Here is a beautiful and haunting version of the Song of Amergin by Lorcan Macmathuna. I’d like to thank the artist for bringing it to my attention.
“In the black season of deep winter a storm of waves is roused along the expanse of the world. Sad are the birds if every meadow plain, except the ravens that feed on crimson blood, at the clamour of harsh winter; rough, black, dark, smoky. Dogs are vicious cracking bones; the iron pot is put on the fire after the dark black day.”
~Anon. 11th century Irish~
Among the Celts, Samhain is the feast inaugurating the New Year, the beginning of winter, and a celebration of our ancestors. The veil is drawn aside and the gates of the Otherworld swing open. Modified by Celtic Christian practice, this day has become the Feast of All Saints, followed by the Feast of All Souls, for Catholics around the world.
Here in Canada, for pagans and non-pagans alike, this is a night, and even a whole season, of supernatural intervention, ghost stories, wonder tales and urban legends.
Some people rail against the traditional depiction of the witch at this season, but it is an image perfectly in tune with the season of growing darkness and cold. She is no mortal priestess of the Wicca, but a supernatural hag that embodies chaos, winter, cold and death; a creature of air and darkness that seeks to devour children, as surely as winter seeks to devour the youthful energy of summer. She is as in tune with this time of year as bunnies and eggs are with the new fertility of spring. By letting this ‘witch’ be monstrous, we let ourselves be scared by her stories. We can thus become aware of some of the anxiety our ancestors felt in facing the coming darkness; a stress that still dwells in each of us at some basic level. We can experience both a stronger affinity with the changing seasons and a cathartic release of that stress by participating in traditional stories of this Samhain/Halloween season.
Most of us, pagan or not, love to be scared by the witch and other monsters that go bump in the night. Even folks not usually interested in horror as a genre will often turn to it at this time of year. Popular culture has picked up what mythology dropped when mainstream religion lost its ability to convincingly describe darkness. Movies, novels, even video games, provide a deliciously exhilarating, vicarious, foray into darkness, returning us to ‘regular life’ either exorcised of our anxieties, or at least giving us forms to express them.
Popular culture is all well and good, but how else can we participate in the thrill-fest of late autumn spookiness?
First and foremost, I believe we should be concerned with celebrating Samhain well. After that, or as part of that, narrative is an important part of Celtic culture and pagan Celtic religion. This being the case there is no reason why we can’t both respect our ancestors and tell a Halloween-y ghost story or two.
In Ireland, Samhain is and has been a traditional time for exactly these kinds of tale – both as times for their telling and times they were supposed to take place. It was at Samhain that Finn defeats the fire-breathing giant, Aillenn, who each year, burned Tara to the ground. Finn’s adventure under Ciocha Anann (pr. ‘clee-cha an-onn’, with a ‘ch’ like loch), a sídhe mound, also took place at Samhain, as did the Adventures of Nera. Likewise, Mongfhionn – the villain of King Niall’s story – dies on Samhain, caught in one of her own traps.
One of my favorite ‘witch’ stories in old Irish lore is ‘The Death of King Muirchertach’ (pr. Moor-cher- tach, with a ‘ch’ like loch):
One day near Samhain, King Muirchertach was sitting alone on his hunting-mound when a woman in a green cloak approached him. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and he was overcome with desire for her.
He said he would give anything to have her, and being a king he had a lot to give.
She said she would go with him, on three conditions: that he never utter her name, that the mother of his children never be in her sight, and that the priests never be in the same house as she was. The king accepted these strange terms, and then so as to avoid uttering her names, he asked her what they were. The woman chanted many names: Sigh, Sough, Storm, Rough-wind, Winter-night, Crying, Wailing, Groan… her names were as loathsome as she seemed beautiful.
But the king did not take the hint and he brought his lover-to-be home, evicting his wife and the priests; and then, because it was Samhain, called for a great feast and celebration. For seven days they feasted and the woman sat at Muirchertach’s right hand, turning water into wine and ferns into pork. She entertained and terrified those gathered in the hall with phantasms of fighting armies, one army was blue the other was headless.
