Archive for the ‘Ireland’ Category

Episode 4 on the folklore podcast

Druidcast episode on the Black Dog

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It may seem strange to refer to a god as ‘crooked’, but gods of the underworld were generally considered crooked in some way. Priestesses wore one sandal when invoking them. Apollo, the bright and handsome sun god of Greece both brought plagues (with hot and feverish weather) and cured them (as god of healing). He was visualized both as shooting plague arrows into cities, and shooting creatures that brought plague. In this role he presided over the sacrifice or expulsion of scapegoats and was titled ‘crooked’. Apollo was the patron of all those cast out from the community, including those who went off to found colonies.

The Irish Crom Dubh is ‘Black Crooked One’ or ‘Black Bowed One’, also called Crom Cruach or Cenn Cruaich (‘the Bowed One of the Mound’) and was a sacrificial god associated with the beginning of August. His importance may be discerned from the fact there are far more stories of Crom Dubh connected with Lughnasa than there are of Lugh. Though many Irish people have never heard of the festival of Lughnasa they have certainly heard its alternate name Crom Dubh’s Day (or Sunday).

Crom Dubh’s Day is the occasion for a pilgrimage up a high hill or mountain such as Croagh Patrick. This was a holy hill in Pagan times, taken over by Saint Patrick, possibly considered a natural harvest mound or Goddess womb in the manner of Silbury Hill.  

The 11th century Book of Leinster states ‘In a rank stand twelve idols of stone; bitterly to enchant the people the figure of Crom was of gold.’  This is thought to refer to a circle of standing stones at Magh Sléacht near Killycluggin (the plain of Tullyhaw in County Cavan) in the sacred number of thirteen- the sacred king and his twelve companions. [1]   It may be that in ancient times a human sacrifice was made here, perhaps selected in the games. It seems likely that the sacrifice would have been haltered and lamed, actually or symbolically. Crom Dubh, the god who presided over the sacrifice was also ‘crooked’. He is thought to belong to the religion of the ancient Irish. The earliest written account of him refers to an idol at Magh Sléacht worshipped by King Tignermas and his followers, at which human sacrifices were made. This statue is said to have sunk into the ground after St Patrick demolished it, and indeed, the stone circle stands in ruins. In most of the folklore he is called Crom Dubh, characterized as the ‘dark croucher’ or the ‘old bent one’ and was identified with the devil.

It may be that after the sacrifice the victim was identified with the god, becoming a ‘crooked one’ and believed to be dwelling in the mound with the god as king of the dead.

In later ages Crom Dubh’s human sacrifice may have been substituted with a bull.  On the north shore of Galway there is still a tradition that a beef animal must be roasted to ashes in honor of Crom Dubh on his festival day. It is possible that the bull was an avatar of the god, and that there was a yearly sacrifice of this bull with the substitution of a new bull, in the manner of the Egyptian Apis. In various versions of the story Patrick is said to have overcome or converted a Pagan called Crom Dubh, in some versions by resuscitating his dead bull.

According to another Lughnasa story Crom Dubh was buried up to his neck for three days and only released when the harvest fruits had been guaranteed. Crom is associated with the ancient mounds as an old agricultural god of the earth who caused the crops to ripen, as are the sidhe (‘people of the mounds’) or fairies of folklore who are the descendants of such gods. They also have to be offered regular sacrifices in the form of milk. Crom is possibly an underworld god, like the Greek Hades (Roman Pluto) who captured Persephone (Proserpina). Hades/Pluto was both the guardian of underworld treasure (the minerals of the earth) and grain, which sprouts in the underworld.

In many parts of the world the festivals celebrated around our Lughnasa period relate to the effects of the Dog Days which make vegetation brown and wither, signaling the death of summer.

The Dog Star Sirius, called Alpha Canis Majoris by astronomers, is one of the brightest in the night sky and can even be seen in the daylight. Sirius is three times the mass of our Sun and ten times as bright. In mid-May Sirius sets in the west just after sunset, then is no longer visible for seventy days. It then appears rising in the east at sunrise and this is known as the heliacal rising of the star, occurring in late July and early August. The ancients believed that it added its own heat to that of the sun, causing very hot weather and exerting a baleful influence- dogs became mad, people became listless or ill, [2] streams and wells dried up, while plants withered and turned brown. It signaled the end of the period of growth, and therefore the end of summer. It seems that Lughnasa was celebrated at the end of this period (12th August) and marked the first day of autumn.

