Irish myth portrays the settling of Ireland as happening in waves of invasions by different peoples – six waves in total – finishing with the sons of Míl, who became the ancestors of many of the Irish people.
As has been seen, a possibly significant factor in this mythology is that all the peoples of Ireland were not indigenous to the island itself; they all came from over the sea, and through their actions after settling on the land give Ireland its shape and form – both in terms of the physical landscape as well as the political and social landscape.
A wealth of this lore, of how places came to be formed and named can be found in the mythology that has been preserved, but more importantly within the body of literature known as the Dindshenchas (‘Placename Lore’). These poems and tales show how intimately the land was connected with the gods and mythical beings of Ireland, and parallels can be found in the legends of Scotland as well.
The four quarters and the centre
Naturally enough then, the land is where form is given. Whereas the various waves of invaders gave the land its shape in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Dindshenchas tells of how these places got their names and became associated with the various gods and mythical beings of Ireland. But with many of the myths, a political landscape can also be seen: Ireland was split into four quarters and a centre, giving us the four provinces of Connacht, Ulster, Leinster and Munster, with Meath in the middle.1
Early medieval sources such as the early ninth century The Martyrology of Oengus cite four ritual centres associated with the provinces – Tara in Meath, Cruachain in Connacht territory, Dún Ailinne in County Kildare (Leinster) and Emain Macha in County Armagh (Ulster), which has been linked with some certainty with what is now known Navan Fort.2 At the time Oengus was writing, the sites had already fallen out of use, but were still remembered as being great pagan centres of worship. It is clear, however, that while these centres were no longer in use by the time Christianity took hold, they still remained as “symbols of high kinghsip.”3
A fifth centre, Uisnech, was also to be found in the province of Meath and seems to have been of dual importance with Tara, mythologically at least. According to Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Tara can be perceived to be the political centre of Ireland, from where the high king was meant to rule, and Uisnech was the spiritual centre of Ireland, from where the druids ruled and the ritual bonfires were traditionally lit, from which the other fires in the land were supposed to be lit.4 However, while great assemblies were said to have taken place here, according to the sources, it seems unlikely that this ever actually happened.5
While the sites are commonly referred to as hillforts (being situated on hills and all, except for Cruachain), there is a growing consensus among archaeologists that such a term is misleading. Excavations have been few and far between, but the sites are generally marked by circular enclosures with earthen ramparts and an internal ditch – more like prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge or Aveury, than a hillfort. Such an arrangement does not give a defensive advantage as the term hillfort would imply and so their purpose would seem to be primarily ritualistic rather than defensive.6 Although purely speculative, it has been suggested that the bank and ditch format would allow onlookers to get a good view of the ritual going on inside the enclosure, while being kept symbolically separate from it by the ditch as they stood on the bank, something that appears to have been a marked feature at Dun Ailinne in particular.7
Although excavations have been limited, what we know of the sites can help inform us on how the Iron Age Irish approached ritual, and how their use of space reflected their religious and cosmological beliefs, especially how they related to the land around them. Since the layout of the buildings within these sites can often be seen to be reflected within domestic dwellings, elements of which have been preserved through the centuries until recent times, we can find important insights into how we might structure our own ritual space.
Tara is perhaps the most important of the sacred sites in Ireland, being the political centre (mythologically, if not literally). Any king hoping to lay claim to the high kingship of Ireland had to be king of Tara as well, and it seems for the most part Tara fell under the political dominion of the kings of Leinster, and then the Uí Néill.8 The rite of inaugurating the king would have taken place at the main centre in the area, and so the high king would have been inaugurated at Tara. According to the Dindshenchas, the Lia Fáil, Stone of Destiny, which is thought to have been originally situated on the Mound of Hostages in Tara, was supposed to utter a cry to proclaim the legitimacy of the new king.9
Unlike other royal sites, however, Tara was not the focus of any of the annual óenig – assemblies of the king’s subjects at particular times of the year (usually one of the quarter days) where the king renewed his relationship with his subjects through feasting, games and all sorts of legal and commercial business. Instead, the king of Tara supposedly presided over the óenach held at Tailtiu at Lugnasad, linking him with Lugh and his foster-mother Tailtiu, after which the place is named. Tara seems to have been reserved for inauguration only, and as such was the site of the royal Feis, ‘feast’ at Samhainn.10 This feast, Binchy argues, was originally held once in every king’s reign, and was “a primitive fertility rite culminating in the apotheosis of the sacred king.”
