The Atlantic Otherworld

To the ancient peoples of Europe’s Atlantic coasts, the sight of the sun setting into the sea in the west has been a source of wonder and mythology that has created a number of potent ideas regarding the ‘otherworld’.

Roman prodigy Lucan’s account of the Roman Civil Wars, Pharsalia (1stC), said that the Atlantic ‘Celtic’ doctrine was that the soul doesn’t die with the body, but:

regit idem spiritus artus Orbe alio

“Rules the spirit for another cycle”

In other words, reincarnation was continuous. However, there is no indication (from what scanty contemporary evidence we possess) that reincarnation was believed to be an instantaneous phenomenon: In fact, to suggest so would be counter-intuitive to observations of nature which ‘teach’ that a journey must occur before new life is reborn – just as with the seasonal cycle of plants, animals, pregnancy and so forth. This concept that life is reborn therefore demands a stage where the soul inhabits a secret (hidden) dormant existence, and this appears to be the subject of the pagan belief in the Otherworld. Looking west towards the setting sun (the hiding of the sun, prior to its rebirth in the East the next morning) was the logical direction in which to seek this otherworld…

Medieval Irish and Scots references to Tír na nÓg (Land of the Young), Tír Tairngire (Land of Promise), Tír na mBeo (Land of the Living/Soul) and Mag Mell (‘Honeyed Plain’) all suggest these places to be ‘islands’ in the West – a receiving place for the soul.

A story including a corrupt or misunderstood version of this doctrine appears to have been told by the 5thC CE Byzantine annalist-historian Procopius of Casarea, who says (in his book The Wars of Justinian) that some North Europeans relate a story about ships leaving at night from the shores of land to convey the souls of the dead to an island in the west, which he believed was called Brittia. Procopius’ Brittia equates in sound at least to the Breton name of Brittany: Breizhe, which holds certain similarities to the Irish Goddess (or Saint) called Brighde and the Manx equivalent, Breeshey (pron. ‘Breeshya’ or ‘Vreeshya’ or even ‘Bahee’). Of interest at this point, the Scandinavian goddess ‘Freyja‘ – another receiver of the dead in ancient European myth – has a name which could easily be a mutation of the original name from which the Manx derive Breeshey or Vreeshey (ie- Brigdhe)… The archipelago of Atlantic islands known to us as the ‘Hebrides’ are also named after Brighde/Bride, from Hy Brides, and are of particular significance for their ancient association with Atlantic religion – both pagan and Christian – of which more later.

All of these names are similar in their root to 1stC CE Greek author Plutarch’s ‘Briareus’: In an essay called ‘On the Face in the Moon’, from his famous book known as the Moralia he told a tale about an island originally mentioned by Homer – Ogygia – which in Plutarch’s telling lies in the west, beyond Britain, near the setting sun. This island, he says, is where the ancient Titan/God Kronos (also known as Uranus/Ouranos) was confined by ‘Zeus’ and a character he calls ‘Ancient Briareus‘ and was the centre of a cult which worshipped him. Homer’s account of Ogygia (The Oddyssey, Book 4) tells that, much further back in time in the Age of Heroes, Ogygia (‘Isle of Giants’?) was home of the magical female Calypso, daughter of the Titan Atlas, who was also known as Atlantis. Wordly magical females were also strongly associated with ancient Atlantic/Celtic legends related to the idea of ‘Blessed Isles’, and were also usually associated with distant masculine characters: Niamh and Manannan, Morgan and Merlin etc.

The essence of death was apparently believed to be a journey to the west – across water into the setting sun. The ‘Blessed Isles’ and their archetypal versions were believed to lie in this direction. When the sun set upon the world of the living, it therefore rose upon the world of the dead. In the land of the living this otherworld could be experienced in image form – the moon represented the otherworld sun, and shades and spirits played out the goings-on in the otherworld. These lay in the future, as when the sun returned in the East a new day was born having first passed through the world of the dead. For this reason, the inhabitants of the otherworld – the souls of the dead who had passed – were believed able to presage future events. Rather than being in the past – in memoriam – they followed the path of the sun to a future rebirth.

When the sun sets upon our world ... it rises on another in the West

When the sun sets upon our world … it rises on another in the West

The idea of crossing water to reach the land of the dead also occurs in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and indeed across much of Europe from antiquity. The River Styx was the watery liminal boundary to the world of the dead to the ancient Greeks. The burial at sea of the legendary ancient Danish hero-king-progenitor Scyld Scefing (equivalent to the Norse Skjöldr) is recounted in the Epic of Beowulf, and Sceaf is the name of a legendary progenitor child in North Germanic legends who washed ashore in a small boat, accompanied by sheaf of corn – possibly a Neolithic ancestor-legend handed down to the medieval period. Scyld Scefing is therefore probably supposed to be an ancestor of Sceaf, and returns to the watery state in Beowulf, setting the scene for the pagan theme of the Beowulf story involving a watery Troll-Wife who begets the monstrous would-be king who returns to overthrow his father the old king! Of his ancestor Scyld Scefing’s funeral the bard of Heorot tells King Hrothgar:

They decked his body no less bountifully

with offerings than those first ones did who cast him away when he was a child

and launched him alone out over the waves.

The deep pagan message of Beowulf is that man has to strike a balance with the otherworld, what comes from it must be given back at the end. In the Beowulf story, the plot revolves around the forces being balanced – what Hrothgar took from Grendel’s Mother must be returned. Although Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother, he must eventually pay for theft from the otherworld when he is killed battling a dragon which seeks to recover treasure stolen by the Geats from another otherworld source.

Day and Night

The idea that the otherworld paralleled our own and was a inversion of it was a deep-rooted one which left its mark upon the belief in fairies, ghosts, the second sight and ideas of luck, fertility and providence into the Christian era. As already mentioned, our night was the otherworld day – a time when the spirits were active and likely to be met with. In Beowulf, it was the time when the spirit Grendel came to jealously reclaim his rights in the world of men.

In Ireland and the Isle of Man it was believed you could fend off the attention of spirits when travelling at night by reversing your clothes – perhaps to convince them that you were one of them. Fairies were hungry for the substance of our goods and well-being, as a state of plenty for us was supposed to represent famine for them, and vice-versa: They were supposed to steal the substance of crops, the butter from milk, and the health from an apparently well infant who they were supposed to have swapped for a ‘changeling’. All of these ancient spirit-beliefs became corrupted during the Christian era into ‘witchcraft’ beliefs where humans – inspired by the devil – became the supposed agents of such misfortune. It is notable that where the fairy faith stayed strong, there were few witch persecutions. Fairies and the spirit world were moral balancing forces in the Atlantic pagan form of reckoning.

Sight of another World

The belief that people could have visions into an invisible world parallel with ours has long been a feature of Atlantic European culture. The belief in what has been termed ‘Second Sight’ encompasses visions that are both prophetic and intimately linked to the idea of fairies and the fairy world.

The 17th century was a period when there was renewed interest in prophecies due to political and religious upheaval. Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1703) contained a particular account of the ‘Seers’ in the Hebrides in the late 1600’s, and is useful because it corroborates many of Robert Kirk’s observations of Highland beliefs at the same period. Kirk’s work, usually known as ‘The Secret Commonwealth’, was to remain unpublished until rediscovered by members of Walter Scott’s literary circle in the early 19th century. A perhaps lesser-recognised book about the Second Sight among the Scots (‘Deuteroskopia or, A Brief Discourse upon the Second Sight, so-called’) was published in 1707 from the notes of the late Revd John Frazer, minister of Tiree and Coll. There was considerable interest in the intellectual and scientific examination of such phenomena at this period.

However, accounts of the second sight go back much further. During the 14th century, Ranulph Higden – a cloistered monk at St Werberg’s monastery, Chester, was writing an encyclopaedic Latin compendium of knowledge about Britain that he called the Polychronicon. It was to become a popular book – so much so that it was eventually translated to English and printed. In this work, Higden mentions the following fascinating account of superstitions in the Isle of Man (probably gathered from a Scotsman called Martholine who was supposedly an administrator there during the occupation by Robert the Bruce):

In ilia insula vigent sortilegia, superstitiones, atque praestigia …. Ibi frequenter ab indigenis videntur etiam de die homines prius mortui, decapitati sive integri, juxta modum suae mortis; ut autem alienigenae et adventitii hoc videre possint, ponunt pedes super pedes incolarum, et sic videre poterunt quod incolae vident.

Which translates as:

“In this Island are observed prophecies, superstitions and trickeries … Frequently, by the very light of day, some of the islanders have visions of men who are about to die, and can tell by their appearance – beheaded or whole – in what manner they will meet their demise. Incomers wishing to share the sight of the Manxmen simply place their foot upon that of the islander.”

This description is congruent with those gathered 400 years later by Martin, Frazer and Kirk (who also mentions the placing of the foot), and there is good evidence of a continuity of the belief in both the Hebrides and the Isle of Man down to the 20th century if not longer. In fact, Adomnán of Iona‘s 7thC ‘Life of Columba’ draws upon traditions about Columcille which depict him as a prophet in the Hebridean sense.

Kirk’s 17thC account suggests that it was believed that ‘fairies’ would make premonitions by acting out or aping scenes of what was to come, and a near-contemporary account of the Manx by George Waldron suggested that this was believed in the Isle of Man too. Visions of fairies performing funerals or christenings were supposed to predict a death or a birth respectively. However, Kirk mentions the belief that each living person has an attendant spirit double which can be transmitted to appear to others over great distances – particularly when the owner was in peril. The other aspect to the belief was the appearance of inanimate objects such as funeral shrouds or hangman’s nooses in the visions, sometimes also of sparks of light. It can be of little doubt that there was a fervent belief in such phenomena which approached the religious, and that this was reinforced by telling stories of accounts of it, as can be seen from Martin’s extensive and somewhat credulous reports.

The concurrence of the Second Sight beliefs and Fairy beliefs indicates that the ‘Otherworld’ could be accessed by the common people, although not by all, and not always by choice. The world of the dead and the world of fairies were the same realm, albeit in a seemingly inverted state to that of ours, and from which we might gather information about the future. Periods at which the spirits were closer allowed for a greater common appreciation of what the otherworld might show, and this is why festivals such as Samhain were associated with popular prognostications. At other times, the Second Sight was the province of specialist Seers and ‘Fairy Doctors’ who could read the signs from where the two worlds interacted.

Martin Martin – Account of the Second Sight

“A Description of THE WESTERN ISLANDS Of Scotland (CIRCA 1695) By Martin Martin, Gent” (1703)

Martin was a Hebridean whose account of the ‘Second Sight’ both scandalised and excited those who read it. His was an age of science and religious extremism in which juxtaposed ancient and modern points of view were contesting for the hearts and minds of the populations of the British Isles and Ireland:

AN ACCOUNT OF THE SECOND-SIGHT, IN IRISH CALLED TAISH.

THE second-sight is a singular faculty of seeing an otherwise invisible object, without any previous means used by the person that sees it for that end; the vision makes such a lively impression upon the seers, that they neither see nor think of anything else, except the vision, as long as it continues: and then they appear pensive or jovial, according to the object which was represented to them.

At the sight of a vision, the eye-lids of the person are erected, and the eyes continue staring until the object vanishes. This is obvious to others who are by, when the persons happen to see a vision, and occurred more than once to my own observation, and to others that were with me.

There is one in Skye, of whom his acquaintance observed, that when he sees a vision, the inner part of his eye-lids turn so far upwards, that after the object disappears, he must draw them down with his fingers, and sometimes employs others to draw them down, which he finds to be much the easier way.

This faculty of the second-sight does not lineally descend in a family, as some imagine, for I know several parents who are endowed with it, but their children not, and vice versa. Neither is it acquired by any previous compact. And after a strict enquiry, I could never learn from any among them, that this faculty was communicable any way whatsoever.