In the tale of Lugh we encounter his enemy and grandfather Balor, a tyrant who must be defeated. He is described as having a single baleful eye that poisons and withers all it looks upon. Dr. Ó HÓgáin reconstructs the original name of Balor as *Boleros, meaning  ‘the flashing one’ from the ancient root *bhel meaning ‘flash’. [3] The name of Sirius comes from a Greek word meaning ‘sparkling’ as it radiates a blue-white light, but when it is low on the horizon it can shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow. Balor is also titled Bailcbhéimneach (‘strong smiting’) and Balar Biirug-derc (‘piercing-eyed’). [4]

Ancient classical writers, including Ptolemy and Diodorus Siculus, associate him with a promontory called Bolerion in Cornwall, England. This was most probably Land’s End, to the southwest of the country. Balor is said to have died at Carn Ui Neit (the ‘Cairn of Net’s Grandson’), Mizen Head in County Cork, Ireland- again the furthest south west point of the country. This association with south-western promontories is generally taken to indicate that Balor is some kind of deity associated with the setting sun- which sets in the west- but the south-west is also the setting point of Sirius.

 Balor tried to trick Lugh into placing his head on top of Lugh’s own, and this may be a metaphor for the effect achieved when Sirius rises with the sun. Another one-eyed tyrant caused the death of King Conaire, who died with a raging thirst in his throat, perhaps a reference to the effects of the Dog Days.

Lughnasa is the time of year associated with the sacrifice of the sacred king or the death of the corn god, marked with wakes and funeral games. In many legends the dog is considered to be a psychopomp- a creature that conveys souls to the Otherworld. The Egyptian jackal/dog headed god Anubis, for example, is concerned with conveying the dead to the afterlife. In Greek myth the three headed dog Cerberus guarded the entrance to the Underworld. It can be no coincidence that the constellation of the Dog appears at the end of summer to convey the soul of the sacrificed sacred king/vegetation god to the Otherworld.

[1] Janet and Stewart Farrar, Eight sabbats for Witches,  Hale, 1981

[2] Most cases of tarentella are reported at this time of year.

[3] Dáithí Ó HÓgáin, The Sacred Isle, The Collins Press, Cork, 1999

[4] Daithi O HOgain, Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition  Prentice Hall Presss 1991


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I survived, though whether I’m actually a changeling now remains to be seen! I’ve written very briefly about my experience on my weekly column at Patheos Pagan, A Sense of Place : A Night In The Mound

As you can imagine, a 1000 word column doesn’t allow more than a scratch of the surface for an experience like that, while still including substantive background information. One concept I wanted to speak more about is the unequivocally Ancestral focus of the mounds. Yes, they may have significant alignments (solar, lunar, and stellar); yes, they were actively engaged with by their living communities (ritual use); yes, folklore sprang up regarding them because their original function slipped from active use and memory to nostalgia (fairy), but they remain first and foremost Ancestral.

This YouTube video, while all over the shop with its focus, and anglophilic tone, does correlate the Stones, themselves, to the Ancestors in a direct and literal way, which is how I interact with them as well. It is also a view expressed by more than one presenter at The Archeology of Darkness conference last hear at Sligo IT (I promise, I will post those notes eventually). Have a look:

I was struck most, on the day, by the elusive Otherness of the mounds and the way they were sited on the land. They slipped in and out of view, in unexpected ways. As you walked along the trail, a mound would suddenly appear before you. A few steps later, it vanished from sight. Some mounds were visible while standing in front of a certain cairn, that were unseen when you moved to another. The necropolis is home to an estimated 14 passage cairns, which are oriented differently. I stayed in one that opens to the North.

In the recess, or side ‘bed’, where I slept, I had a sense of downward momentum. You do crawl down to enter the cairn, and it is a tight fit before opening first to the somewhat larger antechamber, then to the main chamber with its tall corbeled roof (you can easily stand in there). In cruciform shaped cairns, there are three recesses off the main chamber–small side ‘rooms’, if you will. I only spent time in my western recess, as my intention was to become familiar with a specific energy (I have a feeling each recess was used for different functions and has different energy). The western recess, where the Reek stone is, had its own mini corbeled roof. Because I know Croagh Patrick is sacred to Crom Dubh, that chthonic deity was on my mind heavily.

At one point I strongly felt an underground presence, specifically looking for sacrifice. I won’t say anymore about that here.

I slept more easily than I imagined I would. With nothing but rock for cushion, I thought I would toss and turn. I also thought I would be awake longer: drinking, feasting, being With the Ancestors, but I was asleep by 21:00! My sleep did seem to happen in cycles though, and each time I woke I had a sense of light in the cairn and found myself disoriented as to the source of the light, i.e., I thought I knew the source, which in hindsight could not have been the case. I also did not wake until almost 11! And even then, it took longer to gather my things and leave, than I thought it did. Time was distorted. I think I could have easily spent 3 days and nights there! It was a very ‘sleepy’ –pulling you down–energy.

