Friday, May 27, 2011

The Otter. Madra Uisce.

The Otter. Madra Uisce.

The otter lives along riverbanks and beside lakes all around Ireland. It is very good at swimming and diving. The otter has a small-flattened head, a long thick neck and a thick tail that narrows to a point. It can be 3 feet in length, which is about a metre and when they are fully grown up they can weigh about 20 lbs. It has a long body covered with fur. It belongs to the same family as the stoat, pine marten and badger. The otter looks like a seal. The otter is a carnivore, which means that he usually eats meat and often eats shellfish. To get at the shellfish,the otter bangs it against a stone. This way he can get at the food inside. The otter is found in many parts of Ireland. Otters are very playful animals. It has a grey to brown thick coat of fur, which helps it swim well in water. They are often seen jumping in and out of water just for fun,

The Dobhar-chu (see my post 26th-Oct-2010).

In Irish folklore, the Dobhar-chu (say durra-ghoo) is the king of all otters, the seventh cub of an ordinary otter. It is said to be much larger than a normal otter, and it never sleeps. The king of all otters is so magical that an inch of its fur will protect a man from being killed by gunshot, stop a boat from sinking or stop a horse from being injured.

The Dobhar-chu is also often said to be accompanied by a court of ordinary otters. When captured, these beasts would grant any wish in exchange for their freedom. Their skins were also prized for their ability to render a warrior invincible, and were thought to provide protection against drowning. Luckily, the Otter Kings were hard to kill, their only vulnerable point being a small point below their chin,(first you had to get past those sharp teeth). There are also traditions of the "King Otter", who is dangerous, and will devour any animal or beast that comes in its way. This otter is sometimes described as white with black rimmed ears and a black cross on his back, and sometimes as pure black with a spot of white on his belly. He could only be killed by a silver bullet and the person who killed him would die within 24 hours.

It was believed that if you were bitten by an otter then the only cure was to kill and eat another otter.

The otter is protected under Irish law and it is a criminal offense to kill one.

The otter is a loyal mate and a good parent who will after its cubs for longer than most other animals and for this reason is a symbol of a strong family.

The otter is sacred to the Irish sea god Manannan Mac Lir and the goddess Ceridwen.
Irish harps used to be carried in bags made from otter skin as it protected them from getting wet.

A warrior’s shield would be covered in otter skin (lining the inside) and in this way they protected the warrior in battle.

It was believed that the magical power of the otter’s skin could be used for healing. It was used to cure fever, smallpox and as an aid in childbirth.

If a person licked the still warm liver of a dead otter they would receive the power to heal burns or scalds by licking them.

The Wounded Otter.

by Michael Hartnett - translated from the Irish by the Author
From 20th Century Irish poems selected by Michael Longley. Published by Faber and Faber.

A wounded otter on a bare rock a bolt in her side,
stroking her whiskers stroking her feet.
Her ancestors told her once that there was river,
a crystal river, a waterless bed.

They also said there were trout there
fat as tree-trunks and kingfishers
bright as blue spears -
men without cinders in their boots,
men without dogs on leashes.

She did not notice the world die nor the sun expire,
She was already swimming at ease in the magic crystal river

One of his country's best-loved poets, Irish born Michael Hartnett, died in October '99 in Ireland. He was 58 years old.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Donkey. Asal.

Donkey. Asal.

May the frost never afflict
your spuds,
may the outside leaves of your cabbage always be
free of worms,
may the crows never pick your haystack,
and may your donkey always be in foal

Old Irish Proverb

Christian tradition hold that donkeys originally had unmarked hides, and that it was only after Christ's entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey that they received the dark cross on their backs.

The hairs from the cross were widely believed to cure a number of ailments, and were often worn in a charm around the neck to guard against whooping-cough, toothache, fits, and to ease teething pains in babies.

Riding a donkey was also believed efficacious, especially if the rider faced the donkey's tail end, and was sometimes used as a preventative for toothache, measles and other children's complaints.

One cure for whooping-cough stated that the patient should be passed under a donkey and over its back either three or nine times; the trick of feeding an animal some of the patient's hair to transfer the illness was also used with donkeys. The donkey was also used to help cure the complaints of other animals; letting a black donkey run with mares in a field was thought to stop the mares miscarrying.

An old saying claims that no-one ever sees a dead donkey, this stems from the belief that a donkey knows when it is about to die and hides itself away. However, there is also a tradition that to see a dead donkey means great good fortune, and even as recently as this century it was considered a good-luck charm to leap over the carcass of a dead donkey three times

"If a donkey brays in the morning,
Let the haymakers take a warning;
If the donkey brays late at night,
Let the haymakers take delight."

A pregnant woman seeing a donkey - the child will grow wise and well behaved.

When a donkey brays and twitches its ears, it is said to be an omen that there will be wet weather.

When a pregnant woman sees a donkey, her child will grow up well behaved and wise.

In Ireland Mothers would wear a strip of donkey skin and a piece of hoof around their neck as a talisman against harm.

In County Mayo they believed that the spot on a donkey’s leg was put there by Our Lady’s thumb.

If two people with the same surname get married they can cure jaundice by placing a donkey’s halter on the afflicted person and leading them to a well. The person is then made to drink the water three times from the well.

A donkey that won’t stop braying and twitching its ears is an omen that rain is on the way.

A child sitting on the back of a donkey that circles nine times will be cured of whooping cough.

Hairs from a donkey’s back cure fits, convulsions, toothache, and teething trouble in babies.

The right hoof of a donkey protects against epilepsy.

Feeding a donkey the hairs from a patient cures the patient of scarlet fever.

One of the main uses for the donkey in Ireland was for carrying turf, seaweed or milk churns and it is for this reason that it became a symbol of the Irish countryside. In 1743 an act of parliament was passed, to kill a donkey carried a sentence of death.

It was also valued for its milk as it was considered a cure for tuberculosis, whooping cough; gout and improving the skin (remember Cleopatra).

The skin of a donkey was used to make shoes, sieves and bodhráns (drums).

Today you will mainly see donkeys in the countryside but now they are usually kept as pets although sometimes you may see them pulling the little donkey cart. For me there is a sense of nostalgia and beauty at this sight.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Stoat. Easóg.

Stoat. Easóg. Often referred to as ‘The Weasel’ in Ireland.

The Irish name Easóg refers to its eel like shape (eas is the Irish for eel) and when it runs its body undulates.

Rarely encountered in the flesh, but common in country tales, stoat packs have long hunted the borderland between folklore and natural history. It was once believed that the stoat was a form of cat brought to our shores as a pet by the Anglo-Normans.

The stoat has been present in Ireland since before the Ice Age, and possibly survived here through the Ice Age too. In fact, we have our very own sub-species, with a whiter belly, that is only found in Ireland and the Isle of Man.

On a mild, sunny day in March, a man was walking down a Yorkshire lane. Partridges were calling in the stubble, there was a blue haze in the air, and all was quiet in that part of the world.

Suddenly, as he walked, a pack of small animals charged down the bank into the lane and all about him. They leaped at him red-eyed, snapping little white fangs, leaping, dancing, darting, and as agile as snakes on four legs. Indeed, they looked like furry snakes, with their short legs, their long, undulating bodies, their little pointed heads, their flattened ears, rat-like tails and little murderous eyes.

The man laid about him with his stick. He knocked six or eight flying into the ditches on either side. He kicked off two or three that had fastened their fangs into his trouser leg. And those that he had knocked flying with blows that would have stunned a dog came out of the ditches and at him again. So, after a minute or two of this cut-and-thrust business, he took a good sharp run down the lane.

The man in question was Sir Alfred Pease, "a brave man who knows more about animals than most", and it was thus that J Wentworth Day described, in the 1930s, Sir Alfred's encounter with a stoat pack.

The stoat (Mustela erminea) is a member of the family mustelidae that includes weasels, ferrets, martens and otters. We are familiar with the paralysis it can inflict on rabbits, even at some distance, without knowing quite how it does it.