The seer knows neither the object, time, nor place of a vision, before it appears; and the same object is often seen by different persons, living at a considerable distance from one another. The true way of judging as to the time and circumstance of an object, is by observation; for several persons of judgment, without this faculty, are more capable to judge of the design of a vision, than a novice that is a seer. If an object appear in the day or night, it will come to pass sooner or later accordingly.

If an object is seen early in the morning (which is not frequent) it will be accomplished in a few hours afterwards. If at noon, it will commonly be accomplished that very day. If in the evening, perhaps that night; if after candles be lighted, it will be accomplished that night: the latter always in accomplishment by weeks, months, and sometimes years, according to the time of night the vision is seen.

When a shroud is perceived about one, it is a sure prognostic of death. The time is judged according to the height of it about the person; for if it is not seen above the middle, death is not to be expected for the space of a year, and perhaps some months longer; and as it is frequently seen to ascend higher towards the head, death is concluded to be at hand within a few days, if not hours, as daily experience confirms. Examples of this kind were shown me, when the persons of whom the observations then made enjoyed perfect health.

One instance was lately foretold by a seer that was a novice, concerning the death of one of my acquaintance; this was communicated to a few only, and with great confidence; I being one of the number, did not in the least regard it, until the death of the person about the time foretold, did confirm me of the certainty of the prediction. The novice mentioned above, is now a skilful seer, as appears from many late instances; he lives in the parish of St. Mary’s, the most northern in Skye.

If a woman is seen standing at a man’s left hand, it is a presage that she will be his wife, whether they be married to others, or unmarried at the time of the apparition.

If two or three women are seen at once standing near a man’s left hand, she that is next him will undoubtedly be his wife first, and so on, whether all three, or the man be single or married at the time of the vision or not; of which there are several late instances among those of my acquaintance. It is an ordinary thing for them to see a man that is to come to the house shortly after; and if he is not of the seer’s acquaintance, yet he gives such a lively description of his stature, complexion, habit,& c., that upon his arrival he answers the character given him in all respects.

If the person so appearing be one of the seer’s acquaintance, he will tell his name, as well as other particulars; and he can tell by his countenance whether he comes in a good or bad humour.

I have been seen thus myself by seers of both sexes at some hundred miles distance; some that saw me in this manner had never seen me personally, and it happened according to their visions, without any previous design of mine to go to those places, my coming there being purely accidental.

It is ordinary with them to see houses, gardens, and trees, in places void of all three; and this in process of time used to be accomplished: as at Mogstot, in the Isle of Skye, where there were but a few sorry cow-houses thatched with straw, yet in a few years after, the vision which appeared often was accomplished, by the building of several good houses on the very spot represented to the seers, and by the planting of orchards there.

To see a spark of fire fall upon one’s arm or breast is a forerunner of a dead child to be seen in the arms of those persons; of which there are several fresh instances.

To see a seat empty at the time of one’s sitting in it, is a presage of that person’s death quickly after.

When a novice, or one that has lately obtained the second-sight, sees a vision in the night-time without doors, and comes near a fire, he presently falls into a swoon.

Some find themselves as it were in a crowd of people, having a corpse which they carry along with them; and after such visions the seers come in sweating, and describe the people that appeared: if there be any of their acquaintance among them, they give an account of their names, as also of the bearers, but they know nothing concerning the corpse.

All those who have the second-sight do not always see these visions at once, though they be together at the time. But if one who has this faculty designedly touch his fellow-seer at the instant of a vision’s appearing, then the second sees it as well as the first; and this is sometimes discerned by those that are near them on such occasions.

There is a way of foretelling death by a cry that they call taisk, which some call a wraith in the Lowlands.

They hear a loud cry without doors, exactly resembling the voice of some particular person, whose death is foretold by it. The last instance given me of this kind was in the village Rigg, in the isle of Skye.

Five women were sitting together in the some room, and all of them heard a loud cry passing by the window; they thought it plainly to be the voice of a maid who was one of the number; she blushed at the time, though not sensible of her so doing, contracted a fever next day, and died that week.

Things also are foretold by smelling, sometimes as follows. Fish or flesh is frequently smelled in a fire, when at the same time neither of the two are in the house, or in any probability like to be had in it for some weeks or months; for they seldom eat flesh, and though the sea be near them, yet they catch fish but seldom in the winter and spring. This smell several persons have, who are not endued with the second-sight, and it is always accomplished soon after.

Children, horses, and cows see the second-sight, as well as men and women advanced in years.

That children see it is plain from their crying aloud at the very instant that a corpse or any other vision appears to an ordinary seer. I was present in a house where a child cried out of a sudden, and being asked the reason of it, he answered that he had seen a great white thing lying on the board which was in the corner: but he was not believed, until a seer who was present told them that the child was in right; for, said he, I saw a corpse and the shroud about it, and the board be used as part of a coffin, or some way employed about a corpse; and accordingly it was made into a coffin, for one who was in perfect health at the time of vision.

That horses see it is likewise plain from their violent and sudden starting, when the rider or seer, in company with him sees a vision of any kind, night or day. It is observable of the horse, that he will not forward that way, until he be led about at some distance from the common road, and then he is in a sweat.

A horse fastened by the common road on the side Loch Skeriness in Skye, did break his rope at noon-day, and run up and down without the least visible cause. But two of the neighbourhood that happened to be at a little distance and in view of the horse, did the at same time see a considerable number of men about a corpse directing their course to the church of Snizort; and this was accomplished within a few days after by the death of a gentlewoman who lived thirteen miles from that church and came from another parish from whence very few came to Snizort to be buried.

That cows see the second-sight appears from this; that when a woman is milking a cow and then happens to see the second-sight the cow runs away in a great fright at the same time, and will not be pacified for time after.

Before I mention more particulars discovered by the second-sight, it may not be amiss to answer the objections that have lately been made against the reality of it.

Object. 1. These seers are visionary and melancholy people, and fancy they see things that do not appear to them or anybody else.

Answer. The people of these isles, and particularly the seers, are very temperate, and their diet is simple and moderate in quantity and quality, so that their brains are not in all probability disordered by undigested fumes of meat or drink. Both sexes are free from hysteric fits, convulsions, and several other distempers of that sort; there’s no madmen among them, nor any instance of self-murder. It is observed among them that a man drunk never sees the second-sight; and that he is a visionary, would discover himself in other things as well as in that; and such as see it are not judged to be visionaries by any of their friends or acquaintance.

Object. 2. There is none among the learned able to oblige the world with a satisfying account of those visions, therefore it is not to be believed.

Answer. If everything for which the learned are not able to give a satisfying account be condemned as impossible we may find many other things generally believed that must be rejected as false by this rule. For instance, yawning and its influence, and that the loadstone attracts iron; and yet these are true as well as harmless, though we can give no satisfying account of their causes, how much less can we pretend to things that are supernatural?

Object. 3. The seers are impostors, and the people who believe them are credulous, and easily imposed upon.

Answer. The seers are generally illiterate and well meaning people, and altogether void of design, nor could I ever learn that any of them made the least gain by it, neither is it reputable among them to have that faculty; besides the people of the isles are not so credulous as to believe implicitly before the thing foretold is accomplished; but when it actually comes to pass afterwards it is not in their power to deny it without offering violence to their senses and reason. Besides, if the seers were deceivers, can it be reasonable to imagine that all the islanders who have not the second-sight should combine together and offer violence to their understandings and senses, to force themselves to believe a lie from age to age. There are several persons among them whose birth and education raise them above the suspicion of concurring with an imposture merely to gratify an illiterate and contemptible sort of persons; nor can a reasonable man believe that children, horses, and cows could be pre-engaged in a combination to persuade the world of the reality of the second-sight.

Such as deny those visions give their assent to several strange passages in history upon the authority aforesaid of historians that lived several centuries before our time, and yet they deny the people of this generation the liberty to believe their intimate friends and acquaintance, men of probity and unquestionable reputation, and of those whose veracity they have greater certainty than we can have of any ancient historian.

Every vision that is seen comes exactly to pass according to the true rules of observation, though novices and heedless persons do not always judge by those rules. I remember the seers returned me this answer to my objection and gave several instances to that purpose, whereof the following is one.

A boy of my acquaintance was often surprised at the sight of a coffin close by his shoulder, which put him into a fright and made him to believe it was a forerunner of his own death, and this his neighbours also judged to be the meaning of that vision; but a seer that lived in the village Knockow, where the boy was then a servant, told them that they were under a great mistake, and desired the boy to lay hold of the first opportunity that offered; and when he went to a burial to remember to act as a bearer for some moments: and this he did accordingly, within a few days after, when one of his acquaintance died; and from that time forward he was never troubled with seeing a coffin at his shoulder, though he has seen many at a distance, that concerned others. He is now reckoned one of the exactest seers in the parish of St. Mary’s in Skye, where he lives.

There is another instance of a woman in Skye, who frequently saw a vision representing a woman having a shroud about her up to the middle, but always appeared with her back towards her, and the habit in which it seemed to be dressed resembled her own: this was a mystery for some time, until the woman tried an experiment to satisfy her curiosity, which was, to dress herself contrary to the usual way; that is, she put that part of her clothes behind, which was always before, fancying that the vision at the next appearing would be easier distinguished: and it fell out accordingly, for decision soon after presented itself with its face and dress looking towards the woman, and it proved to resemble herself in all points, and she died in a little time after.

There are visions seen by several persons, in whose days they are not accomplished; and this is one of the reasons why some things have been seen that are said to never come to pass, and there are also several visions seen which are not understood until they be accomplished.

The second-sight is not a late discovery seen by one or two in a corner, or a remote isle, but it is seen by many persons of both sexes, in several isles, separated above forty or fifty leagues from one another: the inhabitants of many of these isles never had the least converse by word or writing; and this faculty of seeing visions, having continued, as we are informed by tradition, ever since the plantation of these isles, without being disproved by the nicest skeptic, after the strictest inquiry, seems to be a clear proof of its reality.

It is observable that it was much more common twenty years ago than at present; for one in ten do not see it now, that saw it then.

The second-sight is not confined to the Western Isles alone, for I have an account that it is likewise seen in several parts of Holland, but particularly in Bommel, by a woman, for which she is courted by some, and dreaded by others. She sees a smoke about one’s face, which is a forerunner of the death of a person so seen, and she did actually foretell the death of several that lived there: she was living in that town this last winter.

The corpse-candles, or dead-men’s lights in Wales, which are certain prognostics of death, are well-known and attested.

The second-sight is likewise seen in the Isle of Man, as appears by this instance: Captain Leaths, the chief magistrate of Belfast, in his voyage 1690, lost thirteen men by a violent storm, and upon his landing upon the Isle of Man, an ancient man, clerk to a parish there, told him immediately that he had lost thirteen men: the captain inquiring how he came to the knowledge of that, he answered, that it was by thirteen lights which he had seen come into the churchyard; as Mr. Sacheverel tells us, in his late description of the Isle of Man.

It were ridiculous to suppose a combination between the people of the Western Isles of Scotland, Holland, Wales, and the Isle of Man, since they are separated by long seas, and are people of different languages, governments, and interests: they have no correspondence between them, and it is probable that those inhabiting the north-west isles have never yet heard that any such visions are seen in Holland, Wales, or the Isle of Man.

Four men of the village Flodgery in Skye being at supper, one of them did suddenly let fall his knife on the table, and looked with an angry countenance; the company observing it inquired his reason, but he returned them no answer until they had supped, and then he told them that when he let fall his knife, he saw a corpse, with the shroud about it, laid on the table which surprised him, and that a little time would accomplish the vision. It fell out accordingly, for in a few days after one of the family died, and happened to be laid out on that very table. This was told me by the master of the family.

