The woman who sat by the sea…

Buried deep within the mythical consciousness of Atlantic Europe is a very particular piece of imagery of a female sat waiting at the water’s edge. In its most common guise, it corresponds to the many stories of Mermaids and Merrows, often apparently found sitting on rocks at the seashore looking for human lovers. For inland-focussed cultures, these became characters such as the Melusine, the slavic Rusalkas, and the medieval ‘Arthurian’ Lake-Ladies and Fountain Maids. Even Frau Holle/Frau Gode has this attribute in some German tales, and consequently also the related Gaelic Cailleach, the Hispanic Moura, the Breton Gro’ach, and the WelshGwrach. She is depicted in stories either as the passive focus of an otherworldly encounter by a questing human protagonist, or as – in the case of the needy mermaid – a seeker of solace in the human world who waits for her catch. Either way, she is often depicted as a shape-shifting divinity who seeks a human lover, and has the power to bestow wealth and privilege, although often with an obligation and a moral sting in the tale.

Of all the places in Europe, the Isle of Man perhaps is perhaps the place where we find the greatest evidence linking mermaid-myths with the celtic goddess of the waters:

Themes of seduction and the sea are an ancient part of pagan metaphor

Isle of Man mermaid mythology:

The Isle of Man probably had a greater number of mermaid stories and traditions in its past that many places its size and larger. Particular traditions also occur in the other parish districts, with the following being recounted to George Waldron in the early 18thC (A Description of the Isle of Man, 1731) :

“… A very beautiful mermaid, say they, became so much enamour’d of a young man who used to tend his sheep on these rocks, that she would frequently come and sit down by him, bring him pieces of coral, fine pearls, and what were yet greater curiosities, and of infinitely more value, had they fallen into the hands of a person who knew their worth, shells of various forms and figures, and so glorious in their colour and shine that they even dazzled the eye that looked upon them. Her presents were accompanied with smiles, Battings on the cheek, and all the harks of a most sincere and tender passion; but one day throwing her arms more than ordinarily eager about him, he began to be frighted that she had a design to draw him into the sea, and struggled till he disengaged himself, and then ran a good many paces from her; which behaviour she resented so highly, it seems, that she took up a stone, and after throwing it at him, glided into her more proper element, and was never seen on land again. But the poor youth, tho’ but slightly hit with the stone, felt from that moment so excessive a pain in his bowels, that the cry was never out of his mouth for seven days, at the end of which he died …” (‘An account of the Isle of Man’, 1735)

In this, the amorous sea-maiden bestows gifts upon her human lover until spurned, then throws a stone at him causing him to become chronically ill (seemingly a version of the belief that fairies inflict disease with missiles or darts). Such motifs are found in mermaid myths everywhere, and the same themes occur around the Morrigan in Irish legends.

A late 19thC Manchester-based German ethnographer, Karl Roeder, was fascinated with the Isle of Man and produced a series of folklore-related articles in Manx newspapers which were eventually published in a book, ‘Manx Notes and Queries’. He collected a great deal of folkloric material in the island including a number of mermaid traditions among which was this one from the southernmost tip of the Island, where a sound separates the main island from its ‘Calf’:

“….Between Bow Veg and Glen Wither, on the coast north the Sound, is a place called Lhiondaig Pohllinag, or the Mermaid’s Green, or Garden, and the tradition is that the mermaids haunted it and sported about, basking themselves there… “

It is obvious from his description that mermaids were not just considered singular apparitions in the Isle of Man, but members of a tribe. The unusual Manx word ‘Pohllinag‘ means something like ‘sinker’ or possibly ‘pool-dweller’ (I believe it must be a fishermen’s term) and occurs in Archibald Cregeen’s ‘A Dictionary of the Manks Language’ (Pub. Quiggin, Douglas 1835) where he says it is more properly applied to a merman, albeit also in use for mermaids. John Kelly’s earlier Manx dictionary (late 18thC, but unpublished until after Cregeen’s) also gives the even more intriguing term ‘Muiraghan’ for mermaid, which readers might recognise to be a version of the Irish Morrigan – that otherworldly femme fatale encountered by Irish legendary heroes at river crossings! Cregeen and Kelly also both give the altogether more common Manx term used for the mermaid: Ben varrey (Ir. Bean Mara – ‘sea woman’).

The fairy washerwoman:

Another aspect to the celtic mermaid mythology that links with that of the Morrigan/Badb is that of the fairy washer-woman. This archetypal water-spirit is to be found in legend near to streams and rivers, performing her ablutions – sometimes viewed as a vision of death to come, particularly if washing a shroud or armour. The Isle of Man (perhaps unsurprisingly) had its fair stock of these as well, although by the 19th century it appears that mythology had separated mermaids and the ‘Ben Niee‘ (Ir. bean nighe) into two different classes. The fairy washerwoman in the Manx peoples’ imagination haunted the banks of inland streams, was often dressed in red, carried a candle and – like every good Caillagh – wielded a sladdan, which in this case was turned to the duty of beating the washing. W.W. Gill (Third Manx Scrapbook, Pub. Arrowsmith, London 1963) says that a vision of this spirit did not necessarily foretoken death – his early 20thC respondent believed it could signify a change in the weather…

