Emerald Isle

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.

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