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.

 

 

 

Cailleach ‘Biorar’

Alexander Carmichael: Carmina Gaedelica Volume 2, Notes: “Cailleach uisce” (n.b. – Western Isles, Highlands of Scotland, 19thC)

“…According to some people, ‘Cailleach’ as a period of time is the first week of April, and is represented as a wild hag with a venomous temper, hurrying about with a magic wand in her withered hand switching the grass and keeping down vegetation, to the detriment of man and beast. When, however, the grass upborne by the warm sun, the gentle dew, and the fragrant rain overcomes the ‘Cailleach,’ she flies into a terrible temper, and throwing away her wand into the root of a whin bush, she disappears in a whirling cloud of angry passion till the beginning of April comes again…”

Carmichael’s account is paralleled by that of John Gregorson Campbell, who writes (The Gaelic Otherworld – John Gregorson Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland(1901) and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands. Ed. Ronald Black, Pub. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2005, p.544):

A’ Chailleach‘, The Old Wife (?Part of the month after the Faoilleach month)

This old wife is the same as the hag of whom people were afraid in harvest (the last done with the shearing had to feed her till next harvest) and to whom boys bid defiance in their New Year day rhyme, viz., ‘the Famine, or Scarcity of the Farm’. In spring she was engaged with a hammer in keeping the grass under.

Buailidh i thall, buailidh i bhos, Buailidh i eadar a dà chois

(“She strikes here, she strikes there, she strikes between her legs”)

but the grass grows too fast for her, and in despair she throws the hammer from her, and where it lighted no grass grows.

Thilg i e fon chraoibh chruaidh chuilinn, Air nach do chinn gas feur no fionnadh riamh.

(“She threw it beneath the hard holly tree / Where grass or hair has never grown.”)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) - In Gaelic, the name is Cuillean (Manx: Hollin). Its piercing spines and shiny evergreen leaves made it a tree associated with the Otherworld. 'Bir' in Old Irish means a 'sharp point' or 'spear' (eDiL)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) – In Gaelic, the name is Cuillean (Manx: Hollin). Its piercing spines and shiny evergreen leaves made it a tree associated with the Otherworld. ‘Bir’ in Old Irish means a ‘sharp point’ or ‘spear’ (eDiL). Some Manx people used to burn their Christmas holly wreaths and formerly the old harvest babbin on the fire at Easter.

The legendary occupying ‘hag’ of Sliabh gCuillinn (Slieve Gullion) in St Patrick’s ‘home’ province Co. Armagh, Ulster, was called Cailleach Biorar in Nicholas O’Kearney’s in-depth account of the Irish goddess Aine, published in 1853 (Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, Volumes 1-2, p.32). He translated this name as ‘Old woman of the waters’. On Slieve Gullion, her home was supposed to be the spectacular chambered cairn (the ‘South Cairn’), also known as ‘Cailleach Beara‘s House’, which gets a popular mention among writers about the goddess.  This Cailleach Biorar, O’Kearney reminds us, also went by the name of Milucradh/Miluchradh and was described as a sister the goddess Aine and a main characterin the Fenian tale known as ‘Feis Tighe Chonáin Chinn Shléibhe’ (The Festivities of the house of Conan of Ceann-Slieve).

‘Feis Tighe Chonáin Chinn Shléibhe’:

This Fenian tale was derived from a relatively late copy in a post-MacPherson 18thC manuscript by a Waterford scribe named Foran, although there are fragments from manuscripts some 200 years older. It appears to contain some interesting detail as to the identity of Fionn, as well as the Cailleach Biorar or Milucradh. O’Kearney translated and published this in the journal of the Ossianic Society in 1855.

