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Emain Macha or Navan Fort

Emain Macha (said roughly like evan macka) features largely in Irish mythology, though you’ll find it on maps by its English name, Navan Fort. Technically, Navan Fort isn’t a fort. It is instead best described as a ritual complex, about 1.6 miles west of the city of Armagh, in Northern Ireland.

Navan Fort, Armagh, Northern Ireland
Image: Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

The complex sits on a low mound, and is visible quite clearly for some distance. The site was largely abandoned by the first century C.E. The central area is a circular area about 820 feet in diameter, set off by a raised bank and a ditch, with the ditch atypically outside the bank—this suggests that the site was used for ritual rather than defensive purposes. There are two sets of ruins inside the enclosed area; an earthen mound, about 130 feet in diameter, and about 20 feet high lies to the north-west; this is generally what most people think of when they hear Emain Macha. To the south-east is what’s left of a ring-barrow, the remains of a late prehistoric ritual area, and burial mound.

A model of a reconstructed Navan Fort central complex; a large circular structure with a conical roof
Navan Fort central complex reconstruction Image: Creative Commons notafly

The mound was likely constructed c. 95 B.C.E.—a date that’s extraordinarily reliable because it’s based on dendrochronology. When it was first built, the site consisted of four rings of posts, arranged concentrically around an immense central oak post or trunk. The entrance faced west, towards the sunset instead of the common domestic entrances of structures from the same era which typically face the east. Inside the floor was tamped down and covered with lime stone blocks brought from elsewhere and carefully arranged in radial patterns from the center out, to a height of about three meters. There may have been a roof, originally. The entire structure was deliberately burned down shortly after it was built, then carefully covered in an mound of dirt, which in turn was covered with turf. This is a pattern that archaeologists have noticed at two other ritual sites, Tara, and Duún Ailinne.

The remains of the ring-barrow are harder to date. Non-invasive geophysical surveys have determined that beneath the surface lies a figure-eight shaped wooden structure, with one ring of the figure larger than the other. The site appears to have been used for generations, with the central sites rebuilt at least twice. Beneath them are still older sites, smaller, each with its own central hearth. Artifacts found at this level during a dig in the 1980s include pottery fragments, bones, and other items that indicate that they were inhabited in the last centuries of the Bronze age, and into the early Iron age, or from roughly 600 to 250 B.C.E.

An even earlier circular ditch surrounds the mound, though it’s not readily visible; it’s an early Bronze age structure, and limited excavations found flint tools and pottery shards indicative of Neolithic era activity at the site, c. 4000 to 2500 B.C.E. Nearby, about two-thirds of a mile to the west is Haughey’s Fort, an early Bronze Age hill fort, and The King’s Stables, a man-made pool from the Bronze age, both of which pre-date the structure at Emain Macha. In addition, Loughnashade, a natural lake and the site where many fine Iron Age artifacts where found, is nearby.

There are three closely related “origin myths” regarding Emain Macha. All of them revolve around a woman named Macha. Here they are, in my less-than-literary translation from the version in §§ 29-30 of Tochmarc Emire from A. G. Van Hamel’s edition in his Compert Culainn (Oxford: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1978

The woman named Macha appeared one day, and without a word, began to care for Crunncu Mac Agnomain, a man of Ulster. But because of his boasting regarding her ability to run, Macha was forced to race against two of the king’s horses, even though she asked for mercy given her advanced pregnancy. Macha died giving birth to a son and a daughter at a single birth at the finish-line. Thus it is said that Emain Macha is named for the twins, emain, of Macha.

Another tale has the name Emain Macha from this.

Three Ulster kings, Dithorbae, Aed the Red, and Cimbaeth shared the kingship, each ruling for a seven years then another taking his place in turn. Each man reigned three terms, that is sixty-six years. Aed the Red died at the beginning, and he left only a daughter. Her name was Macha the Red-haired.

Macha demanded the kingship in her proper turn. Cimbaeth and Dithorbae said they would not give kingship to a woman. Macha vanquished them in battle, and ruled seven years. Dithorbae died in Corann during that time, and left five sons, who demanded the kingship. Macha said she would not give it to them, “for not by agreement did I take it,” said she, “but by force in the field of battle.” Macha vanquished the sons of Dithorbae in battle, and they fled in exile to the wilderness of Connacht. Macha then took Cimbaeth for her husband.

