‘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:

Erdathe_word

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:

Irish:

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:

(pp.143-152)

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.

AND

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.

tbc

 

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,
h-Uaet,
Mede, Mod.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Morrigan

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

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

‘The Conversation of the Morrigan with Cuchulainn’

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

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

Therewith she goes from him.

AND:

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

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

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

Then her head was healed so that it was whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– The ‘Metrical Dindshenchas

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

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

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

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

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