Brigid is the much-loved irish saint of kildare as well a pre-Christian Celtic mythical figure. But what connection is there between the two? Just who is Brigid? Sift through the strata of her story with the Story Archaeologists to uncover some unexpected surprises.
Links to other episodes mentioned within the podcast.
Further Discussion on the Well of Sláine: Airmid Revisited Further discussion on Ethliu: Ethliu Revisited Further discussion on Rúadán and the forge of Goibniu Also mentioned in the episode: Corpse Carrying for Beginners and The Cow and the Time Machine Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest podcasts! By The Story Archaeologists. Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello.
According to the early hagiographies, St. Brigid was born at Fochard Muirtheimne, a few miles north of Dundalk, about 450 CE. Though of the strength of this tradition, the place later became known as Fochard Bríde.
On the hill nearby, are the remains of an Iron Age fort, a Norman motte-castle and a medieval church. St Brigid’s Well is in the graveyard. There is also the base of an old cross and a horseshoe-shaped mound.
I visited the site in 1990, but have not had the opportunity to return since. However, I found it a fascinating experience, particularly the stations along the stream. Each is supposed to help cure problems with a particular part of the body.
For example, at station 8, is the Waist Stone, for illnesses connected with the waist or hips.
The Eye Stone is to be found at station 9. This holds water for washing the eyes to improve vision.
Station 10 is a bit odd. This “Head Stone ” has a shallow indent with a white circle painted around it. As far as I know, you have to put the top of your head in the concave circle, presumably to treat heaaches.
The strangest stone of all is at station 6. This is the Hoof Stone. I am uncertain how this one is applied!
It is a calm and beautiful place, but there was one thing that surprised me in my visit all those years ago. I might even say it came as a shock. I was perfectly prepared to encounter the long established folk practice of tying rags to a thorn tree.As I understand the intended purpose of this practice, problems would be solved as the rag decayed. However, here I saw. not rags,, but plastic bags tied on a barbed wire fence. This gave a completely different impression. No natural decay here!
I have seen the same in other places since, and am no longer surprised. However, it would seem that the ancient practice now has a somewhat different significance for the participants.
Every parish in Ireland has its holy well, with specific healing properties and a “pattern day” (Patron Day), where Mass is said and pilgrims perform rituals by the well. In the Arigna area of South Leitrim / Roscommon, one of the best known of these is St. Lassair’s Well in the parish of Killronan, between Keadue and Ballyfarnon.
This well, like many others around the country, is well loved and cared for. It is set into a “garden” sandwiched between a busy (in rural terms!) road and the shore of Lough Meelagh. The main features of this garden are the well itself, surrounded by a stone path and facings, and the “altar”, a flat stone slab on four stone legs, with a bullaun (spherical stone) set on top.
Although I have never attended the pattern day mass, there is ample evidence that the site is continuously used. One use is the cure for bad backs that involves crawling in a figure of eight around the legs of the altar, and someone has kindly laid matting under this slab to prevent muddy knees. The bullaun on top is supposed to be a blessing / cursing stone: you rotate it clockwise for a blessing, anti-clockwise for a curse. The top of the altar is pitted with countless depressions, although this could be the result of some odd form of erosion.
Beside the well itself, folk have left cups to facilitate drinkingof the fresh water. But many people have left offerings there for the answering of their own prayers: asthma inhalers, baby bootees, pens (at exam times) and countless beads. More offerings hang from various trees and thorn bushes surrounding the garden. The well used to be overhung by a large ash tree, and countless pilgrims had hammered coins into the bark as a kind of spiritual tax. So many coins were stuck deep into the tree that it was weakened and had to be removed after it fell in a storm..
As with any saintly figure, one cannot disentangle history from mythology in examining the stories that cluster around a figure such as Lassair. She was said to be the daughter of St. Rónán, for whom the parish of Killronan is named. Her name means “Flame”, and a 17th century hagiography from the Stow Missile reports that this name was given to her when she survived a raging fire. She was apparently so absorbed in the singing of psalms and prayers that she didn’t notice the flames roaring high above her head. The onlookers saw the young woman surrounded by fire, and the name “Lassair” stuck to her from then on. This naming story mirrors almost precisely a story of the young St. Brigid.
There are many stories of her healing of the sick through preparing a draught using her well-water, and also by using mud scraped from the cliff above the well. This is also reported in the 17th century text, and folk still collect this clay for luck and protection. There is a story recounted by Mary Condren in her book “The Serpent and The Goddess” which links Lassair to St. Brigid in a curious way. The story is that St. Brigid came to visit St. Lassair, and so Lassair slaughtered her last ewe in order to provide food for the saint. During the meal, however, St. Patrick then dropped by. Lassair had no more to offer the new guest (presumably both clerics had brought full retinues), and Lassair was at risk of breaking the laws of hospitality. Brigid shared her portion so that Lassair would not lose face, and in gratitude, Lassair gave Brigid her church (of women) and her flock of sheep. Condren reads into this a passing on of the following of a local female figure to the stronger, national figure of Brigi; a handing-on of the flame, or the mantle, to keep practices of female spirituality alive in an increasingly male church.
There is something to be said for this hand-over, and some characteristics that seem native to Lassair are certainly now associated with Brigid. In particular, the coincidence of the flame (Lassair, Brigid’s Fire) and the well seems strongest in central imagery. Both women were depicted as powerful land-owners who provided gracious hospitality and could cure the greivously ill. Both fires still burn brightly in their followers.
edited by Elizabeth Gray
translation and notes by Isolde Carmody
[Terms in bold have notes and discussions below]
544] Tánic didiu frisna Fomore annísin, go tudciset-som fer n-úadaibh de déscin cathai & cosdotha Túath nDéa .i. Rúadán mac Bresi & Bríghi ingene in Dagdai. Ar ba mac-side & ba úa do Thúaith Déa.
