Celtic Mythology: The Tuatha Dé Danann

Riders of the Sidhe – John Duncan – Public domain

The Tuatha Dé Danann

In Irish and Celtic mythology the Tuatha Dé Danann were a supernatural race who were known to interact with and form relationships with humans.  They had a reputation for being adept in the sciences, arts, magic and necromancy. Their name translates as the people of the goddess Dana or Danu and they are seen as being the main gods of Ireland before the arrival of Christianity.   Along with the Fir Bolg they were the descendents of Nemed, who ruled the third wave of invaders of Ireland and was reputedly descended from the Biblical Noah. They were believed to have come from Falias, Gorias, Murias and Finias which were four cities  located somewhere to the north of Ireland. They brought with them four magical treasures; the Dagda’s Cauldron, the Spear of Lugh, The Stone of Fal, and the Sword of Light of Nuada.

Each individual of the Tuatha Dé Danann was seen as being a representation of certain aspects of the natural world and some of them were associated with more than one.  Some individuals were also known by other names which may vary from region to region. The Tuatha Dé Danann were the traditional enemies of the Fomorians who appear to represent the dark destructive forces of nature.  They were personifications of drought, pestilence, chaos, darkness and death, whereas the Tuatha Dé Danann were gods of civilisation and growth. 

Christian Records

It was the Christian monks that recorded and wrote down Irish mythology and in doing so altered and rewrote some of it to a degree.  They often saw the Tuath Dé Danann as kings, queens and heroes from a bygone era and credited them with having supernatural powers. Another view was that they were fallen angels being neither good or evil. Other medieval writers  saw them as being gods or spirits because some characters are found in tales that are from different times often separated by centuries. This lent to the belief that they were divine or immortal beings. For example, Manannán mac, Aengus, Morrígan and Lugh all appear in tales from different eras which many see as supporting the idea of their immortality.

The Lebor Gabála Érenn

The Lebor Gabála Érenn  is a collection of poetry and writing collected in the Middle Ages.  It claims to tell the history and origin of the Irish and Ireland up to the time it was written.  Many versions exist but the earliest were believed to have been written in the 11th century. According to this work the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland in ships bringing,  “dark clouds”.  They were said to have landed on the mountains of Connachta bringing three days and nights of darkness.  Another later version says that they burnt their ships on arrival so there was no way they could go back. The smoke from the ships filled the air and was the cause of the dark clouds and darkness.  

King Nuada

Their leader was King Nuada who led them in the First Battle of Magh Tuireadh where they defeated the Fir Bolg, the native inhabitants of Ireland.  Although they won, King Nuada lost an arm fighting Sreng, the Fir Bolg champion. Despite this Sreng and his three hundred followers were losing the battle and facing defeat  vowed to fight to the death. The Tuatha Dé Danann were so impressed with their valor and fighting ability they offered them a one fifth of Ireland if they pulled out of the fight.   This was agreed and they chose Connacht and the people there were said to be able to trace their ancestry from Sreng up to the 17th century.

However, Nuada had been badly wounded, losing an arm and this meant that he was no longer unblemished.  According to Tuatha Dé Danann tradition this meant he had to relinquish the kingship.   Bres, who was half-Fomorian became king and he demanded tribute from the Tuatha Dé and enslaved them.

Dian Cecht, a great healer, replaced the lost arm of Nuada with a fully functioning silver one which allowed him to take back the kingship.   Miach, the son of Dian Cecht was not satisfied with the replacement arm of Nuada and cast a spell saying which made flesh grow over the artificial silver arm in nine days and nine nights.  Jealous at the skill and success of his son Dian Cecht murdered his him.

Bres was forced to hand back the crown to Nuada and consulted with Elatha, his father who would have no part in any scheme to win back the kingship. Instead he advised him to seek help from Balor the king of the Fomorians.  Balor agreed to help Bres and from this came the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh where the Tuatha Dé Danann fought the Fomorians led by Balor, who killed Nuada with his poisonous eye. Then the Tuatha Dé, champion, Lugh killed Balor and became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The Invasion of the Milesians

The arrival of invaders to Ireland from what today is known as Galicia in  Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula brought further conflict. These invaders were believed to be Goidelic Celts, who were believed to be descendants of Míl Espáine and known as Milesians.

They met three of the Tuatha Dé Danann, goddesses;  Ériu, Banba and Fodla who requested them to name the island after them which is where the modern name Éire came from.  The husbands of these three goddesses were Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine who were kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann requested a three day  truce with the Milesians. During these three days the Milesian fleet would anchor nine waves distance from the coast. They agreed and complied with the truce but the Tuatha Dé Danann using magic summoned up a storm hoping to sink the enemy fleet or drive their ships out to sea.   

