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):


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.

Plutarch’s account of Cronus worship in the Atlantic north

Here is an important part of a chapter from the Moralia of the 1st/2ndC CE Greek philosopher Plutarch, in which his narrators discuss a fascinating tradition of the worship of Cronus on an island somewhere off or in the archipelagos of northwest Europe. They then go on to digress on the  Orphic mysteries…

From: ‘Concerning the Face  Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon’

26 …Almost before I had finished, Sulla broke in. “Hold on, Lamprias,” he said, “and put to the wicket of your discourse lest you unwittingly run the myth aground, as it were, and confound my drama, which has a different setting and a different disposition. Well, I am but the actor of the piece, but first I shall say that its author began for our sake — if there be no objection — with a quotation from Homer:

An isle, Ogygia, lies far out at sea,

a run of five days off from Britain as you sail westward; and three other islands equally distant from it and from one another lie out from it in the general direction of the summer sunset. In one of these, according to the tale told by the natives, Cronus is confined by Zeus, and the antique Briareus, holding watch and ward over those islands and the sea that they call the Cronian main, has been settled close beside him. The great mainland, by which the great ocean is encircled, while not so far from the other islands, is about five thousand stades from Ogygia, the voyage being made by oar, for the main is slow to traverse and muddy as a result of the multitude of streams. The streams are discharged by the great land-mass and produce alluvial deposits, thus giving density and earthiness to the sea, which has been thought actually to be congealed. On the coast of the mainland Greeks dwell about a gulf which is not smaller than the Maeotis and the mouth of the Caspian sea. These people consider and call themselves continentals and the inhabitants of this land islanders because the sea flows around it on all sides; and they believe that with the peoples of Cronus there mingled at a later time those who arrived in the train of Heracles and were left behind by him and that these latter so to speak rekindled again to a strong, high flame the Hellenic spark there which was already being quenched and overcome by the tongue, the laws, and the manners of the barbarians. Therefore Heracles has the highest honours and Cronos the second. Now when at intervals of thirty years the star of Cronus, which we call ‘Splendent’ but they, our author said, call ‘Night-watchman,’ enters the sign of the Bull, they, having spent a long time in preparation for the sacrifice and the expedition, choose by lot and send forth a sufficient number of envoys in a correspondingly sufficient number of ships, putting aboard a large retinue and the provisions necessary for men who are going to cross so much sea by oar and live such a long time in a foreign land. Now when they have put to sea the several voyagers meet with various fortunes as one might expect; but those who survive the voyage first put in at the outlying islands, which are inhabited by Greeks, and see the sun pass out of sight for less than an hour over a period of thirty days, — and this is night, though it has a darkness that is slight and twilight glimmering from the west. There they spend ninety days regarded with honour and friendliness as holy men and so addressed, and then winds carry them across to their appointed goal. Nor do any others inhabit it but themselves and those who have been dispatched before them, for, while those who have served the god together for the stint of thirty years are allowed to sail off home, most of them usually choose to settle in the spot, some out of habit and others because without toil or trouble they have all things in abundance while they constantly employ their time in sacrifices and celebrations or with various discourse and philosophy, for the nature of the island is marvellous as is the softness of the circumambient air. Some when they intend to sail away are even hindered by the divinity which presents itself to them as to intimates and friends not in dreams only or by means of omens, but many also come upon the visions and the voices of spirits manifest. For Cronus himself sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold — the sleep that Zeus has contrived like a bond for him —, and birds flying in over the summit of the rock bring ambrosia to him, and all the island is suffused with fragrance scattered from the rock as from a fountain; and those spirits mentioned before tend and serve Cronus, having been his comrades what time he ruled as king over gods and men. Many things they do foretell of themselves, for they are oracular; but the prophecies that are greatest and of the greatest matters they come down and report as dreams of Cronus, for all that Zeus premeditates Cronus sees in his dreams and the titanic affections and motions of his soul make him rigidly tense until sleep restores his repose once more and the royal and divine element is all by itself, pure and unalloyed. Here then the stranger was conveyed, as he said, and while he served the god became at his leisure acquainted with astronomy, in which he made as much progress as one can by practising geometry, and with the rest of philosophy by dealing with so much of it as is possible for the natural philosopher. Since he had a strange desire and longing to observe the Great Island (for so, it seems, they call our part of the world), when the thirty years had elapsed, the relief-party having arrived from home, he saluted his friends and sailed away, lightly equipped for the rest but carrying a large viaticum in golden beakers. Well, all his experiences and all the men whom he visited, encountering sacred writings and being initiated in all rites — to recount all this as he reported it to us, relating it thoroughly and in detail, is not a task for a single day; but listen to so much as is pertinent to the present discussion. He spent a great deal of time in Carthage inasmuch as Cronus receives great honour in our country, and he discovered certain sacred parchments that had been secretly spirited off to safety when the earlier city was being destroyed and had lain unnoticed in the ground for a long time. Among the visible gods he said that one should especially honour the moon, and so he kept exhorting me to do, inasmuch as she is sovereign over life and death, bordering as she does upon the meads of Hades.

27 When I expressed surprise at this and asked for a clearer account, he said: ‘Many assertions about the gods, Sulla, are current among the Greeks, but not all tom are right. So, for example, although they give the right names to Demeter and Cora, they are wrong in believing that both are together in the same region. The fact is that the former is in the region of earth and is sovereign over terrestrial things, and the latter is in the moon and mistress of lunar things. She has been called both Cora and Phersephonê, the latter as being a bearer of light and Cora because that is what we call the part of the eye in which is reflected the likeness of him who looks into it as the light of the sun is seen in the moon. The tales told of the wandering and the quest of these goddesses Econtain the truth <spoken covertly>, for they long for each other when they are apart and they often embrace in the shadow. The statement concerning Cora that now she is in the light of heaven and now in darkness and night is not false but has given rise to error in the computation of the time, for not throughout six months but every six months we see her being wrapped in shadow by the earth as it were by her mother, and infrequently we see this happen to her at intervals of five months, for she cannot abandon Hades since she is the boundary of Hades, as Homer too has rather well put it in veiled terms:

But to Elysium’s plain, the bourne of earth.

Where the range of the earth’s shadow ends, this he set as the term and boundary of the earth. To this point rises no one who is evil or unclean, but the good are conveyed thither after death and there continue to lead a life most easy to be sure though not blesséd or divine until their second death.

