Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Fesival of Samhain.

As we enter this month of October let us begin by looking at the festival of Samhain.

History of Samhain

Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the Celts divided the year into two seasons: the light and the dark, at Beltane on May 1st and Samhain on November 1st. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, marking the beginning of a whole new cycle, just as the Celtic day began at night. For it was understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Whereas Beltane welcomes in the summer with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of this festival is November Eve, the night of October 31st, known today of course, as Halloween.

Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means “summer's end.” In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as Oíche Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's calend, or first. With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year, so the night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide. November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who the departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwined in celebrations from Oct 31st through November 5th, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.

In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched ricks, tied down securely against storms. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvest must be gathered in -- barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples -- for come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal.

In early Ireland, people gathered at the ritual centres of the tribes, for Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year. The greatest assembly was the 'Feast of Tara,' focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the New Year. In every household throughout the country, hearth-fires were extinguished. All waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year, not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the north-west. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who may once have been a goddess in her own right in a former age.

At all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire, and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come. Rituals of Samhain mirror many Halloween practices today.

Many Samhain rituals, traditions, and customs have been passed down throughout the centuries, and are still practiced in various countries on Halloween today.

As a feast of divination, this was the night for peering into the future. There are so many types of divination that are traditional to Halloween it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to place hazelnuts along the front of the fire grate, each one to symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by chanting, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.”

Several methods used the apple, that most popular of Halloween fruits. You should slice an apple through the equator (to reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, “I pare this apple round and round again, My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain, I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head, My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.” Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth. The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter as it moves.

Bobbing for apples was actually a custom the Celts inherited from the Romans when conquered by the Roman Empire. Romans honoured the harvest god, Pomona, and because the apple was a venerated fruit, many rituals revolved around it. The Celts simply incorporated bobbing for apples, a divination game that originated with the Romans, into Samhain tradition.


Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan “baptism” rite called a seining, according to some writers. The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which the novice’s head is immersed. The fact that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony.


Bobbing for apples was a game of divination. Single girls looking for a mate would carve their initials onto an apple then put it into a bucket of water. Young men would take it in turns to ‘bob’ for an apple, the one they chose had the initials of their intended carved upon it.

Carving Jack O'Lanterns was a custom practiced by Irish children during Samhain. Using a potato or turnip, they would carve out an image and place a candle inside to pay tribute to Jack, an Irish villain so amoral that he was rejected by both god and devil. Legend says that Jack wandered the world, looking for a place to rest, finding it only in a carved-out vegetable. Later, when the Irish emigrated to America, pumpkins were used instead.

Some traditions say that the carved-out pumpkin originated from a Celtic practice of putting an antecedent's skull outside of their home during Samhain. Others say that the Jack O'Lantern was used to ward off evil spirits which were brought forth on All Hallows Eve.

Halloween masks and costumes originated from the Celtic belief that on Samhain, while restless and often evil spirits crossed the thin void from the spirit world, a mask would make the wearer unrecognizable from these ghosts. Druidic rites also involved the wearing of masks, often made of animal’s skins, as the wearers told fortunes and practiced other divination rituals.

Christian Influence over Samhain.

As Christianity spread throughout the Celtic regions, an attempt was made to remove the pagan influences of this holiday and replace them instead with a Christian-sanctioned one. To this end, Pope Boniface IV renamed Samhain, which fell on November 1, to All Saints Day, as a day to honour dead saints. October 31 began to be called All Hallows Eve; this eventually evolved into "Halloween."

Attributed to St. Odilo in the 7th century, the Catholic Church declared November 2 as All Soul's Day, which honours the dead whom had failed to make it to heaven; it's believed these souls were instead held in purgatory. This Christian celebration of the day of the dead has many similarities to Samhain rituals, such as the wearing of masks, parades of ghosts and skeletons, and special food offerings to the dead.

The Samhain fires continued to blaze down the centuries. Even today, bonfires light up the skies in many parts of Ireland. Whatever the reason, there will probably always be a human need to make fires against the winter’s dark.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Apple and The Pentagram.

The Apple and The Pentagram.

The pentagram is one of the most widely used religious symbols in the world and has been used by Wiccans, Pagans, Israelites, Christians, magicians amongst others. But what is its origin?

A pentagram is a five-pointed star with one point aligned upwards (when surrounded by a circle, it's known as a 'pentacle') and its name derives from the Greek words "penta", meaning five and the word "gamma", meaning letter.

The pentagram was originally a symbol of the goddess, Kore, who was worshipped in many countries as widespread as England and Egypt thousands of years ago, but under many different names (i.e. Cara, Ceres, Carnak, Core, Car, Karnak, etc). Kore's sacred fruit was the apple. When cut through its equator, the apple has a near perfect pentagram shape inside, with each point containing a seed. Many Wiccans, Pagans and Roma (Gypsies) still cut apples in this way and the Roma refer to apple cores as Stars of Knowledge.

The concept of five points is still symbolic in Ireland; "Ireland had five great roads, five provinces and five paths of the law. The fairy folk count in fives and the mythological creatures wear fivefold cloaks."

Wiccans use the pentagram symbol to cast and banish their healing circles, to bless themselves and others by tracing the shape on their bodies and often wear the pentacle or pentagram on pieces of jewellery. Some Wiccans interpret the five points as the five elements- earth, air, water, fire and spirit, while others interpret them as the four directions and the spirit.

From childhood fairy tales such as Snow White to the discovery of gravity, the apple has influenced the world as we know it. Even centuries before an apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, the fruit has held a symbolic meaning through myth and legends. Although the symbolism of the apple has evolved throughout time, the apple has sustained its place in many cultures as a symbol for knowledge, prosperity, love, jealously and temptation.

Apples are a natural remedy for the heart, stomach and bowels, our main organs of giving and receiving. Our folk memory puts forth such phrases as "An apple a day keeps the doctor away", and not without good reason. The apple's malic and tartaric acids neutralise the acid products of indigestion. A very digestible fruit, it provides excellent baby food, aiding the digestion of other foods.

Constipation can be combated by eating a ripe, juicy apple at bedtime every night, this also helping to reduce sleeplessness and biliousness. This fruit is not only cleansing to the teeth, but its hardness pushes back the gums so the borders are clear of deposits. To get the full value of an apple it should be eaten unpeeled as its valuable acids and salts, to a special degree reside in and just below the fruit's skin.

Apples have a long history of use in divination, especially to foretell the future in matters of love and prosperity. The methods of divination are varied and include counting the apple pips; burning the pips after naming each one with a young man's name and watching which ones explode in the fire; apple bobbing; throwing the peel over the left shoulder to see it forms the initial of an individual when it lands; and putting an apple under your pillow to dream of your sweetheart.

All these games and folk customs are survivals of much older ceremonies in honour of the Apple.

Many of these customs are performed particularly at Samhain, as traditionally the apple is linked to the Celtic Otherworld, where the tree is called the "Silver Bough" and possesses magical properties. Samhain is traditionally a time of the year when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, a doorway between the seen world of matter and the unseen world of spirit, which is the best time of the year to make shamanic journeys, to connect to the dead, the spirit realms, to gain oracular knowledge and healing powers.

The pentagram can be found within the apple by cutting it across its width; the shape being revealed in the formation of its pips. This ancient symbol of knowledge is sacred to the Celtic death Goddess, Cailleach, the Crone, the Veiled One, honoured at Samhain. Verjuice, a kind of scrumpy cider, was also her drink at this time of the year, inducing altered states and otherworldly experiences. Verjuice is made by gathering ripe crab apples, laying them in a pile and leaving them to rot and sweat. The rotten fruit is gathered into a bowl with the stalks removed, beaten to a pulp and pressed through a coarse cloth. The resulting liquid is then bottled and ready for use one month later.

The Apple Tree has close links with the Shaman, the Wisewoman and the Magician and used when undergoing magical transformation or Otherworld journeys. Celtic Arthurian Myth names one of these Otherworlds as Avalon, the Apple Vale, the mythical paradise where hills were clothed with trees bearing flowers and fruit together. Merlin reveals to his Lord the existence of his orchard. It was borne from place to place by the Enchanter on all his journeys. Other legends tell of Otherworld visitors to our World appearing in the same guise as the Shaman, carrying an apple branch with bells on it. The Apple tree also represents Shelter, either in this World or as a place to rest when making Otherworld journeys.