When I left though, I had an amazing sensation of lightness. As though my atoms were effervescent. The experience was very like a sensory deprivation chamber (another point made during the Archeology of Darkness symposium). I would like to see descendants of these wonderful ancestors visiting these sites to commune with their dead in a real way. However, some prohibitions:

  • do NOT climb on the cairn
  • do NOT scorch the rock with candle
  • do NOT take rocks away as souvenirs
  • DO clean up, take your rubbish and any you may find
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    I’m going to spend a night on the mound.  If I don’t come back, I’m dead.  If I do, I may be mad…. or a poet.

    [youtube http://youtu.be/NFZcblhvDzQ]

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    I must apologize, again, for my tardiness in completing these notes.  I am preparing to return to the US, and will be spending a month or more with a friend who is having her first child.  Times are hectic!

    The next presentation of the first day was by Joanne Findon, of Trent University.  I was excited to hear her based solely on the title!

    Medieval Irish stories in which a mortal hero forms a liaison with a ‘fairy mistress’ have been much discussed, particularly in connection wit the theme of the ‘sovereignty goddess.’ However, not all such relationships work out well; in a few cases (tales in which the encounter or its aftermath are focalized through the perspective of the Otherworld female herself, even if only briefly) the meaning of the encounter is destabilized.  The presence of the Otherworld woman’s speech shifts the ground of interpretation and opens up the interaction to more complex social and cultural implications. Fand in Serglige Con Culainn, Macha in Noínden Ulad, and Becfhola in Tochmarc Becfhola are examples of such women whose mortal-therworld remances end badly.  Fand gets the man she desires, but ultimately loses him to the hero’s determined wife Emer.  Macha chooses her mortal mate and seems to live happily with him until he foolishly boasts about her racing skill.  Becfhola forms an unsatisfying union with a mortal man who does not appreciate her, and eventually leaves him for an Otherworld man who is a much better match for her.  In each case, the woman’s words open a window onto the female perspective regarding the perils of such mortal-Otherworld relationships.  This discussion will consider the significance of these women’s words and the effects of female subjectivity in light of the larger social and literary contexts of these tales.

    She began the talk by offering the idea that the theme of  ‘Otherworld’ girl and ‘mortal’ boy may have a possible connection with an increase in men / women relationship [discussions, cultural /religious changes, problems, issues] during Early Medieval Ireland.  A few of her points include:

    Fand and Emer believe a man can not love two women.

    ‘Ah, youth,’ she said, ‘we were together with honour once, and we would be again if you still desired me.’ ‘By my word,’ he said, ‘I do desire you, and I will desire you as long as you live.’  “Leave me then,” said Fand. (Dillon, ll. 722-26)

    Are these tales seek to discuss the outcome of ‘erotic’ love vs the ‘traditional’ marriage structure?

    There was a demand of secrecy, in order for the ‘Otherworld’ relationship to continue.

    ‘You shall not go,’ the woman said, ‘ lest danger dog you from mentioning us, for our union will be at an end if you mention me in the assembly.’ “I shall not speak there at all,” Crunnchu said. (Hull, ll. 21-23, trans p. 37)

    The tales may indicate conflict between ‘women’ and the ‘warrior class’.   Woman speaking truth to power.

    “The shame that you have inflicted upon me,’ [she said,] “shall be indeed a disgrace to you from now on.  When things shall be most difficult for you, all those of you who guard this province shall have only the strength of a woman in childbirth; and as long as a woman is in childbirth, so long shall you [likewise] be, namely to the end of five days and four nights, and moreover, it shall be on you unto the ninth [generation], that is to say, for the lifespan of nine persons.” (Hull ll. 59-63, tran p. 38)

    Liminal boundaries, edges.

    “They beheld a woman coming from the west across the ford in a chariot.  She wore rounded sandals of white bronze, inset with two jewels of precious stone; a tunic covered with red-gold embroidery about her; a crimson mantle on her; a brooch in fully-wrought gold with shimmering gems f many hues fastening the mantle over her breast; necklets of refined gold around her neck; a golden circlet upon her head.” (Bhreathnach, 72, trans. 77)

    It seems, having the power to choose their own lovers does not mean happiness.  This, more than anything, may have been the theme of these various tales and offers a social commentary on the changing landscape of relationships in the Early Medieval period.  


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    A fly-through tour of Dowth’s northern and southern chambers based on laser scanning gives you a real sense of what it’s like inside. The survey work was carried out by David Strange-Walker of Trent & Peak Archaeology and Marcus Abbott of ArcHeritage. Thanks to Dr Steve Davis of University College Dublin, and the Office of Public Works, Ireland, for funding this project.

