L’Ankou – Gaelic parallels with the Breton death-spirit

‘Ankou’ is the personification of death’s assistant (a psychopomp) from Breton folklore, and a figure which reached greater prominence here than in any other of the modern ‘Celtic’ nations. It was noted by folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz in his 1911 book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, that L’Ankou and The Dead appeared to provide the equivalent role to the Aes Sidhe of Gaelic folklore – a parallel which provides us with some interesting questions as to the nature of Celtic spirit-beliefs:

“… Without setting down here in detail numerous other death-legends which we have collected, we may now note how much the same are the powers and nature of the dead and spirits in Brittany, and the power and nature of the fairy races in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Thus the Breton dead strike down the living just as fairies are said to do; the Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors…”

(The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz; Pub. Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, 1911; p.218)

He goes on to note ‘Every parish in the uncorrupted parts of Brittany has its own Ankou, who is the last man to die in the parish during the year‘. Wentz’s source, the respected Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, wrote a book about Ankou, called La Légende de la Mort () and had this to say about it:

The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro) and he is also known as the grave yard watcher, they said that he protects the graveyard and the souls around it for some unknown reason and he collects the lost souls on his land. The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou: War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk. (“on my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou”).

Wentz drew parallels with the Gaelic beliefs in people ‘taken’ to fairyland, but unfortunately did not establish much else by the way of concordance with this supposedly ‘Brythonic’, and in terms of surviving folklore, specifically Breton belief. It is therefore my aim here to demonstrate that Ankou did indeed have its Gaelic equivalents, whose memory became lost due to the influence of christianity and the 19thC romantic movement:

Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany.

Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany. Note the ‘elf-arrow’ it appears to wield!

Ankou in the Isle of Man and Scotland:

The Manx – a nation whose linguistic and cultural roots lie firmly in the ‘Gaelic’ world – maintained an independent tradition which corresponds closely with that of L’Ankou. However, in examining this it is first necessary to go ‘back’ to Brittany and examine the word ‘Ankou’ itself:

The standard English definition or translation usually given for the Breton word ‘Ankou’ is ‘the agony’, originally proposed in a ‘pirated’ (uncredited) 1860 English translation (Breton Legends – Pub. London 1860, Burns and Lambert) of the folklore collected and published in French by Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué – a noted Breton dictionarian and philologist. ‘An-‘ is the definite article, and ‘-Kou’ is usually (in English translations) supposed to mean ‘agony’. However, this etymology is speculative at best, as the ‘kou’ suffix as a sound can have a number of meanings within the scope of the historical linguistics of the celtic languages. Indeed, the 1821 Breton-French dictionary of Jean-François-Marie-Maurice-Agatha Le Gonidec tellingly uses the word Kouer to mean ‘peasant’, of which more presently.

Fockleyr Manninagh as Baarlagh – the 1863 dictionary (based partly upon an earlier manuscript of John Kelly from the late 18thC) published by the Manx Society contains the following interesting entry:

Keimagh s. pl. -ee, A spirit which is supposed to haunt and guard the churchyard stiles.

Also, the word Cughtagh:

Cughtagh s. pl. cughteeA fairy, a sprite, a spirit of the houghs* …

*AR: Hough in this context refers to a rough, rocky place or a cliff 

Both entries are followed by the interesting usage example ‘Ny keimee as ny cughtee’ of which the authors say no more, but which appears to be a reference to a popular Manx charm for stopping blood, a version of which can be found in William Harrison’s ‘Mona Miscellany’ (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. Isle of Man, 1869).

The idea of the last deceased watching over the graveyard appears to have been common to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – Donald MacPherson called it the Faire Chloidh in his book ‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and Original Poems; with Notes on the superstitions of the Highlanders &c’ (Pub. Thomas and George Underwood, London 1824), p.202:

FAIRE CHLOIDH, (THE GRAVE WATCH.)

It was the duty of the spirit of the last person interred, to stand sentry at the grave-yard gate, from sun-set until the crowing of the cock, every night, until regularly relieved. This, sometimes, in thinly inhabited parts of the country, happened to be a tedious and severe duty ; and the duration of the Faire Chloidh gave the deceased’s surviving friends, sometimes, much uneasiness.