An apple wood wand would be the appropriate magical tool to use to make Shamanic journeys to the Otherworld. It is said that the Apple is used as a calling sign to the Otherworld that you wish to enter their realm. The wand will help you physically, mentally and spiritually connect to the Apple tree.

The Ogham system links the apple to the spiritual warrior; one who is unafraid to make the journey to the Otherworld and back, one who is unafraid to face death or madness. This is the divine madness of the Shaman. Mad people held a different place in Celtic society. Their madness was believed to be a gift and a rare ability, which link them to the Otherworld, oracular knowledge and meaningful insights.

In today's society madness is feared, suppressed and hidden away. Wassailing, for instance; the idea of waking up the tree's spirit so that it could get on with the job of making apples on which everyone so depended, was considered perfectly acceptable in the past, but in today's society, it would be considered quite mad.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Traditional Irish Herbs.

Traditional Irish Herbs.

Dandelions were cultivated at a Cistercian monastery in County Tipperary. Elders still claim that wherever Comfrey & Nettles grow together a monastery was sure to have existed on the site. Since comfrey is the cure for stinging nettles!
In many cemeteries you will often find self heal along the gravesides.

Prior to the 19th century the people relied on local healers, the old 'bean na luibheanna' and fairy doctors. There were few qualified doctors in rural Ireland. The two cultures lived side by side - the educated and those who believed in the underworld of the fairies, superstition and magic. The fairy doctors were said to have the cure for ailments caused by the fairies. For example, Fairy Dart was a severe attack of Rheumatism, which was treated with herbs such as Nettles, Willow Bark or Meadowsweet. These herbs contain salicin, an ingredient found in Aspirin.

The three most popular herbs used were Vervain, Eyebright and Yarrow, depending on the nature of the complaint. Vervain was once held sacred and gathered at special times of the day, on the rise of the Dog Star, when neither the sun nor moon was shining. Today Vervain is effective for treating liver conditions, gallstones and a relaxant in nervous conditions.

There was a fairyman in Coolcullen, County Kilkenny who had the ability to cure mastitis in cows. He made up an ointment of herbs, including wild garlic and butter for rubbing on the udder. The owner of the sick cow then went home without muttering a word to anyone. If he did, the remedy would not work and the spell is broken.

In rural Ireland for centuries folks chewed Feverfew leaves in a sandwich to prevent blisters, or just sniffing the scent of the plant. We now understand that Feverfew is an herbal remedy for Migraines and Arthritis.

One of the earliest Irish records of herbs used was on the battlefield of 3000 years BCE after the battle of Magh Tura, Co. Mayo, between the Firbolgs and invading Tuatha De Danaan, baths of herbs were prepared into which the wounded were plunged. The De Danaan also had a great physician named Dianacht, who recommended a porridge consisting of Hazel buds, Dandelion, Chickweed and Wood Sorrel boiled together with meal. This was used for the relief of colds, phlegm, throat troubles and worms up until the last century.

Early Irish physicians based their traditions and knowledge, not only on Galen & Hippocrates, but also on Dianacht. During and after the Battle of Clontarf (1014), soldiers returning from battlefields stuffed their wounds with Sphagnum Moss. Sphagnum Moss was used by roman soldiers as a field dressing and it was the responsibility of their centurion to make sure this was done.

Wild Garlic had its place in Irish Herb Lore and was used for coughs, asthma & shortness of breath. On the farms it was used for black leg in cattle. Farmers made an incision in the animal's neck and popped in a clove of garlic sealing it by typing the hairs from the skin together, thus the first sutures before Vets were available.

Hoarhound grows abundantly in ditches and was prepared in a strong brew used to bring on menstruation. The leaves of fresh Marshmallow were boiled and placed in dressings for sprains and swellings. Comfrey Root was commonly used after it was carefully dug up so as not to disturb the skin, grated and spread out on a clean cloth and applied over a broken bone, wound or bad bruise. It set up like plaster and was left there until it fell off.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Study in Herbalism.

A Study in Herbalism.

Over hundreds of years the healing properties of plants and herbs has not changed. What our ancestors considered a healing plant or herb thousands of years ago is still a healing plant or herb today. Healers of the ancient world were expected to know their herbs, plants gave healing powers to those who studied them, worked with them and respected them.

A rich heritage of plant lore exists in Ireland and we can trace this heritage at least as far back as the Bronze Age. From the analysis of pollen grains we know that during this period people used Meadowsweet as a floral tribute at burial sites. From Druidic times to the present century, Ireland has had a long tradition of healing and excellence in medical education.

Today we have the opportunity to benefit from the accumulated herbal knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors and this allows us to look back through history harvesting for our own benefits the herbs that have stood the test of time. However, a great deal of credit for this knowledge should go to the women healers of the past for it was they who essentially began the work of learning and understanding herbs and because of their healing powers they were persecuted as witches, of course when the male physicians arrived on the scene they claimed the right and the credit for all this knowledge.

Many of the synthetic medicines that are on the market today owe their existence to natural herbs, plants and trees. St John’s Wort, Lavender, Feverfew, Witch hazel, the list is long, in fact the original painkiller marketed over a hundred years ago is a derivative of White Willow bark, its name is Aspirin.

Herbal medicine sometimes referred to as herbalism is the use of herbs for their therapeutic or medicinal value. An herb is a plant or part of a plant that is valued for its medicinal, aromatic or savoury qualities and they contain a variety of substances that act upon the body. Herbalists use the leaves, flowers, stems, berries and roots of plants to prevent, relieve and treat illness and herbal medicine has a long and respected history.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 4 billion people, 80% of the world population, have used or presently use herbal medicine for some aspect of their primary health care. Herbal medicine is a major component in all indigenous people’s traditional medicine and it is a common element of homeopathic and naturopathic medicine.

Major pharmaceutical companies are currently conducting extensive research on plant materials gathered from the rain forest and other places for their potential medicinal value. However, they need to be quick for at the rate of deforestation that is being carried out in South America, we may be losing hundreds or thousands of potential cures. Over the next series of posts I will be concentrating on various herbal remedies.

I must point out that you should always consult a qualified medical doctor as some herbal treatments may have a reaction to prescribed medication. Never stop your medication without consulting your G.P.

I use herbal remedies to compliment my prescribed medication with my doctor’s knowledge.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Foundation Sacrifice or Sound Box.

Foundation Sacrifice’s.

The burial of horse skulls beneath the floor of a house is reasonably wide-spread in Ireland and it has been the subject of two interpretations – foundation sacrifices and acoustic enhancement.

In 1945 Sean O’Suilleabhain published an article – ‘Foundation Sacrifices’ in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland (Vol75, part 1, pp.45-52). In it he related the results of an inquiry carried out by the Irish Folklore Commission to a number of informants scattered throughout the Republic.

Eleven people responded that they were acquainted with the practice of burying one or more horse skulls beneath the floor of a house. With the exception of one correspondent from Co. Galway who suggested that the burial was made to bring luck to the house, all other correspondents associated the burials of the skulls with making an echo’, especially for dancing.

O’Suilleabhain, however, argued that this acoustic explanation was merely a practical justification for continuing an ancient pagan practice of sacrificing an animal and burying it on the erection of a building. This was done in order to secure the protection of the victim and bring luck to the householders as well as to ensure the stability of the structure. O’Suilleabhain cited examples from around the world (Scandinavian, English etc) and suggested that such practices may have gone back to the Bronze Age in Ireland.

The second hypothesis, acoustic enhancement, takes the explanations of the practice made by O’Suilleabhain’s informants at face value. i.e., it explains the burial of skulls as an attempt to provide a hollow area below clay stamped floor or stone flagging so that it would increase the sound of musicians and dancers in a room.

The use of horse skulls to create sounding boxes is by no means limited to the Republic and has been discovered on a number of occasions in Ulster. Dr Alan Gailey describes in the Yearbook of the Ulster Folklore and Transport Museum (1969-70: 13-14) the discovery of nine horse skulls beneath a house floor near Crossgar, Co. Down and another from an 18century house in Crumlin, Co. Antrim. Dr Gailey points out that these finds as well as others reported tend to associate with ceilidh houses.

Foundation Sacrifices.

