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Every year when the month of March rolls around, Ferrebeekeeper writes about Irish mythology. It is a dark cauldron to sip from, but the taste has proven to be all-too addictive. We have explained leprechauns (and returned to the subject to ruminate about what the little imps really portend). We have written about the sluagh–a haunted swarm of damned spirits in the sky. I have unflinchingly described the Leannán Sídhe, a beautiful woman who drains the blood of artists into a big red cauldron and takes their very souls (which should be scary—but the immortal nightmarish wraith who eats the hearts of artists and bathes in their blood is an amateur at tormenting creative people when compared with the title insurance office where I work during the day), and we have read the sad story of Oisín the bard, who lived for three gorgeous years in Tír na nÓg with the matchless Niamh…ah, but then…
Hey, speaking of Ireland and bards what is with that big harp which appears on everything Irish? Is it just…a harp? Well, I am glad you asked. There are some who say that the harp of Ireland is indeed just a harp, albeit a harp which represents the proud and ancient tradition of bardic lore passed down from the pre-Christian Celts. There are others though who claim it IS the harp of Oisín, which was lost somewhere in his sad story (set aside in a in a spring grove as he leapt onto the white horse behind Niamh maybe, or left across the sea in Tír na nÓg…or dropped from withering hands beside an ancient churchyard…or safely hidden forever in the hearts of the Irish people ). But there is an entirely different myth too.
Some people say the heraldic harp of Ireland was originally the Daghda’s harp. Daghda was a warrior demigod (or maybe just an outright god) famous for his prowess, his appetite, his thirst…and apparently also for his amazing music. His harp could enchant people to brave deeds in battle…or to sleep in accordance with the Daghda’s mood. But once, before the Battle of Moytura, his harp was stolen by Formorian warriors who hoped to thereby steal the magic confidence, esprit, and bravery which the harp gave to the Tuatha de Dannan.
Daghda was a different man without his harp, and so he searched long and wide to find the secret stronghold where the Formorians had it hung upon the wall. He managed to sneak into the castle, but before he could get away, he was discovered and the entire Formorian army advanced on him.
Ah, but the Daghda had his harp back. First he played a song so hilarious that the entire host of his enemies stopped advancing on him to howl with mirth, however, as soo as he stopped playing, they stopped laughing and made for him. Immediately Daghda started playing a song of terrible sadness, and the Formorians’ eyes filled with tears and they began to wail inconsolably. This held them a bit longer, but alas, when he stopped playing, they stopped crying. The great multitude almost had him, when he decided to play a lullaby–shades of Hermes and Argus! Daghda did not sing the formorian warriors to their death, as soon as they were properly asleep he stole off, but the trick of fighting with art and music instead of swords has stayed in the irish heart—to the extent that it had become the national seal.
The harp has changed in this story—and it has changed on the coat of arms too. Once, in the time of the Irish Kingdom it was a winsome bare-breasted woman-harp, but today it is a meticulous historical recreation of an ancient medieval Irish harp. I wonder what it will look like in the future?
A Shamrock is a bright green spring clover–the species is unclear….but probably common clover (Trifolium dubium) or white clover (Trifolium repens), just like your garden variety pony eats. The shamrock has been an instantly recognizable symbol of Ireland for a long time…or maybe not. Anecdotally Saint Patrick utilized the humble plant in order to explain the nature of the trinity to his nascent flock in the fifth century AD (in which case they were the only people to ever understand the incomprehensible mystical unity-yet-separation of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost).
More realistically, however, the association between the Irish and the plant is less clear. English sources from the 16th century mention Irish “shamrocks”– but largely in the context of destitute Irish eating field plants (once again the species in unclear, but it seems like it might have been wood sorrel or watercress). Edmund Spenser, who lived among the Irish (and hated them), wrote approvingly of seeing Irish people starving to death after a failed rebellion left them with no crops, “…they spake like ghosts, crying out of theire graves; they did eat of the carrions …. and if they found a plott of water cresses or shamrockes theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall.” Of course, since Spenser reportedly starved to death himself he might have later found occasion to eat these harsh words (literally and figuratively).
