The Mysterious Arts of Ancient Ireland
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle
Strange ways in times long past
Throughout the old stories of Ireland are scattered mentions, and sometimes even descriptions, of some of the spells and rites used by both the Tuatha Dé Danann and those who came after them, the Gaels or Milesians, as they are sometimes known. Tales of these wondrous and mysterious feats of sorcerous skill may seem strange to us, but to the people of the time, they were as real as the rivers and mountains, and sometimes more dangerous than an avalanche or flood!
The druids of old were great masters of illusion, learning as they did from Manannan Mac Lir, who once caused a single man guarding a fortress to appear as a thousand, driving away an attacking army. Again when the Vikings came to raid, he is said to have crafted mighty boats out of sedges, creating an illusion of a powerful fleet, which made the Viking invaders flee in terror.
The bards or fili, the poets, also had their own magic, the Imbas Forosnaí, which means the illumination of inspiration. They could see far-off events as though they were present, entering into a trance and locking themselves away from the world around them. In this state they could also experience prophecies or seek the answers to questions which could be found in no other way.
Such traditions were found throughout the ancient world, such as among the Sybilline Oracles in Greece. The Imbas Forosnaí, or something very similar, was strongly associated with Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his legends.
A doubtful description of this ritual can be found in the Sanas Cormaic, which was written in the ninth century, although few would be foolish enough to believe it had a connection to any real ritual.
“It discovers whatever thing the poet wishes and which he desires to enlighten. This is how it is done. The poet chews a morsel of the red meat of a pig, or a dog, or a cat and puts it then on a flagstone behind the door. He chants an incantation over it and offers it to the idol gods and calls them to him and does not abandon them on the morrow.
He chants over his two palms and calls again idol gods to him lest his sleep be disturbed. He puts his two hands on his two cheeks and sleeps. And he is watched lest he turn over or lest he be disturbed by anybody. Then is revealed to him that for which he was seeking.”
The Feast of Kings was another ritual, described in part in many places but most fully in “The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel”. This was known as the Tarbh Fheis, or the Bull Feast.
A white bull would be taken to a high place at the time of Lughnasa and sacrificed to discover who among them would become the future king. One man, sometimes a druid or a bard, would eat and drink of a broth made from the bull until he passed out, wrapped in the bull's raw hide before a spell of truth-speaking was chanted over his bed and he saw the future king. If he lied about his vision or had no dream, he would die.
This was but one of several rites and rituals surrounding the kingship of Ireland, with another being the Lia Fáil or the Coronation Stone, which had been brought from one of the ancient wisdom-cities known as Falias, where it had been made by Morpheasa. The Tuatha Dé Danann brought it with them when they first came to Ireland.
When the true High King placed his feet upon it during his coronation, it would roar with an impossibly loud voice, and that sound would be heard throughout Ireland! It could also heal the king and was so revered by the Dé Danann that they named Ireland after it – Inis Fáil.
According to Lebor Gabála Érenn, Cú Chulainn split it with his sword when it failed to cry out under his student, Lugaid Riab nDerg, and from then on it never cried out again, except under Conn of the Hundred Battles and according to legend, at the coronation of Brian Ború.
There were also the royal challenges, some of which were mystical in nature. One of these was the need to drive a chariot at full speed towards two standing stones which had only a hand's breadth of space between them. Only for the rightful king would they part, and anyone else would come to a bad end.
The Wife-Feast of Kingship was celebrated after a king was crowned, since a king without a wife was no king at all, and had no right to rule! Not much is known of this ritual, but the King's wife gave him a golden cup filled with a specially prepared potion, and then the marriage was consummated, bringing new life to the land itself.
Chieftains and kings in old Ireland were usually crowned beneath their own clan's guardian tree, which was an enchanted tree hidden deep in a sacred grove, wherefore it was said that each tree sheltered thousands as a symbol of the leader's power.
The pattern days which are still celebrated in many parts of Ireland would usually include a procession around sacred wells and stones, stopping occasionally to say prayers while kneeling. These are rituals with very ancient roots, some say even going back before the Dé Danann ever arrived in Ireland! These were also part of the “turning of stones” whereby ancient druids would cast their spells.
The procession would go deiseal, which means clockwise, sunwise, to the right hand, or the south. Likewise stones were turned in the same way when casting a spell – to go the other direction, tuathal, was to cast a curse or to bring bad luck.
This is mentioned in some of the oldest texts of Irish mythology, such as when Lugh went deiseal around his army before battle, stepping on one foot, one arm outstretched and with one eye open, through which he could see directly into the otherworld. This was called corrghuineacht, and was closely linked to the stork or crane who likewise stood on one foot. The mark of the single eye can be found in many ancient cultures, associated with mystical knowledge.
The one legged posture was employed particularly during the ritual of the glám dícenn, meaning “the satire which destroys”. And the people of old had a firm belief in the practical and real destructive power of insults and cunningly woven mockery! And perhaps they had a point, since the satire might live long after its target had passed away.
Society back in those days was arranged very differently than it is today – young men would often take themselves away to the woods and wild places to join a Fian, or group of other rootless young men to learn the ways of hunting and war. They would stay away from the farms and fields, keeping only to the fringes where they would fight monsters, Sidhe and invading clans who hoped to steal some cattle!
But at Samhain they would come again into the villages and houses, wearing beast masks, the devices of ancient gods and all sorts of outlandish garb! They would dance and prance and howl wordlessly, demanding food, sustenance, and the kinds of things they couldn't normally make by themselves.