The Manx ‘Keimagh’ and ‘Cughtagh’ spirits share a link of sorts to the grave, vagrancy, caves or shelters: This can be seen from the fact that the Manx wordcughhas connotations of dirt, filth and dung, and a link between this and the cave, mound or hole-dwelling spirit is also found in the word Cughlin, meaning a vagrant’s doss-hole or a mean filthy shelter, another Manx word for which is Kemmyrk. Recall that the Breton word Kouer, means ‘peasant’ and consider the restless vagrant properties ascribed to the spirits of the dead and a few ideas might start to form about the origins and meaning behind these archaic terms and the ‘Ankou’ itself.

The Manx word Keim or Keym (from which Keimagh is derived) is the same as the Irish céim, meaning ‘step’ in the same sense as it occurs in English – as a verb and a noun. The stile at old churchyard gates was often a slab of stone which those entering the church precinct would be required step over (and scrape your shoes on) in order to enter hallowed ground. It is common for the ‘m’ sound in Celtic languages to transform into a ‘w’ in pronunciation meaning that a ‘keimagh’ might easily become a ‘keiwagh’. By the same laws of linguistics, -gh-, -ch-, and -th- will lose any pretensions to consonantal pronunciation when occuring inside words.

This puts us in the interesting position of being forced to examine another similarly named spirit from the Gaelic world – Scotland’s An Ciuthach (pronounced ‘Kewach’), a being mentioned as a hairy spirit haunting caves in Volume 3 of John F. Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’ (p.55), in a folk-tale based on the story of the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Graine by Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

The Gaelic word ‘cuthach’, means ‘mad’ or ‘raging’ and fits with the portrayal of a marginal ‘wild-man’ who lives underground, and also with the Manx words ‘cugh’ and ‘cughlin’, associated with the filthy ‘Merlinesque’ state of the wild divine, a familiar sight in medieval Ireland, Britain and France where holy men often lived in a state of wild squalor. It should be obvious by now that the Breton word ‘Ankou’ had distinct similarities with the Gaelic ‘An Ciuth’ or ‘An Cuth’, ‘kou’ meaning a state of frantic restlessness, rather than ‘agony’. This fits the etymology of the Breton word for peasant: Kouer – a class of person living in mean conditions and continually working to survive.

The Irish Dullahán and the Gruagachs:

The ‘Dullahán’is the Irish legendary personification of death, usually represented as a skeletal headless horseman. The name possibly signifies ‘black one’ or ‘gloomy one’ (Dubhlachán?), probably on account of the lividity of the dead, and his appearance in popular tradition was to foretoken death. His earliest literary mention is in the writings of Charles Vallancey (‘Prospectus of a Dictionary of the language of the Aire Coti, or Ancient Irish’, Pub. Graisberry & Campbell, Dublin, 1802), who recounts that the Irish peasantry would be in fear of hearing the Dullahan or ‘Wullahan’ dragging his chains through the streets at night. Like the Ankou, it was often associated with a horse or coach and horses.


The Ankou is therefore quite possibly the ‘Wild Hunter’ who leads the Sluagh Sidhe! Was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, really originally Finn-Mac-‘Kou’-al? 

The ‘wild man’ archetype has much to say about where we developed from, and about the processes by which nature is regenerated from its own ‘putrefaction’.


There are important relationships in empirical human culture between dirt, ordure and decayed matter and the regeneration of new life. To live ‘wild’ is to live in comfort with this kind of state. Such symbolism no doubt informs the apparent associations between death, the spirit world and reincarnation that underpin the ancient European beliefs. The idea anciently used to express this was termed putrefaction, and important doctrine of the natural philosophy of Europeans until the scientific age introduced new paradigms.

The British and Irish age of Romanticism started in earnest during the ‘Enlightenment’ era of the late 17th and 18thC with the researches and writings of Roderick O’Flaherty, John Toland, Edward Llhuyd, and James MacPherson, and it continued with the emergence of renewed interest in the pagan past seen in the writings of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), and in the fading customs, beliefs and lifestyles of the defeated Highland peoples documented for popular consumption by authors such as Walter Scott. Romanticism provided a vision of indigenous pagan beliefs still remaining among the peasantry, albeit in a form designed for the tastes and prejudices of educated and wealthy elites. Wavering paradoxically between apparent veneration of quaint rustic traditions and a visceral disgust of its ‘gloomy’ and ‘unenlightened’ superstitions, Romanticism would unfortunately often prove the undoing of much of what it fawned over: by swelling interest in ‘old-fashioned’ customs it ultimately encouraged the aspirational rural poor to resent becoming ‘quaint’ objects of fascination for the middle classes seeking relief from industrialised realities. By the late 1800s many Gaelic speakers had consequently rejected their traditional culture and sought to emulate modernity.