    With the northern chamber now off bounds, those who might never get the chance to go inside it can now do so virtually. Also see Mythical Ireland’s visit to the northern chamber.

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    Britta Irslinger (University of Freiburg) presented, “Medb ‘the intoxicating one?’ (Re-) constructing the past through etymology.

    For almost 120 years, the name of Queen Medb has been explained as being cognate with the Old IIrish words medb ‘strong, intoxicating (of alcoholic beverages)’ and mid ‘mead’. Medb from *med u/a/ ‘the intoxicating one’ has been assumed to be derived from Proto-Indo European *med u– ‘mead’. Ever since, this etymology is part of the standard inventory of any scholarly discussion of the literary figure of Medb, according perfectly with her character and behaviour as described in the Táin. But its explanatory capacity is not limited to medieval Irish literature. Medb has been interpreted as an original goddess, who bestowed sovereignty on kings during the ritual of hieros gamas comprising the draught of mead. However recently, these views have been seriously questioned by a new etymology by Pinault (2007) comparing the name of Medb to the several Gualish names and deriving all of them from the Indo-European root *med– ‘to govern’.
    I will discuss both etymologies in relation to the extralinguistic facts which have been adduced to support them. Furthermore, I will show how, for modern scholarship, the traditional ‘mead’ etymology became an important feature for the interpretation of the literary figure, although ‘Medb’ probably was not a transparent name for medieval audiences. Finally. I will question the role and the methods of those scholars who reconstruct the concepts and beliefs of medieval and archaic societies.

    The handout for this presentation is extensive and because of that my notes are minimal. Britta is asking whether Medb was a goddess, and if so what were the rituals associated with her. There appears to be a conditional association with a king’s mental and physical well-being. It is agreed that Irish Kingship displays the concept of sacral kingship: hieros gamos — the king marries the local fertility goddess. I am typing up the bulk of her handout, but I encourage anyone interested in the details of these proceedings to purchase Ulidia 4 when it comes out.


    1. Medb as allegorical personification of sovereignty (Ó Máille 1928)
    1.1 Narrative: Medb, as Queen of Connachta says in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, “I was never without one man in the shadow of another.”
    1.2 Genealogical: Medb of Crúachain, daughter of king Eochaid Feidlech, was married to 4 kings. Medb Lethderg, daughter of king Conán Cualann, was married to 4 kings (belonging to different generations). In LL 380a53 : “Great indeed was the strength and power of that Medb over the men of Ireland, for she would not allow a king in Tara without his having herself as a wife…
    (the inauguration ceremony banais ríghi ‘wedding of kingship’)

    2. Medb as a goddess (Thurneysen 2930, 1933, Bowen 1975, MacCana 1982, Egeler 2012 et al.)
    Her sexuality and promiscuity are noted (Fergus Mac Róich as lover), as well as her family connections (Father: Eochaid Feidlech; Sisters: Clothra, Mugain, Eithne; Husband: Ailill ‘spectre’; Daughter: Findabair ‘white phantom’). She also shapes the landscape with the Fúal Medba: (LL-TBC 4831) “Medb passed her water and it made three great trenches in each of which a household can fit. Hence the place is called Fúal Medba”.  Birds are mentioned on her shoulder in (TBC I 3206-7), and she fights in battles (war goddess).

    3. Etymology of Medb (Stokes 1894, Zimmer 1911, Ó Máille 1928, Thurneysen 1930, McCone 1990, et al.)
    I can’t write out the flow of this etymology, but the key words are ‘mead’ from Old Irish, Welsh, Breton; ‘strong, intoxicating’ from Old Irish; ‘drunk’ from Welsh and Breton. Some derived nouns include the middle Irish medbán (the name of some edible plant), modern Irish meadhbhá(i)n (megrim, whirling in the head, intoxication; a stimulating sea-breeze; an succulent wild plant that causes intoxication; an edible sea-weed dried and seasoned). Old Irish Medb (the intoxicated one, the intoxicating one; mead woman).

    4. Further evidence includes medieval sovereignty allegories. Echtra Mac Echdach Mugmedóin (Níall and his brothers are searching for water, they meet a hag guarding the well who demands a kiss in exchange for water, Níall kisses her, and she is transformed into a beautiful young woman who identifies herself as sovereignty. The five sons of king Dáire Doimthech is another example, as is the Baile in Scáil (Conn Cétchathach, the king, is brought to an otherworld dwelling where he meets a beautiful girl, the Sovereignty of Ireland, who distributes drink from a vat and says, “Upon whom shall this golden cup with red ale be bestowed and whom shall drink it?” Flaith ‘sovereignty’ ~ derg(f)laith ‘red beer/sovereignty’ – Red Sovereignty

    5. The flaith – laith metaphor
    Art will drink it after forty nights, a mighty hero He will die at Muccruime.
    Corpre of combats will drink it with the truth of sovereignty.
    To drink by the light of candles of pure wax in Dinn Ríg for the famous king — safe is the lord of the hills by means of that — the ale of Cuala, games at Carman.
    Which is best of the drinks of sovereignty? where ale is drunk, frenzy of liquor. He will not be a king over Ireland, unless the ale of Cuala comes to him.
    Medb Lethderg=daughter of Conán Cúalann (see above number 1).