Well documented also is the stoat's whirling Dervish-like dance that mesmerises other animals until it darts forward and seizes one. Slightly less explicable is the dance that witnesses have reported the stoat performing as if in triumph over its already dispatched prey: "It ran round and round the dead bird," wrote one, "sometimes almost turning head over heels; then it would break away and race off into the bushes, then back out again." Stranger still is the fact that stoats carry their dead - appearing soon after one of their kind has been killed to drag the corpse into a hiding place.

It is perhaps such behaviour, along with their almost preternatural speed and flexibility, which have given stoats a slightly uncanny character. They are elusive, usually solitary animals; collectively, however, they can induce a feeling of menace.

No one is really sure why stoats occasionally form packs. The ability to hunt bigger prey is one obvious motive, yet as many stoat packs have been recorded in times of plenty - high summer for instance - as during hard winters. A female stoat hunting with her large brood of kits (usually between six and 12), or an accidental meeting of two family groups, giving a false impression of an organised pack, has also been suggested.

In Irish mythology, stoats were viewed as if they had human like abilities, as animals with families, which held rituals for their dead. They were also viewed as noxious animals prone to thieving and their saliva was said to be able to poison a grown man. They were even believed to understand human speech. So greet them politely or suffer the consequences.

To encounter a stoat when setting out for a journey was considered bad luck, but one could avert this by greeting the stoat as a neighbour.

Stoats were also supposed to hold the souls of infants who died before baptism

It was believed that if you killed a stoat its family would return and spit in the milk churn to poison it.

A purse or wallet made from the skin of a stoat was believed to bring great fortune for it would never be empty.

The skin of a stoat was said to cure rat bites.

If a woman cut off the testicles of a male stoat, stitched them into a wee bag and wore it round her neck it would act as a form of contraception. Well it would put me off.

We have a stoat that lives in one of our banks next to some stone steps. It has never harmed our chickens and ducks or to my knowledge any other of the wild birds. We have a blackbird that has a white spot on its shoulder and lives in a group of bushes near the stoat and he has been there about four years. The stoat is unusual as we have witnessed it a couple of times playing tag with a rat, as the two species are said to be sworn enemies it is this I find unusual. Recently we saw a smaller stoat, is this a female or are they breeding? I'll keep you posted.

Exams over, summer is upon us, time to relax.

Stoats are totally protected in Ireland. If stoats are proving a problem, by killing chicks or other domestic animals, you must solve the problem by using good fencing; it is illegal to kill a stoat.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Bear. Mathúin

The Bear. Mathúin.

Art, In Ireland a separate name from Arthur it comes from an ancient word for "a bear," used in the sense of "outstanding warrior" or "champion." A pagan High King of Ireland, Art's rule was so honest that two angels hovered over him in battle.

Bear folklore is widespread, especially in the far northern hemisphere. It is not surprising that this awesome beast was one of the first animals to be revered by our ancestors. From as far back as the Palaeolithic (around 50,000 years ago) there is evidence of a bear cult in which the bear was seen as lord of the animals, a god, and even the ancestor of humans. Various species of bear played a central role in many shamanic practices of the north, and brown bears were part of our native forests as recently as the 10th century, when hunting and habitat loss drove them to extinction.

The Celts venerated the bear goddess, Artio - like a mother bear she was a fiercely protective influence. The bear god Artaois is closely linked to the warrior-king, Arthur; with his legendary strength and fighting prowess, Arthur's name and emblem both represent this animal. Celtic families would often have their own animal totem, a tradition that is still evident in the family name McMahon, which means 'son of the bear'.

Viking warriors were famous for working themselves into an insane battle frenzy (it has been suggested that the psychotropic fly agaric mushroom was sometimes used, see one of my earlier posts). They invoked the bear spirit, at times even donning a bear skin, to imbue them with superhuman strength and fury. These were the Berserkers, their name being derived from a Norse word meaning 'bear shirt'.

Perhaps the most wonderful characteristic of bears is their ability to hibernate and then emerge at the end of winter, which suggests death and resurrection. In part because bears give birth during hibernation, they have been associated with mother goddesses. The descent into caverns suggests an intimacy with the earth and with vegetation, and bears are reputed to have special knowledge of herbs

In Celtic mythology, Andarta was a warrior goddess worshipped in southern Gaul. Inscriptions to her have been found in Bern, Switzerland as well as in southern France. Like the similar goddess Artio, she was associated with the bear. .

In Irish and Scottish mythology, Cailleach (also called Cailleach Beara or Cailleach Behr) was the "Mother of All". The word Cailleach means "old woman". She was a sorceress. In addition to the Celts, the Picts also worshipped her. In art, she was depicted as a wizened crone with bear teeth and a boar's tusks. Each year, the first farmer to finish his harvest made a corn dolly representing Cailleach from part of his crop. He would give it to the next farmer to finish his harvest, and so on. The last farmer had the responsibility to take care of the corn dolly, representing Cailleach, until the next year's harvest.

In Scotland, she is Cailleach Behr, The Blue Hag of Winter, an Underworld goddess and a faery spirit. She appears as an old woman in black rags carrying a staff, who travels about at night with a crow on her left shoulder. She has a bad temper and is dangerous to people. She has fangs and sometimes three faces. She could turn herself into a cat. One legend describes her as turning to stone on Bealtaine and reverting back on Samhain to rule as Queen of Winter. In another, she spent the autumn washing her plaid in her washtub, the whirlpool of Corryvreckan. By winter this was white, and became the white blanket of snow that falls over Scotland in January.

Bears are no longer found in Ireland (since the end of the eleventh century) or Scotland, they became extinct in the late Middle Ages. Bear amulets made of jet have been found in North Britain. Many times these were placed in the cribs of new-born babies so they would be under the protection of the Great Mother Bear. The Bear's strength and power made them a powerful totem symbol for the ancient Celts, and Bear's teeth were considered powerful amulets. Some Celtic sites had votive statues and ritual jewellery dedicated to the Bear.

The Celts had two goddesses that took the form of the Bear: Andarta ("powerful bear") and Artio. The Celtic god, Cernunnos is often depicted as being accompanied by a bear and other animals. The Druids called upon the blessings of the Great Bear, which is associated with the North. The reverence for Bears began to wain with the coming of Christianity, and was perverted into bear-baiting.

Phrases such as "licking a child into shape" comes from the belief that newborn bear cubs were small and fragile and their mother licked them into health and shape. The Bear Paw is also thought to secrete a substance that kept the bear through long winter hibernations.

Medieval "mummers" play the Bear as a villain, having him terrorize flocks of sheep. Bears have always been admired for their great strength, and their knowledge. Bears will stay away from trouble with humans if possible, but when cornered, they will fight bravely.

In medieval times, it was believed that a Bear's eye in a beehive would make the bees prosper and make more honey. Bears love honey, and often will brave the anger of the hive for a taste of their favourite nectar.

A child riding on the back of a Bear was thought to cure whooping cough.
Bears roamed Ireland thousands of years ago; a time when the entire island was almost totally forested. The Irish bear – the brown bear – was of the same species as the North American grizzly, and as such could reach heights of over eight feet when standing on hind legs. Bones were found in Glenade, in County Leitrim, in 1997 and at 3,000 years old are thought to be of the last bears to have lived in Ireland. The finding shows that bears lived on the island at the same time as humans; perhaps hunting and loss of habitat leading to their extinction.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Raven. An Fiach Dubh. (including Crow).

Just for a bit of a change I am posting a series of animal posts.

The Raven. An Fiach Dubh.

In Irish folklore the Raven and the Crow was associated with the Triple Goddess the Morrigan and it was believed that the Raven/Crow that flew over the battlefield was the Morrigan. Some would consider her the protector; others looked upon her as the bringer of death. She was however the protector of warriors. Her message really should be that in war there can only be one winner and that is death. As a symbol of death the raven would be buried with its wings outstretched in order to symbolize the connection between this world and the otherworld and the raven as a messenger between the two.

Banshees could take the shape of ravens or crows as they cried above a roof, an omen of death in the household below.

"To have a raven's knowledge" is an Irish proverb meaning to have a seer's supernatural powers to see all, to know all and to hear all. Raven is considered one of the oldest and wisest of animals.