A romanticised view of what the rural poor ought to believe therefore eventually trickled down to influence their ideas: The traditions characterised as ‘gloomy’, ‘dismal’ and ‘unseemly’ – usually dealing with aspects of death, sex and disease – would become increasingly displaced. 

Putrefaction as an essential cultural idea behind abundance and regeneration among rural peoples was probably finally defeated when people stopped putting shit on their crops and used chemicals in its place… This was the era of mass-slaughter and industrial warfare, which reached its first full and horrific manifestation in the First World War.

“You can lead a horse to water…”

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany.

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany. In the coins of this tribe, the female rider is usually armed.

…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…. George Waldron – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ 1731 – legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’.

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

The image of the horse is a striking symbol on Celtic coins of the late European Iron Age, all the more so when depicted ridden by a naked warrior woman, as was the case during times of war with the encroaching Roman empire – both in central-eastern and north-western Europe. The question is – what was the importance of the horse to this culture, such that it was depicted on almost all of its various tribes’ coinage? We know from the writings of the Romans that the Atlantic/western Celtic peoples’ main religious doctrines were based around the principle of reincarnation. However, after subjugating and then ‘Romanising’ them, there is little more said about their beliefs as they seemed no longer to be relevant. The Celtic religious system seemingly incorporated into the Roman pantheon but in a marginal way that gave no precedence over Rome’s greater gods: Statues and stelae of a horse-goddess ‘Epona’ seems to have been one popular expression of native religion, but the original context is not understood. The Batavians (Belgic celts) who built the 3rdC CE temple of the well-goddess ‘Coventina’ at Hadrian’s Wall in England were a cavalry unit – surely a shrine to Epona would have had greater precedence if there was an actual ‘horse goddess’? Perhaps to the Batavians, the well-goddess was the same person as the ‘horse goddess’! To understand this imagery of the divine female and the horse we need to examine how she was represented both before, and after Romanisation. Surviving images of Epona from Romanised Celtic shrines generally portray her as a gentle beneficient figure, conveying pateras of food and cornucopias. When contrasted with the coin imagery of the pre-conquest tribes however, and it immediately becomes clear that there is a clear distinction in imagery: In these, she is a fierce naked horsewoman-warrior, armed for the job of butchering Romans! Of course, once conquered, the Romans put an end to these images and the coins stopped being minted. The cult of ‘Epona’ was therefore probably a deliberate attempt to corrupt an important core tenet. She went from this:

More coins from the Redones tribe

More coins from the Redones tribe

To this…

Cuddly mother Epona - the original would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Cuddly mother Epona – the original would have brought your head on a plate, not food!

