Archive for the ‘Bealtaine’ Category

Professor Fergus Kelly’s (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) presentation on Early Irish Charms for Animals came with an extensive reference handout.  Because the two keynote speakers had run over time, Prof. Kelly sped through his offering.  I would have enjoyed hearing more from this distinguished scholar, but I am thankful to have his list of sources.

The thrust of the presentation concerned the narrative of a hunter-gatherer people, transitioning and transitioned to a life dependent on agriculture and animal husbandry.  Where once the herd animals had been robust in size and number, with domestication, their physical size and numbers were reduced.  This necessarily increased concern over disease, which was directly linked to domestication.

This new concern can be seen in the highly significant burden placed upon local Kings, which tied the health of the land and animal population to the King’s justice, as well as the compensation an animal healer was entitled to, as outlined in the law tracts (1/4 of the wound price).  It is from this concern that the use of animal charms arises.

Language of the Literary Sources:

Seirthech, a disese of horses (seir ‘heel, hock’)

Sinech, a disease of cattle, perhaps ‘cow-pox’ (sine, ‘teat’)

Conach ‘rabies’ (disease affecting dogs, cattle, pigs, poultry, etc.), derivative of cú, con ‘dog’

Liaig ‘animal doctor’

gono míl, orgo míl, marbu míl  “I would the worm, I strike the worm, I kill the worm”

Milliud ‘destruction, bewitching’

mart leicter la sruth .i. ar g(l)einntlecht leicter ‘an animal which was swept away in a stream, i.e. it is swept away by sorcery with g(l)einntlecht being associated with paganism

mimir do cor do coin ‘giving a bad morsel to a dog’; froma uptha dus inbud amainsi: lethdiri ind, uair ni fo fath narbtha .i. fromad felmais .i. fromad na pisoc, anfot indethbiri he ‘trying out the spell to find out whether it is magic: half penalty-fine for that, because it is not with the intention of killing, i.e. trying out a magic spell i.e. testing the charms, and that is culpable inadvertence’

amainse ‘magic’

felmas ‘spell’

pisóc ‘charm’

Other Charms

There was mention of the use of charms, in general, with an interesting note concerning marriage.

bean dia tabair a ceile upta oca guide co mbeir for druis “a wife whose husband gives her love charms while wooing her so that he brings her to lust” is entitled to a divorce, and to keep her bride price!

Corrguine(ch) ‘crane / heron-slayer, sorcerer’ could be one who practices the crane stance, etc.

Herbs in Charms

An incredibly interesting portion of the talk skimmed over the different uses of herbs, specifically, that each class used a different herb for the same problem.  There is an indication that certain plants were only used for the noble class, etc.

Ar ni inun cosc sair [] dair [] leth[s]air: ‘for the prevention of [the evil eye from ?] the noble and base and half-noble is not the same’

Tri losa atheclthar and: righlus [] tarblus [] aitheclus: righlus do righaibh guna comhgradhaibh [] tarblus do gradhaibh flatha, aitheclus do gradaib deine “Three herbs are recognised here: royal herb and bull herb and plebeian herb: royal herb for kings and those of equal rank with them, bull herb for the grades of lord, and plebeian herb for the grades of commoner’

Time, and it’s connection with Charms

Another topic, which could have received its own treatment, was the notion that time mattered: that when you plucked or cut an herb was associated with status, of the herb and the person it was to be used on.

is ed dleghar a buain ‘maseach [] in lus resa[rai]ter is ed dleghar a buain cach nuairi do ‘it should be plucked in turn and the herb which is said [to correspond to his rank ?] is that which should be plucked every time for him’

[] is airi danither sen mada teccmadh a athair do gradhaibh flatha [] a mathair do gradhaibh feine ‘and it is for that reason that that is done, if his father should belong to the grades of lord, and his mother to the grades of commoner’

Agricultural Year ?

