The Twelve Ordeals of Ireland
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle
Better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one
Just as happens today, people in ancient Ireland had legal disputes and complaints they would bring before their courts, and the judge or king would try to make sense of what had happened and hand down a fair decision.
But also just as happens today, there were situations where it was one person’s word against another, or there wasn’t enough evidence to make a decision! In pre-Christian Ireland, when such cases arose, they would submit people to one of the twelve ordeals of Ireland in the hopes that the truth would come out.
The twelve ordeals were a very ancient tradition, going back perhaps even to the first settlers after the great ice returned to its frozen northern seat. Arriving in a near-wilderness bereft of green things and wild beasts to hunt, those hardy people needed laws to guide them through the challenges of life, and fair judgements – and sometimes it was the judge on trial!
We can read of these ordeals in the Book of Ballymote. There was a famed Brehon, or judge, whose name was Morann son of Carpre Cat-head, of the race of the peasants was he. His father assumed the kingship of Ireland, and he slew all the nobles of Ireland.
Morann's father had a cat's snout, hence the name, and every son that was born to him used to have a blemish, and so he killed them too, since a King of Ireland must be whole in body. Carpre’s wife gave him this advice – to hold the Feast of Tara, and to summon to it the men of Eriú to pray that his children might be right.
He held the Feast, and the men of Ireland were at it till the end of three months, and in each month they all used to fast and to pray a prayer to their Gods that prosperous offspring might be born to Carpre and his wife, although they didn’t want to, for he was a wicked fellow.
Then his wife conceived, and bore a man-child worse than all who had come before, and it seemed as if he were all one hood from his two shoulders upwards, and no mouth was seen in him, nor any eyes, ears or nose.
Carpre ordered his steward to take the child to the lough and drown him, but, that night a man of the fairy-mound appeared to the boy's mother and said to her “It is to the sea that the child must be taken, and let his head be placed on the surface till nine waves come over it. The boy will be noble: he will be king. Morann, this shall be his name.”
And so it was done – when the boy was taken to the sea and was held against the surface and the ninth wave came to him, the membrane that surrounded his head separated and formed a collar on his two shoulders.
Seeing this, the steward was filled with wonder and did not kill the boy, but he didn’t dare take him for fear of the king. So he delivered him to the king's cowherd, and declared the events to the king and the queen. The king was enraged and declared that the boy should be killed, believing that maen, which means treachery, would come of him.
And that is why the son of Carpre Cennchait was called Morann Mac Main, who became known as he of the Great Judgements. A covering of gold and silver was made round that membrane, and thus it became the Collar of Morann Mac Main. If it was put round a guilty neck, it would choke the wearer. If, however, he were innocent, it would expand round him and fall to the ground.
The second ordeal was related to the first, for Morann had another collar, in the shape of a wooden hoop. He had gotten it from a very dangerous Sí called Ochamon the Fool on Síd Arfemin, as anyone will tell you to traffic with the amadán or insane fairy is a deadly game.
Morann had sent the Fool into that fairy mound, and from it he brought a little collar. The fool told Morann that he had seen in the fairy mound that it was used in distinguishing between truth and falsehood. If that collar was put round the foot or the hand of the person whose guilt was in question, it would close itself round him till it cut off his foot or his hand if he were false. But if he were innocent it would not close itself round him at all.
The third ordeal was the Sín Morainn, or a third Collar of Morann. It is said that he travelled to Paul the Apostle, and brought from him an epistle and wore it round his neck. So when Morann returned to Ireland he chanced to meet one of his bondmaids at the dún-gate.
When she saw the epistle round his neck she asked him: “What collar (sín) is that, O Morann?” “Truly,” said Caimmin the Fool, “from today till doom it shall be called Morann's sín (collar).”
The fourth ordeal was the adze of Mochta, used for scraping and shaping wood. This was an adze of brass which Mochta the Wright possessed, the metal head of which was made red-hot in a fire of blackthorn, and the tongue of the accused was passed over it.
It would burn the person who had falsehood, but would not burn the person who was innocent.
The next ordeal was Sencha’s lot-casting, which Sencha son of Ailill, the mighty poet, practised. He would put his hand into the fire and throw two burning twigs to the ground, one for the king and one for the accused.
If the accused were guilty the lot would stick to his palm. If, however, he were innocent, his lot would fly out at once. Sencha avoided severe burns during this ritual by the casting of a poem over the fire. This practise continued into Christian times, when the Gaels would draw lots from reliquaries to determine the will of God.
The sixth ordeal was the vessel of Badurn, who was a king in very ancient times. His wife went to the well, and at the well she saw two women out of the fairy mounds, and between them was a chain of bronze. When they saw the woman coming towards them they dove into the well. She dove after them straight into the well, up and into a Sí, and in that fairy-mound she saw a marvellous vessel of crystal.
