Story Archaeology

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

Brig and Rúadán

grief_statueIt 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.

Revisiting Mythical Women 05: The Search for Brigid

Sculpture by Annette McCormack in Kildare

Sculpture by Annette McCormack

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.

Heapstown Cairn ~ The Well of Octriul

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 looksHeapstown Cairn 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.

A Pilgrimage to Abydos

"bride of the corn" from Abydos

The ‘Bride of the Corn’.

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.”

[Geography, 17.1.42]

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.

She writes:

“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.

old bride of the cornThese 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.”

(pp. 171-172)

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.

John Barleycorn?


No wonder Abydos made such an impression.

John Barleycorn

Picture1 (1)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.

Eleusis near Athens

Eleusis is not on the tourist trail but is well worth visiting.
It is an easy local bus ride from Athens

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

Watch “John Barleycorn” by Traffic on YouTube

John 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!


The Story of Airmed from Cath Maige Tuired

The Eglone Stone, Moytura

The Eglone Stone, Moytura

from Cath Maige TuiredThe Battle of Moytura

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.”





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.


Dían Cécht:

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 TuiredThe 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!

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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