The mythology associated with Tara presents us with further information in addition to what the archaeology can tell us, and a description of the hall at Tara in the Battle of Mag Rath tells us how it was (supposedly) laid out:
“And he (Domnall) summoned the men of Ireland to this feast at Tara. A couch was prepared for Domnall in the midst of the royal palace at Tara and afterwards the host were seated. The men of Munster in the southern quarter of the house. The men of Connaught in the western part of the house. The men of Ulster in the northern. The men of Leinster in the eastern side of it. And in the middle of the hall sat the five kings. The centre of Ireland around Domnall in that house. Thus was the court made…”11
Whether this was the actual layout of the halls preserved in the tale, or simply a description made up for the tale to reflect the spirit of the political geography of the time is uncertain, but it does reflect the debates found in the legal tract Tech Midchuarta which argues for a rigid order of seating, according to status.12 It seems that the seating arrangements varied according to whether it was a king of the northern Uí Néill or southern Uí Néill was sitting as high king,13 so this seems to show the cosmological importance of how the manmade structure of the hall was meant to reflect the land itself. In this light, Gaelic Polytheists can use the same principle in the layout of their formal ritual space if they so wish.
At Dún Ailinne, the seat of the Leinster kings in the historical sources,14 a series of three timber structures are known to have occupied the centre of the enclosure. The first structure was a relatively simple affair consisting of a circular palisaded enclosure that was approximately 22m in diameter. The next structure was also circular, with another enclosure forming an annex to one side. Inside the building were concentric circles of timber, which have been interpreted as forming several platforms of different height, providing a focus into the centre. The structure was surrounded by concentric palisades and posts which were intended to create a funnel through which the central structure could be approached. The final structure was similar in style, and the size of the timbers of the central building suggest they may have been up to 3-4m tall.15
The features all combine to suggest a deliberate focus leading to and from the centre of the site, and seem to have been similar in style to Navan Fort which came into use at roughly the same time as Dún Ailinne was abandoned, except for evidence of sporadic, possibly seasonal use.
Navan Fort (Emain Macha)
Navan Fort is perhaps the most extensively excavated and intriguing site, and typically for a ritual site there is little material evidence of occupation or use, or any other evidence that can provide firm dating. By its old name, Emain Macha, it was the capital of the province of Ulster, and the goddess Macha is intimately associated with the area – not just at the hillfort, but also lending her name to the modern centre of Armagh, Ard Macha.
Emain Macha is situated about 5km west of Armagh and consists of an enclosure with an internal ditch – like Tara and Dún Ailinne – and two visible structures. Use of the site appears to date as far back as the Neolithic (the late Stone Age), into the Bronze and then Iron (signifying Celtic) Age.16
Inside the bank and ditch enclosure are two mounds, originally thought to have been Bronze Age barrows, but excavation has shown otherwise. The larger mound was found to have a complex deposit of archaeology, with evidence of a series of eight roundhouses that had been rebuilt several times. The entrances to the roundhouses always faced east, which is also typical of domestic dwellings, suggesting a cosmological/symbolic significance in their layout as at Tara – perhaps the structures were meant to symbolise the religious significance of the home, for example.
After the eight roundhouses on the larger mound came the most intriguing structure. It consisted of a central post with six concentric rings of paired posts – 275 timbers in all – joined together by planking, along with three aisles forming an ‘ambulatory’. The whole structure measured 40m in diameter, and the central post is known to have been felled in 94BCE. It is unclear whether the structure was roofed or not, but shortly after being built it was buried by stones to a height of 2.5m, and the posts projecting out of the cairn were burned and the whole thing was then covered with soil.17
No floor had been laid inside the structure and no central hearth was found, reinforcing the idea that the structure was not for domestic purpose. Archaeologist Chris Lynn has pointed out the similarities of it with a bruidne, a type of hostelry found within mythology that was used for feasting and then purposely destroyed once the feast was over. Moreover, he suggests its construction was deliberately intended to reflect a threefold cosmological construction.18 The scale and effort involved in building and then destroying it would have required a lot of manpower (or ‘mobilization of huge social effort’), and so such effort can only be explained as being ritually motivated in archaeological terms.19
The bile – the sacred tree
Since the central post found in the structure at Navan was likely to have been put in last, it appears that its purpose was more symbolic than structural (i.e. as a central support post),20 and so may be representative of the bile, the sacred tree of a people or province.