Prof. Kelly mentioned the lack of information present in early Irish MS regarding cereal crops.  He indicated that the climate here was never fit for them, and even the more hearty barley can be a struggle.  It is interesting to me that there should be a lack of literary reference to cereal crops in the early period, when they seem to overshadow the current practitioner (pagan) mindset of an agricultural (harvest based) year.  It puts me in mind of the theory espoused by Barry Cuncliffe of the university of Oxford and Social anthropologist Lionel Sims, that the transition to agriculture from a hunter-gather way of life was motivated by a reduction in large game after the last ice-age, and that turning to stationary lifestyles which required more intensive periods of work, and dependence on climate, was resisted.  This subject needs further practitioner (pagan) scholarship, if it has not already been done. 

A modern festival which I had read about previously was mentioned: Féil na nairemon ‘the festival of the ploughmen’  Prof Kelly indicated that this festival took place in mid June, when the crops had reached full growth, after 3 months of tending.

Additional Time related activities mentioned by audience members:

At Bealtaine – hawthorn was collected after sunset, placed on house before sunrise.

Vervaine is only collected when Sirius is rising, which is sometime in July.

Roots are collected after the November full moon.


The majority of Irish texts cited are from Corpus iuris hibernici  (Dublin 1978)  D.A. Binchy

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Liminality: that delicious state of being in-between, neither here nor there. It is an uncomfortable condition to be in. Leaving known and familiar structures can be exciting. We set off on our adventure full of enthusiasm, eager for what awaits us, and desirous to journey into a new situation or phase. This state of vigor may last weeks, even months if we are lucky. Yet, there is a span of time after which psychologically, perhaps even neurologically, we desire to re-establish routine and familiarity. Our being, confronted with extended dissolution of order, experiences discomfort.

We enter a threshold state.

These liminal spaces are powerful. In fact, many uncomfortable situations and experiences are: such as graduating college, getting married, childbirth, changing careers, moving away from home, etc. A well known Reclaiming chant reminds us, “Where there’s fear, there’s power.” and we do well to acknowledge this. Too often, instead of standing in our uneasiness and opening to our own power ,we attempt to escape the ordeal of the threshold. Occasionally, these transitional times extend well past our comfort zone and can take on a permanent quality, which can be dangerous. Reintegration is a vital component to any right of passage, or life journey. Yet…for the witch, as for many Hedge Walkers, liminality is intentionally extended, even though madness may ensue.

The Ring behind the house is taking on a decidedly personal flavor. Its earthen embankments, covered in Black Thorn and gorse, hide an interior dotted with bluebell in a maze of trees. A large Hawthorn on its slope is clothed in pure white. One low Black Thorn sprawls in the southeast, and yesterday I spent the afternoon in his arms. Limbs reclining to hold me, I stretched myself out on his mossy bough: suspended, in-between. The foxglove within the Ring are tall, their buds full, poised on the edge of bloom. The birds sang clear as they darted from perch to perch, tending nests of young ripe with expectancy.

Nature, here in Ireland, is in a transition phase: moving from Samhain into Bealtaine – from the dark to the light. And just as the Fianna roamed the liminal space between tribal lands during this time, performing their Great Deeds, so too is it our time to rouse ourselves. Summer is the time of movement., not of storytelling. Whether your movement is taking the cattle up the mountain for summer pasture or running with the hunt in the woods, the energy of the season is all about us. The liminal time of Bealtaine is here.

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Bealtaine is here, and many wondrous occurrences  with it.  As most know, Bealtaine heralds in the light half of the Irish year (and I specify Irish because this word is Irish, and its use would be restricted to this specific geographic area and meteorological experience – it’s certainly the BRIGHT half long before May back in Texas!).  Many customs surround this ushering in.  Some are folkloric in nature and others historic, even mythic.

“May Day serves to divide our story-telling year in two equal halves (no stories after May Day until Samhain, when darkness comes to claim us back). It is considered direly unlucky to get into storytelling around Mayday — singing is a different matter, however.”

