The Ancestral Mother

Tales of the Cailleach from throughout the Gaelic territories generally portray her as a very ancient female to whom is attributed the creation of features in the landscape, the husbandry of flocks and consequently the creation of tribes. Hills and mountains were considered parts of her body, rivers were a part of her essence. Still more mysterious was the manner in which her existence as the land itself became transmuted into the seasonal renewal cycles of the land in each solar year. She combines the consistent foundation-idea of ancient creation with that of annual renewal: as the New Year, the Blossoming Year, the Fruitful Year and the Dying Year. She was the soil that gave birth to generations of semi-divine/wild, semi-human characters in the oral culture's 'time before memory' and from which all ideas of survival-skill and nature-interaction derived down into those generations 'within memory'.

As a 'mother' goddess of nourishment and renewal she was associated with springs and rivers, and therefore the great ocean which received them. Many folk-tales exist about lakes being formed when she forgot to cap off a spring back in the mists of time when she was young. All of the world's rivers were believed by the ancients to flow into a 'world river', called Okeanos by the Greeks. At the limits of this great ocean-river was the spiritual Otherworld – ruled by Manannan in Gaelic myth. To the Greeks and Romans this was sometimes styled Elysium. It was bordered by a great river whose waters conferred forgetfulness to souls who would be reincarnated. The mysterious transition to the spiritual realm at the edge of this great ocean is a transition of water into the 'matter' state of spirit or aether, which ancients believed was the substance of the heavens and the otherworld. The ocean-river can be seen flowing in the heavens in the form of the Milky Way, on whose 'shores' the Cailleach (Orion) and her Bull (Taurus) are seen standing in the winter skies of the north. To complete its great cycle, this ocean-river was re-manifested from the cthonic recesses of the earth as fresh springs – just as spirits re-manifested from the sid mounds in old Gaelic belief. In ancient Atlantic religion throughout these parts of Europe, rivers had godesses – but as the rivers were all part of the same 'world river' these were identical, and the names effectively epithets of the 'one': Boand, Sinand, Seine, Avon, Aine… All one.

Each solar year is a triplicity of the 'three phases' of her earthly generative seasons, followed by a spiritual journey to see her consort in the Otherworld. At Imbolc she is the child (Bride), at Beltain the beautiful Maiden of golden flowers who leads the bull (Bui and Graine are some Haelic epithets), and Lunasa the productive but destructive mother – hunched (crom) like the reapers in the fields. From Samhain she goes to the sea to conduct her flock of 'children' to the next cycle of their existence in the otherworld, where the sun sets in the west. In this guise she is the 'hidden smith' reforging the world under the Earth ready for the epiphany of the new year when she comes again as Bride.

Her greatest mystery? She is a complementary reflection of Manannan in the Otherworld.


Gaelic Polytheism? (Opening a can of worms)

It has become conventional to believe that the Gaels practised a polytheistic form of religion which was partly subsumed or wholly supplanted by Christianity at the coming of St Patrick. However, there are a number of problems with such an interpretation that I would like to address.

Firstly, the contemporary sources we have about actual pagan practises in Ireland are almost non-existent, and most of what we know was written long after the establishment of the new religion. The massive efforts to convert the 4thC Roman Empire from fragmenting polytheism to ‘one-over-all’, top-down theocratic rule started with Emperor Constantine I and his immediate successors. This relied upon propaganda and arguments produced by Christian scholars and apologists operating within the polytheist Mediterranean regions of the empire over the preceding 200 years, and which functioned as a model, a ‘manual’ and a ‘road map’ for propagating Roman christianity across the reaches of its contracting Empire and – in the case of Ireland, way beyond. The spread of Christianity was achieved not by proselytizing rhetoric, but by the conversion and alliance of the church with tribal leaders and their elite inner circles. Once this was complete, the worldview of these rulers’ subjects needed to be changed by coercion, propaganda and cultural revisionism. Bearing in mind that we know that early Irish Christian missionaries travelled to the continent and to Rome to receive their instruction, we must consider how the euhemerist ‘continental’ model for replacing polytheism (operating in earnest from the time of the Emperor Theodosius onwards) influenced their reinvention of the pagan past in order to swing people to christianity. The implication that the Tuatha Dé Danann (as opposed to the síd) were believed in as gods should therefore be viewed with suspicion: The ‘Tuatha’ begin to appear in middle-medieval literature presented variously as former gods, ancestors and historic personages (albeit with a very otherworldly countenance) – much in the same way that continental Christians portrayed pagan gods as deified historic humans in order to demote them. They may well have been created as part of a ‘continental schema’ for imposing Christianity.