On the eve of the Wednesday after Samhain, unbeknownst to the king, the witch had summoned a terrible blizzard. The weather outside turned cold and foul, and the king commented to his paramour on this fact, “There’s a rough wind out there this winter night.”
The enchantress looked at him narrowly, “I am Winter-Night, and Rough-Wind.”, but she did nothing more.
Then he mentioned the storm again.
“I am Storm, O man, why did you say my names? I shall be your doom.”
‘Sigh’ cast a spell of sleep upon him, and in this enchanted slumber Muirchertach dreamt of burning and of drowning, the very deaths he inflicted on his grandfather years ago in seizing the kingship for himself.
‘Storm’ then rose up and set the house on fire.
When the king awoke he found the house in flames and ‘Groan’ had also surrounded it with a phantasmal army. Thinking they were his enemies from a rival clan, Muirchertach could not escape. Every door was blocked.
Unable to leave, he caught fire and, to avoid the flames, he climbed into a vat of wine. Drowning and burning, he was crushed as the flaming house toppled down upon him. And so, Muirchertach met his doom.
This is a simplified telling, but it is a beautiful story of terror and Otherworldly revenge visited upon a bad king. It is a story that makes the ‘witch’ both a power of winter and destruction and at the same time, the wielder of a sort of vigilante justice.
A short version of this story can be found in A&B Rees’s “Celtic Heritage” while a longer version can be found in Cross & Slover’s “Ancient Irish Tales”.
This, and other stories, could be included in your Samhain, your Halloween, or as a way of passing the time on dark and stormy nights.
‘The Song of Amergin’ interpreted and arranged by Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy from their album ‘Immortal Memory’. The person who arranged this video includes the words and one possible English translation along with some very appropriate imagery.
“About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lughnasadh of Lugh; round her grave from that Monday forth is held the chief Fair of noble Erin.
White-sided Tailtiu uttered in her land a true prophesy, that so long as every prince should accept her, Erin should not be without perfect song.
A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariots, with adornment of body and soul by means of knowledge and eloquence.”
~“Tailtiu” lines 45-56. ~ The Metrical Dindshenchas~
(by the very talented Peter Kulpa in an evironment with very tricky lighting and acoustics, at a Lughnasadh event last year.)
Lughnasadh, translated as the ‘Assembly of Lugh’; is traditionally celebrated on August first or the first Sunday in August. This holiday coincides with the weaning of the lambs born around Imbolc and the shearing of the sheep. It is also the time of first harvest. This day celebrates the protective power of Lugh; the god who opens the way that we might begin the harvest of wild and cultivated crops. Lughnasadh is celebrated with market fairs and games, offerings to the god on hill tops, bonfires, and horse races through water. Just as Brighid tempers the cold winter elements at Imbolc, Lugh tempers the heat of summer at this, the hottest time of the year. Thunderstorms on this day are considered a good omen.
Lugh represents the union of opposites and the victory of law over dissolution and chaos. He presides over communication, commerce, mercantile endeavours (buying, selling, trading, travelling, and moving persons or resources across ‘borders’), oaths, and social contracts. He is a god of the harvest, protection, healing, victory, success, skill in any endeavour, shoes/shoemakers, inspiration, journeys (both worldly and Otherworldly), doorways, borders, games, especially Fidchell/Chess, horse racing and ball sports, especially hurling. He is also strongly associated with Sovereignty. Lugh is the remover of obstacles, the bringer of swift victory, and of excellence in all its forms – and Lughnasadh is his festival.
However, in line with his generous nature, Lugh shares this holy period with a number of other deities. These include goddesses such as Carmun and Tailtiu. So, after much preamble, it is these goddesses which will be our subject here.
