Nem – Sky

“The old people had runes which they sang to the spirits dwelling in the sea and in the mountain, in the wind and in the whirlwind, in the lightning and in the thunder, in the sun and in the moon and in the stars of heaven. I was naught but a toddling child at the time, but I remember well the ways of the old people.”1

Inch Island sunset by Greg Clarke

Inch Island sunset by Greg Clarke

In some respects this is not an easy article to write because it deals with such an ephemeral subject. It is tempting to put the gods under the realm of sky because in many ways that is what we are used to: God in heaven, Zeus up high in lofty Olympus…

In fact, one version of the origins of the Tuatha Dé Danann tells us that they came in the clouds.2 Other versions tell us that they came from ‘the north’, however, and when considering the role of the gods in Ireland and Scotland (which isn’t necessarily synonymous with the Tuatha Dé Danann), we see that they are more integral to the land than the realm of sky. They do have a definite influence over the sky, however, in terms of their relationship with Otherworldly birds, the wind and weather, and the taking of omens. These, then, are the areas we will be looking at:

Wind and Weather

The wind features in a number of different ways in the lore, and from some of the early sources we might see a evidence of a cosmological system “taken from a lost treatise describing the universe.”3 The Saltair na Rann, or ‘Psalter of the Staves or Quatrains’, is an Early Middle Irish text that is thought to date to around the tenth century, although it is found in a twelfth century manuscript.4 It gives a very Irish version of the Biblical creation story, which has already been mentioned here. Part of it deals with the division of the winds, and it also ascribes colours to each one:

“The white, the clear purple,
the blue, the very strong green,
the yellow, the red, sure the knowledge,
in their gentle meetings wrath did not seize them.

The black, the grey, the speckled,
the dark and the deep brown,
the dun, darksome hues,
they are not light, easily controlled.

King who ordained them over every void,
the eight wild under-winds;
who laid down without defect
the bounds of the four prime winds.

From the East, the smiling purple,
from the South, the pure white, wondrous,
from the North, the black blustering moaning wind,
from the West, the babbling dun breeze.

The red, and the yellow along with it,
both white and purple;
the green, the blue, it is brave,
both dun and the pure white.

The grey, the dark brown, hateful their harshness,
both dun and deep black;
the dark, the speckled easterly wind
both black and purple.

Rightly ordered their form,
their disposition was ordained;
with wise adjustments, openly,
according to their position and their fixed places.”5

A similar system of winds and colours can be found in the Senchas Mór, the earliest parts of which are likely to date to the time of St Patrick, in the mid-fifth century. While the dating of the passage relating to the winds isn’t immediately clear, it seems to draw its scheme from the same source:

“He also formed the eight winds i.e., four chief winds, and four subordinate winds; and four other subordinate winds are mentioned, so that there are twelve winds accordingly.

He also formed the colours of the winds, so that the colours of all these winds are different from each other i.e., white and purple, pale gray and green, yellow and red, black and gray, speckled and the dark, the dark-brown, and the pale. From the east blows the purple wind, from the south the white, from the north the black, from the west the pale; the red and the yellow are between the white wind and the purple; the green and the pale gray are between the pale and the pure white; the gray and the dark-brown are between the pale and the jet black; the dark and the speckled are between the black and the purple. And thus there are two subordinate winds between each chief wind.”6

The attribution of colours and the descriptors given to the winds of the cardinal point in Saltair na Rann indicate positive or negative associations with each. The east wind is given the ‘smiling purple’, while the south has ‘pure wondrous white.’ The west is given ‘the babbling dun breeze’, while the north is given the most negative and darkest colour – the ‘black, blustering moaning wind’. The white, purple and dun are further described as brave, with the white and purple also described as ‘gentle meetings wrath did not seize them.’ The black north wind, on the other hand, along with the other darker colours, are seen as ‘hateful their harshness,’ and ‘not light, easily controlled.’

This makes sense when we consider that southerly winds bring warmth whereas northerly winds bring cold and snow – the extremes of weather contrasted by the white and the black attributed to each. More recent lore compliments, and both Ronald Black and Alexander Carmichael give variations of divinations that were performed at the new year, or other specific days. In The Gaelic Otherworld, we are told that old men would take note of the prevailing wind that “the old year left”, and from that it could be determined the kind of year that should be expected:

Gaoth deas, teas is toradh,
“South wind, heat and produce,

Gaoth tuath, fuachd is gailleann,
North wind, cold and tempest,

Gaoth ‘n-iar, iasg is bainne,
West wind, fish and milk,

Gaoth ‘n-ear, meas air chrannaibh
East wind, fruit on trees.”7

Carmichael gives a slightly different version used by fishermen, who would also look to see what the prevailing wind was on New Year’s Day:

“Wind from the west, fish and bread;
Wind from the north, cold and flaying,
Wind from the east, snow on the hills;
Wind from the south, fruit on trees.”8

Presumably the slight variations account for the different locations in Scotland in which they were recorded.