Fergus Kelly notes that while Celtic practice in general laid emphasis on a sacred grove, or nemeton, Irish practice in particular appears to have emphasised the veneration of single trees.21 However, the use of enormous timbers like at Navan isn’t exclusive to Ireland; from as early as the sixth century BCE on the continent and in England, timber uprights appear to have been used in ritual contexts as substitutes for actual trees. Sites include Goldberg and Goloring in Germany, as well as Ivy Chimneys in Essex, England, and Hayling Island, Hampshire.22
According to Irish tradition, these trees were said to be massive in size and scale, being large enough to shelter the entire túath23 – a tradition that suggests the symbolic relationship between the land and the people. It’s perhaps no surprise then that such trees were commonly associated with inauguration sites (and rites) throughout Ireland, and that Medb, commonly regarded as having once been a sovereignty goddess, was said to possess her own tree as well.24
Such trees “…notionally stood at the centre of the tribal territory symbolising its integrity and cohesion,”25 and the term ‘bile’ may possibly be connected to Bile, ancestor of the Milesians. Perhaps this hints at a remnant of an origin tale involving such a tree, with the Milesians – the ancestors of the Irish people – having descended from a sacred tree and presumably a goddess who was representative of the waters of Ireland;26 or perhaps it relates to the idea of the family tree. As Alden Watson says:
“One of the secondary meanings of bile is ‘scion’ or ‘hero’. The tree’s spreading branches made it an apt image for the poet interested in genealogies and so it came to refer to the founder of a dynasty. As it happened, the founders of the family trees in which the poets took the greatest interest were the progenitors of the lines which belonged to their kingly patrons. In this way, bile came to refer to a king.”27
Or, in this case, perhaps the ultimate ancestor himself.
The bile were considered to be so sacred that the deliberate damaging or felling of them was prohibted; the felling of a tree by the enemy was a great insult on the people, and there is record of such an occurrence at Télach Óc, the royal inauguration site of the Cenél nÉogain in 1111CE, when the men of Ulster chopped it down.28 Often, however, it was a poet who was responsible for the felling of the bile, and it is significant that the poet was also an integral part of the inauguration ritual:
“It is the poet who hands the rod of kingship to the king. Although bishops and nobility are present, only the poet, the king and the gate-keeper are permitted access to the site. It is the poet, then, who is responsible for performing the ceremony which results in a king. More than a creator of kingship, the poet is its sustainer. After the inauguration, the poet embarks on the lifelong task of preserving through his poetry the sovereign he has created.”29
As Watson further demonstrates, both the poet and king were intimately associated with the concept of sacred wisdom; while the king must display fir flathemon, the poet must use his art to uphold the king’s greatness. Both have an Otherworldly source.30
There were many sacred trees throughout Ireland, although by their nature it is impossible to see them in the archaeological record. Historical sources and placenames provide more information, however, and there are mentions of them at Magh Adhair, County Clare and Tullaghoge, County Tyrone where they formed a clear focal point in localised inauguration rites, and Movile (Co Down) is said to be from Magh-Bile, ‘the plain of the tree’ where St Finian founded a monastery.31 It is possible that the Lia Fáil was originally sited under a tree, and its removal and the destruction of the tree was therefore a double insult, but other than these tidbits, there is little else known.
Five sacred trees in Ireland stood above all others in importance. According to the tale The Settling of the Manor of Tara, the wise man Fintan mac Bochra was given the task of planting the seeds of five trees wherever he thought they would grow in Ireland. He was given the seeds by a mysterious giant called Trefuilngid, who appeared at Tara during a feast, and their purpose was presumably to establish the four quarters from whence the lore of Ireland would be brought to the hearth of Tara to be heard and witnessed. Until Trefuilngid, there were no lore-keepers in Ireland, and so here we see the five sacred trees cementing the form of Ireland for the future, although the exact location of most of them is not certain.32
The five sacred trees were known as the Ash of Tortu, the Bole of Ross (a yew), the Yew of Mugna, the Bough of Dathi (an ash), and the Ash of Uisnech.33 The Dindschenchas tells us that the Yew of Mugna had a trunk that was thirty cubits in girth, and it bore three types of fruit – “…the acorn, the dark narrow nut, and the apple.”34 Some sources list it as an oak and not a yew tree, perhaps because of its association with acorns, but it should be noted that the Irish éo, which refers to a yew tree, can also refer to any tree.35 It should also be noted the whether the sacred trees were ash, oak or yew, they were all of the species in Ireland that grew to the greatest height.36
The ash of Tortu, like many other sacred trees,37 was used as a meeting place for the men of the province – “When the men of Tortu used to meet together round the huge conspicuous tree, the pelting of the storms did not reach them, until the day when it was decayed.”38 When it finally succumbed to the elements, at great age, two parts of the plain’s prosperity went with it, and fifty men were crushed.