In a memorable part of the tale Conan asks Fionn how his hair came to be white. He tells them a tale known as ‘The Chase of Slieve Gullion’ in which the sisters Miluchradh and Aine, daughters of Cuailgne of the Tuatha de Danann wish to seduce Fionn, but set to arguing. Aine boasted that her husband’s hair would never turn grey (a boast of her sexual prowess, no doubt) and this enrages the Cailleach (Miluchradh) who bids her hosts build them a magical lake on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. Any man who bathes in the lake is doomed to old age! Milucradh tricks Fionn by shapeshifting into the form of a grey fawn to whom Fionn and his hounds give chase. She is cornered on the banks of the lough and transforms into a beautiful maiden who then tricks Fionn into diving into the waters in order to retrieve her ring (a theme common to the 12thC fairy romances, loaded as it is with sexual allusions). After Fionn emerges ancient and decrepit from the lake, she dives into the waters never to be seen again…

There is a small lake at the top of Slieve Gullion near the cairns, but the Cailleach’s lake doesn’t just exist in the physical sense, being of fairy construction. The lough in the story almost appears to function with an opposite effect to the mystical subterranean wells of regeneration (Segais, Nechtain, Connla etc), associated elsewhere with Cailleach-related legends, sometimes involving capstones that are forgotten about (see later!). It was believed that rivers flowed eventually to the Otherworld, only to return mystically through chthonic wells in hills or sidhe places. These then manifested above ground as ‘holy wells’.

What is the significance of Slieve Gullion?

Slieve Gullion lies just inland from Dundalk on the southern Ulster coast, within sight of the great Carlingford Lough on the Irish Sea, whose name derives from the Old Norse and translates to Irish as ‘Lough Cailleach’! ‘Gullion’ derives from Cuillean or Guillean – supposed to be a famous blacksmith who was employed by legendary king Conchobar mac Nessa, and from whom Cuchullain was named in the Ulster Cycle legends. It is also the name of the holly tree in Irish, Scots and Manx. The words ‘Cuillean’ and ‘Caillean’ are quite similar – just as ‘Cuillean, ‘Chullain’ and ‘Cumhal’ seem so close…

Moninne:

With the ‘coming of Patrick’ all of Ireland’s Cailleach sites (such as Cruachan Bri Eile etc) required a Christian female to replace the resident goddess, and to this end, Slieve Gullion acquired the services of St Moninne, daughter of ‘King Machta’. She was also known as Darerca of Cill Sliebhe Cuillin  or  Blathnaidh/Blinne and had a church/monastery at Kileavy (Cil Aoibhe) on the slopes of the mountain, the remains of which are still there to visit. Astute observers of names associated with the pagan goddess will immediately notice that ‘Mo-ninne’ might be a version of the character known in medieval Arthurian romances as Niniane, the ‘Lady of the Lake’. ‘St Ninian’ also appears as an important evangelist of the Irish Sea region in the early middle ages.

‘Eavy’:

Why Kileavy? It probably means ‘Beautiful Church’, but the other possibility is a church or religious house named after a founder other than Moninna: The name Aoife (Aoibhe or Aífe) is one much associated with the ‘fairy queen’ or ‘banshee’ in legends and placenames, particularly among the Dál gCais of Munster who called her ‘Aibell’ or ‘Aoibheal’ of Craig Liath – the name sounds like an epithet, of which the Gaelic goddess had as many as she had children.

In literature, the early Irish tale Aided Óenfhir Aífe, Aífe (also sometimes spelled Aoife or Aoibhe) was the mother of Cuchullain’s tragic child Connla (‘Connla’s Well’ anyone?), and in the Ulster Cycle tale Tochmairc Emire she is the opponent of Cu’s warrior-woman mentor Scáthach (another ‘epithet’ figure who, although given a Hebridean provenance in the TE, seems to be the same ‘peist’ character defeated by St Senan on the eponymous ‘Scattery’ Island in the mouth of the Shannon on the west coast).