Wright-Popescul mentions a tenth century Latin poem in the Hibernica Minora that shows the same practice was performed in Ireland as well (but, frustratingly, does not give any further detail).9 Referring to more recent custom, Kevin Danaher writes that the direction of the wind was noted on the eve of Là Fhèill Brìghde, Bealltainn and Samhainn, and that at Samhainn it was checked at midnight and the strength of the wind was gauged to see whether it would be calm or stormy in the coming season.10

For crops or fish, the wind was an important factor in the potential success or failure of the harvesting. Without a favourable wind, fishermen couldn’t get out to sea in order to make their catch, whereas too much wind could prove deadly. Likewise, severe storms at the wrong time of year could flatten crops, damage the fruit and fell trees, ruining the produce. In both cases – fishermen or farmers, the Cailleach is considered to be a powerful agent in the raising of storms, strong winds and drowning people at sea, or the bringing of frost and snow that threatens the crops with her slachdan (‘wand’ or ‘rod’).11 As K. W. Grant shows:

“With her mallet – ‘farachan’ – or pestle – ‘slachdan’ – she beats and pounds the earth till all growth is destroyed; Nature has become torpid.

But about the middle of January Nature shows signs of reviving, and the sun has begun his returning journey. The Cailleach gets alarmed, and summons the ‘faoiltich,’ wolflings, or wolf-storms; ‘faol,’ a wolf. Those storms last until the middle of February.

Then follows the third week of February – ‘trì lathan gobaig,’ three days of ‘shark-toothed,’ bitter, stinging east winds; and ‘trì lathan feadaig,’ three days of ‘plover-winged,’ swift, fitful blasts, careering, rainy winds that are ‘the death of sheep and lamb, and get the strong cattle bogged till the flood rolls over their heads.’

…Then comes the last week of the month, ‘Seachdain a’ Ghearrain.’ The name is variously interpreted. Some have supposed it to mean a week of sighing, moaning winds, from ‘gearan,’ complaining. Others take it to denote ‘Ploughing Week,’ from ‘gearran,’ a colt. A third party surmise that the name comes from ‘geàrr-shion,’ short, sudden squalls. But those who suggest this rendering place the week between the 15th of March and the 11th of April. Ploughing week is probably the true interpretation.

The first week of March is marked by temporary blasts of foul weather and flying showers – ‘Sgarraichean na Feill Connain’ – St. Conan Storms. The second week is marked by tempestuous weather, squally and inclement, ‘Doirionn na Feill Padruig’ – St. Patrick gales.

Then the Cailleach becomes desperate over her want of success. Despite her efforts to keep the earth hard by beating it with her mallet, despite her storming, the grass waxes, buds appear, and the blossoms peep from beneath their hoods. The Cailleach exclaims

Dh’fhàg e shios mi, dh’fhàg e shuas mi;
Dh’fhàg e eadar mo dhà chluais mi;
Dh’fhàg e thall mi, dh’fhàg e bhos mi;
Dh’fhàg e eadar mo dhà chois mi!

Shootings her and sprouting there,
It eludes me everywhere;
Overhead and underfoot
Bud and blade blossom shoot.

The brave, little wild duck taunts the Cailleach – “Despite thy shrivelling, stinging-cold little March, I and my twelve are yet alive!’ ‘Just wait a little!’ exclaims March, or the Cailleach – for here they are synonymous; she borrows three days from February, and the result is thus described in Scotch: –

The first day it was win’ an’ west,
The neist day it was snaw an’ sleet,
The third day it sae hard did freeze,
The wee birds nebs stuck tae the trees.

The Cailleach tries to chase away her son – the sun, wooing the young Spring – but he escapes with his bride. She causes the wild duck and her brood to perish with cold, and in so doing puts out her own eye. Baffled and defeated on every hand, and fleeing before her enemies, the wintry storms of the Cailleach sink into a calm as the returning sun shines forth and the warm winds blow.