Daniel Stewart, an inhabitant of Hole in the north parish of St. Mary’s in the isle of Skye, saw at noon-day five men on horseback riding northward; he ran to meet them, and when he came to the road he could see none of them, which was very surprising to him, and he told it to his neighbours: the very next day he saw the same number of men and horse coming along the road, but was not so ready to meet them as before, until he heard them speak, and then he found them to be those that he had seen the day before in a vision; this was the only vision of the kind he had ever seen in his life. The company he saw was Sir Donald MacDonald and his retinue, who at the time of the vision was at Armadale, near forty miles south from the place where the man lived.

A woman of Stornvay, in Lewis, had a maid who saw visions, and often fell into a swoon; her mistress was very much concerned about her, but could not find out any means to prevent her seeing those things; at last she resolved to pour some of the water used in baptism on her maid’s face, believing this would prevent her seeing any more sights of this kind. And accordingly she carried her maid with her next Lord’s day, and both of them sat near the basin in which the water stood, and after baptism, before the minister had concluded the last prayer, she put her hand in the basin, took up as much water as she could, and threw it on the maid’s face; at which strange action the minister and the congregation were equally surprised. After prayer the minister enquired of the woman the meaning of such an unbecoming and distracted action; she told him it was to prevent her maid’s seeing visions; and it fell out accordingly, for from that time she never once more saw a vision of any kind. This account was given me by Mr. Morison, minister of the place, before several of his parishioners who knew the truth of it. I submit the matter of fact to the censure of the learned; but for my own part I think it to have been one of Satan’s devices to make credulous people have an esteem for holy water.

John Morison, of Bragir, in Lewis, a person of unquestionable sincerity and reputation, told me that within a mile of his house a girl of twelve years old was troubled at the frequent sight of a vision, resembling herself in stature, complexion, dress, &c., and seemed to stand or sit, and to be always employed as the girl was; this proved a great trouble to her: her parents, being much concerned about it, consulted the said John Morison, who enquired if the girl was instructed in the principles of her religion, and finding she was not he bid them teach her the Creed, Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer, and that she should say the latter daily after her prayers. Mr. Morison and his family joined in prayer in the girl’s behalf, begging that God of his goodness would be pleased to deliver her from the trouble of such a vision: after which, and the girl’s complying with the advice as above, she never saw it any more.

A man living three miles to the north of the said John Morison is much haunted by a spirit, appearing in all points like to himself; and he asks many impertinent questions of the man when in the fields, but speaks not a word to him at home, though he seldom misses to appear to him every night in the house, but to no other person. He told this to one of his neighbours, who advised him to cast a live coal at the face of the vision the next time he appeared; the man did so next night, and all the family saw the action; but the following day the same spirit appeared to him in the fields, and beat him severely, so as to oblige him to keep his bed for the space of fourteen days after. Mr. Morison, minister of the parish, and several of his friends came to see the man, and joined in prayer that he might be freed from this trouble, but he was still haunted by that spirit a year after I left Lewis.

A man in Knockow, in the parish of St. Mary’s, the northernmost in Skye, being in perfect health, and sitting with his fellow-servants at night, was on a sudden taken ill, and dropped from his seat backward, and then fell a-vomiting; at which all the family were much concerned, he having never been subject to the like before: but he came to himself soon after, and had no sort of pain about him. One of the family, who was accustomed to see the second-sight, told them that the man’s illness proceeded from a very strange cause, which was thus: An ill-natured woman (naming her by her name), who lives in the next adjacent village of Bornskittag, came before him in a very furious and angry manner, her countenance full of passion, and her mouth full of reproaches, and threatened him with her head and hands, until he fell over as you have seen him. This woman had a fancy for the man, but was like to meet with a disappointment as to his marrying her. This instance was told me by the master of the family, and others who were present when it happened.

One that lived in St. Mary’s, on the west side of the isle of Skye, told Mr. MacPherson, the minister, and others, that he saw a vision of a corpse coming towards the church, not by the common road, but by a more rugged way, which rendered the thing incredible, and occasioned his neighbours to call him a fool; but he bid them have patience and they would see the truth of what he asserted in a short time: and it fell out accordingly, for one of the neighbourhood died, and his corpse was carried along the same unaccustomed way, the common road being at that time filled with a deep snow. This account was given me by the minister and others living there.

Mr. Macpherson’s servant foretold that a kiln should take fire, and being some time after reproved by his master for talking so foolishly of the second-sight, he answered that he could not help his seeing such things as presented themselves to his views in very lively manner; adding further, I have just now seen that boy sitting by the fire with his face red, as if the blood had been running down his forehead, and I could not avoid seeing this: and as for the accomplishment of it within forty-eight hours, there is no doubt, says he, it having appeared in the day-time. The minister became very angry at his man, and charged him never to speak one word more of the second-sight, or if he could not hold his tongue, to provide himself another master; telling him he was an unhappy fellow, who studied to abuse credulous people with false predictions. There was no more said on this subject until the next day, that the boy of whom the seer spoke, came in, having his face all covered with blood; which happened by his falling on a heap of stones. This account was given me by the minister and others of his family.

Daniel Dow, alias Black, an inhabitant of Bornskittag, was frequently troubled at the sight of a man, threatening to give him a blow; he knew no man resembling this vision; but the stature, complexion and habit were so impressed on his mind, that he said he could distinguish him from any other, if he should happen to see him. About a year after the vision appeared first to him, his master sent him to Kyle-Raes, about thirty miles further south-east, where he was no sooner arrived, than he distinguished the man who had so often appeared to him at home; and within a few hours after, they happened to quarrel, and came to blows, so as one of them (I forgot which) was wounded in the head. This was told me by the seer’s master, and others who live in the place. The man himself has his residence there, and is one of the precisest seers in the isles.

Sir Norman MacLeod, and some others playing at tables, at a game called in Irish Falmermore, wherein there are three of a side, and each of them threw the dice by turns; there happened to be one difficult point in the disposing of one of the table-men: this obliged the gamester to deliberate before he was to change his man, since upon the disposing of it the winning or losing of the game depended. At last the butler, who stood behind, advised the player where to place his man; with which he complied, and won the game. This being thought extraordinary, and Sir Norman hearing one whisper him in the ear, asked who advised him so skillfully? He answered, it was the butler; but this seemed more strange for he could not play at tables. Upon this, Sir Norman asked him how long it was since had learnt to play? and the fellow owned that he never played in his life, but that he saw the spirit Browny reaching his arm over the player’s head, and touched the part with his finger, on the point where the table-man was to be placed. This was told me by Sir Norman arid others, who happened to be present at the time.

Daniel Dow, above named, foretold the death of a young woman in Minginis, within less than twenty-four hours before the time; and accordingly she died suddenly in the fields, though at the time of the prediction she was in perfect health; but the shroud appearing close about her head, was the ground of his confidence, that her death was at hand.

The same Daniel Dow foretold the death of a child in his master’s arms, by seeing a spark of fire fall on his left arm; and this was likewise accomplished soon after the prediction.

Some of the inhabitants of Harris sailing round the isle of Skye, with a design to go to the opposite main land, were strangely surprised with an apparition of two men hanging down by the ropes that secured the mast, but could not conjecture what it meant. They pursued the voyage, but the wind turned contrary, and so forced them into Broadford in the isle of Skye, where they found Sir Donald MacDonald keeping a sheriff’s court, and two criminals receiving sentence of death there: the ropes and mast of that very boat were made use of to hang those criminals. This was told me by several who had this instance from the boat’s crew.

Several persons living in a certain family, told me that they had frequently seen two men standing at a young gentlewoman’s left hand, who was their master’s daughter: they told the men’s names; and being her equals, it was not doubted but she would be married to one of them: and perhaps to the other, after the death of the first. Some time after a third man appeared, and he seemed always to stand nearest to her of the three, but the seers did not know him, though they could describe him exactly. And within some months after, this man, who was seen last, did actually come to the house, and fulfilled the description given of him by those who never saw him but in a vision; and he married the woman shortly after. They live in the isle of Skye; both they and others confirmed the truth of this instance when I saw them.

Macleod’s porter passing by a galley that lay in the dock, saw her filled with men, having a corpse, and near to it he saw several of Macleod’s relations: this did in a manner persuade him that his master was to die soon after, and that he was to be the corpse which was to be transported in the galley. Some months after the vision was seen, Macleod, with several of his relations and others, went to the isle of Mull; where, some days after, Maclean of Torlosk happened to die, and his corpse was transported in the galley to his burial-place, and Macleod’s relations were on board to attend the funeral, while Macleod stayed ashore, and went along with the corpse after their landing.

Mr. Dougal Macpherson, minister of St. Mary’s, on the west side of Skye, having his servants in the kiln drying of corn, the kiln happened to take fire, but was soon extinguished. And within a few months after one of the minister’s servants told him that the kiln would be on fire again shortly, at which he grew very angry with his man, threatening to beat him if he should presume to prophesy mischief by that lying way of the second-sight. Notwithstanding this, the man asserted positively and with great assurance that the kiln would certainly take fire, let them use all the precautions they could. Upon this, Mr. Macpherson, had the curiosity to enquire of his man if he could guess within what space of time the kiln would take fire. He told him before Hallowtide. Upon which, Mr. Macpherson called for the key of the kiln, and told his man that he would take care of the kiln until the limited day was expired, for none shall enter it sooner, and by this means I shall make the devil, if he is the author of such lies, and you both liars. For this end he kept the key of the kiln in his press until the time was over, and then delivered the key to the servants, concluding his man to be a fool and a cheat. Then the servants went to dry corn in the kiln, and were charged to have a special care of the fire; yet in a little time after the kiln took fire; and it was all in a flame, according to the prediction, though the man mistook the time. He told his master that within a few moments after the fire of the kiln had been first extinguished, he saw it all in a flame again! and this appearing to him in the day time, it would come to pass the sooner.

John Macnormand and Daniel MacEwin, travelling along the road, two miles to the north of Snizort church, saw a body of men coming from the north, as if they had a corpse with them to be buried in Snizort; this determined them to advance towards the river, which was then a little before them, and having waited at the ford, thinking to meet those that they expected with the funeral, were altogether disappointed, for after taking a view of the ground all round them, they discovered that it was only a vision. This was very surprising to them both, for they never saw anything by way of the second-sight before or after that time. This they told their neighbours when they came home, and it happened that about two or three weeks after a corpse came along that road from another parish, from which few or none are brought to Snizort, except persons of distinction, so that this vision was exactly accomplished.

A gentleman, who is a native of Skye did, when a boy, dislodge a seer in the isle of Raasay, and upbraid him for his ugliness, as being black by name and nature. At last the seer told him very angrily, my child, if I am black, you’ll be red ere long. The master of the family chid him for this, and bid him give over his foolish predictions, since nobody believed them; but next morning the boy being at play near the houses, fell on a stone, and wounded himself in the forehead, so deep, that to this day there is a hollow scar in that part of it.

James Beaton, surgeon in the isle of North-Uist, told me that, being in the isle of Mull, a seer told him confidently that he was shortly to have a bloody forehead; but he disregarded it, and called the seer a fool. However, this James being called by some of the Macleans to go along with them to attack a vessel belonging to the Earl of Argyll, who was then coming to possess Mull by force; they attacked the vessel, and one of the Macleans being wounded, the said James, while dressing the wound, happened to rub his forehead, and then some of his patient’s blood stuck to his face, which accomplished the vision.

My Lord Viscount Tarbat, one of her Majesty’s Secretaries of State in Scotland, travelling in the shire of Ross, in the north of Scotland, came into a house, and sat down in an armed chair. One of his retinue, who had the faculty of seeing the second-sight, spoke to some of my Lord’s company, desiring them to persuade him to leave the house, for, said he, there is a great misfortune will attend somebody in it, and that within a few hours. This was told my Lord, but he did not regard it. The seer did soon after renew his entreaty with much eagerness, begging that my Lord might remove out of that unhappy chair, but had no other answer than to be exposed for a fool. Some hours after my Lord removed, and pursued his journey; but was not gone many hours when a trooper riding upon the ice, near the house whence my Lord removed, fell and broke his thigh, and being afterwards brought into that house, was laid in the armed chair, where his wound was dressed, which accomplished the vision. I heard this instance from several hands, and had it since confirmed by my Lord himself.