    6. Themes of the sovereignty myth and sovereignty goddesses (O’Rahilly 1946c, MacCana 1955-56, 1958-59, 1982, Carey 1983, Clark 1991, Maier 1991)
    The Sovereignty goddess theme includes examination of candidates, bestowal of kingship by intercourse and/or by the presentation of a drink, the unrightful candidate fails/dies/does not get the drink. The appearance of the sovereignty goddess is of an ugly old hag / a madwoman / a poor woman if the rightful king is absent, but she transforms into a beautiful young woman by intercourse with the king. She is presented as the mother of the heir / the dynasty / a saint / queen of the otherworld. Her family and relations themes are that she has many suitors if a king’s daughter, she has several husbands or lovers if a queen, her husband dies / she abandons him / commits adultery / is abducted or raped by a rival. Scant mention is made of the presentation of a drink. Sovereignty goddesses (O’Rahilly 1946c, MacCana 1955-56, 1958-59) are:
    Territorial Goddesses: Áine, daughter of Manannán; Anu; Caillech Bérre “hag of Bérre’;  Ébliu / Éblenn; Ériu / Banba / Fótla; Grian ‘sun’;  Macha;  Medb;  Mór Muman / Mugain;  Mórrígain ‘great queen’; Tailtiu
    Mythical Women of the Otherworld: Eithne, Tháebfhota, Étaín, Sabd daughter of Bodb
    Other: Órnat / Deoch ‘drink’, Suithchern, Mis, Créd, Mes Búachalla, Deirdre, Gráinne ‘ugliness’
    Allegorical: Flaith, Flaithius ‘sovereignty’, Gormlaith ‘brilliant sovereignty’

    There can be little doubt that Deirdre – in common, it might be said, with virtually all the other heroines of medieval irish literature– is an adaptation in human terms of the archetypical goddess figure.” (MacCana 1982, 522)

    “… the centres of the Lughnasa festival are associated with a god who was himself closely connected with a goddess representing the fruitfulness of the land and the sovereignty of the territory. And, as in India, it seems to me that in Ireland a great deal of this mythology of the land must represent a continuity from the pre-Indo-European–in other words pre-Celtic–culture of the country.” (MacCana 1988, 334)

    7. Reconstructed beliefs include “The Celtic goddess” as female personification of the territory, the female partner in the hieros gamos (sacred marriage), bestows the sovereignty upon the king, during a ceremony involving the presentation of an intoxicating beverage, name *Medua ‘the intoxicating one’ / ‘mead woman’.

    8. The etymology of Medb in scholarly works:

    Medb, …, can mean either ‘the drunken one’ or ‘she who intoxicates’. Drunkenness, at least in this context, would not have been seen as degenerative behavior, but as a king of ecstatic state in which a human was lifted out of himself and might hope to achieve contact with the divine. .. Thus the king’s ritual drunkenness at the inaugural feast might be interpreted as an image of the sacred orgasm in which he was united with the goddess.” (Bowen 1975, 21)

    Medb’s name means the ‘intoxicating one’, and she is a form of the goddess who is various cultures is seen providing the king or hero with a libation, a drink necessary for him to continue his reign.” (Condren 1989, 235, fn. 40)

    “One of the ways the goddess signaled acceptance of a would-be king was to offer him a drink: this aspect is conveyed in Medbs very name, which has been explained as a derivative of the word med ‘mead’, meaning ‘the intoxicating (or intoxicated) one.” (Kelly 1992, 78)

    “Her name means ‘intoxicating’ or ‘she who intoxicates’; she offered then drink of dominion from her own fertile body. But in Táin Bó Cuailnge, first written down around the eighth century, Medb’s drink, like too much alcohol, could also rob a man his virility.” (Bitel 1996, 70)

    “Today, the most frequently quoted reason for attributing a mythological background to the literary figure Medb is probably the etymology of her name.” (Egeler 2012, 68)