The enraged Cailleach is defeated, she flings her mallet under a holly, where never a blade of grass can grow thereafter, so powerful is the magic influence to deaden growth.”12

She reigns from winter until she is defeated in spring, finally throwing down her wand on March 25th, or Latha na Caillich (Cailleach’s Day).13

In The Coming of Angus and Bride, the Cailleach borrowed three days of August in February, in order for the calmer weather of August to allow her to sail back to Scotland and complete her overthrow of Angus and Bride.14 She can therefore be seen to be associated with the harvest as well, in the form of the unpredictable storms that can crop up and threaten the harvest just as it ripens, and it’s no surprise, in this sense, that a corn dolly was often made by farmers out of the last sheaf of corn which they then attempted to pass on to their neighbours. Whoever ended up being stuck with the Cailleach, as the corn dolly was called, was stuck with bad luck for the coming year.15

Stormy seas at Coll, by

Stormy seas at Coll, by “kloniwotski”

Bad weather was often blamed on the actions of witches, who seem to have become conflated with much of the lore surrounding the Cailleach as storm hag.16 But as much as witches could inflict an ill wind on someone out at sea to cause them harm or a bad catch, so a good wind could be bought from someone who was skilled in those ways to ensure a good catch. Isobel Grant tells a story that illustrates both points nicely, in which a man from Barra allowed an old woman to graze her cows on his land before he set off to another island on business. Not long after a storm arose and he was forced to set down on Coll, and there the storm raged so badly that the animals had to be brought inside, and a woman commented that the Lady of Barra was being unkind to send snow and bad weather at such a time. The man asked her what he meant and he realised that the old woman he had let graze her cattle on his grass was the Lady, and that the storm meant she was preventing him from ever getting back to Barra.

Since the man had helped bring in the harvest during his stay on the island, the woman told him to take a straw rope that she had tied three knots into, and when he knew the Lady of Barra would be asleep, he should untie a knot. Untying one knot would give him a fair breeze; two knots a good wind, but on no account should the third knot be untied. Naturally he couldn’t resist untying all three, and just as he was coming into the bay he undid the last knot and set loose an almighty gale. Luckily he and his crew managed to get to safety, and he set the old woman on her way with a caution never to return.17

Weather and Prognostication

Of course the wind and weather go hand in hand; the wind can bring rain, snow, or balmy calm, and as we have seen bad weather, or the wrong kind of weather at certain times of year, could spell disaster. The lore can often be found to be neatly encapsulated in rhymes that remind folk of good and bad signs to look out for, for the purpose of looking to see what the year, season or day would bring.

In the north east of Scotland, “A misty May an drappy June/Pits the farmer in good tune.”18 In Ireland, an exceptionally warm and sunny day on Là Fhèill Brìghde was taken as a sign of bad weather to come. By the beginning of February it was a good sign if the weather was clearly improving, but unseasonal warmth was not considered to be favourable in the long term.19 Frost on May Day was likewise a bad sign for the crops, but “A wet May and a dry June make the farmer whistle a tune.”20

The day to day prognostication of the weather was considered to be a fine art, however, and was usually left to old men with years of skill and learning.21 Gregor tells us:

“It was the custom in each village for an aged experienced man to get up in the morning, and examine the sky, and from its appearance prognosticate the weather for the day. If the weather promised to be good, he went the round of the village to awaken the inmates. In doing this great attention was paid to the ‘first fit.’ In every village there were more than one to whom was attached the stigma of an ‘ill fit.’ Such were dreaded and shunned, if possible, in setting out on any business.”22

Some of the lore surrounding the predicting of the weather was tried and tested common sense; some of it was strongly influenced by less scientific methodology. The men would look to the sky and observe the clouds, or else look to the hills and mountains, or the behaviour of birds and animals.23

Clouds in the north and south foretold drought, whereas clouds in the east or west foretold “a blast.”24 Mist coming in from the sea indicated good weather, but mist from the hills suggested rain was on the way.25 Walter Gregor goes into more detail about clouds in an article in Folklore Volume II:

“’A strong sky’ is when great clouds – cumulus – rise along the horizon. The sky is then said ‘to be growin’, and a breeze is looked upon as at hand. The clouds themselves go by the name of ‘a growan up’ (Pittulie).

‘A greasy sky’ is the indication of stormy weather within a short time (general). The sky has a peculiar glitter all along the horizon, and for a few degrees above it, and is flecked with light-coloured confused clouds having the same glitter. My own observation confirms this sign.

‘A stiff sky’ is when it is filled up with large white clouds have their edges tinged with red, and indicates unsettled weather.”26

Halo around the moon, by Kris Williams

Halo around the moon, by Kris Williams

A halo around the sun or moon is thought to indicate bad weather like rain or snow. In Orkney the sun halo is called vats-gaarin,27 whereas Gregor tells us the moon halo is called “a broch” – “a broch aboot the meen ‘ill be aboot the midden afore mornin.”28 When stars are seen to twinkle – ‘lamp’ – brightly, wind is said to be not far off.29

Crows flying around erratically indicated windy weather was on its way,30 whereas the presence of swans during the winter in Orkney foretold a harsh winter.31 Otherwise, hens plucking at themselves more than usual suggested rain was on the way.32 John Spence goes into great detail about the weather lore of Shetland, and notes that:

“The flight of the rain goose (the red-throated diver) was particularly noticed. When this bird was seen flying in an inland direction the weather was likely to be favourable, but when its flight was directed towards the sea the opposite was expected…

Cocks crowing and hens stirring abroad while rain is falling is a sign that it will soon be fair. Flocks of snaa fowl (snow bunting) seen before winter Sunday (the last Sunday of October) foretell the approach of a severe winter.”33

Birds

There is clear evidence that birds were considered to be divine messengers or mediators between humans and gods, with birds such as ravens, crows, swans, and cranes being considered to be especially important in this respect. As Anne Ross notes, the longevity and the consistency of these associations over time has been remarkable, in both mythology and folk lore.34 Their sighting on a journey or during the performance of frìth, their appearance in myths and legends, all held particular meanings that alerted the augurer or the audience (in the case of the tales being told) that something was afoot.

Looking to a verse attributed to St Columba we see that the druids themselves paid heed to the messages that birds could bring:

“I reverence not the voices of birds,
Nor sneezing, nor any charm in the wide world,
My Druid is Christ the Son of God.”35

But much of the lore survived the druids and in more recent practice, in performing the frìth, for example, birds played a large part in the omens that could be seen. In Scotland, catching sight of a bird on the wing was generally considered to be a good sign, especially doves or oyster-catchers (which were associated with Mary and Bride, respectively). However, there were clear exceptions to the rule, and crows or rooks, ravens, or hens unattended by a cock were all considered to be terrible signs.36

Signs were also often looked for as a person set out on a journey. Of those that were considered to be an ill omen, seeing a heron – especially facing away from the person who saw it – was thought to be one of the worst signs and the traveller might as well give up and go home then and there. To make sure a good sign was received, it wasn’t unheard of for a traveller to send a member of their family out who happened to represent a fortunate sign, so they could purposely meet as the traveller set out.37

Dà Fhitheach, by Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill

Dà Fhitheach, by Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill

In a fifteenth century manuscript, the different kinds of call of the raven are listed with meanings given for each one:

“Omens from the Raven.
If the raven croaks above the bed framed together (com-dluthta) in the middle of the house, an eminent hoary visitor or cleric is coming to thee. But there is a difference between them. If it be a lay clerk the raven says ‘bacach.’ If it be a man in orders (fer graidh) it cries ‘gradh, gradh’ and ‘fo do do ló.’ If the visitor be a youth or a satirist it cries ‘gracc, gracc,’ or ‘grob grob,’ and the side behind where it cries is the quarter whence the visitors are coming. If it cries ‘gracc, gracc,’ the young people to whom it cries are assisted (?) (fordhighthir). If a woman is coming it cries ‘foda.’ If it cries from the north-west quarter of the house, thieves are coming to steal the horses. If it cries at the door of the house, strangers or hireling-soldiers are coming. If it cries above the door, satirists or visitors belonging to the king’s retinue are coming. If it cries above the bed of the good man, the place where his weapons are, and he is going on an expedition, he will not return safe; and, if this is not the case, he will become unwell. If the wife is to die, it cries above the pillow. If it cries at the feet of the husband’s bed, a son, or brother, or son-in-law, will come to the house. If it cries on the threshold of the kitchen-closet, the place where the food is, there will be increase of victuals, such as flesh or the first milking of the cows, in the quarter from which it cries. If its face be between the kitchen-closet and the fire, a mutually agreeable guest is coming to the house. If the place where it is perched be nearer the wife of the house, the visitors are a son-in-law or a friend. If it cries to the south of the kitchen-closet, a foster-father or visitors from a distance are coming to the house. If it speaks with a small voice ‘err, err’ or ‘ar, ar,’ sickness for some one in the house or for some of the cattle. If dogs are coming among the sheep it cries from the sheepfold, or opposite the goodwife, and says, ‘carna, carna, grob, grob, coin, coin.’ If it cries from the rail of the house when they are eating, they waste that meal. If it cries from off a stone, that is news of a boor. If it cries from a tall tree, that is news of a young lord. If from off the branch of a tree, news of a king or son of noble lineage. If it goes with thee on an expedition or in front of thee, and if it is cheerful, the journey will be propitious and a great deal of flesh-meat will be given thee. If thou go left-hand-wise (i.e. against the course of the sun), and it cries in front of thee, woe on whom it so cries or great shame to some of the party. If in front of thee going to a public meeting, it means associates. If thou hast come left-hand-wise, some of the associates will be killed. If it cries from the horses’ corner, thieves will come. If it turn itself once, and if it says ‘grob, grob,’ some horses are stolen and will not be found, &c.”38