Evidence for the bile can also be found outside of Ireland, in placename evidence in Gaul with names such as Bilem in France,39 and trees such as the yew of Fortingall, situated near the traditional centre of Scotland at Duneaves (Taigh-neimhidh in Gaelic, giving evidence that the place was considered to be a nemeton, a sacred site) as well as other sacred trees associated with inauguration sites and sites dedicated to early Christian saints in Scotland.40
Scottish praise poetry preserves the relationship between the bile and the king or chief, reflecting the intimate relationship between the king and the land:
“You were the highest tree in the forest
You were visible above every thicket
Keeping the grove protected
With your verdant beauty of blossoming foliage.”41
This relationship can also be seen in the legend of Tobar na Bile (the well of the tree) between Torran and Inverliver, where it is said that when a chieftain of Inverliver went abroad, his jester noticed that the water at the well began to disappear, until one day it returned again. On seeing the supply of water restored, the jester rejoiced and declared the chieftain had returned to Scotland, which was later proven to be true.42
In some respects then, perhaps the bile can be seen as the physical representation of the sacred union between the king and the land; the symbol of the king’s power over his territory and not just evidence of its integrity and cohesion in general.43
While these trees tend to be ash, oaks or yews, smaller trees have also taken on a sacred quality, particularly when associated with wells, and in the case of the legend of Inverliver, it can be seen that it is the well associated with the tree that reflects the fact the chieftain has left and so the land is effectively chieftainless. Other such wells can be found at Easter Ross, with the Well of the Yew (although the tree is no more), and the ‘wishing-tree’ – an oak – of Isle Maree where the insane were brought for healing. In some cases, these trees were seen to be intimately connected with the powers of the wells they were associated with, and James MacInlay notes at least one example where the, “In the parish of Monzie, Perthshire, is a mineral well held in much esteem till about the year 1770. At that time two trees, till then the guardians of the spring, fell, and with their fall its virtue departed.”44
At many of these wells, which are often associated with healing and so visited to help cure particular ailments, illnesses and problems such as infertility, the trees are often involved in the rituals associated with the well. Generally the wells are approached before sunrise, walked round three times (deiseal – sunwise), and then water is taken from the well and drunk. Before leaving, something is left – a penny, pin or button is thrown into the well – or else something is left at the tree associated with the well, in order to symbolically leave the trouble or ailment behind, with the offering.45
In one case we are told that at the well known as Tobar Bhile na Beinne, “Anyone who drank its water left some equivalent to the fairy who was supposed to guard it. ‘Beside it was a very old elm tree with a hole in the side and a hollow in the middle, and into this hole was thrown anything given; and in my young days I remember it being full of all sorts of things – coins, pins, buttons, beads, of which it has all been emptied long ago…’”46 McNeill tells us that anyone who might steal something that had been left at a well, would take on the problem themselves.47
Often the trees are hawthorns or hazels, trees particularly associated with Otherworldliness, and instead of coins or buttons etc, rags or ribbons that have been dipped in the well might be tied to its branches instead – these are often called Clootie trees (clootie meaning ‘rag’).There has been some speculation that such practices can be linked back to the pit offerings of the Iron Age Celts, where evidence for wooden poles or even whole trees have been found to have been deposited into a large pit along with other offerings such as animals, tools, objects and even human remains. Whatever the case, these wells associated with trees can be found in early medieval Irish literature, in particular in the tale of the Well of Segais, where hazel nuts were said to fall and anyone who drank of the water (or ingested the nuts, depending on the version) would gain great knowledge.48
An integral element of the king’s inauguration was the symbolic marriage to the land over which he ruled.49 A good king, ruling rightfully, would (in mythological terms, at least) rule over a prosperous and peaceful land, and so here in the verse the blossoming tree signifies the chief’s just rulership of his people and territory. Where the land failed and became barren, the king was shown to be unjust and his rule was forfeit; where the king became physically blemished, the same rule also applied.50 It was because of this that Nuadu was forced to give up the kingship in favour of Bres in The Battle of Mag Tured, after he lost his arm. Likewise, Mac Con was removed from his position after he gave false judgement. The side of his house where the false judgement was given fell down, and: “After that he was a year in the kingship of Tara and no grass came through the earth, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. So the men of Ireland expelled him from his kingship for he was an unlawful ruler.”51