    9.  Medb and the presentation of drinks:  Medb intoxicates Fer Diad; Medb poisons Lugaid Laígse; Medb bestows the ríge laéch n-Erend ‘the sovereignty of thee warriors of Ireland’ (Three main Ulster heroes come to the court of Ailill and Medb to receive a judgement on the question who of them is the superior warrior. Medb tells each hero secretly that he is the best and gives him a precious cup filled with wine and decorated with the figure of a bird at the bottom. However, the cups are made of metals of different value. Back in Ulster, they discover, that Cú Chulainn has received the most valuable cup. The decision is not accepted by the two inferior ones, who accuse Cú Chulainn to have bought it.); the very name of Connacht–Cóiced Medba / Cóiced (n-)Ól n-écmacht (They were called Cóiced Ól nÉcmacht. It is not difficult [to explain]. A feast was offered to them and to Clanna Degad in the house of Domma the druid. The Connachta arrived first and they did not divide fairly the ale or the food with Clanna Degad, but consumed fully two thirds of it. So the druid said at that time: “the drinking that you do is impossible”, i.e. it is beyond capacity, i.e. it is ill-conceived. That is why [the name] Cóiced Ól nÉcmachta has stuck to the province of Connachta ever since.)

    10. Expression of ‘drunkenness, intoxication’ and ‘drunken, intoxicated’ in Ol Irish. I have a note that says medb was already obsolete in Old Irish. mescae ‘intoxication’; i mmescai ‘intoxicated’; medb ‘strong, intoxicating’; medb ‘bitter, acid’

    11.  Alternative Etymology (Pinault 2007)
    PIE root *med– ‘take the appropriate measures to face a difficulty, solve a problem’
    *med- ‘to measure, to care for observance, to look after’
    ‘to rule’
    ‘to heal’
    ‘to judge’
    ‘to measure’
    Gaul. Epomeduos ‘he who conducts / governs the horses’ (instead of ‘intoxicated by the horse’)
    Old Irish. Medb < *med-ua ‘she who rules’, ‘(female) ruler, sovereign’

    Two Gaulish goddesses (Lambert 2006): Meduna, Comedovis Augustis
    ‘rules, evaluates’
    ‘lord, ruler’

    12.  Reconstructed Cults:
    Medb as a sun goddess or goddess of dawn (‘solar mythology” – under influence of Max Mueller and gods as personification).
    Medb herself, married first to Conchobar, then to Ailill, is to be classed with what I may, in default of a better term, goddesses of dawn and dusk, who are found at one time consorting with bight beings and at another with dark ones. They also associate themselves commonly with water…” (Rhys 1888, 138f.)

    Mebd as epithet of PIE *h2-eusos, goddess of dawn and sovereignty goddess – The sovereignty myth is not restricted to Celtic religion but Proto-Indo-European. (McCone 2112)


    Medb as Indo-European river goddess (Olmsted 1994) Comparison with Continental place names and tribal names containing the element *med– ‘mead’. Medb is linked to a ritual bull killing (like the Great Mother is Rome) (Olmsted 1994). Medb as a horse goddess (McCone 1990, Mallory / McNeill 1991) Connection of the sovereignty myth hypotheses with the inauguration ritual of the Cenenel Connaill, Ulster described by Giraldus Cambrensis; the ceremony that involved the ritual marriage of the king with a mare and/or some form of horse sacrifice. Parallel with Old Indic ‘horse sacrifice’, where in the Indic ritual the king’s wives have intercourse with a sacrificed stallion.


    “The points raised above constitute a substantial dossier of varied evidence, including some remarkably circumstantial correspondences, for an Indo-European institution, ideology and mythology of sacral kingship. This was based on the widely attested notion that the well-being of society and nature flowed from a ritual marriage between a goddess and the new ruler to emerge after appropriate tests. The former might be called *Med h w-i or *Med h w-a after the draught of mead (*med h u) involved in the ceremony, which apparently centered upon an equine ritual and associated feast. “ (McCone 1990, 120)

    “…the royal family which was supposed to be still practicing this sacred bestiality had been Christian for at least six centuries and supplied (among other churchmen) twelve abbots of Iona.” (Hutton 1991, 172)

    Medb as mead goddess, Medb as a goddess of intoxication; one of several Celtic goddesses of intoxication (Meduna, Comedovis, Latis..); there was a Celtic cult of ‘ritual intoxication’ to get into contact with the divine world; ‘ritual intoxication’ is linked to healing, war, and sovereignty.

    13.  Other mythologic backgrounds of the Táin (not involving Medb): Cú Chulainn as a vegetation god or ‘year spirit’ (vegetation deity) (Ó Broin, 1961-63); Cú chulainn lives one year with (goddess) Fedelm Noíchride / Foltchaín after having mutilated her companion; bull fight of the Táin as a Proto-Indo-European cosmogonic myth (Lincoln 1981) The ‘divine bull’ as a cult animal among the Celts (Ross 1992).