Green suggests that it is because of its distinctive cry, which could be seen as an attempt at human speech, to communicate an important message to its human listeners, that it is associated with such prophecy.39 But as can be seen in the passage above, and elsewhere, it is also the action of the raven, and not just the cry, that prophecies things to come. The Lay of the Wife of Meargach, for example, lists both the type of cry the raven gives, as well as its flight, as foretelling death.40

While the passage above shows a great depth of meaning as far as how the fifteenth century Irish evidently thought of the raven, it can be seen that contrary to the more popular perception of its symbolism, it wasn’t always thought of in negative terms – a cheerful crow in front of a traveller signifies a prosperous journey, for example (and shows remarkable similarities with the lore collected in nineteenth century Scotland), but this is not necessarily the case in Irish myth.41

Ravens in Irish myth are often portrayed as being malevolent or even evil – if not in their actions, then simply by virtue of their presence. Appearing as heralds of important events about to unfold, it is often a sign that these events will be bloody. The appearance of two ravens announce Cú Chulainn’s imminent arrival in The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn, just as two ravens warn Lugh of the Fomorian’s approach (and the connection between the two, with Lugh being Cú Chulainn’s divine father according to the story of the hero’s three-fold conception, is surely significant), while Midir has two white ravens who fly out as King Eochaid is digging up his síd mound. This, Ross notes, “suggest that her we have fragments of a genuine mythological tradition concerning ravens which were in the service of certain of the Celtic gods.”42

The association of ravens with the Morrigan in particular cannot be ignored. That the Morrigan takes on the form of a raven and perches on Cú Chulainn’s shoulder43 as he dies is significant both in terms of the raven’s symbolism, and the relationship between Cú Chulainn and the goddess. Throughout the Táin, the Morrigan pursues Cú Chulainn and makes it clear that she wants him for a lover. On his refusal she becomes combative and aims to hinder and even harm him while his attentions should be elsewhere, doing battle with the men of Connacht. As he dies, the raven on his shoulder is a both a foreshadowing of his imminent fate and a sign of her victory – not on the terms she might like, perhaps, but he is in her clutches now, one way or another.

Perhaps it could be said that this was always the case. In one episode involving Cú Chulainn, he destroys a flock of huge, Otherworldly ravens, and with the last one he kills, Cú Chulainn cuts off its head, covers his hands in the blood and leaves the head on a rock that became known as Srub Brain, “Raven’s Bill.” The significance of the act is not clear, but appears ritualised, and was perhaps intended to imbue Cú Chulainn with some Otherworldly powers in battle.44

The raven’s frequent association with death and battle makes the perfect companion for the Morrigan, who is also no stranger to the battlefield. In a practical sense, where there was war there were bodies, which meant food for the raven, and so they would have amassed on the battlefield to enjoy the spoils as other carrion feeders would (like other corvids, such as the hooded crow, below). Their use as a symbol, a prognostication of such death in battle would likely have evoked very real and vivid images in those hearing the myths in earl medieval Ireland, then. Miranda Green suggests that as the raven perches on Cú Chulainn’s shoulder at his death, and as two white ravens fly out of Midir’s mound, they could be seen as representations of the soul escaping.45

In the Scottish version of the tale of Diarmaid and Grainne, we can see ravens taking a more active role in the prognostication of death – on a boar hunt organised by Fionn (whose wife Diarmaid had eloped with, and was eventually pardoned by Fionn), Diarmaid is told by a raven, pecking at a dead hare, that while he would be successful in slaying the boar he was searching for, it would ultimately cost him his life. A nearby hoodie crow (corbie) advises Diarmaid to return to Grainne, his love, again telling him his quest would result in his death. Nevertheless, Diarmaid continues on his search and meets his doom.46 Here the ravens and crows take on the role of death messenger, and as MacKenzie sees it, they are acting as agents of the Cailleach.

More usually, the hooded crow is associated with Badb, who is often named as one of the Morrigna (as the Morrigan can be considered to be a title of a group of three goddesses as well as a goddess in her own right – the definitions appear to be loose in the myth), but Macha and Nemain may also lay claim to the association.47 Her name appears to be etymologically related to the root-words for both “crow” and “battle”:

“Garrett Olmsted, on the other hand, explains cathubodva or bodva as “battle crow”. He explains *bodvo- as “(royal-) crow” or the “(war) goddess Bodva”. And he notes that this Celtic term apparently derived from Celto-Germanic *boduo- “battle”.”48

This is completely apt. As Fergus Kelly notes:

“No doubt because of its harsh gloating cry, which seems to express a delight in death, the hooded crow is identified with the battle-fury or war-goddess Morrígain…In later Irish this bird is known as a fennóc (feannóg), and we find similar instances of its association with death on the battlefield. Thus the O’ Tooles of Wicklow chose this bird as their emblem, and are recorded as going into battle in the fourteenth century with the fennockabo! (= feannóg abú). The raven (bran, fiach) is likewise often used to symbolize violent death in Irish literature of all periods.”49