28 And what is this, Sulla? Do not ask about these things, for I am going to give a full explanation myself. Most people rightly hold man to be composite but wrongly hold him to be composed of only two parts. The reason is that they suppose mind to be somehow part of soul, thus erring no less than those who believe soul to be part of body, for in the same degree as soul is superior to body so is mind better and more divine than soul. The result of soul and body commingled is the irrational or the affective factor, whereas of mind and soul the conjunction produces reason; and of these the former is source of pleasure and pain, the latter of virtue and vice. In the composition of these three factors earth furnishes the body, the moon the soul, and the sun furnishes mind to man for the purpose of his generation even as it furnishes light to the moon herself. As to the death we die, one death reduces man from three factors to two and another reduces him from two to one; and the former takes place in the earth that belongs to Demeter (wherefore “to make an end” is called “to render one’s life to her” and Athenians used in olden times to call the dead “Demetrians”), the latter in the moon that belongs to Phersephonê, and associated with the former is Hermes the terrestrial, with the latter Hermes the celestial.While the goddess here dissociates the soul from the body swiftly and violently, Phersephonê gently and by slow degrees detaches the mind from the soul and has therefore been called “single-born” because the best part of man is “born single” when separated off by her. Each of the two separations naturally occurs in this fashion: All soul, whether without mind or with it, when it has issued from the body is destined to wander in the region between earth and moon but not for an equal time. Unjust and licentious souls pay penalties for their offences; but the good souls must in the gentlest part of the air, which they call “the meads of Hades,” pass a certain set time sufficient to purge and blow away the pollutions contracted from the body as from an evil odour. Then, as if brought home from banishment abroad, they savour joy most like that of initiates, which attended by glad expectation is mingled with confusion and excitement. For many, even as they are in the act of clinging to the moon, she thrusts off and sweeps away; and some of those souls too that are on the moon they see turning upside down as if sinking again into the deep. Those that have got up, however, and have found a firm footing first go about like victors crowned with wreaths of feathers called wreaths of steadfastness, because in life they had made the irrational or affective element of the soul orderly and tolerably tractable to reason; secondly, in appearance resembling a ray of light but in respect of their nature, which in the upper region is buoyant as it is here in ours, resembling the ether about the moon, they get from it both tension and strength as edged instruments get a temper, for what laxness and diffuseness they still have is strengthened and becomes firm and translucent. In consequence they are nourished by any exhalation that reaches them, and Heraclitus was right in saying: “Souls employ the sense of smell in Hades.”

29 First they behold the moon as she is in herself: her magnitude and beauty and nature, which is not simple and unmixed but a blend as it were of star and earth. Just as the earth has become soft by having been mixed with breath and moisture and as blood gives rise to sense-perception in the flesh with which it is commingled, so the moon, they say, because it has been permeated through and through by ether is at once animated and fertile and at the same time has the proportion of lightness to heaviness in equipoise. In fact it is in this way too, they say, that the universe itself has entirely escaped local motion, because it has been constructed out of the things that naturally move upwards and those that naturally move downwards. This was also the conception of Xenocrates who, taking his start from Plato, seems to have reached it by a kind of superhuman reasoning. Plato is the one who declared that each of the stars as well was constructed of earth and fire bound together in a proportion by means of the two intermediate natures, for nothing, as he said, attains perceptibility that does not contain an admixture of earth and light; but Xenocrates says that the stars and the sun are composed of fire and the first density, the moon of the second density and air that is proper to her, and the earth of water and air and the third kind of density and that in general neither density all by itself nor subtility is receptive of soul. So much for the moon’s substance. As to her breadth or magnitude, it is not what the geometers say but many times greater. She measures off the earth’s shadow with few of her own magnitudes not because it is small but she more ardently hastens her motion in order that she may quickly pass through the gloomy place bearing away the souls of the good which cry out and urge her one because when they are in the shadow they no longer catch the sound of the harmony of heaven. At the same time too with wails and cries the souls of the chastised then approach through the shadow from below. That is why most people have the custom of beating brasses during eclipses and of raising a din and clatter against the souls, which are frightened off also by the so‑called face when they get near it, for it has a grim and horrible aspect. It is no such thing, however; but just as our earth contains gulfs that are deep and extensive, one here pouring in towards us through the Pillars of Heracles and outside the Caspian and the Red Sea with its gulfs, so those features are depths and hollows of the moon. The largest of them is called “Hecatê’s Recess,” where the souls suffer and exact penalties for whatever they have endured or committed after having already become Spirits; and the two long ones are called “the Gates”, for through them pass the souls now to the side of the moon that faces heaven and now back to the side that faces earth. The side of the moon towards heaven is named “Elysian plain,” the hither side “House of counter-terrestrial Phersephonê.”

30 Yet not forever do the Spirits tarry upon the moon; they descend hither to take charge of oracles, they attend and participate in the highest of the mystic rituals, they act as warders against misdeeds and chastisers of them, and they flash forth as saviour a manifest in war and on the sea. For any act that they perform in these matters not fairly but inspired by wrath or for an unjust end or out of envy they are penalized, for they are cast out upon earth again confined in human bodies. To the former class of better Spirits the attendants of Cronos said that they belong themselves as did aforetime the Idaean Dactyls in Crete and the Corybants in Phrygia as well as the Boeotian Trophoniads in Udora and thousands of others in many parts of the world whose rites, honours, and titles persist but whose powers tended to another place as they achieved the ultimate alteration. They achieve it, some sooner and some later, once the mind has been separated from the soul. It is separated by love for the image in the sun through which shines forth manifest the desirable and fair and divine and blessed towards which all nature in one way or another yearns, for it must be out of love for the sun that the moon herself goes her rounds and gets into conjunction with him in her yearning to receive from him what is most fructifying. The substance of the soul is left upon the moon and retains certain vestiges and dreams of life as it were; it is this that you must properly take to be the subject of the statement

Soul like a dream has taken wing and sped,

for it is not straightway nor once it has been released from the body that it reaches this state but later when, divorced from the mind, it is deserted and alone. Above all else that Homer said his words concerning those in Hades appear to have been divinely inspired.

Thereafter marked I mighty Heracles — His shade; but he is with the deathless god. . .

In fact the self of each of us is not anger or fear or desire just as it is not bits of flesh or fluids either but is that which we reason and understand; and the soul receives the impression of its shape through being moulded by the mind and moulding in turn and enfolding the body on all sides, so that, even if it be separated from either one for a long time, since it preserves the likeness and the imprint it is correctly called an image. Of these, as has been said, the moon is the element, for they are resolved into it as the bodies of the dead are resolved into earth. This happens quickly to the temperate souls who had been fond of a leisurely, unmeddlesome, and philosophical life, for abandoned by the mind and no longer exercising the passions for anything they quickly wither away. Of the ambitious and the active, the irascible and those who are enamoured of the body, however, some pass their time as it were in sleep with the memories of their lives for dreams as did the soul of Endymion; but, when they are excited by restlessness and emotion and drawn away from the moon to another birth, she forbids them <to sink towards earth> and keeps conjuring them back and binding them with charms, for it is no slight, quiet, or harmonious business when with the affective faculty apart from reason they seize upon a body. Creatures like Tityus and Typho and the Python that with insolence and violence occupied Delphi and confounded the oracle belonged to this class of souls, void of reason and subject to the affective element gone astray through delusion; but even these in time the moon took back to herself and reduced to order. Then when the sun with his vital force has again sowed mind in her she receives it and produces new souls, and earth in the third place furnishes body. In fact, the earth gives nothing in giving back after death all that she takes for generation, and the sun takes nothing but takes back the mind that he gives, whereas the moon both takes and gives and joins together and divides asunder in virtue of her different powers, of which the one that joins together is called Ilithyia and that which divides asunder Artemis. Of the three Fates too Atropos enthroned in the sun initiates generation, Clotho in motion on the moon mingles and binds together, and finally upon the earth Lachesis too puts her hand to the task, she who has the largest share in chance. For the inanimate is itself powerless and susceptible to alien agents, and the mind is impassable and sovereign; but the soul is a mixed and intermediate thing, even as the moon has been created by god a compound and blend of the things above and below and therefore stands to the sun in the relation of earth to moon.’

This,” said Sulla, “I heard the stranger relate; and he had the account, as he said himself, from the chamberlains and servitors of Cronus. You and your companions, Lamprias, may make what you will of the tale.”

