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An Ogham Stone at Derrynane

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).

Um, Ogham, I guess....

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).

Brueghel's "Tower of Babel" (I never noticed the workmen wearing green eating potatoes in the left corner)

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).

In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology.  Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists.  Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim.  However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants.  The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir.  He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).

Frost Giant (from "Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology" by Mary Foster)

Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated.  many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.

Loki

The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous.  Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead.  Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength.  Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.

Odin and Gunnlöd

The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead.  The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together.  Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry.  The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth.  All poetry we have is sour and ersatz.  Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…

Giantess Gunnlöð, daughter of Suttung (Anders Zorn, oil on canvas)

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