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 .

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