“… The fairy-washerwoman of Maughold haunted a crossing-place on the Struan-ny-Niee named Boayl-ny-Niee, ” Place of the Washing,” …. A local man, R. L., calls this spectral laundress a Liannanshee, and says she held a lighted candle in one hand while she beat the clothes, or whatever it was she had, with her sladhan held in the other. A still older native of the district, K–, whose father actually saw her, and was not frightened at all, says she was “a lil red woman, and used to have a candle stuck in the bank beside her” (which was more sensible and convenient than holding it). In both versions she came out of the river, and to see her was a sure sign of dirty weather at hand, but of nothing worse. (I enquired carefully about that.) The Washer may not have been thought to be always the same personage, or a party of fairies may sometimes have been seen, for I have heard the Boayl-ny-Niee casually alluded to as “the place where the fairies washed their clothes”. But I could meet with no more than the two accounts just given.In other places in the Island it was always in parties that they did their washing. There was a flat stone, not now discoverable with certainty, in the Rhenab river a little way below where the lodge now stands, and at this the fairies were both heard and seen at night and early in the morning, washing clothes.At the side of the Gretch river in Lonan, in a spot called “the Fairy Ground”, the fairies used to be seen washing their babies. These solicitous mothers, like the Maughold laundresses, always wore red costumes.Three other fairy washing-places, which have been mentioned in print but are not included in any volume of folk-lore, may be added here. At a river-crossing in Glen Rushen the fairies soaked, beat, and shook out their garments, and hung them on the gorse-bushes to dry. One article, a beautifully-made cap which was too small for the smallest child in the glen, was brought home by a man who saw it being put on a bush ; but his mother made him take it back, “for fear the fairies would be afther it, an’ there wouldn’ be res’ in the house on the night ” (Lioar Manninagh, iv. p.161). Again, at an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard “beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream”. In another glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry (Chambers’ Journal, 1855). Similar sights may have given its name to “Glen Nee-a-nee” in Kirk Bride, thus spelt in Quarrie’s verses. The name probably contains the same word as Boayl-ny-Niee, where the sound would be better represented by ” N’yee.”From washerwomen, either human or spectral, comes the name of the river and of the places on its banks : the Stream of the Washing and the Place of the Washing, and Chibber-ny-Niee, the Well of the Washing, at its source. Near this is a small bridge under which, traditionally, women performed ritual ablutions in order to qualify as witches. The river-name may have travelled up its course from the Place …”

The water horse and the goddess:

The other dangerous or ominous spirit associated with rivers and streams in the Isle of Man (and indeed, throughout Europe) is the water horse or Cabbyl Ushtey, also known as the Glashan or Glashtyn (‘grey-green one’). This creature was supposed to be able to steal you away down into the depths of the waters to drown, probably after taking you on a wild night-time ride about the countryside. Known elsewhere as the Nikker, Kelpie, Nixie and Bäckahästen this pan-European myth is of ancient origin, and is a remnant of the Atlantic religion’s mythological narrative of death and the transit of the soul to the Otherworld. The water horse and the various waterside humanoid spirits are often interchangeable in folklore and mythology – possibly on account of this Atlantic belief – and this is no better illustrated and preserved than in another Manx legend, that of ‘Tehi-Tegi‘, here recounted by George Waldron in his 1731 book ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’, p.75:

‘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 legend recurs in a number of recorded tellings, although Waldron’s description of Tehi-Tegi transforming into a ‘bat’ is a misinterpretation – she turns into a wren, hence the wren-hunting traditions of the Christianised celtic world. The narrative is one of a demonised goddess, who once caused men to err, and for which they paid with their souls. The magnificent horse ridden by Tehi-Tegi is evidently the same as the Cabbyl Ushtey, the Kelpie and his continental cousins. Hannah Anne Bullock (History of the Isle of Man, Pub. Longman, London 1819) gives the more usual story (from Ch.19):

But 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, and woe be to the individual birds of this species, who shew themselves on this fatal day to the active enemies of the race: they are pure sued, pelted, fired at, and destroyed, without mercy, and their feathers preserved with religious care, it being an article of belief, that every one of the relics gathered in this laudable pursuit, is an effectual preservative from shipwreck for one year; and that fisherman would be considered as extremely foolhardy, who should enter upon his occupation without such a safeguard.

Waldron’s translator for his version of the tale (Manx was the predominant spoken language in the 1720’s) evidently conflated the ‘titmouse’ and the ‘flittermouse’ – the former being an English synonym for the wren, goldcrest or firecrest, and the latter being the bat. Either which way, the tale is an important concretion of lost myth which sheds more light on mysterious ancient Celtic symbolism, as well as offering some insight into the symbolism on the mysterious Pictish pteroglyphs of the early middle ages. The transformative aspects of horse > sea creature is evocative of the passages in the Irish ‘Voyage of Bran‘ when Manannan leads the protagonist across the ocean to the otherworld and the horses seem to become fish.

The old woman who sat by the sea:

The Tehi-Tegi legend and the tradition of wren-hunting – like the Manx mermaid traditions – tended to locate around the fishing communities of the southern and western parts of the Isle of Man. Further investigation of the folklore of this region of the island uncovers a number of other variants on the mytheme. In particular, another name emerges for the aquatic female – ‘Yoan Mooir’ or ‘Joan Mere’, whose eponymous ‘house’ and mysterious ‘well’ could once be found near the cave-riddled sea cliffs between Port St Mary and the islet at the southern tip of Mann, known as the ‘Calf’. Manxmen used to use to personify the sea as ‘Joan Gorrym’ (‘Blue-Green Joan’) and ‘Joan Mooir’ is evidently the same personage. Her ‘house’ was actually a natural freshwater spring at the place known as the ‘Chasms’ close to the sea-shore, which flooded with saltwater at high tide. It may now be lost under rock slides, but such sea-side natural springs (as well as natural springs discharging directly into main waterways) may well have once been holy sites to pagans. A local example which has survived time somewhat better is Chibber Catreeney (‘St Catherine’s Well’) on the seafront in the town of Port Erin a couple of miles away from Joan Mere’s well. ‘Catherine’ is interchangeable with ‘Caithlin‘ – a name I have previously mentioned in relation to the names of the goddess from Ireland, and who appears as an aquatic female temptress-adversary (‘Cathaleen’) in the legend of St Caomhin (Kevin) at Glendalough. She also appears as the ‘Cathach’ beast defeated by St Senan of Iniscathy/Scattery in another christianising hagiographic myth, and elsewhere the town of Enniskillen is named after her sacred island on the river there.

