whose Folk’d trilogy (Folk’d, Folk’d Up, and Completely Folk’d) is creative, gloriously weird, and irreverently funny.

Folk'd by Laurence Donaghy

Book 1: Folk’d

Laurence Donaghy’s Folk’d trilogy riffs off the old myths of the Tuatha dé Danann and transports us to modern Belfast, where Danny Morrigan has got his girlfriend Ellie pregnant, and together they are struggling to keep mind and body together as they deal with being new parents before they even took one step on the career track.

If you have any notion of the legends of the Tuatha dé, you know the Morrigan is the goddess of war, and you assume Danny’s name will turn out to be more than mere coincidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Today (May 1) is Bealtaine; happy first day of summer to you all! But, what exactly is Beltaine?

The Wishing Tree at the Hill of Tara

The May Bush/Wishing Tree(s) on the Hill of Tara.

A short perusal of online resources about Bealtaine quickly conflates every “fire festival” tradition together in an unfortunate mish-mash. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do like to know the difference between one festival and another and the later Christian traditions that have come to replace them. So, here’s a summary of what Bealtaine is really be about in an Irish context.  Read the rest of this entry »

Celtic scholar Juliene Osborne-McKnight’s novel Song of Ireland is a very enjoyable dramatization of the arrival of the Celts in Ireland and their clash with the Tuatha de Danaan.

Book Review: Song of Ireland by Juilene Osborne- McKnight

Song of Ireland by Juilene Osborne-McKnight (paperback, Tor)

To start off, Osborne-McKnight does a wonderful job of drawing the ancient Celts as a people with a nomadic spirit, moving around Europe and as far as Egypt as mercenaries, attracting respect and riches wherever they went. The life of Amergin, son of warrior king Mil, is vivid and she gives a real sense of their beliefs, social, and religious structure. As a founding myth, the idea of the Irish being fundamentally nomadic in our core puts a more positive spin on decades of emigration, and is a valid reading of our history.  Read the rest of this entry »

The stories of the goddess Brigid and the later St. Bridget are so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable. The ancient feis of Imbolc was co-opted as St. Bridget’s Day, one of the most-popular saints days in Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

Saint Bridget  (Photo: St.Joseph Catholic Church, Macon Georgia)

Saint Bridget
(Photo: St.Joseph Catholic Church, Macon Georgia)

Bridget’s Early Life

Born c.451 near Faughart in Co. Louth, Bridget was the daughter of Dubtacht, a druid, and Brocca, who was either his wife or a slave, and possibly a Christian.  Bridget eventually became a Christian (probably after absorbing druidic teaching from her father) and founded a number of monasteries, including the famous one at Kildare. It’s possible she entered religious life after losing the sight in one eye (although some stories hold that she put her own eye out rather than enter into an unwelcome marriage, and once the marriage had been called off — Celtic tradition would not allow one to marry somebody disfigured — she put it back in and was miraculously healed).  Read the rest of this entry »

Imbolc (celebrated January 31-February 1) is an important feast day in the Celtic tradition.

Here comes lambing season!  (Photo: Nicola Stathers via cc license on Flickr)

Here comes lambing season!
(Photo: Nicola Stathers via cc license on Flickr)

The mid-point of winter having been passed at the winter solstice (Dec 21), the days are now slowly growing brighter. Imbolc is often called the “rekindling of the solar hearth” and celebrates the returning sun, the promise of spring, and the steadily improving weather. It’s a very important time for farmers, who depend upon the whims of the weather. Tradition holds that the weather on Imbolc is a predictor of the year to come: too cold/wet/stormy and a bad year is predicted (although in typically pessimistic Irish fashion, if the day is too nice that’s thought to presage even worse conditions!). Weather that’s just a little better than expected is thought best, promising a mild conclusion to winter and a fertile year.  Read the rest of this entry »

Long before Patrick came to Slane, the hill was a very important site to the pre-Christian Irish.

