Posted by: Brian | July 29, 2016

Lughnasadh Goddesses

“About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lughnasadh if 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~

Lughnasadh is translated as the ‘Assembly of Lugh’; celebrated on August first, this holiday coincides with the weaning of the lambs born at Imbolc and the shearing of the sheep. It is also the time of first harvest. This day celebrates the protective power of the god Lugh, who presided over this holiday and was honoured as guardian of the wild and cultivated crops. Lughnasadh was celebrated with market fairs and games, offerings to the god on hill tops, bonfires, and horse races through water. Just as Brighid tempers the 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.  And just as Imbolc has an exclusively female focus, the goddess Brighid herself, Lughnasadh, half a year later, has a predominantly masculine focus.

The upcoming New Tara lecture will explore Lugh and his stories and the themes of Lughnasadh from the perspective of this divinity, the most popular and widely worshipped god in the whole of the Celtic world, Lugh (Llew, Lugus, the Lugoves, etc).

There are, however, other divinities which can be loosely grouped through their association with Lugh and their importance to the holiday of Lughnasadh; these include goddesses such as Carman, Búi, Nás, and, the most famous, Tailtiu.  It is these goddesses which will be our subject here.

Carman 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 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 ‘fierce’, and her three sons, ‘violent’, ‘dark’, and ‘wicked’, show a more sinister side.  They seem to embody the tribes of the earthy Fir Bolg and the chaotic/destructive Fomoire in a single lineage; and to give the direction of their origin more worldly pizzazz, they are said to come from Athens.

Lugh captures Carman 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 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.

Búi, Nás, and Tailtiu are all associated with the great assembly at Telltown in Co. Meath – the ritual center of Ireland.  In Meath, just as Tara is most strongly associated with Samhain, and Uisnech with Bealtaine, Telltown is the site of Co Meath’s Lughnasadh gatherings.  Cnoc Lugdach is another name for the hill there, and under this name it is the grave of Lugh; though he is also credited with several other tombs in various places (which is perhaps apropos for a god often referred to in the plural by Continental Celts).  The more common name, Telltown is derived from Tailtiu, naming the place after her personage.

The Dindshenchas (MD III 483) says Lugh has four wives, Echtach, Englic, Búi and Nás.  Another (D 20) says that the assembly at Telltown was instituted for two of these wives, Búi and Nás.  The fist is also the personal name of the Cailleach Beare (which is of course a title, not a name), the second is the eponymous goddess of Co. Nass, where she also had an assembly site for Leinster Kings.  The name, Nás, might be derived from the word ‘assembly’ itself’.  Both have Sovereignty associations.

By far the most obvious goddess associated with the assembly at Telltown/Tailtiu, is Tailtiu herself.  The Dindshenchas (MD IV 146, quoted above) say that the Telltown Lughnasadh assembly was instituted for the Fir Bolg queen, Tailtiu.  The connection between the Fir Bolg and Lughnasadh is further strengthened by the fact that the Lebor Gabala, or Book of Invasions, says that the Fir Bolg first arrived in Ireland on Lughnasadh, unlike most of the tribes, which were said to have arrived at Bealtaine.

Tailtiu, a Fir Bolg queen, 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.  Equally it may be for the land’s loss – an obviously conciliatory act, as it is we ourselves who are the one’s about to do the taking.

Other places likely also had particular goddesses associated with their Lughnasadh assemblies, but it is difficult to conflate them as local variations on the same goddess.  Tailtiu and the Fir Bolg generally seem to represent the generosity of the land; Carman, 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 – be it adversary, foster mother, or wife – but in each place or time, he makes them the matron power of his great assembly.

Posted by: Brian | July 29, 2016

Sunshine and Lightning

 

Lugh, born to Ethniu in her tower of glass, fostered by Manannán and Tailtiu and others, leads the Tuatha Dé to victory in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, defeating his grandfather, Balor of the Baleful Eye, thus fulfilling the prophecy of his birth.

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 strongly associated with Sovereignty.