A man in the parish of St. Mary’s, in the barony of Trotterness, in Skye, called Lachlin, lay sick for the space of some months, decaying daily, insomuch that all his relations and acquaintances despaired of his recovery. One of the parishioners, called Archibald Macdonald, being reputed famous for his skill in foretelling things to come by the second-sight, asserted positively that the sick man would never die in the house where he then lay. This being thought very improbable all the neighbours condemned Archibald as a foolish prophet; upon which he passionately affirmed that if ever that sick man dies in the house where he now lies, I shall from henceforth renounce my part of heaven; adding withal, the sick man was to be carried alive out of the house in which he then lay, but that he would never return to it alive; and then he named the persons that should carry out the sick man alive. The man having lived some weeks longer than his friends imagined, and proving uneasy and troublesome to all the family, they considered that Archibald had reason for his peremptory assertion, and therefore they resolved to carry him to a house joining to that in which he then lay; but the poor man would by no means give his consent to be moved from a place where he believed he should never die, so much did he rely on the words of Archibald, of whose skill he had seen many demonstrations. But at last his friends being fatigued day and night with the sick man’s uneasiness they carried him against his inclination to another little house which was only separated by an entry from that in which he lay, and their feet were scarce within the threshold when the sick man gave up the ghost; and it was remarkable that the two neighbours which Archibald named would carry him out were actually the persons that did so. At the time of the prediction, Archibald saw him carried out as above, and when he was within the door of the other house he saw him all white, and the shroud being about him occasioned his confidence as above mentioned. This is matter of fact which Mr. Daniel Nicholson, minister of the parish, and a considerable number of the parishioners are able to vouch for, and ready to attest, if occasion requires.

The same Archibald Macdonald happened to be in the village Knockow one night, and before supper told the family that he had just then seen the strangest thing he ever saw in his life, to wit, a man with an ugly long cap, always shaking his head; but that the strangest of all was a little kind of a harp which he had, with four strings only, and that it had two hart’s horns fixed in the front of it. All that heard this odd vision fell a-laughing at Archibald, telling him that he was dreaming or had not his wits about him, since he pretended to see a thing that had no being, and was not so much as heard of in any part of the world. All this could not alter Archibald’s opinion, who told them that they must excuse him if he laughed at them after the accomplishment of the vision. Archibald returned to his own house, and within three or four days after a man with the cap, harp, &c., came to the house, and the harp, strings, horns, and cap answered the description of them at first view; he shook his head when he played, for he had two bells fixed to his cap. This harper was a poor man and made himself a buffoon for his bread, and was never before seen in those parts; for at the time of the prediction he was in the isle of Barray, which is above twenty leagues distant from that part of Skye. This story is vouched by Mr. Daniel Martin, and all his family and such as were then present, and live in the village where this happened.

Mr. Daniel Nicholson, minister of St. Mary’s in Skye, the parish in which Archibald Macdonald lived, told me that one Sunday after sermon at the chapel Uig, he took occasion to inquire of Archibald if he still retained that unhappy faculty of seeing the second-sight, and he wished him to lay it aside if possible; for, said he, it is no true character of a good man. Archibald was highly displeased, and answered that he hoped he was no more unhappy than his neighbours, for seeing what they could not perceive; adding, I had, says he, as serious thoughts as my neighbours in time of hearing a sermon to-day, and even then I saw a corpse laid on the ground close to the pulpit, and I assure you it will be accomplished shortly for it was in the day-time. Mr. Nicholson and several parishioners then present endeavoured to dissuade Archibald from this discourse, but he still asserted that it would quickly come to pass, and that all his other predictions of this kind had ever been accomplished. There was none in the parish then sick, and few are buried at that little chapel, nay sometimes not one in a year is buried there; yet when Mr. Nicholson returned to preach in the said chapel two or three weeks after, he found one buried in the very spot named by Archibald. This story is vouched by Mr. Nicholson, and several of the parishioners still living.

Mr. Daniel Nicholson, above mentioned, being a widower at the age of 44, this Archibald saw in a vision a young gentlewoman in a good dress frequently standing at Mr. Nicholson’s right hand, and this he often told the parishioners positively, and gave an account of her complexion, stature, habit, and that she would in time be Mr. Nicholson’s wife; this being told the minister by several of them, he desired them to have no regard to what that foolish dreamer had said; for, said he, it is twenty to one if ever I marry again. Archibald happened to see Mr. Nicholson soon after this slighting expression, however he persisted still in his opinion, and said confidently that Mr. Nicholson would certainly marry, and that the woman would in all points make up the character he gave of her, for he saw her as often as he saw Mr. Nicholson. This story was told me above a year before the accomplishment of it; and Mr. Nicholson, some two or three years after Archibald’s prediction, went to a synod in Bute, where he had the first opportunity of seeing one Mrs. Morison, and from that moment fancied her and afterwards married her. She was no sooner seen in the isle of Skye than the natives, who had never seen her before, were satisfied that she did completely answer the character given of her, etc., by Archibald.

One who had been accustomed to see the second-sight, in the isle of Egg, which lies about three or four leagues to the south-west part of the isle of Skye, told his neighbours that he had frequently seen an apparition of a man in a red coat lined with blue, and having on his head a strange sort of blue cap, with a very high cock on the fore part of it, and that the man who there appeared was kissing a comely maid in the village where the seer dwelt; and therefore declared that a man in such a dress would certainly debauch or marry such a young woman. This unusual vision did much expose the seer, for all the inhabitants treated him as a fool, though he had on several other occasions foretold things that afterwards were accomplished; this they thought one of the most unlikely things to be accomplished, that could have entered into any man’s head. This story was then discoursed of in the isle of Skye, and all that heard it, laughed at it; it being a rarity to see any foreigner in Egg, and the young woman had no thoughts of going anywhere else. This story was told me at Edinburgh, by Norman Macleod of Grabam, in September, 1688, he being just then come from the isle of Skye; and there were present, the Laird of Macleod, and Mr. Alexander Macleod, advocate, and others.

About a year and a half after the late revolution, Major Ferguson, now Colonel of one of Her Majesty’s regiments of foot, was then sent by the Government with 600 men, and some frigates to reduce the islanders that had appeared for King James, and perhaps the small isle of Egg had never been regarded, though some of the inhabitants had been at the battle of Killiecrankie, but by a mere accident which determined Major Ferguson to go to the isle of Egg, which was this: a boat’s crew of the isle of Egg happened to be in the isle of Skye, and killed one of Major Ferguson’s soldiers there; upon notice of which, the Major directed his course to the isle of Egg, where he was sufficiently revenged of the natives: and at the same time, the maid above-mentioned being very handsome, was then forcibly carried on board one of the vessels by some of the soldiers, where she was kept above twenty-four hours, and ravished, and brutishly robbed at the same time of her fine head of hair. She is since married in the isle, and in good reputation: her misfortune being pitied, and not reckoned her crime.

Sir Norman Macleod, who has his residence in the isle of Bernera, which lies between the isles of North Uist and Harris, went to the isle of Skye about business, without appointing any time for his return; his servants, in his absence, being all together in the large hall at night, one of them who had been accustomed to see the second-sight told the rest they must remove, for they would have abundance of other company in the hall that night. One of his fellow-servants answered that there was very little appearance of that, and if he had seen any vision of company, it was not like to be accomplished this night. But the seer insisted upon it, that it was. They continued to argue the improbability of it, because of the darkness of the night, and the danger of coming through the rocks that lie round the isle; but within an hour after, one of Sir Norman’s men came to the house, bidding them provide lights, etc., for his master had newly landed; and thus the prediction was immediately accomplished.

Sir Norman hearing of it called for the seer, and examined him about it; he answered that he had seen the spirit called Browny in human shape come several times, and make a show of carrying an old woman that sat by the fire to the door; and at last seemed to carry her out by neck and heels, which made him laugh heartily, and gave occasion to the rest to conclude he was mad to laugh so without reason. This instance was told me by Sir Norman himself.

Four men from the isles of Skye and Harris having gone to Barbadoes, stayed there for fourteen years; and though they were wont to see the second-sight in their native country, they never saw it in Barbadoes; but upon their return to England, the first night after their landing they saw the second-sight, as was told me by several of their acquaintance.

John Morison, who lives in Bernera of Harris, wears the plant called fuga dæmonum sewed in the neck of his coat, to prevent his seeing of visions, and says he never saw any since he first carried that plant about him. He suffered me to feel the plant in the neck of his coat, but would by no means let me open the seam, though I offered him a reward to let me do it.

A spirit, by the country people called Browny, was frequently seen in all the most considerable families in the isles and north of Scotland, in the shape of a tall man; but within these twenty or thirty years past he is seen but rarely.

There were spirits also that appeared in the shape of women, horses, swine, cats, and some like fiery balls, which would follow men in the fields; but there has been but few instances of these for forty years past.

These spirits used also to form sounds in the air, resembling those of a harp, pipe, crowing of a cock, and of the grinding of querns: and sometimes they have heard voices in the air by night, singing Irish songs; the words of which songs some of my acquaintance still retain. One of them resembled the voice of a woman who had died some time before, and the song related to her state in the other world. These accounts I had from persons of as great integrity as any are in the world.

Understanding ancient Celtic/Irish literature

Medieval Celtic literature presents the reader with a number of problems and puzzles that need to be understood in order to properly comprehend the true wealth of what it contains:

Firstly, what survives today probably represents a tiny fraction of the original texts available at any one time, although we are certain that the creation and diffusion of literature was within a distinctly small social and cultural group who represented the secular and religious elites of medieval Europe.

The impetus for the introduction of the written word into Atlantic NW Europe was the expansion of the Roman Empire in which it was a method of transmitting authority. The fashion for epigraphic inscription was a consequence of this, forming an early public form of local literary self-expression – in memorial or dedicatory stones, or on coinage as symbols of names that the illiterate could recognise. Julius Caesar said in his functional appraisal of the Atlantic Religion that its leaders (druids) found it heretical to commit religious doctrine to inscription or writing.

With the growth of Christianity, Rome adopted this hierarchical religious doctrine as it matched the Imperial model, being able to shore it up in the face of multi-cultural diversification and juxtaposed ambitions which led to the over-pluralisation and eventual collapse of state paganism. Christianity – a form of the monotheistic Hebrew religion synthesising contemporary popular secular philosophies – was wholly dependent upon the written word. This placed literature and the promotion and control of literary culture in the hands of Christian elites, who – as the secular tentacles of Empire withdrew their own literary input from northwest Europe – were to replace this authority with a religious one, welded closely to the propagation of kingly power on a Christian sacral model.

Due to the inherent dangers of oppressing indigenous beliefs (resistance, violence etc), the tactic of Christianisation was to gradually replace pagan sites, holidays, stories and fables with Christian ones (or at least with ones favouring Christian interpretation). Just like propagandists today, the tactic of influence-by-celebrity meant that the church first targeted local Kings and Leaders for conversion, often their wives first, as these would hold a greater emotional sway. In this way Christianity was applied by ‘trickle-down’ means. It introduced Saints as great heroes, after the traditions of the ‘barbarian’ peoples it was trying to intellectually subvert.

A major problem faced in imposing literary culture was the oral culture underpinning European paganism. This culture revolved around what modern computer terminology describes as a ‘Cloud’ of information representing the sum knowledge of a culture, stored in the memories of members of the population and relayed/shared through the formalised expressions of conversation, aphorism and proverbs, poetry, song, drama, art and design.  Knowledge with particular importance for survival or understanding develops within a particular ‘matrix’ of formalised popular expression in such cultures, allowing its retention as a core cultural value. The study and understanding of the technicalities of oral culture therefore created (in non-literate cultures) important elite classes of knowledge-experts: Druids, Ovates, Bards, Fili, Brithem, Skalds, Skops and so on. These sub-specialised around the subjects of natural/religious philosophy, law, traditional storytelling, poetry, geographical and celestial knowledge, geneaology and history. For this reason, pagan European cultures gave special importance to such classes – equivalent to that of Kings in some cases. These were the people the Christians needed to replace/absorb if they were to succeed.