After Macha and Cimbath were united, Macha went seeking for the sons of Dithorbai, disguised as a leper woman. She found them in Connacht cooking a wild boar. The men asked for news from her, and she told the news to them and they gave food to her at the fire. One of the brothers said “the eye of this hag is beautiful, let us lie with her.”

The brother took Macha into the forest, where she bound him by means of her strength and left him in the wood. When she came back to the fire, the others asked “Where is the man who went with you?”

“He was ashamed to come to you,” said Macha, “after lying with a leper woman.”

“It is no shame,” said they, “for we will all do the same.”

Each man took Macha into the wood, where she bound each of them in turn, taking them in a single chain with her to Ulster. The Ulsterman said the men should be killed. “No,” said Macha, “for to kill them would be a violation of true justice from me as ruler; but I shall put them under bondage, and they shall dig a rath [a ring-fort] for me that will be the chief town of Ulster for ever.”

And Macha took the gold pin from about her neck and marked out the lines of the fort with it, thus Emain Macha is named for the gold pin about the neck [muin] of Macha.

You can decide for yourself which origin myth you prefer, but you should be sure to visit Emain Macha. Navan Centre, the official gateway to Emain Macha or Navan Fort is a bit of a tourist trap of the “experience authentic Ireland” variety, but Emain Macha and the associated sites are very much worth the visit, and the more fanciful parts of the Centre can be easily avoided.

I wish I could link to some of J. P. Mallory’s research, but not any of it is available online, not even the articles from Emania. Mallory has done the most recent work at the Navan Fort complex.

Navan Fort as Feasting Site For People From Across Ireland

A group of researchers led by Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University analyzed pig, sheep, and cattle bones discovered via excavation at Navan Fort in Armagh, Northern Ireland. The analysis included the bones of 35 animals (primarily pig, but also cattle and goat/sheep). After performing multi-isotope analysis on samples of tooth enamel to determine where the animals spent their formative years (water leaves a unique identifiable locality trace in the enamel), the researchers concluded that people brought animals over great distances with the intent of feasting at the Navan Fort ritual complex. This is important since in some cases the animals traveled 100 miles before being consumed at Navan Fort, indicating the importance both of feasting as a community practice, and of Navan Fort as a ritual site.

As the paper notes:

Navan Fort showing the grass-covered central mound
Navan Fort, Armagh, Northern Ireland Image: Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

People brought animals from across Ulster and beyond to Navan Fort and it is likely that the great prehistoric regional centres of Ireland acted as lynchpins in the landscape and centres for large-scale connectivity. The bringing of animals from great distances to Navan can be explained in two different ways. Documentary evidence indicates that cattle raiding was as endemic feature of the medieval Ireland with some raids taking place on an inter-provincial scale. Navan Fort is one of the principal settings of the Ulster Cycle of legendary tales which has at its core a tale of cattle raiding. Such raiding, however, was primarily concerned with cattle while pig was primarily the food of feasting, as indicated in such legends as The tale of Mac Da Thó’ pig. Feasting, almost invariably associated with sacrifice, was a social necessity of early societies where the slaughter of a large domesticate necessitated the consumption of a large amount of meat in a short period of time. The results of the analysis of the pig bones from Navan provides evidence for such occasional feasting at the site, with participants bringing their pigs, for sacrifice and consumption, from a wide catchment area.[1]p. 11

Navan Fort, or Emain Macha in Medieval texts, is described in Irish mythology as the capital of Ulster. It’s one of the four ritual centers featured in Irish mythology, along with Tara, Rath Croghan and Dūn Ailinne.

You can read the research report in Feasting and Mobility in Iron Age Ireland: Multi-isotope analysis reveals the vast catchment of Navan Fort, Ulster.[2]Madgwick, R., Grimes, V., Lamb, A.L. et al. “Feasting and Mobility in Iron Age Ireland: Multi-isotope analysis reveals the vast catchment of Navan Fort, Ulster.” Sci Rep 9, 19792 (2019) … Continue reading Dr. Madgwick is also the lead researcher for the earlier project which analyzed the bones of 131 pigs found at sites near Stonehenge, revealing that  people brought there pigs from many places across the British Isles, even as far away as Scotland.