Horse skulls were buried under the floor or in recesses in the walls of a house. When the drawing-room floor of Edenvale house near Ennis was taken up, four horse skulls were found, one in each corner.

At Moyreisk, a house of the Vesey Fitzgerald family near Quin, horse skulls were found in recesses in the wall.

These burials might be regarded like the broken querns placed in house foundations at Torry Island in Donegal, and cats built up alive in the walls of houses in Dublin and elsewhere, as substitutes for human sacrifices.

That such sacrifices were not unknown to the early Irish seems implied in the startling story of St. Columba’s disciple buried as a voluntary sacrifice in the foundations of a new building.

Jamieson (History of the Culdees) writes of legends associated with the monastery of St. Columba at Iona. In one story, the saint could not build a church there because a devil kept throwing down the walls as soon as they were built. The early Christians referred to all Pagan gods as ‘devils’. Only a human sacrifice buried in the foundations solved the problem.

Hadrian Allcroft writes that Columba “called for a volunteer human sacrifice to consecrate his new house”. Columba announced to his convent, “it would be well for us that our roots passed into the earth here”. He goes on:

It is permitted to you that one of you go under the earth of this island to consecrate it.

The monk, Odhran, arose quickly, saying:

If you will accept me, I am ready for that.

The outcome was that Odhran then went to heaven and He (St. Columba) founded the church of Hy.

The Rev Baring Gould writes that Columba consecrated Hy “by the burial of a monk of his own retinue, a sufficiently obvious case of what we should today call human sacrifice”.

According to G Higgins (The Celtic Druids), a human body was found under each of the twelve pillars of one of the circular temples of Iona. Reeves notes that “the principal, and now the only cemetary in Hy is called the Railig Orain, after Odhran not Columba.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Claddagh Ring. The Irish Wedding Ring.

The Claddagh ring.

You know no matter where I go if I see a Claddagh ring on someone’s finger I instantly think “Ah, there’s one of us”. It is as Irish as a Shamrock, a Guinness or the glint in an Irish eye.

Traditionally, the ring can be worn in three different ways, all marking a different stage in the journey towards love. When worn on the right hand with the heart facing outward facing the finger nail, the ring shows that you heart is free. When the heart is facing inward, toward the knuckle of the right hand, it is saying that the heart is no longer available. Finally, if the ring is to worn upon the left hand with the heart facing towards your wrist or if you are really romantic you say “It is facing your heart”. In Connacht we wear it as our wedding ring. Gold for the lady. Silver for the man.

When worn with the heart facing outwards towards the finger nail we even call it a friendship ring. I was raised to believe the meaning of the ring to be in these few words that I said to my wife when I gave her my family Claddagh ring “I give you my heart with open hands and crown it with my love” you then place it on her finger with the heart facing towards her wrist/heart as a symbol of you giving your heart to your loved one, and for us in the west of Mayo that is what the ring means.

Below is the story of the Claddagh ring from

The tale of the ring is one of the greatest to be heard in Galway. It is said that by the year 1900 the Claddagh ring had become as important to the mythology of the city as the 14 merchant families, or tribes, that led Galway as a virtual city-state during much of the 13th through 17th centuries. Adding to the intrigue is the simple fact that no one can say for certain just where the ring originated, who made it first, or exactly what its connexion with the Claddagh is. Interestingly, through the mists of history and folklore, one name has become more associated with the origin of the ring than any other – Richard Joyes.

The story of Richard Joyes (his own variation of Joyce) is nothing short of remarkable. As it is told, after embarking on a voyage for the West Indies, Richard was captured by an Algerian pirate and subsequently sold into slavery. His purchaser was a wealthy and skilled goldsmith who, noticing Richard to be clever and adroit, trained him as an apprentice. Richard became marvellously skilled at the trade earning the lasting respect of his master. Meanwhile, King William III had ascended the throne of England and as a matter of first action he sent an ambassador to Algiers to demand the immediate release of all British subjects. Upon learning the news of Richard's imminent release, the Moor offered Richard the hand of his only daughter in hope that he might stay. Richard declined and shortly thereafter departed for Galway where he began a new life as an independent jeweller, his most famous creation being the Claddagh ring – some of which, bearing Joyes distinctive jeweller's mark, still exist today.

Another account of the ring's origin attributes the ring to Margaret Joyce, the wealthy widow of a Spanish wine merchant who returned to Galway and married the city's governor somewhere around the year 1600. It is said that Margaret, being fond of philanthropy, built the greater portion of the bridges of Connaught with her own money. One day while overseeing the construction of the bridges an eagle flying overhead let the original Claddagh ring fall to her in reward for her extraordinary generosity.

As for the ring's association with the Claddagh, it might well have been an accident. Although the people of the Claddagh, which were known for their dislike of new things, astoundingly adopted the ring in a nearly universal fashion, there is little to suggest that the rings themselves first originated with the people of that small fishing community. Remarkably, the association may have come from the coincidental printing of a picture of the ring (then referred to as the 'Galway ring') and a description of the Claddagh on the same page of a British travel publication by Anne and Samuel Hall during the 1850's. But as with all things of this nature, there may well be far more to the truth than the evidence that we have, and anything is possible.

So it is that the true history of this, the most famous of Irish rings, remains elusive – always obscured by the cloak laid softly upon it by myth and folklore. But we would be wise to remember that this is precisely what enthrals our imagination the most. If we are lucky enough to look down upon a Claddagh ring on our own hand someday, we might capture a fleeting glimpse of the mystery and wonder that has decorated the saga of the ring with such poetic grandeur.

© Copyright Galway Online

Superstitions of various kinds.

We live in a world of technology. A fast moving world, yet despite all this superstitions have survived right up to the present day. There are still a great number of Irish people at home and abroad who still believe in superstition and the supernatural. After all isn’t that all religion is when you get right down to it? People may not like to admit it for fear of being ridiculed yet they continue to read the horoscopes, go to faith healers and psychics, they do the lotto and are even scared of the dark and graveyards at night. Things that go bump in the night? Here are a variety of superstitions that we have and maybe still believe in today.

Superstitions of various kinds.

A sick person’s bed must be placed north and south NOT cross ways.

The touch from the hand of a seventh son is said to cure the bite of a mad dog.

An Iron ring wore on the fourth finger will ward off rheumatism.

The seeds of docks tied to the left hand of a woman will prevent her from being barren.

To cure a fever place the person on the shore when the tide is coming in. When the tide begins to go back out the retreating waves will carry away the disease and the fever.

To make your skin beautiful wash your face with May dew on May morning (May Day) at sunrise.

For freckles anoint the face with the blood of a bull or a hare.

The Braon Bróghach or Bitter Drop. This was the first two cupfuls of poitín which came from the still after the brewing process was completed. It was very bitter but was invaluable as a liniment that was rubbed into painful, swollen joints. It was a tradition to spill a little onto the ground as an offering to the faeries. The remainder of those first two cups was put on one side to be used as and when required.

Carrying a piece of raw potato in the pocket relieves rheumatism.

A copper bracelet worn on the wrist is good for the relief of rheumatism.

A strip of red flannel known as a Swanskin was wrapped around the joints affected with rheumatism and around the body for backache, it is still used today in rural areas, the cure is said to be in the dye.

A badly burned or scalded child was plunged into the churn of buttermilk and of course there was always the dog’s lick, which had great curative powers.

Scalds were cured using a rotten stick. Dry the stick, break it into very fine pieces with a hammer, wrap a cloth around the pieces and apply to the scald.

Scalds were treated with the first snow of the year. The snow water was melted and kept.

Apply pieces of Cobweb to a cut to stem the bleeding.

A cure for a burn involved cutting a raw potato in two and then rubbing one half on the burn.

A cure for a burn. Put bread soda and lamp oil on it and it will cure the burn.

A cure for a burn. Country butter and egg yolk made into a paste and applied.

An old cure for toothache is a horseshoe nail. Prod the nail into the tooth and afterwards stick the nail into a wall and as long as the nail remains in the wall you will never have another toothache.

Warm salt water can relieve a sore throat.

Sore throat. Put a sock of bran on it.

Goose grease was used for chest infection.

If two people get married and they both have the same surname PRIOR to getting married, then when the woman makes bread, a piece of this bread will cure whooping cough.