In the Isle of Man, the well on the beach in Port Erin was associated with a fair at which a curious ritual used to be carried out, somewhat redolent of the Tehi-Tegi wren myth and customs: A hen was killed, and given a solemn burial complete with funeral dirges, its tail feathers being saved for luck. ‘He’s plucked the hen’s tail’ would be said of a drunkard, in honour of the festive nature of the former St Catherine’s day celebrations. Perhaps the term ‘cocktail’ even has some relation to this? The ‘Cath-‘ suffix in this divine name associated with the aquatic female is redolent of the Greek word ‘Kathe’ meaning ‘seat’, from which the words ‘cat’ (a sitting beast) and ‘cathedral’ (a bishop’s seat) derive, and which is also seen in the Irish word for a ‘fort’: cathair conventionally linked to the word for battle: ‘cath’ (eg – ‘Cath Maigh Tueredh’, the ‘Battle of Moytura’). Explorers of the ancient pagan sites of Ireland and Britain will be familiar with the profusion of sites referred to as ‘chairs’ or ‘seats’ in relation to saints and other mythical personages – this here is a clue! In particular, it appears that the gaelic goddesses sat next to water…

On the western Manx coast is the Baaie Mooar (Great Bay) with its Niarbyl rocks and the former fishing-settlement of Dalby. Apart from once being a good local source of mermaid traditions,this former fishing community also laid claim to a local tradition of a mysterious Old Woman, described by Caesar Cashin in an article for Mannin magazine (Volume 5, 1915), where he explores the Dalby coastal scenery and recounts its legends:

“…But the morning is growing on, so let us continue our walk along the cliffs to the south. First we come to a little cave called Ooig ny Meill, which has three entrances facing south, west, and east. Leading to the west entrance is a little patch of white sand, the only white sand on this coast, and once when a boy I saw on it tiny footprints, no bigger than my thumb, the marks of little clogs they were, going into the cave and round the rock in the middle of it. The rock is about two feet high and it was said that the Shenn Ven Ooig ny Meill—the Old Woman of Meill Cave, often sat on it with her face to the west. I think that she must have died, or shifted to some other cave, as she has not been seen for years…”

The image of an old woman sitting on a rock in a cave looking towards the sunset in the west is potent with the resonance of the Atlantic religious myth of the earth goddess estranged from her sun-god lover!

Cashin also mentions another cave – one of the more famous fairy caves on the Island – the ‘Ooig ny Seyir‘ (‘Cave of the Crafter’) in which the fairies were latterly believed to be heard making barrels for their salt-herring. Followers of my writing might recognise the possible connection here with Bridget – ‘goddess of smithcraft’ and the Romano-Celtic goddess name ‘Sirona‘. In fact, there are other legends which link the Island to Ireland’s tradition of a legendary magical smith, and otherworldly women who haunt the sea-shore and who provides weapons for mythological heroes:

Tiobal, Princess of the Ocean – daughter of Gullinus/Lir:

In her delightful book ‘Manx Fairy Tales’ (Pub. Nutt, London, 1911), Sophia Morrison recounts a more lyrical version of an ancient Irish tradition, first translated and published by Nicholas O’Kearney in the 1852-3 Proceedings of the Kilkenny and Southeast of Ireland Archaeological Society (Vol.2 , p.34), derived from an interlineal gloss in a 12thC Irish manuscript tale known as An T’ochtar Gaedhal (‘The Eight Irishmen’).

“… Gullinus quidem Пοσειδων fuit, nam Lir Ibernicum aut Phoenicum nomen Neptuni, et idem quod mare; ideo Guillinus fuit alterum nomen pro Lir, deo maris ut Tobal maris dea fuit. Nam illa Concubaro Mac Nessa, postea regi Ulthoniae, apparuit sub specie mulieris pulcherissimae, cum in Manniam jussu oraculu cui nomen Cloch-όir – i.e. saxum solis – quod isto tempore celebrerissimum fuit his partibus, adebat ad Gullinum quendam uti daret buadha druidica clypeo et armis ejus. Gullinus imaginem Tiobal in clypeum finxit, et buadha multa invincibilaque habebat, secundum aucthores vetheres Ibernicos .. ”

“… Gullinus was indeed Poseidon, for Lir is the Irish or Phoenician name of Neptune, and the same as the sea; so Gullinus was the other name for Lir, the god of the sea, just as Tiobal was the goddess of the sea. For she appeared to Conchobar Mac Nessa, afterwards King of Ulster, in the form of a very beautiful woman, when by the decree of the oracle, whose name was clochuir, i.e., the stone of the sun, which at the time was very celebrated in these parts, he was going to Man, to a certain Gullinus, in order that he might give him druidical buadha for his shield and arms. Gullinus fashioned the image of Tiobal on his shield, and it had many buadha, according to the old Irish authors …”

The Latin author is obviously keen to address some actual Irish/Manx pagan traditions using his classical learning, and explicitly states that ‘Gullinus’ (i.e. – Cuillin, Gullion, Whallin etc) resided in the Isle of Man and was one and the same as the sea-god, Lir. Manx tradition, of course identifies this character with Manannan, ‘Son of Lir’, who functions in Irish myths as a donator of magical weapons and as lord of the Otherworld. The legend resonates with the imagery of Greek goddess Athena’s shield – the aegis – depicting the head of the monstrous island-goddess and daughter of the ancient Greek sea-god Phorcys: namely, the gorgon Medusa.