Fennockabo!, or feannóg abú! can be translated to mean, “hurra for the hooded crow!”50

Throughout the tales in which Cú Chulainn appears, birds are an integral part of his story. They are there at his conception – in this case, a beautiful flock of chain-bearing birds51 – as well as his death, in the form of a raven perched on his shoulder, as we have seen. In The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn, his first encounter with Fand, the woman for whom he falls in love and begins wasting away for, is also heralded by a flock of beautiful birds. The affair is ultimately doomed; Fand returns to her husband, Manannán mac Lir, and Cú Chulainn returns to his wife Emer, with Manannán shaking a magic cloak of forgetting between them all to make sure that the love is forgotten.52

In another romance, a woman, Derbforgaill, is transformed into a swan, linked to her servant (also transformed) by a gold chain and they go to find Cú Chulainn so that Derbforgaill may seduce the man she has fallen in love with through hearing of his heroic deeds. As it turns out, Cú Chulainn shoots a stone from his sling and wounds her in her bird form, and she is transformed back into her human form. Realising his mistake – this being no ordinary bird – he sucks the stone from her wound and so having tasted her blood, is prohibited from taking her into his bed.53 This draws an interesting parallel with his relationship with the Morrigan,54 who also wants to sleep with Cú Chulainn, and Cú Chulainn refused to his cost. Perhaps it is because he had tasted the blood of a raven that he was prohibited from doing so, since the Morrigan was so intimately associated with them.

The stories in which swans feature most prominently in Irish myth appear to come from the earliest layer of the tradition upon which the tales are built.55 Unlike the raven, swans are portrayed in an altogether more romantic light, being associated with the ideals of love and beauty, and again unlike the raven, their Otherworldliness is made clear by the fact that they often appear wearing gold or silver chains. In Aislinge Oenguso (‘The Dream of Oengus’), which based on linguistic analysis may date as far back as the eighth century, Oengus falls in love with a girl for whom he becomes lovesick. His first sighting of Caer Ibormeith is in a dream, and he goes in search of her with the help of Bodb. He finds Caer and discovers that she and her retinue, who are all paired by silver chains (although Caer’s is gold), will be magically transformed into swans at Samhainn. He eventually comes to be with her after she has transformed into a swan, and Oengus himself takes on the form and they are together for three days and three nights after Oengus sings sleep-music as they go so that everyone falls asleep.56 This is a common feature of such trysts, where the bird-form and sleep music allows the couple to do as they please unhindered by others who might otherwise stop them.57

While the sweet-voiced swan might be a beautiful Otherworldly woman, the crane is often portrayed as an old scold, bad-tempered and mean, possibly because its harsh cry made it apt for the association. Manannán’s magical crane-bag was made of the skin of a crane who had once been a woman, transformed into bird form because of her jealousy.58 Fionn mac Cumall ended up in possession of the bag and, perhaps fittingly, had a few encounters with cranes. In one tale, Fionn is saved from a fall by his grandmother, who transformed into a crane to rescue him. In the tale Cailleach a Teampuill, he encounters four cranes who can only become human if they are sprinkled with the blood of the Connra Bull.59 The symbolism here is interesting, as Green notes that cranes are often associated with bulls in Gaulish iconography, suggesting a definite pre-Christian element at play in the Irish tale.60

A common crane (grus grus). The crane went extinct in Ireland about 200 years ago but has been making a comeback in recent years; it is not to be confused with the heron. Photo by "bzd1"

A common crane (grus grus). The crane went extinct in Ireland about 200 years ago but has been making a comeback in recent years; it is not to be confused with the heron. Photo by “bzd1”

Their associations with humans in bird form is perhaps one reason that there was a tabu on the eating of their flesh, as recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century.61 Being an unlucky bird, perhaps the prohibition was meant to prevent contact with such an ill omen more than the idea of possible cannibalism. The idea of cranes being humans transformed, usually women, is a persistent one in the literature, and Columba is said to have changed an impious queen and her maidservant into herons at the meeting at Druim Ceat. There they can still be found – both seen and heard for all eternity.62

This idea of their longevity is not an isolated one, it seems, and in Scotland it was believed that suggesting that someone who was old and stubbornly refusing to let go of life had eaten the flesh of a heron would magically die. This had to be done ritually, evidently by shaking a millen bridle over the victim. Ross gives an example from Alves in the 17th century, where two people were accused of killing an old woman by the name of Margaret Anderson, in this manner:

“Compeired Androw Angouse confessed he rang the bridle, he being interrogated what were the words he spake at the ringing of it answered that he said, ‘Cran’s flesh or Wran’s flesh come out thy way.’ Agnes Rob confesses she went and sought for and brought to the house the bridle.”63