Blathnaidh:

Moninne’s other name Blathnaidh is the Irish equivalent of the Welsh Blodeuwedd – name of the treacherous magical wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who was made for him out of flowers by magicians in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion. Lleu is supposed to be equivalent to Ireland’s famous god-son, Lugh. Interestingly, the Moninne legend tells that she and her nuns adopted a widow whose son was named Lug. In Ulster Cycle mythology, Bláthnat is wife of the central figure, the Manannan-like Cu Roi. In the Moninne legend, the saint is guided by St Ibar mac Lugna, supposedly Ireland’s first bishop and a staple of Patrician legends. The Munster fairy queen Clíodhna (who controls the tides of Glandore harbour) is associated with the legend of the ‘Blarney Stone’ on Blarney Castle near Cork, which may be related – a stone of similar shape and dimensions appears on the grave of St Moninne at Kileavy…

'Grave' slab of Moninne at Kileavy, Slieve Gullion in Armagh. Another 'Blathnaidh' stone for the muse of poets?

‘Grave’ slab of Moninne at Kileavy, Slieve Gullion in Armagh. Another ‘Blathnaidh’ stone for the muse of poets?

Darerca:

St Darerca of Ireland is another mysterious legendary holy woman who shares a name with Moninne – they are likely the same. This other Darerca is made to appear as a ‘great mother’ of many saints and bishops and was supposed to be Patrick’s ‘sister’ (Tripartite Life etc).  Interestingly, her festival is celebrated at the Spring Equinox/Paddymas period (March 22) and she is claimed as the mother of St Mel, legendary purveyor of womens’ millinery goods. As well as gifting Brighid of Kildare with her veil, this curious hypostasis of Manannan (Mel – ‘Melinus’ in Jocelyn’s 12thC Vita Patriciae portrayal of Manannan, otherwise called ‘St. Maughold’) also managed to procure a miraculous fish which he supposedly ploughed up from a field, somewhat in the spirit of ‘The Voyage of Bran’! On the subject of galloping over water, ‘Darerca’ is credited in Brittany with being the mother of legendary King Gradlon! In the Breton legend, Gradlon married the sorceress ‘Malgven’ and was given a horse which could gallop on water (as if it were land) – his ‘evil’ daughter from their coupling was the Groac’h Ahes, Brittany’s answer to the Cailleach. ‘St. Malo’ was another Breton ‘Christian Manannan’.

Is this blowing your mind yet? If the answer is ‘no’, then it is because you believe that hagiographies and church stories of early saints are ‘true’ and about ‘real people’. Otherwise, it may be because you believe that Ireland literally had many multiple gods and goddesses of which the medieval Christian scribes and poets told true accounts… The truth is somewhere else!

Back to ‘Biorar’:

The eDiL (Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language) gives some interesting etymologies for the Old Irish word ‘Bir’ and its variants – the root of Biorar in ‘Cailleach Biorar’, and possibly the origin of the common variants – Beare and Bheur – although there are many more besides (I’ve included the references this time):

1 bir
Forms: biur; ṁbir; beura;
Meaning: Stake, spit; point; spear;
DIL 2012 B 103.52

2 bir
Forms: beru; B.;
Meaning: Mainly in glossaries and B. na f. and expld. as water; spring, well, stream:;
DIL 2012 B 104.36

Birra
Meaning: having springs or wells (2 bir):;
DIL 2012 B 105.49

Also: Bearnán is a more modern word sometimes used to in the sense of ‘plant’.

As can be seen, the words for pointed or penetrating things and for springs of water have a connected etymology in Gaelic. In springtime this meaning is deeply connected with the rebirth of nature, reforged underground and in hidden places as if by a magical smith or crafter. Shoots penetrate the ground to bring new life and the flood of springs and wells gush with new waters. Pools in bogs are start to be perforated by reeds, rushes and magical plants representing this process such as the Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Kingcup, Bwillogh,as Bearnán Beltaine/Bhuide), the Menyanthes trifoliata (Bogbean, Bearnán lachan, Pónaire Chapaill), and the ubiquitous Veronica beccabunga (Brooklime, Biolar Mhuire, Biolar Uisce, Folacht (‘hidden’) etc) whose gaelic names – like that of the Bogbean – hint at the ancient mythological significance of these plants to water and regeneration in springtime and early summer in the Atlantic religion.