Tir na nOg

The Milesians called on their  poet Amergin for help. He calmed the seas with his poetry and they managed to safely land.  This resulted in a battle with the Tuatha Dé Danann at Tailtiu which the Milesians won. Amergin was tasked with dividing the island up between the two sides and in a stroke of genius gave the part above ground to his own folk while allotting the underground part to the Tuatha Dé Danann.  According to this tradition this is where the Tuatha Dé Danann took up their residence and is called Tir na nOg, which was a paradisaical place and often an island. It was one of the Celtic Otherworlds that could be reached in several ways including by entering ancient burial mounds or sidhe, going either over or under water, or by traveling through mist. In later times the Tuatha Dé Danann became known as the Aos Si or fairies.

© 10/03/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 10th, 2020 zteve t evans

Lycanthropy: Werewolves and the Law of Reciprocity

Gary Kramer / Public domain

Lycanthropy

There are many examples in folklore around the world that feature werewolves and lycanthropy where there is a transformation from human to wolf or vice versa. Sometimes a human may transform completely into a wolf or a wolf may transform into a human as is the case in this story.  In other examples a beastly hybrid of the two species – half-human – half wolf is the result. Sometimes the human shows some degree of shame or guilt over what they are and what they become. In the story below a werewolf in his human form expresses a frank admission to being both evil and fierce offering no excuses and showing no shame or guilt. He and his family, accept what they are without question and show no desire to be fully human. Quite simply they are what they are.  

The Law of Reciprocity

Despite their admission there is a very human law that appears to be of great importance to them and that is the Law of Reciprocity.  They never forget a kindness done to them. Part of that law says that when someone receives kindness from another they repay that person with an equal or better act of kindness in return. It can also mean that when someone hurts another the injured party in return repays that person with an equal amount of harm.  Another term may be “an eye, for an eye.”

Presented below is a retelling of a story titled “A Wolf Story, from Ancient legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland,” by Lady Wilde.  It is set in Ireland in a time when wolves roamed the wilds of that island and reveals a surprising side to werewolves not often seen while revealing a hidden gem of wisdom.

A Wolf Story

This story begins way back in Ireland many years before before the last wolf was killed in about 1786 and begins with a farmer named Connor.  One day as Connor was walking home through a lonely glen he heard a sniveling, whimpering sound, like some creature in great pain.  Looking around him he spied hiding in a thick bush a young wolf cub who appeared to be in great distress. He approached carefully and quietly not wishing to frighten it and not wanting to risk a confrontation with any parent wolf that might be at hand.

Wolf Cub

Seeing it was the cub was in considerable distress for a moment he was caught in two minds.  His first thought was that he could kill it and claim the reward the authorities gave on the production of a dead wolf.  His second thought was that here was a creature in distress who needed his assistance and without which it would surely die a slow, cruel, death.  Either way he could claim the reward. As a farmer he had at times had livestock taken by wolves and had little cause to find sympathy over the death of a wolf cub.  

Nevertheless,  he was an inherently kind man who objected to seeing the suffering of any creature.  A third thought then came to him that he should help it. Carefully examining the stricken creature found a large thorn in its side which he gently removed.  The small cub lay still in much distress and Connor thought that it would probably die anyway. Nevertheless, he resolved to help it all he could to live and put aside thoughts of reward. Therefore, before he left he got the stricken cub a drink of water and placed it in a safe place hoping a parent would find it. After offering s short prayers for its recovery he went on his way thinking no more of it.

Missing Cows

Time passed and he forgot the incident completely. One day many years later Connor was checking the well being of his livestock and was aghast to discover two of his finest cows were missing.  He looked all around his farmyard and searched his fields but no sign of them could he find anywhere on his property. Therefore he began a search of the surrounding countryside. He traveled on foot and in his hand he carried a stout blackthorn staff. This was to aid his walking and also for security for one never knew who or what was abroad in those days.

Having not the slightest idea which way his cows might have gone he walked around and around his property in ever widening circles asking everyone he came across if they had seen them.  He traveled many miles in this way and reached a considerable distance from his farm but no sight or sign did he see or hear any word of where his cows might be.

The Desolate Heath

All day long he walked and as evening began to fall he began to feel hungry and tired.  He had traveled along way from his farm and inhabited parts and realized he was alone in the wilds of a desolated and dark heath.  Looking all around at the dreary darkening landscape at first he could see no sign of any human presence other than a dilapidated, ancient shelter. At first he thought it to be thee den of some outlaw or vagabond or maybe some wild beast.

As he looked weighing up what do in the fast failing light he saw a small chink of light escaping from a crack in the boarding of the shelter. Thinking that there must be some human inhabitants present he took heart and approaching the shelter gently tapped on the door.   The door creaked open to reveal a tall, slender man with grey hair and dark glittering eyes. To Connor’ s surprise before he could say a word the old man spoke saying, “Ah! So you have found us at last.  Please come in, we have been awaiting you!”

Ushering the bemused farmer through the door and into the dwelling the old man gestured inside to an old  woman sitting by the fireside. She was thin and grey and had long,sharp teeth and her eyes eyes glittered lit by the flames of the fire. She gazed upon him and said, “Yes indeed you are welcome, we have been waiting for you to get here and now you are here and it is supper time.  Please won’t you join us for a bite to eat.”