124. Things were going against the Fomoire now. So they brought out one of their men to spy on the battalions and encampments of the Túatha Dé: that is, Rúadán, son of Bres and of Brig, daughter of the Dagda. [This was] because he was a son and a grandson of the Túatha Dé.
Atcuaid íerum gním an gaphonn & ant sáeir & an cerdou & na cetri lége rouhátar imon tibrait do Fomoraib.
Then he told the Fomoire about the work of the smith [Goibniu] and the craftsman [Luchta] and the goldsmith [Creidne Cerd], and of the four physicians who were encircling the well.
Rofaíded-som afridisie fri marbod neich den óes dána .i. Gaibniu.
They sent him back again to kill one of the Crafted Ones: that is, Goibniu.
Tothloigestar gai ó ssoide, a semonn ón cerdai, & a crand ónt sóer. Debreth íerum amal asbert.
He requested a spear-blade from him, its rivets from the goldsmith, and its shaft from the carpenter. Then that was given to him as he had stated.
Baí dano ben and fri bleth arm .i. Crón máthair Fíanluig; is í rus-meil gaí Rúadáin.
There was also a woman there sharpening weapons; that is, Crón the mother of Fianlach. It is she who ground Rúadán’s spear.
Dobreth dí Rúadán didiu an gaí ó máthri, conud de sin doberar “gaí máthri” de garmnaib beus a n-Érinn.
The spear was given to Rúadán therefore by his maternal kin, and it is from that that weaver’s beams are also called “the spear of the maternal kin” in Ireland.
554] Immesoí didiu Rúadán íer tabairt in gaí dó, & geogoin Goibninn.
Rúadán turned suddenl after the spear was given to him and he wounded Goibniu.
Tíscais-side an gaí as & fochaird for Rúadán co lluid trít; & co n-érbailt ar bélaib a athar a n-oirecht na Fomore.
He drew the spear out of himself and cast it at Rúadán so that it went through him. Then he died in front of his father at the parliament of the Fomoire.
Tic Bríc & cáines a mac. Éghis ar tós, goilis fo deog.
Bríg came and keened for her son. First she cried out, then she wept.
Conud and sin roclos gol & égem ar tós a n-Érinn.
It was [as though? / ] then that weeping and crying were first heard in Ireland.
(Is sí didiu an Prích-sin roairich feit do caismeirt a n-oidci.)
(It is she also who is the Bríg that created a hiss to signal at night.)
áes [óes] dána:
Áes is a word denoting a group or class of persons, very much like lucht below. It especially applies to members of a profession when followed by a genitive, as in this case with dána. Dán is a word which has “craft” at its root, but is especially used of poetry, which is seen as a craft or skill. In Modern Irish, a poem is still called dán. Áes Dána is sometimes used as a synonym for Túatha Dé Danann, and indeed both can be interpreted as “people of craft / poetry”.
Áes Dána is still a term in use in modern Ireland. Being a Republic, we do not have an honours system. The Aosdána was established by the Arts Council in 1981 to honour creative artists of Ireland. Its members are selected by peers and through election. From among no more than 250 people, 7 Saoi, “sages”, are selected. The title is conferred by the President of Ireland and is a life-time position.
You can read more about the modern Aosdána here: http://aosdana.artscouncil.ie/
[NOTE: This paragraph also appears in “Texts of Eithliu”]
Bres is introduced as a member of the Fomoire, the undersea people who place the Túatha Dé Danann under a heavy tax, leading to the (second) Battle of Moytura. That saga (Cath Maige Tuired) features “The Conception of Bres” very near the beginning, and gives some explanation of his name. His father, Elatha Mac Delbaeth, says he will be so beautiful that after him, any beautiful thing will be called a “bres”. The name itself seems to originate from bres meaning “fight”, “blow”, “effort”, or “uproar”, “din”; then, by extension, a hero, chief or great man. Interestingly, there are instances where it seems to mean “beautiful” or “valuable”, but it is hard to know whether this meaning is the root of the saga explanation or vice versa. I think the naming of the Fomorian king as “Bres” also plays on bras, a word meaning “boastful” or “forward”, particularly implying someone who makes false claims to greatness. This seems to fit with how Bres is characterised in Cath Maige Tuired.
If you search for the name “Brigit” in a source as supposedly reliable as the Dictionary of the Irish Language, published by the Royal Irish Academy, the first entry is “name of goddess or member of triad of goddesses”. The main source for this, which has been taken up repeatedly, is Cormac Úa Chuilleanáin’s Glossary. I have often pointed out the unreliable nature of the glossaries when it comes to understanding language, and this is just as true of this 9th century bishop’s imagining of Ireland before the advent of Christianity. To give him credit, he does cite Brigit as daughter of the Dagda, and Brig is described as such in our extract from Cath Maige Tuired.
As to the meaning of the name, there are two main candidates: brí, “hill”, and bríg, “power, force, strength”. Many have gone for the latter as their preferred root, but I favour the former. My reasoning is partly the strong association between Celtic peoples and the ancestral figure Brigantia, who is the source of the assumption that we, in Ireland, also had a pre-Christian mythical figure of a similar name. Celtic settlements are identified archaeologically by a distincive hill-top fortification; a type not found on the island of Ireland. It makes sense to me that a people favouring hill-tops might have an ancestress whose name is related to bri, “hill”. I can also imagine a development of meaning from “hill” to “high” to “exalted” or “powerful”; bringing us to bríg. I am open to correction from historical linguists!