These passages detail an Atlantic cult of ‘Cronus’ whose initiates spend 30 years in service – the same period Caesar quoted for the druids. They also perform peregrinations from their central territory, where Cronus is believed interred in a cavern in the earth. Plutarch states this place to be Ogygia – an island supposed in Greek myth to have been inhabited by Atlas (Atlantis) and his daughter Calypso, who imprisoned Oddyseus for 7 years – a period of time typical to Irish fairy abduction myths written in the middle ages. Irish myths sometimes portray the magical islands associated with Manannan in such a way – including the Isle of Man.  The name ‘Ogygia’ is connected to the Gyges or ‘giants’ of whom the Titans seem to be the main class in Greek myth. The names of Okeanos and Ogyges have been linked, and Plutarch’s account seems to back up this identity, perhaps conflating Cronus, Okeanos and Atlas/Atlantis under the same identity…

The text also discusses the flight of souls to the moon, which Plutarch describes as being near to Hades in the context of this chapter. Surely he is not describing a purely Greek myth? To the Greeks Hades’ realm is a chthonic underworld place, sitting above the pit of Tartarus…


Moral philosophy and the Atlantic European ‘Otherworld’

The ‘otherworld’ of the Atlantic Europeans appears to have been the keystone of a system of moral philosophy that existed as a dominant cultural force until the 19th century CE. This moral philosophy was founded firmly in an ancient supra-regional (northern and western European) pagan religion – one that the orientalist Greco-Roman state religions and subsequently their religious inheritor – christianity – had systematically  attempted to displace and replace from the 4th century BC onwards. This religion and culture almost certainly pre-dated the cultural or ethnic impact of the Halstatt and La Teine ‘celtic’ material cultures, but it has subsequently become attached to them and their ‘celtic’ afterglow in the minds of the modern European kindred across the globe.

What was this ‘Otherworld’?

It had many identities expressed in Atlantic popular across a broad swathe of time: In once sense it functioned as a location in which the dramatic and instructional narratives of mythology were played out. In another it was a place where a soul or spirit of a dead or living person might travel to visit or to reside. It might be a place that was distant – the endpoint of a journey – or a place intrusively near to us yet still alien and strange. Its denizens could be at once both very similar to us and yet somehow very different. If one word could sum it up, it would be this: contradiction. At the heart of this contradiction was a fundamental belief that the otherworld somehow mirrored our own. It was a reflection – as if in water or a mirror – that existed in a spiritual form and acted as a counterbalance to the material forces of the world. This belief is in fact traceable in all cultures across the planet, and is a part of empirical (ie – pagan) spirituality.

The confusing, contradictory nature of the otherworld might make it difficult to understand and easy to dismiss, yet the essential paradoxes of these beliefs are in fact their strength and key to the otherworld doctrine. Just as an understanding of indeterminacy and multiple parallel possibilities is the glue that holds together our modern understanding of the subatomic world (and increasingly of the macrocosm), so the otherworld functioned in a similar fashion for the pre-literate, anti-literate and illiterate cultures of the ancient European world down into modern times.

Who was in the otherworld?

When we had plenty in our world, the poor and hungry otherworld denizens were considered jealous of our material wealth (our cattle and kine), and we were poor and needy they might offer us stupendous wealth. and fabulous treasures. They might interrupt our peace and harmony with chaotic acts of cruelty. They could appear as splendidly as they could grotesquely. The people of the otherworld offered a reflection of humanity in all its states, and therefore functioned as a moral anchor that helped us tread the middle path between this world and the next.

As such, it appears that it was believed that each human had a reflection in the ‘other place’ (read Robert Kirk, Martin Martin et al for a 17thC account of how prevalent the beliefs were in the highlands and islands of Scotland). In times of impending peril, this reflection might manifest visibly to people with the ability of  ‘second sight’, and act or appear in a manner which presaged an event that would befall the earthly counterpart. It was called a ‘fetch’ or ‘living ghost’, and a striking account is given by the 14thC monk Ranulph Higden (in ‘Polychronicon’) of the belief in the Isle of Man.

Similar attributes are given to ‘fairies’ in folktales who often presage events in this world through their actions and behaviours. The implication from Robert Kirk’s accounts of highland fairy beliefs is that fairies and fetches are somehow the same, although he himself did not pretend to understand how this was so, except to imply and comment upon a belief that spirits – like the world and its seasons – were continually reincarnated, and lived a long time moving between different places and forms as they went. Ghosts, scal phantoms, fairies, Tuatha de Danann etc may all refer to different statuses occupied by eternal souls in their life cycles.

Spirits were believed to be constituted by that classical ‘fifth element’ – ether, ‘lux’, ‘spirit’ or subtle light. The mundane world was believed to founded, composed and constituted by four philosophical ‘elements’: earth, water, air and fire. Fire was closest in nature to this ‘ether’ which was itself believed to be a form of light, and the substance which all gods and spirits were supposed to be made from.  ‘Spirit’ or ‘ether’ was supposed to be able to represent all of the four mundane worldly qualities – this is why the ancients believed it to be the substance of the ‘otherworld’. This worldview dominated ancient European cultures as late as the 17th century CE after which the anti-pagan paradigms of monotheism couched in Enlightenment era science did away with it as a main force.

Where was the otherworld?

To answer this depends upon reconciling a number of apparent contradictions about location. In medieval Irish prose-tales, ‘otherwordl’ locations such as Mag Mell, Tir Taingaire or Tir nan Og etc are typified as existing in the west, often as distant islands full of magical folk. In the case of Tech Duin and the Isle of Man, these are very real and visible islands, for which ‘west’ is relative. At the same time, the otherworld might also be encountered underground in the Sid mounds, or at liminal points in the landscape, the seasons or the day. Our night-time appears to represent the working daytime of those denizens we call spirits, elves and fairies. People took care never to speak ill of fairies as they were frequently belieed to be very much nearby. The otherworld is therefore both near and distant. Recalling the description I just gave of the ancient ‘elemental’ philosophy, one might say that the world was perfused and pervaded by ‘spirit’ which was the framework around which the mundane elements worked.

The otherworld’s moral philosophy:

How did ‘fairies’ influence behaviour and maintain a moral code without recourse to written statutes? By acting as a counter-ballast to actions in the mundane world. It was ‘Newton’s laws of motion’ and the ‘first law of thermodynamics’ expressed in the timeless empiricism of European pagan spirituality:

Take too much from this world, and the otherworld will come for its portion.

Tread a middle path and the otherworld will treat you the same.

The poor and humble are wealthy and great in the next life.

From decay comes generation.

All of these ideas hinged upon the otherworld/afterlife doctrine of cyclical continuity. We know that ancient Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and others were influenced by the ‘philosophers’ of the Atlantic Europeans, otherwise known as druids. They later wrote about this and admitted it (eg – Diogenes Laertius).

We have to ask ourselves to what degree these ideas were pervading contemporary philosophers among the Hellenized peoples of the Mediterranean, middle east and asia minor during the early Roman Empire: Jesus of Nazareth in particular, whose own story and philosophies and eventual act of self-sacrifice appear to mimic the practices the Romans were busy trying to stamp out in Gaul, Britannia etc.

I shall finish with the words of Pliny (1stC AD) who had this to say about the druids:

…we cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial.