Newgrange and Knowth as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

Knowth and Newgrange as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

The first high king of Ireland is said to have been a fir bolg named Sláine. The Fir Bolg were one of the warrior races who inhabited Ireland before the Celtic tribes conquered the country. Sláine is said to have cleared the land at Bru na Boinne for the construction of the great tumuli of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. When he died, he was buried in a great mound on the top of a hill overlooking the Boyne valley, which was named Slane in his honor. As a consequence of his abilities and good deeds, a well on the hill was said to have the power to restore the dead and heal the wounded. 

The Fir Bolg were later dispossessed by the Tuatha Da Dannan, the god-like ancestors of the Irish Celts, but in these days many quasi-supernatural races are said to have fought over Ireland, and the Tuatha de Dannan then had to contend with the Formorians for possession of the island. During the second battle of Maige Tuired, the Formorians filled in the magic well on the Hill of Slane with stones in order to stop Dian Cecht, the Tuatha’s god of physicians, bringing their warriors back to life. Inside the churchyard you can still see what local tradition says is a holy well stuffed with stones. The same well? Well, that depends on how much credit you want to give to ancient legends.

The burial mound of Sláine is believed to be the “motte” you can see in a wooded area behind the church. The mound is fenced off from the rest of the site as it’s on private land, but new archaeological work has begun in the last few years, expanding what we know about the site. The mound is called the “motte” because in 1170, after the Normans came and quickly conquered the country, the local Norman lord built a bailey (a wooden “castle”) on top of the mound/motte. The countryside was littered with motte and baileys at this time, each probably housing a knight and his family and retainers, who administered the immediate vicinity on behalf of his lord. This motte overlooked another on top of the Knowth mound, and on a fine day would have been visible from a number of other mottes from as far east as Drogheda, and at least as far west as Navan. Both can be seen if you visit those towns, the one at Millmount in Drogheda (which I wrote about recently) now has a fine Martello Tower on top, although the one in Navan is overgrown.

Modern archaeological techniques have revealed the motte stands within a rath or ditch and bank, which was constructed on top of a much earlier ring barrow, a burial tomb possibly dating from the early iron age. An Earth Resistance Survey of the mound itself has revealed a stone layer on top which could have been a foundation for a fortified dwelling, and areas of low resistance inside the mound that point to it being a man-made structure, and raise the possibility of the remains a chamber or passage inside.

Even though visitors can’t explore the motte freely at the moment, the peaceful grassy surroundings of the hilltop churchyard and Friary make for an enjoyable stroll (if you have the weather) and there are plenty of carved stones, picturesque windows and broken but-climbable flights of stairs.

 

Notes
This is my second post about the Hill of Slane. Read the first part, “Exploring the Hill of Slane…
If you are interested in the Hill of Slane, you should also visit The Hill of Tara

 

Hill tops are perhaps the geographical feature that were re-used the most by succeeding waves of invaders over the centuries, and as such some sites can provide a comprehensive lesson in Irish history. One location that can serve as this microcosm of Ireland’s history is the Millmount mound in Drogheda, Co. Louth.

Millmount Fort (photo credit: infomatique via cc license from flickr)

Millmount Fort
(photo credit: infomatique via cc license from flickr)

The dominant feature of the town of Drogheda is the Millmount Fort. Built on a hill high above a bank of the river Boyne, the mound has been crowned by a succession of military, civic and religious buildings over the centuries.

Early History

The mound on which the present-day tower is built is shrouded in mystery, and thought to be of great historical significance. Tradition holds that it is the burial site of Amergin, the first great Celtic poet. No physical evidence of this connection has been uncovered, but given the rich variety of ancient tombs built on similar hilltops throughout the surrounding region, it appears likely that there was once a passage grave or burial mound atop the hill.

The Normans, as was their custom, built a motte, a crude guardhouse surrounded by a wooden paling, on top of this mound, whatever it was, in the 12th century. It’s been shown elsewhere (such as the nearby Hill of Slane) that old passage graves were readily reused for this purpose (and unsurprisingly so, as the graves — typically sited on high points — would already have been 2000 years old or more by the time the Normans arrived, and would have looked like nothing other than a convenient hill.

Over the years this motte was replaced by a small castle, presumably adapted and greatly expanded over the years, until it was breached by Cromwell’s forces during the bloody siege of 1649.