The literary class (Christian monks and priests) would find it essential to absorb the classes of oral-culture specialists, and transform their traditions and knowledge into a fixed written form if Christian culture was to succeed in replacing something with such an ancient provenance and accretion, that would have tied the peoples very strongly to their land and environment. Nowhere was this effort so concentrated as in Ireland between the 6th and 15th centuries. The purpose was to provide the new literary authorities with the ‘knowledge’ of tradition in order to subsume that tradition’s authority in the minds of the people. In reality what they produced could only ever be little more than a facsimile of the ever-changing and plastic beauty of the oral knowledge-base: It was akin to a series of photographs of a beautiful jungle before it was destroyed: The beauty was preserved in ‘snap-shot’ but the reality of it was largely to be lost as the oral traditions fossilised into literary ones, and were consigned to remain in the formalised but officially-derided ‘cloud’ of ‘folklore’ which survived down to modern times.

So, to recap: Roman secular literary culture and then Christian literary culture displaced the official forms of oral tradition underpinning paganism in Atlantic northwest Europe.

Next, in order to understand early ‘Celtic’ literary accounts of old legends, one needs to understand that medieval Christian authors had their own literary traditions and worldviews that were to permeate their approach to the process of Christianisation.

The main themes influencing attitudes to paganism among early Christian writers and proselytes in the north were: Euhemerism – the idea that pagan gods were merely deified forebears made into gods, and Demonisationthat pagan gods and their idols were ‘demons’ or ‘evil angels’ who tried to deceive humanity. Other techniques for dealing with pagan deities included: Demotion, typically retelling their stories and ascribing lesser importance, and Equivalency where the aspects of a god were translated into the tale of a Saint. This placed pagan gods into two camps – one more acceptable (i.e. – supposed gods demoted as ‘eumerhised ancestors’ or turned into saints) than the other (demons, also often portrayed as ‘monsters’ or the Devil himself). Both techniques employed the rhetorical technique of avoiding the outright denial of pagan gods, and instead offered a more persuasive re-interpretation, reinforced by the authority of the target population’s (converted) tribal ruler.

Augustine of Hippo (d.430CE) was a Mediterranean Christian Bishop and propagandist of the 5th century whose works including the great treatise De Civitate Dei contra Paganos (‘The City of God – Against the Pagans’) were to provide some of the main arguments with which late classical and early medieval Christians would go on to tackle paganism and evangelism in northern and western Europe. In ‘De Civitate’, he re-imagines the once-great ideal of Rome’s now faltering earthly empire as the model for the new heavenly Empire of Christ. His opinions about pagan gods echoed those of many other Christian apologists both before (eg – Justin Martyr and Origen: 2nd & 3rdC CE), during (e.g. – Orosius, a pupil of Augustine) and after his time, but none expressed themselves so cogently, and at a time corresponding exactly contemporary with the collapse of the pagan Roman Empire in the west. His works were to be copied and circulated perhaps more than any other outside of the gospels, including in Ireland.

When medieval Irish monastic authors were putting quill to vellum and recording their own versions of the traditional oral knowledge and culture of the ancient Atlantic Celts, they employed both euhemerisation, demonization, equivalency and demotion to deal with achristian characters and themes from these traditions. In fact, the official telling of such re-envisioned pagan tales became a major European literary craze which was to fascinate the courtly and popular cultures, resulting in what became known as ‘Romance’ literature and story traditions: These tales were replete with Kings, Queens, Knights and Heroes, and more often than not contained references to ‘magical’ (i.e. – pagan) characters who seemingly enjoyed a marginal but inspiring role in the narrative of the plots: The Irish ‘Mythological Cycle‘, ‘Fenian‘ and ‘Ulster Cycle‘ tales, the Welsh ‘Mabinogion‘, Germanic ‘Niebelungenlied‘ legends, Scandinavian ‘Edda‘ and the ‘Arthurian‘ romances of Britain and France are fine examples of the genre. What they attempted to achieve was to consign tales embodying the oral traditions of paganism to a form of entertainment – a niche they could stubbornly occupy but remain (more or less) harmless to christianity.

So, It was for this reason that Irish monks and their secular associates in the new Christian order wrote down, copied and modified tales about the old beliefs and ‘invented’ what we know as the Tuatha Dé Danann who were interpreted as euhemerised ancestors, and consigned to histories. They were cautious to maintain much of the knowledge, form and format of the oral traditions in order to ensure cultural cogency and believability, so for those who know how to read their versions, much of the old ways are ‘hidden in plain sight’…

A third problem in reading medieval Celtic literary legends originally borrowed from oral tradition, is the plasticity of names and words. This can impede us from identifying characters shared between tales. This could be both deliberate obfuscation or accidents of transliteration and transcription where the spelling of sounded words was at variance when recorded from different oral sources. Stories could be translated between different vernacular dialects, into Latin, and then back into the vernacular causing distortion and accretion of words and names.

A process of actively changing names and roles in stories would also have served to deconstruct traditions linked to pagan religious ideas, without altering the popular notions of traditional form or altering the entertainment content too much. The fact is that many of the clergy (regular or secular) were practising a merged tradition, as the literate church subsumed traditional roles and offices formerly held by pagans in Celtic societies.

Similar alterations were woven into oral folklore, and in the naming of places. If you look carefully, and use your intuition, you can usually trace the changed traditions: Pagans were instructed by nature and natural philosophy and by the use of their senses, with a shared formalised oral culture supporting their scientific-philosophical construct. They did not rely on the ‘written word’, which reduces and largely negates complexity! This means that the Christianised versions of traditional lore usually seem to contain a ‘cognitive dissonance’ which can alert the pagan enquirer!

Linguistic evolution is another problem faced by pagans studying their ancient traditions from both folklore and literature. A lot can change in 1000 years of a spoken language, as the various dialects of Gaelic and English from Britain and Ireland show. There are two (three?) main groups of Atlantic -Celtic languages surviving today: ‘P-Celtic’, including Breton, Cornish and Welsh; ‘Q-Celtic’ including Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx; Also (possibly) Basque and the culturally extinct Occitan languages of historic North Iberia and historic Occitania (now SW France).

The ‘Q-Celtic’ languages are supposed to stem from a common Old/Middle Irish language and to have diversified after the time of writing of many of the medieval romances. Manx only started to develop a literature during the 17th century, largely due to Protestant evangelism looking to have religious texts in the vernacular during the ‘Wars of Religion’. It seems to retain certain aspects of the P-Celtic language and culture, perhaps representing its geographical closeness to Cumbria and Wales and its maritime links.

The linguistic distinction between the ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ Celtic/Atlantic dialects uses the interchangeability of the ‘P’ and ‘Q/K’ phonetic sounds as as exemplary difference: A Scotsman might be surnamed ‘Mac Ivor’ and a Welshman a ‘Map Ifor’, for example. However, there are a number of peculiarities of the languages and dialects which further add confusion to the language and the interpretation of old names and words:

Lenition and aspiration of consonant sounds are common and can alter the interpretation of spoken words by literary recorders. Also, metathesis is not uncommon – where the internal structure of a word is re-arranged in certain dialects, but the meaning maintained.

Dialectical variants of stressing, softening, super-adding, replacing or omitting consonant sounds are common in both P and Q Celtic languages and varies with local dialect. In addition, the vowels are prone to various states of shortening, lengthening and transformation (e.g. ‘a’ becoming a short ‘i’ or ‘e’), and vowel sounds (e.g. ‘oo’) can be derived from written consonants (i.e. – bh : as in Tarbh = ‘bull’, Manx: ‘Tarroo’), which has led to confusion. Unexpected consonantal sounds sometimes appear (e.g. – Manx Slane (health) is pronounced ‘sledn’). G and D sounds are sometimes interchangeable. D becomes ‘Th’, V becomes W, M becomes ‘W’ or ‘V’ when pronounced, ‘Th-‘ becomes softened or slurred, sometimes eliminated. B becomes V, ‘W’ sometimes acquires a ‘kW’ when spoken and ‘kW’ sounds can equally lose the ‘k’, and the same applies to Old and Middle Irish ‘mB‘ which transforms to both ‘B’ and ‘M’ (think ‘Mary Berry’!) – and so on and so forth. The addition and admixture of English and Norse to the Celtic languages adds another dimension to all of this, particularly during the middle ages.

So, the message is: DON’T TAKE THINGS AT LITERARY FACE VALUE!

The Cailleach in ‘Togail Bruidne Dá Derga’

Togail Bruidne Dá Derga is one of the most stylised tales from the ‘Ulster Cycle’ mythological tales, found in a number of versions spread over a number of famous medieval Irish manuscripts. It deals with the fate of King Conaire Mór, who is introduced in the tale as being fathered by a magical bird who visits his mother. The story’s themes are fate, inescapable doom, sacral kingship and the idea of geasa – the taboos a king or a recipient of magical gifts must follow if they are to retain the benefits.

The tale is paralleled by another which appears in the ‘Ulster Cycle’ corpus and seems to be an alternative ‘opening act’ to the story: Togail Bruidne Dá Choca in which the character Cormac is cast in place of Conaire. ‘Choca’ appears to be a phonetic/dialetic transliteration of ‘Derga’.

The stage for the tale is set in the ‘Hostel’ or castle of Dá Derga – full of magical rooms filled with the many strange visitors whom the hosteller is obliged to entertain. He is visited by the King who is surprised when a certain Wyrd Sister visits the door of the hostel and gives dire prophecies to Conaire about his coming fate. She is the Cailleach herself, as the tale’s description quite clearly shows:

When they were there they saw a lone woman coming to the door of the Hostel, after sunset, and seeking to be let in. As long as a weaver’s beam was each of her two shins, and they were as dark as the back of a stag-beetle. A greyish, wooly mantle she wore. Her lower hair used to reach as far as her knee. Her lips were on one side of her head. She came and put one of her shoulders against the door-post of the house, casting the evil eye on the king and the youths who surrounded him in the Hostel.

…and identifies herself as one with many names:

CailbSamain, Sinand, Seiscleand, Sodb, Saiglend , Samlocht,
Caill, Coll,
Díchoem, Díchuil, Díchim, Díchuimne, Díchuinne,
Dairne, Dáirine, Der úaine,
Égem, Agam, Ethamne,
Gním, Cluichi, Cethardam,
Nith, Nemain, Noenden,
Badb, Blosc, Bloar,
h-Uaet,
Mede, Mod.”

It is obvious that this character is a very significant individual, whose names echo many others given to ‘fairy women’ in the various other Irish bardic tales. Her great size, twisted face, her mantle, her prophetic powers, ancient nature and names all point directly to the Cailleach archetype or goddess. Standing upon one leg with one arm outstretched she utters a terrible doom on Conaire:

‘Truly I see for thee,’ she answers, ‘that neither fell nor flesh of thine shall escape from the place into which thou hast come, save what birds will bear away in their claws.’

What comes from the birds will go with the birds*, in other words…

In Togail Bruidne Dá Choca the ‘Cailleach’ appears again as the Badb, described as a ‘red woman’ washing blood from a chariot at a Ford, and presaging the death of the would-be king Cormac. She too stands on one foot and closes one eye and chants Cormac’s doom, a similar pose to the Badb or Cailb etc. She then apparently transforms into a fair maiden to restate Cormac’s fate… This Badb is very similar to the TBDD one and also to the Morrigan in the Tain, and was obviously a motif of orature or literature strongly linked to the narratives of the pre-Christian past.

(* Birds appear as a recurring theme in early and middle Irish stories representing the spirits of ancestors and forebears, and the Badb/Cailleach character is often associated with them.)