The raven was the favourite bird of the solar deity, Lugh. Lugh was said to have had two ravens that attended to all his needs.

Giving a child their first drink from the skull of a raven will give the child powers of prophecy and wisdom.

The raven, with its glistening purple-black plumage, large size and apparent intelligence has inspired man from ancient times. It is regarded as an omen of both good fortune and bad, carrying the medicine of magic. It is often associated with war, death and departed spirits. However, the raven has not always been associated with death, spirits and darkness. Quite the contrary, the raven was believed by some to be the bringer of light, truth and goodness.

A raven sits on the shoulder of Ulster hero, Cú Chulainn, to symbolise the passing of his spirit.

The Bible (Genesis, chapter 8: 6-13 of the Old Testament) tells how birds are sent by Noah to detect whether there is any dry land outside the ark that he had built to withstand the Flood:

At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. This was the first recorded use of the Sat Rav (sorry, my sense of humour).

The druids would predict the future by studying the flight and the cries of the birds. The raven is believed to be an oracular bird, and a bearer of messages from the Otherworld. It is a symbol of the connection between this world and the next and it was said to represent the balance between life and death and the creation of the new.

Ravens are associated with knowledge, warning, procreation, healing, prophecy and are also a form favoured by shape shifters.

Finding a dead crow on the road is good luck.

Crows in a church yard are bad luck.

A single crow over a house meant bad news, and often foretold a death within. "A crow on the thatch, soon death lifts the latch."

When crows were quiet and subdued during their midsummer's molt, some European peasants believed that it was because they were preparing to go to the Devil to pay tribute with their black feathers.

Two crows would be released together during a wedding celebration. If the two flew away together, the couple could look forward to a long life together. If the pair separated, the couple might expect to be soon parted, too. (This practice was also performed using pairs of doves).

It has been said that a baby will die if a raven's eggs are stolen.

Ravens are considered royal birds. Legend has it King Arthur turned into one.

Crows feeding in village streets or close to nests in the morning means inclement weather is to come - usually storms or rain. Crows flying far from their nest means fair weather.

The Romans used the expression "To pierce a Crow's eye" in relation to something that was almost impossible to do.

An Irish expression, "You'll follow the Crows for it" meant that a person would miss something after it was gone.

The expression, "I have a bone to pick with you" used to be “I have a crow to pick with you".

A ritual for invisibility: Cut a raven’s heart into three, place beans inside each portion, and then bury them right away. When the bean sprouts, keep one and place it into the mouth. Invisibility occurs while the bean is inside the mouth.

Ravens facing the direction of a clouded sun foretell hot weather.

If you see a raven preening, rain is on the way.

Ravens flying towards each other signify an omen of war.

Seeing a raven tapping on a window foretold death.

If a raven is heard croaking near a house, there will be a death in it.

If a raven flies around the chimney of a sick person's house, they will die.

Many parts of Celtic Britain and Ireland view the raven as a good omen:

Shetland and Orkney - if a maiden sees a raven at Imbolc she can foretell the direction of her future husband's home by following the raven's path of flight.

Wales - if a raven perches on a roof, it means prosperity for the family.

Scotland - deerstalkers believed it bode well to hear a raven before setting out on a hunt.

Ireland - ravens with white feathers were believed a good omen, especially if they had white on the wings. Ravens flying on your right hand or croaking simultaneously were also considered good omens.

Raven is said to be the protector and teacher of seers and clairvoyants. In the past, witches were thought to turn themselves into ravens to escape pursuit.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more."

Extract from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Twenty Two.

Rabbit . Coinín. Irish Hare. Giorria Éireannach.

A hare was a dreaded animal to see on a May morning. An old Irish legend tells of a hare being spotted sucking milk from a cow. The hare was chased by hounds and received a bad wound and it made its way into an old house to hide. When the house was searched all that was found was an old woman hiding a wound. The woman of the house had a central role in dairy production. From this fact springs the idea that women were those essentially involved in the theft of the farmers "profit". Old, widowed, unmarried or independent women were usually pinpointed as the main culprits.

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.

Fertility rituals: place a rabbit skin under your bed to bring fertility and abundance to your sexual activities. If you're opposed to the use of real fur, use some other symbol of the rabbit that you're more comfortable with.

The obvious one -- a rabbit's foot is said to bring good luck to those who carry it, although one might argue that it's not so lucky for the rabbit.

To bring yourself boundless energy, carry a talisman engraved or painted with a rabbit's image.

If you have wild rabbits or hares that live in your yard, leave them an offering of lettuce, shredded carrots, cabbage, or other fresh greens. In some magical traditions, the wild rabbit is associated with the deities of spring.

Rabbits and hares are able to go to ground quickly if in danger. Add a few rabbit hairs to a witch bottle for protection magic.

In some legends, rabbits and hares are the messengers of the underworld -- after all, they come and go out of the earth as they please. If you're doing a meditation that involves an underworld journey, call upon the rabbit to be your guide.

Eostre, the Celtic version of Ostara, was a goddess also associated with the moon, and with mythic stories of death, redemption, and resurrection during the turning of winter to spring. Eostre, too, was a shape–shifter, taking the shape of a hare at each full moon; all hares were sacred to her, and acted as her messengers. Caesar recorded that rabbits and hares were taboo foods to the Celtic tribes.

In Ireland, it was said that eating a hare was like eating one’s own grandmother — perhaps due to the sacred connection between hares and various goddesses, warrior queens, and female faeries, or else due to the belief that old "wise women" could shape–shift into hares by moonlight.

The Celts used rabbits and hares for divination and other shamanic practices by studying the patterns of their tracks, the rituals of their mating dances, and mystic signs within their entrails. It was believed that rabbits burrowed underground in order to better commune with the spirit world, and that they could carry messages from the living to the dead and from humankind to the faeries.

As Christianity took hold in western Europe, hares and rabbits, so firmly associated with the Goddess, came to be seen in a less favourable light — viewed suspiciously as the familiars of witches, or as witches themselves in animal form. Numerous folk tales tell of men led astray by hares who are really witches in disguise, or of old women revealed as witches when they are wounded in their animal shape.
Although rabbits, in the Christian era, were still sometimes known as good luck symbols (hence the tradition of carrying a "lucky rabbit’s foot"), they also came to be seen as witch–associated portents of disaster.

Despite this suspicious view of rabbits and their association with fertility and sexuality, Renaissance painters used the symbol of a white rabbit to convey a different meaning altogether: one of chastity and purity. It was generally believed that female rabbits could conceive and give birth without contact with the male of the species, and thus virginal white rabbits appear in biblical pictures of the Madonna and Child. The gentle timidity of rabbits also represented unquestioning faith in Christ’s Holy Church in paintings such as Titian’s Madonna with Rabbit (1530).

From 1893 edition of Folklore: “Country people in Kerry don’t eat hares; the souls of their grandmothers are supposed to have entered into them.

Hares were strongly associated with witches. The hare is quiet and goes about its business in secret. They are usually solitary, but occasionally they gather in large groups and act very strangely, much like a group of people having a conference. A hare can stand on its hind legs like a person; in distress, it utters a strange, almost human cry which is very disconcerting to the listener. Watching such behaviour, people claimed that a witch could change her form at night and become a Hare. In this shape she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches' familiars. These associations caused many people to believe hares were bad luck, and best avoided.

A hare crossing one's path, particularly when the person was riding a horse, caused much distress. Still, the exact opposite superstition claimed that carrying a rabbit's or hare's foot brought good luck. There is no logic to be found in superstitions.

The Hare.

Hares are considered unlucky, as the witches constantly assume their form in order to gain entrance to a field where they can bewitch the cattle. A man once fired at a hare he met in the early morning, and having wounded it, followed the track of the blood till it disappeared within a cabin. On entering he found Nancy Molony, the greatest witch in all the county, sitting by the fire, groaning and holding her side. And then the man knew that she had been out in the form of a hare, and he rejoiced over her discomfiture.