Since the land was so integral to the well-being of the people who lived and worked on it, obviously its fertility was of great importance. The contract between the king’s rule and his land was often expressed in terms of a marriage between him and a sovereignty goddess who was a personification of the land. Figures such as Macha, Ériu and Medb bear the traits of sovereignty goddesses in Irish myth, often appearing as terrible hags before a potential king and demanding a kiss or intercourse from them. Niall of the Nine Hostages willingly slept with the hag who challenged him, where his brothers refused to give even a kiss, and as a result became the king of the Uí Néill, for example.52
As a result, the inauguration rite for a king was termed a wedding feast, and Giraldus Cambrensis details one such ceremony where the king had intercourse with a horse and then bathed in its blood and ate its flesh. While the mention of the horse makes sense – sovereignty goddesses such as Macha were commonly associated with horses, suggesting a symbolic link between them, and comparatively speaking horse sacrifices took place in many societies of Indo-European origin – the description smacks of some sort of hideous pagan eucharist devised by Giraldus’ imagination to shock the reader and demonstrate the barbarism of the Irish. The fact that his own family played a significant part in the Anglo-Norman invasion and had a vested interest in bringing the Irish back into the Christian fold (as they saw it) probably had a lot to do with it.53
According to Irish sources it seems likely that the king may have been symbolically chosen by a woman representing the sovereignty of the land, who then gave him a drink to signify her approval of him as king. The fact that Medb’s name means ‘intoxicating one’ further reinforces the idea that the goddess would choose the king, just as she would challenge him to prove his worth.54 This probably took place at the Feis – usually translated as ‘feast’ but it is significant that it is etymologically related to the Old Irish fo-aid ‘to spend the night, to sleep with.’55
The Annals of Ulster record the last Feis Temro, ‘Feast of Tara’, taking place in the sixth century AD, and it was then revived some three centuries later in a way that appeared to look back on the original meaning of the Feis, but at some remove.56 By the time of Geoffrey Keating’s The History of Ireland, we are told that the great king Ollamh Fodla instituted the Feast of Tara, every three years at Samhain. This was a time when:
“…a great general assembly like a parliament, in which the nobles and the ollamhs of Ireland used to meet at Tara every third year at Samhain, where they were wont to lay down and to renew rules and laws, and to approve the annals and records of Ireland. There, too, it was arranged that each of the nobles of Ireland should have a seat according to his rank and title. There, also, a seat was arranged for every leader that commanded the soldiery who were in the service of the kings and the lords of Ireland. It was also the custom at the Feis of Tara to put to death anyone who committed violence or robbery, who struck another or who assaulted another with arms, while neither the king himself nor anyone else had power to pardon him such a deed. It was also their custom to pass six days in feasting together before the sitting of the assembly, namely, three days before Samhain and three days after it, making peace and entering into friendly alliances with each other.”57
Ostensibly then, the Feis was a time for the men of Ireland to unite under the high king of Tara in order to transact legal proceedings and matters of justice. Implicit in this tradition, with the seating arrangements being made according to rank, is the idea that the high king’s position was being reaffirmed and recognised by those present. On a more local level, annual assemblies (óenach) were held by provincial kings for similar purposes (and later, commercial ones as well), in which the people of his túath and other túatha over which he had influence would attend.
These assemblies were required of the king by law.58 Perhaps the best known of these was the Óenach Tailten, the Fair of Tailtiu held each year at Lugnasad under the auspices of the king of Tara, in honour of the death of Tailtiu, foster-mother of Lug who is said to be the originator of all the assemblies in Ireland.59 The fact that these assemblies or feis were held on ritually significant days is also important. As the Rees brothers wrote: “The great ‘Feast of Tara’ was held at Samhain, a time of year when the citadel was more than usually prone to attacks from síd folk such as Aillén mac Midhna who used to come at Samhain every year to burn up the fort and all its gear…On this night of mischief and confusion, the four provincial kings and their people sat four-square around the king of Ireland, symbolizing and asserting the cosmic structure of the state and of society while chaos reigned outside.”60
At the óenach, it was customary for all sorts of rivalries and arguments to be set aside at these assemblies. Trouble and strife were set aside and peace reigned. Feasting reaffirmed the plentiful bounty provided by the king during his reign, and everyone sat in their proper place. Should any of these things be challenged or overturned, there were dire consequences indeed. Usually in Irish law transgressions against another person could be settled by financial remuneration from the transgressor to the injured party, but on these days, as outlined by a poem on the Feast of Tara:
“Three days before Samhain, according to custom,
Three days thereafter, good the practice,
Did that high-spirited company
Pass in constant feasting, a week.