He could just as likely have been referring to another religion that was  just starting out among a group of philosophical Hellenic Jews in the middle east…

Otherworld themes in “Aislinge Meic Con Glinne”

The Middle-Irish prose tale Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (‘The Dream-vision of MacConglinne’) is supposed – by the style of its language and themes – to have been composed and written in the late 11th or early 12th century. Two versions of it have survived to the modern day – one (‘B’ recenscion) in the 15thC manuscript collection known as An Leabhar Breac (‘The Speckled Book’ – RIA MS 1230) and the other in the manuscript TCD MS 1337 (‘H’ recescion).

You can read a translation of it here.

Set during the 8th century, it is styled in the form of a somewhat satirical prose-tale interspersed with poetic verses, and revolves around the power of a ‘dream vision’ (Aislinge) to sway the fate of the hero of the plot – a scholastic Armagh monk by the name of Aniér Mac Conglinne, saving his life and saving the kingdoms of the South of Ireland by exorcising their High King, Cathal mac Finguine of a ‘Lon Cráis’ (sometimes translated perhaps erroneously as ‘demon of gluttony’) that had taken up residence in him.

The story contains a number of highly amusing and incisive aspects to its narrative. The first introduces the humourous, energetic, ever-fasting and hungry monastic hero-adventurer whose destiny is to save King Cathal and his subjects from their greedy and sinful ways. So eager and restless is he in his mission that he runs from Armagh to Cork in the space of a day or so. Upon arriving at the monastic hostel in Cork he finds their Benedictine christian values of hospitality severely wanting and sets about causing an annoyance to advertise this fact. This mortally upsets the monks who report his activities and (worse) his biting satires to Abbott Manchín who demands his arrest and has him tortured and prepared for execution. MacConglinne goes willingly to his fate, seeking to demonstrate his piety to the monks by way of example. This part of the tale is obviously an exemplar of the popular spirit of the late 11th and early 12th century ‘Gregorian Reforms’ of church probity and the monastic orders. which led to the explosion of new and disciplined monastic institutions. The character of MacConglinne – being a monk from Armagh who wears a white habit – is obviously designed to represent a forerunner of Malachy of Armagh who promoted the reformed Cistercian Order during the era of the tale’s apparent authorship. This allows him to hold no punches in castigating the lazy, fat, greedy and cruel monks of Cork and refer to them as ‘shit-hounds’ among other choice and amusing epithets!

The most amazing and amusing aspect of the tale comes when the starved MacConglinne is tied to a pillar-stone to await his execution and in delirious depths of his abject suffering and hunger, he is visited by an angel or spirit who grants him a vision of a land made of and peopled by food!

The fort we reached was beautiful,
With works of custards thick,
Beyond the loch.
New butter was the bridge in front,
The rubble dyke was wheaten white,
Bacon the palisade.

Stately, pleasantly it sat,
A compact house and strong.
Then I went in:
The door of it was dry meat,
The threshold was bare bread,
cheese-curds the sides.

Smooth pillars of old cheese,
And sappy bacon props
Alternate ranged;
Fine beams of mellow cream,
White rafters – real curds,
Kept up the house. (Trans. Kuno Meyer, 1892)

When the abbott arrives to see him executed the next day, MacConglinne relates his vision and the abbott and monks have second thoughts and refer him to King Cathal, believing that he may be tasked by god into casting out the King’s Lon Cráis. This ‘demon’ has made the King into a man who only takes food from his vassals and never distributes it, giving him an insatiable hunger.

MacConglinne dons the garb of a poet-juggler and arrives at the court of a local petty-king whom Cathal is visiting. He impresses his way in with his antics and satires and gains an audience with the king and promises to cure him, after relating his vision of a land of food. The king is so impressed by his abilities and religious piety that he begins tossing him apples (having given food to no man for many years) which the hero gladly eats, and this obviously causes MacConglinne’s powers to sally forth even further! He convinces the whole court (including Cathal) to fast overnight, and in the morning has Cathal bound with ropes and orders the most sumptuous foods be prepared which he then taunts him with while reciting a tale he himself has composed which embellishes upon the themes of his vision.

His new tale involves him being approached by a Scál (usually interpreted as a ‘phantom’, but in Irish tales always referring to an otherworld being who tests and/or instructs a hero). The scál sees he is sick with hunger and disease (or ‘original sin’) and instructs him to find (in the land of food) a magical healer or ‘fairy doctor’, known in Middle Irish as a fáthliaig (an archaic term meaning ‘vision-healer’ which survived into 19thC Manx Gaelic in the word fallog’). In MacConglinne’s telling, the fáthliaig advises him that he is sick, evoking a description of him suffering from a spiritual (and physical) inversion of King Cathal’s own predicament (which also reflected the poor traditional values of hospitatlity the monk had found in the South). This is typical of shamanic practice – the figurative/spiritual assumption of the sufferer’s disease by the healer in a dream-vision in order to combat it:

‘‘Pray for me!’ said I to him.’

‘‘In the name of cheese!’ said he to me. ‘Evil is the limp look of thy face,’ said the Wizard Doctor. ‘Alas! it is the look of disease. Thy hands are yellow, thy lips are spotted, thine eyes are grey. Thy sinews have relaxed, they have risen over thy eyes and over thy flesh, and over thy joints and nails. The three women have attacked thee, scarcity and death and famine, with sharp beaks of hunger. An eye that sains not has regarded thee.

The fáthliaig‘s prescription is, again, humorous – MacConGlinne must eat the finest foods, and be tended to by a beautiful woman while reclining upon soft animal skins in front of a roaring fire!  There follows a recitation of the delightful foods he must be fed which so inflames the ‘Lon Cráis’ in Cathal’s throat that it jumps out and hides under a cauldron in the fireplace, at which point after MacConglinne offers thanks to God and Brigit!

So… what is a Lon Cráis? There are repeated references in Gaelic folklore to a creature – often a type of lizard or newt – which can enter the mouths and throats of the unwary and cause a great unsatiated hunger or thirst. In Gaelic Scotland, Robert Kirk (17thC) spoke of possession by the spirit of a ‘great eater’. This was explicitly called the Lon Craois during the 19th century (see JG Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol.2 p.366), and in Ulster and the Isle of Man the English term for it was ‘Man-Creeper’. In both cases the cure was to tempt it out with delicious food (as with Cathal) or to eat salt and lie near a well with your mouth open (Isle of Man). In both cases it appears that the condition refers to Diabetes Mellitus, where the blood is rick with sugar but the body’s cells cannot take it in. This results in dehydration, great hunger and thirst. Kuno Meyer (1892) preferred to translate the Lon as a ‘demon’, which in the context of the characters of the narrative and their beliefs seems a correct choice, even though he knew of the Scots Gaelic term. The term does not translate literally as ‘demon’ –Lon may be the otherwise attested word Lionn, which is the Irish word for ‘humor’, meaning one of the four classical/medieval humors of the body, and an imbalance of these was believed to be the mode through which disease (and moral failings) was supposed to operate. The OI/MI word Cráes means gluttony or hunger – the latter being invoked as ‘three women’ (an implicit Cailleach reference) by the vision’s seer-leech.