The <Cailleach/Badb/Aine/Morrigan/Brighid> ‘hypostasis’** is a ruler of herds and flocks in the various traditions surrounding her: Of Cattle, Deer, Birds and Souls of the Dead. She also represents the phases of the annual cycle and embodies both generation and death in continuity with annual rebirth. For this reason she appears in the old irish stories as a prophetic being, as she embodies everything which has gone before (her age) with everything which will come again (her knowledge of the future). The occasional narrative tendency for her to transform into a youthful countenance represents the continuing uncertainty about the future, while the aged decayed appearance arises from our knowledge of past certainties.

The comparison of tribal kings with rutting bulls and their contests in their respective territories (on the Magh or ‘Plain’) is a theme underpinning the contest of the Old Order and New Order in Irish mythology: The attempts of powerful mythical females to control these is the main theme of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

** Hypostasis means “underlying state” or “underlying substance”

The Morrigan

If any Celtic literary figure should match and identify with the ‘Cailleach’, it is the ‘Morrigan‘, who is identified as ‘Anann’ (i.e. – Aine) in the LGE texts, and is otherwise also referred to as a triple character: Morrigu/Anann-Macha-Badbh. Sometimes Nemain is also used as a member of this triad. She – like Manannán – functions as a fatalistic, challenging, prophetic and otherworldly figure, set apart from other members of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She nearly always appears as a somewhat frightening outsider, in contradistinction to Manannán who functions as a friendly giver. She – like Manannán – is implied as a member of the tribe of the Tuatha but functions more as a goddess. The Tuatha are given a euhemeristic historic existence in the Christianised medieval texts, but hers lies outside of this timescale, and she is therefore from the time when the world was young. The Irish tales are emphatic in linking her with battling ‘hosts’ – the name Badbh after all refers to the ‘hooded crow’, otherwise known as the ‘carrion crow’ in English. The ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ (#49) says her lair is ‘Cruachan’, otherwise associated with Queen Medbh of Connacht, suggesting a link between the characters, and consequently the role of the sovereignty goddess/herdswoman/decider of battles/ancestress/creatrix/originator of craft that is the Cailleach .

As both a lovely maiden and then a frightening, aged female who portends death, she appears to Cú Chulainn in two complete chapters of the Lebor na hUidre version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, although her presence bestrides the whole tale, albeit incomplete in the manuscripts:

‘The Conversation of the Morrigan with Cuchulainn’

Cuchulainn saw a young woman coming towards him, with a dress of every colour on, and her form very excellent.

‘ Who are you? ‘ said Cuchulainn.‘Daughter of Buan the king,’ said she. ‘I have come to you; I have loved you for your reputation, and I have brought my treasures and my cattle with me.’‘The time at which you have come to us is not good. For our condition is evil, through hunger. It is not easy to me to meet a woman, while I am in this strife.’‘I will be a help to you…. I shall be more troublesome to you,’ said she, ‘when I come against you when you are in combat against the men. I will come in the form of an eel about your feet in the ford, so that you shall fall.’‘I think that likelier than the daughter of a king. I will take you,’ said he, ‘between my toes, till your ribs are broken, and you will be in this condition till a doom of blessing comes (?) on you.’‘I will drive the cattle on the ford to you, in the form of a grey she-wolf.’‘I will throw a stone at you from my sling, so that it shall break your eye in your head; and you will be in that state till a doom of blessing comes on you.’‘ I will come to you in the form of a hornless red heifer before the cattle. They will rush on you on the plains (?), and on the fords, and on the pools, and you will not see me before you.’‘ I will throw a stone at you,’ said he, ‘so that your leg shall break under you, and you will be in this state till a doom of blessing comes on you.’

Therewith she goes from him.

AND:

‘The Healing of the Morrigan and The Coming of Lug Mac Ethlend’

When Cuchulainn was in this great weariness, the Morrigan met him in the form of an old hag, and she blind and lame, milking a cow with three teats, and he asked her for a drink. She gave him milk from a teat.

‘ He will be whole who has brought it (?),’ said Cuchulainn; ‘the blessings of gods and non-gods on you,’ said he. (Gods with them were the Mighty Folk; non-gods the people of husbandry.)

Then her head was healed so that it was whole.

She gave the milk of the second teat, and her eye was whole; and gave the milk of the third teat, and her leg was whole. So that this was what he said about each thing of them, ‘A doom of blessing on you,’ said he.

‘You told me,’ said the Morrigan, ‘ I should not have healing from you for ever.’

‘If I had known it was you,’ said Cuchulainn, ‘I would not have healed you ever.’

These excerpts see the hero meeting his Nemesis: first in the form of a young woman of royal dress (clothing of many colours), and then as an aged hag, who demonstrates her godhood to him by a magical healing of the ‘wounds’ of her traditional Cailleach-form: withered in one eye, down one side. This she achieves both by the hero’s blessing and by drinking from the three teats of her magical cow. The Morrigan in this story bears no allegiance to either Medb or Aillel or Conchobar – she is a ‘free agent’ with a free hand to do as she pleases, demonstrating her power above and beyond the other players. She appears in the role of a Goddess.

Standard etymologies of this name generally treat it as meaning ‘Great Queen’ (Mor Rigan) although this is not congruent with the proper Celtic form which would be more like ‘Rigan Mór’. Given the triple-nature ascribed to her in the LGE, and traditions describing ‘Saint’ Brighid as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’, it perhaps more interesting that Moiraghyn is given by John Kelly (‘The Manx Dictionary in Two Parts’) as the Manx word for ‘mothers’. This seems redolent of the Matrones – a triplicate of female religious characters found represented throughout Atlantic Northwest Europe in the provinces conquered by Rome between the 1st and 5thC CE. Moirrey is also the Manx version of ‘Mary’, and the Manx language has formerly used ‘Moire‘ in the sense of ‘source’. It is quite possible that Manx Folklorist WIlliam Cashen’s assertion that the Manx called the fairies ‘Cloan ny Moyrn’ (Children of Pride) is a misinterpretation of Cloan ny Moiraghyn‘: Children of the Morrigan/Mothers which would be pronounced in a somewhat similar fashion. This would make them cognate with the Tuatha Dé Danann if the LGE description of Morrigan as also being called ‘Anann’ is a true tradition

Another etymological aspect of her name is the association with the word for the sea: Muir. The ‘Morrigan’

‘Morrigan’/’Morrigu’/Badb appears in the following medieval Irish texts:

Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer“) from the ‘Ulster Cycle’

Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘Book of the Takings of Ireland’ or ‘Book of Invasions’)

– The ‘Metrical Dindshenchas

– The Sanas Cormaic or ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (9thC) interprets ‘Gudemain’ (Spectres) as ‘Morrigna’

– The Táin Bó Cúailnge and the Táin Bó Regamna from the ‘Ulster Cycle’ have her significant as a character.

– The Cath Maige Tuired or ‘Battle(s) of Moytura’ (from the ‘Mythological Cycle’)

Togail Bruidne Dá Derga – ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ where the Cailleach/Badb appears to prophecy the King’s downfall.

Togail Bruidne Dá Choca – where she appears to give a similar prophecy of doom to the character Cormac Condloinges.

The prophetic idol-stones of Ireland

‘Cermand Cestach’:

“…there had once been a stone covered in gold which heathens worshipped: And out of it a devil used to speak: Cermand Cestach was his name, and it was the chief idol of the north. That is the short stone on thy right hand as thou enterest the temple of Clochar; and the places of the joints of gold and silver still remain in it…”

Glossarial note in the ‘Félire Óengusso’ or ‘Martyrology of Óengus the Culdeefrom the 8th/9th century (Trans. Whitley Stokes).

This ‘idol’ supposedly gave Clogher its name: Clogh Oir = ‘Gold Stone’, although this etymology is by no means certain, given the fanciful nature of other medieval etymological styles. This stone is now seemingly lost. The first ‘bishop’ was Saint Mac Cairthinn, supposed to have been a disciple of Patrick and credited with acquiring the oracular Cermand Cestach stone, though from exactly where is unclear, albeit probably close to the church.

Crom Cruach’ (also called Cenn Cruach and Cenncroithi):

Situated on a plain historically referred to as Magh Slécht, this stone has been identified with the broken pieces of the ‘Killycluggin Stone’ which once stood by the road at Kilnavert, Co. Cavan, as part of a larger (now degraded) stone circle. The stone is covered in curvilinear/spiral carvings and had a phallic/domed appearance originally. ‘Crom Cruach’ is linked to ‘Crom Dubh’ of Lughnasa Sunday fame. The Book of Leinster (12thC) contains an account of the stone in a text often referred to as the Metrical Dindshenchas:

MAG SLECHT

1. Here used to stand a lofty idol, that saw many a fight, whose name was the Cromm Cruaich; it caused every tribe to live without peace.

2. Alas for its secret power! the valiant Gaedil used to worship it: not without tribute did they ask of it to satisfy them with their share in the hard world.

3. He was their god, the wizened Cromm, hidden by many mists: as for the folk that believed in him, the eternal Kingdom beyond every haven shall not be theirs.

4. For him ingloriously they slew their hapless firstborn with much wailing and peril, to pour their blood round Cromm Cruaich.

5. Milk and corn they asked of him speedily in return for a third part of all their progeny: great was the horror and outcry about him.

6. To him the bright Gaedil did obeisance: from his worship—many the crimes—the plain bears the name Mag Slecht.

7. Thither came Tigernmas, prince of distant Tara, one Samain eve, with all his host: the deed was a source of sorrow to them.

8. They stirred evil, they beat palms, they bruised bodies, wailing to the demon who held them thralls, they shed showers of tears, weeping prostrate.

9. Dead the men, void of sound strength the hosts of Banba, with land-wasting Tigernmas in the north, through the worship of Cromm Cruaich—hard their hap!

10. For well I know, save a fourth part of the eager Gaedil, not a man—lasting the snare—escaped alive, without death on his lips.

11. Round Cromm Cruaich there the hosts did obeisance: though it brought them under mortal shame, the name cleaves to the mighty plain.

12. Ranged in ranks stood idols of stone four times three; to beguile the hosts grievously the figure of the Cromm was formed of gold.

13. Since the kingship of Heremon, bounteous chief, worship was paid to stones till the coming of noble Patrick of Ard Macha.

14. He plied upon the Cromm a sledge, from top to toe; with no paltry prowess he ousted the strengthless goblin that stood here.

  Just what the ‘hosts’ (slúaig/ shlóig) in this Dinnsheanchas are – living or dead is not clear. Conventional interpretation describes the death at Mag Slecht of a King and his followers on ‘aidche Samna’ – Samhain Eve; However, it is possible that the reference deals with a belief that the turbulent Sluagh Sidhe (the aerial spirits of the restless dead) paid a visit to Mag Slecht at Samhain. The description of the ‘slúaig’ of Tigernmas (who medieval pseudohistories put living around 1000BC) certainly fits this type.

Lia Fáil:

Perhaps the best-known stone was the Lia Fáil on the Hill of Tara (Teamhair) in Leinster, associated in medieval annals and legends with the pre-eminent Kingship in Ireland. Sitting atop the hill, the Lia is a simple uncarved pillar, somewhat phallic, and seems to have been ‘erected’ in its current position by some antiquaries in the early 1800’s, possibly not at its original location. Often translated as ‘Stone of Destiny’ (especially so to suit a political purpose), a more correct translation of the name would be ‘Stone of Destinies’ (‘Fal’ – preserved in the Manx Gaelic word for (star) divination: Falloghys, usually translated in more modern Irish as fáistine). The usual legend about the Lia Fáil is that it would cry out when a rightful king put his foot on it, suggesting that the current Lia Fáil might not be the one referred to in this legend: The kingship stone at Finlaggan in Islay (Kingdom of the Isles) or the one at Dunadd in Argyll (Kingdom of Dál Riata) is a slab with a human foot impression carved into it – a petrasomatoglyph – associated with historic kingship ceremonies. ‘Fal’ was also an old name for Ireland (as in ‘Fianna Fail’), and ‘Falga’ an old name for the Isle of Man.

