Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles

Airmed’s Story

airmid picture

mixed media on glass by Chris Thompson

The green grey morning is soft with mist.

Airmed sits on the soft earth of the mound, her yellow cloak spread empty before her covering the damp earth.

All around her lie green herbs, no longer fresh and growing for they were harvested in hope and are now scattered in sadness.

Airmed gathers the measure of her cloak around her and her thoughts are not soft.

She gathers her thoughts to her, garners her memories.

There was her father, Dían Cécht, physician to the Dé Dannan, greatest of healers who, when Nuada the king had lost his arm in battle, had not despaired.

“For though I cannot restore your arm”, he had told the blemished chieftain, “yet will I make you the greater.” And with his healing magic he had constructed a hand of silver so cunning that each joint moved to grip and grasp as easily as a hand of flesh.

Yes; the hand of silver had brought renown to Nuada Lám Argait, and it had kept him the kingship, for no blemished man could be king, but it had not healed the lost limb.

No; that had been left to Míach, her brother.  Together, he and Airmed had learned the lore of healing, both becoming wise, each the measure of the other, until Míach had gone the further. With the magic of his learning he had recovered the lost hand of Nuada. For three times three days he had kept it by him, preparing it with spells and incantations, and then, when it was ready, he joined it, bone to bone, sinew to sinew, to Nuada’s arm.  There it re-grew and Nuada was whole and healed.

If Nuada was glad of this healing miracle then Dían Cécht was not. A dark mood had descended on her father. Taking up his shining blade he brought it down upon his son’s head, cleaving the skin of his skull.

Míach healed himself.

Twice more, Dían Cécht brought the blade down on his son’s head, each time cutting into the skull more deeply.

Twice more, Míach healed himself.

Again the blade fell, and this time Míach’s brain was split in two and he died.

Airmed sadly buried her brother under a mound of soft earth and watched there as the bare soil softened and grew green with new grass; new grass and green herbs.

And Airmed had guarded these herbs, harvesting them in their time, sorting and recording them. For there were 365 herbs that grew from her brother’s grave, one for each of his joints and sinews, one for each day of the year ,one for each illness that ever had been or ever would be. She gathered and garnered them all.

But her father’s dark mood had not yet fled.  He found her where she was. In his jealousy and anger he scattered the plants, destroying their order.

And Airmed sits still on her brother’s grave in the grey green morning. She sits with the basket of her empty cloak before her until the time of his seed healing shall come again.



Revisiting Mythical Women. 4: Revisiting Airmed.

Painting of Airmed by Chris Thompson

ceramic on glass by Chris Thompson

Airmed is the daughter of the great Dé Danann physician, Dían Cécht, part of a family of healers.  Together, they create the healing well of Sláine, which restores injured warriors at the Second Battle of Moytura.  But do the meanings of their names tell a different story?

In our  revisit to what may seem at first reading, a side story in the great battle saga, join the  the Story archaeologists as they re-evaluate the role of Airmed and her family, finding their actions  central to the main theme of the epic Moytura  story.

In this episode, and our update, we referenced many other episodes, including our entire second series on Moytura.. However, for now, we will include a couple of the most  relevant links.

For the story of Dían Cécht, Miach and Airmed in the context of Moytura,  go to: The Battle of Moytura Episode 5: The Four Craftsmen.

For examples of laws on sick-lying  ( crólige)  in context go to : Dindshenchas 09: Tocmarc Étaíne 1 – A Fly On The Wall and Dindshenchas 10: Tocmarc Étaíne 2 – The Re-Born Identity

Many Shades of Darkness

Irish colour words and concepts

midsummer4In primary school,  I was very confused to learn two different Irish words for “green”: glas and uaithne.  I knew there was a difference, but I wasn’t clear what that difference was.  As my schooling continued, more confusion arose: black people were referred to as daoine gorma, “blue people” (according to the dictionary) and animals such as deer and cows were described as glas, which seemed to mean “green”.

I’m not sure now how I came to develop the theory of Irish colour-words being more concrete than abstract.  It may have come from learning, as I studied Old Irish, that flann was said to be the colour of fresh blood, and ruad the colour of dried blood.  I began to wonder whether glas might be the colour of the sea, which can range from gun-metal grey to deep azure to mossy green.