The ideas of food and gluttony are explicit themes around which this whole tale revolves. The implication is that the Monk of Armagh (MacConglinne, representing both Patrick and the hegemony of Continental christianity under Malachy and the Gregorian reforms) is spiritually proper in his fasting and starvation and that having plenty of physical food and not sharing it with the poor is a form of spiritual starvation. This is another ‘Otherworld Inversion’ similar to many pervading the spirituality of the Gaels or Atlantic peoples and which were deeply influential upon early European Christians. The Lon Cráis was an ‘otherworld’ force which transformed gluttony into hunger, and MacConglinne evokes an ‘otherworld’ vision of the world of this ‘creature’ (a world of food) in which he meets a ‘fairy doctor’ or ‘seer-leech’ who details his cure by having the hero invoke an inversion of Cathals’s disease upon himself so as to defeat the spirit by evocation and provocation. By causing the spirit to escape under the pressure of his bardic or poetic genius, he fulfils his original ambition to exceed his monastic limitations, and the cure is ultimately based in Atlantic otherworld doctrines, and not purely Christian:

It is clear from this text that the hero’s poetic creation of a world and narrative made of food is the force which expels the hungry spirit, not the Christian god who (along with Brigit) gets the credit at the conclusion.

As with all Middle Irish texts and stories, this tale is beset with contradictions between a pagan and a Christian narrative. The explicit connection between fasting and spiritual purity is made in the ancient Hebrew stories collected in the 5th and 4th centuries BC into the written canon of the Hebrew Bible, from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam eventually grew, and is common to many other ancient faiths. What is interesting is how the Atlantic/Gaelic view of the Otherworld and its interaction ‘through a mirror’ with ours influenced the Christian aspects of this narrative by providing a more rational idea of spiritual balance, largely lost from continental christianity in the cultural confusion of the post-Roman period….

‘Erdathe’ – The Atlantic religion’s ‘day of judgement’?

The 7thC Patrician biographer Tírechán is a valuable source for some details of the Atlantic religion in Ireland. His work – known as the Collecteana occurs in the Book of Armagh – MS52 of Trinity College Dublin. One of the mysterious Irish words he left in his Latin hagiography of the saint is the word 'erdathe' which Tírechán claims was the term used by Irish pagans for their equivalent to the 'day of reckoning of the Lord'. It can be found in the last paragraph of Folio 10r…

12 (1) Perrexitque ad ciuitatem Temro ad Logairium filium Neill iterum, quia apud illum foedus pepigit, ut non occideretur in regno illius; sed non potuit credere, dicens:(2) “nam Neel pater meus non siniuit mihi credere, sed ut sepeliar in cacuminibus Temro quasi uiris consistentibus in bello” (quia utuntur gentiles in sepulcris armati prumptis armis) “facie ad faciem usque ad diem erdathe” (apud magos, id est iudicii diem Domini) “ego filius Neill et filius Dúnlinge Immaistin in campo Liphi pro duritate odiui ut est hoc”.12 (1) And he proceeded again to the city of Tara to Loíguire son of Níall, because he made a pact with him that he should not be killed within his realm; but (Loíguire) could not accept the faith, saying:(2) 'My father Níall did not allow me to accept the faith, but bade me to be buried on the ridges of Tara, I son of Níall and the sons of Dúnlang in Maistiu in Mag Liphi, face to face (with each other) in the manner of men at war' (for the pagans, armed in their tombs, have their weapons ready) until the day of erdathe (as the magi call it, that is, the day of the Lord's judgement), because of such fierceness of our (mutual) hatred.'

So… what is erdathe? There are two problems in determining the answer to this question: Firstly, is this really the word in the original text (written in 9thC insular minuscule text)? Secondly, the lack in standards for orthography from such early written Irish would make the word (whatever it is) a difficult one to find a more modern equivalent for…

Let's take a look at the first problem. Here is a facsimile of the word as written in paragraph 12 (Folio 10r) of the actual manuscript:


For those not accustomed to 9thC insular miniscule scripts, the initial e or a and the following r are compound or ligated and the 'r' part shows the typical dependant leg of the 'long r'. Third letter is 'd', fourth 'a', fifth 't' (capitalised in style), sixth 'h' and final a definite 'e': a/e-r-d-a-t-h-e. So: this is definitely the correct word, but the first letter might be an 'a'. You might also note the four dots above the d, a, t and 'e' where the scribe rested his nib while considering how to write the Irish word – one he was unfamiliar with and which has no other attestations in this form of spelling. This hesitancy on his part might also have given the indeterminate a/e at the start of the word. This leaves us to examine the second problem – that of meaning:

In addressing the second problem, it is necessary to take a phonetic approach and cast a wide net to see how this word relates to later Gaelic words:


The words ard and ath(e) appear to compound the word ardathe/erdathe. This offers us a straightforward translation, for 'ard' = 'height', 'high' or 'elevated'. However, the 'athe' part (-ath is not a usual suffix in the Irish language) is slightly more problematic, unless of course it is a pure compound word, in which case áth, meaning a 'ford' or an 'open space or hollow between two objects' (eDIL) seems a likely offering. The áth is a typical place for combats to occur in narrative tales such as those of the Ulster Cycle, and in particular the Táin Bó Cúailnge… this implies a liminal place where 'crossing-over' (death) might occur, as well as being a place typical for the territorial combats of rutting stags on river plains etc. It therefore shows a link of sorts to the word cath- which suffixes terms to do with battle or defence (e.g. Conn Cétchathach – Conn of the Hundred Battles); Bear in mind that the 'd' of 'erd' or 'ard' would possibly lenit a following hard consonant to give '-ath'. Other words that would fit this schema might include 'rath' and 'math'. The use of ath- as a prefix also implies an act of repetition. 'Athair' of course means 'father' – a term used to mean 'god' by Christians ('Pater noster…')

Manx: (definitions from Juan Kelly's Dictionary – Manx Society Vol.13)

The Manx language is a treasure trove for those looking for more ancient forms of Irish, having remained in a purely spoken form until the 17th century, and having enjoyed a level of cultural stability that Ireland could not, and which in turn preserved many aspects of Atlantic religious folklore that was otherwise lost. Literature has a habit of informing the 'correct' pronunciation and flow of ideas in a culture… The best guess of 'erdathe' in Manx is seen in the two forms of the expression for 'high', 'elevated' or 'exalted' – based on the rootword ard:

“Ardaght, ardys, s. height, eminence” – the round 'a' takes on a hollow 'e' sound to make the adjectival:

“Yrjey, a. high, eminent; also promoted, advanced.” – the Manx terminal -ey is pronounced '-ya' or '-yu'. The equivalent of 'ardaght' would by 'yrjaght'. In fact 'erdathe' might be pronounced in exactly this fashion with flat vowels: “er-jer-he”! These are effectively Anglophone ways of writing Irish words, after all…

Sanas Chormaic (Cormac's Glossary):

Another more intriguing and perhaps more likely possibility is a word given by the famous Cormac of Cashel in his 'glossary' of the 10thC. This word (from page 5) is Audacht which Cormac translates as

'a dying testimony' ; ie uath-fecht, ie – when one sets out on a journey (fecht) of (the) grave (uath), ie – of death

(Whitley Stokes' edition of John O'Donovan's translation)

The online Electronic DIL provides a number of variants such as édoct and aidacht. These are used to refer specifically to a 'bequest', 'legacy' or 'testament'. Cormac's etymology may be somewhat fanciful, of course. What kind of legacy/bequest could this be? The death of an individual means their earthly possessions default to the living. It might also be considered as a bequest of the self to future posterity in another incarnation.