Robbery, personal wounding,
Were forbidden them all that time;
Assault at arms, cutting,
Proceedings by litigation:
Whoever did any of these things
Was a wicked culprit of much venom;
Redeeming gold would not be accepted from him,
But his life was at once forfeit.”61
Similar sentiments are made in the Dindshenchas poem on Carmun, which like the Fair of Tailtiu, was held at Lugnasad:
“Whoever transgresses the law o the kings
Benen prescribed firmly for ever that he should not thrive in his tribe,
but should die for his mortal sin.”62
Given the supernatural importance of these days, which generally heralded the start of a new season, thoughts were turned to the coming year and omens often sought in order to determine how the year would turn out. As the Rees brothers put it, “No transgression of the customary hierarchy could be allowed to go unchallenged, for it had the force of an omen of the way things would be in the ensuing year or period.”63
For the king, as well, any trouble would reflect negatively on his reign in the coming year, since the mark of a good king was one who reigned in peace, plenty and with justice for his people. In fact, observing the assemblies themselves were important for the success of the king and his people. For the men of Leinster, neglect of these assemblies was said to result in “…baldness, weakness, early greyness, kings without keenness or jollity, without hospitality or truth.”64 Dire consequences would also befall the men of Ulster, and we are told, “Everyone of the Ulstermen who would not come to Emain at Allhallow-Eve lost his senses, and on the morrow his barrow and his grave an his tombstone were placed.”65
These assemblies were therefore times for reaffirming the status quo of the people within the tribe. However, there was also the opportunity, through the races and games that were held during them, for men of the túatha to prove themselves as warriors or men of art and gain a higher status. In renewing the relationship between the king and his people, society could start fresh and begin anew, but the focus was not just on the future prosperity of the tuath, but also on the past. The dindshenchas gives plenty of examples – such as at Carmun and Tailtiu – where legendary women died during a great struggle of one sort or another, and so the assemblies were held in their honour at the place of their death in order to commemorate them, thus reaffirming the sanctity of the land around them.66
Whereas men typically ventured onto the sea in order to explore the Otherworldly, spiritual elements of life, Irish myth often shows us that the Otherworldly beings of Ireland – the aes síde – did not usually seek to make contact with mortal man from the Otherworldly ocean, but from the land itself.
As Alwyn and Brinley Rees put it, “Although the four great provinces and the centre constitute the state, the ordered cosmos, they do not comprise all that is. Beyond the confines of Ireland and beneath its surface lies another ‘world’…Celtic stories are largely concerned with the intrusion upon the cosmos of strange chaotic beings and with the adventures of mortals who enter the Other World.”67
As the myths have it, the Tuatha Dé Danann, upon being defeated by the Sons of Míl, agreed to split the land in half. The Sons of Míl would live above ground, and the Tuatha Dé Danann would live below ground. They therefore retreated to the hills and prehistoric mounds of Ireland, where they lived in an idealised paradise, a place just like Ireland but where there was no death or suffering and people never wanted for anything. The gods effectively became demoted to the daoine síth, a word which is etymologically related to the same word meaning peace in old Irish, reflecting the dualistic nature of the place they resided.68 The síd mounds were on the one hand their homes, and on the other hand, they were idealised reflections of the land above them.
More often than not, these Otherworldly beings sought contact with the kings and heroes of Ireland, and were most commonly encountered on or near the mounds or hills that were thought to be entrances to these Otherworldly places. When a king had ruled unjustly, he might meet a mysterious woman on such a mound, which would often be described as being stripped bare to subtly reflect the king’s wrongdoing (such as in The Battle of Mag Mucrama, for example). In this tale, king Ailill falls asleep on a fairy mound one Samhainn night and wakes in the morning to find the mound has been stripped inexplicably bare. The same thing happens the next night, and on the third night a woman appears who sucks his ear until there is no flesh left. Through the motif of the barren land and his physical blemish at the hands of a mysterious woman, Ailill’s right to rule the land is withdrawn by the land itself through supernatural means.
One notable element of the tale is the fact that it took place at Samhainn. Throughout Irish myth and tradition (as well as Scottish), the Quarter Days – and most especially Samhainn – were considered to be a time of danger, when supernatural beings who were usually snugly tucked away in their mounds would roam the countryside and kidnap or cause trouble for any unwitting traveller they happened to come across. This was a time when the links between the two worlds merged and became something else – neither this world nor the Otherworld. While the land could nurture and provide for its people, naturally it could also be a dangerous place.