Caltha Palustris and other 'piercing' plants emerging in 'Curragh'

Caltha Palustris and other ‘piercing’ plants emerging in ‘Curragh’

Menyanthes Trifoliata emerging from Curragh pool in springtime

Menyanthes Trifoliata emerging from Curragh pool in springtime – reborn from water!

Brooklime and watercress appear as if by magic from pools and streams in the springtime

Brooklime and watercress appear as if by magic from pools and streams in the springtime

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

 

Watery gateways to the Otherworld

See my other post: Boand – Water Goddess of the Boyne

In the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ entries about Boand, the eponymous goddess/fairy woman of the River Boyne, there is explicit mention of a belief that all rivers run to the Otherworld which is also the world of Creation:

“…Sid Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here, the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid, from which flows the stainless river whose name is Boand ever-full.

Fifteen names, certainty of disputes, given to this stream we enumerate, from Sid Nechtain away till it reaches the paradise of Adam…

….from paradise back again hither

to the streams of this Sid.”

The ancient Greeks believed exactly the same – all rivers ran into the ‘world river’ Okeanos (the great sea) which bordered the realm of Cronus-Atlantis (Ogygia)  and the Elysium. The Dindshenchas entry actually claims that the River circulates from the Otherworld, back to Sid Nechtain where it arises within the Sid as the magical spring or stream of Segais, before emerging back into the mundane world at the ‘pool of Mochua the cleric’.

This is an important piece of mysticism that explains much about the reincarnation beliefs of the Atlantic peoples, as promoted by Caesar’s Druids.

Boand is famous in the Irish Mythological Cycle as being the mother of Aengus Og, after an illicit coupling with the Stallion-Man-God known as the Daghda. The similarities between her Dindshenchas stories and those of Sinand are marked by allusions to the mystical origins and recirculation of rivers between this world and the next, and back again. Key to this are the mystical Otherworld/underworld wells from which the Boyne and the Shannon arise: described as ‘Connla’s Well’ (Sinand/Shannon) and Segais (Boann/Boyne) – both interchangeable motifs linked to fairy women at sacred hills (the usual site where springs arise). The Irish, ‘Arthurian’ British, Gallician, Germanic and Breton mythologies plus that of Gallia Aquitania and the Pays D’Oc, are full of the motifs of magical men and women riding horses, associated with spring pools, forests, hills and rivers and the Otherworld. They are connected by an important common thread of themes which defies the explanations of Roman and Greek religion and Roman and Greek understandings of Gaulish, German and British religion in the Iron Age.

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

‘The Elucidation’

The following is appended as a (?13thC) prologue to a copy Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, le Conte du Graal in the French medieval manuscript known as  Mons 331/206 (olim 4568). Taken from Mary Jones’ fantastic website – translated by Sebastian Evans:

…. Now listen to me, all ye my friends, and ye shall hear me set forth the story that shall be right sweet to hearken unto, for therein shall be the seven Wardens that hold governance throughout the whole world, and all the good stories that any hath told according as the writing shall set forthwith;  what manner folk the seven Wardens should be, and how they took unto them chief, and whom they took, for never aforetime have ye heard tell the story truly set forth, and how great nose there was and great outcry, and how for what cause was destroyed the rich country of Logres (AP: the Brythonic lands) whereof was much talk in days of yore.

The kingdom turned to loss, the land was dead and desert in suchwise as that it was scarce worth a couple of hazelnuts.  For they lost the voices of the wells and the damsels that were therein.  For no less thing was the service they rendered than this, that scarce any wandered by the way, whether it were at eventide or morning, but that as for drink and victual he would go so far out of his way as to find one of the wells, and then nought could he ask for of fair victual such as pleased him but in content he should have it all so long as her hand asked in reason.  For straightaway, I wise, forth of the well issued a damsel – none fairer need he ask – bearing in her hand a cup of gold with baked meats, pastries, and bread, while another damsel bore a white napkin and a dish of gold or silver wherein was the mess which he had come for the mess had asked for.  Right for welcome found he at the well, and if so it were that his mess did not please him, diverse other ways they brought him all with one accord served fair and joyously all wayfarers by the roads that come to the wells for victual…