Carmun is associated with the great assembly in Co. Wexford, Leinster. Her story is recorded in the Dindshenchas (MD III 2). It describes her as a provident power able to give forth and withhold the abundance of the land. Her father-in-law is described as ‘right hospitable’ and his father as ‘rich in substance’. They come from the East, the direction of Prosperity. However, her husband is named ‘fierce’, and her three sons, ‘violent’, ‘dark’, and ‘wicked’, showing our ambivalent relationship with the natural world – the source of all our food and also of great danger.
Lugh captures Carmun and drives away her sons. She is kept in a grove, her abundance producing powers thus controlled by the god of the tribe, and the tribe itself, while her dangerous offspring are no longer a threat. When she dies, Lugh inaugurates a festival on his holiday in her honour to maintain a good harvest. Whether this is to keep her subject to the tribes needs or to placate her spirit is uncertain, as it is described as merely commemorative. But even as commemoration, it is attributed with power.
By far the most famous goddess associated with the assembly at Lughnasadh is Tailtiu. The Dindshenchas (MD IV 146, quoted above and in detail in the video) say that the Telltown Lughnasadh assembly was instituted for Tailtiu. Her name is related to the Roman goddess Telus, who they equated with Gaia, and likely means ‘Great Land’. She is depicted as the Fir Bolg queen who instituted agriculture and was the foster-mother of Lugh. She died clearing the land that would become Co. Meath, and so Lugh instituted funerary games to be held on Lughnasadh to honour both her and her accomplishments.
Brón Trogain, ‘the sorrowing’ is what Lughnasadh is called in Tochmarc Emire, the Wooing of Emer, and the Acallamh na Senorach refers to it as Lughnasadh but calls the month which it begins ‘Trogan’. This name, so contradictory to the festive and victorious nature of Lughnasadh celebrations, may refer to the death of Tailtiu and related goddesses. This may represent the land’s loss – an obviously conciliatory act, as it is we ourselves who are the one’s about to do the taking.
Just as Carman is associated with a place of the same name and Tailtiu is associated with the great assembly at Telltown in Co. Meath – the ritual center of Ireland – other places also had particular goddesses. For example, Búi or Nás, associated with their assemblies on Lughnasadh.
If we only had a passing familiarity with these goddesses, it might be tempting to conflate them as local variations on the same deity. But the themes they express are different: Tailtiu and the Fir Bolg generally seem to represent the generosity of the land; Carmun, though still a fertile power, had to have her gifts wrested from her and her sons kept from wreaking chaos; and Nás seems to have more to do with politics and Sovereignty than concerns of the harvest. They express different themes as to how Lughnasadh can play out, and so there are stark differences in their relationship with the god Lugh, adversary, foster mother, or wife, but in each place or time, he makes them the matron power of his great assembly.
In this inspiring TED talk, Kim Rosen, the author of the book “Saved by a Poem”, explores the transformative power of poetry as well as the importance of indigenous language. In doing so, she briefly mentions the Song of Amergin, so I thought I would share it with you all here.
There are strong Rogerian and Jungian components to my clinical practice, as their theories, implicitly or explicitly, have a Spiritual component, and can even be viewed as expressing the fractal, self-similar, microcosm/macrocosm view of the human person that plays some greater or lesser part in so many of the world’s religions. For this reason, I would like to follow up on my original post about Spirituality, with the role of psychology in my understanding of Spiritual Care.
Rogers entire theory is based upon the “actualizing tendency”, which serves as the built-in motivation present in every living thing to develop as much of its potential as possible and to make the very best of its existence. Rogers applies this actualizing tendency to all living creatures. He compares humans, actualizing their potentials by creating and manipulating society and culture, to animals and plants coevolving or exploiting particular niches in ecosystems. Rogers even went so far as to systematically and rationally apply this understanding to ecosystems themselves. The universal applicability of the actualizing tendency to all living beings, and even systems of living beings, is scientifically and spiritually compelling. It is in harmony with evolutionary principles, as currently understood in the life sciences, and with the essential goodness of life, a principle upheld by most faiths. I see the actualizing tendency as a functional definition for Spirit, constrained by the empirical nature of the field in which Rogers worked.