A tailor one time returning home very late at night from a wake, or better, very early in the morning, saw a hare sitting on the path before him, and not inclined to run away. He approached, with his stick raised to strike her, as he did so he distinctly heard a voice saying, "Don't kill it." However, he struck the hare three times, and each time heard the voice say, "Don't kill it." The last blow knocked the poor hare quite dead and immediately a great big weasel sat up, and began to spit at him. This greatly frightened the tailor who, grabbed the hare, and ran off as fast as he could. Seeing him look so pale and frightened, his wife asked the cause, on which he told her the whole story; and they both knew he had done wrong, and offended some powerful witch, who would be avenged. However, they dug a grave for the hare and buried it; for they were afraid to eat it, and thought that now perhaps the danger was over. However, the next day the man became suddenly speechless, and died before the seventh day was over, without a word evermore passing his lips; and then all the neighbours knew that the witch-woman had taken her revenge.

Top image:Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine (The Virgin and the rabbit). 1525-1530 Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris

Lower image: Hare in The Moon.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Twenty One.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Twenty One.

The Bat. Laltóg.

Feared as creatures of the night associated with death, sickness and witchcraft. Made famous as the familiars of vampires by the cinema.

They sleep hanging upside down by their feet. They live in shelters such as caves or hollow trees, but they also take advantage of human structures. Like most small animals that are drawn to human habitations, bats have often been identified in folk belief with the souls of the dead. As a result, in cultures that venerate ancestral spirits, bats are often considered sacred or beloved. When spirits are expected to pass on rather than return, bats appear as demons or, at best, souls unable to find peace.

According to one well-known fable, popularly attributed to Aesop, the birds and beasts were once preparing for war. The birds said to the bat, “Come with us,” but he replied, “I am a beast.” The beasts said to the bat, “Come with us,” but he replied, “I am a bird.” At the last moment a peace was made, but ever since, all creatures have shunned the bat.

In relation to bats the learned folklorist Joseph Jacobs said “He that is neither one thing nor the other has no friends”Revulsion against them, however, is far from universal, and their quizzical faces have often inspired affection. There were no glass windows in the ancient world, and so people had little choice but to share their homes with bats.

In Ireland if a bat was seen near the house it was taken as a sign of an impending death for a member of the household. However, we have bats in our roof space (they came in last winter). We are quite happy with them and they cause us no problems whatever.

A common bat seen in and around hedgerows at dusk is the Pipistrelle Bat. Their Irish name is Laltog Fheascrach which means 'bat of the evening'.

Wood mouse. Luch fhéir / Luchóg.

The earliest remains of wood mice in Ireland, date to the Stone Age, 7600 years ago. It is believed that more wood mice came to Ireland with humans at various times, giving a certain genetic variability. The wood mouse is a very important part of the Irish food web. Many Irish predators eat wood mice, including owls, kestrels, stoats, foxes, badgers, pine martens, and domestic cats. Wood mice are susceptible to pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides, and to the burning of straw. A decline in wood mice numbers can effect predator numbers, especially owls.

To hear a mouse squeaking anywhere near someone who is ill is a sign that the person will die, and much of the abhorrence towards mice (who are actually far cleaner creatures than generally imagined) probably stems from the old superstition that they are the souls of people who have been murdered.

If they nibble anyone's clothing during the night, that person will suffer some misfortune, while no journey undertaken after seeing one is likely to be successful.

In Ireland boiled mice were given to infants to cure their incontinence and were also a cure for whooping cough.

Mice were used as a cure for baldness. Fill a pot with mice and leave it under the hearth for a year. You then spread the contents of the pot over your scalp. If for some reason you couldn’t wait then you moved the pot to the back of the hearth, light a fire in front of it then after six days you spread the contents onto the scalp.

Lower image :Archibald Thorburn - Pipistrelle And Noctule Bat 1920

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Twenty.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Twenty One.

Butterfly/Moth. Féileacán.

"A butterfly or moth will hover for a time in one place or fly in a fleeting, hesitant manner, suggesting a soul that is reluctant to move on to the next world".

The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly seems to provide the ultimate model for our ideas of death, burial, and resurrection. This imagery is still implicit in Christianity when people speak of being “born again.” The chrysalis of a butterfly may have even inspired the splendour of many coffins from antiquity. Many cocoons are very finely woven, with some threads that are golden or silver in colour. The Greek word “psyche” means soul, but it can also designate a butterfly or moth. The Latin word “anima” has the same dual meaning.

The custom of scattering flowers at funerals is very ancient, and the flowers attract butterflies, which appear to have emerged from a corpse.

Up to the 1600s it was against common law in Ireland to kill a white butterfly because they were believed to hold the souls of dead children.

In Irish folklore, they were the souls of dead people who return to visit their favourite place and their loved ones and it was unlucky to harm one. The red admiral butterfly, however, was thought to be the devil and was persecuted.

Old Irish saying "Butterflies are souls of the dead waiting to pass through Purgatory"

The significance of the butterfly in Irish folklore attributes it as the soul and thus it has the ability to cross into the Otherworld. It is also a symbol of transformation and creation.

"For Christians, the butterfly's three steps of metamorphosis -- as caterpillar, pupa and then winged insect -- are reminiscent of spiritual transformation"

An Irish blessing: May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun and find your shoulder to light upon. To bring you luck, happiness and riches today and beyond.
Butterfly - If the first butterfly you see in the year is white, you will have good luck all year.

Three butterflies together mean a child will soon be born.

Moth - A white moth inside the house or trying to enter the house means death.
A brown moth means an important letter is coming.

A big black moth in the house means a deceased one is just visiting reincarnated through that moth.

According to superstition, the death's head hawk moth, with its skull and crossbones markings and loud squeak, was a harbinger of death, war and disease. The moth uses its tough proboscis to crack through beehives and suck out honey and in some parts of Ireland is known as a bee robber.

Few people know how the butterfly got its name. The witch was supposed to change her shape into this insect. She then flew to the dairy, and stole milk, cheese and, of course, butter!

Top image: The Butterfly Bird of Summer.
Lower image: The Butterfly Tree.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Nineteen.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Nineteen.

The Fox. Sionnach.

A popular belief concerning the origin of the fox was held in Ireland. It was believed that they were the dogs of the Norsemen who were supposed to have brought them to Ireland.

Foxes are very good at concealing themselves. Their ability to hide and move swiftly through the hedgerow corridors is legendary. It is this ability together with their skill and cunning when it comes to taking poultry and small animals that has resulted in a reputation that we know today.

The Celtic druids admired the fox for this skill and cunning. In 1984 the two thousand year old body of a man who had been garrotted was found in a bog near Manchester, England (Lindow man). He was wearing a fox fur amulet and had traces of mistletoe pollen in his gut, and his death by three causes, led Dr. Anne Ross to suggest that he may have been a druid prince slaughtered in a ritual.

In common with the otter, the fox is said to carry a magical pearl, which brings good luck to whoever finds it.

The fox is associated with adaptability, and was thought to be a shape-shifter.

There are many stories showing the cunning of the Fox, not always to its credit, but it should be remembered that ‘cunning’ comes from kenning, meaning ‘to know’, without necessarily carrying slyness. This is the fox’s great secret. In folklore all over the world it’s described as "sly", "clever", and “cunning" – and it is. It’s clever at adapting so that it assimilates into its environment even when this environment is changing rapidly.

That cunning may, however, be associated with the false trails a fox can leave in order to deceive its hunters - and foxes were hunted for their pelts, perhaps in a ritual manner. Like the Deer, the Fox was often part of burial rituals, found now in excavations.

The fox was said to be able to foresee events including the weather and its barking was said to be a sure sign of rain.

It is thought to be unlucky to meet a woman with red hair or a fox when setting out in the morning, especially if you were a fisherman.

One cure for infertility was for a woman to sprinkle sugar on the testicles of a fox and roast them in an oven. She should then eat them before her main meal for three days in succession. It does not mention whether the fox was dead or not but I certainly hope so.

An Irish cure for gallstones and kidney stones was to rub the affected area with foxe’s blood.