If the householder was generous, they would dance around the hearthfire deiseal, otherwise they would spit in the flames and march tuathal, bringing ill fortune upon the house. Echoes of this practice remain with us today in the form of trick-or-treating at Halloween, and it was known in ancient societies as far away as Anatolia, what we call Turkey.
In other lands the houses were burned or damaged if the offerings were unacceptable, and these spectacles became known as the wild hunt!
No telling of the ancient ways of Ireland would be complete without mention of the féth fíada, meaning the knower of the mists, also called ceo druidechta, which was a magical mist or fog in which a worker of occult arts could shroud themselves. It is first mentioned in the annals of the Tuatha Dé Danann when they came to Ireland “without ships or barks, in clouds of fog over the air, by their might of druidry.”
Manannan Mac Lir taught the ways of making the féth fíada to the people of the Sidhe when they retreated beneath the hills after their defeat by the Gaels, so that they could hide themselves from prying eyes if needed.
Even Christian Saints could call upon the féth fíada if needed, as can be found in the prayer known a Saint Patrick's Breastplate, which he prayed when passing by the men of the High King in secret.
Tales abound of the old war-witches and druids causing rains of blood, floods, earthquakes, hiding rivers and springs from their enemies, galloping horses across lakes and oceans, and laying curses upon their enemies. Balor of legend could blast armies and islands with lethal fire by the use of his mystical eye. Cursing itself was a great art in ancient Ireland, such as when the men of Ulster were incapacitated by the labour-pains of women, five days a year, every year, as a result of their ill-treatment of Macha the Sidhe.
Not alone in the arts of secrecy and hiding were the ancient Irish skilled, but also in the making of great wounds and prowess in warfare! For so it is told of Cú Chulainn's warp spasm, as was translated by Kinsella and Joseph Dunn:
“Then took place the first twisting-fit and rage of the royal hero Cuchulain, so that he made a terrible, many-shaped, wonderful, unheard of thing of himself. His flesh trembled about him like a pole against the torrent or like a bulrush against the stream, every member and every joint and every point and every knuckle of him from crown to ground.
He made a mad whirling-feat of his body within his hide. His feet and his shins and his knees slid so that they came behind him. His heels and his calves and his hams shifted so that they passed to the front. The muscles of his calves moved so that they came to the front of his shins, so that each huge knot was the size of a soldier's balled fist.
He stretched the sinews of his head so that they stood out on the nape of his neck, hill-like lumps, huge, incalculable, vast, immeasurable and as large as the head of a month-old child.
He next made a ruddy bowl of his face and his countenance. He gulped down one eye into his head so that it would be hard work if a wild crane succeeded in drawing it out on to the middle of his cheek from the rear of his skull. Its mate sprang forth till it came out on his cheek. His mouth was distorted monstrously.
He drew the cheek from the jaw-bone so that the interior of his throat was to be seen. His lungs and his lights stood out so that they fluttered in his mouth and his gullet. He struck a mad lion's blow with the upper jaw on its fellow so that as large as a wether's fleece of a three year old was each red, fiery flake which his teeth forced into his mouth from his gullet.
There was heard the loud clap of his heart against his breast like the yelp of a howling bloodhound or like a lion going among bears. There were seen the torches of the Badb, and the rain clouds of poison, and the sparks of glowing-red fire, blazing and flashing in hazes and mists over his head with the seething of the truly wild wrath that rose up above him.
His hair bristled all over his head like branches of a redthorn thrust into a gap in a great hedge. Had a king's apple-tree laden with royal fruit been shaken around him, scarce an apple of them all would have passed over him to the ground, but rather would an apple have stayed stuck on each single hair there, for the twisting of the anger which met it as it rose from his hair above him.
The Lon Laith (Champion's Light) stood out of his forehead, so that it was as long and as thick as a warrior's whetstone. As high, as thick, as strong, as steady, as long as the sail-tree of some huge prime ship was the straight spout of dark blood which arose right on high from the very ridge-pole of his crown, so that a black fog of witchery was made thereof like to the smoke from a king's hostel what time the king comes to be ministered to at nightfall of a winter's day.”
You wouldn't want to meet that coming the wrong way down a dark alley!
The one mystical art that is mentioned most in the old stories is that of the shapeshifter. How this was accomplished none can say, it could happen in the blink of an eye and last for centuries, and it was not always voluntary!
For who has not heard of the tale of the Children of Lir, who were turned into swans for almost a thousand years by their jealous stepmother. In the wooing of Étain, Fuamnach changed Étain into a butterfly for similar reasons. Sadbh was transformed into a deer for refusing the lusts of the one known as the Dark Man.
Consumed by jealousy, Luchra transformed Aoife into a crane, and she flew to the lands of Manannan and lived there for centuries. When she died, Manannan used her feathery skin to make the crane-skin bag in which he kept all his magical and sacred treasures, a tradition carried on by the druids.
The Púca, the Sidhe of nightmare, could change shape into many different forms, some entirely unnatural, while the war-witch known as the Morrigan could become a raven to feast upon the dead laying on a battlefield. The kings and even the people of the kingdom of Osraí were said to be able to “go a-wolfing,” which meant to change into the shape of a wolf and hunt through the primordial forests of Ireland.
Lugh's father, Cian, turned himself into a wild boar to escape two men with whom he was feuding, and hid among a herd of pigs, but unfortunately for him they had the same knack, and changed themselves into hounds to find him!
But the most famous of them all was Tuan, who turned himself into a fish to escape the deluge that swallowed Ireland and killed all of his people, then a stag, then a wild boar, a hawk and a salmon before he became once again a man after being eaten by his mother-to-be.
It was he who passed on the most ancient tales of Ireland to Saint Finnian of Movilla, and the place where they spoke can be found on the map below!
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