    -There is no evidence that Medb was understood as ‘the intoxicating one’ within the native tradition.
    -The etymology Medb ‘rule’ has semantic parallels with other theonyms.
    -It is compatible with a sovereignty goddess, but not with a mead cult or mead ritual.
    -The sovereignty allegory with the presentation of a drink in the Irish tradition may be due to the flaith~laith-metaphor (only in Irish, not in Brittonic).
    -Reconstructions of archaic rituals which are mainly based on etymologies of theonyms are doubtful.


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    The final presenter, before lunch on the first day, was perhaps my favorite.  Dr. Richard Warner (IAI) spoke on, ‘The Navan Temple, the Tech Midchúarta and Fiachna’s fatal round-house’.

     It will be argued that the very large ‘feasting-halls described in early, including ‘mythological’, Irish texts were describing real, contemporary Early Medieval buildings whose origin may be sought in the Iron Age, and typified by the 40-metre, wooden building excavated at Navan.  it will be shown that archaeological evidence for large Early Medieval halls has been found but has been ignored or dismissed.

    As I said, I particularly enjoyed this speaker, as evidenced by the first note I made, “Look-up his scholarship!”  He was not only a delightful speaker, but the material was fascinating.  Listening to him, I wanted nothing more than to sit at a kitchen table, over a cup of tea, asking him a million questions.

    “Late literature (Ulster Cycle) does not give a glimpse of prehistoric life.”  Or, does it?

    The Iron Age in Ireland is dated from ~300 BCE – 300 CE.  It was during this time that ritual was held at Navan (95 BCE).  Contrast this to the Ulster Cycle texts, which date to 800 CE.  That leaves a 900 year gap between construction and use of the structure, and mention in literary sources.

    The mound contains, the now infamous, 40-metre structure, which includes 4 concentric rings, spaced 3-metres apart, that were encased in a stone and turf mound and burned in 95 BCE.  The Wooing of Emer contains a description of the Navan ‘round-house’ temple:

    There was great state and rank and plenty in the king’s house at Emain.

    On this wise was that house—viz., the Red Branch of Conchobor, after the likeness of the House of the Midcourt.3 Nine beds were in it from the fire to the wall. Thirty feet was the height of each bronze front that was in the house. Carvings of red yew were therein. It was a board [] below, and a roof of tiles above. The bed of Conchobor was in the front of the house, with boards of silver, with pillars of bronze, with the glitter of gold on their head-pieces, and carbuncles in them, so that day and night were equally light in it, with its silver board above the king to the highest part of the royal house. Whenever Conchobor struck the board with a royal rod, all the men of Ulster were silent thereat. The twelve beds of the twelve chariot-chiefs were round about that bed.

    In fact, the description of feasting houses in the tales do not reflect the reality — in other words, there is no archeological evidence that ‘feasting’ houses matched the descriptions given in the literary tradition.  An early medieval royal house was about 40 feet across.  Detailed descriptions of daily life did not survive from the Iron Age to the Early Medieval period, but usages of form and function, particularly of royal ritual, did survive.

    We see lots of stories of houses burnt, and we also find descriptions of a king’s house.

    Gríth Gablach (MacNeill’s translation) http://ia600500.us.archive.org/3/items/papersirishacad00macnuoft/papersirishacad00macnuoft.pdf

    What is the due of a king who is always in residence at the head of his tuath?  Seven score feet of perfect feet are the measure of his stockade on every side.  Seven feet are the thickness of its earthwork, and twelve feet its depth.  It is then that he is a king, when ramparts of vassalage surround him.  What is the rampart of vassalage?  Twelve feet are the breadth of its opening and its depth and its measure towards the stockade. Thirty feed are its measure outwardly.

    […] How is a king’s house arranged?

    The king’s guards on the south.  Question–What guards are proper for a king to have?  A man whom he has freed from the dungeon, the from gallows, from captivity, a man whom he has freed from service, from servile cottiership, from servile tenancy.  He does not keep a man whom he has saved from single combat, lest he betray him, lest he slay him, in malice or for favour.

    What number of guards is proper for a king to have?  Four, namely, a frontman and a henchman and two sidesmen, these are their names.  It is these that are proper to be in the south side of a king’s house, to accompany him from house into field, from field into house.

    A man of pledge for vassals next these inwards.  What is this man’s dignity?  A man who has land of seven cumals, who presides over his (the king’s) chattels, including (those of) lord and base man and of the law of Féni.

    Next to him inward, envoys.  Next to these, guest-companies.  Poets next to these, harpers next.  Flute-players, horn-players, jugglers, in the south-east.