Marion Gunn, Folklorist / Linguist, University College Dublin

On the Hill of Uisneach, both historically and mythically, Bealtaine fires were lit and a sacred assembly held.  This practice is being rekindled with the modern Festival of the Fires.  There is not, as yet, legislative activity taking place but there is, without doubt, festivity, remembrance, and one kick-butt Fire!  Warriors on horse back patrol the perimeter, ensuring that the neighboring, and sometimes waring, tribes keep their peace.  Bards and musicians share their craft while families stroll the sacred hills.  A visit to the holy well may bring healing, if a votive offering has been made in LoughLugh.

This was a time of purification (the ancients seemed awfully concerned with purification, I’ve noticed).  Cattle and people were cleansed with the smoke of the rising fires.  The great fire at Uisneach was echoed by answering fires that were lit on neighboring summits. The resulting topographic web of fire stretching from the omphalos of Uisneach outward to the coast of Ireland, created a “fire-eye,” a divine oculus mundi, or eye of the world through which the goddess of Ireland, Aine…Eriu, could once again see and be seen.

Of monumental landforms, mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “to be seen in the eyes of the Goddess and to move upon [her] as she revealed herself in hill and vale was to be part of both time and timelessness, matter and spirit.”

From the lofty to the daily, we turn to the tiny Primrose.  This delicious yellow flower of early spring is to be collected on May Eve, before dusk, by children who make posies or small bouquets with them.  They are to be hung in the house or over the door, laid on doorsteps and windowsills, strewn in profusion, to protect against the Fair Ones…who traipse at this time of year!  As an added benefit, if you rub them on a cow’s udder her milk will increase!

Here in Cork, particularly the southern part, May Eve was known as “Nettlemas Night”.  Boys would parade the streets with large bunches of nettles, stinging their playmates and occasionally unfortunate passersby who got too close.  Girls joined in this as well, usually stinging their lovers or boys they especially liked!  In most parts of Ireland, it was believed that taking 3 meals of nettles in May guarded against illness for the rest of the year.  Other parts of the country dispensed with the stinging, instead nettles were gathered on May Eve, pressed into a juice, and everyone in the house drank a mouthful, … to keep a “good fire in them” for the rest of the year.

Now, something a bit more maleficent, and of interest to us Hedge Witches, is the May Eve Curse.  Vervain, Speedwell, Eyebright, Mallow, Yarrow, Self-Heal, St. Johns Wort:  if collected on May Eve under the enchanting words, these herbs do great harm and nothing natural or supernatural may dissuade.

For myself, on the gregorian day, I traipsed about stone circles with two friends.  Three times Three we visited them: water, earth, and sky. In the enclosure we raised our voices, along the way we shared laughter and, where appropriate, offerings of fruit…or gentle tears.  On the astronomical day, … pilgrimage to Uisneach to join the tribes, of course!

Let the Debaucheries of Summer begin!!

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How beautiful they are…the Lordly Ones who dwell in the Hills….

I climbed Sliabh na mBan recently, home to the women of Feimheinn and the sídhe of Bodb Derg….grandfather of the Children of Lir…the white swans.  This area of Tipperary is called Magh Feimhein and the wide plain that stretches beneath the mountain is sacred.  The stories of this area all involve women or are centered around women, from otherworldly women that enchant mortals to an all female race to the summit.  I climbed the Mountain of Women to meet the land and to gather what gifts were presented.

One of my dear friends is getting married in June.  A gift I want to bestow, (as all good Faery Godmothers should have something to offer), is fertility.  I was certainly blessed with it and the land I reside on is rich with it.  As I set out on this pilgrimage, for sacred journey it was, I held my friend and her partner in my heart, and I listened… for what the land might offer.