Strangely, Irish mythology contains other allusions to mysterious females found wondering the liminal Manx shorelines by adventurers. Tiobal (Tiobhal/’Teeval’) appears (all be it under a different name) in a version of this myth recounted in the 9thC Irish text, Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) This is the story of Prull (an old Irish word meaning’greatly/excessively’) – in which it is not Conchobar who quests to the Isle of Man in search of mysterious buadha from its shoreline denizens, but a party of the legendary Chief Ollamh of Ireland, Senchán Torpeist (who is possibly a legendary model for the Christian mythological ‘hero’ St Senan). In the tale, the Ollamh leaves Ireland with his retinue of 50 bards to visit the Isle of Man, and on his arrival it appears that he meets no less than the Shenn Ven Ooig ny Meill, or at least someone entirely like her…

(Translation and glosses by Whitley Stokes/John O’Donovan)

“… They afterwards reach Mann and leave their fleet on land. As they were on the strand, they saw the old woman (sentuinne) grey-haired, feeble, on the rock. Sentuinne i.e. an old woman [i. Cailleach], ut poeta dixit:

An old woman and old priest,

A grave-broom is their withered beard,

Provided they do not serve God’s Son,

And do not give their first fruits.

Thus was the old woman [Cailleach] on the strand, cutting sea-weed and other sea-produce. Signs of rank (were) her feet and hands, but there was not goodly raiment on her. She had the ghastliness [?] of famine. A pity was this, for she was the poetess, daughter of Ua Dulsaine of Muscraige Liac Thuill in the country of the Hi-Fhidgenti, who had gone on a circuit of Ireland and Scotland until all her people had died. Then the ceard (smith/craftsman!), her brother, son of Ua Dulsaine, was seeking her throughout Ireland, but found her not. …”

The narrative unfolds as one of the ‘loathly lady’ – a crone who is secretly a radiantly beautiful and divine personage. The implication is that the woman is one of the ancient survivors of the first race – a theme which weaves through Irish legends (Book of Invasions, Children of Lir etc). She challenges the poets to a lyrical contest by challenging them to complete verses, but none can best her save for an ugly youth who Senchan had only allowed along as an afterthought. The Cailleach recognises his abilities and Senchan returns to Ireland where the youth then assumes his own true radiant form – as another member of the lost race of Ua Dulsaine – another transformation from ugliness into beauty. ‘Ua Dulsaine’ (Dulsaine = Satire) seems also to be a play on the word ‘Dulse’ – and edible seaweed that has been a traditional staple of Irish seaside communities for millennia, so ‘Ua Dulsaine’ appears to be another reference to the solar sea-god: Lir, Manannan or Cuillin. The ‘sentuinne’ is therefore Tiobal in disguise – the bardic poetics are sheer genius! Senchan was supposed to have lived in the time of King Guaire Aidhne who in the Sanas Cormaic tale, sent him on the quest to find the children of ‘inspiration’ – children who were, in fact, Ireland’s old gods.

Caillagh y Groamagh:

The legend of the ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ is another Manx Cailleach tradition which ties the old-woman to the shoreline. Usually translated as ”Old Woman of the Gloom’, the linguistically astute might recognise that the Manx word ‘groamagh’ (pronounced with a m>w lenition as ‘gro-ach’) is the same as the name of legendary seaside female spirit in the Breton legends, the Gro’ach. This is also a metathesis of the Welsh word for ‘hag’, which is gwrach (as in ‘Gwrach y Rhybin’). Gloomy and old she might be, but in the Manx legend she was important enough to have a day named after her – ‘Caillagh y Groamgh’s Day’ which strangely enough coincides with St Bridget’s day, Imbolc, the 1st or 12th of February (depending on how you determine it).

“… Caillagh-ny-groamagh, the gloomy or sulky witch, was said to have been an Irish witch who had been thrown into the sea by the people in Ireland with the intention of drowning her. However, being a witch, she declined to be drowned, and floated easily until she came to the Isle of Man, where she landed on the morning of February 12th. It was a fine, bright day, and she set to work to gather “brasnags”—sticks to light a fire, by which she was able to dry herself. The spring that year was a wet one. It is said that every 12th February morning she still goes out to gather brasnags to make a fire by which to dry herself; that if it be fine up to noon, and she succeeds in doing so, then a wet spring will follow. But, if the morning be wet and she cannot get dry, then the spring will be a dry one …” (Yn Lioar Manninagh, Volume 1 p.223, Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1889)

Not only was she associated with collecting sticks on the beach early in February (a pastime which might also be observed among the early-nesting ravens during this period!) but she had a piece of headland named after her in Maughold: Gob ny Callee. Maughold was the legendary Manx saint who, curiously, also arrived in the Isle of Man after being cast adrift from Ireland. He was reputed to have found the key to his fetters inside a fish – a pescatological phenomenon also displayed by Pictish/Dalriada saint Kentigern (Mungo) whose mother was reputed in his hagiography (by Jocelyn of Furness, some-time Manx Abbot of Rushen Abbey) to have been cast adrift and discovered by monks on the beach as she grubbed around looking for sticks to light a fire next to which she could give birth to the saint. The story of how Mungo’s mother (note: Mungo = a codifed version of Manannan) came to be in the water was that she fell (was pushed) from a cliff – which happens by coincidence to be another property displayed by the Manx Caillagh y Groamagh. W.W. Gill explained this in relation to the folklore about a land-feature in Ballagilbert Glen in the south of the Isle of Man (‘A Manx Scrapbook’, Pub. Arrowsmith, London, 1929 ):