1 p. 11
2 Madgwick, R., Grimes, V., Lamb, A.L. et al. “Feasting and Mobility in Iron Age Ireland: Multi-isotope analysis reveals the vast catchment of Navan Fort, Ulster.” Sci Rep 9, 19792 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-55671-0

Things I Dread About Samhain

Image credit: rannṗáirtí anaiṫnid | A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o’-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland via WikiMedia Commons

Because I have a Celtic studies website, every October my email is peppered with messages from two large groups: fundamentalist Christians of various persuasions, and Neo Pagans of various paths. Both sects are writing to inform, deny, assert or correct me regarding Halloween and the Celtic feast known as Samhain in Modern Irish (Samain in Medieval Irish).

The amount of email (and comments) increases every year. And the articles posted all over the Web get a little more annoying in their diligent perpetration of myths. Several years ago I even wrote my own FAQ What Is Samain or Samhain to try to stem the tide, to no avail.

Both groups are still generally propagating ahistorical myths. Thing like:

Samhain is the name of the Celtic God of the Dead.

No, really, it’s not. There wasn’t a “Celtic God of the Dead.” There isn’t really even an Irish god of the dead. The various Celtic groups speaking various Celtic languages over several thousand years and many more miles had a lot of different deities, possibly hundreds, but unlike say, Greek or Roman deities, they don’t have neatly organized portfolios, pantheons or specific bureaucratic duties and job descriptions. Celtic deities tend to be multivalent, with a single deity having several associations, even associations that might seem to contradict each other, or change over time and geographic distances. Unlike the Romans, the ancient Celts don’t seem to have placed a high cultural value on consistency or linear organization.

However, while Samhain or (Sam Hain as some would have it) isn’t the name of a Celtic god of the dead, it is a feast, and a month. Samhain (Modern Irish Samhain, Old Irish Samain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin, and Gaulish Samonios), is the name for the ninth month in Modern Irish, and the name of a specific feast mentioned frequently in Medieval Irish texts. Celticist T. G. E. Powell writes:

The greatest festival in Ireland was known as Samain. In terms of the modern calendar it was celebrated on the first of November, but the preceding night was perhaps the most significant period of the festival. Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was considered to stand independently between the two, and its position in relation to the natural seasons shows it clearly to have been the turning-point in a pastoralist rather than an agrarian cycle. It corresponds to the end of the grazing season when under primitive conditions the herds and flocks were brought together, and only those animals required for breeding were spared from slaughter.[1]T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, New York, 1985. p. 144.

Powell’s description is very much in line with the various references in medieval Irish texts to Samain and the feis Samain, the feast of Samain. Harvest requires a communal effort to gather the crops and herds, and it’s inevitably followed by feasting, as people consume the food that won’t last until Spring when fresh food again becomes readily available. Consequently Samain is also frequently associated in medieval Irish texts with oenaich, that is, festivals and great assemblies of people, assemblies that take place after most of the harvest is done, but before Winter arrives.

Samhain is the Celtic New Year

This one is pernicious. On the face of it, it’s not exactly wrong, there’s clearly a divide at the season of Samain/Samhain between two points of time and season. I wish that, instead of writing “Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next,” Powell had written that Samain marked the end of one agrarian cycle, and the beginning of the next cyle, or one season and the beginning of the next season. Samain does mark the end of Summer and the start of Winter. It’s worth noting that the Welsh name for November first is “Caland Gaeaf,” or the first day of Winter (caland is a borrowed word with Latin antecedents and cognate with English calendar, but gaef is good Welsh).

But labeling that divide as a celebration of a New Year is troubling, first, because it equates European/North American celebrations on the 31st of December and the 1st of January with the seasonal and agrarian cycles of multiple cultures from thousands of years ago and a very large geographic area. Secondly, it’s troubling because the best evidence we have, including ancient calendars like the Coligny Calendar, are more about cycles, about things repeating, than about a linear progression and totting up the years. It’s a little silly to tie our cultural assumptions about “New Year’s Day” to those of the various ancient Celtic-speaking groups.