The ‘Tehi-Tegi’ legend from the Isle of Man is perhaps the most overt survival (maybe matched by some Cliodhna legends of Ireland) of the ‘death-dealing horsewoman’ that the Iron Age celts were so enamoured of, but the principle has survived in many other forms. Most notable of these are the folktales of the fairy horse who kills people that try and ride it by jumping into water. Be it the Neck, Nykyr, Nixies or Rhinemaidens of the German and Scandinavian legends or the Kelpie of the Scots myths: all are related the same belief – a woman who conducts the dead to a realm under water. When we examine the fairy lays of the middle ages (Lai de Graelent, Lai de Lanval) we can see that the beautiful ‘fairy woman’ ends up conducting the tragic hero to a deathless realm through water. No wonder so many early Christian saints such as Kentigern spent their days mortifying themselves in water! The Germanic words used for the water-horse-spirit generally revolve around the word-root ‘nik-‘ – from a presumed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) neigw which means ‘wash’ – from which the Irish have nigh and in folklore the fairy washerwoman, the Bean nighe. The most famous portrayal of a Bean nighe in medieval Irish literature is that of the Morrigan washing bloody armour at a ford in the death tale of Cuchullain – part of the Ulster cycle. The Scots word ‘Kelpie’ is an allusion to what is also known in the gaelic world as ‘wrack’ (seaweed) which is also the Brythonic word for ‘hag’ – Gwrach or Groac’h. Martin Martin recovered a tale of Hebridean islanders in the 17thC sacrificing to a sea-god called ‘Shony’ (‘Old One’) in order to receive wrack from the sea to spread on their crops as manure. So there you have it – the military horsewoman on the Celtic coins is the Slachdan-weilding Cailleach – the Morrigan herself: The water woman of the fairy realm – otherwise known as the realm of the dead. The question now remaining to be answered is how does the horse fit in with the general reincarnation/otherworld myth? You might recall from my last post that I remarked upon the profusion of apparently astronomical imagery that accompanied the horse depicted on Celtic coins from before the Roman subjugation. Apart from the sun and the moon and obvious star-shaped figures, there are frequently dot-and-line figures with an uncanny similarity to what astronomers refer to as ‘asterisms’. The horse itself is also very stylised in its appearance, and the logical place to start in understanding the importance of the horse is to turn our eyes to the sky: The most well-known equine asterism is the great constellation of Pegasus which sits next to the Milky Way. We immediately have here an interesting combination: The Milky Way arches across the sky like a great shining white river – nowadays difficult to see clearly due to light pollution, and the great leaping horse in conjunction with this is a remarkable metaphor of the Kelpie, Nixie and Tehi-Tegi legends. However, in terms of Greek mythology, Pegasus represents the horse as a benign force, but with a very aquatic pedigree – his father is Poseidon, his mother Medusa, he is a friend of the Muses and created a magical well for them with his hooves. He is also a conveyor of heroes into the spirit realm. Already sounding like many Celtic myths, isn’t it? The Muses of course represented the ‘fairy-woman’ function of inspiring poets, keeping memory and promoting knowledge to humanity… The other less-benign and more overtly aquatic asterism that sits close to Pegasus on the other (‘southern’) side of the ecliptic path is that of Cetus variably described as a sea monster or whale. In Greek mythology Cetus/Ketos was sent by Poseidon to devour the sacrificially-chained Andromeda, and was killed by the Pegasus-riding hero Perseus who showed it the head of Medusa. Ketos in fact means any large aquatic beast, in the same way that the  old Germanic languages used variants of ‘neck’ to mean the same: nicor was the Old English term used for a water beast or a hippopotamus*, and the Old High German word nihhus was used for ‘crocodile’. As a ‘*water horse’ is what we are interested in, the constellation of Cetus seems like it is worth considering further: The constellation Cetus lies in such close proximity to the ecliptic path (the road travelled by the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky, marked by the 12 zodiacal constellations) that it seems that it should be considered a 13th ‘intercalary’ member of the zodiac. Its proximity to the asterism of Pisces is intimate enough that they can be considered in the same ‘house’. Cetus is in close proximity to the other ‘watery’ constellations: Aquarius and Capricorn (the fish-goat), the ‘river’ Eridanus and the dolphin Delphinus.

Cetus in relation to Pisces - picture borrowed from blackholes.stardate.org

Cetus in relation to Pisces – picture borrowed from blackholes.stardate.org

Now we know that the celtic high-priests were reputed to be philosophers and diviners of the heavens, so we might conjecture that celtic coins portrayed astronomical imagery. Having been puzzled by the potential relationship between the horse depicted on those famously beautiful Iron Age coins and that of Pegasus, I initially overlooked one of the motifs that accompanied it – that of the ‘tented net’ depicted on the Celtic Parisii coins. Looking eastward of Pegasus we come immediately to Pisces and Cetus – and the symbolism of the coins is made immediately clear – the horse is not a depiction of Pegasus – it is in fact Cetus, the ‘water horse’, with the net being Pisces! If this interpretation is correct, then a lost celtic star-myth has been recovered, together suggesting some potential original celtic names for their asterisms: ‘the water horse’ and ‘the net’!