“… This wide, green, shallow valley, always pleasant in summer with flowing waters and unpleasant with standing waters in winter, secluded and now nearly depopulated, has retained a few place-names and scraps of lore attaching to them which deserve to be rescued. In the lane leading to Ballagilbert farmhouse on the East side of the Glen lurked a moddey dhoo (Ed: ‘black dog’ spirit), headless like that at Hango (Ed: near Castletown). Near the top of the valley is a small depression called Caillagh ny Groamagh, (“Old Woman of the Gloominess”,) into which cavity she fell – or which she scooped out by falling – when trying to step from the top of Barrule to the top of Cronk yn Irree Lhaa. The impression of her heels and her thoin are said to be distinctly visible in the soil. A similar anecdote is told of the more serious fall, resulting in a broken neck and burial, of a Caillagh or Hag who came from the North to perform a series of jumps from height to height among the Lough Crew hills in Meath. Apart from this mishap to the Manx Caillagh, she is well known for her influence over the weather, as related in Folk-lore of I.O.M. and elsewhere; in Scotland she is the actual personification of bad weather. As accounts of the Caillagh my Groamagh vary somewhat, I will include here what I have learned of her in Patrick, which at least contains one detail I believe to be fresh and is certainly striking. First, however, it should be said that her alternative name, ” Fai’ag,” is merely a pronunciation of Faihtag-the exact spelling is optional, as with so many Manx words-meaning prediction or prophecy. Another Hag or Witch, the Caillagh ny Gueshag, is, in so far as these shadowy abstractions can be classified, much the same personage. Taken as one, they seem to combine the characteristics of the Scottish Caillagh ny Bheur (sic), familiar to students of Highland, and especially Argyllshire, folk-lore, and the Irish Cailleach Bera or Bheartha, who, it may be surmised, are sisters of the Teutonic goddess-giantess Berchta or Bertha and entered Britain with the Norse via Scotland. As inghin Ghuillinn, daughter of Cuillin, she was related to the Celtic equivalent of Volundr or Weyland the Smith, who is also known in Man, and she had a house of stone on Slieve Gullion in Co. Armagh and other places …”

Identity of Gullin/Cuillin with Manannan:

In relation to the connection between Manannan and Cuillean, there is another Manx tradition, handed down verbally until it was written in the 16thC states that the people of the island annually paid tribute to the god with bundles of rushes, a practice which is still echoed in the rush-strewing upon the processional way at the annual Tynwald ceremony still held by local officials at the manmade ceremonial hill at St John’s in the shadow of Cuillin’s mountain: Slieu Whallian (the local version of ‘Slieve Gullion’). Here is part of Joseph Train’s rough literal translation of the old manuscript which was written in Manx:

If you would listen to my story,

I will pronounce my chant

As best I can;

I will, with my mouth,

Give you notice of the enchanted Island.

Who he was that had it first,

And then what happened to him;

And how St. Patrick brought in Christianity,

And how it came to Stanley.

Little Mannanan was son of Leirr,

He was the first that ever had it;

But as I can best conceive,

He himself was a heathen.

It was not with his sword he kept it,

Neither with arrows or bow,

But when he would see ships saving,

He would cover it round with a fog.

He would set a man, standing on a hill,

Appear as if he were a hundred ;

And thus did wild Mannanan protect That Island with all its booty.

The rent each landholder paid to him was,

A bunch of coarse meadow grass yearly,

And that, as their yearly tax,

They paid to him each midsummer eve.

Some would carry the grass up

To the great mountain up at Barrool;

Others would leave the grass below,

With Mannanan’s self, above Keamool.

The ‘Manx Traditionary Ballad’ serves as a reminder to the Isle of Man’s persistent attachment to paganism which caused it to protect and preserve so many of the ideas lost to history elsewhere. Train translates rushes (the ancient Gaelic symbol of hospitality) as ‘coarse meadow grass’. Tynwald Day is in fact old midsummer day – reckoned on the Julian calendar, and now falling 13 days after the date of current midsummer day. ‘Keamool’ means ‘stepped hill’, and is a reference to the Tynwald mound:

The Tynwald Hill in St John's, Isle of Man. Slieu Whallian is the mountain in the background - it is the terminal peak on the ridge descending from South Barrule, which is cited in Manx legend as home of the god Manannan.

 

Connections with ancient Greek mythology:

The earliest European literary citations of aquatic feminine divinities come from the legendary corpus of ancient Greek literature. These were basically inscribed versions of a vast plastic oral tradition, often with many regional variations. In Hesiod’s Theogony (ca. 700BC) he talks of Keto – daughter of the personified earth, Gaia, and her son Pontus – the sea. Keto (whose name is usually translated as ‘sea beast’) was the mother of the famous monsters who peopled the far shores of Okeanos in Greek myth – Scylla, the Graeae, Ladon (the dragon from the tree in the garden of the Hesperides) and the Gorgons among them. This makes her the primal oceanic mother of the older Greek gods. She may somehow be related to the sea monster (and constellation) known as Cetus, whom the legendary hero Perseus defeated in order to save princess Andromeda. This makes the ‘old woman of the sea’ a fundamental pagan religious archetype, linked to the chthonic and creative aspects of the serpentine and monstrous beasts of the underworld and the vast ocean.