So … Tírechán's 'erdathe' or 'ardathe' refers either to a state to do with the heights or something elevated, perhaps to a 'crossing-over' or liminal place leading into another cycle of regeneration and reincarnation, perhaps a testament or bequest of some sort, possibly of oneself to future posterity. His assertion that it was equivalent to a 'day of judgement' may just reflect a christian interpretation of what may well be a different form of the afterlife…


The ‘wand’ or ‘club’ of the Cailleach

The ‘club’ of the Cailleach was an interesting metaphorical tool that seems to have informed many Atlantic pagan seasonal traditions… In summer (from Beltain to Lúnasa – the season of the constellations Virgo and Taurus) it represented either a ‘sprouting branch’ (traditionally held by the character depicted in Virgo), the drover’s ‘cow-switch’ or the shepherd’s ‘crook’. The ancient Irish word for a cowherd – búachaill – is very similar to that in other Celtic and Indo-European languages (eg – Greek = βουκόλος = boukolos). It is also used adjectivally (as buachalan) to mean ‘cow-switch’ or in modern times, as a class-word for any useful tool. It also became a class-word for stalky plant species: Buachalan Bui is the Ragwort (Senecio Jacobea) and Buachalan Ban (Manx: Bollan Bane) was used for Mugwort (Artemisia Vulgaris): Both make excellent cattle-switches as it happens, and it is desirable to pull up the former from pastures as it harms cattle. The Manx Bollan Bane is the traditional herb associated with the Julian Calendar midsummer celebration of Tynwald Day in the Isle of Man: Old English herbals refer to it as ‘Motherwort’ and it was used as a protective charm against miscarriage (nature’s womb is ripening at midsummer when the Artemisia flowers). Stalky plants (cuiseόg – ‘fairy dogs’?) of this type are notable as they leave their ‘bones’ or ‘ghosts’ standing dry in the winter landscape, whereas more tender vegetation tends to compost. The Artemisia, the Senecio and other plants of the Gaelic cuiseόg class (including the umbilliferae including Hemlock, Cow Parsley etc) were given superstitious associations with fairies and ‘witches’ in folklore.

'Vervain and Dill hinder witches of their will' (English tradition quoted by early folklorist John Aubrey, 1721)

‘Vervain and Dill hinder witches of their will’ (English tradition quoted by early folklorist John Aubrey, 1721) – the stalky plants whose shapes survive in the winter landscape (in spite of a ‘beating’ by the ‘goddess’) often had a superstitious reputation in folklore.

In harvest the ‘club’ might represent the reaping sickle or threshing flail. In fact, harvest is the start of autumn and plants are usually spent of their generative power when they have fruited. They give life and seem to die back – so it is perhaps no surprise that the Cailleach theology gave her a ‘club’ by which she might beat vegetation back and give new life simultaneously.

Children in the Isle of Man used to be told not to pick and eat blackberries after 1st October as the 'Devil' was supposed to have touched them with his 'club'.

Children in the Isle of Man (and elsewhere) used to be told not to pick and eat blackberries after 10th October (Old Michaelmas by the Julian calendar) as the ‘Devil’ was supposed to have touched them with his ‘club’ and turned them sour.

In summer the Cailleach’s functioned as a ‘cattle-switch’, but its use is now turned to a more destructive cause. There is a subtle juxtasposition of violence and new life inherent in this, which shows through in a number of ancient Atlantic traditions with pagan associations:

Shillelaghs - cut from the hardwood of Blackthorn or Oak, they make formidable weapons ... or Hurling sticks!

Shillelaghs – cut from the hardwood of Blackthorn or Oak, they make formidable weapons … or Hurling sticks!

In the wren-hunts (Isle of Man, Ireland etc), a stave was the weapon of choice used to hunt and kill this hapless tiny avian – apparently a representation of the Goddess. Once dead, its body was typically hoisted up on a pole, festooned in ribbons and greenery (sometimes even crucified) and paraded about… A simple club-stick with a crook or hook on the end was the original weapon of the related ancient traditional combative mid-winter stick-and-ball games played in the Gaelic lands: Shinty (Scots Gaelic: Camanachd, iomain),  Cammag (the Manx version) and Hurling (Irish: Iománaíocht/Iomáint, played with a stick called a camán). These rough games were often held in conjunction with the wren-hunts in times gone by, and there is another interesting link to the Cailleach (who was depicted as one-eyed, crooked and ancient): The Gaelic word Cam’ means ‘crooked’, ‘twisted’ or ‘deformed’ as well as being formerly applied as a description of a person as ‘one-eyed’

A modern depiction of the Cailleach Bheur ('Hag of Winter') of Scottish Highland legend

A modern depiction of the Cailleach Bheur (‘Hag of Winter’) of Scottish Highland legend. She carried a hammer or staff to beat the vegetation back into the ground in the cold months.

At some of the Lúnasa/Lughnasadh fairs and hilltop gatherings in Ireland, sticks used to be the weapon of choice in traditional faction fights, and it is of note that a long shillelagh might easily double up as a cáman for Hurling or one of its related cousins. The mythological Irish warrior Cúchulainn is described as playing at hurling in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, and is even said in some versions to have killed the hound of ‘Chulainn the Smith’ (possibly a deliberate corruption of Caillean/Cailleach!) with a hurling-ball (sliotar) providing an etymology for his name! The theme of combat and the Morrigan underpins the whole of the Tain, many of the battles of which occur at river fords – bringing to mind the image of Orion standing next to the Milky Way, near Taurus, the ‘Dog Star’ and Canis Minor, not far from the wren-like twinkling stars of the Pleiades or ‘Seven Sisters’… Winter-constellations-decline-1024x722

Tehi Tegi

Some time between 1720 and 1730, a young Englishman by the name of George Waldron was living in the Isle of Man, employed as a trade commissioner for the British government who were trying to supress smuggling in the Irish Sea region. Fascinated by the strange history and wild ancient beliefs of the islanders he began compiling a book – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ – which provided one of the earliest pieces of indigenous ethnography and folklore writing from Britain and Ireland. This was published shortly after his untimely death in 1731:

WaldronIOMCoverThe book was famously used as source material by romantic authors of the next century, most notably Sir Walter Scott, who employed some of the Island’s fairy tales and legends to embellish historical stories such as Peveril of the Peak. In the book, Waldron related one particular popular local tale of the Manx taken from the popular pseudo-historical narrative tradition:


A person at his first coming to this Island, would be strangely amazed at the little complaisance they pay to the: weaker sex: the men riding always to market on horseback with their creels on each side their horses full of fowls, butter, eggs, or whatever they bring thither to dispose of, and the women following them on foot over rocks, mountains, bogs, sloughs,   and thro’ very deep rivers, and all this without either shoes or stockings’ carrying, these superfluous coverings, as they term them, under their arms till they come near the market-town; then they sit down all together on the side of a hill,   and put them on for fashion sake, and let down their petticoats also, which before were tucked up higher than their knees’   for the convenience of wading thro’ the rivers, and to preserve them from the mire of the bogs and sloughs.

But the reason for obliging the females to this hardship, is a very whimsical one, and such a one, as I believe, cannot but afford some diversion to my curious reader, I shall therefore insert it in the manner it was told me by an old native, to whom it had been handed down from many generations as an undoubted verity.

