Careless lake ladies and mermaids – flood myths in Celtic folklore

“…There is a lake in Ulster of vast size, being thirty miles long and fifteen broad, from which a very beautiful river, called the Banna, flows into the Northern ocean. The fisher-men in this lake make more frequent complaints of the quantity of fish inclosed in their nets and breaking them than of the want of fish. In our time a fish was caught here which had not come up from the sea, but was taken descending the lake, and was in shape very like a salmon, but it was so large that it could neither be dragged out or conveyed whole, and therefore was carried through the province cut in pieces. It is reported that this lake had its origin in an extraordinary calamity. The land now covered by the lake was inhabited from the most ancient times by a tribe sunk in vice, and more especially incorrigibly addicted to the sin of carnal intercourse with beasts more than any other people of Ireland. Now there was a common proverb in the mouths of the tribe, that whenever the well-spring of that country was left uncovered (for out of reverence shown to it, from a barbarous superstition, the spring was kept covered and sealed), it would immediately overflow and inundate the whole province, drowning and destroying all the population. It happened, however, on some occasion that a young woman, who had come to the spring to draw water, after filling her pitcher, but before she had closed the well, ran in great haste to her little boy, whom she heard crying at a spot not far from the spring, where she had left him.

But the voice of the people is the voice of God ; and on her way back, she met such a flood of water from the spring that it swept off her and the boy, and the inundation was so violent that they both, and the whole tribe, with their cattle, were drowned in an hour in this partial and local deluge. The waters, having covered the whole surface of that fertile district, were converted into a permanent lake, as if the Author of nature judged the land which had been witness to such unnatural bestialities against the order of nature to be unfit for the habitation of men, either then or thereafter.

A not improbable confirmation of this occurrence is found in the fact, that the fishermen in that lake see distinctly under the water, in calm weather, ecclesiastical towers, which, according to the custom of the country, are slender and lofty, and moreover round ; and they frequently point them out to strangers travelling through those parts, who wonder what could have caused such a catastrophe.

…..

It must, however, be observed that the river before mentioned (the Bann), which now flows out of the lake in full stream, had its source in the aforesaid spring from the time of Bartholanus, who lived soon after the flood, when it was fed also by other rivulets, and took its course through the same district, but with a far less volume of water, and it was one of the nine principal rivers of Ireland…” (Topographia Hiberniae by Gerald of Wales (12thC) – trans. Thomas Forester; From: ‘The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis’ – Pub. George Bell & Sons, London 1905)

Gerald’s tale comes from his famous account of Ireland, produced in support of the Anglo-Norman invasion of the island, and designed to support the imposition of continental christianity on this ‘barbarous’ and ‘uncivilised’ people. His sources were the monastic annals and texts of the great abbeys of Ireland. The contemporary secular literary milieu was one enchanted with the ‘Lady of the Lake’ and ‘Morgane le Fee’ and any one of a number of similar fairy themes which defined the ‘Arthurian’ Romance litereature of the 12th and 13th centuries. The following sums up one of his likely sources – from the legends of St Comgall about his apparent conversion and sanctification of a mermaid called Liban, afterwards St. Muirgen!:

“… According to a wild legend in Lebor na h-Uidri, this Liban was the daughter of Eochaidh, from whom Loch Eathach, or Lough Neagh, was named, and who was drowned in its eruption [A. D. 90], together with all his children, except his daughter Liban, and his sons Conaing and Curnan. Liban, was preserved from the waters of Lough n-Eachach for a full year, in her grianan, [palace] under the lake. After this, at her own desire, she was changed into a salmon, and continued to traverse the seas till the time of St. Comhgall of Bangor. It happened that St. Comhgall dispatched Beoan, son of Innli, of Teach-Dabeoc, to Rome, on a message to Pope Gregory [Pope, A. D. 599-604], to receive order and rule. When the crew of Beoan’s currach were at sea, they heard the celebration of angels beneath the boat. Liban, thereupon, addressed them, and stated that she had been 300 years under the sea, adding that she would proceed westward and meet Beoan, that day twelvemonths, at Inbher-Ollarbha [Larne], whither the saints of Dalaradia, with Comhgall, were to resort. Beoan, on his return, related what had occurred, and, at the stated time, the nets were set, and Liban was caught in the net of Fergus of Miliuc; upon which she was brought to land, and crowds came to witness the sight, among whom was the Chief of Ui Conaing. The right to her being disputed by Comhgall, in whose territory,-and Fergus, in whose net,-and Beoan, in promise to whom,-she was taken, they prayed for a heavenly decision; and the next day two wild oxen came down from Carn-Airend; and on their being yoked to the chariot, on which she was placed, they bore her to Teach-Dabeoc, where she was baptized by Comhgall, with the name Muirgen i.e. Born of the sea, or Muirgeilt i.e. traverser of the sea. Another name for her was Fuinchi…” (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, vol.1 – John O’Donovan, ed. and trans.,(Dublin, 1856), p.201.)