Hiccups-Tickle the palm of your hand or get someone to frighten you or swallow a lump of sugar. All said to cure hiccups.

Nose bleeds. Put a cold piece of metal on the back of your neck and it will cure the nosebleed.

Concussion. Put a frog down the back of your neck and that will cure it.

Headache. Vinegar and brown paper on your forehead will cure it (remember the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill).

If a dog has the fits get castor oil and a few pennies, file the dust of the copper into the castor oil and make him drink it. This will cure the fit.

If you sleep in a graveyard for three nights then you will never have bad teeth.

If you had a corn on your foot put tar to it and this will cure it.

If you cut yourself, rub salt into it and this will cure it.

If you have a wart on your hand then rub it with water from the blacksmiths forge and this will cure it (ask the blacksmith for permission first).

Mix a little poitin with boiled milk and drink it down, It is said to be good for chest colds.

A large spoon of liquid paraffin will cure constipation.

Tuberculosis. Drink a cupful of linseed oil each day.

The Blacksmith and the Carpenter have a tradition of not setting horse shoes or handling nails on a Good Friday in respect for how they were used on that day.

Have a heart of gold but never a silver tongue.

To touch wood for luck/to knock on wood. The custom is thought to originate from Pagan times when trees were held in high esteem. People believed that 'wood spirits' inhabited the trees and woodlands. To touch a tree with respect is thought to indicate that the person was in search of protection from the particular wood spirit. There is, I’m told, an old Irish belief that you should knock on wood to let the little people know that you are thanking them for a bit of good luck. There’s also a belief that the knocking sound prevents the Devil from hearing your unwise comments.

The juice of deadly night-shade distilled, and given in a drink, will make the person who drinks believe whatever you will to tell him, and choose him to-believe.

The touch from the hand of a seventh son cures the bite of a mad dog.

The hand of a dead man was a powerful incantation, but it was chiefly used by women,
the most eminent fairy women always collected the mystic herbs for charms and cures by the light of a candle held by a dead man's hand at midnight or by the full moon.

When a family has been carried off by fever, the house where they died may be again inhabited with safety if a certain number of sheep are driven in to sleep there for three nights.

An iron ring worn on the fourth finger was considered effective against rheumatism by the Irish peasantry from ancient times.

If pursued at night by an evil spirit, or the ghost of one dead, and you hear footsteps behind you. Try and reach a stream of running water, for if you can cross it, no devil or ghost will be able to follow you.

Do not put out a light while people are at supper, or there will be one less at the table before the year is out.

It is unlucky to meet a cat, a dog, or a woman, when going out first in the morning; but unlucky above all is it to meet a woman with red hair the first thing in the morning when going on a journey, for her presence brings ill-luck and certain evil.

The cuttings of your hair should not be thrown where birds can find them; for they will take them to build their nests, and then you will have headaches all the year after.

If three drops of water are given to an infant before it is baptised, it will answer the first three questions put to it.

If one desires to know if a sick person will recover, take nine smooth stones from the,running water; fling them over the right shoulder, then lay them in a turf fire to remain untouched for one night. If the disease is to end fatally the stones in the morning will emit a clear sound like a bell when struck together.

A whitethorn stick is a very unlucky companion on a journey; but a hazel switch brings good luck and has power over the devil.

A hen that crows is very unlucky and should be killed; very often the hen is stoned, for it is believed that she is bewitched by the fairies.

When taking possession of a new house, everyone should bring in some present, however trifling, but nothing should be taken away, and a prayer should be said in each corner of your bedroom, and some article of your clothing be deposited there at the same time.

I shall be writing more on superstitions in later posts. With some of these superstitions there is an element of truth and we shall look at that also.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Superstitions surrounding death.

There are many Irish Superstitions. We Irish have always been a superstitious lot. These superstitions give the Irish a certain charm that no other people seem to have. However, what is a superstition? A superstition is anything that people believe that is based on myth, magic, or irrational thoughts. They are beliefs that are steeped in lore or tradition, and it is usually difficult to pinpoint the exact origin. Superstitions are also known as old wives' tales, legends, and traditions. Superstition is an integral part of almost every culture around the world.

Even people who do not believe in superstition may still pause before walking under a ladder, or may think of a wish when they see a falling star. People have good luck charms, such as a rabbit's foot or a lucky piece of jewellery. Superstitions, whether believed by a whole culture or just one person, still have some sway over people's lives, with or without having any actual power.

Here are some of the superstitions surrounding a death.

Superstition surrounding death.

When someone dies you should close the curtains because should a moonbeam shine through the window onto the corpse or coffin then the devil sends his demons down it to steal the soul.

Stop all clocks at the time of death to confuse the devil and give the soul time to reach heaven.

In Ireland the dead are carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him.

Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead.

Cover all mirrors at the time of a death in the house or the soul will be trapped within the mirror.

Magpies are the messengers of doom. If a magpie comes to a person’s door and looks at you, then you are doomed. This is the worst kind of omen and nothing can be done to avert the misfortune about to befall you.

Another superstition is that if a swarm of bees decide to desert a hive all of a sudden, a death is going to occur in the house.

If the deceased has lived a good life, flowers would bloom on his grave; but if he has been evil, only weeds would grow.

If several deaths occur in the same family, tie a black ribbon to everything left alive that enters the house, even dogs and chickens. This will protect against deaths spreading further.

Never wear anything new to a funeral, especially shoes.

If you smell roses when none are around someone is going to die.

If you see yourself in a dream, your death will follow.

If you see an owl in the daytime, there will be a death.

If you dream about a birth, someone you know will die.

If it rains in an open grave then someone in the family will die within the year.

If a bird pecks on your window or crashes into one that there has been a death.

If a picture falls off the wall, there will be a death of someone you know.

If you spill salt, throw a pinch of the spilt salt over your shoulder to prevent death.

Never speak ill of the dead because they will come back to haunt you or you will suffer misfortune.

Two deaths in the family means that a third is sure to follow.

The cry of a curlew or the hoot of an owl foretells a death.

A single snowdrop growing in the garden foretells a death.

Having only red and white flowers together in a vase (especially in hospital) means a death will soon follow.

Dropping an umbrella on the floor or opening one in the house means that there will be a death in the house.

A diamond-shaped fold in clean linen portends death.

A dog howling at night when someone in the house is sick is a bad omen. It can be reversed by reaching under the bed and turning over a shoe.

Sparrows carry the souls of the dead, it is considered unlucky to kill one.

You must hold your breath while going past a cemetery or you will breathe in the spirit of someone who has recently died.

If a woman is buried in black, she will return to haunt the family.

If a dead person's eyes are left open, he'll find someone to take with him.

Mirrors in a house with a corpse should be covered or the person who sees himself will die next.

Ivy growing on a headstone stops the soul from resting.

If any one takes ill at Whitsuntide there is great danger of death, for the evil spirits are on the watch to carry off victims, and no sick person should be left alone at this time, nor in the dark. Light is a great safeguard, as well as fire, against malevolent influences.

The souls of the dead who may happen to die abroad, greatly desire to rest in Ireland. The relations consider it their duty to bring back the body to be laid in Irish earth. However, even then the dead will not rest peaceably unless laid with their forefathers and their own people, and not amongst strangers.

A young girl happened to die of a fever while away on a visit to some friends, and her father thought it safer not to bring her home, but to have her buried in the nearest churchyard. However, a few nights after his return home, he was awakened by a mournful wail at the window, and a voice cried, "I am alone; I am alone; I am alone!" Then the poor father knew well what it meant, and he prayed in the name of God that the spirit of his dead child might rest in peace until the morning. And when the day broke he arose and set off to the strange burial ground, and there he drew the coffin from, the earth, and had it carried all the way back from Cork to Mayo; and after he had laid time dead in the old graveyard beside his people and his kindred, the spirit of his child had rest, and the mournful cry was never heard again.

Many strange spells are affected by the means of a dead man's hand, chiefly to produce butter in the churn. The milk is stirred round nine times with the dead hand, the operator crying aloud all the time, "Gather! gather! gather." While a secret form of words is used which none but the initiated know.

Another use is to facilitate robberies. If a candle is placed in a dead hand, neither wind nor water can extinguish it. If carried into a house the inmates will sleep the sleep of the dead as long as it remains under the roof, and no power on earth can wake them while the dead hand holds the candle.