There is another curious linguistic connection which has specific relevance to our story. Brig’s actions are to keen or lament vocally, and she is said to have created an aural signalling system. There is further the mention of garman, which relates to “calling” (see below). As well as bríg having a sense of “meaning” or “tenour” – a meaning that has survived into Modern Irish brí - there is a verb, brigaid, which has the meanings “shows, declares, displays”. I do not know the etymological root of this verb, unless it somehow comes from bríg in its sense of “meaning”, “essence”. Even if coincidental, the composer of our story seems centrally concerned with acts of vocalising.
The intended verb here is surely caínid, “laments, keens”, rather than cáinid, “satirises” – no matter how much a mother might be cross with her son! In fact, caínid is where we get the English term “keens”.
In many cultures, funerals are accompaned by professional or semi-professional keeners, and these are very often women. Keening is generally a very public, very audible expression of grief. In Ireland, by early Modern times, professional keeners would compose a eulogy for the dead, often ex tempore. There is evidence to suggest that these poets were often women as well.
Caínid is distinguished from, though related to, égem, “shout, cry”, and gol, “weeping”. Indeed, this is how Brig’s lament is structured in the story – an initial shout followed by weeping.
Creidne has two possible roots, both of which seem appropriate to the craftsman working with soft metals. Firstly, there is créda, “earthen, from the clay”. There is a somewhat synthetic explanation of créd as “tin”. Since crédumae is “bronze” and umae is “copper”, then créd must be “tin” as the other ingredient of bronze. Linguistically, créd- is simply the combinatory form of cré, “earth, clay”, much as con- is a combinatory form of cú, “hound”.
The second root is crett, “framework”. It is often used of the “chasis” of a chariot, and then sometimes as made from bronze. It is also used of the framework or timbers of a boat, a tree-trunk and a human body. This root-word seems appropriate in the context of our story in terms of the structural role played by the rivets supplied by Creidne Cerd.
Cerd is a term meaning “craftsman, artisan”, most often applied to silver- and gold-smiths. It can also apply to the craft or skill itself, and thereby to an occupation or way of life.
This is a characteristically tricky colour-word (see “Many Shades of Darkness”). It has variously been translated as “brown”, “reddish-brown”, “dark yellow” and “red”. It is used substantively to mean “the Abyss”, “the Pit of Hell”; and the verbal noun crónugud seems to mean “twilight”.
Some illumination of this Abyss may come from the word crúan. This is some kind of ornamental material, usually translated as “red enamel”, a favourite decoration in medieval Irish metalwork. In support of the colour as a blood-red, it is used in the poem Buile Suibne in the phrase: caor[a] . . . crúandatha cuilinn, “blood-red berries of holly”.
It is possible that crón is related to crú, “blood, gore”, which becomes cró- in compounds. The sense of crú extends both to a blood-red colou and to a serious or fatal wound, both of which are appropriate to our story. It can also be used to indicate race or family relationship, much as we would use “blood” in modern English.
[NOTE: This paragraph is identical to the note on the Dagda in “Texts of Eithliu”.]
aka Eochaid Ollathar. In Cath Maige Tuired [lines 423 - 426], he gives his full name:
“Fir Benn Bruaich Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Trí Carboid Roth Rimairie Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe.”
For now, we shall look at the name by which he is most commonly known; the Dagda. Firstly, it is worth noting that this apellation always has the definite article; in = “the”. The Morrigan also always has the definite article, and these two characters are closely linked in Cath Maige Tuired.
As for Dagda, the medieval glossators analysed this as dag-día “good god”. However, I have not come across any examples where día, “god”, changes to da. Día has forms such as dea, deu, dé etc., but the -da element of the Dagda’s name is very consistent. Its genetive form is Dagdae or Dagda, and dative form Dagdo, Dagdea. Only this last form would be a possible form from dag-día, “good god”.
I propose that it is a dvandva compound; a word that is doubled for emphasis. As a comparison, note that Irish people sometimes say “at all at all” for emphasis. In which case, Dagda would be a doubling of da- / dag, “good”, making him “the best of the best”!
I was always a bit non-plussed by the standard translation of this line: “Now this is the Brig who invented a whistle [fét] for signalling at night”. I could neither make sense of the relevance of the “aside”, nor of why a whistle might be especially good for signalling at night. However, once I looked into the related meanings of fét, a different picture emerged.
The sense in which fét is a whistle is the sense of a sword whistling through the air, or some other process involving blowing, such as the whistling of the wind. Fét is very often the word used to describe the hiss of a snake, and I think using a hiss to signal at night would be more effective than a whistle.
Then I came across this intriguing triad from the Book of Ballymote:
tri gotha diabhuil….i. fead ┐ gul ┐ eigeamh
“three diabolical voices i.e. hissing and weeping and shrieking”
All three of these “diabolical voices” are ascribed to Brig in our story: her keening starts with égem, “shrieking”, then moves to gol, “weeping”, and finally she is attributed with fét, “hissing”. Brig’s role seems to connect with vocalisations, which further connects to the use of the term garman (see below).
This essentially means a “fían band” or “warrior band”. Fíana were bands of young men whose occupations were hunting and fighting, most familiarly in the many stories of Find [Fionn, Finn] and his Fíana. The derivation of the word is unclear, but it may come from an abstract noun meaning “driving” >> “hunting”. Fíanlach would then make more sense as “hunting band”, and it would be appropriate then that their mother, Crón, would be sharpening blood-red weapons.
Fíanlach later developed a general meaning of “group”, not unlike áes (above) and lucht (below). Perhaps this association suggested this as another character-name in the piece, as I haven’t come across any other characters called Fíanlach as yet. If you have, please leave a comment or contact us!
This is usually translated as “weaver’s beam”, which feels quite obscure. Let us follow its uses and senses to see how it relates to our story.