Secondly, the conversion of Ireland apparently occurred with surprising ease in a country that had showed little signs of being culturally Romanised. This begs the interpretation that the new religion was therefore possibly not such a titanic shift in worldview as it appeared to have been on the continent. In fact it could even have been considered a ‘paradigm-shift’ or evolution of a system to which it had certain similarities, rather than a wholesale replacement of a complicated pantheon. It certainly ‘hit the floor running’, allowing the Irish to lead with confidence in the christianisation and re-christianisation of the rest of northern Europe. If there had been a hugely ‘other’ and complex polytheistic religion in operation this might not have been so easy, especially as Ireland (so far as we know) didn’t have a religious system that – like that at the heart of the Roman empire – underwent an ‘intellectual gravitational collapse’ after absorbing too many external beliefs. Irish legends in the medieval corpus of texts frequently allude to the pagan Irish prefiguring the coming of christianity, a feature I am not aware of from other cultures.

Thirdly, there is little evidence from folk-tales and traditions supporting the theory of the Tuatha Dé Danann being the former gods. The interpretation of a passage in the presumed 5th-6thC ‘Hymn of Fiacc’ (considered to be an early primary source) may account for this:

On the land of Erin there was darkness;
The Tuatha (Peoples) adored the síd;
They believed not
In the true Deity of the true Trinity.

What exactly the síd are or were is complicated and has no satisfactory resolution from the study of  medieval literature alone. The name was later used for burial and ceremonial mounds, fairy mansions and for the fairies themselves. The TDD were ascribed síd-mounds as homes in the later written myths.

Story traditions from Ireland, Scotland and Mann, often focus on An Cailleach, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Manannan and various other giants and spirits who take on some spectacular and god-like properties in mythological accounts. These are joined by legends of their Christian successors – the saints with their often fantastical and god-like properties. Although there is ample archaeological evidence of supra-regional worldview homogeneity since the Neolithic era, the placenames with pagan origin do not back up the theory that the Tuatha Dé Danann were the gods of the Gael. Where we do have surviving traditions of gods, the most notable is Manannán mac Lir who even today is known to Manx people as ‘their’ god. Medieval literary references to the mysterious gods or idols Crom Cruach or Cenn Croithi (both sounding like epithets rather than proper names) and later folkloric ones to Crom Dubh seem to have little relevance to the literary Tuatha Dé Danann traditions, which monks and/or Christian filidh seemed to use in their suspiciously euhemerist historical revision of paganism. These names (Crom Cruach etc) are linked to assemblies at land-loci: particular plains/fields, or hilltop locations.

SO… if there is a chance that the Gaels were not polytheists, then what were they? The resolution of this question necessarily takes us back to understanding what paganism in general was, and the following is my own personal definition:

Paganism is an allegorical system of spiritual and material philosophy informing the art of survival in a given environment, expressed and transmitted through the mnemonic and dialectic mediums of story, song, aphorism, art and dramatic performance.

If Caesar’s Gallic and British Druids were matched by the magi of the Irish, then  philosophy might be the core value at the heart of the religion, an opinion expressed by the writer on philosophers Diogenes Laertius closer to the time of Ireland’s Christian epiphany. Philosophy was to the ancient world what ‘science’ is to the modern: a technical system that described the universe in both material and allegorical/spiritual terms. Philosophy sought to delineate the indescribable, and the arts provided a non-didactic ‘fuzzy’ medium with which higher truths could be defined without the inevitable destruction that occurs with explicitness. The written word tends to ‘fix’ concepts that are otherwise plastic and ever-changing, thus limiting its conceptual usefulness in establishing doctrines. The Mediterranean approach was to assign a god or spirit to these phenomena and to make statuary images of them which expressed this nature. They also tended to write about them. Both processes produced fixed images of ‘gods’ and created the polytheistic pantheon we know so well. However, the pre-Roman Atlantic Europeans apparently shunned this approach. Their devotion was to images and wordly things (‘idola* et inmunda’) according to Patrick himself (Confessio). (*The definition of ‘idola’ being debateable, as it is a latin usage of a greek word ‘eidola’ meaning ‘image’ orapparition‘ and not necessarily meaning ‘idol’ as in ‘statue or graven image’.)