If a man should utter three false words while holding it, it would crack into three parts in his hand. If a man should speak three true words while it was in his hand, it would join together again. King Badurn's wife begged that vessel from the folk of the fairy-mound and it was given to her.
A little more mundane was the ordeal of the three dark stones – a bucket was filled with bog-dust, charcoal, and other kinds of black stuff, and three little stones, white, black, and speckled, were put into it, buried deep in the black mass, into which the accused thrust down his hand.
If he pulled out the white stone, he was innocent, if the black one, he was guilty – and if he drew the speckled one, he was half guilty.
The eighth ordeal was the cauldron of truth. A vessel of silver and gold was filled with water and heated until bubbling hot, and then the accused person's hand was dipped into it. If they were guilty the hand was scalded, but if they had no guilt no harm was done to them.
One of the most ancient ordeals was the ninth, the old lot of Sen, which is to say the lot-casting of Sen son of Aige. They would take three pieces of green wood or twigs, mark them with the signs of the chieftain, the poet and the accused, and throw them into water. If the accused was innocent, their lot would float to the top, and if it sank, they were guilty.
Luchta’s iron was the tenth ordeal and was similar to the adze of Mochta. In very ancient times Luchta was a druid who went to study in Brittany, which at the time was a centre for druidry and arcane wisdom. He saw there a strange thing they used to determine truth and falsehood, an iron blessed by the druids and thrust into a fire until red hot.
Then the accused had to grasp the red iron, and if they were guilty, they would be burned. If innocent, no harm would come to them. Luchta brought with him the secret of this iron-blessing, and it was used for a long time afterwards by the Gaels. It may even have survived in the traditional methods to drive out changelings or fairy hauntings.
Waiting at an altar was the eleventh ordeal and it came to the land of Ireland in the time of the Tuatha Dé Danann, The accused had to walk nine times round a druidic altar, and afterwards to drink water over which a druid's incantation had been uttered.
If the accused were guilty some bodily disfigurement became immediately visible, but if innocent the water would do him no harm. There is a resemblance between this ordeal and the Jewish ordeal for a woman suspected of misconduct, detailed in the Book of Numbers, chapter 5.
It is written that Cai Cainbrethach, the pupil of Fenius Farsaid who brought this ordeal from the land of Israel when he came to the Tuatha Dé, where he had learned the law of Moses, and it was he that delivered judgments in the school.
He created the Judgment of Cai and ordained in Eriú the Law of the Four Tracks, outliving nine generations and passing these laws even to King Cormac Mac Art.
The twelfth and final ordeal of Ireland was Cormac Mac Art’s golden cup, an ordeal similar to the crystal vessel of King Badurn. It came into Cormac’s hand when he travelled to the otherworld, and he marvelled at the number of the forms upon it and the strangeness of its workmanship.
But stranger yet were its powers, as was said to him
“Let three words of falsehood be spoken under it, and it will break into three. Then let three true declarations be under it, and it unites again as it was before.”
These would be useful things to have today!
Slievenamon, where the second ordeal was found, is marked on the map below.
We now have an amazing Patreon page as well, where you can listen to the many myths and legends on the Emerald Isle! Exclusive to our Patreon, you can now hear stories of ancient Ireland, folklore and fairy tales and more, all professionally narrated. It's at times like these that it's most important to support artists and creative people whose income might be reduced, so if you'd like to support the work that goes into Emerald Isle, the Patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/emeraldisle
More Stories from the Mythological Cycle
Many are the tales told of Lugh, the mightiest king of that ancient and mystical sorcerer race of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, but only one is told of his death. Now Lugh, lord of many warriors, had four wives, which back in those days wasn’t too unusual, and their names were Echtach, daughter of white-toothed Dagda, Englec, Ná ... [more]
Just as happens today, people in ancient Ireland had legal disputes and complaints they would bring before their courts, and the judge or king would try to make sense of what had happened and hand down a fair decision. But also just as happens today, there were situations where it was one person’s word against another, or there wasn’ ... [more]
The old stories of Ireland, some of the oldest in the world, tell of great ancients – almost immortals! – whose span of life stretched many thousands of years. Legends tell of their spirits passing from one body to the next, or upon occasion, staying in the one body for millennia, watching the tides of man and beast come and go. Such ... [more]
One of the chiefest and most powerful kings among the mystical Tuatha Dé Dannan was the one called Dagda, or Dagda Mór, which means “of shining skills”. He had other names too, such as Eochu the horseman, Ruad Rofhessa, lord of great knowledge, Dáire the fertile one and Aed, he of the fiery temper. Others yet called ... [more]
The Irish Brehon law codes are said to be the earliest fully developed legal system in Europe, but long before the Brehons were laid down there were earlier laws and all were subject to them, from the lowest to the highest! Women could hold their own property, were not themselves considered property, and could seek an education and improve their ... [more]