Tara was associated with kingship and in legends, it appears that the site is associated with Medb Lethderg – a female who bestows kingship upon men by marrying them, suggesting the Goddess who represented the land married the King justifying Kingship with Sacrality. In other words, the many-named Bean Sidhe. The meetings at Tara occurred on the cross-quarter days, particularly Samhain: Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating died c.1644) described in his ‘History of Ireland’ (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn) the Feis Temhrach (Convention of Tara) as occurring at or near Samhain every third year – it was something like the Isle of Man’s Tynwald ceremony, with a gathering of the chieftains and promulgation of the laws and rights. The Convention is called Cena Teamra in the 12thC Annals of Tigernach, meaning ?’Head of Tara’.  Samhain was a traditional time of prophecy right down to more modern times. Samhain fires were kindled at the Hill of Tlachtga (Hill of Ward) close to Tara, and this site was used for great Samhain gatherings as late as the 12thC .

Religion and Nature

The harmony of the human soul and its relationship with the universe at large has traditionally been the cultural province of Religion:

Christianity began making inroads into the Atlantic Northwest of Europe around the time of the collapse of the Western Roman Imperium in the 4th/5th centuries CE. Its arrival came upon the tails of a set of Imperial edicts – the ‘Theodosian Code’ – which sought to spread the new official Imperial religious cult of christianity out over Rome’s dominions by taking over the official religious sites and festivals of paganism. It was too expensive and politically difficult to destroy paganism, and Roman christianity decided to pursue a policy of replacing pagan sites and festivals with Christian versions.

During this period, Augustine of Hippo’s student – Orosius (4th/5thC) – wrote the following comment on pagans in his important text Historiae Adversus Paganos:

…You bade me reply to the empty chatter and perversity of those who, aliens to the City of God, are called pagani because they come ex pagis (from the countryside) and the crossroads of the rural districts, or gentes (pagans/heathens) because of their wisdom in earthly matters. Although these people do not seek out the future and moreover either forget or know nothing of the past, nevertheless they charge that the present times are unusually beset with calamities for the sole reason that men believe in Christ and worship God while idols are increasingly neglected…

Here we have an example suggesting that the prime thrust of christianity was in urban areas (Augustine’s ‘City of God’ was a Christian allegory of the city of Rome and its globalist Empire). Pagani or Gentes (‘gentiles’) represented a class of people who threatened this order – people in touch with the forces of nature, a description of which was so markedly absent from the Graeco-Judaic Christian textual/literary tradition attempting to replace the oral culture and learning dominating rural districts of Europe. Orosius points out that contemporary pagans believed that the new Christian thinking was responsible for the calamities being experienced by all European people in his days. He may well have been right, but the responsibility lay as much with the corruption of Europe’s traditional paganism within the Greek and Roman Empires. 

The problem with old religion (paganism) was that it sought to define the natural world and interpret its divine nature. It used the arts to express the divine narrative in a plastic, relatively adogmatic style using story, poetry, music, art and drama. The new religion sought to define one thing: LITERAL AUTHORITY:

This was the authority of a single over-weening God and his ‘elected’ representative on earth – the emperor-pope who headed the Roman Empire, modelled on the example of Alexander ‘The Great’ of Macedon.

The Christian religion was a Greek-influenced offshoot of Post-Hellenic Judaism – a religion designed to support a single-nation political and religious creed imposed by a group of post-Alexander monotheist politico-religious hierarchs returned from their Babylonian exile to dominate the Kingdoms of Israel (N) and Judea (S) in the late 1st millennium BC. In the pre-exilic period, evidence of a nationalist monotheism is lacking from the historical and archaeological records, although modern Israel and its global network of supporters have been actively attempting to present evidence of this, or argue the toss based on limited evidence.

This religion stated practically nothing about the cycles of nature and had no philosophical vision of the perceived universe, depending instead upon a model of de facto creationism and absolute power of a single creator-rewarder-punisher god, mimicking the role of the Babylonian, Greek or Roman Emperors. Such a system fitted the (locally) ‘globalised’ cultures of the imperium, replacing their ancient earth-based traditions with a faith based upon metropolitan authoritarian power.

‘Shony’

Martin Martin’s 1703 book ‘A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland’ commences with an account of Lewis and the lifestyles, practices and beliefs of some of its residents. On pages 28 and 29, he tells us a report of a startling practice carried out within living memory by some locals; These seemingly combined christianity with a form of pagan worship in which a deity he calls ‘Shony’ was propitiated at Hallowtide (Samhain) in order to obtain a good bounty of seaweed for the coming year. Seaweed was vital to the agrarian and industrial economy of islanders and coastal peoples of the Atlantic coasts of Europe, and Samhain is the end of harvest and beginning of the dark months when people relied upon stores and collected their (and nature’s) waste and effluvia in order to use it as fertiliser for the coming agricultural season in springtime. It was also the celtic new year:

THEY were in greater Veneration in those
days than now : it was the constant practice of
the Natives to kneel at first sight of the Church,
tho’ at a great distance from ’em, and then they
said their Pater-noster. John Morison of Bragir
told me, that when he was a Boy, and going
to the Church of St. Mulvay, he observed the
Natives to kneel and repeat the Pater-noster at
four miles distance from the Church. The In-
habitants of this Island had an antient Custom
to sacrifice to a Sea-God, call’d Shony at Hallow-
tide, in the manner following : The Inhabi-
tants round the Island came to the Church of St. 
Mulvay having each Man his Provision along
with him ; every Family furnish’d a Peck of
Malt, and this was brew’d into Ale : one of
their number was pick’d out to wade into the
Sea up to the middle, and carrying a Cup of
Ale in his hand, standing still in that posture,
cry’d out with a loud Voice, saying, Shony,
I give you this Cup of Ale, hoping that you will be
so kind as to fend us plenty of Sea-ware, for in-
riching our Ground the ensuing year : and so threw
the Cup of Ale into the Sea. This was per-
formed in the Night time. At his Return to
Land, they all went to Church, where there
was a Candle burning upon the Altar; and
then standing silent for a little time, one of
them gave a Signal, at which the Candle was
put out, and immediately all of them went to
the Fields, where they fell a drinking their Ale,
and spent the remainder of the Night in Dan-
cing and Singing, &c.

THE next Morning they all return’d home,
being well satisfy’d that they had punctually
observ’d this Solemn Anniversary, which they
believ’d to be a powerful means to procure a
plentiful Crop. Mr. Daniel and Mr. Kenneth
Morison, Ministers in Lewis, told me they spent
several Years, before they could persuade the
vulgar Natives to abandon this ridiculous piece
of Superstition ; which is quite abolish’d for
these 32 Years past.

The account seems to be in concordance with those of pagan practices on Inniskea off the west of Ireland in the mid-1800’s: Like ‘Neevoge’ or ‘Knaveen’, the ‘god’ Shony (interpreted as an anglicisation of Seonaidh or Seonadh by more modern celticists and Gaelic grammarians) appears to have been given special cognizance at Samhain (Allhallow’s Eve) which was also the Atlantic/Celtic new year. Like on Inishkea, it was believed to have power over the waters and could procure the storms necessary to toss a great deal of seaweed (or wrecks) onto the shores for the benefit of the suppliants.

Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica Vol.1 (Pub. 1900) contains descriptions of similar traditions in other parts of the Western Isles which centred around throwing produce of the fields into the sea in order to obtain more seaweed. In this case, it is at one of the other Atlantic storm season – around the Spring Equinoxe (late March, coinciding with Christian easter celebrations):

Maunday Thursday is called in Uist ‘Diardaoin a brochain,’ Gruel Thursday, and in Iona ‘Diardaoin a brochain mhoir,’ Great Gruel Thursday. On this day people in maritime districts made offerings of mead, ale, or gruel to the god of the sea. As the day merged from Wednesday to Thursday a man walked to the waist into the sea and poured out whatever offering had been prepared, chanting:–

‘A Dhe na mara,    Cuir todhar ’s an tarruinn    Chon tachair an talaimh,    Chon bailcidh dhuinn biaidh.’ O God of the sea,    Put weed in the drawing wave    To enrich the ground,    To shower on us food.

Those behind the offerer took up the chant and wafted it along the sea-shore on the midnight air, the darkness of night and the rolling of the waves making the scene weird and impressive. In 1860 the writer conversed in Iona with a middle-aged man whose father, when young, had taken part in this ceremony. In Lewis the custom was continued till this century. It shows the tolerant spirit of the Columban Church and the tenacity of popular belief, that such a practice should have been in vogue so recently.

It is evident from Carmichael that such similar sea-propitiations were neither abolished in the 17th century, nor restricted to Lewis alone. It is also evident that the practice was not just carried out at Samhain, but at other periods during which the Atlantic weather becomes tempestuous and seaweed or ‘wrack’ is washed ashore – in this case, the period close to the spring equinox.

The Naomhóg of Inishkea

“…I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed…”

A thousand years after the writing of the ‘Lament’ by its unknown Irish author, there came yet another age in Ireland in which a new religious order (Protestantism) was trying to supplant another (Roman Catholicism). It was the years following the Great Famine (late 1840’s) when many of the traditional customs and social institutions of Irish-speaking society had all but collapsed, a situation from which Protestant cultural evangelism was trying to seek an advantage.

In 1851, Robert Jocelyn, the 3rd Earl of Rodan (an ‘Old Irish’ Protestant Tory who despaired of the state of Catholic Ireland) published a book entitled: “Progress of the Reformation in Ireland – Extracts from a series of letters written from the West of Ireland to a friend in England, in September 1851” (Published by James Nisbet, London 1851). The author’s design was to provide intellectual ammunition for the Protestant cause and his book’s themes sought to link the Irish language culture (and its subjoined oral culture and Atlantic Celtic tradition) with ignorance, the seeds of famine and, all tied in of course, with ‘popery’. In the following extract from this book he refers to the apparent discovery of practicing heathens on the islands of Inniskea (Inishkea):

About seven miles distant from Bingham Castle, in the Atlantic, is the Island of Inniskea, containing, I believe, about 380 inhabitants. They have very little intercourse with the main land, and their state of spiritual darkness is deplorable. It is hardly to be credited that amongst the British islands heathen idolatry is to be found, and that a stone, carefully wrapped up in flannel, is brought out at certain periods to be adored by the inhabitants of Inniskea. When a storm arises this heathen god is supplicated to send a wreck on their coast. This statement I received from Mr. Campbell (Ed: folklorist and gaelicist J.F. Campbell of Islay) and others. He told me he had him self recently visited the island, and seen the idol in question.

Since writing the above I have had a communication from a gentleman who lives in the neighbourhood, and who more than corroborates Mr. Campbell’s statement. He says: “The islands of Inniskea, which form the northern point of entrance to Blacksod Bay, are inhabited by a population of three hundred and eighty human beings, who support themselves chiefly by fishing and the produce of their potato plots, the most infirm and indigent deriving their principal subsistence from shell-fish and sea-weed. They all speak the Irish language, and among them is a trace of that government, by chiefs, which in former times existed in Ireland. The present chief or king of Inniskea is an intelligent peasant named ‘ Cain.’ His authority is universally acknowledged, and the settlement of all disputes is referred to his decision. But his people are indeed a wild race! skilled only in the semi-barbarous customs of their forefathers. Occasionally they have been visited by wandering schoolmasters, but so short and casual have such visits been, that there are not ten individuals who even know the letters of any language.

” To this dark spot the light of the Gospel has never been permanently extended, and save during the few and necessarily short visits of the clergyman of the parish, seldom have they heard of eternal life as the free gift of God through Jesus Christ, and even these visits were unprofitable from their total ignorance of English. Though nominally Roman Catholics, these islanders have no priest resident amongst them, they know nothing of the tenets of that Church, and their worship consists in occasional meetings at their chief’s house, with visits to a holy well, called in their native tongue, ‘ Derivla.’