Cromwell

Probably the most hated name in Drogheda, if not all of Ireland is that of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England. During the English Civil Wars, Cromwell led a strong force to Ireland to defeat the joint Irish Catholic and Royalist Protestant forces. One of this first priorities was to secure the East coast ports to allow his troops to receive supplies from England. After arriving in Dublin, he turned his attention to Drogheda, which was a bustling port city.

One of the cannon outside the tower at the Millmount Fort.

One of the cannons outside the tower at the Millmount Fort.
(photo credit: infomatique via cc license from flickr)

Over nine days in September 1649, Cromwell’s forces besieged the walled town, and on the ninth day, having breached the walls in two places, Cromwell’s men entered the town and put to death all but a handful of the 2500 soldiers in the garrison, and between 800 (by Cromwell’s reckoning) and 4000 (by the accounts of later Catholic writers) civilians. The exact size of the slaughter is debated by historians, but there’s less debate about the brutality and ruthlessness of the treatment of the defenders in relation to contemporary standards of warfare at the time. Drogheda was the largest and most bloody slaughter of defeated soldiers and innocent civilians during the whole of the English Civil Wars, and only has one equivalent massacre in the whole of Europe during the 17th century. This is why Cromwell’s name remains reviled in Ireland to this day — when I was a child, I’d occasionally hear an older person mutter “The curse of Cromwell on him…” but it’s not an oath that many people use. During a meeting with the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, in 1997, the then Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, walked out of the room and refused to return until a portrait of “that murdering bastard” Cromwell was removed. But for the removal of that painting, we may never have got the the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was instrumental in bringing peace of Northern Ireland.

Take the guided tour at the Millmount museum and they’ll point out the places where the walls (mostly long gone) were breached, and the remaining landmarks that survive from the siege. The Martello tower that currently stands on the mound was part of a series of such towers built around Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) when it was feared that the French would invade Ireland as a stepping stone to England. Before the War of Independence, the British Army used the site as a makeshift prison.

The original Martello tower was occupied by Republican (Anti-Treaty) forces during the Irish Civil War in 1922. The Free-State Army shelled the tower on July 4, and destroyed it. The ruins lay basically undisturbed — an uncomfortable reminder of the vicious civil war — until 2000, when the city of Drogheda (bolstered by both Celtic Tiger money and post-Good Friday Agreement good will) restored it as part of the Millennium celebrations.

Today, the restored Martello tower forms part of the Drogheda Museum, and contains an exhibition about the many military engagements the town has seen over the centuries.

 

This week marks the feast of Lugh, the sun god of ancient Irish tradition.

Known as Lughnasadh or Lúnasa (in this case, it’s ironically the Irish spelling that appears closest to what most English-speakers would regard as the phonetic pronunciation — luu-na-sa). It is a harvest celebration, a ritual to give thanks for the bounty of the land, and to ask the gods’ blessings that the weather will hold long enough to gather it all in. (The traditional date is the night of July 31-August 1, but modern convenience has moved the date to whichever Sunday is nearest.)

leitrim view 2

Looking north from Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery. Ben Bulben is the long flat mountain in the upper left.

Origins of Lúnasa
Lúnasa is a curious festival, and there are different traditions regarding its origin in different parts of Ireland. All traditional festivals are based on older beliefs and practices, constantly over-written with new interpretations — All Saint’s Day is the Christian gloss on Samhain, now commercialized as Halloween; Easter was built on the foundation of Bealtaine, and, Candlemas one of the Christian attempts to overwrite Imbolc — but, much of what we know of Lúnasa appears to bear conscious witness to an earlier attempt to replace one set of beliefs with another. Some sources describe Lúnasa as the story of the sun god Lugh defeating the dark god Crom Dubh and making the world safe for humanity once again. (For a fascinating account of the surviving traditions honoring Crom Dubh, see Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s excellent piece on Crom Dubh Sunday on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry.)