The Sirenes or Seirenes (described in Homer’s 7thC BCE epic, the Oddyssey) were another category of challenging oceanic island-dwelling females, who perhaps give us the oldest literary mythological attestation of what we would recognise as ‘mermaids’. Rather than being half-fish, however, they (like the Gaelic goddess in her land-based form) partook of the nature of birds. Their beautiful song supposedly drew men to them, and lulled them into a trance, and and they would die of hunger among their flowery meadows . In the legend of Odysseus, they throw themselves off cliffs into the sea and die when Odysseus and his crew pass by their island, apparently unaffected by their magical song. Their name offers a tantalising linguistic link to the shoreline smith-legends of the medieval Gaelic world, as the Gaelic word tSaoire means ‘smith’, a word perhaps related to the sparks which are such a feature of metal-working: ‘Sirom’ was a Gaulish word for ‘star’ (compare Latin sidus). The Sirenoi – as inhabitors of far-off ocean shores – may well owe their literary existence to some well-travelled Greeks, to whom the Atlantic archipelago was as close as they feared get to the edge of the world and the islands of the Gorgons, the Graeae and the Hesperides, where (so the legend goes) ‘here be dragons’…

 

The Icenii, ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’

2ndC CE Roman historian Cassius Dio famously mentions details of the ill-fated revolt of the Iceni and their allies against Nero’s legions in southern Britain during 60/61CE. His compendium ‘The Roman History’ may well have relied upon on first-hand accounts of the events of this episode, but Dio uses a certain creative licence regaling us with a rousing speech made by queen Boudica to her people before their battles. Indeed, it largely functions to portray Nero as a weak and effete figure of ridicule, but is of interest to religious historians, as he has the queen call upon a British goddess referred to as ‘Andraste’:

“…When she had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee…” (The Roman History, Boook 62 -trans. Bill Thayer)

Whoever Andraste was, she seems to have inspired the Britons with a confidence matched only by the fear which drove the Roman legions to eventually overcome them. Little else is known about Andraste save for this account. However, the reason for this might be because the ‘name’ given by Cassius Dio was a misunderstanding of ‘An Dras De’ – which is simply the Brythonic phrase meaning ‘The Tribal God’, ‘Dras’ being an old Welsh word meaning ‘kindred’. Consider the Irish god known as ‘An Dag De’ – the Dagda – a similar composite term is therefore possible.

Cassius Dio goes on to describe the rampage of revenge and humiliation wreaked upon the hapless Romans at Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium (London):

“… Having finished an appeal to her people of this general tenor, Buduica led her army against the Romans; for these chanced to be without a leader, inasmuch as Paulinus, their commander, had gone on an expedition to Mona, an island near Britain. This enabled her to sack and plunder two Roman cities, and, as I have said, to wreak indescribable slaughter. Those who were taken captive by the Britons were subjected to every known form of outrage. The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence… “

It is possible that ‘Andraste’ and ‘Andate’ were simply kennings for the same female divinity, but another possibility arises: that Cassius Dio got it wrong, and that ‘Andate’ was actually the male deity known in Ireland as ‘An Dagdae’ or ‘Eochaidh Ollathair. This is reasonably within the bounds of Celtic language pronunciation where consonantal sounds within words are readily dropped. Here is my reasoning:

An Dagda and the Morrigan in Cath Magh Turedh:

A coin of the Gaulish Redones (Brittany) shows the martial female mounted upon a horse: The Morrigan and Dagda?

A coin of the Gaulish Redones (Brittany) shows the martial female mounted upon a horse: The Morrigan and Dagda?

The Irish mythological cycle tale known as Cath Magh Turedh (possibly a composite of different tellings of an original) contains a number of mysterious, poorly elucidated ‘scenes’ featuring the Dagda.

Firstly, it mentions his ‘cauldron of plenty’. Next it mentions his role doing heavy work as a builder of the fortress of Bres of the Fomorians. He seems unusually trusting and a bit simple, and gives some of his vast meal portions away to a man who demands the best part each sitting, causing him to weaken. He forms a triplicity with Lugh and Ogma, and they go to ‘three gods of Danu’ (one of  whom is stated to be the Morrigan) who give weapons to Lugh. Dagda then has sexual intercourse with the Morrigan at a ford of the River Unshin in Connacht, an act of heiros-gamos ensuring the victory of the Tuatha De Dannan in the coming battle with the Fomorians. In another curious scene, with distinct parallels with to the Siege of Troy described in Homer’s Iliad, the Dagda enters the camp of the Fomorians to spy, seemingly in the guise of a horse. The Fomorians force him to eat a prodigious meal (again demonstrating his great equine appetite) so as to dull his wit.

The story continues (CELT version):

“…Then he went away from them to Tráigh Eabha. It was not easy for the warrior to move along on account of the size of his belly. His appearance was unsightly: he had a cape to the hollow of his elbows, and a grey-brown tunic around him as far as the swelling of his rump. He trailed behind him a wheeled fork which was the work of eight men to move, and its track was enough for the boundary ditch of a province. It is called ‘The Track of the Dagda’s Club’ for that reason. His long penis was uncovered. He had on two shoes of horse-hide with the hair outside. As he went along he saw a girl in front of him, a good-looking young woman with an excellent figure, her hair in beautiful tresses. The Dagda desired her, but he was impotent on account of his belly. The girl began to mock him, then she began wrestling with him. She hurled him so that he sank to the hollow of his rump in the ground.

