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Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot). Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).
Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture. Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear. Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries. It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.
During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory. As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire. Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.
By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.
Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter. Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture. For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.
Just kidding—aside from zoos and the pet trade, Ireland actually famously has no snakes. It is one the few snake-free large islands on Earth joined only by New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica (well—everywhere far enough north or south is snake-free: the reptiles don’t really thrive in places where there is permafrost or truly cold winters). Legend has it that it was Saint Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland. Standing on a great hill he lifted up his crosier and focused divine energy upon the unlucky reptiles which then writhed en masse into the sea and never returned to the emerald island.
It has always been a bit unclear to me why Saint Patrick would do such a thing. Ecoystems which undergo such catastrophic changes tend to go haywire with great alacrity! Fortunately the story is entirely a myth. If snakes ever lived in Ireland (and it doesn’t seem like they did), they were long gone by the time the first Christians showed up. The real reason is even more interesting than the dramatic Moses-like power of Saint Patrick, but as with most actual answers it is also more complex.
Evidence suggests that snakes evolved 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous. At the time Ireland was, um, underwater at the bottom of a warm chalky sea. Early snakes slithered their way across landbridges, rafted to islands on washed away logs, and swam (like the sea snakes) from island to island but, during the Mesozoic, there was no Ireland for them to go to.
When the Mesozoic era ended in the great ball of fire, the continents again shifted. Snakes went through a substantial evolutionary period during the Miocene and the original python-like snakes evolved into many different forms. These new varieties of snakes slithered into grasslands, deserts, forests, and oceans around the world, but they still could not get to Ireland (now above the waves) because a cold ocean was in their way. Then the end of the Miocene brought an ice age. To quote the National Zoo’s essay on “Why Ireland Has No Snakes”:
The most recent ice age began about three million years ago and continues into the present. Between warm periods like the current climate, glaciers have advanced and retreated more than 20 times, often completely blanketing Ireland with ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded animals, simply aren’t able to survive in areas where the ground is frozen year round. Ireland thawed out for the last time only 15,000 years ago.
So Ireland remains snake-free because of the world’s temperamental geology. The island was underwater or covered by ice during certain eras when the snakes might have arrived–geography has conspired against serpents coming to Eire and setting up shop. The age of humans however has been marked by numerous introduced species cropping up everywhere. I wonder how long Ireland will be snake free when a pet shop accident or crazy hobbyist could unleash a plague of serpents on the green island. The fact that such a thing has yet to happen seems almost as miraculous as the original myth.
One of my favorite mawkish songs is “Cockles and Mussels.” Not only is it a stirring melodramatic ballad concerning the sad death of a young Irishwoman, it is probably the only known song to feature ghost mollusks! Let’s review the lyrics:
In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
“Alive, alive, oh,
Alive, alive, oh”,
Crying “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”.
She was a fishmonger,
But sure ’twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they each wheeled their barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
She died of a fever,
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
Now her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!
That seems pretty clear—the cockles and mussels travel beyond the grave with Molly and her ghost is left trying to sell their spirits in the variously sized thoroughfares of Ireland’s capital (even to me, that sounds like a futile business plan—who is the projected customer base here?). The harrowing supernatural drama reminds me that I need to add posts about cockles (which are tiny edible saltwater clams found on sandy beaches worldwide) and mussels to Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category.
Beyond her working connection to the vast phylum of mollusks, her sweetness, and her death, little is known concerning Molly Malone. This is ironic since the longstanding international success of the song has made her an unofficial mascot of Dublin and a mainstay of tourism there. Various amateur historians have unsuccessfully tried to link the song with a historical personage to no avail. It seems the ditty was created from imagination by a Scottish balladeer late in the nineteenth century and it was first published in the 1880s in America!
However the paucity of information has not stopped artists from portraying Molly (as is evident from the pictures dotted through this post). Even if the song was an invention there is a real sense of futility, heartbreak and loss to it. And just think of the poor ghostly shellfish spending eternity being hawked in the in-between neverworld of Dublintown.
Famous in love stories and movies, the Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish band with elements that go back to Roman times. The ring consists of two hands holding a crowned heart and dates back to the 17th century where the design originated in the village of Claddagh by Galway.
According to tradition, each element of the ring is symbolic. The hands stand for friendship, the heart stands for love, and the crown stands for loyalty. The position of the ring on the hands is also important: when the ring is on the right ring finger with the heart out, it means the wearer is single and seeking love (or some reasonable approximation); when the ring is on the right hand with the heart turned in, it means the wearer is in a relationship, but not engaged. When the Claddagh ring jumps to the left ring finger things have gotten serious: the Claddagh with the heart outward indicates betrothal and when heart is turned inward, the wearer is married. Or at least that is what people say about the tradition. Every ring I have worn ceaselessly turned like a record on my finger. I’m sure all sorts of couples would end up in desperate needless fights if the Claddagh tradition was held too closely.