My first association with garman is from a gloss on a kenning for the Ogam letter nin. In the Tree Ogam, popularised by late medieval scholars in works such as the Auraceipt na nÉces, this letter was given the meaning “ash tree”, despite there already being a letter, ohn, which clearly means “ash tree”, and whose kennings point to that meaning with references to wounding, weapons and warriors (the ash being a favoured material for making spear-shafts). To return to nin, one of its kennings is bāg ban .i. garman, “boast of women i.e. a weaver’s beam”. It is worth remembering that garman here appears as a gloss, and so is not part of the original kenning-poem.
While garman does carry senses of beams, shafts and cudgels (appropriate to the later association with ash-trees), it has a more straight-forward meaning as the nominative plural of gairm, “calling”. The senses in which this veral noun can be used include “cry”, “vocation”, “summons” and the “calling” of the soul from the body at death. To me, understanding garman principally as “callings” or “cries” makes better sense of its relationship to the kenning bág ban, “boast of women”, and to its appearance in our story which deals so much with keening and vocalisations.
It may be that the transference of garman to the sense of “weaver’s beam” may stem from its association with women: women as keeners, women as weavers and the deeply feminine character of nin. Rather than meaning “ash tree”, this Ogam letter relates to the fork of a tree, with its kennings as bág maisi, “boast of beauty”, bág ban, “boast of women” and costud side, “establishing of peace”. This points me to an understanding of nin as vagina, associated widely with forked objects (such as “crutch” <> “crotch”), and with the establishing of peace through sexual relationships between tribal groups.
Goibniu is an n-stem noun with the genitive Goibnann, “of Goibniu”, which gives us the Modern Irish word gabha[nn], “smith”. However, the sense of the goib- part of the name is a little oblique.
The root meaning of gob or gop isa “beak”, “snout” or “muzzle”, and is where we get the modern slang term “gob” for “mouth”. The ancient Irish also used gob as a somewhat pejorative term for a human mouth. It seems most particularly to refer to “beaks”, as it is used figuratively of the head of a spear, which is beak-shaped. It is also used in the plural, goib, as the end of a set of tongs. It is these figurative applications that point us to Goibniu; although he may simply have had a particularly pointy nose.
This comes from the root lucht, which might as well be translated as “stuff”, with a similarly broad range of applications. [The Irish often use the word “yoke” to mean “thing”, because it would have been among the first English words learned by agricultural labourers. Subsequently, if they did not know the English word for something, they would call it a “yoke”].
However, lucht often carries the sense of “load”, “cargo”, “complement”, “capacity”, leading O’Davoran to gloss it as coire, “cauldron”. It also has a meaning of a group, class or category of persons, and has continued into Modern Irish in this sense; e.g. lucht féachana, “audience” [lit. “group of looking”]. This seems to have a primary sense of the people occupying or possessing a place or piece of land; the “complement” of a household. It also applies to groups that make up a profession e.g. lucht ech, “horsemen”, and this may be coming closer to the sense of the character Luchta.
Other words from the same root include luchtaigid, “to load”; luchtaire, “cook, dispenser”; and luchtmar, “well-laden, roomy” often in relation to ships. While it seems clear from stories and glossaries that Luchta worked with wood, it may be in the general sense of wood as a basic substance, a universal cargo. Or it might come from the extensive association with ships and their carrying capacity, in which case we could call him a shipwright.
The primary sense of this name comes from rúad, the colour of dried blood. This is also the colour-word used to describe a “red-head’s” hair, so Rúadán could simply be an appropriate name for a red-haired person, with the -án as a commonly-used diminutive suffix. However, rúad became usedin poetic language to mean “strong”, “mighty” and even “impetuous”; this last coinciding with modern associations of red-heads being “feisty”. Indeed, the impetuosity can be seen in Rúadán’s hurling of the spear at Goibniu, although there is a stronger association with the colour of bloodstains, especially when paired with Crón (see above).
It was the first time keening had been heard in the green land of Ireland. The poetry of mourning, the ritual of the eulogy. Brig keened for her lost son, her impetuous red-headed boy, Rúadán.
Rúadán was dead, killed by the spear of Goibniu, and the smithcraft of the Dé Danann, killed as a spy in the forge..
Why did it have to be her son who was chosen? Why did it have to be him? Not hard, the answer. She herself had played a part in his choosing.
It had been her choosing to give allegiance to Bres, a man of the Fomoire. He was beautiful, yes, and wise in the ways of the land; but he was cruel and miserly. It had seemed fitting when Nuada, leader of her people, the Dé Danann, had been maimed, It had seemed fitting then to choose a chieftain from among the Fomoire, those strange sea people who shared their land,
It had seemed fitting then…
Bres, her husband, had put her people under a great burden of tax, keeping them in poverty. Why, he had even set her own father, the Dagda himself, to work building great ditches of earth.
And battle had not been averted
Now Lug, the Ildánach, master of many crafts, led her people, Lug, who, like Rúadán, was a son and grandson of both the Fomoire and the Dé Danann. Lug, with his Fomorean mother and Dé Danann father. Rúadán, with his Dé Danann mother and Fomoire father
So alike…. only Rúadán was dead.
And all had gone well - at least for the Dé Danann - and now the Fomoire were worried. They sent for Rúadán, one of the few who was welcome in both camps,
“Why is it,” they asked the boy, “that the weapons of the enemy are never blunted? Why is it that warriors we injure return to face us again each day?”
And Rúadán, her son, his father’s son, had answered them.
“Not hard to tell: The warriors were renewed, dipped in the waters of the well of Sláine, Dían Cécht’s well of health.
“Not hard to tell: The weapons are re-sharpened each day in the skilful forge of Goibniu the smith.”