A Family of Wolves

Connor was no coward but he was wary of the two and although bewildered he looked both up and down appraising them.  They were both old and weary looking but he was young and vigorous and still had his blackthorn staff. He reasoned he could quickly overcome them should he need and he was very, very hungry and outside the heath was steeped in pitch black darkness.  He knew he could never find his way back in the dark so he sat down at a table to join them, watching as the old woman stirred a bubbling pot hanging over the fire. Although she appeared to be giving all her attention to the pot he got the strange feeling that all the time she was watching him with her strange glittering eyes.

After a little while their came a knock at the door and the old man got up and opened it.  To the surprise of Connor in trotted a young, sleek, black wolf. Ignoring the visitor the black wolf trotted across the floor and disappeared into an adjoining room.  Shortly out of the adjoining room their came a handsome young man. He sat opposite Connor and looked hard and deep at him with glittering, penetrating eyes.

“Welcome, we have been awaiting your arrival,” he said at last. However, before the bemused farmer could answer there was another knock at the door.  Again the old man opened it and in trotted another handsome wolf that disappeared into the adjoining room.  Shortly, there emerged from this same room another handsome youth who sitting next to the first studied Connor intently with his glittering, grey eyes, but said not another word.

Connor’s Story

“These are our sons, ” said the old man gesturing towards the young men, “Now you must tell us what brings you here and what you want.  Few people ever come this way and we do not like strangers or to be spied upon.  Speak now and hold nothing back!”

So Connor told how he had lost his two cows and how he had begun searching for them.  Although he had searched all of his farm and the area around it but found no sign. He told how he began searching beyond his farm until he had at last arrived on this dark and bleak heath and found their home and was asked to take supper and shelter the night.  He told them he was no spy and not remotely interested in their doings though he wished them all good health and well being. Beginning to feel uncomfortable he added that if they could tell him where his cows were he would be most grateful and be off to find them.

After he had spoken his hosts looked from one to the other knowingly and laughed.  Connor was appalled at their laughter and although he feared their glittering eyes he grew angry and taking up his blackthorn staff said,. “I have told you my story with honesty and without guile and you mock me!”

Never Forget a Kindness

Now although he was outnumbered his anger was hot and standing up with his staff in his hand asked them to make way and he would go for he would not stay and be mocked and would rather face the the dark, desolate heath than stay. Their laughter stopped and the eldest of the young men who had been the first stood up and said,

Nay, friend pay our laughter no need.  We are fierce and we are evil, but we never forget one who has done us a kindness. Cast your mind back years ago to the day in the glen when you found a young wolf cub pierced through his side by a sharp thorn in agony and waiting for death. 

It was you who pulled out that thorn and tended my wound and gave me good water to drink. Having done all you possibly could you said a prayer for the cub’ s recovery and went your way to either die in peace or recover as God pleased.  I was that cub and it pleased God that I should recover.”

“Yes indeed I remember it and I am glad God saw fit to heal you,” said Connor, “and I remember how you licked my hand in gratitude!”

“Indeed I did, for I was greatly in your debt and still am but for now put your fear aside, sit down, enjoy supper with us and stay tonight with us without fear.  Tomorrow you shall find your cows and more,” the young man told him.

Putting his fear aside Connor sat down with them and partook of the meal.  Indeed it was a fine supper and he ate his fill and his hosts were merry, friendly and good company.  He soon fell asleep and after enjoying a good night of rest he awoke to find himself lying comfortably on one of his own hayricks in one of his fields.

Three Strange Cows

Remembering the events of the previous night and the words of the wolf he was optimistic he would at last find his cows.  Therefore hebset off in a circle looking for them. Although he searched all his fields and his farmyard he could find no trace of them and began to feel bitterly disappointed.   As he approached the haystack he had started from he saw that there were three fine looking cows quietly grazing in the field. Although they had a strange air they were very handsome and comely but he had never owned such cows and knew of no else who ever did either.  Nevertheless, being an honest man, wielding his blackthorn staff he tried to drive them out through the gate to find their proper owner.  

The Black Wolf

However, standing in the middle of the gateway stood a handsome black wolf who prevented the cows from passing through the gate.  Each time Connor tried to drive the cows through the wolf jumped up and drove them back. At last it dawned on him that this was the wolf he had spoken to the previous night whose life he had saved long ago in the glen.  Then he realized that the strange cows were a reward for saving the life of that wolf and so closed the gate and let the cows graze peacefully in the field.  

The Three Cows

Those three cows proved to produce the best milk and cream that made the finest butter and cheese in all of the island of Ireland.  Furthermore when he bred them they produced a fine, productive and valuable breed of cattle whose descendants still graze the rich grassy meadows of Ireland to this day.  

Connor wanted to thank the wolf but although he tried to find that dark and desolate heath he never could find it. He never again met one of those wolves who had been present that night.  Every now and then a hunter, or farmer, brought the body of a slain wolf into town to claim  bounty from the authorities for its death. This would cut him to the quick for he feared that it might be the wolf he had saved or one of his family. He could never know for sure but being a good man grieved nonetheless.