He told me that a famous enchantress sojourning in this Island, but in what year he was ignorant, had, by her diabolical arts, made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men, that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her. The passion they had for her so took up all their hearts that they entirely neglected their usual occupations; they neither Flowed nor sowed; neither built houses nor repaired them; their gardens were all overgrown with weeds, and their once fertile fields were covered with stones; their cattle died for want of pasture, their turf lay in the Bowels of the earth undug for; and every thing had the appearance of an utter desolation: even propagation ceased, for no man could have the least inclination for any woman but this universal charmer, who smiled on them, permitted them to follow and admire her, and gave every one leave to hope himself would be at last the happy he.

When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.

To prevent any such like accident for the future, these wise people have ordained their women to go on foot, and follow wheresoever their lords the men shall lead; and this custom is so religiously observed, as indeed all their traditions are, that if by chance a woman is before, whoever sees her, cries out immediately, Tehi-Tegi! Tehi-Tegi ! which, it seems, was the name of that enchantress which occasioned this law among them.

The essence of the legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’ is of a magical female in times past (the usual narrative subtext for a pagan goddess) whose beauty leads an enslaved army of Manx men on a procession ‘through the provinces’ and then to a river or to the sea (the legend has a certain plasticity) where they are drowned and taken by the waters. The tale contains strong elements of the old Scots legends of Kelpies and the related Scando-Germanic Nixies or Necks – usually portrayed as beautiful women who transform into horses and drown men in rivers or in the ocean. The root word of Nix apparently means ‘wash’, and this probably relates to the fairy washer-women who pepper folk-tales in the Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland as well as further afield. It is also related to the Mermaid traditions, of which the Isle of Man has a rich share. The theme is of a transforming feminine force, related somehow to horses, which steals men’s lives by conveying them into water. The Manx also call their own local Kelpie the Cabbal Ushtey or Water Horse, or the Glashtyn – ‘Grey One’. There is even a pool on the Island called Nikkesons showing the Viking input to the legendary heritage of the place.

However, ‘Tehi-Tegi’ is also a tale bearing strong similarities to that of Nerthus in Tacitus’ Germania from the 1stC CE. In Waldron’s tale, the ‘Enchantress’ rides a white horse rather than travelling in a wain or waggon, but the parallels are striking: The procession ‘through the provinces’ led by a potent ancient ‘magical’ female, and the drowning of the enslaved at the conclusion of the account… There are also echoes in the medieval story of the Ratcatcher or Piper of Hamelin in Germany. It therefore appears that it might represent a little fragment of pagan belief cast in legend!

The name ‘Tehi-Tegi’ means ‘Fair Chooser’ (Tei is the Manx verb ‘to pick, gather, collect’, Teg is a Brythonic Gaelic word meaning ‘fair’ or ‘beautiful’, placing the origin of the name in the island far back in time). The meaning of the name ‘Tehi-Tegi’ and the description of her as an enchantress mark her as a pagan deitypreserved in a fairy tale. Curious details include her final transformation into a flying creature bring to mind an otherworld-transition; She becomes a bat in Waldron’s version, and but more usually a wren in other local versions, linking ‘Tehi-Tegi’ firmly to the annual Wren Hunt held on St Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26th) on the Island and in former times, elsewhere. Here are some examples of this:

Legends of the north, or The feudal Christmas; a poem By Henry Rolls (mrs.), Pub Simpkin & Marshall London 1825, pp.269-270

The wren is still regarded by the Manx people as possessing supernatural intelligence. They say that when St Maghull (Ed: Maughold – the Manx ‘Saint’) came to the island and converted it to Christianity he banished all the fairies but their queen who assumed the form of a wren in which she at times still appears and that if in that shape she can be killed her power will cease for ever. They hate this bird but fear to destroy it as some dire calamity will befall the person and all his family who effects the destruction of the reign of the fairies in Man.


From: History of the Isle of Man, by Hannah Bullock; Pub. Longman, London, 1819. (Chapter 19):

….one of the most curious ceremonies, and which, I believe, is peculiar to the Isle of Man, is, that of hunting the wren, founded on a tradition, that in former times, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she at various times seduced numbers to follow her footsteps, till, by degrees, she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended the island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knight-errant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this syren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard, by taking the form of a wren; but though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned on every succeeding New Year’s Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by a human hand. In consequence of this well authenticated legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the island (except those who have thrown off the trammels of superstition), devote the hours between sun-rise and sun-set, to the hope of extirpating the fairy…

Tehi-Tegi’s white horse (possibly representing the moon which controls the tides) becomes a porpoise and swims away at the end of Waldron’s version of the tale – redolent of the scene in the Voyage of Bran when Manannan introduces the transition to the otherworld and the horses galloping alongside him appear as fish!

The tale probably survived in its traditional form because it also acted as a metaphor where Tehi-Tegi IS the sea – drawing the Manxmen away from agriculture and into the trades of the sea: fishing, commerce and piracy! The Manx rural economy as far back as records go has been supported by its menfolk going to sea during the herring fishing season in order to increase food stocks of winter food and provide cash money to supplement the income from agricultural surplus. It was a dangerous trade, and a law of 1610 limited the fishery to operate only between midsummer and the end of December, meaning that the start of harvest crossed over with that of the fishery, offering some Manxmen a quandary between going to sea and working the land. Either way the womenfolk must have been anxious – both about the danger, and the lack of male help on the farmstead close to harvest… This perhaps provides a social aspect to the legend as told to Waldron, crackling as it is with gender politics.

So who might this ‘enchantress’ or ‘Fair Chooser’ have been? She appears in the legend and by her name to operate as a psychopomp or conductor of souls of the dead. She also represents the ‘otherworld attractor’ qualities of Love and Beauty that typifies fairy legends. She also has a particular association with the rivers and the ocean, and with horses, marine life and flying creatures. The Manx tales state ‘Tehi-Tegi’ was Queen of the Fairies, and there is a similar account from Ireland, naming the Fairy Queen Cliodhna as the protagonist who is annually transformed into a Wren. She is more usually associated with the Tonn Cliodhna – a powerful tidal surge in the neck of Glandore Harbour, Co.Cork. Local legends held her to be a daughter of ‘Manannnan’s druid’. Manannan is also associated with the Tonn Banks off Co. Donegal, which also have Cailleach legends associated with them.

That some of these attributes could be associated with the Scandinavian Vanir goddess Freyja (and her Father:Mother (N)Jörð) is perhaps unsurprising as the Islanders are a genetic combination of Viking and Celtic settlers whose folklore preserves many of the old pagan ideas. Freyja was described in Snorri‘s 13thC Icelandic ‘Prose Edda’ tale – Gylfaginning as having the choice of ‘half of the slain’ in battle, the other half going to Odin. He uses the kenning Valfreyja – ‘Lady of the Fallen’ – a function certainly being carried out by Tehi-Tegi. One of the other kenning-names used by Snorri was Mardöll, possibly meaning ‘Image of the Sea’ (Mar and a contraction of the Lat in/Greek word (e)idola, which entered Germanic languages and Manx at an early stage).