For a mystic charm, one of the strongest known is the hand of an unbaptised infant fresh taken from the grave in the name of the Evil One.

A dead hand is a certain cure for most diseases, and many a time sick people have been brought to a house where a corpse lay that the hand of the dead might be laid on them.

The corner of a sheet that has wrapped a corpse is 'a cure for headache if tied round the head.

The ends of candles used at wakes are of great efficacy in curing burns.

A piece of linen wrap taken from a corpse will cure the swelling of a limb if tied round the part affected.

It is believed that the spirit of the dead last buried has to watch in the churchyard until another corpse is laid there; or has to perform menial offices in the spirit world, such as carrying wood and water until the next spirit comes from earth. They are also sent on messages to earth, chiefly to announce the coming death of some relative, and at this they are glad, for then their time of peace and rest will come at last.

If anyone stumbles at a grave it is a bad omen; but if he falls and touches the clay, he will assuredly die before the year is out.

Any one meeting a funeral must turn back and walk at least four steps with the mourners.

If the nearest relative touches the hand of a corpse it will utter a wild cry if not quite dead.

On Twelfth Night the dead walk, and on every tile of the house a soul is sitting, waiting for your prayers to take it out of purgatory.

There are many strange superstitions in the western islands of Connemara. At night the dead can be heard laughing with the fairies and spinning the flax. One girl declared that she distinctly heard her dead mother's voice singing a mournful Irish air away down in the heart of the hill. However, after a year and a day the voices cease, and the dead are gone forever.

It is a custom in the West, when a corpse is carried to the grave, for the bearers to stop half way, while the nearest relatives build up a small monument of loose stones, and no hand would ever dare to touch or disturb this monument while the world lasts.

When the grave is dug, a cross is made of two spades, and the coffin is carried round it three times before being placed in the clay. Then the prayers for the dead are said, all the people kneeling with uncovered head.

The corpse was wrapped in a shroud or winding-sheet also called esléne which is derived from es, death, and léne, a shirt called a 'death-shirt. Taken either by a cart drawn by an oxen. The deal coffin being a later edition and this then gave the men who carried the man a handle to hold and in then came the edition of a black coach and black horses with plumes of black feathers, allowing of course that one could afford the fee. And in later times the man made hearse driven by man himself. In Ireland today the people turn out to walk the coffin to the Church where it is rested, until the following days service, and it is then, yet again that the folk turn out and walk behind the hearse to the graveside.


Occasionally the bodies of kings and chieftains were buried in a standing posture, arrayed in full battle costume, with the face turned towards the territories of their enemies. In 1848 a tumulus called Croghan Erin in the County Meath was opened, and a skeleton was found under it standing up. The pagan Irish believed that while the body of their king remained in this position, it exercised a malign influence on their enemies, who were thereby always defeated in battle.

Finally, the custom of placing candles on or around the coffin come from the belief that you were lighting the way to paradise for the corpse. This continued as you walked with the coffin to its final resting place. The tradition of walking slowly behind or on either side of the coffin came about because you walked slowly so the candles would not blow out. There is always a simple explanation.

Superstitions about sea faring folk.

Empathy with nature is very much part of the Irish myth and nowhere is this as true as when you put out to sea. Below are some of the superstitions surrounding the sea and fisher folk. Some you may know some you may not,

Superstitions at sea.

Almost any fisherman will tell you that having a woman on board the ship makes the seas angry and is an omen of bad luck for everyone aboard. It was traditionally believed that women were not as physically or emotionally capable as men. Therefore, they had no place at sea. It was also observed that when women were aboard, men were prone to distraction or other vices that may take away from their duties. This, among other things, would anger the seas and doom the ship. Interestingly enough, there is a way to counter this effect. While having a woman on board would anger the sea, having a “naked” woman on board would calm the sea. Imagine that. This is why many vessels have a figure of a woman on the bow of the ship, this figure almost always being bare-breasted. It was believed that a woman’s bare breasts would “shame” the stormy seas into calm. Crafty bunch them fishermen.

It is believed that Friday is the worst possible day to start a journey on a boat and no enterprise can succeed which commences on that day. The most well known reason for the dislike of Friday is because it is believed that Christ was crucified on a Friday. Therefore, this day must be observed and respected and will be unlucky for anyone who attempts to go about business as usual. Many fishermen state that various ships lost at sea disembarked on a Friday. While Friday is the worst day to begin your journey, Sunday is the best possible day to begin a voyage. This observation is due to Christ’s resurrection on a Sunday, a good omen. It has led to the adage, “Sunday sail, never fail”

Black travelling bags are bad luck for a seaman. Black is the colour of death and indicative of the depths of the sea. Modern day body bags??

Avoid people with red hair when going to the ship to begin a journey. Red heads bring bad luck to a ship, which can be averted if you speak to the red-head before they speak to you.

A silver coin placed under the masthead ensures a successful voyage.

Disaster will follow if you step onto a boat with your Left Foot first.

Pouring wine on the deck will bring good luck on a long voyage. An offering to the gods.

Throwing stones into the sea will cause great waves and storms. A sign of disrespect to the sea, ensuring retaliation in the form of stormy seas.

A stone thrown over a vessel that is putting out to sea ensures she will never return. A sign of disrespect to the sea, dooming the ship and all aboard.

Flowers are unlucky onboard a ship. They could later be used to make a funeral wreath for the dead, therefore, becoming a symbol that someone could die on the voyage.

Priests are not lucky to have on a ship. They dress in black and perform funeral services. They are a symbol of possible death and anything that makes you think of death or dying is a bad omen.

Don’t look back once your ship has left port as this can bring bad luck. Looking back to port implies that you are not truly ready to brave the seas and complete your voyage, bringing about bad luck on yourself and the ship.

A dog seen near fishing tackle is bad luck.

Black cats are considered good luck and will bring a sailor home from the sea. While black is the colour of death, and black bags or clothing are harbingers of doom, black cats are considered lucky on the sea. Mostly this is believed to be the result of the opposite effect of land based superstition, where a black cat is unlucky.

Swallows seen at sea are a good sign. Swallows are a land based bird and seeing them at sea implies that land is near and your prospects are clear.

Sighting a curlew at sea is considered bad luck.

A cormorant sighted at sea is bad luck.

Dolphins swimming with the ship are a sign of good luck. Dolphins are considered a sacred friend of fishermen, they have the good fortunes of man in mind and their presence indicates that you are under their protection.

It is unlucky to kill an albatross. They host the soul of dead sailors and are considered to be an omen of bad luck at sea, especially if killed.

It is unlucky to kill a gull. They also contain the souls of sailors lost at sea.

Handing a flag through the rungs of a ladder is bad luck.

Cutting your hair or nails at sea is bad luck. These were used as offerings to Proserpina, and Neptune will become jealous if these offerings are made while in his kingdom.

Church Bells heard at sea mean someone on the ship will die.

St. Elmo’s fire around a sailors head means he will die within a day.

When the clothes of a dead sailor are worn by another sailor during the same voyage, misfortune will befall the entire ship.

Never say the word Drowned at sea.

The caul off the head of a new-born child is protection against drowning and will bring the owner good luck.

The feather of a wren slain on New Year’s Day will protect a sailor from dying by shipwreck.

A ships bell will always ring when it is wrecked.

A shark following the ship is a sign of inevitable death. Sharks were believed to be able to sense those near death.

A sailor who died from violence or being lost at sea was said to go to “Davy Jone’s Locker”.

A sailor with over 50 years of service was said to go to “Fiddler’s Green” when he died.

If a bride steers a boat on the day of her marriage, the winds and the waves have no power over it, be the tempest ever so fierce or the stream ever so rapid.

There are many more superstitions concerning the sea and fisher folk and at some stage in the future I will add those on another posting. Until then Keep your sails dry and the wind at your back better still stay ashore.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Autumn Equinox.

Autumn Equinox:

The Autumnal Equinox signals the end of the summer months and the beginning of winter. At this time of year, days have been shortening since the Summer Solstice some three months earlier, and the Equinox is the point where nights reach the same length as days. After this point, the Sun will shine lower and lower on the horizon until the Winter Solstice in about three months' time.