The ancient Celts, like the other peoples of most of Europe, were agrarian. They raised crops and animals. They fed themselves and their animals (cattle, pigs, horses, and, eventually, sheep) on crops like oats and barley and then butchered some of the animals in late fall. They carefully saved some of the seeds from their crops (particularly oats and barley) to plant the following spring, much as they saved enough adult animals to breed swine and cows and horses in the spring.

In an agrarian economy, even now, you’re thinking about making it through winter when you butcher and harvest crops in the fall, eating now what you can’t preserve, and saving enough seed and young breeding stock for spring in hope of making it through to the next year for butchering and harvest. The New Year as such isn’t that important; the season is important. The cycle. The things you must do at the proper time and in the proper order in order to survive, because, as G.R.R. Martin puts it “Winter is coming.” Winter and dearth are predictable; spring and summer aren’t.

Samhain is the Celtic Feast of the Dead

Well, no, not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that Samhain marks a liminal time between the end of Summer and the start of Winter. As a liminal time, half-way between two seasons, Samhain is special in that it’s neither one thing or the other. In terms of Medieval Irish texts and myths, Samhain is a time when denizens of various Otherworlds, including the supernatural, the fey, and the dead, are free to cross over to this world, just as mortals can cross over to the Otherworlds. It’s also not really accurate to equate the various Celtic Otherworlds with Hell, or even with the land of the dead. Again, it’s not that easy. Lines blur with Celtic myths.

Samhain is the ancestor of Halloween

It’s perhaps better to categorize Samhain as one inspiration for Halloween. The medieval Catholic church celebrated a number of feast days or holy days commemorating the death of saints who had no particular feast specifically dedicated to them. The dates varied with various “local” Catholic churches in the Middle ages, but the church eventually settled on November 1.

In 609 Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or as Middle English has it, Alholowmesse. The Venerable Bede (d. 735) states that the celebration of All Saints Day occurs November 1 in England. The night before, October 31 was thus All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween. In A.D. 1000 the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the souls of all the departed (particularly those in Purgatory), by praying for them. There are references to both days earlier, but these seem to be the dates of official approval and administrative standardization as feast days with their current places in the calendar.

Certainly the associations of harvest and the dying of the year underlie the church’s decision to have an official day of the dead for commemorative purposes, and it’s not unlikely that the church made a conscious decision to assign the feast officially to a day that already had local associations with commemorating the dead, which Samain assuredly has.

I am posting this now, because this morning’s email contained this year’s first Samain related link to a Chick tract; it’s going to be a long couple of weeks. Instead of reading Chick tracts, read this; Echtrae Nerai; The Adventures of Nera. It’s a medieval Irish tale set on Samain, it’s odd, and spooky and features a talking corpse and a visit to the Otherworld because “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.”

An earlier version of this post was published in 2017 on


1 T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, New York, 1985. p. 144.

Saint Patrick, Saint Bridget, and the Brewing of Beer

Despite the idiocies of Saint Patrick’s Day in the U.S. (by which I mean the consumption of green beer rather than blessed Guinness, and the over-enthusiastic endorsement of imbibing while Irish, there is a genuine, and historical, connection between Ireland and beer, or cuirm, in Old Irish. For one thing, there’s a long and documented history of Irish brewing that is very legitimate. So legitimate, in fact, that beer laws occur in the medieval corpus of traditional Irish law known as the Senchus Mór, which was colloquially known as Cáin Padraic, or Patrick’s Law, since the bodies of traditional Irish civil law and church law were said to have been combined and written down upon instructions from St.Patrick.

The Senchus Mór discusses, in some detail, the correct process for making beer. The beer was made from malted barley, produced by steeping barley in water for a specific time, then draining off the liquid from the barley. The barley is then spread, carefully, on a clean and level floor to dry. At this point the malted barley was known as brac or braich. As the brac dries on the floor, it is carefully raked into orderly ridges, so that each grain in turn is exposed to light and air. Then it is dried in a special kiln called an aith.

At this point, the malt or brac was either stored in the form of grains, or carefully ground and then formed into cakes. Brac was so valuable a commodity that it was used as currency, including the payment of rent. When the brewmaster, a truly respected craft and position, was ready to make ale, the brac was crushed to form a fine meal, and water was added to make a mash, which was in turn fermented, boiled and strained. The same yeast or leaven was used for bread making and brewing and both brewing and bread-baking used brac as raw material. Brac was so important that there were purity tests to determine its quality.