Freyja was supposed to have had a ‘cloak of feathers’ which could transform the wearer into a bird, much in the manner of the jǫtunn Þjazi, to whom some legends have her being grand-daughter. Apart from the connection of Tehi-Tegi with the bat or wren, another Manx legend – of a giant magical female called Caillagh ny Groamagh who comes from the sea in the form of a bird on February 1st (or March 25th – the tradition is confused) to search for firewood/build her nest back on land. The dating of ‘Caillagh ny Groamagh’s Day’ coincides with that of the day of St Bridget, which is also the Celtic/Atlantic festival of Imbolc. The similarity between the Manx name for Bridget: Vreeshey or Breeshey (the terminal -ey in Manx is pronounced ‘-a’, as Vreesha‘) and the name Freyja is very intriguing. One wonders if they might be related? And is the Manx name for the Isle of Man – Vannin or Mannin – related to the tribe of the Vanir? We know that many of the Scandinavians who settled Iceland and who preserved many of the old Eddaic legends were connected strongly to the Viking kingdoms of Dublin and the Isle of Man.

It is possible that regional alliance and cultural and population mobility between the northern European peoples during the Iron Age led to a syncresis between Western and Eastern forms of paganism which led to the combined Aesir and Vanir traditions recorded and described by the (Christian) Icelanders during the 13thC. Alternatively, the Scandinavian and Germanic religions may be the survival of un-Romanised, un-Christianised Celtic paganism, albeit altered through a prolonged interaction with these cultures before the final Christianisation began in the 10th and 11th centuries.



Otherworld inversions in ‘The Voyage of Bran’

The Old Irish (circa 8thC CE) literary account of the tale of a fairy woman’s invitation to hero Bran mac Febail to visit the otherworld ‘Isle of Women’ (Tír na mBan) is one of the most important containing an appearance by the enigmatic character of Manannán mac Lir (also referred to as Moninnán in the text), who was in the tale described as the Lord of the Otherworld and later also supposed to have been the Irish ‘god of the sea’, or even the founding and protector god of the Isle of Man.

In the first part of the story, an otherworld woman appears unbidden in the fortress of a legendary king named Bran Mac Febal. She bears a silver apple branch laden with blossoms which she says comes from a tree in the otherworld and hands it to Bran before reciting an ‘aisling’-style visionary account of the otherworld which inspires him to set out in search of it. This account tells how this world consists of a great island (or islands) in the west and hints that it is a mirror-reflection of our world. She predicts the liminal moment in his voyage at which he will see Manannán and at which point he will know he has arrived in the Otherworld (Kuno Meyer translation):

 At sunrise   there will come
   A fair man illumining level lands;
   He rides upon the fair sea-washed plain,
   He stirs the ocean till it is blood.

The liminal point of ‘sunrise’ is actually here the sunset of the corporal world, and she alludes to this in her description of the sea turning to ‘blood’, with the reddening sunset. It is probable that the reddening of the sea was interpreted as a figurative indication of the host of the dead going beneath the waves into the inverted Otherworld.

In the second part of the narrative (dealing with the journey), the following stanzas describe the actual moment when Bran is met and addressed by Manannán ,who rides across the waves on a chariot accompanied by a host of souls who Bran cannot see (i.e. – conducting the dead into the land beneath the waves):

Bran deems it a wondrous pleasure to travel in his coracle over a clear sea, while for me, the chariot in which I am is driving from afar over a flowery plain.

What is clear sea for the prowed ship in which Bran is, is a many flowered Mag Meall for me in a two-wheeled chariot.

Over a clear sea Bran beholds many breaking waves. I myself behold flawless red-topped flowers on Mag Mon.

Sea horses glisten in summer throughout the prospects which Bran can roam with his eye. Flowers pour forth a stream of honey in the land of Manannán mac Lir.

The sheen of the sea on which you are, the brightness of the ocean over which you voyage: it has strewn forth yellow and green; it is solid earth.

Speckled salmon leap from the womb of the white sea which you behold: they are calves, they are lovely lambs…

… Though you should see but a single chariot-rider on the many-flowered Mag Meall, on its bosom, besides him, are many steeds which you do not see.

(Translation from Early Irish Lyrics by Gerard Murphy, 2007 reprint of the 1956 first edition; I also refer the reader to the Kuno Meyer transaltions which are available online.)

By contrasting the great plain of the sea, with the great plain of his otherworld domains of Mag Meall (Honeyed Plain) or Mag Mon (Plain of ?Sports/?Delights), Manannán draws Bran (and the reader) into the Otherworld in a smooth transition that eases across the boundary between both worlds almost imperceptibly. The ensuing descriptions he gives tell of the feasting and beauty of the fairy inhabitants of this place.

    The sea, of course, is where the sun appears to Atlantic peoples to descend into in the west every day, and for this reason, Manannán is therefore depicted in this tale as the lord of the parallel world of the afterlife, where sea is land and vice versa.

 This otherworld is named in the poem (either in whole or in its part) by various names, including: Emain, Emne, Ciúin, Aircthech, Mag Findargat, Mag Argatnél, Mag Réin, Mag Mon, Mag Meal, Ildathach and Tír mBan. The diversity of names used in Celtic tales of the otherworld sometimes suggests it to be more of a western archipelago, reflecting that of the eastern Atlantic seaboard: Ireland, Britain and the Hebrides etc. However, by ascribing many names to one idea gives a special status to something magical – an indefinability that prevents its overthrow by literality. This represents the struggle between oral pagan tradition and literary Christian absolutism.

The themes of conflict between the pagan and the Christian are bubbling just below the surface throughout the poetry and prose of the ‘Voyage of Bran’. When the ‘fairy woman’ or Manannán holds the stage, they give a very persuasive account of the spirits of the otherworld, who are said to be without original sin and full of virtue. There is no indication that the Christian scribe(s) and interpreters of the tale and its poetic stanzas are seeking to Christianise the otherworld – the ultimate goal is to consign it to history, or to the world of fantasy and story:

Once the author or scribe finishes dealing with the pagan and fairy themes, the poetic stanzas go on to address christian themes of the afterlife almost as if the transcriber of the pre-historic oral versions is guilty about such content. An interlineal note in one of the surviving manuscripts of the tale even contains a supplication to the christian god: arca fuin dom Dia – ‘I ask forgiveness of my God’. The style is therefore the same as in the ‘Lament of the Sentuine Berri’, which similarly descends into expressions of Christian scribal anxieties over the apparently pagan content: Both pieces contain core doctrinal aspects of the two main characters at the heart of the pre-christian Atlantic religion.

Ancient Irish literature and legends are full of motifs of the masculine hero being inspired by the dreamy visions of a powerful otherworld female, who also frequently functions in such legends as the one who bestows sovereignty and male temporal power. The ‘Voyage of Bran’ is no exception, but where it is exceptional is that it deals with the less common theme of the god-like Manannán (or Moninnán). In the Voyage he seems to function as a walk-on part or herald who welcomes Bran to his kingdom and conducts him through the otherworld showing its sights and impressing upon him the ‘principle of inversion’ regarding the nature of the otherworld. When reconsidering the introductory stanzas spoken by the ‘fairy woman’ in Bran’s fortress in the human world, it is quite possible to conclude that Manannán’s masculine appearance in the otherworld is an inverted reflection of the fairy woman who inspires Bran while in the ‘Land of Men’: In the ‘Land of Women’ the Fairy woman becomes a Man! Such a principle appears to have powered a pagan understanding which balanced the importance of the role of the masculine and feminine, the living and the dead, night and day, summer and winter and so forth… It was a religious philosophy designed to seek harmony between the apparently polar forces of the universe.

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.

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,
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”