Stone FaceIn agricultural terms, the weather has been good enough for months that the crops have ripened (i.e. they’ve had enough sun — something you can rarely get enough of in Ireland) and famine (the old or dark god, the eternal enemy of hunter-gatherers or agrarian people) is defeated for the time being. In this case, it seems that Crom Dubh was once a major god, if not the major god, of Ireland before one of the waves of invasion came and replaced the power structure and began to teach that their gods were superior. Other origin myths tell of Lugh’s sorrow for the death of his foster-mother Tailtu, who expired after clearing the forests of Ireland to make way for farmland (suggesting that the tribes who imported the belief in Lugh and his brethern the Tuatha dé Dannan (gods of craftsmanship) were the first farmers, who replaced earlier nomadic tribes whose gods would possibly have been rather more barbaric and elemental in nature.

Tailteann Games
Lugh instituted a two-week tribal assembly of games, trading, and peaceful gathering in memory of Tailtu — who was buried on the Hill of Tailtu in Co. Meath, near where I grew up; hence that is the origin-myth that I learned as a child. A special peace was sanctioned by the Druids/Brehons for these assemblies, and any feuds and conflicts were to be set aside for the festival. Great sporting events took place in each tribe’s center of power, as champions tested themselves against each other in feats of strength, speed and skill. In Co. Meath, the Tailteann Games — said to be the continuation of the actual festival instituted by Lugh — were held as a kind of Irish olympics for centuries until the disruption of the Norman invasion. In other places, such as the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry, there is a tradition of horse racing on the strand.

The tradition of horse racing on the beach appears to be the modern descendant of what was originally the traditional event of “horse-swimming,” where man and horses completed a course that involved swimming across a lake or body of water, and which was apparently very dangerous and took the lives of men and horses every year. (Lough Owel in Co. Westmeath appears to have been the scene of a particularly notorious event for many years.)

Óenach
The óenach (a traditional name for this kind of tribal gathering, and also possibly the name for the horse races themselves — “a contention of horses”) lasted for two weeks, culminating in the festival of the Lúnasa bonfires, and for these two weeks the peace held. New laws were set down and announced, bards presented new poems and performed new songs for the first time. There was also a custom of temporary or trial marriages being sanctioned at Lúnasa, but the Catholic church never adopted this practice for some reason. Echos of this custom can be seen in events like the Puck Fair in Kilorglin, Co. Kerry in early August, and in the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in Co. Clare at the end of the month.

The emphasis on horse racing coupled with the tradition of trial marriages and emphasis on fertility may reveal earlier spiritual roots of Lúnasa. One of the continental proto-Celtic goddess is thought to be Epona, the horse goddess, a mother or fertility goddess whose attributes includes cornucopias, ears of wheat, and foals. Perhaps the óenaige are echoes of earlier festivals dedicated to Epona, or the rites enacted during these tribal gatherings reflect the early importance of horses and the horse goddess?

Horse racing at Bellewstown, Co. Meath.

Horse racing at Bellewstown, Co. Meath.

Note: There may have been as many as 80 sites for Óenach around the country, which reflects the multiple tribes and difficulties of traveling long distances at the time. My focus on the Tailteann Games and a few other locations reflects the limits of my knowledge. There are probably many different myths and traditions around Lúnasa as there were óenaige.

Bonfires
The Lúnasa festival is traditionally marked by a bonfire (as are most ancient Irish festivals), a feast, the ceremonial cutting of the first corn, picking of wild berries, and dancing. However, for Lúnasa, these usually take place on the top of a mountain, as the climb is symbolic of the sun god Lugh’s ascent to battle the dark god, and presumably honored the sun god by getting as close to him as possible. The mountain ascent has been absorbed into Christian practice as the custom of pilgrimage up holy mountains like Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. Anyone who has seen Brian Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa” will be aware of the Catholic Church’s dismissive attitude towards pre-Christian practices and beliefs, and also of their enduring power across the centuries.

Lúnasa was the occasion for the central festival of Irish culture for centuries, and its like (in terms of spiritual and administrative community) has never been seen since. However, the modern Irish summer is chockfull of festivals from Imbolc to Samhain; music festivals, arts festivals, book festivals, fleadh cheoil, matchmaking festivals, multi-day race meetings… they’re endless. So in that respect, the pre-Christian óenaige tradition is alive and well, and undergoing another metamorphosis of meaning.

What are the true Celtic roots of Halloween?