The tongue of a fox was also thought to be able to remove a stubborn thorn from the foot, when all else has failed.

The Frog. Losgann.

Frogs are quite recent additions to the fauna of the Irish hedgerow and its exact method of introduction is unknown. Some suggest it was introduced by the Anglo-Normans yet others believe they were introduced sometime during the late 1500s early 1600s by students of Trinity College Dublin who had brought them here from England. They released the frogs into ponds and ditches that were around Trinity at that time, from there they spread to all parts of Ireland and the rest is history. However, it is harmless and well thought of and appears to have found its niche in the rich habitat of the hedgerow.

Water is considered sacred to druids and all water has its guardian spirits or deity. Frogs and their close relative’s toads may be found in ditches at the edge of hedgerows or where riverine hedges grow. They are spawned in water and will return to the place of their birth in order to carry out the cycle of life and for this reason they were thought to be representatives of the water spirits. Some even believed that a frog was the earthly manifestation of water spirits that lived in sacred wells.

Frogs were seen as creatures of the underworld and for this reason they became associated with witches and the supernatural to be used in the preparation of potions and spells. They were also believed to be one of the witch’s familiars who would give warning to its mistress by loud croaking. As a familiar of the witch or indeed some druids the frog was looked upon as a messenger of the water god/goddess who brought blessings of rain and purification.

The ashes of a cremated frog was thought to stop bleeding, its spawn was considered a cure for rheumatism and inflammatory diseases.

Sore eyes could be cured by getting someone to lick the eye of a frog then licking the eye of the affected sufferer.

The frog, through its connection to Mother earth was considered lucky to have living in the dairy for it protected the milk.

If you look at the colour of the frog you can predict the weather, dark coloured frogs are a sign of rain, light brown or yellow means that dry weather is on the way. There may be some truth in it as rain does make frogs darker and good dry sunny weather makes their skin a lighter colour so who knows?

It is considered bad luck if a frog comes into your house although we have had many a frog come into our cottage and it never did us any harm. Having said that I have never won millions on the lotto so again who knows?

If you put a live frog in your mouth it will cure toothache. You had to rub the frog on the tooth or chew its leg.

It will cure a cold if you hold a frog by its legs and place it in the sufferer’s mouth for a moment (you’ll be too busy vomiting to cough).

If a child had whooping cough it could be cured by bringing it to running water, putting a frog into the child’s mouth three times and then letting te frog swim away uninjured. It would take the whooping cough with it. Is this where the saying “I’ve got a frog in my throat” came from?

A love charm—Bury a live frog in a box and after a few days dig it up. Take the skeleton apart and select a particular bone, place the bone in the clothing of the intended and they will fall madly in love with you.

Why do the English call the French ‘Frogs’?

The main reason is that three frogs have been depicted on the heraldic device of Paris since ancient times; probably dating back to when Paris was a swamp. In pre-revolutionary France the common people of France were called grenouilles, or frogs, and the same name was later extended to include all the French people (By the English). Although some people will still believe it’s because they eat frog’s legs.

Top image: The Fox and The Wren.
Lower image: The Fairy and The Frog

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Eighteen.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Eighteen.

The Badger. Broc.

Some people thought that badgers could bring bad luck. This rhyme dates from about 200 years ago:

Should one hear a badger call,
And then an ullot cry,
Make thy peace with God, good soul,
for thou shall shortly die.

So, according to this bit of folklore, if you hear badgers call, then hear an "Ullot" (an owl) hoot, you are not long for this world.

Some people used to say that badgers had legs that were shorter on one side than the other. This was supposed to be because badgers often walked on sloping ground on the sides of hills.

Another 200-year-old story says that badgers - like black cats - can bring bad luck or good luck. If the badger walks across the path that you have just walked on, you are in for very good luck. However, if the badger walks across the path in front of you, and if it happens to scrape up a bit of earth as it goes, then it is time for you to choose your coffin! The old rhyme goes like this:

Should a badger cross the path
which thou hast taken, then
Good luck is thine, so it is said
beyond the luck of men.
But if it cross in front of thee,
beyond where thou shalt tread,
and if by chance doth turn the mould,
Thou art numbered with the dead

The hair is used in the making of shaving brushes and also for artist’s brushes.
This animal is unyielding in the face of danger and is noted for its tenacity and courage.

The badger was an animal that was always favoured by the gambling fraternity.

If you wear a Badgers tooth around your neck you will be lucky in whatever you place wagers on especially cards.

Highlanders, on the other hand, had rather more regard for the badger, admiring its strength and tough hide. Badger faces were used to cover sporran’s, badger teeth employed as buttons, and even badger penises given as fertility charms to bridegrooms from brides' fathers.

Badger fat was used for cooking and also rubbing on the chest as a cure for rheumatism.

Henry Smith, author of 'The Master Book of Poultry and Game', which was published shortly after the end of World War Two, declares "the flesh can be treated as young pig in every respect, it being just as rich and having the flavour of a young pig".

In the middle of the 20th century they were thought to be the carrier of tuberculosis, which was subsequently transmitted to cattle. Their persecution was relentless and their numbers in Ireland dipped as a result. Protection was afforded to badgers in the 1970s and since then their numbers have started to recover.

Their home, referred to as a ‘set’, is a complicated tunnel construction where the female or ‘sow’ raises up to three cubs each year during February or March. A Badger set can be as much as twenty metres long and be several metres below the surface.

The Badger (Broc) connects to perseverance, along with the patience and persistence this requires. He is considered self-reliant, determined, assertive and willing to work, with an earthy wisdom. Brocan was a name for Pictish wise men.

That said, the Badger was not always treated with respect - the game 'Badger in the Bag' started, according to legend, with the celtic hero Pwyll tricking a rival into a bag and each of his men having a turn at kicking the supposed 'badger' he had trapped. Bagging badgers before dealing with them (or indeed baiting them) also has to do with their aggression and fighting skills.

Middle image. Badger Rough and Tumble by Martin Ridley.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Seventeen.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Seventeen.

Robin. Spideóg.

If you harm a robin's nest, you will be struck by lightning. There is also an old saying "Kill a robin or a wren, never prosper, boy or man." A robin entering the house foretells of a death to come. If a robin stays close to the house in autumn, a harsh winter can be expected. Robins are thought to be helpful to humans, occasionally granting favours. Robins are a sure sign of spring and if you make a wish on the first robin of spring before it flies off,
you'll have luck throughout the following year.

Robins with their cheery red breasts adorn many of our Christmas cards and decorations, and there are several stories as to how the robin acquired its red breast feathers. In the Christian tradition, it is thought that a robin tried to remove the thorns from Jesus’ head during the Crucifixion, and that drops of his blood fell onto the bird and stained his breast feathers red forever. In another myth, the robin gained his red breast from flying into the fiery wastes of hell to carry water to the stricken sinners who were suffering there for all eternity. It’s enough to give you nightmares.

The robin is another bird where it is believed that if they are seen tapping on the window or flying into a room that a member of the household will soon be dead. However, we often have Robins flying into our cottage and we look on them as our friends not as harbingers of death.

If you break a robin’s eggs expect something important of yours to be broken very soon.

Note that if you see a robin singing in the open that good weather is on its way, but that if the robin is seen sheltering among the branches of a tree that it will soon rain. Also, if the first bird that you see on St Valentine’s Day is a robin, it means that you are destined to marry a sailor!

It is said to be extremely unlucky to kill this bird. The hand that does so will continue to shake thereafter. Traditionally the Irish believe that a large lump will appear on the right hand if you kill one. It is said that whatever you do to a robin you will suffer the same tragedy. Some believe that the robin will not be chased by a cat.

It was widely believed that if a robin came across a dead body it would carefully cover the body with leaves and vegetation until it was completely hidden.
Robins were believed to provide a cure for depression. The remedy suggests a robin must be killed and its heart removed. The heart should then be stitched into a sachet and worn around the neck on a cord. I think that would give me depression.

In the south east of Ireland they believed that if a robin entered a house it was a sign of snow or frost.

A robin singing indicated a coming storm.

How Robin got his Red Breast.