Lugh is a ‘friendly’ god, a fact attested to by his pan-Celtic appeal. He was worshipped throughout the Celtic world and was popular among all classes of people from kings to shoemakers to farmers.  On the Continent, he is often called by the plural form of his name, which could indicate he can be many places at once, or assist in multiple endeavours. It is obvious, the god Lugh is intimately entwined with many aspects of public and private life.

Lugh’s epithets include: MacEthlenn, ‘Son of Ethniu’; Maicnia, ‘Young Warrior’; Samildanach, ‘Equally Skilled in All Arts’; Lamhfada, ‘of the Long Hand’; Lonnbeimnech, ‘Fierce striker’; Lethsuanach, ‘Half-Cloaked’; and Scal, ‘Phantom/Apparition’.  His name means ‘Illumination’; but is Lugh a sun god?

Many 19th and early 20th scholars, and subsequently many modern pagans, have, in an almost automatic way, associated Lugh with the sun. But is the sun the only form of illumination?  And do his epithets point to the sun in any substantial way?  Given epithets like ‘fierce striking’ and a connection with thunderstorms (see below) some current scholars, like Kondratiev, propose that Lugh’s ‘illumination may mean something more like ‘lightning-flash’ (like the Welsh luched, Cornish luhed, and Breton luc’hed-enn).

Are there other indicators that Lugh may not be a sun god? Manannán, the seafaring god who fostered Lugh, resides in the west.  In Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh’s poem, Lugh arrives at the Royal Seat of Tara from the west. Likewise, in the myth, “The Fate of the Children of Tuirenn”, Lugh arrives on the battlefield from the west.

In both poem and myth a strong connection is made with Manannán and the west, either by eulogizing the beauty of Manannán’s realm, or by Lugh using Manannán’s armour, equipment and horse in battle.

In other myths, both Lugh and Manannán have produced mists or fogs; a phenomenon more strongly associated with cooling the land than is sunshine. This coming from the west resembles the prevailing global weather pattern where cooling rain and thunderstorms, like most other weather patterns, arrive from the west and move eastward, unlike the sun which moves east to west across the sky.

How was Lugh seen on the Continent?  The Galo-Romans never conflated Lugus with Apollo, making it very clear that they did not see Lugh as solar.  Instead, in the iterpretario Romana of the Celtic Lugus was conflated with Mercury. In addition to the Mercury’s trademark caduceus and winked helmet, Romano Celtic ‘Mercury’ or ‘Lugus-Mercury’ was often depicted with Lugh’s trademark spear. We also have some images that have ‘Lugus-Mercury’ holding a spear in one hand and a hammer in the other – the hammer normally being a symbol for thunder in Northern and Western Europe and the spear a suitable representative of lightning.  The facing S-curves associated with some of his images have been interpreted by some as lightning bolts, an idea confirmed by an image of Taranis who is throwing a lightning bolt, with several other curled as S-curves under his other arm.  In addition to this association with Mercury, some modern scholars have begun to do work comparing Lugus with another spear wielding, winged-helmeted god:  Odin.

But how does this view figure in our understanding of the ritual year? Six months ago, at Imbolc, we celebrated the Mysteries of Brighid, indisputably a fire goddess, who prepares the way for spring by bringing the spark of warmth into the icy cold of winter.  At Lughnasadh, we celebrate the mysteries of Lugh, who wins the harvest for us and stands against the blistering heat of summer by bringing cooling thunderstorms.  These two feast days stand in complementary opposition to each other.

So it is clear that Lugh’s role at Lughnasadh is not that of the sun, but the adversary of the sun’s heat. He reaches his full strength and takes up his most vital role at Lughnasadh, not because he is the sun or its light and heat, but precisely because he is needed to balance that very heat with his tempering power, lest it burn up the harvest.  For this reason thunderstorms are deemed auspicious at Lughnasadh.

Likewise, the custom of running horses through water depicts a typically solar or fiery animal being tempered and balanced by the cooling power of water; an obvious inversion of the Beltaine custom of herding cattle between two fires, which depicts a typically watery animal being tempered and balanced by the warming power of fire.