People were so fearful of these Otherworldly beings that they were propitiated to a great extent. The lines between spirit, daoine sìth, gods and ancestors have always been blurred in Ireland and Scotland, and so these spirits, gods, and ancestors were venerated. In working the land, people would often set aside a portion of the crop and even the land itself for the Good Folk, or Gentry, as they were often called. In Scotland, smooth round stones could often be found in fields, where libations of milk were left by milkmaids and labourers to ensure a could supply of milk and a good harvest for the year. Otherworldly beings such as gruagachs were said to look after the cows if they were so inclined, but their benevolence had to be bought. In Ireland, oatmeal and butter were popular offerings left out for them, often with whisky.69
Summing it all up…
All in all, then, the land was very much perceived as being a living entity in many respects – something that had to be respected and looked after. The bile, or sacred tree was at the centre of a túath’s land (figuratively if not literally), and it was considered tabu to damage or fell such trees because of their great importance and protective qualities over its people. The tree was tended to and looked after, and its flourishing was seen as a sign of good leadership from the king.
Some scholars (and reconstructionists) view the bile as an axis mundi – the tree being at the centre of the province and standing with its branches reaching up to heaven and its roots down into the underworld. An epithet given to the Yew of Ross is ‘door of heaven’,70 which is suggestive of supporting such an idea but it should be noted that there is very little else that explicitly shows that the concept of the axis mundi was held in Ireland. The common association of particular trees with wells that are seen as having healing properties would suggest that the well, rather than the roots of the tree tend to be more strongly associated with the chthonic world, with the idea of the tree transmitting its Otherworldly wisdom into the water via the fruit, where it can be drank from. Many of the assemblies that survived into relatively modern times took place at these wells and perhaps can be associated with the bile as well. As Alden Watson demonstrates, the source of the poet’s inspiration as well as the source of the kings True Judgement have Otherworldly origins, and both king and poet are associated with the bile – concepts that therefore become elements in Gaelic Polytheism. At its core, Truth is key.
Archaeological evidence suggests that ritual structures in Ireland were designed to reflect their world around them, and the great posts found at the centre of the structures may have been a manmade representation of the bile. Looking at the way ritual centres such as Navan appear to have been modelled along similar lines as domestic buildings – roundhouses at the time – it could be interpreted that there is a cosmological link between the central hearth of the roundhouse and the central post of the ritual space (although this perhaps risks over-emphasising the importance of Navan…). The ritual structure was set alight shortly after being built, and fire was also associated with a yew tree – presumably the bile – in Munster, where it was said the founder of the dynasty of kings at Cashel would be the first to light a fire underneath a particular yew on a rock.71 Perhaps, then, the central hearth (even found today in traditional houses),72 can be seen to be associated with the concept of the sacred tree – both being sacred centres, both being sources associated with the well-being of the people. ‘Where is the middle of the world?’ goes an Irish riddle. ‘Here’, or, ‘Where I am,’ is the correct answer.73
For some Gaelic Polytheists then, the hearth becomes an integral focal point of ritual practice – doubly so since the great fires that were lit during the great assemblies were mirrored by the hearth fires in domestic dwellings, which were often lit from the central fires and kept burning throughout the year. The flames are tended, social ties are reinforced with tales and gossip around it, sustenance is gained from the warm food it provides…
In later times the spiritual importance of this centrality can be found in the fact that households would use the local priest’s hearth fire from which to light their own, in place of the more pagan traditions.74
Another epithet for the Yew of Mugna calls it ‘a firm-strong god’75 that suggests a direct link with divinity – a direct representation of the (or a) deity of the tuath. We see from this, and the tales of the Dindshenchas as well as the myths and legends, that the gods are intimately associated with the land. While the people of Ireland imposed their own notion of order upon the land in dividing it into political quarters, they also respected it and venerated it. The land itself was represented by a sovereignty goddess (or several localised deities) who was the tutelary deity of a túath, and she could be fearsome to behold or benevolent, reflecting the condition of the land and her relationship with the king. As the king was representative of his people, this relationship becomes threefold between the people, the king and the goddess or gods of the tuath in general. Some of these gods came to grouped as the Tuatha Dé Danann in the medieval literature, who then became the síd in order to explain the passing of their influence in favour of the Milesians, whereas became more shadowy figures of the tales – former goddesses becoming out of control, promiscuous queens like Medb.
There were also the spirits and ancestors who were seen to walk the land at various times, helping or hindering depending on the time of year, circumstance, and even the clan you belonged to. The line between god, spirit and ancestor was often blurred and so they remain today. As they were propitiated with offerings by the folk, so reconstructionists aim to do the same. One of the added difficulties for many reconstructionists, most of whom don’t live in Ireland or Scotland, is reconciling the differences between their specific location and cultural traditions. KILLYOUANDEATYOU, a guide by Raven nic Rhóisín and Kathryn Price NicDhàna can help with this.