    On the other side, in the north, a man at arms, a man of action, to guard the door, each of them having his spear in front of him always against confusion of the banquet-house [by attack from without].  Next to these inward, the free clients of the lord (i.e. of the king).  These are the folk who are company to a king.  Hostages next to these.  The judge (the king’s assessor) next to these.  His (the king’s) wife next to him.  The king next.  Forfeited hostages in fetters in the north-east.

    The king of a tuath (has a retinue) of twelve men (when he goes to the court of a superior king) to (protect) the interests of the tuath; whom the tuath itself sustains as regards their expense (?).  Twelve men, too, are the retinue of a bishop for the interests of church and tuath in which he himself goes (on visitation).  For a tuath cannot bear the retinue of king and bishop if they be always battening on it.  The retinue of a master is twelve men.


    Lissue ringfort (Co. Antrim) is another 40-metre across “round-house” and had post rings in a circular configuration:

     In this case, the inner ring of posts would have supported the roof. But the area between the outside of the `house’ and the inner face of the bank, instead of containing traces of sheds or pens, was found to contain concentric circles of large square wooden posts, centred on the centre of the ‘house’ (the hearth). Without going into detailed arguments, I will simply give it as the excavator’s conclusion, with which I fully agree, that these posts held a roof which completely covered the interior of the ringfort, its eaves being on the bank itself.14 Such a structure is otherwise unknown in a ringfort, The second, and main, ringfort at Lissue was, then, completely filled by a single huge building some 130 feet (40 metres) in diameter. The ‘house’ wall at the centre was simply a partition of some sort inside this structure, and around the hearth.

    The entrance to the central partitioned `hearth’ area led along a paved path through a six foot wide passage through the bank, to a gate in its outer face. Thence, unusually for a ringfort, it led across the ditch over a wooden bridge rather than the usual causeway, and out through another gate in a fence on the outer edge of the ditch. In the mid 1940s, the farmer remembered a gravelly `roadway’ leading away from this entrance, towards the east.

    […] But the most spectacular find, from the last phase, was a slab of slate covered with carefully drawn incised sketches: an animal, bits of interlace, geometric patterns etc., (fig 3). It had on it the sort of patterns that could be found on contemporary metal ornaments, or in decorated gospel books, or perhaps even on peoples’ clothes. Decorated slates like this are called by archaeologists ‘trial’ pieces (or ‘motif’ pieces), but their real purpose is quite unknown. 16 This one was found in the layer of charcoal and burning that represented the demise of the site, a dramatic end in which a large proportion of the great structure was destroyed by fire. Usefully it can be approximately dated to about A.D. 1000 by the ornaments carved on it. This approximate date is supported by the other artefacts, to which a date around the 10th century would apply. It was Bersu’s belief that each wooden building would hardly have lasted more than 50 years in the Irish climate, then as now rather wet. This would give some 150 years for the maximum length of use of the three phases, and an earliest date in the middle of the 9th century for the first ringfort and the beginning of the second. These dates are, of worse, only approximate, but as we would hardly expect such a huge structure to be replaced sooner than was necessary, they seem reasonable.

    Lisaeda (a royal dwelling) is Lissue ringfort (his evidence is given in this paper, The Early Christian Ringfort of Lissue.     This dates a description of a royal ‘round-house’ to ~1000 CE

    There was mention made to Clogher, Co. Tyrone, as another example of a royal feasting house.  He used these examples to substantiate his claim that these descriptions of contemporary royal feasting houses do indeed reflect the reality of Emain Macha and is supported by archeological evidence.  He speculated that the big ‘house’ (Navan Temple) was the tribes palace, not the actual house of the king, and an anti-chamber to the otherworld, which was ritually destroyed as a sacrifice so the Ulster warriors could use it in the otherworld. 

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    My partner is from Ulster, but that’s not why I’m traveling there.
    Many wonderful archeological sites, and areas of beauty are in Ulster, but they don’t precipitate my visit, either.

    No, I’m journeying North to sit through TWO DAYS of academic discourse on the Ulster Cycle of Tales!!!! Be still my wild, Cú Chulainn heart! As before, I will share my notes (and strive to be well rested, so as not to do any presentation a disservice).


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    Townleyhall, a passage tomb just north of Brú na Boinne, is aligned to the rising sun of the Summer Solstice.

    [youtube http://youtu.be/y292vwXEeaQ]

    Carrowkeel’s Cairn G, a passage tomb in the west of the country, is aligned to the setting sun of the Summer Solstice.

    [youtube http://youtu.be/WzevktdJQnU]

    The Grange Stone Circle at Lough Gur in Co. Limerick has a solstice sunrise alignment.


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