The day was gorgeous.  This spring the Cailleach has kept a hold, either not wishing to depart or not quit finished with us.  The days have been cold and gray but the morning I left for my climb the sun shone bright; Gráinne full and strong in the sky.  Which is interesting… because one of the stories of this area tells of Gráinne winning a foot race to the summit of the mountain against women from other counties,  for the prize of Fionn as husband.  (Grainne means sun and Fionn is a nickname that means white or bright)  It definitely felt propitious and I tingled with anticipation.

The path to the summit takes you first through a thick forest of pine. It was cool and dark. My eyes spied something gleaming white in the underbrush. Bone, tossed in a pattern I couldn’t read. The first gate is often surrender. I made my offerings, thanking the land for Her gift. There were forgotten dwellings, strange stone walls, and tumbled stone in the dark. I felt immediately welcome and the place delighted me. So much so, that I was reluctant to leave it.

I emerged from the forest onto heath, a moonscape under the white light of the sun. The light is different here. I don’t know enough about the latitude and how that affects the refraction of light but I can see it and feel it. When the sun shines full it is a white, bleaching feeling. The land, perpetually covered in low cloud mist that sometimes appears and other times does not, is turned to haze when the temperatures rise. I have noticed that sunrise is a warm, golden hue, often clear and gorgeous. But once the sun rises above a certain angle the cloud suddenly, as if by magic, becomes visible. They were obviously there all along, the white wool clouds of Her cloak, but not until the light shines through them above a precise angle do they reveal themselves. This magic trick comes into play again when the temperatures reach 20 Celsius. It might be a blue sky day, with not a thread of Her cloak visible, then suddenly…. White Filmy Gossamer.

The ascent was hard. My breathing labored and I thought of childbirth. Up, up, up. When I thought my heart would explode I stopped, turned, and let the sun fall full on my face as I drank in the view. Stunning. Stretched out for miles were fertile fields. The image of my dear friends danced perpetually in my mind. I was climbing for myself, and I was climbing for them. I don’t know how many times I had to stop, but they were frequent. The nearer the top I got, the more frequent my breaks became. I felt as though my legs were lead. At one point I sat, dismayed and afraid I couldn’t make it. Maybe ¾ of the way up it seemed too much. Two crows flew overhead, laughing.

“Yes, I know. I’m a foolish sight, aren’t I. We silly humans have forgotten how to be two legged animals. I’m sure your ancestors saw many a person skip up this ‘hill’.”

There was a small monument along the path, written in Irish and Ogham with a delicate image carved onto the top. I paused long here, sinking down into the land.

“Who are you?”

As I began my trek again under the blazing sun I felt the sweat run down my back. I thought of my friend, and the beads of perspiration that will gather on her brow during labor. Mór Mumhan, whose valleys are so rich, whose estuaries drip with fecundity, whose round belly and breasts are nourishing, and whose vengeance is fierce against those who would harm her children. Great Munster! Full of song and the poetry of great deeds.

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

I labored up the mountain, a poppet for my friend. Life sized doll. My body laboring as her body will. I wanted to cry, “I can’t do this!”

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

And, as all long struggles eventually do…. At last, I reached the end. The summit stretched before me. Ravens soared. A cairn loomed ahead. I held my rock, for you always add a rock. It’s respectful. Beautiful nipple atop a full breast. I was a child come for succor, come to drink of the fertility of this land… Munster the Great. I sat at the base of the cairn, my head resting on a large boulder. I closed my eyes and listened to the secrets of the wind. Shadows watched and eyes were on me. I looked up to see a Raven hovering just above me. We saw each other. Then she glided back out of sight on the wind.

I spent as long as possible on the summit, drinking in the 360 views, trying to memorize the shapes of the surrounding hills, straining to hear their voices. When I finally began my descent, on the ground was an object, long, slim, and perfect to hold in my hand. I grasped it firmly, like a strong cock. It was into this I let pour all the energy and dream and thought and toil. I held it all the way down, allowing the day to drain into it.

They dance with white shapely arms,
the women of Feimhein,
Singing of the riches under the Hill
for great is the warrior who holds it.

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