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Texts of Ethliu

From Tocmarc Étaine, “The Wooing of Étain”

Edited O. Bergin & R. I. Best,

Translated with endnotes by Isolde Carmody.  Terms with related notes are in bold.

View Bergin & Best’s edition on CELT

While this text is included here in relation to “Tales of Eithliu”, we dealt with the whole of Tocmarc Étaíne in 3 episodes in Series 3, “Dindshenchas and the Art of Mythic Cartography“.

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The Son of the King of Erin and the Queen of the Moving Wheel

milky-wayThis is the second of two supplemental  episodes supporting  our recent podcast, Tales of Ethliu (revisited). “The Son of the King of Erin and the Queen of the Moving Wheel” is a folktale collected in the west of Ireland by  Jeremiah Curtin in the late 19th century. The tale first appeared in “Irish Folktales”.  This tale has a cast of powerful women. There is a wise warrior ‘Mammy’ and a bride with world class, martial arts at her finger-tips. There is even a  Queen, with a lot to lose, who is driven to become a ‘wicked stepmother; and we must not leave out  the supporting cast of magical beings including a family of five-headed giants and their Super-mammy.

The story also throws a new light on the image of Arianrhod and her Silver Wheel.

find a copy of “Irish Folktales“, collected and retold by Jeremiah Curtin.

Read the story of Arianrhod.

Midwinter Special 2015 – Fair’s Fair

Illustration of Iron Age warrior in modern craft fair

This time of year is a frenzy of shopping, family gatherings and exchange of gifts. But is this simply a modern phenomenon?

For this year’s MidWinter Special, the Story Archaeologists dig as deep as their virtual spades will go, comparing the deepest layers of human settlement through medieval mayhem to the contemporary craft fair, searching for the common threads.

Links from the Episode:

Here is The Óenach Project, research conducted by Patrick Gleeson under the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork.

Here is a talk given by Ian Hodder on entanglement at Göbekli and Çatalhöyük, “Origins of Settled Life“.

And finally, as promised in the episode, here’s a link to a short animation, “Little Red Riding Hood: The Alternate Version” by An Snag Breac / Maker Magpie:


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Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

Cows as Currency

kerry cow linkAs with many ancient societies, the early Irish did not use coinage.  They still had a complex system of value, which may welll have changed over time or from area to area.


One unit of value was cattle,which were used as currency up to around 1400 CE, long after the introduction of coinage.  This could be “exchanged” to a value in sét, “jewels”, ungae, “ounce” (usually of silver), or cumal, “female slave”.  The mug, “male slave”, was never used as a unit of value.  The cumal seems to have been the basic unit and may have been worth 2 sét,, but if one was being paid reparation for a crime, it would be paid in sét if you were a noble or a poet below the rank of king, and in cattle if you were a farmer.

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Elin Gow, the Swordsmith and the Cow, the Glas Gaianach

Elin Gow

Elin Gowand the cow Glas Gainach

This is the first of two supplemental  episodes supporting  our recent podcast, Tales of Ethliu (revisited). “Elin Gow, the Swordsmith and the Cow, the Glas Gaianach” is a folktale collected in the southwest of Ireland by  Jeremiah Curtin in the late 19th century. The tale first appeared in “Hero Tales of Ireland”. It is a great story that overlaps the better known, tale of  Balor and the stealing of a marvelous cow but this version answers the surprising question of how  the cow got to be kept by a sword-smith  in the first place and fills in some details of Cian’s amazing adventures.


Read “Hero Tales of Ireland online.

Folklore from the Dingle Peninsular. Local  folklorist , Doncha Ó Conchúir talks about ‘The Gate of the Cow”, two pre-historic stone pillars near Ballyferriter, Co. Kerry. He tells a recent version of the last milking of the marvelous cow.  The stone pillars are very interesting. Maybe it is these pillars that gave rise to the story of the transformation of cian in the story we tell of Elin Gow.