And Rúadán had been sent to the forge of Goibniu to kill the smith, to stop his skill… and she had let him go.
The red-haired youth had found his welcome in the fiery forge as always.
“Make me a spear,” he asked, the ruddy flames lighting his smile, and Gobniu set his hand to the hammer and the iron to the anvil. When the shape of the spear was sharp, Creidne Cerd framed it with rivets and Luchta set it to the shaft.
And Crón took it, finished it with her blood-red mark. She gave it to the red-haired youth.
And this was the moment that Rúadán made his choice. With a cry he lifted the spear and let it fly. It struck the smith, struck him there in his own forge. It wounded him but it did not fell him.
Goibnu plucked the spear from his own flesh and cast it once more. It struck Rúadán full in the breast, struck him and he fell, red in his own blood. There in the forge the youth died.
And Brig mourns for her son who will not be dipped in the waters of the healing well.
And the cadences of her keening are heard in both camps.
Heapstown cairn is not impressive; well, not at first view. Not far away, high on the slopes of the Bricklieve hills, set against the skyline are the bald, one-eyed heads, like ancient Formoire giants. There are so many cairns, each evoking mystery and speculation. Then there is Heapstown, the greatest of all cairns outside the Boyne valley.
Unexpectedly, it is set on low-lying ground and, these days, looks more like a pile of left-over building rubble outside the garden of a nearby bungalow.
It is bigger than it first looks close up, being almost 60m in diameter and 10m high; and, walking around it, many of the kerbstones are still visible. It has never been excavated, but is probably a passage tomb dating from around 3000 BCE. It used to be much larger, but much of the stone was robbed for roads and walls in the last centuries. There is also a drawing from 1837 by George Petrie that shows a giant pillar stone on the top. There is no sign of this today, although a pupil from Ballyrush National School mentions it, being present but fallen, in the “School’s Folklore Commission Survey of 1937”. No-one is certain what happened to it.
But Heapstown still has an aura of mystery about it, standing, as it does, at one end of the plain of Moytura. For in story, this was the well of Sláine. Here, Dían Cécht with Octriul, Míach, and his sister Airmed, dipped the fallen Dé Danann warriors into the well, so that each was brought out alive and whole. Here was the well of restoration until the Fomóire, Octriallach, lead his men, each to cast a stone into the well, so that it was buried forever
If you have already listened to the podcast connected to this article, you will have found, as we did that there is more to this story of death and rebirth. Maybe there is more than grass and thistles growing amongst those ancient stones.
Getting to Egypt had always been the goal of a pilgrimage for me. This had been the case since my uncle, a very scholarly man, with a wonderful sense of humour and a gift of teaching, first took me to the British museum. I was ten and putting together a school project on 12th century illuminated manuscripts. (Yes, I know … but I was that kind of child). When he had shown me a great many beautiful documents and bought me a stack of postcards he asked me with a twinkle in his eye “Would you like to see the mummies?”So began my love affair with ancient Egypt. I finally got to Egypt in January 2012, although I was there for a few days in January 2011, only to be trapped in a hotel in Cairo with the tanks and tear gas. But that’s another story.
Strangely enough, I left for Egypt this year immediately following my uncle’s funeral. The final time we had met had been in the British Museum on 30th December 2011, only a week before his unexpected death. We had not visited the museum together for many years. So I suppose my trip to Egypt was a pilgrimage in a very special way.
This is not the place to share my experiences of finally standing on the site of Ankenaten’s city, Akhetaten, ‘Horizon of the Aten’. I could go on about it indefinitely. However, there was another pilgrimage destination to visit, one that has held a powerful attraction for more than 5000 years. This is Abydos.
In Egypt, any tourist must experience what a magnet must feel when surrounded by iron filings. Vendors and children attach themselves to you. They walk in front of your feet and face, filling your eye-line with fluttering fabrics, dusty resin statues and peacock tails of gaudy postcards. There is a peculiar broken-paced shuffle adopted by all tourists in Egypt. It is accompanied by jerky head movements and vacant stares as all eye contact is avoided. The gait is highly counter-intuitive and very slow, but you get used to it after a while and generally don’t end up buying too many enamelled camels!.
Abydos stopped me in my tracks. The great temple of Abydos, built by Seti I, stood before me, nearly complete and an impressive sight. But what had made me pause was not the monumental entrance to the temple and its magnificent hypostyle. It was my cluster of earnest attendants. The dusty children in their striped galabeyas were all holding up strangely familiar plaited corn dolls, reminiscent of the Brigid’s crosses seen here in Ireland every February. They couldn’t tell me what they were; just that they were good luck and that I needed one. I bought several.
You see, in pharaonic times, it was every Egyptian’s greatest wish to make a pilgrimage to Abydos and a dearest dream to be buried close by. Abydos was the traditional burial place of Osiris. Inscriptions in tombs throughout Egypt frequently record journeys to and from Abydos, as important pilgrimages made by individuals who were proud to have been able to make the vital trip.
It is beyond the remit of this article to tell the full story of Osiris and his sister and consort Isis. They were beloved from the earliest days and still revered in Roman times. Several festivals during the year were held in Egypt in celebration of the Osiris.
Osiris, “Asar”, was the first child of Nut and Geb, and therefore the brother of Set, Nephthys, and Isis. His brother Set, a representation of the wildness and strength of desert places, was seen as antagonistic to his brother. He made a fine chest (sarcophagus) and offered it to the one it would fit – a bit like Cinderella’s slipper – and then had the chest sealed and thrown into the Nile when Osiris lay down in it. Isis retrieved his body. Set then cut the body into 14 pieces and consigned them to the river again. Isis found all the pieces except his penis, which had been eaten by the now-cursed Nile catfish. She magically re-assembled Osiris, and resurrected him long enough to become pregnant and give birth to her son Horus.