The Autumn Equinox is a time of harvesting and preparation. It is a time to reflect on your life and to start making plans for the future. The main agricultural harvest has been gathered and all that is left are the late fruits, berries and nuts.

As plants wither, their energy goes into the hidden roots and nourishes the Earth. The leaves of trees turn from green to red, brown and gold - symbolic of the sinking Sun as nature prepared for winter. This is the time of balance between the outer and the inner worlds. From now on, we should turn towards nurturing our own roots, pondering our inner lives and planning for the long-term. Thoughts can be seeded, gradually growing in the unconscious until they can emerge in the spring. It is the drawing in of family as we prepare for the winding down of the year at Samhain. It is a time to finish old business as we ready for a period of rest, relaxation, and reflection.

A time of celebration for the bounty of the earth and a time of balance reflecting on the equal length of both day and night. Hospitality is another tradition common for this time of the year as in times past you never knew when your neighbour might have to provide food for your family if your own supplies ran low during the winter months. Weak and old animals and livestock were often slaughtered at this time of year to preserve winter feed stocks.

A lovely place to visit at the time of the Equinox is Loughcrew and here is a short description. If you get the chance go and check it out, you won’t regret it.

Loughcrew (Irish: Loch Craobh) is near Oldcastle, County Meath, Ireland. (Sometimes written Lough Crew). Loughcrew is a site of considerable historical importance in Ireland. It is the site of megalithic burial grounds dating back to approximately 3500 and 3300 BC, situated near the summit of Sliabh Na Caillí. Lough Crew Passage Tomb Cemetery is one of the big four passage tomb sites in Ireland (the others are Bru Na Boinne, Carrowkeel and Carrowmore).

The sites consist of cruciform chambers covered in most instances by a mound. A unique style of megalithic petroglyphs are seen there, including lozenge shapes, leaf shapes as well as circles. The site has three parts; two are on hilltops, Carnbane East and Carnbane West. The other, less well preserved cairn is at Patrickstown. The Irish name for the site is Sliabh Na Caílli, which means mountains of the witch, and legend has it that the monuments were created when a witch flying overhead dropped her cargo of large stones from her apron.

The orthostats and structural stones of the monuments tend to be from local green gritstone, which was soft enough to carve, but which is also vulnerable to vandalism. There is a widespread belief that Cairn T in Carnbane East is directed to receive the beams of the sun at sunrise on the autumn Equinox - with light entering and illuminating the art on the backstone.

Autumn Equinox.

Most people want to be the sun that brightens up your day
But I’d rather be the moon that shines down on you in your darkest hour
For as the days shorten and harvest drifts away
The fire draws us in and warms us with its power

It is time to reflect upon the past and to look deep within your soul
Are you content with what you have achieved this year?
Have you worked towards your chosen goal, or goals?
Have you shared laughter, have you shared tears?

It’s the Autumn Equinox, equal day, and equal night,
And the sunset’s a glorious pink
The moon battling the sun, begins to win the fight
It’s getting colder now, as into the west it sinks.

The earth is growing tired and prepares to go to sleep
And winter will rule now the battle is done
But the seed that lies dormant, buried deep
Awaits the spring and the warmth of the rising sun.

© Antoine O’Lochlainn 2008 (Ciúnas).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Animals in Celtic Cultural Belief.

Animals in Celtic Culture.

Nearly all shamanic cultures believe in Animal Allies or helpers. These creatures have the appearance and many of the characteristics and behaviour patterns of ordinary animals, birds, and fish, but they can communicate with the shaman. Sometimes these animals become protectors and guides for the shaman, both while she/he is journeying in the Otherworld and in the physical realm.

The Celts believed in individual Animal Allies or helpers, as shown by their legends, but they also had clan animals. Many of the Celtic clan names reflected this. Among the Native Americans these would be called totem animals. The Celtic clans had banners on which were displayed the picture or symbol of their clan animal, as with the banners of the Fianna. Individual devices were painted on shields and sometimes tattooed on the body. This may well be the origin of the heraldic devices that became so popular in later times.

Clan animals, like the individual Animal Allies, choose you; you do not choose them. The ancient shamanic way of finding an Animal Ally was to go on a journey to the Otherworld. There, the shaman watched it carefully; when she/he saw an animal, bird, fish, or other creature three or more times during the journey, the shaman knew she/he had been accepted by that creature. Although a shaman usually has one very important Animal Ally who is a close companion and protector during journeying, it is common to have several others who help with certain kinds of problems.

The following list gives many of the animals known to the Celts and told of in their legends and myths. By reading about their specific helping gifts, the shaman can understand why an animal might make an appearance during a meditation or journey. The animal may appear because the shaman needs help with a particular personal problem or trait, an immediate shamanic problem, or some event that will occur in the future. Animal Allies come and go, sometimes without explanation.

Adder, Snake (Nathair): The snake has long been associated with wisdom, reincarnation, and cunning. The poisonous adder of the British Isles has the same reputation. The Druids were known in Wales as Nadredd; in the Fold of the Bards, Taliesin says "I am a wiseman, I am a serpent". The Druids carried an amulet called gloine nathair (serpent glass); although they said that this was formed by snakes, it was probably really an adder stone or blown glass. In the Scottish Highlands, the adder symbolized the Cailleach's power.

Badger (Broc): This animal is unyielding in the face of danger and is noted for its tenacity and courage. In the Welsh tale of Pwyll's courting of Rhiannon, a badger is mentioned as a guide during dreaming.

Bat (Ialtag): Associated with the Underworld; as the bat's radar helps it to avoid obstacles and barriers, so it can teach you to do the same thing.

Bear (Arth): Although the bear was native to the Isles, it is now extinct there. Evidence of its being a totem animal is found in many Celtic designs; although it is not mentioned in the legends. The word "arth", which means "bear", is the root word for the name Arthur. The bear was noted for its strength and stamina.

Bee (Beach): The bee is usually mentioned in connection with honey and mead, which was made from honey. The bee is industrious, single-minded when performing a task, and fearless when defending its home.

Blackbird (Druid-dhubh, Lon Dubh): Legend says that the birds of Rhiannon are three blackbirds, which sit and sing in the World Tree of the Otherworld’s. Their singing puts the listener in to a sleep or trance which enables her/him to go to the Otherworld’s. It was said to impart mystic secrets.

Boar (Bacrie, Torc): Important to the art and myths of the Celtic peoples, the boar was known for its cunning and ferocious nature. Once common throughout the British Isles. A famous Irish legendary boar was Orc Triath, which the Goddess Brigit owned. In the Arthurian tales of the Mabinogion the boar Twrch Trwyth was a terrible foe to Arthur. The White Boar of Marvan sent inspiration to its master to write music and poetry.

Bull (Tarbh): A common animal-figure in Celtic mythology, the bull symbolized strength and potency. Certain divination rituals required the sacrifice of a white bull. In the tale of the Tain Bo Cuilgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley), two special bulls are coveted by two rulers. The Taroo-Ushtey (Water Bull) is said to haunt the Isle of Man.

Butterfly (Dealan-Dé: Many cultures call butterflies the souls of the dead and the keepers of power. No negative energies will be experienced in any Otherworld area where you see butterflies. They will teach you to free yourself form self-imposed restrictions and to look at problems with greater clarity.

Cat (Caoit, Cat): Many of the Celtic legends pictured the cat as a ferocious, evil creature, but that may have been because cats at that time were untamed. However, it was considered a potent totem animal of several clans; Caithness was named after the clan of the Catti. In Ireland Finn mac Cumhail was said to have fought a clan of "cat-headed" people, probably Celts who wore cat skins on their helmets. The cat is a strong protector, especially when facing a confrontational situation.

Cock (Coileach): In several Celtic legends, the cock chases away ghosts and other night terrors by his crowing at dawn. It represents the power of the word to dispel negativity.

Cow (Bo): Once so important to the Celts that it was considered a form of currency or monetary exchange. Ancient Irish lords were known as bo-aire or cow-lord. The cow was sacred to the Goddess Brigit. The cow symbolizes contentedness, defending the inner child, and providing for daily needs.