Jeremiah Curtin and the Oral Tradition

curtin-1 In our update on Ethliu, Mythical Women revisited: Series 5.3, we discussed the story of the birth of Lugh. The only available version of this story, Balor on Tory Island is to be found in “Hero Tales of Ireland a book of orally narrated stories collected by folklorist and ethnologist Jeremiah Curtin and published in 1894. Jeremiah Curtin was born in 1835 in Detroit, Michigan, to Irish parents. His childhood was spent on a farm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He later studied law, Slavic languages, and folklore in his time at Milwaukee University and at Harvard. He developed a lifelong interest in folklore and ethnology, publishing collections of aboriginal American stories, customs and folk practice of Siberia as well as his Irish story collections. An alternative strand of his work was tranlation. He was responsible for translating the literary works of the Nobel prize-winning Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz. Curtin was certainly something of a polyglot, speaking, perhaps, seventy languages, including Irish. However, Seán Ó Suilleabháin, in his introduction to Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World, collected from oral tradition in southwest Munster [1895] comments that he required “the aid of interpreters, as he never acquired a complete mastery of the various Irish dialects.”

Curtin travelled to Ireland  in 1871, 1872, 1887, 1891, and 1892-93. He collected folklore, largely, from the West of Ireland, particularly, south-west Munster. He also visited the Aran Islands. In Jeremiah Curtin: Cross-cultural, Collaborative Textual Production of Irish and Native American Mythologies’College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences,” Dr John Eastlake poses the question of how Curtin’s work compares with early Irish folklore publications, such as those by Thomas Crofton Croker, Patrick Kennedy, and Lady Wilde? He quotes Douglas Hyde’s comment on Curtin’s first Irish collection. Curtin has “’collected some twenty tales, which are told very well, and with much less cooking and flavouring than his predecessors employed.” In our explorations of Curtin’s Irish re-tellings, undertaken in support of Series 5.3, Ethliu revisited, we would agree. The stories do read well, although we find ourselves verbally editing out the unnecessary ‘Erin’. The stories, as he gives them,  retain the patterns of their verbal origin and he has chosen not to sprinkle them with misleading Anglicised spellings of ‘ local dialect’ words, as can be found in other folklore collections from the period. Indeed, in a time when certain English scholars were describing even the great Irish saga texts as ‘low’ and as ‘having no literary value whatsoever’ the American, Curtin’s attitude and approach is refreshing. Curtin, in his exploration of mythology, sought for a a unified theory. He argued for a “common origin for human consciousness accessible, through the applied and ‘scientific study of mythology”. To achieve this, Jeremiah Curtin did  set about  collecting stories from a variety of cultures, especially Native American creation mythologies. By adding the Irish stories to this broader canvas he was able to step back and to recognise the deep and ancient roots that were still discernible in  contemporary oral folk tales. This he demonstrated in his introduction to Hero Tales of Ireland (1894). Curtin says

“Of the pre-Christian beliefs of the Kelts not much is known, yet and with certainty. What we may say, at present, is this, that they form a very interesting variant on that aforementioned Ecumenical religion, held, in early ages, by all men. The peculiarities and value of the variant will be shown when the tales and literary monuments of the race are brought fully into evidence.” 

Curtin was a man of his time. However his structuralist, comparative approach to his material was quite ‘modern for the time of publication. Indeed, he showed a sympathy for  the Irish stories, even showing awareness of their importance in the landscape,i.e. their inherent ‘Dindshenchas’ nature.  In the introduction to Myths and Folklore of Ireland [1890] (rep. edn. 1968):  he adds,

“A mythology, in its time of greatest vigor, puts its imprint on the whole region to which it belongs; the hills, rivers, mountains, plains, villages, trees, rocks, sprAmazonings, and plants are all made sacred.’” 

Over a century later, his folklore collections are more than curiosities. They are valuable  recordings of oral re-tellings that might have otherwise been lost to us today.   We have chosen two of Curtin’s retellings to explore further in two recorded conversations following on from our update podcast episode, Ethliu revisited. The first is called Elin Gow, the Swordsmith and the Cow, the Glas Gainach. The story contains many elements found in The Birth of Lugh from Balor on Tory Island, although the child, Lugh is replaced by Cormac and we find out how the smith (here called Elin Gow, rather than Goibniu) ,gets the cow in the first place. This story can be found in Myths and Folklore of Ireland . which is available to download or to read online. The second story is from Irish Folk Tales and is titled, The King of Erin and the Queen of the Moving Wheel.  This intriguing, if somewhat convoluted story also enriches our understanding of the figure of Ethliu. Even more interesting is the Queen of the Moving wheel and her relationship with her son, whom she names and trains in a manner even more marked than the character of Arianrhod,in the Welsh story of the birth and childhood of Lleu. (The fourth branch of the Mabinogion).  The story we have used in our second recorded conversation The King of Erin and the Queen of the Moving Wheel ,is not available online. We have been working directly from Isolde’s copy of the book. A few second hand copies are available through Amazon,       