Horus and Set battled together for a long time, but Horus, with the help of his mother, was eventually victorious.
Because he had been a king on earth and had overcome death, it was believed that he would receive a loyal subject after death. They themselves would become “Osiris”.
Abydos is indeed impressive. There were nine or ten temples, dating from the first dynasty to the twenty-sixth dynasty, built at Abydos; but what the tourists generally visit is the great temple. It is spectacular; from the intricately carved and coloured pillars and walls of Seti’s hypostyle, to the grandiose boasting of Rameses ii ‘s temple as he bestrides the walls, holding captives by their hair, in his age-old propaganda battle to persuade us of his victory at the battle of Khadesh. (It was, at best, a draw.)
Yet with my plaited corn dolls in hand, I was drawn to the Osireon, found outside and behind Seti’s temple. This mysterious ruin is constructed of huge monolithic blocks, unadorned and utterly archaic in atmosphere. Water fills the rectangular place, with a great stone rising from the green water. The building was once roofed, but because of the level at which it was built, may well have always been flooded. Perhaps this was to create a model of the mythical mound of creation which the Egyptians believed rose from the primeval waters. It is impossible to be certain. The ruins are tranquil and highly atmospheric. Could this be the most ancient site in venerable Egypt?
Strabo visited the Osireion in the first century BCE. He wrote:
“Above this city [Ptolemaïs] lies Abydus, where is the Memnonium, a royal building, which is a remarkable structure built of solid stone, and of the same workmanship as that which I ascribed to the Labyrinth, though not multiplex; and also a fountain which lies at a great depth, so that one descends to it down vaulted galleries made of monoliths of surprising size and workmanship.”
I am afraid most archaeologists consider the Osireion as an integral part of Seti’s temple designed deliberately to look the part of an antique tomb of a god.
Nevertheless, as I walked back to the coach with my corn “pilgrim badges”, I felt that I was carrying away items that must have been offered to visitors for thousands of years.
Recently, I found further reference to these corn dolls in an old, but now re-published, book, Winifred Blackman’s “The Fellahin of Upper Egypt”, first published 1927. Here she identifies identical corn dolls and shows a picture of them in use.
“During harvest-time every available man, woman, and child is employed in the fields, but before any of the corn is cut some of the villagers go into the fields and pluck the finest ears by hand.
These are plaited into a special form, and this object, called the ‘bride of the corn’ (arūset el-kamh) is used as a charm. One may be suspended over the house-door as an antidote to the evil eye; another may be hung up in the room containing the stores of food, as a charm to ensure abundance. Many tradesmen hand such objects in their shop-windows, believing that this will bring them plenty of customers.
Again, in some parts of Egypt, the ‘bride of the corn’ is placed on the heaps of grain after the winnowing is completed, as a charm to secure a good harvest the following year. … The ‘bride’ may be left hanging until it is replaced at the next harvest, or again, it may be allowed to remain in its place until it falls to pieces.”
The only place that I encountered these plaited corn figures was at Abydos. It is very likely that they are connected with the cult of Osiris. Who knows how long the custom has been practiced? In Egypt 5000 years is a very short time.
No wonder Abydos made such an impression.
John Barleycorn is the titular character of a popular English and Scottish folk-song, found in a number of versions going back, at least, to the sixteenth century. John Barleycorn is given as the personification of ‘the nut brown ale’ (or the uisce beatha) and all the process the grain goes through in order to provide the welcome drink. The song also celebrates the many occupations and trades-people who work towards the creation of the intoxicating liquid. Yet the processes that create the end product are described as a deliberate murder and torture of this personified character, He is buried, chopped down, beaten, bound and ground up. In fact the song generally begins with an oath being taken to kill him and his death is celebrated with each stanza.
The true antiquity of the song cannot be proved and yet it seems to be more than an amusing metaphor for acknowledging the origin of ale or whiskey. It is hard not to find connections between John Barleycorn and the ancient culture heroes of the bronze age who are cur down only to rise up again reborn with the annual new growth. Many of the ‘so called’ mystery cults of the Middle East with their familiar heroes, Damuzi, Attis, Adonis, may share something with our more homely, John Barleycorn. That they are connected with herb (vegetable) and grain crops can be readily demonstrated. Osiris, one of the most popular of the culture heroes of ancient Egypt was said to have brought the arts of civilization to the Black Lands, including knowledge of cultivation. Osiris was threatened by his brother Set, Lord of the storm and desert places, and aided by his sister and wife, Isis, who restored him to life after he was cut down by Set, by gathering up the pieces of his scattered body.
The Greek Eleusinian mysteries were practiced from Mycenaean times into the beginning of the Christian era. The annual procession along the Sacred way from the gates of the Kerameikos cemetery to the cult centre of Eleusis, some fifteen km away, was an important annual festival. This cult of Demeter and Persephone was particularly popular with women and its rites were kept strictly secret. The anonymous author of the 3rd century “Philophoumena” did offer a hint concerning the rites.
“The most marvellous, complete and apoptic mystery, an ear of grain reaped in solemn silence”.
If you have listened to our podcast episode on Airmed, you will know that the Irish stories also contain a John Barleycorn figure. His name is Miach, and like Osiris, he is cut down by a close relative and his parts, in the form of fresh growing herbs, are gathered together by his sister Airmed. He is later found restoring fallen warriors at the well of Sláinte, along with his father and sister. His story is to be found in the wonderfully rich 9th century saga of Moytura. We are by no means, implying that there are any direct connections between ancient Egypt and early Irish stories but these two examples provide fascinating glimpses into a widespread mythic theme.