So, if Lugh is not a sun deity, who is? As in most other religions of Western and Northern Europe, the sun in Celtic religion is represented by various goddesses.  Like the Germanic Sunna, the Baltic Saule, and further a field, the Vedic Surya, the sun is venerated in Celtic countries as Sulis, Aine, Grainne, Brighid, and possibly Cigfa.

In Brighid’s case, her solarity is well depicted by the sun-wheel shaped Bride crosses made for Imbolc.  As well, there are references to Saint Brighid, the canonized version of the goddess, being prayed to in solar terms:

“Brighid, excellent woman,
Flame golden and sparkling,
May she bear us into the eternal kingdom
She, the sun, fiery, radiant!”

We also have a seasonal myth from Scotland which depicts her solar character at Imbolc:  In this tale the Cailleach (the hag of winter) captures Bride at Samhain and secrets her away in mountain until she is eventually rescued by her brother Aengus (the subject of this month’s New Tara lecture) at Imbolc, returning her life-giving, warmth-restoring power to the world.

That the feminine character of the sun survived well into the Christian period is attested in prayer 316 from the Carmina Gadelica, which refers to the Sun as the ‘glorious mother of the stars’ and ‘a young maiden in flower’.

Conversely, another prayer from the Carmina Gadelica refers to the sun as the Eye of God, an idea which points to a concept of Immanent Divinity, but is also reminiscent of other gods, namely Dagda as Eochaid Deirgderc, ‘Horse-lord Red-eye’ and Balor Birugderc, ‘Baleful-eye’.

I think there is an important distinction between being a sun god(dess), and a god who is not a sun god per se, but whose eye is the sun. In the case of Dagda, a fire god, I see no contradiction between the sun as his eye, a part of a greater whole, and Brighid, as a whole and complete sun goddess in her own right, and not merely a part of Dagda, but his daughter.  This points to a complexity of Celtic world view that is not easily explicated by a simplistic or singular way of understanding divine relationships.

In the case of Balor, the sun is his baleful eye, a tool or weapon to be used by him against his enemies.  Balor, and the fomoire who sided with him, represent chaos and a more pervasive danger; in this instance, the fierce heat of summer itself, when the crops could be ruined and winter could mean a time of starvation.

This is a necessary tactic, as the sun when personally represented as a goddess, is depicted as almost universally generous and well disposed toward humanity – quite unlike the potential danger of the sun in the Lughnasadh season.  Of course, even at Lughnasadh, the sun is not totally vilified; while Balor is getting his eye struck out by Lugh, in some regions of south western Ireland, Aine is being thanked and propitiated along with the dark god Crom for their respective roles in bringing the harvest this far to fruition.  This theological complexity is interesting, but even in these instances; the god in question is not Lugh, nor does the god in question take on a uniquely solar function or have the sun as his primary sphere of influence.

In fact, a feminine understanding of the Sun may be an essential difference between Celtic religion and the religions that come out of the Mediterranean; a difference which aligns the Celts more closely with other peoples of Western and Northern Europe, like the Germans, Scandinavians, and Balts, and perhaps an older stratum of Indo-European belief; given that sun goddesses are found at the two ends of the Indo-European world.  Given this understanding of Celtic sun goddess, how can we attribute their sphere of influence to any male divinity, let alone Lugh?

This being the case, Lugh is not unique in having his ‘solarity’ questioned.  Other Celtic gods once assumed to be sun gods are having this designation questioned.  Advances in etymology are now questioning whether Belenos, once assumed to mean ‘Shining One’, might actually be ‘Powerful One’, and Grannus, once assumed to mean ‘Fiery One’, might actually be ‘Bearded One’.  Thus Belenos and Grannus, despite being equated with Apollo in his healing aspect by the Romans, may have to yield their solar status to Celtic goddesses like Sulis.