On a lighter note, while I was searching for availability of Curtin’s books on line, I came across this review of Myths and Folklore of Ireland. glancing through it, I realised that the reviewer had clearly neither read the introduction or even noticed the original date of publication. Considering Curtin’s views on seeking for a ‘scientific’ approach to folklore, the reviewers comments made me smile. I think Curtin might have equally been amused, perhaps even a little flattered!

“I don’t know whether to blame the author or myself, but I find my appetite whetted but ultimately not fully satiated when I read this generous collection of entertaining–if common as dirt–Irish folktales. When one owns as many mythology, anthropology, and folklore books as I do–and is cursed with an eidetic memory–stuff congeals until one is about to cry. I read a Curtin story, putatively fresh, and find myself recognizing an episode from a French tale, a motif from a Russian tale, a character type from a Swedish tale. I know, I know, the Indo-European motifs are largely parroted over and over, albeit in sheep’s clothing, in various milieux. But Curtin could have done a better job of protecting me from this heavy dose of sameness by trying a bit harder to cull some, perhaps, less typical tales. I know they’re out there: the author must resist the temptation to deliver tales that, while artistically quaint or rich in some wise, are entirely repetitive of motifs that the well-read folklore enthusiast is more than apt to have digested over and over in multiple, vaguely differentiated forms. So, all in all, it’s good stuff, but I can’t say it’s terribly original.”

The Birth of Lugh ~ a story


Balor by Jim FitzPatrick

Balor by Jim FitzPatrick

The air was rippled with watery sunshine.
But through one small round window shone a bright brave sunbeam, clear and golden, cutting its way into the dim glow of the room.
And in its cutting sat Ethlinn.

She sat still, facing the window, facing the clear light, the fresh air; and a tear flowed down one cheek.
For this chamber, built of glowing stone, furnished with fine woods and intricate embroideries, was the eye of a needle of stone.

It was a wonderful tower; it was a magic tower, but it had no door. And she was its prisoner, suspended in time.
Outside, somewhere on the bleak and desolate island, her father, Balor, raged. For there had been a warning, a foretelling: If Ethlinn had a child - a son - then he would destroy his grandfather.
And so Balor, the malevolent, one-eyed giant of the Fomoire, had raised from the bedrock the tower of glassy stone.

And there he had placed Ethlinn to grow, hidden from the world.
But prophecies have a way of coming true.

Balor felt safe, felt able to live his life of war and robbery; but in his greed, he began the weaving of the web of his own death. And so the spell that was to sing Lugh into being began to wind.

There was a cow. It was no ordinary cow, the Glas Gabann. She was dappled as white foam on dark water, and as fertile as the sea. She was coveted by many, but owned by Cian of the Túatha Dé Danann. And Balor was jealous.

Through the trick of his shape-shifting, Balor came to the place where the forge of Goibniu was heavy with iron, and Cian absorbed in the growing of a sword. Balor came in trickery and, grasping the halter of the cow, led her away through the green waves to his hidden isle.

But Cian would not be thwarted. In his anger, he called upon Biróg, druid of the mountains. Laughing, she carried him over the waters, shrouded him in fronds of shadowed cloud, veiled in sun-haze.
There he found Ethlinn. She received him with joy, recognising in him the seed of her freedom.
And the shadowed walls of the tower were warmed and transformed, and, for a brief while, the poison eye of Balor closed in sleep.

In her time, Ethlinn gave birth to the child, Lugh.

Then Balor woke, feeling the surge of green growth, feeling the sun warming the land into solidity, to wholeness. In his anger, he cast the child into the unformed, ever-changing sea.
But Lugh, born of air and fire, now took to his own the element of water. He danced with the salmon on the sea’s crest. He turned the waves’ curves with the eel.

And Biróg of the mountains caught him up, scattering silver water drops,
carrying him to his destiny; the Ildánach.