Through his kindness in saving the wolf cub Connor grew rich and prospered greatly and became proof of the ancient  Irish proverb,

“Blessings are won,

By a good deed done.”

The End

An Eye for an Eye

So on this occasion kindness was rewarded with kindness and Connor benefited greatly from it. Another relevant proverb is, “One good turn deserves another,” but what about when someone does us a bad turn is the opposite then true? Do we we invoke an “an eye for an eye“? When kindness is used people naturally want to repay in kind and there is a kind of gentle competitiveness to be the kindest. This builds strong positive bonds and relationships benefiting everyone, but when we enact an “eye for an eye,” everyone ends up blind.

Be kind!

© 26/02/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 26th, 2020 zteve t evans

Dark Beira: The Winter Queen and Maker of the Scottish Landscape

Dark Beira

In Scottish mythology, Beira, also known as Dark Beira, was the great mother of the gods and goddesses.  She was also known as the Cailleach,  or the Cailleach Bheur in the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and the Isle of Man.   According to Donald Alexander Mackenzie, she was usually described as being very  tall and very old and could be terribly fierce when provoked. Her anger could be as strong and bitter as the cold north wind and as wild and unforgiving as the storm laden sea. Every winter Beira reigned undisputed on Earth but as spring approached her subjects grew restless and rebellious against her stern, harsh rule.  They looked forward to the pending return of Angus of the White Steed who was the Summer King and Bride his beautiful consort and Queen.

The King and Queen of Summer

Angus and Bride were loved by all for their arrival brought an end to the dark cold days of winter heralding the return of spring and warmer and lighter days of abundance and happiness. The weakening of her power and the inevitable arrival of the King and Queen of Summer enraged Beira greatly. Although she did what she could to prolong winter by raising spring storms and sending blights of frost eventually  winter had to give way to spring and summer as her power weakened.

The Green Island and the Well of Youth

Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

Beira was ancient having lived for thousand of years. She kept herself alive by drinking from the Well of Youth  that has its wellspring on the Green Island of the West. The Green Island was a floating island and a place where there was only summer.  The trees were always laden with blossoms and fruit and the days were sunny and clear.   The island floated freely in the North Atlantic Ocean and the seas around the west coasts of Ireland, sometimes drawing close to the Hebrides.  

Although many bold sailors have tried to find the island few if any have ever succeeded as it is hidden by mists.  It is possible, even on the calmest and brightest of days to sail past it thinking it was just a bank of sea mist in the distance without  realising that the magical Green Island is concealed within. It can sometimes be glimpsed from shore but it will vanish when being gazed upon.  Sometimes it will sink below the waves to conceal it’s forbidden sights from human eyes. Nevertheless, Beira was not human and she knew how to reach the forbidden island when the time came. She knew that the waters of the Well of Youth were at their most potent  after the winter solstice. Therefore she would always visit the Green Island to drink the waters of the Well of Youth the night before the first lengthening day which was the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter.

It was important to drink the water at precisely the right time so she would arrive early and sit in darkness waiting for the very first glimmer of light in the east.  This was the signal for her to drink from pure water of the Well of Youth as it bubbled forth from a crevice in a rock. It was essential that she should drink of the waters in silence and alone, before any bird or animal.  If she should fail in this she would die, shrivel and crumbling to dust.

As soon as the water passed her lips she would begin to grow young.  She would leave the island and return to Scotland where she would fall into a long, magical sleep.  Eventually she would awake as a beautiful girl with long blond hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks to find herself in sunshine. Having rejuvenated herself she was now, with the exception of Bride the Summer Queen, the fairest goddess in the land.  She would wander through the land dressed in a robe of green and crowned with different colored flowers.

The Aging of Beira

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

However, as the months passed by so the year aged and Beira aged with it.  She would reach full womanhood at midsummer and when autumn came the first wrinkles began to appear on her brow and her beauty could be seen to be slowly fading. With the return of winter she was transformed fully into the old withered hag and become Queen of Winter.  She was often heard on stormy nights as she wandered alone through the bitter wind singing a strange and sorrowful song, 

 O life that ebbs like the sea!

  I am weary and old, I am weary and old–

Oh! how can I happy be

  All alone in the dark and the cold.

I’m the old Beira again,

  My mantle no longer is green,

I think of my beauty with pain

  And the days when another was queen.

My arms are withered and thin,

  My hair once golden is grey;

’Tis winter–my reign doth begin–

  Youth’s summer has faded away.

Youth’s summer and autumn have fled–

  I am weary and old, I am weary and old.

Every flower must fade and fall dead

  When the winds blow cold, when the winds blow cold.  (1)

Although the young rejuvenated Beira of the summer was a joy to look upon the aging and bitter Beira of the winter turned into something horrific.   She only had one large eye but her vision was sharp and clear while her complexion was of dark blue giving her a dull and dank appearance.  She had rust colored teeth and long, lank, white hair that covered her shoulders like a bright frost. Her clothes were grey and she carried wrapped around her shoulders a dun coloured shawl which she pulled tightly around herself.  Sometimes she was often heard singing sad songs to herself. 