All of this leaves (!) us no closer to understanding how the shamrock became so indelibly affiliated with the Irish. Increasingly it seems like it may be a connection which was made in the early modern era. However, pre-Christian Irish were known to hold the number 3 in greatest esteem. Certain Celtic deities had three aspects and the number 3 was obviously sacred. This is strongly reflected in pre-historic Celtic art. Some of these mystical gyres and whirls do indeed look oddly like shamrocks…so you will have to judge the merit of the little green plant on your own. In the mean time I am going to head down to the great Irish restaurant, McDonalds, and see if I can find a shamrock shake. Usage maketh the myth and by that token there is nothing more Irish than a three-leafed clover.
It should additionally be noted that in the modern world, “shamrock” has become the name of a bright Kelly green color. You may even see it today reflected in spring foliage, or jaunty banners, or on a furtive leprechaun or two (although, leprechauns traditionally wore red until they became standardized and bowdlerized in the early twentieth century). Have you ever wondered whether everything you know if blarney made up by marketers less than a lifetime ago?
Wha…? That is clearly a four-leaf clover! Curse you infernal tricksters!
In Celtic mythology, there is a mysterious group of supernatural beings, the aes sídhe, who belong to a realm which is beyond human understanding (yet which lies athwart the mortal world). The greatest among these aes sidhe were gods and goddesses—divine incarnations of nature, time, or other abstract concepts. Other members of the fairy host were thought of as elves, goblins, sprites, or imps (for example, the leprechauns–the disconcerting little tricksters of fairydom). However the supernatural world was also filled with the restless dead…beings who were once mortal but whose failures and miseries in life kept them connected to this plain of existence. A particularly ominous group of these dark spirits comprised the sluagh sidhe—the airborne horde of cursed, evil, or restless dead.
The sluagh sidhe (also known simply as the sluagh) were beings who were cursed to never know the afterlife. Neither heaven nor hell wanted them. Like Jack O’Lantern they were condemned to roam the gray world. Unlike Jack O’Lantern, however, the sluagh were reckoned to be a malicious and deadly force. They appeared en masse in the darkest nights and filled the air like terrible rushing starlings or living mist. One of the most horrible aspects of the sluagh was the extent to which their horde existence erased all individual personality (like eusocial insects—but evil and spooky).
Before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, and the northlands, the sluagh were thought of as a dreadful, otherworldly aspect of the wild hunt. When the dark gods came forth to course the world with hell hounds, the sluagh were the evil demons and fallen fairies which flew along beside the grim host. After Christian missionaries began to arrive, the idea of losing one’s soul forever became worse than the idea of merely being torn apart by dark monsters—and the sluagh was reimagined as a force which hunted and devoured spirits.
The sluagh were thought to fly from the west. They were particularly dangerous to people alone in wastelands at night (which sounds dangerous anyway) and to people on the threshold of death [ed.–that sounds dangerous too]. Some of the Irish death taboos against western windows and western rooms are thought to be related to fear of this demonic horde. Although the sluagh could apparently be dangerous to healthy people in good spirits, they seem to have been most dangerous to the depressed, the anxious, and the sick. From my modern vantage in a warm well-lit (northerly-facing) room, the idea of the sluagh seems to be an apt metaphor for depression, despair, and fear. Hopefully they will stay far from all of us!
Today is June 21st , which, in the northern hemisphere–where the majority of humankind lives–is the summer solstice. This is the longest day of the year (and the shortest night). Rejoice! Now is the time of light and warmth.
Of course it would hardly be the solstice if we didn’t talk about druids, but here, suddenly things get tricky, because, despite their long-standing popularity, we don’t actually know very much about druids. There are no writings left to us from actual druids and although we have some archeological finds from Iron-age Western Europe which relate to the religions of the time, we do not have any objects which are directly connected with druids. Some scholars question whether they ever even existed.