Crane (Corr): At one time the crane was a common animal in the British Isles. One late Celtic tradition, apparently originated after the arrival of Christianity, is that cranes are people who are paying a penance for wrong-doing. The crane is associated with the Cailleach and Manannan mac Lir, who made his crane bag from its skin. The crane, with its colours of black, white, and red, was a Moon bird, sacred to the Triple Goddess. Magic, shamanic travel, learning and keeping secrets, reaching deeper mysteries and truths.

Crow (Badb, Rocas): This animal is to be treated with care. Along with the raven, the crow is a symbol of conflict and death, an ill-omen associated with such Goddess as Macha, Badb, and the Morrigan. The Irish word for crow is badb, which is also the name of a Celtic war Goddess. Although the crow was ill-omened, it was also considered to be skilful, cunning, single-minded, and a bringer of knowledge. It is of value when trickery is needed. It also teaches you to learn from the past, but not hold onto it.

Deer (Fiadh) or Stag (Sailetheach, Damh): In its form of the White Doe or White Stag, the deer was often a messenger and guide from the Otherworld’s. Following such an animal led the unsuspecting human into contact with supernatural beings. The antlered headdress of Cernunnos may have been copied by Celtic shamans as apparel in their rituals. The deer represents keen scent, grace swiftness, and gentleness. There are ways of reaching your goals other than force.

Dog (Abach, Madadh) or Hound (Cù): Devoted hounds are often mentioned in Celtic myths, such as Bran and Sceolan which belonged to Finn mac Cumhail. Underworld hounds, such as the Welsh Cwn Annwn belonging to Arawn, are always white with red ears. The Underworld Hounds run down and punish the guilty. Dogs represent tracking skills, the ability to scent a trail, and companionship.

Dolphin: This creature was associated with sea deities. It deals with dreams and harmony, and recognizing and balancing the rhythms of your body with those of nature.

Eagle (Iolair, Fireun): A bird noted for wisdom and long life in Celtic stories. The eagle represents swiftness, strength, keen sight, and the knowledge of magic. It helps you to see hidden spiritual truths.

Eel (Eas-Ganu): The eel is mentioned in several Celtic legends, one of which is the story of the two swineherds who battled through a variety of shape-shifting forms. In their final form as eels, the swineherds were swallowed by cows that later gave birth to magical bulls. Cu Chulainn's spear Gae-Bolga got its name from the eel. The Morrigan took on the form of an eel when she had a magical battle with the hero. The eel symbolizes adaptability, wisdom, inspiration, and defence.

Fox (Madadh-Ruadh, Sionnach): In Taliesin's Song of His Origins, the Bard says he assumed the shape of a satirizing fox, a reference to the cunning, slyness, and ability of the fox to make fools out of those who chase it. The ability to watch the motivations and movements of others while remaining unobserved yourself.

Frog (Losgrinn): In many cultures the frog is a symbol of shamanism and magic. It can teach you to leap swiftly from one level of consciousness to another, from this world to the Otherworld’s. The frog can also help you find the courage to accept new ideas, nurture yourself, and find connections between ideas.

Hare (Gèarr) or Rabbit (Coinean): An animal sacred to the Goddess Andraste in particular. Its movements were sometimes used for divination; Boadicea used a hare this way just before her last battle with the Romans. Associated with transformation, the receiving of hidden teachings, and intuitive messages.

Hawk (Seabhag): Celtic oral tradition lists the oldest animal as the hawk of Achill. As with other birds, the hawk is a messenger between the Otherworld’s and this world. However, it is of greater skill and strength than other birds. It symbolizes clear-sightedness and far-memory. If you hear a hawk cry during a journey, be alert to upcoming situations that need boldness and decisiveness to keep from being thrown off balance.

Hedgehog: This prickly little creature often shows a need for less defensiveness and seriousness. Appreciate life more.

Heron (Corra-Griothach): Many of the myths and attributes of the crane are shared by this bird.

Horse (Each): A popular totem animal of the Celts; sacred to the Goddesses Epona and Rhiannon. The horse was considered to be a faithful guide to the Otherworld’s. It symbolizes stamina, endurance, and faithfulness.

Lizard (Dearc): One of the few reptiles recognized as helpful to the shaman. It symbolizes the shadowy plane of manifestation where events are constantly changing shapes and patterns. If you see a lizard on a journey, be alert to all below-the-surface activities going on around you.

Magpie (Pioghaid): This bird deals with omens and prophecies; the mysteries of life and death.

Mouse (Luch): The mouse is often mentioned in Celtic folklore. In one Welsh story concerning Manawydan and Pryderi, a mouse is portrayed as the shape-shifted wife of the magician Llwyd. The mouse represents secrets, cunning, shyness, the ability to hide in times of danger. Its appearance often signals a need to pay attention to small details, such as the fine print in contracts or the double meaning in words.

Otter (Cù-dubh,Dòbhran,Dobharchú,madra uisce): These animals were considered very magical by the Celts. During the voyages of Maelduine, Brendan and others, these travelling Celts were met by helpful otters. The otter is a strong protector who helps with gaining wisdom, finding inner treasures or valuable talents, faithfulness, and the ability to recover from any crisis. Enjoy life instead of just enduring it.

Owl (Cailleach, Oidhche, Comachag): These birds were most often associated with the Crone aspect of the Goddess. The word "cailleach" in the Scottish-Gaelic means "owl". The owl is often a guide to and through the Underworld, a creature of keen sight in darkness, and a silent and swift hunter. It can help unmask those who would deceive you or take advantage of you.

Pig (Muc): It was considered to be the magical, sacred food the Tuatha de Danann and an animal of Manannan mac Lir. In the Mabinogion Pwyll received a gift of pigs from the Underworld god Arawn. The writings of Merlin say that he spoke with a little pig in visions. Symbolic of the spiritual food necessary to the shaman.

Rat (Radan): Rats are not mentioned in a favourable light in Celtic folklore, but they have their place in shamanic journeys. Rats are sly, sometimes aggressive, creatures who can track down whatever they seek, defending themselves with great ferociousness.

Raven (Fitheach): Take care when dealing with this bird. An important totem animal of the Celts. In Ireland the raven was associated with the battlefields and such goddesses as the Morrigu or later Welsh Morrigan, just as was the crow. The bird was connected with Bran the Blessed; in Welsh bran means "raven". Although its reputation is dubious, it is an oracular bird. It often represents the upsets and crises of life that are necessary for anything new to be created.

Salmon (Bradan): A very wise, magical creature in Celtic lore. A salmon of great knowledge is said to swim in the Well of Segais, eating the mystical hazelnuts that fall into the well. This salmon is said to be as old as time itself and knows everything past and future. When the Irish hero Finn mac Cumhail burned his thumb on a salmon and then put the thumb in his mouth, he gained shamanic knowledge. The salmon teaches you how to get in touch with ancestral knowledge and put it to practical use.

Seagull (Faoilleann): Seagulls do not figure in Celtic legends. However, they are connected to sea deities, such as the god Manannan mac Lir and the goddess Don. Like other birds, they are messengers from the Otherworld’s.

Sow (Airc, Muc): The Goddess Cerridwen is known as the White Sow. the sow was considered a very powerful creature in the Otherworld’s, particularly the Underworld. As a creature of Cerridwen, it was associated with the Sacred Cauldron and the granting of inspiration; also a creature of death and rebirth.

Squirrel (Feòrag): This creature is always preparing for the future; it can show the shaman how to do this in a practical way. Sometimes its appearance heralds changes, even adversities. Plan ahead so that you have time, resource, and energy stored.

Swan (Eala): A mystical bird who figures in several Celtic stories. Its feathers were often used in the ritual cloak of the Bards. Swans are connected with music and song. Swans also help with the interpretation of dream symbols, transitions, and spiritual evolution.

Wolf (Madadh-alluidh): The wolf is a cunning, intelligent creature, capable of out-thinking hunters. It can teach you how to read the signs of Nature in everything, how to pass by danger invisibly, how to outwit those who wish you harm, and how to fight when needed. Sometimes the world, seen on a journey, will lead you to a spiritual teacher and guide.

Wren (Dreathan-Donn, Dreòlan): A sacred bird to the Druids, its musical notes were used for divination. As with many other birds, the wren was considered a messenger from the deities.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cromm Cruaich, Crom Dubh. Lord of The Mound.

Cromm Cruaich - The Bloody Crescent

Copyright © 2001, Pàdraig MacIain

Here once dwelt
A high idol of many fights,
The Cromm Cruaich by name,
And deprived every tribe of peace.