One winter, a long time ago, Jack Frost was very cruel. He made the snow fall thickly upon the ground, and he put ice on the ponds and frost on the window panes.

The birds found it very hard to get food and soon they began to get hungry.

Then, one day, the birds were sitting in a ring under a hedge, trying to think what was to be done. After a while a little brown, bird, called Robin, got up to speak.

"I have an idea," he said. "I will go into the gardens and try to get people to give us a lot more crumbs!"

Now Robin had a way all of his own of making friends. He went along to the houses where people lived and in one of the gardens he saw a man clearing away the snow from a path, so he hopped up very close to the man. Most birds are very much afraid of men, but Robin was brave. He had to be, if he was to help the other birds. When the man saw how friendly Robin was, and how hungry he seemed to be, he went into his house and fetched a tray full of crumbs.

Robin was glad, and he flew off to fetch the other birds, and soon there were crowds of them in the kind man's garden.

The best way they could say "Thank you" to the kind man was to eat the crumbs out of his hand. Robin then flew away into other gardens, and wherever he went he made friends. So, while the snow stayed on the ground the birds were able to feed after all. At last Jack Frost sent the snow away, and then the happy birds wanted to thank Robin so they made him a little red waistcoat, which he still wears.

That is why he is now called Robin Redbreast.


Many years ago, late in the year, a cruel wind brought biting cold weather; making the night more difficult for a father and son who had travelled so far and yet still had a long way to go. They looked for a cottage, a barn, or even a tree - anywhere they could find shelter. However, there was nothing to be seen or found, except for an old bush, so at last the father built a fire and told his son to try and sleep a little.

When the father's eyes began to droop he woke his son and told him to watch the fire.

Well the boy tried to stay awake! He hadn't really slept while lying on the frozen ground and he was still exhausted from the walk. His eyes got lower. His head got lower. The fire got lower.

So low in fact that a starving wolf began to inch nearer the sleeping pair.
However, there was one who was awake. There was one who saw everything from the middle of the old bush; a little bird who was as grey as the brambly wood.

The bird hopped down and began fanning the flickering embers until the flames began to lick out hungrily; he flapped his wings for so long that he began to feel a pain in his breast, yet despite this he kept fanning the embers until the flames were dancing with strength.

The heat from the flames caused his breast feathers to change colour and from that day on the Robin has proudly worn a red breast.

Robins feature in ‘Babes in the Woods’ when the little bird buried the children, who had died of cold, with leaves. The ballad ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’ was first published in 1744 and Drayton in 1604 referred to the robin in his work entitled ‘The Owlet’. In fact there are many writers who have been inspired by the dear old robin.

Wren. Dreoilín.

Associated with the druids of Ireland who consider the wren a sacred bird and used their musical notes for divination. They were called magus avium (the magic or druid bird).

This poor unfortunate bird was for many years hunted and killed although today it is respected. The main day for hunting was December 26 when the cruel practice was carried out by young boys (Wren boys). The Wren boys would receive money as they paraded the dead birds from house to house.

The wren was seen as a sacred bird to the early Druids and therefore was the target by Christian believers as Pagan purges were frequent and all-embracing. This unfortunate set of circumstances may also have come about as the feathers were thought to prevent a person from drowning, and because of this the feathers were traditionally very popular with sailors.

A traditional French belief tells that children should not touch the nest of a wren or the child will suffer from pimples. In the same way as a robin is revered, if anyone harms the bird then the person will suffer the same fate.

The Breton druids have given the wren an honoured role in their folklore, they believe that it was the wren that brought fire from the gods but as she flew back down to earth her wings began to burn so she passed her gift to the robin, whose chest plumage began to burst into flames. The lark came to the rescue, finally bringing the gift of fire to the world.

The wren’s eggs are said to be protected by lightning. Whoever tries to steal wren’s eggs or even baby wrens would find their house struck by lightning and their hands would shrivel up

During the winter wren’s lose their body heat rapidly and therefore will often roost together to keep warm. Remember an odd nest box left up occasionally during the winter months will often be used for roosting. It is not unusual for several wrens to cuddle up together in one box during cold times. The male bird builds two or three ball-shaped nests for the female to inspect. She decides which one she likes best and will then proceed to line the chosen nest ready for egg laying.

The wren is a mouse-like little bird for it scurries here and there hiding in ivy leaves and picking up insects in all sorts of hideaway places.

writes about the wren’s song in Book II of The Prelude. Whilst most people find the wrens song a little harsh, he favoured its song and celebrates it in his writing. Good old Wordsworth!

An earlier post called 'WHY THE WREN FLIES CLOSE TO THE EARTH’ tells the story of why the wren was known as The King of the Birds, why not have a look.

Top image-A misty hedgerow.
Middle image-The Wren.
Bottom image-The Robin.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Black Aggie.

I thought that this little story might entertain you. Enjoy. I will return to Folklore of the Hedgerow on the next post.

Black Aggie.

When Felix Agnus put up the life-sized shrouded bronze statue of a grieving angel, seated on a pedestal, in the Agnus family plot in the Druid Ridge Cemetery, he had no idea what he had started. The statue was a rather eerie figure by day, frozen in a moment of grief and terrible pain. At night, the figure was almost unbelievably creepy; the shroud over its head obscuring the face until you were up close to it. There was a living air about the grieving angel, as if its arms could really reach out and grab you if you weren’t careful.

It didn’t take long for rumours to sweep through the town and surrounding countryside. They said that the statue – nicknamed Black Aggie – was haunted by the spirit of a mistreated wife who lay beneath her feet. The statue’s eyes would glow red at the stroke of midnight, and any living person who returned the statues gaze would instantly be struck blind. Any pregnant woman who passed through her shadow would miscarry. If you sat on her lap at night, the statue would come to life and crush you to death in her dark embrace. If you spoke Black Aggie’s name three times at midnight in front of a dark mirror, the evil angel would appear and pull you down to hell. They also said that spirits of the dead would rise from their graves on dark nights to gather around the statue at night.

People began visiting the cemetery just to see the statue, and it was then that a secret society decided to make the statue of Grief part of their initiation rites. “Black Aggie” sitting, where candidates for membership had to spend the night crouched beneath the statue with their backs to the grave of General Agnus, became very popular.

One dark night, two society members accompanied a new hopeful to the cemetery and watched while he took his place underneath the creepy statue. The clouds had obscured the moon that night, and the whole area surrounding the dark statue was filled with a sense of anger and malice. It felt as if a storm were brewing in that part of the cemetery, and they noticed that gray shadows seemed to be clustering around the body of the frightened society candidate crouching in front of the statue.

What had been a funny initiation rite suddenly took on an air of danger.

One of the society brothers stepped forward in alarm to call out to the initiate. As he did, the statue above the boy stirred ominously. The two society brothers froze in shock as the shrouded head turned toward the new candidate. They saw the gleam of glowing red eyes beneath the concealing hood as the statue’s arms reached out toward the cowering boy.

With shouts of alarm, the society brothers leapt forward to rescue the new initiate. But it was too late. The initiate gave one horrified yell, and then his body disappeared into the embrace of the dark angel. The society brothers skidded to a halt as the statue thoughtfully rested its glowing eyes upon them. With gasps of terror, the boys fled from the cemetery before the statue could grab them too.

Hearing the screams, a night watchman hurried to the Agnus plot. He was extremely distressed to discover the body of a young man lying at the foot of the statue. The young man had apparently died of fright.

The disruption caused by the statue grew so acute that the Agnus family finally donated it to the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C.. The grieving angel sat for many years in storage there, never again to plague the citizens visiting the Druid Hill Park Cemetery.

Is it true? I will leave it up to you to decide.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Sixteen.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Sixteen.

Blackbird. Lon Dubh.

Place blackbird feathers under someone's pillow and they will tell you their innermost secrets. Blackbirds symbolize reincarnation. Blackbirds are linked to the element of Water.

Two blackbirds seen together mean good luck. The sight of two together is unusual as they are quite territorial. If they nest near your house you will be lucky throughout the year and will experience good fortune. They are also regarded as messengers of the dead.