He looked at her angrily and asked, ‘What business did you have, girl, heaving me out of my right way?’ ‘This business: to get you to carry me on your back to my father’s house.’ ‘Who is your father?’ he asked. ‘I am the daughter of Indech, son of Dé Domnann,’ she said. She fell upon him again and beat him hard, so that the furrow around him filled with the excrement from his belly; and she satirized him three times so that he would carry her upon his back. He said that it was a ges for him to carry anyone who would not call him by his name. ‘”What is your name?’ she asked. ‘Fer Benn,’ he said. ‘That name is too much!’ she said. ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn.’ ‘That is indeed not my name,’ he said. ‘What is?’ she asked. ‘Fer Benn Brúach,’ he answered. ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn Brúach,’ she said. ‘That is not my name,’ he said. ‘What is?’ she asked. Then he told her the whole thing. She replied immediately and said, ‘Get up, carry me on your back, Fer Benn Brúach Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Tri Carboid Roth Rimaire Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe
[gap: meaning of text unclear]
Get up, carry me away from here!’ ‘Do not mock me any more, girl,’ he said. ‘It will certainly be hard,’ she said. Then he moved out of the hole, after letting go the contents of his belly, and the girl had waited for that for a long time. He got up then, and took the girl on his back; and he put three stones in his belt. Each stone fell from it in turn—and it has been said that they were his testicles which fell from it. The girl jumped on him and struck him across the rump, and her curly pubic hair was revealed. Then the Dagda gained a mistress, and they made love. The mark remains at Beltraw Strand where they came together.

Then the girl said to him, ‘You will not go to the battle by any means.’ ‘Certainly I will go,’ said the Dagda. ‘You will not go,’ said the woman, ‘because I will be a stone at the mouth of every ford you will cross.’ ‘That will be true,’ said the Dagda, ‘but you will not keep me from it. I will tread heavily on every stone, and the trace of my heel will remain on every stone forever.’ ‘That will be true, but they will be turned over so that you may not see them. You will not go past me until I summon the sons of Tethra from the síd-mounds, because I will be a giant oak in every ford and in every pass you will cross.’ ‘I will indeed go past,’ said the Dagda, ‘and the mark of my axe will remain in every oak forever.’ …”

The scene is certainly saucy, but also weird – almost a retelling of the Dagda’s encounter with the Morrigan in an earlier passage, albeit with more salacious detail. The picture painted of the Dagda is a half-man, half-stallion: His horse-hide brogues, his great round belly, his large penis, his propensity to create lots of dung: all are heavily suggestive of this, as is one of his other names, Eochu Ollathair. The heiros-gamos with a feisty fighty female (similar to Fand in Serglige Con Chullain) is again used to precede a victory in battle. What is more, the marks of his hoof/foot upon rocks appears to be a reference to cup-marks, bullauns and petrosomatoglyphs of feet, common to the archaeology of the Atlantic world.

The suggestion that can be drawn from this is that victory was ensured by the sexual coupling of the Otherworld masculine god and the worldy goddess. Dagda represents, as the horse, the fertility, power and energy on offer from the Otherworld, albeit a force that was a bit simple. The Morrigan was the warrior aspect of the feminine triplicity – their combination would allow peace to be determined through warfare. Lugh (the battlefield hero of the Cath Maigh Tured) was the active warrior aspect of the masculine triplicity, and Ogmios was the wise thinking part.

Gold stater of the Gaulish Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse has a human face, and the charioteer appears female. The image is warlike.

Gold stater of the Gaulish Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse has a human face, and the charioteer appears female. The image is warlike.

The horse seems so prevalent on Europe’s late Iron Age celtic coinage that it must have had special importance, beyond just being a copy of the coins of those Macedonian-Thracian leaders of the Hellenic world – the horse-loving ‘Phillip’ and, of course, the solar warrior-king, Alexander whose legend was celebrated among the proud warriors of the Celtic world. By invoking the Morrigan aspect of the triple-goddess (the tribal ancestor or sovereignty queen, who Cassius Dio called ‘Andraste’), Boudica set her on a course for her liason with the peace-lord of the Otherworld, a drama possibly acted out in the groves of ‘Andate’ by the seemingly victorious Britons, shortly before General Paulinus reappears bearing the ‘Gorgon’s Head’, taken on Anglesey…

 

“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…

The meaning of Samhain

Samhain is the quarter-day festival that starts the Celtic year, marking the start of Winter and the end of harvests. It commences at nightfall on October 31st (new style Gregorian calendar) or the 11th November (old-style Julian Calendar) and goes by a number of different English names including Hollantide, All-Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en and All Saint’s Eve. In Scots and Manx Gaelic the name is the same, although written differently: Samhuinn and Sauin, respectively. The pronunciation is ‘Sow-in’ (rhymes with ‘cow-in’). There are a number of other more archaic names, which I will go on to discuss in due course.

It is a festival that symbolizes death – the transitional phase of the seasons when Atlantic Europe’s foliage dies back, and animal life dwindles. The evenings darken rapidly and the first frosts begin to touch the land. Crows and flocks of migratory wading birds throng the skies in great clouds cawing, whistling and chattering. The constellation of Orion begins to dominate the night skies… The spirit which enlivened nature in the summer months has gone from visible reality to the state of an intangible but certain potential for the coming year. In an ancient religious system that viewed life as a continuous oscillation between the tangible living state and a spiritual state awaiting rebirth in the next cycle, Samhain was therefore also the Festival of the Dead. 

It was Julius Caesar who first noted (in Commentarii de Bello Gallico) that the Gauls held that days started with nightfall, and celebrated the commencement of their important days with the falling of night. The same is true of the other Atlantic peoples, and in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man in particular this continued down to modern times. The festival of Samhain was therefore called Oidhche Samhna – ‘Night of Samhain’ – in Irish, and Oie Hauiney or Houney in Manx. Both would be pronounced pronounced something close to ‘Ee ouna’ allowing for the usual lenitions and aspirations of spoken Gaelic.