Days Gone By

It was said that Beira was so old she could remember how changes had come to the land.  She could remember that in some places where there was water there had once been land. Furthermore, she remembered how places that were now land had once been covered by water.  She was once asked by a wizard how old she was and replied, 

“I no longer count time in years.  I will tell you that where the rock of Skerryvore that is the haunt of seals lies in the sea I remember as a mountain that was surrounded by fields.  I remember how people worked in them, plowed them and cultivated them and I remember how the barley grew tall and thick and laden with sunshine. I remember the loch over yonder that but a small tricking spring.  In those days I was young and blithe but now I am old, weak, dark and in misery!” 

Creating Loch Awe

The stories tell how Beira freed many rivers and made many lochs.  She made all the mountains and glens and all of the hills Scotland.  One legend tells how there had once been a well on Ben Cruachan in Argyle which Beira habitually used daily.   Every morning as the sun rose she would lift it’s lid off and in the evening when the sun went down she would replace it.  One evening she forgot to replace it at sunset and this disturbed the natural order of the world.  

With the sinking of the sun water gradually began to bubble forth from the well. The lower the sun sank the more water burst from the well.  Soon a great flood was rolling pouring from the well and streaming and roaring down the mountain into the valley below. The next morning when the sun rose Beira found the valley to be completely flooded in water and in later days this place became known as Loch Awe.

Creating Loch Ness

Beira had another well which also had to be kept from sunset until sunrise. One of her maids, whose name was Nessa, had charge of the well. One evening Nessa was late in returning to recover the well and as she drew near she saw great torrents of water flowing down so strong that she was forced to turn and run for her life.  Beira, who was watching from her home on top of Ben Nevis was furious and cried,

‘You have failed in my trust in you and neglected your task, therefore now you must run forever and remain in the water!”

Immediately Nessa was changed into a river which became known as the river Ness and the loch that was formed from it Loch Ness.   There is a tradition that once a year on the anniversary of the evening of her transformation Nessa appears from the loch as a maiden to sing a sad sweet song in a voice that is clearer and more melodious than any bird. She is accompanied by the beautiful music of golden harps and pipes more melodious than that of fairyland.

Making Mountains

Image by A Owen from Pixabay

In the early days of the world the rivers began to break free and formed lochs and this is when Beira began making the mountains of Scotland.  She carried a great basket strapped to her back filled with earth and rocks. Sometimes she would need to step over the valleys, rivers and lochs but this sometimes caused her basket to tilt to one side causing rocks and earth to fall out.  These would form into hills and cause lochs to form with islands.  

To help her in her task she had eight hags who each had a basket strapped to their backs which was filled with earth and rocks.  One after the other they emptied it in one place so that each basketful built into a huge pile forming a mountain that reached up through the clouds.

The Sons of Dark Beira

According to folklore there were two reasons why Beira made the mountains.  The first was to provide stepping stones for herself as she traversed the country.  The second was because she had many sons who tended to be quarrelsome and would fight one against the other for dozens of years at a time.  Therefore, to punish those who disobeyed her by fighting she would separate them and make them live in different mountain houses. However, this did not stop them fighting because they would climb to the tops of the mountains every morning and throw massive boulders across the landscape at each other.  This is the reason why today we see many great boulders and rocks are strewn on the sides of the mountains or lie in the valleys below.

Beira had other gigantic sons who lived in deep caves in the earth.  Others were horned like deer and others had more than one head. Her son’s were so strong they could easily lift cattle off the ground and placing them over their shoulders carry them away and roast them for dinner.  Each of her gigantic sons were known as a Fooar.

The Origin of Ben Wyvis

One of the hardest tasks Beira had was the building of Ben Wyvis.  She had given her hag servants tasks at other places and because she did not want to hinder their progress she was forced to work alone.  After one particularly arduous and tiring day she stumbled and all the contents of her basket fell in a heap on the ground and it was this that became the mountain known as Little Wyvis.

Magic Hammer

Beira had a magic hammer that she used to help her shape the Scottish landscape.  To make the ground as hard as a rock she struck it lightly with her hammer. To create a valley she struck the ground hard. After she had formed a mountain she would then use her hammer to sculpt  it into a unique form so that she knew one from the other and could use them as landmarks to find her way around. After they were created she would take great joy in roaming the valleys beneath and between them and wandering over the mountain passes.

Animals and Beira

Beira was beloved by all wild animals especially in her younger form.  Foxes would bark out a welcome and wolves would howl greetings from the mountains, while eagles soaring above shrieked in delight at her presence.  She gave her protection to the fleet-footed deer and wide horned shaggy cattle, the black pigs and other creatures that roamed the earth in those days.