Despite the antiquated ‘solar’ theory of Frazer and other Victorian scholars, an idea which remains popular among many pagans, and given the evidence provided above, I think it is a mistake to see Lugh as a ‘sun-god’.  Though this view would likely not go uncontested, in the opinion of many, Lugh is better understood as a god, not of sunshine, but rather of lightning.

Posted by: Brian | July 27, 2016

What is Lugh today?

Lugnassad, luaidh a hada
Cecha bliadna ceinmara,
Fromad cech toraid co m-blaid,
Biad lusraid la Lugnasaid.

Lughnasadh, makes know its dues
In each distant year:
Tasting every famous fruit,
Food of herbs at Lughnasadh.

~ Collected my K Meyer in Hibernica Minora (1894) ~

Lugh’s name is likely derived from ‘lightning’ or ‘swiftness’ or ‘oath’. This god is born to Ethniu in her tower of glass then fostered by Manannán and Tailtiu. He arrives at the royal seat of Tara to lead the Tuatha Dé to victory in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, where he defeats his grandfather, Balor of the Baleful Eye.

His most common epithets include MacEthlenn, ‘Son of Ethniu’, Samildanach, ‘Equally Skilled in All Arts’, and Lamhfada, ‘of the Long Hand’.

His name is cognate to the Welsh Llew, and the Continental Lugus, as well as the Spanish Lugo or Lugoues (plural). The Romans interpreted him as Mercury, and his is probably the model from which the Germanic Odin/Wodan developed in the 1st century BCE. The Church re-sanctified many of his sites in France and the British Isles by attributing them to St Michael, another defender against the powers of Chaos.

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, traveling, and moving persons or resources across ‘borders’), oaths, and social contracts. Furthermore he is a god of the harvest, protection, healing, victory, success, skill in any endeavour, shoes, journeys, doorways, borders, games, especially Fidchell/Chess, ball sports, especially hurling, and horse racing.  He is also strongly associated with Sovereignty. Lugh is a ‘friendly’ god, a fact attested to by his pan-Celtic appeal; he was worshiped throughout the Celtic world and was popular among all classes of people from kings to shoemakers to farmers. The fact that he is often depicted in triplicate, or simply described by the plural form of his name, would also indicate he can be many places at once, or assist in multiple endeavours. Thus this god is intimately entwined with many aspects of public and private life.

Alexei Kondratiev comments on his polyvalent and popular nature by saying, Lugh “is the saviour-hero, the bringer of happy endings, the embodiment of a new synthesis that transcends earlier problems. Very likely the elaboration and dissemination of his cult by the druids was associated with a wealth of theological speculation. In his daring ‘leaps’ – an element stressed in several traditions about him – he even puts one in mind of the Vedic Vishnu, whose ‘steps’ create space where there was none, permitting the defeat of the cosmic destroyer Vrtra.  It is quite possible that the druidic thinking about Lugh was developing along similar lines, and that, if the religion of the Free Celts had been left to evolve on its own, Lugh would have come to play a role as universal and all-pervading as Vishnu does in modern Hinduism.” [Apple Branch p.183]

The preceding is as applicable today as it was when the worship of Lugh was at the height of its appeal.  But we, as modern pagans, tend to focus on some of these spheres while ignoring others, or treating them as obsolete.

To address this point I would like to ask:

“What is Lugh today?”

Lugh as protector of the harvest, defender of order, victor, skill-bringer, and game-winner, are all still popular spheres among neo-pagans.  In fact, for many urban pagans, who have no real connection to food production, Lugh’s role along with those of many other deities allows us to cultivate a kind of mindfulness around this basic necessity that is too easily taken for granted.

His lightning is a powerful symbol for the experience of Imbas or prophesy,  the ethical repercussions of his role as a guarantor of oaths, and even his powers of healing (as the blasting of disease).