This version of the Lough Neagh tale is slightly different as it tells that the father (Eochaid – possibly a reference to the literary figure known as ‘An Dagda’) and tribe of the magical woman are drowned, but that she remained in the form of a salmon in the sea until the coming of St. Comhgall some 300 years later. . There is good evidence from the variety of traditions encountered in Ireland that much hagiography was a deliberate revision of core pagan myths and doctrines. As with many conversion-era themes from Ireland, Liban (like Eithne/Aine in Altram Tigh da Medar) becomes a Christian and is not demonised and defeated, in distinction to the Breton legend of Gradlon and his daughter Ahes (the ‘Groac’h’ or ‘Mari Morgane’). Interestingly, Liban appears as the whip-frenzied companion/double of Manannan’s wife Fand in the ‘Wasting Sickness of Cuchullain’ from the Ulster Cycle. The same legends interested noted Celticist Professor John Rhys at the turn of the 20thC, who recorded some interesting parallel tales which showed the lake-lady/mermaid legend was not just local to Lough Neagh, or for that matter, Ireland or Brittany:

“…David Jones, of Trefriw, in the Conway Valley, was a publisher and poet who wrote between 1750 and 1780. This is his story: ‘In 1735 I had a conversation with a man concerning Tegid Lake. He had heard from old people that near the middle of it there was a well opposite Llangower, and the well was called Tfynnon Gywer, ” Gower’s Well,” and at that time the town was round about the well. It was obligatory to place a lid on the well every night. (It seems that in those days somebody was aware that unless this was done it would prove the destruction of the town.) But one night it was forgotten, and by the morning, behold the town had subsided and the lake became three miles long and one mile wide. They say, moreover, that on clear days some people see the chimneys of the houses.’…”

“…Before I have done with the Irish instances I must append one in the form it was told me in the summer of 1894: I was in Meath and went to see the remarkable chambered cairns on the hill known as Sliabh na Caillighe, ‘the Hag’s Mountain,’ near Oldcastle and Lough Crew. I had as my guide a young shepherd whom I picked up on the way. He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns. As to the cairn on the hill point known as Belrath, that is called the Chair Cairn from a big stone placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round. But usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed. The hag appears to have been Cailleach Bhéara, or Caillech Bérre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare,’ that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork. Now the view from the Hag’s Mountain is very extensive, and I asked the shepherd to point out some places in the distance. Among other things we could see Lough Ramor, which he called the Virginia Water, and more to the west he identified Lough Sheelin, about which he had the following legend to tell:–A long, long time ago there was no lake there, but only a well with a flagstone kept over it, and everybody would put the flag back after taking water out of the well. But one day a woman who fetched water from it forgot to replace the stone, and the water burst forth in pursuit of the luckless woman, who fled as hard as she could before the angry flood. She continued until she had run about seven miles-the estimated length of the lake at the present day. Now at this point a man, who was busily mowing hay in the field through which she was running, saw what was happening and mowed the woman down with his scythe, whereupon the water advanced no further…” (John Rhys – Celtic Folklore – Welsh and Manx Volume 2; Ch.6; Pub. Oxford University Press 1901)

As well as Wales and Ireland, this story involving the Cailleach was widespread in the west of Scotland too, as the following account from the late 18thC shows:

“…On a high part of that ridge of hills which seperates Stralachlan from Glendarnel, there is a very large stone, remarkable for its situation. There is a descent from it on every fide. The prospect from it is very extensive. It is called Cailleach-Vear or Vera. In the dark ages of superstition, it was personified, and said to have a considerable property in cattle. Cailleach Vear makes a conspicuous figure in the marvellous tales of the country people, over great part of the West Highlands. Her residence was said to be on the highest mountains; that she could step with ease, and in a moment, from one district to another; when offended, that she caused a flood to come from the mountains, which destroyed the corns, and laid the low grounds under water; that one of these floods was the origin of Lochow, in Lorn, of Locheck, in this parish, and of many other lakes; that the people paid her a superstitious veneration, and were under dreadful apprehensions of her anger…” (The Statistical Account of Scotland: Drawn Up from the Communications of the Ministers of the Different Parishes; Ed. John Sinclair; Pub. W. Creech, 1792; pp. 559-560)

The same story is borrowed and elaborated on by a later author in the following account of Loch Awe from the 19thC following on from the surge in interest in Highland legends generated by Walter Scott:

“…The Highlanders of Argyleshire possess a curious tradition regarding the origin of Lochawe, which has furnished a topic in one of the wild songs of Ossian. The circumstance is connected with the existence and death of a supernatural being, called by the country people Calliach Bhere, ” the old woman.” She is represented as having been a kind of female genie whose residence was on the highest mountains. It is said that she could step with ease and in a moment from one district to another; when offended, that she could cause the floods to descend from the mountains, and lay the whole of the low ground perpetually under water. Her race is described as having lived for an immemorial period near the summit of the vast mountain of Cruachan, and to have possessed a multitude of herds in the vale at its foot. Calliach Bhere was the last of her line, and, like that of her ancestors, her existence was blended with a fatal fountain which lay in the side of her native mountain, and had been committed to the charge of her family since its first existence. It was their duty at evening to cover the well with a large flat stone, and at morning to remove it again. This ceremony was to be performed before the setting and rising of the sun, that his last beam might not die upon the waters, and that his first ray should illuminate their bosom. If this care was neglected a fearful and untold doom was denounced to be the punishment of the omission. When the father of Calliach Bhere died, he committed the office to his daughter, and declared to her, in a solemn charge, the duty and the fatality of the sacred spring. For many years the Military woman attended it without intermission;

But on one unlucky evening, spent with the fatigues of the chase and the ascent of the mountain, she sat down to rest beside the fountain, and wait for the setting of the sun, and falling asleep did not awake until next morning. When she arose she looked abroad from the hill; the vale had vanished beneath her, and a wide and immeasurable sheet of water was all which met her sight. The neglected well had overflowed while she slept; the glen was changed into a lake; the hills into islets; and her people and her cattle had perished in the deluge. The Calliach took but one look over the ruin which she had caused: the spell which bound her existence was loosened with the waters, and she sunk and expired beside the spring. From that day the waters remained upon the vale, and formed the lake which was afterwards called Loch Awe…” (The Gazetteer of Scotland, Volume 1 By Robert Chambers, William Chambers ; Pub: Andrew Jack, Edinburgh, 1844; p.63)

The legend tells that the Cailleach disappeared into the spring – a figurative form of death shared with the Dindshenchas legends of Sinand and Boann as well as many of the others. The theme of the Cailleach and the flood was discovered in the Isle of Mull:

“…In the olden times, on the Headland of Mull, there lived a woman whom the people called Cailleach Bheur. She didn’t hail from the people of this world, since we are told that Cailleach Bheur was a yound girl when Adam and Eve were still enjoying the pleasures of the Garden of Eden. She tells us, in her own words, ‘When the ocean was a forest with its firewood, I was then a young lass.’ Let that be, as it may, and far be from us to doubt it, but it seems that Cailleach Bheurr evaded death in a way that no one was ever able to do, before or since…” (School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh Royal Celtic Society, MSS:AM/35.8 Mull)

“…Now there was only one place where Cailleach Bheurr watered her cattle-herd when she was away from Mull itself. This was a well halfway along the road she took to the headland of Kintyre. I don’t remember what its name was but, indeed, there was such a well there. And there was a great stone lid on the well and as soon as she arrived there in the morning, she would lift off the great stone so that the herd could get a drink at a time when they were thirsty. But if she didn’t place the great stone lid back on the well before the sun went down, the water would flow out of it and flood the whole world. It would pour out of this well and cover the whole world with a flood…” (School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh Royal Celtic Society, MSS:SA 1953/49/B5)