She kept goats and cattle on the mountains so that they could graze the sweet mountain grass and these she milked. As soon as the wind began to blow milky froth from the milking pails she knew it was time to lead them down to the shelter of the valleys below.  The froth from the pails covered the hills and lay glimmering in the sunshine. When the rain hit the mountains in torrents and ran down the sides in streams people would look up and say,

“See, Beira is milking her today see how the buckets overflow with milk and run down the mountainside.”

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Beira wore a great shaggy shawl which she sometimes needed to wash but the only place big enough was the sea in the Gulf of Corryvreckan which lies between the Western isles of Jura and Scarba.  She washed her shawl so vigorously she caused a whirlpool in the sea called the Whirlpool of Corryvreckan and was known as her wash pot. There is a legend that a Scottish prince named Breckan was drowned by the whirlpool when his boat became caught in its pull or upset by the waves Beira was making as she washed her shawl.  It took her hag  servants three days to prepare the water to wash her shawl.  When it was ready the noise of the Corry or sea could be heard roaring for twenty miles all around and Beira would commence washing her shawl.  

On the fourth day she would throw her shawl in the whirlpool and trample it with her feet.   She washed her shawl until it was as white as snow and then she draped it over the mountains to dry which was the sign that her reign as Queen of Winter had begun. 

The Creation of the Scottish Landscape

The myth and story of Beira is the story of how the ancient Scottish people expalined the creation of the magnificent landscape they lived and the forces that created it. It provides an explanation for the cycle of the seasons in a way that people understood and could relate to. Although unscientific and perhaps raw and mischievous at times it does have a certain charm and truth that science cannot answer for.

© 19/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 12th, 2019 zteve t evans

Winter Folklore: Traditions and Customs of the Cailleach Bheur

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or the Cailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology  and Gaia, in Greek mythology.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie

The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.  In his book,  Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it.  Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.  

He saw her as a giantess with  a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles.  According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys  of Scotland.  Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch.  Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day. 

As the Cailleach

In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills.  She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys.   She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes. 

The Cailleach and Brigid

Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess.  They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn  to Samhain.

In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward,  in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st.  Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.

Saint Brigid’s Day

According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or  Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter.  If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.  Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man  where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter.  This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days.  When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow. 

Harvest Traditions

There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut.  This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest.  If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned.  This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.

© 06/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

Faustian Pacts: Stingy Jack: The Man Who Stole the Devil’s Wallet

This All Hallow’s Read is a re-telling of an Irish folktale for Enchanted Conversation Magazine, by zteve t evans, published as ALL HALLOW’S READ – Stingy Jack: The Man Who Stole the Devil’s Wallet, 14th October 2019. It tells of the infamous, Stingy Jack, (also known as Jack the Smith, Flaky Jack, or Jack of the Lantern)- a character associated with Halloween. The pumpkin jack-o-lantern may have derived from this colorful character and his interaction with the Prince of Darkness.

Stingy Jack

Way back in old Ireland several centuries ago, there was a well known character in many towns and villages across the country known as Stingy Jack. He had a silver tongue and could be very persuasive and charming yet was unquestionably a drunkard, trickster, blaggard and a man of all round devious character. 

According to legend, the Devil heard all about Jack’s tricks and deviousness and decided to see if he lived up to his evil reputation. It also has to be said, although he would never admit it, that he may have been more than a little envious of his notoriety. Maybe he thought Jack was getting too big for his boots and stealing his thunder, but anyway he decided it was time he paid him a visit, intending to carry him back to Hell.

When he arrived at Jack’s door on a Saturday night, Jack was out in the bars and pubs boozing and carousing with anyone and everyone.  Eventually, deeply inebriated and skint, he staggered homewards. After knocking on Jack’s front door several times the Devil realized it was Saturday night and Jack would surely be out on the town. He knocked one last time just in case, and as he did so, he heard someone stumbling up the garden path. As Jack staggered up the path, he suddenly became aware of a dark figure knocking loudly upon his door. 

“Hey! Who is that a-knocking on my door at this time of night when I am not in?” he drunkenly inquired.  The dark figure slowly turned and looked at Jack square in the face. Despite his drunkenness, Jack knew it was the Devil, and he had come to take him back to Hell.  

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Azorean Folktales: Saint Brendan’s Wondrous Island

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Saint Brendan

There are many myths and legends that tell how Saint Brendan the Navigator set sail in a boat with a band of followers to find a wondrous island and eventually succeeded. His followers returned but he did not. Many others after tried to find it but few succeeded.  On many old maps Saint Brendan’s Isle is shown as clear as day, but if you look on any modern ones you will not see it.

They say that  if you sail your  boat beyond the horizon and into the setting sun  you eventually come to a wondrous island kept by a single gardener and the gardener is Saint Brendan.  But to do that requires faith, like he had. He once lived in Ireland but followed his heart and was led to this wondrous place where God spoke to him and  told him he should stay and take care of the plants, flowers and trees. Since his arrival on the island long ages ago only those that have have faith in the good saint have managed to find this marvelous place. 

The following story is a retelling of a tale from the island of Terceira in the Azores originally called, Saint Brendan’s Island –  The Story of a Little Maid who Found  it, and was published in a collection called The Islands of Magic,  Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales from the Azores – by Elsie Spicer Eells and illustrated by E. L. Brock. 