Compare the stylised horse's body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

Compare the stylised horse’s body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

So… is there anything special about Cetus? As it turns out , there is – a star on the beast’s ‘neck’ known to us today as Mira Ceti: ‘Mira’ as in ‘mirabilis’ on account of this star’s seemingly miraculous appearance and disappearance from the constellation! It is actually a binary star whose conjunctions and occlusions are responsible for this effect, causing it to reach a maximum brightness every 332 days (approximately 11 months) when it is definitely visible (unless the sun is transitting near it if it falls in early springtime) and invisible to the naked-eye astronomer during its minima. Although there are no definite references to this phenomena in ancient Babylonian or Greek texts, an excavation of a 3rdC BCE Boii temple complex at Libenece in the Czech Republic contains sighting post allignments which possibly correspond to a viewing of Cetus, and (concludes the author of this astronomy paper), Mira Ceti in particular. The other star which famously exhibits this quality of variable intensity is ‘nearby’ in the constellation Perseus – Algol, the gorgon’s eye – whose period of dimming is much more regular – every 2.867 days, to be precise. The coming and going of a star might have been a metaphor for the coming and going of the year – of the sun. The cycles of ‘coming and going’ appear to have been a fundamental theme for the religious viewpoint of metempsychosis, and hence a great deal of attention would have been paid to the natural phenomena in which this was shown: These were – the cycles of the sun, the moon, the seasons and the tides. The principle that the heavens represented the world of spirits pervaded the ancient mindset, and the use of mythology to explain the heavens and their phenomena was a key part of this understanding. The image of the horse and the chariot convey mythological implications of the mysteries of the sun – the Greek legend of Phaethon, son of Helios/Apollo, who took his dad’s sports chariot for a spin with disastrous consequences attests to this. Most of ancient mythology was quite possibly designed to explain the cycles of nature in relation to the cycle of events witnessed in both the sky and on Earth and in the oceans – something which became lost in the Christian age…

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.

SO…

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 End of Reincarnation

The ultimate fate of Bran and his party in the medieval Irish tale Imram Brain maic Febail (‘The Voyage of Bran Mac Febal’) is that upon attaining the otherworld, when they try to return to the land of the living a great age has passed and the party are unable to set foot in the land without crumbling to dust. In other words, the Christian narrator denies them access to reincarnation. Bran is only allowed to pass on his story and then fade into legend, the narration finishing with the lines:

And from that hour his wanderings are not known.

The motif of immortality’s end appears in a modified form in the other famous Irish medieval legendary tale of the ‘Children of Lir’, who were transformed into immortal swans and cursed to travel Ireland for hundreds of years until ‘released’ by the coming of Christianity. The ‘Voyage of Bran’ leaves the state of Bran and his party indefinite, but the Children of Lir resume a withered mortal form or crumble to dust, though not usually before receiving christian confession and going to the Christian afterlife.

There are other Irish accounts of very long-lived members of ancient races receiving similar treatment. Some of these, such as in the pseudo-historical Christian narrative of the Lebor Gabála Érenn or ‘Book of Invasions’, and other related historical legends written in the middle ages, contain accounts of ‘Fintan’, one of the first settlers in Ireland who legends and stories claimed lived on in various animal and human forms until the coming of christianity. The Welsh medieval author Walter Map (De Nugis Curialum) left us the tale of King Herla which was based on similar themes as that of Bran, Finn and Caílte. The Middle Irish tale of mad pagan King Suibhne (‘Sweeney’) who literally flies around in a semi-animalistic form until released to heaven by a saint may also continue the Irish Christian tradition which told stories designed to counter a pagan belief in reincarnation.

The theme of submission of the pagan order to that of christianity occurs most strongly in the middle irish manuscript tales of the Acallam na Senórach (‘Colloquy of the Ancients’ or ‘Tales of the Elders of Ireland’ etc) which contains the majority of the ancient tales dealing with Finn and his band. It is set within a Christian framework in which the ancient giant warrior Caílte mac Rónáin (Finn’s nephew) relates tales of Finn and of the Tuatha Dé Danann to an interested St Patrick: By implication Caílte is exchanging the reality of an otherworldly existence in the pagan time frame with a Christianised legendary life in the hearafter.

All of these tales are careful to create a linkage between the old and new religious orders, again demonstrating conformity with the principles of the Christianised reformed laws of the Roman Empire propounded by Theodosius and his successors during the late classical period, during which time christianity was setting up shop in the Atlantic West of Europe. It was a theme of peaceful cohabitation of old and new which formed the skeleton of many medieval narrative and literary traditions, and managed to preserve the tenets of paganism, which after all seemed to explain everything which christianity could not and would continue to influence the folk traditions and beliefs down to modern times.