We have to somehow reconcile the folkloric remainders of what appears to be original practical aspects of Gaelic or Atlantic paganism (with its strong traditions about fairies and their leaders, second sight and the ‘evil eye’) with the literary accounts of the middle ages and evidence from archaeology, place names etc. Analysis of the propaganda techniques used to replace the traditions of the old system has revealed a veritable smorgasbord of euhemerisation, demotion, transformation, canonisation/sanctification and demonization permeating the Christian-era literature and folklore of Europe, making a recovery of the reality of the old pagan system through literature and folklore a difficult but always rewarding task.

Returning to my second point above – the apparent rapidity of conversion – it is worth lingering over the prefigurative literature which alludes to some form of continuity between the pagan and christian systems: The hagiographic legends of Patrick from the Book of Armagh and middle Irish tales such as Altrom Tige Dá Medar (from the Book of Fermoy) state that the way was laid for christianity when the druids prophesised a new order before Patrick arrived, or – in the case of ATDM, Manannán himself is the prophet! Charles MacQuarrie (‘The Waves of Manannan’) makes the case for this god as a pagan exemplar of the Bible’s Yahweh/Jehovah, albeit with a perhaps milder and more sympathetic and less judgemental disposition!

In the Isle of Man, where Manannán is still portrayed as a former king and ancestor as well as an actual current popular god we can see how this process reached its important and unfinished conclusion.

So why choose this overlord of the blessed Isles as the ‘next best’ as an exemplar to the christian god? In Altrom Tige Dá Medar he is cast as overlord of the Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) whose orders they unquestioningly follow. In spite of this, it is actually quite difficult to include him as a member of the TDD, as he seems to stand apart from them in so many ways. That he should have been chosen for such an explicit euhemerisation in Cormac’s glossary and on the Isle of Man suggests a prominence and equivalence that goes beyond that of the TDD. That a belief in him as lord of the fairy otherworld persisted in folk tradition, along with the strong otherworld ‘fairy’ and ‘second sight’ beliefs I have discussed previously, and the recurring theme of a landscape-associated ‘fairy queen’ suggests that these may well have been core parts of Gaelic paganism.

In the Isle of Man, Manannán is ascribed an immanent presence on the summit of the mountain known as South Barrule, where an ancient hilltop enclosure (‘Cashtal Manannan‘) filled with circular stone ‘beds’ or ‘hut circles’ used to be employed by trysting couples at the festival of Luanys (Lunása – 1st August) as a site for proving love, lust and fertility. The mists which frequently crown the mountain as well as shrouding the whole Island are commonly referred to by most locals as ‘Manannan’s Cloak’. It is somewhat surprising then, that there are comparatively few other places in the Isle of Man named after the god, unless you accept that the whole island itself is eponymous with him.

   Perhaps more interesting are the sneaky profusion of ancient place-names here in this special place that allude to a character of Gaelic folklore with a much more typically immanent presence and connection with the creation and husbandry of the landscape – the Cailleach (Manx: Caillagh) and her various incarnations and epithets as the Fairy Queen. From the hill of ‘Cronk y Berry’ (Eng: Hillberry, Ir: Cnoc Bheara) to the promontory of Gob ny Cally in Maughold and the ancient farm estate of Ballacallin in German the island is peppered with places whose names evoke the giant magical female characters also found in Irish and Scots as well as Welsh mythology, albeit often in ancient and corrupted forms: ‘Chibbyr Unya’ (Aine’s Well), the parish of Santan (‘Saint Anne’ = ‘Seatainne’), ‘Lhing Berrey Dhone’ (‘Pool of Ox-Bheara’, Maughold – there is an ancient Manx folksong about an Ox-stealing ‘witch’, in which it appears that the word Donn has been corrupted. She butchered the Ox in this pool by tradition). There is a ‘Caillagh’s (‘Nun’s’) Chair’ coastal feature on the MArine Drive side of Douglas Head, quite close to a mysterious cliff-cave (now bricked up). The ancient originally Brigitine nunnery of Douglas Priory lies in the shadow of the hill – a continuation of the goddess worship in a pagan guise… Another cave known as ‘Lag Eevl’ (after the Irish Fairy Queen, Aoibheal) in Kirk German, and the hill facing Cronk y Berry known as ‘Cronk y Vill’ or ‘Honey Hill’ have a similar provenance. Add to this the similarly-named hills of ‘Ardwhallin’ (pron. ‘Ardcwhullin’) and the mount of Slieu Whallian (‘Slieve Chullain’) which sits above the Tynwald assembly site and you soon get the idea that Manannan’s presence as an immanent former deity of the island might need to be challenged! The Caillagh was believed to be the Sibyl of the Island and was remembered in recorded folk traditions as late of the 20thC as the source of many prophecies, including one prefiguring the TT Races (which charge deosil around the Island’s central spine of hills). Manannan’s Cloak may once (from the profusion of places named after her) have been the ‘Veil of the Cailleach’…