But back to our folk song.)… There are a number of different versions. My personal favourite is the version recorded by the band, ‘Traffic’, but I also offer a version by Robert Burns
Lyrics to John Barleycorn
(as recorded by Traffic)
There were three men came out of the west, their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die
They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in
Thrown clods upon his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead
They’ve let him lie for a very long time, ’til the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head and so amazed them all
They’ve let him stand ’til Midsummer’s Day ’til he looked both pale and wan
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard and so become a man
They’ve hired men with their scythes so sharp to cut him off at the knee
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the way, serving him most barbarously
They’ve hired men with their sharp pitchforks who’ve pricked him to the heart
And the loader he has served him worse than that
For he’s bound him to the cart
They’ve wheeled him around and around a field ’til they came onto a pond
And there they made a solemn oath on poor John Barleycorn
They’ve hired men with their crabtree sticks to cut him skin from bone
And the miller he has served him worse than that
For he’s ground him between two stones
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl and his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl proved the strongest man at last
The huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor so loudly to blow his horn
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle or pots without a little barleycorn
(Robert Burns Version)
There was three kings into the east,
three kings both great and high,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn must die.
They took a plough and plough’d him down,
put clods upon his head,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.
But the cheerful Spring came kindly on’
and show’rs began to fall.
John Barleycorn got up again,
and sore surprised them all.
The sultry suns of Summer came,
and he grew thick and strong;
his head well arm’d wi’ pointed spears,
that no one should him wrong.
The sober Autumn enter’d mild,
when he grew wan and pale;
his bendin’ joints and drooping head
show’d he began to fail.
His colour sicken’d more and more,
and he faded into age;
and then his enemies began
to show their deadly rage.
They took a weapon, long and sharp,
and cut him by the knee;
they ty’d him fast upon a cart,
like a rogue for forgerie.
They laid him down upon his back,
and cudgell’d him full sore.
they hung him up before the storm,
and turn’d him o’er and o’er.
They filled up a darksome pit
with water to the brim,
they heav’d in John Barleycorn.
There, let him sink or swim!
They laid him upon the floor,
to work him farther woe;
and still, as signs of life appear’d,
they toss’d him to and fro.
They wasted o’er a scorching flame
the marrow of his bones;
but a miller us’d him worst of all,
for he crush’d him between two stones.
And they hae taen his very hero blood
and drank it round and round;
and still the more and more they drank,
their joy did more abound.
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
of noble enterprise;
for if you do but taste his blood,
’twill make your courage rise.
‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
’twill heighten all his joy;
’twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
tho the tear were in her eye.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
each man a glass in hand;
and may his great posterity
ne’er fail in old Scotland!
edited by Elizabeth Gray
translation and notes by Isolde Carmody
[Terms in bold have notes and discussions below]
133] Boí dano Núadae oga uothras, & dobreth láim n-argait foair lioa Díen Cécht go lúth cecha lámha indte.
Meanwhile, Núada was debilitated. A silver hand / arm was set on him by Dían Cécht, with the power of every [other] hand / arm in it.
Nír’uo maith dano liaa macsium sen .i. le Míach.
However, his own son did not like that i.e. Míach.
Atréracht-sim don láim & atbert, ault fri halt di & féith fri féth; & ícuis fri téorai nómaidhe.
He made for the hand and he said; “Joint against joint of it and fibre against fibre.” He had healed it within three “niners”.
In cétna nómaid immus-curid comair a táeib, & rotonigestar.
The first “niner” he turns it around against himself and it is cleansed.
An dómaid tánisde immas-cuirid aro brundib.
The next “niner” he turns it around on his breast.
An tres nómaid dobidced gelsgothai di bocsibnibh dubhoib ó rodubtis a ten.
The third “niner” he would remove the bright flowers from black reeds that had been blackened from fire.
140] Ba holc lia Díen Cécht an freapaid-sin.
34. Dían Cécht did not like that cure.
Duleicc claidimh a mullach a meic go rotend a tuidn fri féoil a cinn.
He threw a sword at the crown of his son’s head so that the flesh was cut from its position on his head.
Ícais an gillai tre inndeld a eladon.
The young man healed it through the device[s] of his art.
Atcomaic aithurrach go roteind a féoil co rrodic cnáim.
He repeated the strike so that his flesh was split as far as the bone.
Ícais an gilde den indel cétnae.
The young man healed it by the same device.
Bissis an tres bém co ránic srebonn a inchinde.
He struck the third blow until it reached the membrane of his brain.
Ícais dano an gille don indell cétnae.
The young man again healed this by the same device.
Bisius dano an cethramad mbém co nderba a n-inchind conid apud Míoach & atbert Díen Cécht nach-n-ícfad lieig badesin ont slaithie-sin.
Then he struck the fourth blow and obstructed the brain, so that Miach died. Dían Cécht said that no physician could cure himself from that death-blow.
147] Íar sin roadhnocht lia Díen Cécht Míoach & ásaid cóic lube sescut ar trí cétuib tresin athnocul fo líon a altai & féthe.
35. After that, Miach was buried by Dían Cécht, and three hundred and sixty-five herbs grew through the grave, as many as his joints and fibres.
Is íar sen scarais Airmedh a prat & decechlaid na lube-sin íarna téchtai.
It is then that Airmed spread her cloak and dug up those herbs fittingly.
Tosárluid Díen Cécht & conmesc-side na lube cona fesai a frepthai córi manis-tecaisceth an Spirut íar tain.
Dían Cécht came back to her and mixed the herbs, so that no one knows their correct cures unless the Holy Spirit taught them after that.
Ocus atbert Dén Cécht, ‘Mane pé Míoach, méraidh Airmeth.’