The narrator of the introduction or ‘elucidation’ then comments upon the loss of the pagan religion from Logres (Britain) and the goes on to lament how the ‘women of the wells’ were deposed. It is a fitting introduction to the archetypal Grail romance, and seemingly evokes the spirit of the Seven Streams of Poetry said in Irish mythology to issue from the Otherworld wells (of Connla and Segais, for example). Here the term used is the ‘Seven Wardens’, the mysteries of which are supposed to be revealed within the narrative of ‘Percival’, with its tales of the Fisher King (Manannan), magical cups, and maidens who occupy magical pools of water…

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

Bridget, Croghan Hill and the Bog of Allen

The Bog of Allen (Móin Alúine) with Croghan Hill ('Cruachan Bri Eile') in the background

The Bog of Allen (Móin Alúine) with Croghan Hill (‘Cruachan Bri Eile’) in the background

“Then holy Patrick came to the well called Clébach, on the slopes of Cruachu to the east, before sunrise, and they sat beside the well,  and, behold, the two daughters of king Loíguire (Ed: Mac Néill), fair-haired Ethne and red-haired Fedelm, came to the well, as women are wont to do, in the morning to wash, and they found the holy assembly of bishops with Patrick beside the well. And they did not know whence they were or of what shape or from what people or from what region, but thought they were sidhe men or earth-gods or a phantom; and the maidens said to them: ‘Whence are you and whence have you come?’ and Patrick said to them: ‘It would be better for you to profess our true God than to ask questions about our race.’  The first maiden said: ‘Who is God and where is God and whose God is he and where is his dwelling-place? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he ever-living, is he beautiful, have many fostered his son, are his daughters dear and beautiful in the eyes of the men of the earth? Is he in the sky or in the earth or in the water, in rivers, in mountains, in valleys?’….”

The quote comes from the Book of Armagh and was originally written in the 7th/8thC by the Bishop Tírechán as part of his collected apocrypha about Patrick, collected from across Ireland in his time and before. The Hill of ‘Cruachu’ mentioned here (usually interpreted as being at Rathcrogan in Connaught) might actually have been the magnificent and significant hill of Cruachan Bri Eile/Ele (‘Hill/Rock of Bri Eile’) or Croghan Hill in Offaly in Leinster, which had distinct fairy associations:

Patrick's Well on Croghan Hill - The original Clebach?

Patrick’s Well on Croghan Hill – The original Clebach?

The hill of Bri Eile is referred to explicitly in the fairy-narratives of The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn from the manuscript Laud 610 (folio: 118Rb-121Va), believed to date from the 12thC: In this, after learning poetry through the mystical medium of the Salmon of Knowledge with the druid Finnecas (who lived on the Boyne, Fionn travels to defeat the notorious fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile…

“…. Finn went to Cethern, the son of Fintan, further to learn poetry with him. At that time there was a very beautiful maiden in Bri Ele, that is to say, in the fairy knoll of Bri Ele, and the name of that maiden was Ele. The men of Ireland were at feud about that maiden. One man after another went to woo her. Every year on Samain the wooing used to take place; for the fairy-mounds of Ireland were always open about Samain; for on Samain nothing could ever be hidden in the fairy-mounds. To each man that went to woo her this used to happen: one of his people was slain….” (Boyhood deeds of Fion mac Cumhaill – trans. Cross and Slover 1936)

'Old Croghan Man' - A self-sacrificial bog body from near Croghan Hill. 'The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn' state that the fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile took the life of a man from the parties that went to her at Samhain... Either she or the Bord na Móna were certainly fierce to him!

‘Old Croghan Man’ – A possibly self-sacrificial bog body from near Croghan Hill. ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ state that the fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile took the life of a man from the parties that went to her at Samhain… Either she or the Bord na Móna certainly appear to have been fierce to him!

