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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?
Every year around Saint Patrick’s Day, we delve into Irish folklore to feature alarming mythological beings from the Emerald Isles. Nothing has beaten the frolicsome (yet oddly troubling) leprechauns in terms of popularity, however last year’s post about the sluagh–an airborne host of dark spirits which come from the otherworld–was certainly much creepier. This year gets darker still (well, at least for some of us) as we explore the leannán sídhe, a dark temptress who preys on disaffected writers, artists, and creative folk! Argh! Seriously, did Irish mythmakers have a picture of me on the whiteboard when they came up with this stuff?
The leannán sídhe was thought of as a woman of the aos sídhe (the otherworld folk) who would assume mortal form as an inhumanly beautiful woman. She would take an artist or poet as a lover and offer them inspiration in exchange for love and devotion. With her wit, intelligence, and affection she would inspire their craft. With her supernatural beauty she would bind them to her and become their muse. Yet the relationship would become more and more oppressive and intense until the artist became consumed with obsession for her. Once the artist was besotted to the point of madness, the leannán sídhe would disappear. The abandoned mortal lover would suffer from intense despair and either pine to death or commit suicide. After the artist was dead, the leannán sídhe would reappear and take make off with the corpse which she would take back to her underground lair. There she would hang the body up from a hook on her ceiling and drain the artist’s blood into a huge red cauldron. This cauldron of blood was the source of her everlasting life, youth, and beauty.
Once we set aside the casual misogyny which floats atop the surface of this myth, it reveals its deeper meaning: the myth of the leannán sídhe evokes the artist’s primal fear of the contemporary art market where laughing art dealers, gallerists, and corporations drain the artist of their creative vitality and then profit from it. Better to labor away in poverty and anonymity then deal with these terrifying forces.
Wait…ugh… this can’t be right! What is up with these fiendish Irish myths? Maybe next year I had better celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by writing about something less frightening, bloody, or controversial—maybe Irish politics…
The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns. Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era. The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.
Once there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles. Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife. To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).
One day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh. Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess. Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland. When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage. Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?
Niamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.
Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young. There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…
Except that Oisín was not perfectly happy. His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family. For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home. In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind. He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.
Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín. As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse. One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh. Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses. His town was alien and he knew no one. Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm. Everyone he knew was dead and gone. In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse. As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years. The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them. As they watched, Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.
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.
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.