Blackbirds make their nests in trees from moss, grass and hair. A European tradition says that if human hair is used, the unfortunate unknowing donor will continue to suffer from headaches and possibly even boils and skin complaints until the nest is destroyed, so old hair should be disposed of carefully.

The beautiful song of the blackbird makes it a symbol of temptations, especially sexual ones. The devil once took on the shape of a blackbird and flew into St Benedict's face, thereby causing him to be troubled by an intense desire for a beautiful girl he had once seen. In order to save himself, the saint tore off his clothes and jumped into a thorn bush. This painful act is said to have freed him from sexual temptations for the rest of his life. Now if you believe that you’ll believe anything.

Like the crow and the raven, the blackbird is often considered a bad omen. Dreaming of a blackbird may be a sign of misfortune for you in the coming weeks. It also means you lack motivation and that you are not utilising your full potential.

Dreaming of a flying blackbird is said to bring good fortune.

One story concerning the blackbird is about St.Kevin, an Irish 7th century Saint who loved wildlife. It is said that in the temple of the rock at Glendalough, St.Kevin was praying with his hand outstretched upwards when a blackbird flew down and laid her eggs in his palm. The story goes on to say that the saint remained still for as long as it took for the eggs to hatch and the brood to fly the nest.

Among the Celts the blackbird is thought to be one of the three oldest animals in the world. The other two being the trout and the stag. They are said to represent the water, air and earth.

Legend says that the birds of Rhiannon are three blackbirds, which sit and sing in the World Tree of the Otherworlds. Their singing puts the listener in to a sleep or trance which enables her/him to go to the Otherworlds. It was said to impart mystic secrets.
In Irela
nd in the nineteenth century, blackbirds were supposed to hold the souls of those in purgatory until judgement day. It was said that whenever the birds voices were particularly shrill, it was those souls, parched and burning, calling for rain. The rain always followed.

The whistle of the blackbird at dawn warned of rain and mist for the coming day.

Bottom in a Midsummer’s dream sings;
“The ouzel cock so black of hue
With orange tawny bill…”
(Ouzel being an old name for blackbird.)

The Dunnock. Bráthair an Dreoilín.

Known more popularly as the “Irish Nightingale,” the dunnock is the object of a most tender superstition. By day it is a happy little bird that tries to outdo every other bird with its song. However, at night particularly at midnight their sad and tender songs are said to reflect the cries of unbaptised babies that have returned from the spirit world in search of their parents.

The dunnock’s blue-green eggs were regarded as charms against witches spells when strung out along the hob. They were especially good for keeping witches and spirits from coming down the chimney.

It was in fact Linnaeus who gave the Dunnock the name Accentor which means ‘one who sings with another’. Chaucer made notes on how the cuckoo uses the dunnock to rear its young. Cuckoos which use dunnocks in this way can imitate the colour of the dunnock eggs whereas other cuckoos which may use another species of bird, say a meadow pipit, will imitate the colour of the meadow pipit eggs. Chaucer refers to the Dunnock as Hegesugge which means ‘flutterer in the hedges’. Hegesugge is the Old English name for Dunnock/Hedge Sparrow.

The Thrush. Smólach.

There are many superstitions associated with Song thrushes, including the notion that they dispose of their old legs and acquire new ones when they are about 10 years old. Another superstition is that they are believed to be deaf. All sorts of things have also been said and written about Mistle thrushes also. In the fourth century Aristotle was already writing about its fondness for mistletoe and there is an old belief that Mistle thrushes could speak seven languages!

In Ireland it was believed that the faeries made sure that the thrush built its nest low down near the fairies home in the grass so that they could enjoy the birds song. If the thrush built its nest high up in a thorn-bush it was a sure sign that the faeries were unhappy and misfortune would come to the neighbourhood.

It was believed that the flesh of the song thrush would cure sickness and convulsions.

That’s the wise thrush;
he sings each song
twice over,
Lest you think he
never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

Extract from Home-Thoughts, From Abroad by Robert Browning

Top image: The Song Thrush.
Middle image: The Dunnock.
Bottom image: The Blackbird.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Fifteen.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Fifteen.

Bumblebee. Bumbóg.

Buff-Tailed Bumblebee nests can be found in the hedgerows. The bees may be seen coming and going through a hole in the ground. The nest will be hard to see as bees are very private individuals but if you listen carefully you may hear them buzzing away quite happily. Sometimes the Queen may decide to occupy an old abandoned mouse nest as these are usually warm and well insulated. She may also nest underneath sheds, decking, in compost bags, in hedge clippings or even in attics or under floor boards. You could move a nest if it was causing you problems but it may not fully recover therefore leave it alone if it is doing you no harm. Like all bumblebees, they need to be greatly provoked before they sting.

As bees are becoming victim to an ever changing world that threatens their habitat you can do your bit to help them survive. Plant suitable flowers in your garden, window boxes, containers or even along the hedgerow. Provide a nest box, these are now becoming increasingly available in any good garden centre or make your own, they are very easy and you can Google plans. Remember they are a gardener’s friend and we need bees to pollinate our plants.

There is a superstition that if a bumblebee buzzes at the window it is a sign of a coming visitor.
A servant girl was standing at the kitchen window, in flew a bumblebee ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘a visitor is coming! Has the bee got a red tail or white? Red for a man and white for a lady’.

Irish folklore tells us how easily the bees take offence and this will cause them to cease producing honey, desert their hives and die. You must treat them as you would a member of your own family. They must be told all the news, in particular births, deaths and marriages. In the event of a death their hive must be adorned with a black cloth or ribbon and they must be given their share of the funeral food. You may then hear them gently hum in contentment and they will stay with you.

Other beliefs were that if the bees heard you quarrelling or swearing they would leave so you must talk to them in a gentle manner. They cannot tolerate the presence of a woman of loose morals or one that was menstruating but would sting her and drive her away (sounds like Christian influence here). You must never buy bees with normal money, only with gold coin although you may obtain them through gift, loan or barter. It was also believed that if a single bee entered your house it was a sign of good luck on the way, usually in the form of wealth.

When bees swarmed, it was the women and children of the household that had to follow them, making a noise with pots and pans. This was supposed to make them settle or maybe it was really just to warn people to get out of the way? It was accepted that in these circumstances you could follow them onto someone else’s land without being accused of trespassing.

The law on bees (Brehon Law) was that bees taking nectar from plants growing on your neighbours land were guilty of 'grazing trespass' in the same way a cow or sheep would be if they were on your neighbours land. They could even be accused of 'leaping trespass' in the same way as poultry. The way this law was observed was that a beekeeper was allowed three years of freedom during which time the bees were allowed free reign, on the fourth year the first swarm to issue from the hive had to be given to your neighbour as payment. On the following years other swarms were given in turn to other neighbours, in this way everyone was happy. From all accounts it seemed to work. Another issue the Bechbretha (Law governing bees) was enacted was in the event of stings. As long as you swore you had not retaliated by killing the bee you would be entitled to a meal of honey from the bee keeper. However if the unfortunate person died from a sting then two hives had to be paid in compensation to their family.

It was a bad omen if a swarm settled on a dead branch for it meant death for someone in the bee keeper’s family or for the person who witnessed the swarm settling. Popular folklore also suggested that bee stings aide in the relief of arthritis and rheumatism in much the same way as nettle stings and recently bee venom has been revived as a possible treatment for multiple sclerosis.

In Celtic myth, bees were regarded as beings of great wisdom and as spirit messengers between worlds. Honey was treated as a magical substance and used in many rituals. It was made into mead and was considered to have prophetic powers and it may have been this that was called ‘nectar of the gods’. The rivers that lead to the summer lands are said to be rivers of mead.

“Telling the Bees” was extremely important, whether good news or bad or just everyday gossip. As stated earlier you had to tell the bees about a death in the family or the bees would die too. Bad news was given before sunrise of the following day for all to be well. You may even formally invite the bees to attend the funeral or you could turn the beehives round as the coffin was carried out of the house and past the hives. In ancient European folklore, bees were regarded as messengers of the gods and so the custom of “Telling the Bees” may be a throwback to the idea of keeping the gods informed of human affairs.