Without glory in his honour,
they would sacrifice their wretched children
With much lamentation and danger,
Pouring their blood around Cromm Cruaich.

Milk and corn
they would urgently desire of him,
In barter for one third of their healthy offspring-
Their horror of him was great.

To him the noble Goidels (Gaels)
Would prostrate themselves;
From the bloody sacrifices offered him
The plain is called the 'Plain of Adoration'. (Mag Slecht)

They did evilly,
Beat on their palms, thumping their bodies,
Wailing to the monster who enslaved them,
Their tears falling in showers.

In a rank stand
Twelve idols of stone;
bitterly to enchant the people
The figure of Cromm was of gold.

From the reign of Heremon,
the Noble and Graceful,
Such worshipping of stones there was
Until the coming of Good Patrick of Macha.

The poem above is known as a dindshenchas, a type poem used to tell a story about the origins of the names of places within Ireland. This particular one has been found in the Book of Leinster, of Ballymote and of Lecan. It speaks of an idol, of a god named Cromm (Cromm Cruaich), who was struck down with the coming of Patrick to Ireland. It has gone by various names, Cromm Cruaich, Cenn Cróich, and as Crom Dubh (within modern Irish folklore).

The Cromm name (The etymology of which is agreed means bent or crooked one) appears to be a name given to him after the coming of Patrick. Prior to Patrick's arrival the name Cenn was used (which means in Old Irish head or lord). The name 'The Bloody Crescent' has also been associated with him. His idol which stood on Mag Slecht ('The Plain of Adoration', which is in the North West of Co. Cavan, Ireland) is reported to have been the centre of regular sacrifices, performed on the eve of Samhain. Where the sun's power waned and the gods of the winter and the underworld grew stronger. This idol was reported as once being either made from gold or a stone covered in gold and was surrounded by twelve other stones. It is here that the mythic king of Ireland, Tiernmas (who is credited with introducing the worship of Cenn to his people) along with three quarters of his followers died suddenly, on Samhain eve, while worshipping Cromm.

It is also interesting to note that Tiernmas is credited with being the first to smelt gold and silver within Ireland, and his people were the first humans (decendents of the sons of Mil) to discover the process of dying clothes (Previously, it seems only the Gods, the Tuatha de Dannan, knew how to dye clothes). It could be speculated that it was some inspiration granted by Cenn that Tiernmas discovered these skills which were otherwise reserved for the Gods. This in itself might be an echo of the Ancient Greek mythology about Prometheus, and his sharing of fire with mortals.

We have very little evidence of what seems to have been a very powerful god. What we do know is recorded by Christian monks during an era of medieval Ireland, which only seems to cover the destruction of the idol and its apparent blood-thirstiness. Was Cenn, a deity from the dawn of time whose strength was so great that he influenced race after race of people that came to his land? Did the destruction of one of his idols spell the end of his strength? Or was it merely a strategy where by his worshippers could escape persecution.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Rabbit and the Hare.

The Rabbit and the Hare.


The belief of animism was also integral to tribal belief, animism is the understanding that all things in nature possess a spirit and presence of their own, so that rocks trees and the land were things to be learned from - as well as the ancestral spirits, who acted as guides for the future well-being of the tribe (although some beliefs about time were radically different to our own understanding).

Considering a rabbit's foot lucky is actually an ancient tradition in much of the world. At least as far back as the 7th century BCE, the rabbit was a talismanic symbol in Africa, and in Celtic Europe, rabbits were considered lucky as well. Thus keeping a part of the rabbit was considered good fortune, and a rabbit's foot was a handy means by which to benefit from the luck of the rabbit.

These traditions were not marred much by the onset of other more prominent religions like Christianity. Even in the strongly Catholic Ireland of the Middle Ages, there were still superstitious beliefs regarding fairies or the Tuatha De Danaan who resided underground. Gradually, as Christianity spread in Ireland, the old Gods of Celtic belief became associated with hell. Rabbits were thought to have special protective powers needed for residing underground. Thus the rabbit's foot could be protection from evil spirits, and is even considered so today.

Other ancient groups imbued the rabbit's foot with specific forms of luck. To the Chinese, a rabbit's foot may be a symbol of prosperity. Also the known proclivity for rabbits to reproduce quickly and breed often has been noted in numerous cultures past and present. The rabbit’s foot can be carried by women who wish to get pregnant, or who wish to enhance their sexual lives. Sexuality in general is also related to the wish for abundance, fertile crops, and good weather.

Some traditions of how to collect a rabbit's foot state that they're only lucky when taken from cross-eyed rabbits living in graveyards. On the night of a full moon, you must shoot the rabbit with a silver bullet. Further, only the left hind foot is lucky in many traditions. If you can manage all that you don’t need a rabbit’s foot. You must be the luckiest person around.

Hares feature in Irish folklore, and the hare is older than our island’s culture itself. The Irish hare has been immortalised as the animal gracing the Irish pre-decimal three pence piece. Hare mythology exists throughout almost every ancient culture and when the first settlers colonised Ireland, the Irish hare was already an iconic figure. There are many examples in Celtic mythology, and storytellers still relate tales of women who can shape-change into hares. The cry of the Banshee foretelling death might be legend but it may have parallels with the Irish hare of today as it struggles to avoid extinction in modern times.

For ancient communities that had struggled to survive the winter with limited food reserves, eggs were often the first of nature’s bounty to save them from starvation. No wonder then that the hare was revered as a symbol of life and endowed with magical powers.

In some parts of Ireland hares continue to be celebrated. The legendary ‘White Hare of Creggan’ can be seen at the An Creagan Visitor Centre in County Tyrone and its white silhouette still adorns local houses.

The Celts believed that the goddess Eostre's favourite animal and attendant spirit was the hare. It represented love, fertility and growth and was associated with the Moon, dawn and Easter, death, redemption and resurrection. Eostre changed into a hare at the full Moon. The hare was sacred to the White Goddess, the Earth Mother, and as such was considered to be a royal animal. Boudicca was said to have released a hare as a good omen before each battle and to divine the outcome of battle by the hare's movements. She took a hare into battle with her to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak.

The Celtic warrior Oisin hunted a hare and wounded it in the leg, forcing it to seek refuge in a clump of bushes. When Oisin followed it he found a door leading into the ground and he eventually emerged into a huge hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a wound in her leg. The transmigration of the soul is clearly seen in Celtic lore such as this, the life of the body is not the end of the spirit, this is understood to take other forms successively.

In Europe there are wide-spread remnants of a cult of a hare goddess and man has for centuries feared the hare because of the supernatural powers with which he has endowed her solitude, her remoteness and her subtle, natural skills. Active at night, symbolic of the intuitive, and the fickleness of the moon, the hare is an emblem of inconstancy. Like the moon which is always changing places in the sky, hares have illogical habits and are full of mystery and contradictions. Certainly it has never been regarded as an ordinary creature in any part of the world, and in ancient Egypt the hare was used as a Hieroglyph for the word denoting existence

Many divergent cultures link the hare with the moon and Buddhists have a saying about the "shadow of the hare in the moon" instead of the man in the moon. They see the hare as a resurrection symbol. The moon is perhaps the most manifest symbol of this universal becoming, birth, growth, reproduction, death and rebirth. The moon disappears, dies and is born again, and this underlies most primitive initiation rites, that a being must die before he can be born again on a higher spiritual level.

The symbol of the hare was used deliberately to transfer old pagan religion into a Christian context, and the Albrecht Durer woodcut of the Holy Family (1471-1 528) clearly depicts three hares at the family’s feet. Later superstition changed the Easter hare into the Easter rabbit or bunny, far less threatening than the ancient pagan symbol and very few people will be aware that the hare ever held such standing.

As the ancient beliefs died, superstitions about the hare were rife and many witches were reported to have hares as their familiars.

Today we talk of a lucky rabbit's foot but for many generations a hare's paw or foot was used as a charm against evil, a throw-back to the long forgotten belief in Eostre the Celtic dawn goddess.

When you next see hares boxing in the fields, remember that they are not simply soft cute animals. They carry millennia of mythology, folklore and tradition with them. Mankind's reverence has helped them to shape the rituals and traditions that we still celebrate across the world.