All this has left me considering if the Gaelic pagan religion was in fact effectively dualistic and ancestor-based? My conclusion is that Manannán was the masculine (solar) polarity who presided over the spiritual Otherworld and the future, terminally and cyclically estranged from the Cailleach who was the elemental ancestress-Creatrix whose body is the earth/elements itself, renewed in the annual cycle. Manannán is a Sun god, NOT a Sea god! There is much circumstantial evidence to support this proposition – in fact, so much more than supports a polytheist interpretation that I find it hard to place a pantheon, except as a philosophical ‘exploding’ of the interactions of these two fundamental characters of Gaelic (and Brythonic) traditions (after the model of Plato’s Timaeus, which I will post on soon). From the Second Sight and Otherworld traditions explained by Robert Kirk, Martin Martin etc to the ancestral-creation myths involving the Cailleach and fairy queen(s) of Ireland and the various half-human wild spirits such as Brownie, Fionn, Phynodderee and Cuchullain, all point towards a binary interpretative system that does not in any way efface with a Tuatha Dé Danann ‘pantheon’.

Cronos, Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries and spirit-traditions of ancient Europe

In Greek poet Hesiod’s c.7thC BCE account of the ‘time before memory’ in the early days of creation, Cronus was the Titan ‘god’ of the ‘Golden Age’ – an idealised period after creation when a perfect race of men existed, and all was bountiful with no work or conflict nescessary:

First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven.  And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils.  When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint.  They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

But after earth had covered this generation — they are called pure spirits dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received…

Source: Hesiod ‘Works and Days’ trans H.G. Evelyn White 1912.

The myth goes on to relate the subsequent four creations of humans down to Hesiod’s ‘modern’ day (c.7thC BCE, the ‘Age of Iron’), portraying each successive race of mankind as progressively debased and further from the godly ideals. The other races who came after the Golden are the Silver, the Bronze, and penultimately and somewhat curiously – the Race of Demi-Gods: people who were great enough to enjoy a deified status or to have a half-divine parentage. To these, he assigns an eternal existence in the Blessed Isles:

But to the others father Zeus the son of Kronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the Islands of the Blessed (Nesoi Makarôn) along the shore of deep swirling Okeanos, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Kronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.”

It appears that Hesiod has made a distinction between the more ancient Golden Race and the Demigods who preceded the Men of Iron, yet the description of their existence and their ruler -Kronos/Cronos – is more or less identical, suggesting Hesiod sought to somehow change the tradition. This may well relate to Hesiod’s wish to promote the Olympian cult of Zeus which must have displaced that of Cronos, as described in his poetic narratives – Theogony and Works and Days. It is quite possible that Cronos represented a more primitive occidental god that the Greeks identified with the barbarian peoples to their north and west, and for this reason Hesiod and his contemporaries demoted him into exile on an Island far to the west…

Hesiod’s account of the race of the Golden Age is interesting in that these ‘ancestors’ who live on as helper-spirits (the original greek word is Daimôn) seem very similar to what Atlantic Europeans in the 2nd millennium CE referred to as fairies or elves in their own mythology. They certainly have aspects that we encounter in the denizens of much later ‘Celtic’ tales of the glorious otherworld – beauty, abundance, prosperity and peace.