Trembling, I listened: The summer sun
Had the chill of snow;
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
Gone on the journey we must all go!
And the song she was singing ever since
In my ear sounds on:
‘Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!

Extract from “Telling the Bees” by John Greenleaf Whittier.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Fourteen.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Fourteen.

The Cow Parsley. Peirsil Bhó

(Wild Chervil, Hedge Parsley, Keck, Wild Beaked Parsley, Devil’s Parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, Mothers dies)

'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (1828-1882).

Also known as Devil's Parsley, possibly because of its resemblance to the highly poisonous Hemlock, this plant occurs in accounts of witchcraft practices. It is a native plant belonging to the Apiaceae family.

The name Queen Anne's lace: from time when Queen Anne travelled the country side in May, around Kensington in England, as she suffered from asthma, & came to get fresh air. The roadsides were said to have been decorated for her by this plant. As she & the ladies in waiting walked, they carried lace pillows; the Cow Parsley resembled the lace.

The origin of the name Mothers Dies seems to be a folk tale that children were told that if they picked cow parsley, their mother would die. This threat would deter children who couldn't tell the difference from picking hemlock which is poisonous.
The Celts used to include Cow Parsley in their diet according to archaeologists who analysed the stomach contents of a Celtic man discovered in a peat bog in Cheshire. They also found Emmer and Spelt wheat, Barley, fat hen and dock.

While some claim that the root of the wild plant is also edible, it is not advisable to eat any part of this plant unless it has been expertly identified. There are several plants that look the same as Cow Parsley and are extremely poisonous and potentially fatal if ingested. DO NOT EAT THIS PLANT Remember Cow parsley can be easily confused with Hemlock.

Cow parsley is said to get rid of stones and gravel in the gall bladder and kidneys but very little research has been done on the common plant. It has been used by amateur dyers as a beautiful green dye; however, it is not permanent. The most common use for the stalks is for pea-shooters as the stems are hollow, so children love them. The foliage used to be sold by florists in Victorian times and used in flower arrangements.

Like sweet woodruff, cow parsley has the reputation of “breaking your mother’s heart”. This is said to have come about because the tiny white blossoms drop quickly. In the days before vacuum cleaners, the temptation for mothers to ban these work-generating posies from the house was understandable. This may be where the superstition came from describing Cow Parsley as ‘unlucky indoors’ and a ‘harbinger of death’.

The cultivated relative of Cow Parsley, Chervil, is a well known herb which when made into an infusion can be used in the treatment of water retention, stomach upsets and skin problems. It can be used to promote wound healing. Chervil water is used as a constituent of gripe water. Cow Parsley may be used as a natural mosquito repellent when applied to the skin.

The Nettle. Neanntóg

In our folklore there are many uses for Nettle.

'To cure a sting of a nettle, place a dock leaf over sore part for a few minutes and it will be well'

'The water of boiled nettles if drank will cure anyone suffering from worms'
'Cure for dropsy.

'It is said if a person went to a graveyard and plucked a bunch of nettles that would be growing there and boiled them and give the water to drink to a person that had dropsy if would cure him'

'For rheumatics a bed strewn with nettles'

'3 doses of nettles in the month of April will prevent any disease for the rest of the year'

All the above are from the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

17th century herbalist and apothecary, Nicholas Culpeper is reputed to have said:
'Nettles may be found by feeling for them in the darkest night'.

They are recognised as being a rich source of vitamin C and contain more iron than spinach. Indeed they make a very tasty soup but it is essential to pick them where no chemicals or pollution may have affected them and to use only the upper leaves as the lower leaves may contain irritants. Nettles also contain anti-histamines which are helpful to those with allergies and serotonin which is reputed to aid one's feeling of 'well-being'.

Arthritic joints were sometimes treated by whipping the joint with a branch of stinging nettles. The theory was that it stimulated the adrenals and thus reduced swelling and pain in the joint.

Nettles are reputed to enhance fertility in men, and fever could be dispelled by plucking a nettle up by its roots while reciting the names of the sick man and his family.

Turkey and other poultry (as well as cows and pigs) are said to thrive on nettles, and ground dried nettle in chicken feed will increase egg production.

Nettles left to rot down in water make a fantastic liquid fertiliser.

Nettle can alter the menstrual cycle and may contribute to miscarriage, pregnant women should not use nettle.

Stinging nettle may affect the blood's ability to clot, and could interfere with blood-thinning drugs.

Stinging nettle may lower blood pressure.

Stinging nettle can act as a diuretic, so it can increase the effects of certain drugs, raising the risk of dehydration.

Stinging nettle may lower blood sugar, so it could make the effects of certain drugs stronger, raising the risk of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Diabetics beware.

The Nettle is significant among plants used for medicine by the Celts in that it was probably one of the most widely used due to its ability to prevent haemorrhaging and stop bleeding from wounds. They would have used it to treat the wounds their warriors received in battle.

Recently it has been found that lectin found in Nettles is useful in treating Prostate enlargement and is widely prescribed for this in our times.

Nettles also have a place in ancient Celtic folklore and were also known as "Devil's Claw".

Nettles were believed to indicate the living place of fairies, and their stings protected one from witchcraft or sorcery.

The Primrose. Sabhaircín.

'Guard the house with a string of primroses on the first three days of May. The fairies are said not to be able to pass over or under this string.'
From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC S.455:237. From Co Kerry.

The symbol of safety and protection, in ancient times it was placed on the doorstep to encourage the fairy folk to bless the house and anyone living in it, and it was also said that if you ate the blooms of the primrose you would see a fairy. 
Both the cowslip and the primrose were thought to hold the keys to heaven and so were considered to be very sacred by the Celtic people.

It was the flower of Love and bringer of good luck, and was the symbol of the first day of spring and so was laid across thresholds to welcome ''May Day''. 
Also considered to be a bringer of great inspiration for poets, the flower of youth, birth, sweetness and tenderness.

Insects, in particular ants, play an important role in pollinating these flowers. Nectar is located at the bottom of the flower tube and the long thin body of the ant is perfectly designed to carry and deliver pollen from other primrose plants. The primrose family is also remarkable for the number of hybrids it produces.

The primrose has many medicinal uses and was important in the past as a remedy for muscular rheumatism, paralysis and gout. The leaves and flowers can be used either fresh or dried; the roots should be dried before use. Culpepper was aware of the healing properties of the Primrose and said, “Of the leaves of Primrose is made as fine a salve to heal wounds as any I know.”

The Primrose was highly-prized by the Celtic Druids and its abundance in woods, hedgerows and pastures made it an easily-collectible plant. Primroses were often carried by the Druids during certain celtic rituals as a protection from evil. The fragrant oil of the flower was also used by the Druids to anoint their bodies prior to specific rites in order that they might be cleansed and purified.

In the middle ages they were used to treat gout and rheumatism and an infusion of the roots was used to treat headaches.

Primroses are loved by the faeries so if you grow them don’t let them die for if you do you will greatly offend the faeries and who knows what will happen.

Primroses were very important in the rural area especially during the butter making season that began in May. In order to encourage cows to produce a lot of milk, primroses were rubbed on their udders at Bealtaine. Primroses would also be scattered on the doorstep to protect the butter from the faeries.

Primroses were also associated with chickens and egg laying and it was considered unlucky to bring primroses indoors if the hens were hatching in the coop dresser.

It was said that primroses bloomed in Tír na nóg and that people returning from there always brought a bunch with them as proof that they had been there.

In Irish folklore it was believed that rubbing a toothache with a primrose leaf for two minutes would relieve the pain. It was also used as a cure for jaundice (yellow flower).

The flower was often used in medicine throughout the ages as it has similar properties to aspirin, it has always been known as a ''healing'' plant, and so was often used extensively 
in foods. Even today it is known for its healing properties and is used as a healing tea, while in the world of the flower essence, it is said to help heal those who have experienced the loss of a mother figure as a child.

In Ireland an ointment would be made from certain herbs including primrose and pigs lard and this would be used on burns.