Saint Brendan lived between 484 – 577 AD, and this story tells how he left Ireland to find the wondrous island.  It then moves forward in time to the 15th century to tell how a maiden from the island of Terceira and a young man from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, through their faith in Saint Brendan, made it to the island to join the good saint there.

The Hermit’s Tale

The story begins way back in time in Ireland where a monk by the name of  Saint Brendan lived. One day he received a visit from a hermit who told him all about the most mysterious and wonderful island he had just returned from visiting.   On this marvelous island the sun shone all the time and the birds wore crowns on their heads and had the ability to speak to humans. Brendan could smell the wonderful fragrance of the island which clung to the hermit’s clothes so he believed him.  

The hermit spoke so enthusiastically about the island it piqued the saint’s curiosity.  He yearned to see it for himself and asked the hermit many questions about it. The more he heard the more he wanted to see  to see if all the wonderful things were true that the hermit had told him about. At last the hermit had no more to say but Brendan had heard enough and yearned to visit it  to experience all of the marvels for himself.

That night he dreamed he visited the island and it was every bit as marvellous as the hermit had described. In that dream a voice spoke to him saying, 

“On this wondrous isle there was no one else but God who could hear is prayers so he could speak from the pureness of his heart and with faith his prayers would be answered.”

Therefore, the next morning,  he gathered together a small group of his most devoted disciples and told them about the marvellous island and his desire to find it.  Despite the dangers his disciples were also fascinated by the place and having faith in him were keen to accompany him on his quest.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan

They built a large coracle of wattle, skins and tar and fitted it  with oars and a sail and enough seating for them all. They loaded the craft with as much food, water and necessary items that it could safely carry.  

They all realised it would be a difficult and dangerous voyage but they had faith.  After saying their goodbyes to the large crowd of family, friends and well-wishers who had come to see them off they set sail across the wild Atlantic Ocean to find the wonderful island.   The crowd on the shore waved them goodbye but secretly many feared they would never see them again. 

Saint Brendan and his followers sailed the wide uncharted ocean facing many dangers and having many adventures but sustained by faith they sailed on.  Back home in Ireland people looked out for their return. After two years of absence people feared the worst as they looked across the sea hoping to see their return.  After five years they were completely forgotten.

Return of the Voyagers

After they had left Saint Brendan and his followers had trusted in the Lord and allowed the wind and currents to take them where they would.  After seven years the small vessel carrying the forgotten voyagers appeared on the horizon off the Irish coast where they had set out from. As the small craft sailed in from the blue a small crowd gathered at the harbour both pleased and astounded to see the intrepid voyagers again.  

Of course, everyone wanted to know all about the voyage and their adventures but were disconcerted to see that Saint Brendan was not among those that had returned.  They asked earnestly about his well-being were told that the adventurers had found the wondrous island and it was every bit as wonderful as the hermit had said. Furthermore, they told the people that Saint Brendan had stayed behind as he had been instructed by God to become the  gardener of the island and ensure it thrived and remained fertile for those faithful enough to find it in the vastness of the open sea.

The Wondrous Island

The people wanted to know all about the island and the disciples told them of all the wonders they had seen and experienced while they were there.  If anything they spoke more enthusiastically than the hermit who had first spoken to Saint Brendan.  Many people, like Saint Brendan before them, were overcome with curiosity and desire to visit the island see the wonders for themselves.  The disciples urged them to go and many set out on the voyage and spent many years at sea in search of the wondrous place. None of them ever  found it and returned forlornly to their home in Ireland on the shore of the wild Atlantic.

From what was said by those who accompanied Saint Brendan the island was a floating Island and floated from place to place making it difficult to find and  only those who had faith would be successful. They also said that Saint Brendan will not die but remain on the island caring for it.  

Maria’s Dream

That is the story of how Saint Brendan found the Wondrous island and happened many centuries ago.   We must now move forward to the 15th century to the island of Terceira in the archipelago of the Azores in the vastness of the wild Atlantic Ocean.

On this island there lived a young maid named Maria.  She had been told all about Saint Brendan and the marvelous island by an old monk.  Like the good Saint before her she had been enthralled by the island and highly impressed by the faith of Saint Brendan.  She was fascinated by everything she heard about it and prayed each morning and night to the good Saint for guidance. 

She would often dream of walking under the beautiful trees as he told her all about the wonderful place.   In one dream he took her to a mountaintop where she could look across the sea towards her home. He told her,

“In  this place there was no one else but God and himself who could hear her prayers so she could speak from the pureness of her heart and with faith her prayers would be answered.”

In the waking world she would often walk the hillside of Monte Brasil looking out across the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of that enchanted place. Sometimes she would sit and gaze wistfully across the water letting her imagination take her there.