Plato (4thC BCE) in his Socratic dialogue known as Cratylus discusses the belief that the eternal souls of virtuous humans become Daimones or Daemones (helper spirits – not the ‘evil spirits’ which Christianity later created from them) and refers to Hesiod’s Golden Race to make his point. His 4thC BCE Athenians agree that the eternal souls of virtuous men in their own time might achieve the same – not just those of the ancient mythical race of men. In Timaeus Plato expounded a common belief that souls were made of aither and the stars could be conceived of as souls of the departed (which is why demigods were placed in the sky as constellations). He has this to say of the Creator of the Universe:

….And once more into the cup in which he had previously  mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements,  and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure  as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made  it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star…

He based much of this story on Hesiod, who he references in Cratylus. He goes on to discuss reincarnation:

He who lived well during his appointed time was  to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed  and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being,  he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some  brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution  of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason  the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and  air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better  state.

The 1stC BCE Roman author Virgil was of the same opinion, being heavily influenced by Pythagorean, Platonic and Orphic doctrines which often went hand-in-hand in his day, as they were intimately concerned with the passage of the soul in former and future lives as well as the current. In this regard they were not much different to what Caesar said the Atlantic peoples of northwest Europe believed in. One of Roman society’s most popular celebrations was the Saturnalia which terminated at the Winter Solstice and celebrated the abundance of the Golden Age ruled over by Saturn (Rome’s name for Cronos), in the lead-up to the returning year. This was a festival of what I have referred to as ‘Otherworld Inversions‘ – masters would serve slaves, and the slaves could rest, for example.

So … what was Orphism and how does it relate to Cronos?

The Orphic faith has been identified from writings dated from at least the 4thC BCE onwards, though its origins are unknown and it may be partly evolved from a much older belief system – namely the Dionysian and Eleusinian mysteries with which they share much of their narrative structure. Orphism had definitely attained a consolidated (literary) existence at the advent of the Hellenic period and became one of the most influential mystery cults of the classical world, staying in existence until the late classical period. The surviving evidence for it is fragmentary and comes from literature (e.g. – the ‘Dereveni papyrus’, writings of the Neo-Platonist philosophers), art and inscriptions.

The key knowledge of the mysteries was said to have been gained by the proto-poet Orpheus in a visit to (and return from) Hades – the afterlife, which is the key aspect of the mysteries. The background story relied upon what are termed the ‘Orphic Theogonies’ (creation myths of the universe and the gods) which ultimately explained the creation of mankind the passage of the eternal soul through various states or cycles of reincarnation before it reached perfection.

The reincarnation beliefs of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries revolved around a shared dramatisation of the reincarnation of the year: The abduction of Kore (Persephone), daughter of Demeter (Rhea) by Hades, and her eventual release on the condition that she returned annually to his underworld. Zeus’ son and heir by Persephone (his daughter!) is the first incarnation of the god Dionysus – sometimes referred to in Orphism as ‘Zagreus’ and identified with Egyptian Osiris. Orphism attempted to weld aspects of older (Mycaenean and Barbarian/Thracian) religion and the high philosophies of Egyptian religion to the Olympian pantheon. In the Orphic theogonies, the young Dionysus-Zagreus is given the throne of Olympus by his father. Rhea inflames the Titans with anger at this and they dismember him after the manner of Osiris before consuming most of his body (Rhea keeps the heart). As punishment Zeus burns the Titans with lightning, turning them (and their meal) to ash and soot from which humans are created – their souls formed from the spiritual essence of Dionysus and their bodies from the soot and ash of the Titans’ bodies.

This is somewhat different from Hesiod’s ages of men, and perhaps explains the importance attained by the Cult of Dionysus or Bacchus in later antiquity: Celebrants of the cult sought to liberate themselves from their bodily limitations and experience the divine in a state of ecstasy. The Orphic and Eleusinian initiates appear to have believed that the soul passed through a number of bodies in order to purify itself from the envy and pride of the Titans of whom Cronus was the exiled leader. Dionysus represented a liminal figure whose death and rebirth (from the heart saved by Rhea) meant that he trod between the ordered realm of the Olympian gods and that of the Titans (who represented chaos, and primal forces), to whom the Olympians were ultimately subject to, in spite of their apparent besting and mastery of them in legend. Zeus and his colleagues were not omnipotent in Greek theology – they were prone to human foibles and subject to the forces of higher powers such as Fate and Chaos, as much as they were beholden to the structure of the elements and aither…

It is apparent that the theologies about Cronus, the origins of humanity, the transmigrations of the soul, and the link of this to the seasonal drama of the returning year was part of a more ancient European and Middle-Eastern religious system. Their existence is paralleled in the fairy beliefs of the Atlantic Europeans, and in the folklore of the Cailleach, Manannan,  Mag Mell and the Land of Youth, all of which are at the heart of the survivals of the Atlantic Religion in folk culture of northwest Europe.