Otherwise, their bad-temperament and fearsome reputation might be put to good use, such as Midir’s three cranes who stand guard at his síd mound, Brí Leith, where they refused entrance to any visitors and sapped the will to fight from any warrior who tried to force their way in.64 Their method of denying entry to the brugh was by persuasion:

“They stood beside his door, and when anyone approached to ask for hospitality, the first one said: “Do not come! do not come!” and the second added: “Get away! get away!” while the third chimed in with: “Go past the house! go past the house!” These three birds were, however, stolen from Mider by Aitherne, an avaricious poet, to whom they would seem to have been more appropriate than to their owner, who does not otherwise appear as a churlish and illiberal deity.”65

As supernatural agents, birds are also seen as being associated with kingship, either directly or indirectly. In the tale The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, Conaire is destined to become king even though he doesn’t realise his claim. Conaire’s mother becomes pregnant after sleeping with an Otherworldly bird-man – although in this case the kind of bird is not mentioned. Conaire’s fate is closely tied in with his relationship with birds and he is given both the necessary knowledge to fulfil his destiny to become king, along with geasa by the bird-people, that he must observe on pain of death. Inevitably, he is doomed. After a successful reign that brings peace and plenty to his people, his own step-brothers – jealous at Conaire’s position – cause trouble enough that Conaire is forced to act. In trying to deal with the situation he breaks several of his geis, and then gives false judgement against them – banishing them instead of putting them to their deaths. His leniency and the breaking of his geis means his reign is effectively forfeit, and so he goes on to find himself in situations where the rest of his geasa are broken.

In one episode, a woman comes to the hostel and demands Conaire’s hospitality. It is a geis that Conaire must not admit a woman into his dwelling after dark, but equally it goes against the principles of his kingship to refuse hospitality. After an exchange, Conaire lets the woman in, who gives her name as Cailb. “A name with nothing to spare, that,” comments Conaire, to which she replies:

“Indeed, I have many other names…Samuin, Sinand, Sesclend, Sodb, Saiglend, Samlocht, Caill, Coll, Díchoem, Díchuil, Díchim, Díchuimne, Díchuinne, Dárne, Dárine, Der Úane, Egem, Agam, Ethamne, Gnim, Cluche, Cethardem, Nith, Nemuin, Nóenden, Badb, Blosc, Bloar, Úaet, Mede, Mod.” And she recited these in one breath, and standing on one foot, at the entrance to the house.”66

Two of these names in particular – Badb and Nemuin (given as Nemain in the Irish)67 – pointing to the fact that Cailb is, in fact, a death messenger. Badb’s association with the hoodie crow is particularly apt. Furthermore, her stance indicates the possibility of malevolent magic – corrguinecht68 – or the evil eye, a sign of her disapproval as the sovereignty goddess.

By Conaire’s birthright, his heritage from the bird-people, he claims the kingship, but their geasa on him is also his downfall. In a more passive sense, birds can be seen as a sign in some tales that the king has committed an injustice or other illegal act that means his kingship is no longer valid. A flock of Otherworldly birds strip the whole of Ireland bare after Lugaid Mac Con returns to Ireland to claim his kingship after being in exile in Alba, foreshadowing his future downfall.69 The appearance of the birds alone are an Otherworldly sign, even though they are not expressly associated with a particular Otherworldly person.

Conclusion

There are many disparate threads to pull together in dealing with the realm of air, but once again as with the other realms we see a clear Otherworldly undercurrent through them all. The wind, weather and the birds give us Otherworldly messages; they tell the future, prognosticating doom or fortune. The gods speak through them, and open our eyes to a different perspective.

John Shaw notes the connection between the heavens and sight in his survey of eschatalogical tales, where warnings of impending doom – the heavens falling or the earth breaking open – are often given on the shore. There follows a sort of formula as people are warned of the news, as illustrated in the following tale from the Highlands:

Mór the daughter of Smùid falls and thinks that death (Bàs) has come. She meets Ewan MacAlc, saying to him, “Beware of death.” “Have you seen or heard him?” She replies, “My ear has heard, my eye has seen and my foot has felt.”70

Shaw corresponds the seeing with the heavens, the feeling with the sea, and the hearing with the earth.71 Certainly given the many signs that have be seen in our exploration of the three main themes here, the association of the sky (or the heavens) with sight makes sense.


References

1 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p281.
2 See Gray, ‘Cath Maige Tuired: Myth and Structure (1-24)’, Éigse XVIII, p194: One version of the Tuatha Dé Danann’s arrival has them burning their boats on to prevent their ability to leave, thus ensuring that they will have to win Ireland by right of conquest or else be defeated; a hasty retreat was never an option, meaning they’d fight harder.”