What is known about druids, therefore comes from Roman and Greek writers (including no less a person than Julius Caesar). Druids were the priestly caste of polytheistic Celtic society. Druid lore was passed down orally and it was no mean feat to become one of these elite priests: it could take decades to master the complicated plant lore, ceremonial forms, and other esoteric druid knowledge.
Druids are associated with sacred groves and augury. Roman writers also believed that druids practiced human sacrifice. Julius Caesar wrote of druids placing prisoners in huge men made of wicker and then burning the victims to death. However druid-sympathizers (which is apparently a real thing) dispute this idea and assert that Roman sources were guilty of cultural propaganda. In fact, an even more extreme faction of scholars asserts that druids were entirely made up by Romans as a sort of fantasy of the other in order to highlight Roman superiority. To me this seems like an unwarranted assumption: the concept of the hard headed Julius Caesar making up fantastical stories to drive home Roman superiority (which was an indisputable fact to him) seems suspect, and there is archaeological evidence to support a tradition of human sacrifice, although it too is controversial.
The only description of a druid ceremony comes from Book XVI of Natural History by Pliny the Elder. This single highly colorful passage is responsible for most of the popular image of druids. Pliny describes
“The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing … when it [mistletoe] is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to god to render his gift propitious to those whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”
Whether he heard about it and thought it sounded neat or just made it up is anyone’s guess.
So wait, what does any of this have to do with the solstice? Why are druids associated to an astronomical event in the way that Santa goes with Christmas? Druids became greatly popular during the 18th and 19th century Celtic revival. As romantics and neo-pagans invented rituals they looked towards the Roman sources (and certain Irish Christian sources which set up druids as being the opposite of Christian saints). Druids became associated with the great stone monoliths such as Stonehenge, and, since those ancient constructions are focused on the solar calendar, it was logical to assume that druids were too.
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.
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).
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.
Baron Samedi is the Voodoo loa of death, sex, and resurrection. Since those topics represent a substantial and universal chunk of human interests, he is the most instantly recognizable of voodoo spirits. The Baron wears a glossy top hat, a tailcoat, and sunglasses. He has cotton plugs in his nostrils in the fashion of a Haitian corpse—at least when he is not just wearing a skull as a face. The Baron’s name comes from his delight in partying on Saturdays and also has a rumored connection to Samhain, the Celtic festival of death and darkness. In fact, Baron Samedi seems to owe some of his features to the folk beliefs of Irish indentured servants who worked in the fields next to African slaves.
The Baron’s favorite colors are black, white, and purple. He is extremely fond of cigars, rum, peanuts, and black coffee (particularly the first two). Baron Samedi is noted for his obscenity and his debauchery. Frequently represented by phallic symbols he is rumored to attend orgies and seek all manner of congress. He delights in using a nasal voice to make fun of white people for being uptight—Eek!
The Baron is married to Maman Brigitte, a fair-haired, foul-mouthed white loa who seems to be associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid (Maman Brigitte even has emerald green eyes). A powerful death/fertility loa in her own right, Maman’s symbols are the black chicken and cemetery crosses. She is noted for dancing the suggestive but remarkably artistic banda dance and for rubbing red hot chili peppers on her…self. Although she is powerful, beautiful, and insatiable, her husband Baron Samedi still chases after pretty mortals.
Zora Neale Hurston recounts that when you make a request of Baron Samedi, you use a cow’s foot extended in place of your hand. When the Baron is ready to leave, he takes whatever he’s holding along with him. By substituting the cow foreleg, you don’t loose your arm! [Editor’s note: this seemed like a somewhat trivial scholarly point but we decided to include it as a safety tip for motivated readers]
Baron Samedi is the leader of the Guédé loa—a spirit tribe who are masters of death magic. The lesser Guédé spirits dress like the Baron and share his licentious and rude manner. They help carry the dead to the next realm—sooner than anticipated with the right inducements or the wrong dealings.