” Gloomy as is the description already given of this people, there is yet a darker shade to be unfolded. Here the absence of religion is filled with the open practice of Pagan idolatry, as fearful to contemplate as that prevalent on the banks of the Ganges. In the South Island, in the house of a man named Monigan, a stone idol, called in the Irish ‘Neevougi’ has been from time immemorial religiously preserved and worshipped. This god in appearance resembles a thick roll of home-spun flannel, which arises from the custom of dedicating a dress of that material to it, whenever its aid is sought; this is sewed on by an old woman, its priestess, whose peculiar care it is.

Of the early history of this idol no authentic information can be procured, but its power is believed to be immense; they pray to it in time of sickness; it is invoked when a storm is desired to dash some hapless ship upon their coast; and again, the exercise of its power is solicited in calming the angry waves, to admit of fishing or visiting the main land. The following instance will illustrate the faith reposed in this flannel-covered god:—some time ago, during a succession of boisterous weather, a native of the island became so ill that his life was despaired of, and as the invocation of the idol seemed insufficient to restore him to health, his relations were most anxious to bring the priest from the main land to calm his dying moments, but the storm was so terrific that they dare not venture without their god to guard them on their perilous voyage; most reverently, therefore, they placed it in the boat, and their mission being successful, they declared to one of the Scripture-readers that solely to this idol’s presence was their safety attributable, and even the ultimate and unexpected recovery of the sick man was ascribed to the exercise of its power. This is one of the many wonders said to be wrought by this stony god, and will suffice to show the extent to which Paganism prevails in this island.

Such is a brief outline of the melancholy state of this portion of the West of Ireland, it speaks too forcibly to an enlightened community to need comment; it forms, too, a powerful appeal to the sympathies and principles of every Christian to aid in cleansing the stain of Heathenism from our shores.

Quite something, isn’t it?

However, this was not the first (or last) literary mention of the ‘idol’, as it gets a mention in Caesar Otway’s (pre-famine) ‘Sketches in Erris and Tyrawly’ (Pub. William Curry, Dublin and Longman, London, 1841) – an account of the Mayo peninsula in Ireland’s far West.

“… they have what is better called by some the Neevoge or as others pronounce it Knaveen; both mean the ‘little saint’, and I prefer the latter pronunciation which may not be a bad derivation for the English word knave, Latin gnavus, a knowing fellow. For the Knaveen of Inniskea must be a knowing one indeed, for by his instrumentality, the natives consider they can raise or allay a tempest, raise a storm when a ship nears the island, and so they may get in a wreck or allay it when their own boats are out at sea in a gale of wind. The Knaveen is a stone image of the rudest construction, attired in an undyed flannel dress which is every New Year’s Day renewed. Of course, the ‘Knaveen’ has his annals, one event of which may be worth stating: – Some years ago a pirate, happening to land on the island, amused himself by setting fire to the houses of the people all of which burned, but too readily, save one; and the ferocious leader thus seeing one house untouched, urged on with menaces his followers to consummate their destructive doings by burning this also; but they could not; as often as they applied fire to it out it went: they might as well burn one of the ocean rocks. Observing this he ordered the house to be diligently searched, and finding the ‘knaveen’, he commanded that the holy image should be smashed to pieces with a sledge. Perhaps he was told of the knaveen’s power not only of arresting fire but of raising wind and as he often roved along the coast he, of course, did not desire to leave the storm compeller in the hands of those to whom he had been so cruel. Thus having had his wicked will the pirate sailed away, it is hoped, never to return. But the natives, the moment he was gone, collected the fragments of the saint, bound them together with thongs of sheepskin, and to keep him warm and pleasant, dressed him out in a suit of flannel which, as we have already stated, is renewed from year to year. It is however considered that the ‘knaveen’ has never fully recovered the treatment he received from the pirate’s sledge hammer, nor are they quite so sure of his power over the elements Perhaps after all this is not so much the fault of the idol, as of their failing faith. He still, however, is fervently kissed and had in reverence by all.”

Otway’s account is, like Jocelyn’s, a third-hand description of what was supposed to be going on at Inniskea. The accounts appear to have different sources, and contain a few minor differences:

Otway’s idol is referred to as a masculine ‘saint’, albeit important to point out that the Irish word Naomh (pron. ‘Neev’ or ‘Nave’) more properly and originally means ‘holy’ rather than ‘saint’, and the ‘Neev’ of ‘Neevogue’ might otherwise come from Niamh, meaning ‘Bright’. Robert Jocelyn’s account seems to portray the idol as more feminine. Those familiar with the Fenian legends (in particular those from the 12thC Acallam na Senórach or ‘Tales of the Elders’) might recognise the name or appellation Niamh (daughter of Manannán mac Lir) who conducts the poet Oisín to the Isle of  Tír na nÓg in west towards the setting sun.  The association of a female spirit with tides and storms and the Irish ‘Sea-God’, as well as the association of the region with St Brendan (affiliated with Christianising the Atlantic islands)  is highly interesting.

Caesar Otway’s account prefers the name ‘Knaveen’ (Irish: Naomhín), the pronunciation of which he parallels with the English word ‘Knave’, suggesting it was pronounced ‘Nay-veen’, and which he says was used more often than ‘Neevoge’, perhaps reflecting local variations in pronunciation. Jocelyn refers to ‘Neevougie’ and doesn’t mention the other name, which is after all merely another diminutive version ‘Naomh’ or ‘Niamh’.

Otway suggests the idol had different parts, held together by sheepskin thongs and a flannel suit, on account of some traditionally-supposed assault upon it by a ‘pirate’ with a hammer. As ‘Niamh’ sometimes refers to ‘gilding’ and pre-Christian Irish idols (such as the one at Clogher – meaning ‘gold-stone’) were reported to be gilded at one time, it is possible that the ‘pirate’ story refers to a historic plundering of the idol for its gold which left it smashed.

In 1959, English author Terence Hanbury White published an account (‘The Godstone and the Blackymor’ Pub. Jonathan Cape) of his travels in the west of Ireland, including visits to North and South Inishkea, where he wished to discover more about locals referred to as the ‘Godstone’ under its Irish name Naomhóg (White’s interpretation of ‘Nee-vogue’). He was told that the idol had also been associated (in the famine period) with potato fertility causing the islanders of South Inniskea to steal the idol from the North island, but that it had supposedly been cast from the Carraigín Dubh rocks into a pool in Portavally harbour by a catholic priest called ‘Big Paddy’ O’Reilly in the 1890’s. White had difficulty finding locals willing to speak to an Englishman about the stone and said that many seemed ashamed of its history, no doubt in the light of the negative publicity generated by it in the 1840’s and 1850’s. He was drawn from this to speculate that the stone was more a pre-reformation Christian relic – though this is somewhat unlikely if it had been disposed of by a priest.

As well as the stone being associated with crop fertility, control of the weather and being capable of warding off fire, White also found from elderly informant Owen McGinty that the stone was small – weighing 2 or 3 pounds – and of a greenish colour, being the shape and size of a smoothing-iron. It was wrapped in cloth – McGinty said red, rather than undyed – and was originally from Colmcille’s chapel on North Inishkea but eventually came to be transferred to and kept in a niche in the gable-end of a house on South Inishkea. It was prayed to for health, and bought outside when fine weather was required. He also says it was dressed in new ‘clothes’ three times a year and that the clothes were made from a first-fleece of the year. The tales suggesting it to be a pagan idol were laargely dismissed by catholic laity (who claimed it to be ‘saint’s pillow’, a cross, an image of the virgin/a woman, a brown and white spotted stone) and official missionaries who ‘proved’ that the Naomhóg was nothing but a broken terracotta statue of the baby Jesus – somewhat at odds with the other descriptions that White was able to collect. Given that the official approach of post-famine Romanism was to dispel any links to the syncretic pagan past this is unsurprising. White’s investigation left him with many confusing stories as to the reality of the nature of the stone, that its contentious religious significance had done much to obscure.

The west of Ireland can certainly be a barren and mysterious place, which preserves many old pagan traditions which seem to merge easily with decayed Christian ones. In more modern times it has been associated with some of the strongest survivals of traditional Irish language culture. However, this reputation for the ‘wild’ or ‘ancient’ appears to have been constant from some of the earliest times:

Gerald of Wales was a 12th/13th century monk who wrote a polemic account of Ireland in support of its political and religious subjugation by those Anglo-Norman clients of continental papal power. His 1188 book – Topographia Hibernica – contains a story of meeting Irish people in boats off the Atlantic coast who apparently claimed to never have never heard of Christianity! Robert Jocelyn’s (if not so much Otway’s) account contains echoes of this and, like Gerald’s, we must suspect it was designed in part to service evangelical ambitions rather than act as an introduction to the Irish dead-pan – later Catholic missionaries certainly did, and sought to destroy the ‘Neevogue’ from memory. Nonetheless, the theme of the annual renewal of clothing on a stone idol supposed to have power over fire and water seems distinctly pagan, and brings us back to themes of the ‘Lament of the Seantainne Bérri’ whose cloak was ‘ever-renewed’.

Those familiar with the late 17thC A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland’ by Martin Martin (first published 1703) will recognise echoes of the apparent Inishkea ‘paganism’ in the reported propitiation of a pagan ‘sea-god’ called ‘Shoney‘ in Lewis who supposedly controlled the bounty of the sea. ‘Shoney’ may well mean ‘Old One’ (as in Seantainne) and it is possible that ‘Neevoge’/’Naveen’ and ‘Shoney’ might represent the same pagan character, who appears again and again in legend and folklore under a protean multitude of names…

Of course, an alternative interpretation of the Naomhóg is that it represents the remains of a saint’s statue or relic broken up by the Vikings during their seemingly religiously-motivated 8th century attacks upon Christian centres around the coasts of Ireland and Britain. Whether this was a primitive form of Roman Catholic veneration or a pagan survival must remain debateable, but viewed in the context of apparently pagan practices and beliefs recorded throughout the Atlantic-Celtic regions between the 17th and 20th centuries it is suggestive of something not typically Christian!

Notes on the Inishkea islands:

North and South Inishkea lie off the Mullet Peninsula and are reached from the port of Belmullet. Mullet is part of the Barony of Erris in County Mayo and the Islands were soon abandoned following the loss of a group of the population’s youth in a fishery disaster during the 1920’s. The name was first attested as Insula Sancta Geidhiae (Inish Geidh) in the Lebor Bretnach – a later middle irish version of Nennius’ 9thC Historia Brittonum –  after a supposed eponymous female saint (St Geidh), and in the text associated also with a ‘wonder’: a miraculous female Crane (Grus grus) supposed to have stood vigil over the Island since time immemorial. The Irish word for ‘wind’ is gaoithe – pronounced somewhere between ‘gay’ and ‘geayha’; considering the position of the Inishkea islands with their prevailing Atlantic winds would seem like a more likely etymology, and links somewhat to an association with a goddess of storms, sometimes represented as flying female spirit! That they were also referred to in the 19thC as ‘Inishgay’ would add credence to this etymology. Otway could find nobody who knew of the bird in the medieval fable.

The sea between Inishkea and Inishglora (an island associated with St Brendan) is associated with a legend of the occasional appearance of a magic island, supposed to sink/disappear when anything of the land touches it. Such legends occur throughout the Atlantic European provinces. Inishglora itself is also associated with the famous legend of the Children of Lir – supposed to have become human there once again, strangely echoing the legend of Oisin and St Patrick.

‘Naomhóg’ is also the name for a type of canoe-like curragh used on the west coast of Ireland, and of the type by which T.H. White was taken to Inniskea in 1940. The word Naimh as an adjective means ‘beautiful’ or can be used in the verbal sense to mean ‘to gild’, ‘to cover over’ or ‘to gloss’. It has these same meanings in Irish and Scots Gaelic.