“The compiler of the passage, aware of an alternate version of the arrival of the Túatha Dé Danann, attempts to reconcile the two traditions by suggesting that the smoke from the burning vessels had given rise to the belief that the Túatha Dé Danann had travelled to Ireland in clouds of mist. Since the creation of magic mists is often attributed to Irish sorcerers and druids, the story of the burned boats may have originated as an attempt to minimize the Túatha Dé Danann’s magical powers. Such Christianizing, euhemerizing attempts are frequently attached to Irish mythological tales without regard for narrative consistency.”
3 Wright-Popescul, The Twelve Winds of the Ancient Gaelic World, p25, quoting Carey, “Questions of Interpolation in the Opening Cantos of Saltair na Rann,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Volume 6, p69-82.
4 See Stokes’ Saltair na Rann and Hull’s preface in The Poem-book of the Gael, 1913, pxxxviii, in which she gives an English translation of Stokes’ transliteration.
5 Hull, The Poem-book of the Gael, 1913, p5.
6 Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland, Volume 1, p28-29.
7 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p535.
8 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume 2, 1900, p343.
9 Wright-Popescul, The Twelve Winds of the Ancient Gaelic World, 1997, pp20-21.
10 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p14; 87; 218.
11 MacKenzie, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, 1935, pp139-141; p147.
12 Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p5-6.
13 Ibid; MacKenzie, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, 1935, p143.
14 MacKenzie, The Coming of Angus and Bride.
15 Fraser, The Golden Bough, p403; Seanchas Ìle/Islay’s Folklore Project, p75.
16 MacKenzie, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, 1935, p147.
17 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p260.
18 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p150.
19 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p14.
20 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p87.
21 Spence, Shetland Folk-Lore, 1899, p112.
22 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p198.
23 Spence, Shetland Folk-Lore, 1899, p112.
24 Simpkins, County Folk-Lore Volume VII, 1914, p416.
25 Ibid.
26 Gregor, ‘Weather Folk-Lore of the Sea’, Folklore Volume II, 1891, p476.
27 Black, Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney and Shetland Islands, 1903, 165.
28 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p152.
29 Gregor, ‘Weather Folk-Lore of the Sea’, Folklore Volume II, 1891, p473.
30 Simpkins, County Folk-Lore Volume VII, 1914, p415.
31 Black, Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney and Shetland Islands, 1903, 165.
32 Ibid.
33 Spence, Shetland Folk-Lore, 1899, p113.
34 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p302; Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, 1992, p181.
35 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p96.
36 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p5529-530; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
37 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p139.
38 Abercromby, “Irish Bird-Lore”, Folk-Lore Journal Volume II, 1884-1885, p66-67. See also Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p37-328.
39 Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, 1992, p178.
40 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p329.
41 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p327.
42 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p325.
43 The identity of the raven is never explicitly stated, but its associations with the Morrigan are widely acknowledged by many scholars – see The Morrigan and Her Germano-Celtic Counterparts or Heijda, War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word Badb in early Irish literature, 2007, p56-57, for an alternative view.
44 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p325.
45 Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, 1992, p179.
46 MacKenzie, Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life, 1935, p148.
47 Epstein, The Morrigan and Her Germano-Celtic Counterparts.
48 Heijda, War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word Badb in early Irish literature, 2007, p8. (Available for download in .doc format).
49 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p192.
50 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p660.
51 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p307.
52 Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, 1981, p178.
53 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p308.
54 For more on this, see The Morrigan and Her Germano-Celtic Counterparts.
55 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p305.
56 The Dream of Oengus; Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p305-306.
57 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p332.
58 Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, 1992, p176; Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p358.
59 Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, 1992, p176; Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p356-357.
60 Green, Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art, 1989, p181-184.
61 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p355.
62 Nagy, The Herons of Druim Ceat, Celtica 21, 1990, p373.
63 Ibid.
64 Nagy, The Herons of Druim Ceat, Celtica 21, 1990, p374; Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, 1992, p178.
65 Squire, Celtic Myth and Legend, 1905, p56-57.
66 Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, 1981, p76; see also Koch, The Celtic Heroic Age, 1994, p167.
67 Togail Bruidne Da Derga.
68 Borsje and Kelly, ‘The Evil Eye in Early Irish Literature’, Celtica Vol 24, p25.
69 Cath Maige Mucrama
70 Shaw, A Gaelic Eschatalogical Folkltale, Celtic Cosmology and Dumezil’s “Three Realms”, Journal of Indo-European Studies, Volume 35, 2007, p251.
71 Shaw, A Gaelic Eschatalogical Folkltale, Celtic Cosmology and Dumezil’s “Three Realms”, Journal of Indo-European Studies, Volume 35, 2007, p254.