These accounts also add a tradition that the Cailleach would evade death by bathing in a magic Loch every 100 years. Of particular interest is that the quote ‘When the ocean was a forest with its firewood, I was then a young lass’ is mirrored in a folktale quoted in the following 18thC Irish account, discussing regional geology and geography around Lough Foyle:

“….There is a Rock on the side of the Mountain called the Poor Woman (in Irish, Calliagh Veerboght) who tells us when she was a Maid the Place where she stands was once Corn ground and Lough Foyl so narrow that a Lamb could skip from Magilligan Point to Green Castle which is now two Sea Miles distant and the Fairy that lived on the Tuns Banks (AR: Tonn Banks – The fairy referred to is revealed in other stories to be no less than Manannan!) that lye at the Mouth of Logh foyle (mostly formed I believe by what was worn away of this Shore) having a Carpet stole from him by one of this Parish, cursed it and threaten’d that every Year the Breadth of the Carpet should be swept away from the Land till all should be swept away. We may at least gather from such as these that in antient times this Place was losing and not gaining…” (“Miscellaneous letters on several subjects in philosophy and astronomy” – By Robert Innes to the Bishop of Cashel – William Nicolson; Pub.S. Birt, London 1732;p.5 – Letter 1)

The legends of the Cailleach and her relationship to water and herds of cows or deer seem to have been very consistent between Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Even in the 12thC Breton Lai de Graelent where she appears as a fountain-fairy in the woods, there are similar associations – the knight (like Fionn in the Irish ‘Pursuit of Slieve Gullion’) chases the white deer and finds her waiting at a spring in the woods. The lore is perhaps best summed up in this  excerpted 19thC translation of the Scottish highland ballad – Cailleach Bein y Vreich:

“Weird, weird, wife! with the long grey locks, she follows her fleet-foot stags, Noisily moving through splintered rocks, And crashing the grisly crags.

Tall wife! with the long grey hose, in haste the rough stony beach she walks; But dulse or seaweed she will not taste, nor yet the green kail stalks.

“And I will not let my herds of deer, my bonny red deer go down; I will not let them down to the shore, to feed on the sea-shells brown.

O better they live in the corrie’s recess, Or on mountain top to dwell, And feed by my side on the green green cress, That grows by the lofty well.”

“Broad Bein-y-Vreich is grisly and drear, but wherever my feet have been, the well-springs start for my darling deer, And the grass grows tender and green.

“And there high up on the calm nights clear, Beside the lofty spring, They come to my call, and I milk them there, And a weird wild song I sing.”

(Excerpt from translation of the old highland song Cailleach Bein a Vreich by John Campbell Shairp, from ‘Kilmahoe: a Highland pastoral with other poems’; Pub. Macmillan & Co, London 1864; pp.138-139)

The middle irish tale Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedón (Yellow Book of Lecan – late 14thC) recounts the legend of the boyhood of Niall (of the Nine Hostages) – son of Eochaid Mugmedon by Cairenn. It explains the origin of Ui Neill kingship. The theme is of how Niall came to be bestowed with the sovereignty of Ireland by a fairy queen at a well.  The five sons of Eochaid are sent to fosterage and then (at their appointed time) join their Fianna to gain life experience in adventure. While hunting in the woods, they realise they must find water and each in turn goes to a well to draw water, where they encounter a loathsome hag who guards it. Her condition for allowing them to draw water is that they bestow a ‘kiss’ upon her (i.e. – that they have sex with her). The first four sons (whose mother is Mongfind) refuse her, but Niall – last to go – accepts eagerly, else they all die of thirst. The hag immediately transforms into the most gorgeous young woman and announces that she is the Sovereignty of Ireland, which she bestows upon him in an act of Heiros Gamos. He returns to his father who recognizes him as the new High King.

Those familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will know that his ‘Tale of the Wife of Bath’ is a facsimile of this same tale, which also occurs in various other forms in the ‘Romance’ fairy tales of the ‘Arthurian’ corpus between the 12th and 15th centuries.

When we consider the ‘Moura’ fairytales from the Iberian Peninsula, the fairytales of Brittany and France, and those of the rest of northern Europe (which I have not discussed), these all point towards an important, pervasive and powerful pagan mythology which was possibly common to all of these regions and was tied to water and the great ocean.

 

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.

 

 

 

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