The association of this ancient bog-island with the mystical (and aquatic) is supported in some of the medieval Dindshenchas onomastic texts. Certain of these associate Cruachan Bri Eile with the source of the River Shannon, said to arise in a magical pool there (‘Rennes’ Prose Dindshenchas trans. Whitley Stokes):

59. SINANN.

Sinend daughter of Lodan Lucharglan son of Ler, out of Tír Tairngire (“Land of Promise, Fairyland”) went to Connla’s Well which is under the sea, to behold it. That is a well at which are the hazels and inspirations (?) of wisdom, that is, the hazels of the science of poetry, and in the same hour their fruit, and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and these fall on the well in the same shower, which raises on the water a royal surge of purple. Then the salmon chew the fruit, and the juice of the nuts is apparent on their purple bellies. And seven streams of wisdom spring forth and turn there again.

Now Sinend went to seek the inspiration, for she wanted nothing save only wisdom. She went with the stream till she reached Linn Mná Feile “the Pool of the Modest Woman”, that is, Brí Ele — and she went ahead on her journey, but the well left its place, and she followed it to the banks of the river Tarr-cáin “Fair-back”. After this it overwhelmed her, so that her back (tarr) went upwards, and when she had come to the land on this side (of the Shannon) she tasted death. Whence Sinann and Linn Mná Féile and Tarr-cain.

The implication of this is a connection between the Otherworld and the hill of Bri Eile through water. Connla’s Well is the same donor of Hazlenuts to the same Salmon of Wisdom eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill in the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn mentioned above. The lore of the Dindsenchas is that she fell and died after emerging from the Otherworld, becoming the River Shannon. In the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ (Book of Leinster) Sinand is also described as a ‘daughter of Mongan’ (who might be interpreted as an incarnation of Manannan in the texts appended to ‘The Voyage of Bran’) and donates a magical stone to Fionn. In another eponymous verse, the poet recounts of Sinand that:

Lind Mna Feile, (I speak truly),
is the name of the pool where she was drowned:
this is its proper title inherited from her
if that be the true tale to tell.

This suggests that, in conjunction with the other legends, Sinand and Eile and even Bridget might be one and the same, and we might also interpret ‘Feile’ to be a literary fixation of the indigenous local tribal name ‘Failghe‘. Add local traditions about Aine into the mix and things certainly get more interesting! Are these all the same?

In the Ulster Cycle tales, ‘Eile’ was the ‘other’ daughter of legendary High King Eochaid Feidlech, whose more famous offspring was the fairy Queen Medb of Connaught, who features prominently in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Medb was associated with another Cruachan – Rathcroghan in Roscommon – which has similar pagan connotations. Both Cruachans were the site of significant pre-Christian cemeteries, making their connection with the Otherworld strong.

Come to think of it, ‘Eile’ and ‘Allen’ seem to derive from a similar root too: In the middle-Irish tale Acallam na Senórach (‘The Colloquy of the Ancients‘), Aillen or Áillen mac Midhna of Sídh Finnachaidh (also the sídh of Lir) is the fairy whose fiery breath burns Tara each year until defeated by Fionn, confirming the link to the Cruachan Bri Eile and the name ‘Allen’. The ‘Hill of Allen’ in Kildare is also associated with Fionn, who was supposed to live there. The Slieve Bloom mountains are the other Fenian location of note – all lying on the periphery of this great midland bog or Eirenn…

Examining the etymology of ‘Eile’ and ‘Allen’ and considering the association with beautiful fairy women and St Bridget, it is fairly obvious that the derivation in álainn – ‘beautiful’. This makes ‘Cruachan Bri Eile’ mean ‘Rock of the Beautiful Brighde’.

Another place in the locality with goddess/fairy legends is ‘Cluain Aine’ (actual location uncertain), said by John O’Donovan in his edition of the ‘Four Masters’ to be near Croghan Hill. He translates ‘Cluain’ as ‘lawn, meadow or bog island’. Aine (‘Awnya’) is, of course, a name of the goddess encountered both in medieval legends and in placenames across Ireland.