Jungian ‘analytical psychology’ is more overtly Spiritual, as it often incorporates the broad spectrum of human spiritual experience, including the mythology and folklore of ancient and indigenous religions, to gain a deeper understanding of the human psyche. It is also a branch of psychology that acknowledges spirituality as a necessary component of our over all well-being.
“[Jung] had established these two facts:
1. The human psyche has an autochthonous spiritual function.
2. No patient in the second half of life has been cured without that patient
finding an approach to this spiritual function.
It might be assumed that, after such findings, theologians would have flocked to Jung’s consulting room; but this has not happened…. [T]hey might have at least been glad that an experimentally proved theologia naturalis exists.”
Despite showing the profound interrelatedness of religion and psychology, Jungian ‘analytical psychology’ draws criticism from both certain psychological and certain Christian schools of thought. In failing to take sides, both sides find analytical psychology suspect. The fact that spirituality is endorsed at all alienates secular or reductionist psychologies; and the breadth of spirituality endorsed alienates any version of religion where ideological entrenchment and ‘one-true-way’ thinking is normative. Some Christian theologians commenting on Jung “have [even] argued that he should not have ventured into theology in the way that he did.” In the negative responses of both secular/atheistic and narrowly Christian commentaries, the violation of self-imposed boundaries is predictably followed by a defensive response– often with the energised emotionality that would indicate a neurotic trigger.
Other thinkers have benefited from a more synergistic relationship between analytical psychology and Christianity, though serious explorations of other expressions of living religion are usually left out of that line of enquiry. Despite this oversight, I find that exploring the Jungian/Christian dialogue relevant for me professionally, because many of the people I work with are Christian, and to the whole exploration of Spirituality generally, since it is the only in-depth dialogue of Jung and religion available. Beyond that, it is important to note that not all modern theology is rooted in, or exclusively made relevant by, Abrahamic scripture. Some of the concepts can shed light on Pagan and Celtic thought, either by comparison or by contrast. I will touch on that again in future blog entries, with a particular attention to eco-theology, process theology, pastoral theology in a multi-faith world, and the epistemological notions of Bernard Lonergan.
Returning to my main point; despite the constraints placed on Spirituality by Rogerian language and shattered by Jungian language; I see these descriptions as pointing to the same thing chaplains describe when, “[b]y spiritual, we mean the fundamental capacity to have faith, to make meaning, to create community and culture, to long for and practice love, peace, and justice, and to be oriented toward wholeness”, or in the key words of my own practice, personally, clinically and in the pagan community: Spirituality is the principle and process of Being, Acting, and Knowing from a stance of authentic Connectedness, Meaning, Values, Purpose, and Becoming.
For many people, the first introduction to the Song of Amergin came through Robert Graves “The White Goddess” (1948). Graves states that, “English poetic education should, really, begin not with Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin.” However, despite this apparently reverential beginning; Graves does not actually put forward the Song of Amergin as we have it; rather he begins by utterly changing this ancient poem to better fit his own pet theory, connecting the lines from this poem to the Ogham alphabet and the ‘months’ of the year. This creates a vague pattern, unprecedented in either nature or the Gaelic source culture he purports to respect.
Graves provides neither the original Irish poem, nor anyone else’s English translation. Instead he just sets off on his own imaginative journey.
In order to create proof for his notions, he translates the lines of the Song very loosely, which, given the dense and obscure nature of the poem, is completely acceptable. However, he then proceeds to rearrange the lines, with no consideration of what they might mean in their original order, and invents completely new lines to give it the flow and meaning Graves, himself, wants this poem to have. The result is a perfectly lovely poem, but it has no real connection to Celtic tradition, myth, or cosmology, save through the mind of Robert Graves.