These are just some of the key elements associated with talam, the earth. The next article will deal with the realm of nem, the sky.
1 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p120.
2 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p64.
3 Wailes, ‘Dun Ailinne’, The Celts, Sabtino Moscati, p614.
4 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p156, but read the whole chapter for a full idea. The Rees brothers present some interesting cosmological ideas based on their interpretation of myths and historical sources, and their book is well worth a read. It should be said, however, that their work should be viewed with some caution; on the one hand they are overly fond of using comparisons from Indian sources like the Rig Veda, and while some similarities from an Indo-European heritage are undeniable, it could be said that they over-egg the pudding on this in some places (to say the least…). Similarities don’t mean the same. On the other hand, they also tend to be less critical of the sources they use in constructing their cosmological ideas, so while one myth, or one source, might give some interesting ideas to draw from, it’s entirely questionable as to how widespread these ideas were in Irish cosmological perceptions, and how applicable these ideas were to other stories.
5 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ p113.
6 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p65.
7 Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland, 1994, p158.
8 Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland, 1994, p191.
9 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p67.
10 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ p114-115.
11 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p147.
12 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ p127.
13 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p384.
14 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p71.
15 Wailes. ‘Dún Ailinne’, The Celts, Sabatino Moscati, p614-615; Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p71-74.
16 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p75.
17 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p74-79; Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland, 1994, p155-157.
18 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p180.
19 See Lynn, ‘Navan Fort’, The Celts, Sabatino Moscati, p610-611; Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p74-79.
20 Lynn, ‘Navan Fort’, The Celts, Sabatino Moscati, p610.
21 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, p388.
22 Aldhouse-Green, Seeing the Wood for the Trees: The Symbolism of Trees and Wood in Acient Gaul and Britain, 2000, p15-16.
23 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, p211.
24 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p61.
25 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p83.
26 MacCulloch, Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p202.
27 Watson, ‘Kings, Poets and Sacred Trees,’ p170.
28 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, p388.
29 Watson, ‘Kings, Poets and Sacred Trees,’ p177.
31 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p83.
32 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p119-120.
34 Eo Mugna, The Metrical Dindshenchas.
35 Watson, ‘Kings, Poets and Sacred Trees,’ p 165.
36 Watson, ‘Kings, Poets and Sacred Trees,’ p 179.
37 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p61.
38 The Metrical Dindshenchas.
39 Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, p61.
40 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, p211.
41 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, p212.
42 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p187.
43 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, p212.
44 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p234.
45 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p251; Gregor, Notes on the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p59; McNeill, 1957, The Silver Bough Vol 1, p67.
46 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p251.
47 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, p67. See also: “The latter was the symbol, or rather the embodiment of the former, and accordingly, to leave the gift was to leave the ailment – the patient being thus freed from both. The corrollary to this was, that whoever removed the offering took away also the disease represented by it.” MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p202.
48 See the section on wells and clootie trees.
49 Watson, ‘Kings, Poets and Sacred Trees,’ p 169.
50 Kelly, Early Irish Law, 1988, p18.
51 The Battle of Mag Mucrama, line 66.
52 The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon.
53 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, p17-18.
54 Enright, Lady with a Mead Cup.
55 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, p17.
56 Binchy, The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara, p114-115.
57 Keating, The History of Ireland, p133.
58 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ p124.
59 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ p115.
60 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p156.
61 Keating, The History of Ireland.
62 Carmun, The Metrical Dindshenchas, verse 58.
63 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p156.
64 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p168.
66 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p169.
67 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p154.
68 Ó Cáthasaigh, ‘The Semantics of ‘síd’, Éigse 17, 1977-79, p137.
69 See offerings and The CR FAQ.
70 Watson, ‘Kings, Poets and Sacred Trees,’ p171.
71 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p186.
72 Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, 1982, p327: “The hearth is on center. Directions within the home are set by motion around the fire. You are going ‘down’ when the hearth’s open mouth is behind you, and ‘up’ when it is toward you, and you go up toward the back wall, down toward the door through the front wall. Beyond the home you go ‘down’ to the north and east and ‘up’ to the south and west. Like a swirling swastika, space spins, its four directions extend, then curve, spiraling down or up, merging to embrace half the world, returning, turning through the house to center precisely on the hearth.”
73 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p187.
75 Watson, ‘Kings, Poets and Sacred Trees,’ p171.