And Dían Cécht said, “Though Miach is not [alive], Airmed will persist.”
NOTES ON NAMES AND TERMS
This appears as a noun referring to some unit or technique of measurement. The type of measurement seems to refer specifically to grain. Glossators take the “-med” part of the word to mean measure, and this stands up to linguistic analysis. However, I feel it also relates to the verb “ad-rími”; counts, records, ennumerates, computes. While the verbal noun of this verb is “áram”, counting, it does have a verb of necessity form “áirmide”, countable, which seems tantalisingly close to “airmed”. There may not be a direct etymological connection between “airmed” and “ad-rími”, but there is surely a poetic one.
“Airmed” has a specific relationship to measures of grain. In O’Davoran’s Glossary, he explores the connection thus:
“…inna met airmeth .i. medh tomuis arba no bracha .i. criathur”
…an “airmed” in weight i.e. the amount of weight of corn or malt i.e. a sieve
Even more intriguingly, “airmed” is often found in the same contexts as “míach” (see below for an exploration of “míach”):
che(i)thir méich mracha ┐ ḟidlan[n] airmeide di tharu
four “míach”s of malt and a wooden platter containing the full of an “airmed” of kiln-dried wheat
[from Críth Gablach, a law-text concerning commerce and status]
O’Davoran’s connection between “airmed” and “críathar”, sieve, is suggestive of an “airmed” being some standardised container or vessel used in storing or measuring dried grains. This is in contrast to “míach”, which seems a more abstract amount, and many examples of its usage are in combination with words such as “lestar”, cup, and “bolg”, bag. Further, the specific use of “críathar”, sieve - a tool used to winnow or separate dried grains, points to the connection with “ad-rími”, counting, recording.
This fits with the role of Airmed in our story. She separates out and records the growth from Míach’s grave into her mantle, acting as a “cráthar” for winnowing and recording the crops of Míach.
The most straight-forward literal rendering of this name I can offer is The Eager Plough. It may seem strange that the lauded physician of the Túatha Dé Danann should be named for an agricultural implement.
To be more precise, “cécht” is part of a plough, probably the plough-beam; the central “stem” to which the plough-share, coulter and handles are attached. But it seems likely that, as in much poetic language, the part can stand for the whole. Dían Cécht is not the only member of the Túatha Dé to have “cécht” as part of his name: one of the sons of the Dagda is called “Mac Cécht”, son of the plough [beam].
As for “dían”, it is a popular and wide-ranging adjective. It can mean swift, rapid, sudden, eager, impetuous, forceful, vehement, swift-passing, fleeting, active, strong… and is even found in the names of some poetic metres. Although this story may point to the senses impetuous and forceful, we have chosen eager as a less negative and more general description befitting a plough at work.
Dían Cécht is not only the head of this mythical family of physicians; he stands as the exemplar or founder of the entire profession of medicine. There are four related law-texts, of which one is Bretha Déin Cécht, “The Judgements of Dían Cécht”, – the other three similarly citing Goibniu the smith, Luchta the carpenter and Creidne Cérd the brazier – which set out laws and regulations relating to their respective professions. Why, then, is the founder of medicine called a “plough-beam”, however “eager” it might be?
Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the basis of “medicine”; that is, health. It is worth noting that, in Old Irish language and texts, there is no distinction between a plant, a vegetable, and what we might term a medicinal herb. There was even an Old Irish maxim that all one needed to stay healthy was celery and leeks in one’s garden. [Cf. Early Irish Farming by Fergus Kelly]. So good food-crops and good health were intrinsically entwined in the mindset of Early Irish Society. It is not, then, so surprising that the mythological character who is most adept at healing human wounds is also most adept at preparing and maintaining the health of the soil.
In most translations of “ault fri halt di & féith fri féth”, “féith” is translated as sinew. I chose to translate it as fibre, since it is unclear to me whether there was a specific anatomical sense of the word (e.g. sinew, tenon, muscle etc.), or if it was a more generalised meaning.
As noted when discussing “Airmed” above, “míach” has a specific relevance to grains and their harvesting and measuring. It is often translated bushel, in an attempt to render the sense of an agreed amount or unit of value. Indeed, several law texts indicate that a “míach” of malt (mrach) was worth one “screpall”, scruple. There were 24 “screpuil” in one “ungae”, ounce [of silver], and some uses of “míach” use it in terms of value: e.g. “ag lōige mēich”, a cow of the value of a ‘miach’.
As we noted above, “míach” also has a special relevance to measures of grain, but even more to malt; the source of beer and whiskey. There is even reference to a “fleith in méich”, Feast of the “Míach”, in Munster – an Irish feast would not be a feast without whiskey or beer!
Since “míach” can be used as a unit of measurement or value, it seems more abstract than “airmed”. One comes across phrases such as “lán armide méich”, which we might interpret as the fill of a bushel-sack or something similar. The “míach” seems to be the amount, and the “airmed” the vessel with the capacity.
This term arose in the tale “Noinden Ulad”, The Debility of the Ulstermen, in relation to the length of time for which the curse of Macha would last. In that tale, it was “co nnómad n-ó”, until nine generations. In the current story, “nómaide” still relates to a period of time, but we have no means of exactly determining what that time was. It could have been nine days, nine hours, or some other formulation relating to nine: since we cannot be certain, I have left it as “niner”.
We learned much more of Núada in Series 2, when we examined Cath Maige Tuired, The Battle of Moytura, in greater depth. For now, I will tantalise you by saying that the name of the king of the Túatha Dé Danann, who lost his hand in the battle with the Fir Bolg when he first came to Ireland, seems to relate to an Indo-European root meaning acquisition. Subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss out on the discussion!