Halloween, or Oíche Samhna in Irish, perplexes me. Read any wikipedia or general-interest article about the holiday and you find tradition heaped on tradition: Christian rite on pagan festival, local Scottish habit projected onto other nations, early-Christian folklore labeled as Druidic belief, and modern-day pagan reinvention regarded as ancient rite. As somebody whose chief interest is in what old Celtic beliefs really were, it’s hard to cut through the layers of tradition that have grown up around Halloween and come to be repeated endlessly as “fact.”

The popular imagination (and those ubiquitous articles) generally assumes Halloween to have ancient roots from pre-Christian times, yet when you poke into the origins of the major features of the festival, they appear to have largely begun during the medieval period.

The site of the Banqueting Hall on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath — One of the tales in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology tells how Tara was burned every Samhain by Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, before he was kiled by Fionn, who then became leader of the Fianna.

Mythological Origins

In ancient Irish mythology, Samhain (pronounced Sow-an) is a feis at the beginning of winter (or, translated literally, at the end of summer — indicating that then, as now, we Irish had a tendency to see the glass as half-full).

There are tales of Irish kings and warriors having grand feasts and (as usually happens when a lot of men get together for a serious drinking session) starting big fights or being goaded into doing stupid things. No jack-o-lanterns, no bonfires* beyond that required to keep warm, and no mention of the dead roaming the land.

However, while Irish society was very tradition-oriented, we should remember that the chiefs and great warriors were a class apart in this society. There’s no reason why they should not have had their own private drinking session distinct from the general Samhain celebrations.

*Although, there is tale in the Fenian cycle which tells how Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the gods of the Irish Celts (or possibly pre-Celtic Irish, depending on how you interpret origin myths written down by hostile Christian monks) caused havoc by burning down the King’s dwelling on the Hill of Tara every Samhain until Fionn defeated him. Was this an early “trick” or the start of the tradition of supernatural beings running amuck on Samhain?

Odd carving found in the 8th Century Churchyard on Inis Mór, Aran Islands. Is this a trickster figure, a breaded man, or an older motif?

Folkloric Origins

It seems to be accepted that Samhain was at heart an agricultural festival marking the successful harvesting of food, and probably involving or preceding the slaughter of cattle for the winter. Warriors likely didn’t spend much time in agricultural labor, so perhaps for the majority of people Samhain was a ritual celebration of harvest and less a manly drinking session (of this, more in the next post)…

Samhain is definitely a time of change; one has only to look at the trees to see that. Celebrated as the Celtic New Year (at least nowadays by new age pagans), Samhain is indisputably a “liminal” period when one year ends and the next begins, and a time when treachery and the intervention of supernatural forces are to be expected and feared.

Several Celtic warriors and kings seem to have met their downfall on Samhain or had the circumstances leading to that downfall set in motion, so it appears a little ironic that it was viewed as a day of peace in the heroic age. Of course, this does establish the tradition of gods and supernatural beings walking the land on Samhain; but it should be said that supernatural forces were always at work in the prehistoric age (i.e. before history was regularly — if not reliably — recorded) — so, perhaps Samhain wasn’t particularly unique in that regard?

Mouth of a passage grave at Carrowkiel, Co. Sligo. Tradition held that tombs opened on All Hallow’s Eve and the dead might visit the living.

To paraphrase something I read recently, these times of change from one thing to another (old year to new, life to death, singletonhood to married) are times of danger: you’ve opened the door to change and anything might come in. So although there may not be a wealth of canonical legend about the dead walking the land, there is plenty of folk tradition.

The sidhe were said to walk the land and people would leave food and milk for them. Others feared the spirits of the dead would rise up and visit their kin — even going so far as to leave windows open and offerings of food out for them. I’ve always regarded this as symbolic, but the discovery of 8th century zombies in County Roscommon makes me wonder. (Curiously, the 8th century was when the Pope moved to replace Samhain with the churchified feast of All Saints Day (the day after All Hallows Eve), so perhaps there was some genuine fear of the undead among the people and the Church’s action took advantage of this?)

I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet, but for now I’ll have to file it away under “must read more…”

 

Notes

A post about the history of jack-o-lanterns and bonfires…