'Connla's Well'

‘Connla’s Well’

The local tradition of Bridget being associated with Bri/Brig Eile is used in the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists (17thC):

“S. Maccalleus Episcopus magnus, cujus eccelesia est in Cruachan Brig Eile in regione Ifalgiae, et qui posuit velum candidum supra caput S. Brigidae

Saint MacCaille the great Bishop, whose church was at Cruachan Brig Eile in the district of the Hy Falgae (Offaly), placed the white veil on the head of Saint Bridget”

This may be based upon the following from the Bethu Brighde hagiography of the 8thC:

…On a certain day she goes with seven virgins to take the veil to a foundation on the side of Cróchán of Bri Éile, where she thought that Mel the bishop dwelt. There she greets two virgins, Tol and Etol , who dwelt there. They said: ‘The bishop is not here, but in the churches of Mag Taulach.’ While saying this they behold a youth called Mac Caille, a pupil of Mel the bishop. They asked him to lead them to the bishop. He said: ‘The way is trackless, with marshes, deserts, bogs and pools.’ The saint said: ‘Extricate us [from our difficulty].’ As they proceeded on their way, he could see afterwards a straight bridge there

The hill and its environs was once the stronghold of the powerful ruling Ua Conchobhair Failghe (“O’Connor Faly”), the most significant sept of the Leinster Uí Failghe, from which tribe modern Offaly derives its name.  This seat was at Daingean (Daingean Ua bhFáilghe – formerly Phillipstown) and was a regional capital until the start of the plantations and Flight of the Earls saw its importance decline.

The former power of the historic native rulers is illustrated by annalistic references to the Battle of ‘Tochar Cruacháin Brí Eile’ between the English and the men of Ua Fáilghe, and which took place in 1385 (Source: Annals of the Four Masters). The O’Connor Fáilghe were victorious, destroying and routing the English contingent. The name ‘Tochar’ (causeway) shows that there was an ancient bog trackway here (perhaps the one mentioned in Bethu Brighde), and it must have ‘come ashore’ at the hill or near O’Connor’s castle at Old Croghan village and connected outwards to other destinations. Cruachan Bri Eile was obviously once a powerful and strategic island fortress as well as a religious centre. Archaeological evidence of its importance goes back over thousands of years.

Saint Bridget was said to have come from among these peoples, so it is no surprise that hagiographers describe this as a site where she ‘received the veil’. Another site (of equal pagan importance) also lays claim to this, however: The Hill of Uisneach, visible from Croghan across the sprawling boglands of Allen:

“Mag Teloch, where holy Brigit received the veil from the hands of Mac Caille in Uisnech in Meath.” (Tírechán, Book of Armagh)

‘Teloch’ or ‘Tulach’ means a causeway – many used to criss-cross the boglands in ancient times and there was certainly one at Cruachan Bri Eile. Whatever place you believe the supposed ‘event’ may have happened (and it depends on the tribal loyalties of the writers), you can be certain that it occurred at some place associated with the goddess of the pagan past! The words Brig and Bri seem to link to St Bridget/Brighde, supposedly ‘given the veil’ at Cruachan Bri Eile by a saint whose name sounds suspiciously like a modified form of ‘Cailleach’, and who crops up later associated with the Isle of Man – the other ‘Hy Falga’.

There was once a church dedicated to Bishop MacCaille (said to be a nephew of Patrick) on the slopes of Croghan Hill, the remains of which are still visible on the eastern slopes. The Calendar of Cashel noted that his festival was celebrated there on the 25th of April – somewhat close to Beltain just as the surrounding bog and its pools were being pierced by flowers and new summer growth! The same day was celebrated in the Isle of Man at St Maughold’s Well on an elevated headland over the sea. The well once emptied into a stone coffin-shaped structure in which the ‘saint’ was said to sleep (like Sinand in the Linn Mná Feile at Bri Eile) and Maire MacNeil commented on the Manx Lhunasa celebrations once held there.

Morgan Le Fay and the enchanter Merlin. Even wizards were prone to the charms of the Goddess...

Patrick-MacCaille and Bridget-Eile-Aine?