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….

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

Orion, the Milky Way and the Winter Goddess

I have already mentioned in passing that the identity of the ancient Atlantic pagan Goddess is tied up in the identity of the seasons: Born at Imbolc, sexually mature (flowering) at Beltain, pregnant (developing fruit and seeds) at midsummer, birthed (harvested) by Samhain, and old and withered between Samhain and Imbolc – she followed the seasons as well as the 9-month cycle of human gestation. The development of her mythos was a perfect analogy of the vegetation and seasonal cycle upon which Atlantic Europeans depended to survive.

This mythos required a rationalisation of the autumn die-back following harvest and this was developed in the British and Irish archipelago into the characterisation of the Cailleach Beara/Bheur/Berry of Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology. There is good evidence that this characterisation once had a much wider reach, but Christianisation and demonization appear to have somewhat altered the folklore of the matter and substituted tales of an explicitly pagan origin with demonic or ‘saintly’ themes.

This ‘Cailleach’ (named possibly from the traditional ‘veil’ of old age – a metaphor for the winter landscape) was attributed with a number of active and historic functions in certain remaining legends about her. Of the active functions, she was a guardian of herds and flocks of nature, guardian of stores of food*, she flew through the air stirring up the winter weather, and she had a stave or stick with which she beat back the vegetation in autumn and winter. Her historic functions were the formation of the physical landscape and the genesis/invention of things.

In the notes to his 1804 book ‘The Grampians Desolate: A Poem’ (Pub. J.Moir, Edinburgh), Alexander Campbell describes on pages 262-263 the classes of Highland dances and gives the following example of a solitary ‘character’ dance:

A dance performed by one person, is, strictly considered, a sort of character, of consequence, in some measure dramatic. If a female, the character assumed is a’ Cailleach, or old wife; and the person who dances is dressed in a very grotesque stile, having a huge bunch of keys hanging by her apron-string, and a staff to support her, for she affects to be very stiff, and lame of one leg. When the tune strikes up, she appears hardly able to hobble on the floor ; by degrees, however, she gets on a bit, and as she begins to warm, she feels new animation, and capers away at a great rate, striking her pockets, and making her keys rattle; then affecting great importance as keeper of the good things of the store-room, ambry (AP ed: a storage recess for important items), and dairy. Meanwhile some of the company present join the person who plays the tune, and sing words suitable to the character the dancer assumes—generally some nonsense of a comic cast with which the matron, or Cailleach seems wonderfully delighted. The names of the tunes and words that I have heard played and sung to this dance, are: A’ Sean Rong mhor, Cailleach an Durdan, Cailleach a’ Stopan-falaimh, and several others that I do not at present recollect.

Campbell’s description of the Cailleach character dance is quite striking, and is one of the sole sources still existing that explicitly describes her as a protector of store-rooms. More importantly, he is describing in this dramatic image of the Cailleach a representation of the asterism of Orion: one of the most important to occupy the winter skies of Atlantic Europe, and usually portrayed as a belted warrior with a sword or staff raised aloft, and items dangling from his ‘belt’. Orion is significant in that it sits on the banks of the great Milky Way, associated with the star Sirius (known as the ‘Dog Star’) and the constellations and asterisms of Canis Minor, Taurus, Auriga and the Pleiades. Those becoming familiar with Cailleach myths will recognise certain features in these stars and constellations that have echoes of Cailleach legends, and for a good reason! Those familiar with Norse mythology might know that Orion was named after Freyja and the item on her ‘belt’ was known as ‘Freyja’s Distaff’. The Pleiades are portrayed as a little flock of birds. The Cailleach is associated with Bulls (the Tain), flocks and in Irish tales with a dog, sometimes a beetle and other specific creatures.

Orion - the winter Cailleach...

Orion – the winter Cailleach…

In his 200 year old description of the ‘Cailleach’ dance, Campbell makes it clear that the character has a stave, a bunch of keys, and is lame on one side. It is clear that ‘she’ (the character is danced by a man) has the attributes typical of the ancient Cailleach or ‘witch’ archetype of myth and legend, and what is more the dance emphasises her transition from old and lame back to sprightly and young – a metaphor for regeneration that is strongly seasonal.


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”