The Manx had another name yet for the festival – ‘Hop tu naa‘ (pronounced ‘hop the nay’ or as the more modern ‘hop tyoo nay’) – which is of uncertain meaning and sounds curiously close to the Scots name for New Year: Hogmanay. In fact, Samhain was the Celtic New Year – just as days started with a nightfall, so the years started with the dark part also. It is uncertain when the Scots started to use ‘Hogmanay’ as the term for the 31st of December New Year, or for that matter if the term was ever used for Samhain. It seems that folk traditions of the Atlantic European world show quite a degree of transferability across the period between Samhain and the January New Year – customs including guising, playing pranks, gifting and house-visiting were just as likely at Christmas and New Year as they were around the 1st of November. Whether this represents a natural tendency to transfer celebrations that brighten the dull winter months or a concerted religious effort to dissipate or transform wholly pagan festivities remains unclear, but a combination of factors is likely.

There has always been a strong association of the festival with a ‘witch’ or ‘witches’ that has continued right down to the Halloween celebrations of modern times. The Celtic peoples never really had much time for the idea of ‘witches’ in the 16th/17thC judicial and religious sense of a person who worships the Christian Satan and does magic to harm their neighbours. The ‘witch’ referred to in Celtic areas is generally best interpreted as a Christian opinion of the old Goddess herself, rather than a human individual at the margins of society. She seems to be represented by the folklore character referred to as the Cailleach – a monstrous ancient female supposed to have created the landscape and unloosed the rivers, and supposed in some traditions to be responsible for winter. 

To the Celtic peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man ‘The Witch‘ was a figurative legendary character representing Christian opinion of the ancient Goddess, rather than a clear and present social threat posed by ‘a witch’. For this reason, there were hardly any executions of suspected ‘witches’ in Celtic cultural zones.

'Jinny the Witch jumped over the house to fetch a stick to lather the mouse'  (Old Anglo-Manx Samhain song)

‘Jinny the Witch jumped over the house to fetch a stick to hit the mouse’ (line from an old Anglo-Manx Samhain guising-song) – the constellation of Orion presides over the winter skies between Samhain and Imbolc (1st February).

Irish legends and medieval manuscripts contain a number of references to Samhain, and one in particular to a ‘witch’ associated with the festival. The ‘witch’ was Mongfionn/Mongfind – ‘White Hair’ or ‘Fair Hair’ – supposed at least (euhemerisation agains!) to have been sister of Crimthann mac Fidaig, a king of Munster, and mother of Ailill, Brión and Fiachra, the traditional ancestors of the medieval Connachta, by a High King called Eochaid Mugmedon. The Connachta were the opponents of the Ulaid (Ulstermen) in the Tain. She is supposed by to have been a sorceress responsible for poisoning her brother in order to allow her children to succeed the kingship, but who died after tasting her own poison while trying to convince her brother’s children it was safe. It is the old ‘evil fostermother’ tale from folklore, also related in the story of the ‘Children of Lir’. This murder and her death happened at Samhain and the Book of Ballymote (folio 144, b.1) claims that Mongfind was thereafter worshipped at Samhain by the peasantry who called it the ‘Festival of Mongfind’ – Feil Moing! There is a hill called Ard na Ríoghraidhe (Height of the Kingfolk?) or ‘Cnoc Samhna’ (Hill of Samhain) in Co. Limerick that is associated with her. The details of the kingship-oriented stories involving Mongfind are probably an obfuscation of the facts, and the ‘White Haired One’ is likely to have been the aged Cailleach who represented winter and rebirth in the coming year. Perhaps the Milky Way was her hair? The path to renewal…

Cnoc Tlachtga (now also called ‘The Hill of Ward’) near Athboy, Co. Meath was also a place legendarily or historically associated with Irish Samhain festivities, including the lighting of a bonfire. This Hill was supposedly eponymously named from a magical female of the same name, the daughter of a magician-druid called Mug Roith/Mog Ruith who was suppose to have given birth to triplets on the hill before dying. Another site associated with paganism, death and Samhain was, of course, Magh Slécht (Mag Senaig) in Co. Cavan, supposed to have been the site where ‘Tigernmas’, an ahistorical pagan High King of Ireland died along with many of his followers while worshipping an idol called Crom Cruaich at Samhain. This idol was supposed to have later been broken by Patrick. There are many other traditions besides, including the tale of the Ulster Cycle called Serglige Con Culainn (The Wasting Sickness of Cúchulainn) were the Ulster hero is attacked and seduced by the Queen of the Otherworld – Fand, wife of Manannan – during the course of Samhain celebrations of the Ulaid.

Irish legend also place the start of the Second Battle of Maigh Turead at Samhain, and it commences after a sexual coupling of the Dagda with the Morrigan. Likewise, the cattle raid of the Tain Bo Culainge commences at Samhain, and the tales of this also feature the Morrigan, who I have earlier identified with the Cailleach. The medieval tale The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn claimed that the Fairy Hills (Sid) were open at Samhain. You can tell from ancient Irish literature that Samhain had a particular association with death and the otherworld, and with potent magical female characters!

The themes of conflict and death at Samhain follow on from the Harvest, and then the very visible Atlantic autumn die-back of nature – replete with withering, decay, storms and darkness. These processes are set in motion from the festival of Lunasa (Lughnasadh) onwards. The die-back to pagans was simply a part of the renewal-cycle and therefore did not have the confused connotations of ‘evil’ or ‘uncleanliness’ that was imported with the somewhat ectopic Judaic religions during the 1st millennium.

 

 

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.