Where do we see Lugh’s battle against the Fomoire and their powers of chaos and dissolution?  Mad cow disease? Crop blight? West Nile virus? SARS?  At first these suggestions might sound simplistic or naïve, but protecting the cattle and corn is part of his traditional role; and being a healer and equally skilled in all arts, Lugh is the ideal candidate to oversee research and development and interdisciplinary studies for any practical or technical field like medicine; medicine being one more arena wherein we battle the powers of chaos and dissolution.

Though Lugh is a culture god with a great interest in the arts (which includes sciences and trades), he also stands against the imbalance and chaos we humans have caused.  In the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, when Bres is pleading for his life, he offers Lugh and the gods a crop in every season and an un-natural overabundance of milk.  Lugh declines, understanding that this is no less chaotic that the stingy and ungenerous attitudes expressed by Bres earlier in the story. Does this offer us any insight on the way we use our resources?  Usually the fomoire represent powers outside those of the gods and the tribe, but as imbalance can be expressed by our technologies as readily as by fomoirian magics, thematically they can express our own actions as well.  Lugh’s dialogue with Bres can be seen as a call for restraint or for balance.

Unfortunately, the spheres of commerce, politics, military defense, and contracts (integral to the legal professions), all sacred to Lugh, are largely treated by neo-pagans as secular, if not outright counter-religious, spheres of human activity.

This view, of course, is a result of many factors coming together:  those Christian denominations which polarize spirit and material life; the alternative community views brought to light in the 1960’s counter culture (which were born out of the ‘drop-out’ mentality of the 1950’s); as well as the ongoing dialogue North American culture is having between values of individualism vs. community, and what we expect from our various institutions.  These have all strongly impacted both modern secular and modern pagan views.  I think the modern assumptions which write off our governments and large institutions as inherently corrupt are in part responsible for the low opinions we have of them.  I also think by assuming they are corrupt by nature actually provides an excuse for bad behaviour and lax ethics within these spheres of activity.

What if, instead of deriding these aspects of our culture, we acted on the premise that they are, or at least should be, governed by sacred standards, and thus acted within them and critiqued them accordingly?  What if we stopped accepting unreasonably greedy behavior from ‘business’?  What if we demand an equitable and fair exchange of energy (goods, time, effort, money are all just manifestations of energy/resources which we are capable of exchanging) regardless of the sphere?  Does this give a different way of participating in the world in which we live? To adapt a Christian expression, “What would Lugh do?”

On a more playful note; hockey was first invented on Long Pond, in Windsor Nova Scotia, by a bunch of Irishmen trying to play hurling on ice. Hurling resembles grass hockey and has been played in Ireland for at least 2000 years – CúChúllainn and Finn MacCumhal the great heroes of the Ulster and Fenian Cycles were both avid hurling players.  CúChúllainn’s father, the god Lugh, is the inventor of ball sports, and hurling ‘play-offs’ took place at Lughnasadh. So Lugh as the patron of hurling can thus be seen, by natural extension, as the patron of our national sport: Hockey! 🙂

This is hardly a complete survey of the god Lugh in our modern world, but I do hope that it offers some food for thought.  Many neo-pagans seem all too willing to see our religion(s) in terms of the modern world.  I’d love to see more of us attempt to see the modern world in terms of our religion(s).  I think a living religion requires both perspectives.

Posted by: Brian | February 2, 2015

Song of Amergin Art

A beautiful picture of the Song of Amergin by Pamela Budge from The Croft Studio

Posted by: Brian | August 28, 2014

The Song of Amergin by Lorcan MacMathuna

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.

 

Posted by: Brian | May 16, 2014

The Song of Amergin by Smatboyd

Here is a playful little reinterpretation of the Song of Amergin, which includes flashes of modernity but remains true to its essential nature. It made me smile.

Posted by: Brian | October 4, 2013

It was a Dark and Stormy Night…

“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.

Posted by: Brian | August 11, 2013

The Song of Amergin by Lisa Gerrard

‘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.

Posted by: Brian | June 29, 2013

A Toast and a Tale for Lughnasadh

“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.

Posted by: Brian | April 16, 2013

Song of Amergin mention at TEDxMaui 2013

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.

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