The Arrival of Vitale

One day a caravel anchored off Terceira. It had sailed from Rhodes carrying a young man named Vitale and in his possession he carried sacred relics of Saint Brendan that his grandfather had passed on to him. He was on a quest to seek out and find the wonderful island of Saint Brendan and had called in at Terceira on his way.   Proudly displayed upon his doublet was an eight pointed star and a scarlet silk band with the motto “By Faith” boldly displayed upon it. Indeed,  it was by faith alone that he had set out upon the mission of his life for he had no idea how he would accomplish it.

When Maria heard of his arrival and the sacred relics he bore she rushed down to the ship to see him for herself.   She was extremely impressed with the way he carried himself and his good looks, but was overwhelmed by the passion he showed for his quest and she quickly fell in love with him. Indeed she revered him as if he had been the good Saint himself and would sit quiet and still with her dark eyes downcast not caring to glance at him while he told of his quest for the Saint and the Wondrous Island.

The young man in turn was fascinated by this demure young maiden and confessed his love for her.  Willingly, he gave her his grandfather’s sacred relics and asked that in return she might speak her true feelings towards him.   Maria replied, “To speak my of my love for you in full and in truth I would need to be in a place where God alone could hear me. Only then could I speak from the purity of my heart.” 

A Jealous Suitor

You see  this was true for Maria because on Terceira there lived a young man of the island who had long admired her.  He was the son of the Lord of the district and for a long time he had been infatuated by her beauty and her manner.  He had begged her for her hand in marriage several times but each time she had demurely and sensitively declined.  She hated having to do it but she could not marry a man she did not love. Now she was worried because she knew that if her unwanted suitor ever found out about her love for Vitale he would fly into a jealous rage and feared what he would do.  Indeed she had good cause to fear for Terceira was a small island with a close knit community and it was not long before her unwanted suitor heard of her relationship with Vitale. 

Rushing to her in a jealous rage he demanded that she marry him immediately.  Maria sensitively and with all kindness gently told him she could not. Angrily he told her, “If you do not marry me I shall have my father lock you in the tower of Saint Louis on the hillside and there you shall stay until you change your mind!’

  ‘I am sorry,” she replied, “but I would prefer to remain locked in the tower for the rest of my days than be your wife.  Why can you not see it and just leave me in peace with my relics of Saint Brendan?”

The Tower of Saint Louis

This further enraged the young man and he had her marched to the tower of Saint Louis where she was locked in its uppermost chamber.  Although small and bare the chamber at least had a window where she would sit and look down upon the city of Angra below.

“All my life I have prayed to the blessed Saint Brendan and loved God.  Now my world has been destroyed by unwanted love!’ she cried in despair.

With that despairing cry which rang out over the city below, the earth shook and trembled and the great stone tower quivered as if was but paper.

Not far from the tower two beautiful white doves were perched on the branches of a cedar tree.

“Look at the tower,” said one, “It will surely fall and the fair maid who weeps inside will die.”

“She shall not die!  Let us rescue her,” said the other , “and take her to a place of safety.”

As they flew into the air the earth shuddered and the tower began to fall and Maria stood weeping in fear at the window.  Faster than the wind the doves swooped down and each clasping one of Maria’s hands carried her through the air as the falling tower collapsed.

Over the treetops, over the rooftops and churches of Angra they carried her and out across the sea.  They continued flying over the horizon and into the setting sun and through the dark night until the sun came up in the morning. 

Saint Brendan’s Wondrous Isle

With the growing light Maria could see they were heading towards an island shrouded in morning mist.  As they drew closer the mist lifted and upon a silver shore there was someone who appeared to be waiting.  Carried by the doves she could see that the island was abundant with the most beautiful trees and gorgeous flowers.  As they descended, she saw that it was a truly wondrous place. As the doves gently set her down before the waiting figure to her joy and wonder she saw that it was Saint Brendan and that he was the gardener of the island.

Back on Terceira the earthquake had caused great damage to the city of Angra and the Tower of Saint Louis had been completely destroyed.  Everyone thought poor Maria had been buried in the rubble and mourned. Vitale had been grief stricken and without her saw his life on the island as being empty and devoid of purpose. 

Therefore he took to his caravel and set sail resuming his quest to find the blessed Isle of Saint Brendan.  For long days and nights he sailed through foul and fine weather until he sailed into a bank of thick fog. He could see no more than a foot before him whichever way he looked. Having no idea of his direction he allowed his ship to drift with the current.  Eventually, sustained by faith alone, he came through the fog to find himself looking at a beautiful sunset. As he looked he saw the clouds descending from heaven to earth like a long white ladder.  

Further on in the distance he saw an island with a silver shore and a green and beautiful land beyond. In his heart he knew this was Saint Brendan’s wondrous island and current took his vessel gently to the shore.  As he approached he saw his beloved Maria standing with her arms outstretched towards him, smiling and her eyes shining. All around her there glowed a gentle auro of pure white light. Stepping ashore, he ran to her outstretched arms and as he approached she said, 

“At last, in this place  I can speak my love for you  from my heart with no one but God and Saint Brendan and you, my dear Vitale, to hear!”

© 03/10/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 3rd, 2019 zteve t evans