Although the folklore traditions in the paragraph above seem to be innovations of the nineteenth century, the ring descends (through a long lineage) from Roman “fede” rings which featured clasped or joined hands as symbolic of a sacred vow.
Megaloceros giganteus was the largest deer to ever exist. The huge animal would have stood 2.1 meters (over seven feet) tall at the shoulders and had antlers more than 3.65 meters (12 feet across). During the Late Pleistocene (the glacial epoch immediately prior to the Holocene) the giant deer ranged from Lake Baikal in northern Asia across all parts of Europe down into northern Africa.
In English, Megaloceros giganteus, is more commonly known as the Irish Elk, a name which is something of a misnomer since the creature lived across broad swaths of three continents and was not actually very closely related to elk and moose. The name was originally adopted because many nearly perfect fossils of the Megaloceros were found in the great peat bogs in Ireland. So perfect were the skeletons that a misguided biological theorist, Thomas Molyneux, used the remains as evidence that no species ever went extinct (a question which was at the forefront of science at the end of the eighteenth centery). Molyneux believed that the Irish Elk skeletons were actually those of large moose or elk and that divine providence would never allow an animal to disappear forever from earth. Unfortunately Molyneux was completely mistaken. The great zoologist, Georges Cuvier comprehensively proved that the Megaloceros was very distinct from living Moose and Elk and was therefore gone from the world. It is strange to think that there was a time as recent as the nineteenth century when natural philosophers argued about whether extinction was possible or not.
Although the Irish Elk coexisted with humankind for a long time, sadly something went awry and the great beast went extinct at least 7,700 years ago. Strangely, overhunting by humans was probably not the reason the Megaloceros died out. However the actual reason for the extinction of the magnificent mammal has been a long standing cause of dissent among paleontologists. An obsolete school of thought held that the creatures’ antlers became so immense that the beasts could no longer hold their heads up. A likeminded school of thought believed the antlers (which grew larger and larger in response to female’s preference for a mate with big antlers) left the animal unable to compete with smaller and more nimble competitors. A new theory concentrates on the amount of calcium and phosphate necessary to grow such stately and humungous antlers. As vegetation changed in response to the end of the ice age, the poor Irish Elks could not get enough of the proper nutrients and began to suffer like old ladies from osteoporosis. A final answer to the mystery is still outstanding.
Saint Patrick’s Day spirit is beginning to pervade the land and the mind turns to all things Hibernian. Last week, Ferrebeekeeper investigated Leprechaun tattoos and, though visually interesting, that subject quickly turned dark and scary. This week, we plunge into the green forests of ancient Celtic Ireland to pursue the roots of Ogham, the mysterious tree alphabet of the Druids. Get out your golden sickles and put on your mistletoe haloes, the nature and origin of Ogham are shadowed by primeval mystery and this whole journey could easily veer off into the fantastic realms of pre-Christian myth.
To begin with the basics, Ogham was a runic alphabet from early medieval times which was in use throughout the lands ringing the Irish Sea, but which seems to have been most prevalent in Munster (Southern Ireland). Ancient objects inscribed in Ogham are most commonly found in Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, but are also known in Wales, Scotland, the Orkney Isles, the Isle of Man, and the Devon coast. Stone monuments inscribed in Ogham are usually written in Old Irish or an unknown Brythonic tongue—probably Pictish. The alphabet seems to have been primarily used from the 4th century AD to the 8th century AD (although correct dates are a subject of contention).
There are many historical theories explaining the origin of Ogham, but none are conclusive. Some scholars hold that the script originated during the Roman conquest of Britain as a sort of non-Roman code language used between Celtic people. Others assert that the language grew up as a means for denoting Celtic sounds—which the Roman alphabet is not well suited for—and became more complex and complete only as Christian scholars set up communities in Ireland. Wilder theories involve ancient primitive peoples as diverse as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the lost tribes of Israel, and the mysterious Sea People who destroyed Minoan palace civilization in the Mediterranean (please, please don’t tell my Irish history professor that I let you know about any of these hare-brained ideas). My favorite mythical (as in “not-real”) story of the origin of Ogham involves the legendary Scythian king, Fenius Farsa, who invented the Gaelic language and then crafted Ogham out of scraps recovered from the fallen Tower of Babel (there’s more than a soupçon of world-famous Irish blarney in this folktale).
Whatever the actual origins of Ogham were, a large number of inscribed stones have been found in what were once Celtic lands. Most of these were territorial markers and memorials—the oldest of which come from Ireland (although it is believed there was a heritage of inscribing the lines on sticks and bark which predated stone inscriptions). Some scholars believe the Welsh, Manx, Scotish, British, and Orkadian Ogham stones date from Post-Roman Irish incursion/invasions. Ancient tradition assigns the names of trees or shrubs to each of the letters of Ogham (although such a naming convention may only date from the tenth century). A comprehensive glossary of letter names can be found here along with a translation of an ascetic Ogham joke (of sorts).
Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams. But leprechauns have a darker side as well. The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.
Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland. The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.
Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind. Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard. However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares. Do you doubt me gentle reader? Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!
Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that. It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories. These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires. Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.
Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can. Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust. May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.
It might seem hard to believe but before Europeans discovered America, pumpkins were unknown in the old world. The familiar orange gourd-like squashes are native to North America. They belong to the Cucurbitacea family, which includes cucumbers, honeydew melons, cantaloupe, watermelons and zucchini. The oldest pumpkin seeds discovered date back to 5500 BC and were found in Mexico—so the people of the Americas have been planting and harvesting pumpkins for a long time. This makes perfect sense since pumpkins are low in calories but high in fiber, Vitamin A, the B vitamins, potassium, protein, and iron.
Today pumpkins are a huge agribusiness and US farmers alone grow more than 1.5 billion pounds worth (which is about the equivalent mass of eight aircraft carriers—although the pumpkins would be less handy in a naval engagement). Annual contests are held around the country to see who can grow the largest pumpkin—a record currently held by Chris Steven’s 821 kilogram (1,810 pound) monster pumpkin grown in Minnesota in 2010. Ninety five percent of canned pumpkin puree is grown in Illinois, the home of Libby’s (a giant vegetable canning company currently owned by Nestlé, the world’s most profitable company in 2011). Strangely the pumpkins canned by Libby’s are a sort of buff colored variety which look very different than the orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins which are sold at produce-stands.
Speaking of jack-o-lanterns the tradition of carving faces in vegetable to ward off evil spirits goes far back into the depths of medieval Irish history, however since pumpkins were unknown in Ireland until the 16th century such face-lanterns were originally carved out of turnip, mangel-wurzel, or swede. It was not until the nineteenth century that such lanterns acquired their name and came to be associated with Halloween.
Since I like to write about colors as well as farming, there is a handsome medium orange color named pumpkin, which, as you can imagine, is a staple hue for plastics and confections manufacturers as October and November roll around.
It has been a while since I wrote a post concerning mascots. That’s because…well, frankly there is something a bit grotesque and disorienting about the entire topic. The bilious cartoony figures speak of the snake oil which lubricates our consumer culture. And most of the characters are teetering right at the edge of nineteenth-century jingoism and ethnic stereotypes. If Aunt Jemima, Chief Wahoo, Uncle Ben, the Gordon Fisherman, and Ole’ Miss don’t make you a bit anxious, then they aren’t doing their jobs.
All of which is why this subject is entirely perfect for Saint Patrick’s Day! This holiday has long since dismissed any semblance of reasoned discourse. The downtown of every major city in the United States fills up before noon with intoxicated teens garbed crown-to-toe in Kelly green and red-faced, red-haired firemen wielding bagpipes! So bring on the leprechaun mascots.
Traditionally leprechauns were members of the aes sídhe, supernatural beings who dwell in a mythical land beyond human kin. This unseen realm may be across the western sea, or in an invisible world parallel to ours, or in an underground kingdom accessible only through the pre-Christian burial mounds and barrows lying throughout Scotland, Ireland, and the ancient places of Western Europe. The aes sídhe tended to be impossible beautiful and strange in such a way that they could only be apprehended by dying people, insane people, or William Butler Yeats. Leprechauns were the money-grubbing cobblers and grabby tricksters among the lofty fairy folk. The first mention of leprechauns is found in a medieval epic: the hero recovers consciousness from a dreadful wound only to discover that he is being dragged into the sea by leprechauns. Yeats writes of the leprechaun “Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own.” In folklore Leprechauns originally wore red coats.
In America today all of this has been somewhat bowdlerized: leprechauns are small bellicose Irishman garbed completely in green. They ride on rainbows, possess pots of gold, and never quite grant wishes. Anyone who says otherwise is liable to get punched in the mouth by an electrician from Jersey City.
Lucky the leprechaun, the spokesbeing for Lucky Charms cereal since 1964, is probably the most famous of these contemporary leprechauns. His ancient bog sorcery has been condensed into the trademark phrase “magically delicious” and six talisman-like marshmallow shapes calculated to best please the discerning six-year old palate.
Sports teams also like leprechauns. The most famous sports-leprechauns are the pugnacious fighting Irish leprechaun of Notre Dame and the slippery dandy leprechaun of the Boston Celtics.
However an alarming range of other leprechaun mascots exist. They have different waistcoats from various historical eras, sundry prankish expressions, and wear a rainbow of different greens but they are all instantly recognizable.
I don’t know…I was going to be more cynical, but just look at them up there, drinking and hoarding and dancing away. There is something appealing about the wee folk. Shameless stereotype or not, t’is all in good fun. There’s a bit of a March hare in all of, longing to run wild after the long winter. If our culture chooses to exemplify this spring atavism through images of a little irrepressible green man, then so be it. Sláinte, dear readers! Have a happy Saint Patrick’s Day, a merry March, and a glorious spring.