Grave’s Song does not even begin with “I am Wind of Sea”; so the primordial significance of this line and it’s connection to the last line of poem (which was dropped entirely) reveals his unfamiliarity with the tradition he is pretending to illuminate while pursuing his unique vision. Instead the poem proceeds like this:
I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?
I am a spear: that roars for blood,
I am a salmon: in a pool,
I am a lure: from paradise,
I am a hill: where poets walk,
I am a boar: ruthless and red,
I am a breaker: threatening doom,
I am a tide: that drags to death,
I am an infant: who but I
Peeps from the unhewn dolmen, arch?
I am the womb: of every holt,
I am the blaze: on every hill,
I am the queen: of every hive,
I am the shield: for every head,
I am the tomb: of every hope.
It’s really is lovely, but bears only a vague and passing resemblance to the original, which he pretends to respect so much.
Having rewritten and rearranged the lines of the Song of Amergin; Graves, likewise, rearranges the letter of the Ogham alphabet and even drops a couple of consonants as ‘late additions’. This reduces the basic letters of the Ogham from 15 consonants and 5 vowels, to just 13 consonants and 5 vowels. He does this so that he can connect each consonant to one ‘lunar month’ and so, since each Ogham letter is associate with (among *many* other things) a tree, the ‘Celtic Tree Calendar’ is born.
This is an invention unprecedented in the original lore. However, Graves’ Celtic Tree Calendar’ spread like wildfire through a growing neo-pagan movement hungry for meaning and short on facts about Celtic calendar folklore.
Graves suggestion is this:
Dec 24 – Jan 20
Jan 21 – Feb 17
Feb 18 – Mar 17
Mar 18 – Apr 14
Apr 15 – May 12
May 13 – Jun 9
Jun 10 – Jul 7
Jul 8 – Aug 4
Aug 5 – Sep 1
Sep 2 – Sep 29
Sep 30 – Oct 27
Oct 28 – Nov 24
Nov 25 – Dec 22
The result is a calendar that bears no resemblance to any traditional Celtic time keeping system we have on record and ignores culturally relevant holy days, like Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasadh. Graves’ newly invented calendar is less poetic, less accurate, and over all less interesting than what the ancients have left us; which he connected to his own rearranged Ogham and his reinvented Song of Amergin. The fervor with which it spread in the ‘60s and ‘70s is rooted only it’s availability and not in its connection to either ancient tradition or the self evident rhythms of natural world – and 50 years later we are still living with the fall out.
Beyond misrepresenting Celtic religion and culture, Graves imaginary Tree calendar also misrepresents Nature itself. It creates a system of 28 day months (which is the time it takes for the moon to go around the Zodiac), but is not the 29.5 day cycle of New Moon to New Moon. This difference is due the fact that the Earth is also in motion and resulting in the full moon appearing in a different sign each month. Many traditional time keeping systems, including the Celtic Coligny calendar, take into account by some pattern of alternating ‘full’ (30 day) and ‘hollow’ (29 day) months, and then adding the occasional inter-calendary month to keep the lunations aligned with the solar year. Various other Indo-European calendars including the Athenian calendar and several from India also follow similar patterns. In contrast to these ancient systems, Graves’ calendar is one or two days short each month and quickly falls out of alignment with the phases of the Moon.
While I can appreciate that Graves felt that poetic inspiration, or “analepsis” (as he termed it) was a valid historical methodology, he was clearly not very good at it given how his results vary from so deeply from the cultural and natural realities he was seeking to poetically capture.
Robert Graves bemoaned the fact that his work was “loudly ignored” by most Celtic scholars, but that should perhaps be considered a kindness, given that when scholars did look at his work he was sited for things like having “misled many innocent readers with his eloquent but deceptive statements about a nebulous goddess in early Celtic literature” among other things.
Personally, I’d like to see Robert Graves’ fantasies laid to rest, that they might stop obscuring the memory those who came before us, so that the fanciful thought of one person might stop polluting popular perception of the past and popular perceptions of the natural patterns evident in the Living World around us.