No tale of ancient Ireland could be complete without mentioning the Fomorians, dreaded foes of the Tuatha Dé Danann and all who came to conquer Ireland. The meaning of their name is debated even today, although most agree that the first part, fó, means “from below” or “nether” and the latter part means “t ... [more]
Many of the oldest records of Irish mythology and legend, which you might truthfully say are a history of prehistory, tell that the first people to arrive in Ireland were led by the lady Cessair when she fled to this land to escape the coming flood. The idols which had whispered through veils of midnight smoke that Ireland was a land untouched by p ... [more]
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 ... [more]
The river Barrow, like many rivers in Ireland, was given its name in ancient times. Few now know it once had another and very different name however, for it was when Dian Cécht walked the world, the healer of the Tuatha De Danann, that this river was first named! Dian Cécht, whose name meant swift power or swift potion, depending o ... [more]
A thousand years before the Olympic games were founded, the Tuatha De Dannan had arrived in Ireland and defeated the Fir Bolg, establishing their place on the Emerald Isle. The mighty queen Tailtiu had married Eochaid mac Eirc of the Fir Bolg, but he was killed during the invasion of Ireland by the Tuatha, so the leader of the invaders took her for ... [more]
In ancient times the Gaels would hold great festivals at different seasons of the year, such as the Tailteann Games, Tlachtga, Raigne and Lughnasadh, and it was at the beginning of August, every three years, that the festival of Carmun would be held during the festival of Lugh. Mighty were the celebrations held, with the racing of horses and the ... [more]
Long ago it was the time of the Tuatha De Danann in Ireland, and they were troubled by strife from beyond the Emerald Isle and within it. One of their mightiest warriors whose name was Lugh of the Long Hand heard that their demonic enemies from the sea, the Fomorians, had landed at Eas Dara, so he hopped up on Aonbharr, a horse which could gallop a ... [more]
Some of the most ancient Irish myths and legends tell of the Bocanachs and the Bananachs, known to the people of Ireland as fierce spirits of the air that were drawn to scenes of battle and bloodshed. Whenever armies gathered to test their might, the sky overhead would be filled with shrieking demons dancing to the sounds of swords clashing and blo ... [more]
Woven through many Irish stories, myths and legends is the ancient game of Fidchell, which means “wisdom of the wood”. It's said that it was invented by none other than Lugh of the Tuatha De Dannan, and predates chess by many centuries. Fidchell held a central role in the celebrations of Lugh, and at Samhain festivities as well, ... [more]
Well known is the ancient tale of the Children of Lir, and how two of the three of Bodb Dearg's daughters by Oilell of Aran married Lir to keep the peace in Ireland, between the rival chieftains of the Tuatha De Dannan. But less well known perhaps is the story of the daughter of the Bodb and one of her admirers, Cliach the Harpist. Cliach pl ... [more]
After the second battle of Moy Tura, Nuada the High King of the Tuatha De Danann was grievously injured, and as it was the law among their people that a king must be whole of body, Dagda Mór took his place. Mighty Dagda, of whom the ballads are sung, he was called the father of the Tuatha, the lord of knowledge, the many-skilled, th ... [more]
It is in the nature of fairytales and legends passed down from generation to generation that they might sometimes change and shift to fit the lives of the people of the time, and the more mysterious the figure the more legends accrue to it! And so it is with Donn of the Dead, king of the dead at the red tower of the dead, whose three sons cried &ld ... [more]
It was at the dawning of the world when the fair folk walked in broad daylight as bold as you and I, before the coming of the Milesians with their bitter iron blades and earthen ways, it was the time when magic was wrought and druidry had power, when heroes gave battle to gods and the titanic children of Seth still troubled the dreams of Heaven, it ... [more]
The raven has long been an omen of ill-tidings around the world, bearer of bad news and warnings, but in Ireland it was known once as a servant of the fairy Morrigan, or the raven was herself in person! She it was whose name meant the Great or Ghost Queen, from the old words for fear and greatness. Some will tell you earnestly that she was a god ... [more]
Long ago, in the time of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, one of their number became the high king of all Ireland, and his name was Eochaid Ollathair. He was a powerful magician of that sorcerous race, and by his workings he could change the weather and ensure the harvest was plentiful, as well as many other things. His wealth was vast and he was mu ... [more]
It was in the time of legends and heroes, when the Tuatha Dé Dannan had determined to go into their deep halls beneath the hills and mountains of Éireann the green, that the Dagda mór had fallen at the second battle of Moy Tura. With his slaying a new leader had to be elected and that was decided by the Tuatha to be the Red Cro ... [more]
And so it was when dragons still flew and champions walked the earth that the men of the Fir Bolg had lordship over all of Ireland. They had left Ireland centuries before due to the violence and heavy tribute demanded by the Fomorians, travelling far and wide until they came to the distant land of Greece. Although they made agreement and treaty ... [more]