Other interesting placenames attached to the hill in the medieval Dindsenchas are Magh Dairbhreach and Druim Dairbhreach (‘Plain of the Oaks’ and ‘Ridge of the Oaks’), also on the east side of the hill.

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

Through a mirror – water in the Atlantic religion

It has been well-established (if you’ll pardon the pun) that water played a prominent role in the religion of the ancient peoples of north and west Europe before the establishment of christianity. Even afterwards, and particularly in Ireland (no doubt something to do with its superabundance of moisture), this continued to be the case.

Flag Fen, England - site of a timber trackway and platforms built over water during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, associated with ritual water deposits

Flag Fen, England – site of a timber trackway and platforms built over water during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, associated with ritual water deposits. Anyone seen Grendel’s mother?

Votive deposits of religious artefacts, weapons and artefacts, food such as cheese and even human remains have been discovered in Europe’s wetlands, dating to the Bronze Age if not earlier, and archaeology of these environments has uncovered extensive constructed track-ways and structures to which have been ascribed great religious as well as economic and social importance.

Llyn Cerrig Bach

Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey – Site of Iron Age ritual water-deposits 300BC-100AD

An increasing number of crannogs and related ancient lake structures have been identified in the aquatic (and formerly aquatic) landscapes of Britain, Ireland and the rest of the ancient Celtic world. These are testament to the unique importance of proximity to water in the lives of peoples in the humid and often stormy climes of the Atlantic northwest of Europe: It offered protection, food, a source of power, a medium of transport, and a resource for industry. Coupled with the profound relationship between early (post-‘Theodosian’) Christian churches and religious settlements in northern and western Europe and the older pagan ritual sites at or near wells, springs, lakes, rivers and islands, it can be seen that water was at the heart of religious as well as secular life.

Aubrey Beardsley's depiction of Bedivere consigning the sword Excalibur to the 'Lady of the Lake'

Aubrey Beardsley’s bookplate engraving of Bedivere consigning the sword Excalibur to the ‘Lady of the Lake’

The legendary imagery connecting man with the spirit world through water is found throughout Europe from antiquity, but in particular it remained an active and important feature of the stories and literature of Atlantic Europe in the post-Christian period: From the lake-dwelling ‘Grendel’s mother’ and her role in Kingship in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, to the ‘Lady of the Lake’ (variously known as Nimue, Viviane, Elaine, Niniane, Nivian, Nyneve, and Evienne etc) of later Gallo-Brythonic ‘Arthurian’ legendary romances, the magical female in water pervades mythology.

Breton traditions tell of Malgven or Morgan, her daughter Dahut – the ‘Groac’h Ahez’ and her silver keys to the gloomy underwater realm – the medieval Lai tradition (Marie de France etc) from the region used the theme of beautiful female fairies met at springs and rivers into which they might plunge carrying worthy knights to the fairy realm of Avalon.

In Russia (where magical female spirits inhabiting rivers are called Rusalka), there is a similar tradition of the aquatic otherworld – a medieval epic tale known as Sadko, in which its eponymous hero visits the world of the ‘Sea Tsar’.

Sadko visits the Sea Tsar

Sadko visits the Sea Tsar

Ancient Irish legends (eg – from Dindsenchas) often confer the origin of rivers upon female characters: Sinand, Boand,  Éirne etc. Lakes are created by legendarily careless legendary girls who forget to cap off wells, and Old Women lament the coming of the sea to take them. Christian tales tell of lake and river monsters who vex their saints and heroes, and in the written accounts of pre-Christian legends, the Morrigan appears at critical junctures on river banks to warn, cajole (and occasionally have sex with) the stories’ male proponents…

Newgrange on the Boyne. Horde of poisonous sheep shown for scale!

Newgrange on the Boyne (Boand). Horde of poisonous sheep shown for scale!

In folklore, there are still many more tales involving the aquatic realm and the magical female, not least of which are those of the merrows and mermaids and the continental melusine.

In my next post, I am going to examine one particular sacred ‘aquatic’ landscape in Ireland: The Bog of Allen.