There are, all over Ireland, small horseshoe shaped mounds. They are now mostly covered by grass, but beneath the grass are burned, cracked stones clearly damaged by fire, arranged in a central pit, or trough. There are thousands of these fire-marked pits all over Ireland, though they appear particularly common in Cork. You’ll even find these pits marked on the official ordinance survey maps. Carbon dating suggests that most of these pits, known as fulacht fiadh in Ireland, were built between c. 1500 B.C.E. – c. 500 B.C.E. We don’t honestly know what these pits were used for; there have been many suggestions, including cooking meat by boiling it, dye work, and, most recently, an archeologist has suggested they were used for the brewing of ale.

In Irish tales like Mesca Ulaid, or “The Intoxication of the Ulsterman,” vast banqueting halls were filed with a hundred vats of ale, ale made expressly for the occasion of the feast. In such instances, the guests are said to “drink the banquet,” which gives us a fair idea of the importance of ale. In this particular tale, the men of Ulster get outrageously drunk and go on the Medieval equivalent of a pub-crawl, stopping and participating in ale-feasts all over Ulster and into the territory of Connaught.

Beer, and brewing were so very important in Ireland that St. Patrick had a personal brewmaster; one Mescan. St. Bridget was a famous brewer; indeed one of her miracles is that one year at Easter she brewed enough beer to fill the vats of all the nearby households. It is then quite appropriate on Saint Patrick’s Day to contemplate Saint Patrick, and Saint Bridget, and yes, beer. When asked what heaven was like, Bridget is said to have responded, poetically, with a poem now preserved in an eleventh century manuscript:

I should like to have a great ale-feast for the King of Kings;
I should like the Heavenly Host to be drinking it for all eternity.

So when you raise a pint of black today, and mutter sláinte, give a thought to Patrick and Bride, as St. Bridget is familiarly known.

Tam Lin: Love, Sacrifice, and Halloween

Image of a carved turnip from Ireland
Image credit: Carsten Tolkmit — Laenulfean

I can’t really think about Halloween, or Samain, if you prefer, without thinking of the ballad of “Tam Lin,” especially this part:


And ance it fell upon a day
A cauld day and a snell,
When we were frae the hunting come,
That frae my horse I fell,
The Queen o’ Fairies she caught me,
In yon green hill to dwell.

And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a teind to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.

But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday;
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.

Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide.

— “Tam Lin” Child Ballad 39A.24

“Tam Lin” is one of the Child Ballads, a collection of several hundred early English and Scottish popular ballads collected by Francis James Child. Most of the Child ballads are from the sixteenth century. Some few are older. You can find a list of the Child ballads by number here. A few of the ballads are older than the earliest printed sources; “Tam Lin” is one of those. It’s also one of the best known of the Child Ballads; there are lots of covers by folk rock bands, as well as more traditional singers.[1]Probably the best known cover of Tam Lin is this 1969 performance by British folk rock band Fairport Convention, from their lovely Liege and Leaf album. You can find the entire text of the ballad in multiple versions at Abigail Akland’s site You may be familiar with the story of Tam Lin from one of the novels inspired by the ballad[2]A fair number of writers have used all or parts of the ballad of Tam Lin in their books. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Elizabeth Marie Pope’s YA The Perilous Gard are two of my favorites. Other … Continue reading.

The basic story line of “Tam Lin” tells how Tam Lin was kidnapped or “taken” by the queen of the fairies when he falls off a horse while hunting. He is destined to be sacrificed by the fairies on Halloween, as a teind or tithe to Hell, unless his mortal (and pregnant) lover Janet rescues him.

One of the reasons I find Tam Lin’s tale compelling is that it’s very much tied to the idea of seasons, and to the medieval Celtic idea that at Samain (or the modern related holiday Halloween) the Otherworld is closer to this world, and thus allows more ready passage between the two. Halloween is a liminal time. Samain was at its heart a harvest festival, a time when animals and crops were taken and consumed.

When Janet rescues her lover, it is at midnight, a time between day and night, a time that is thus, because of its liminal nature, outside of time, much the way Samain lies outside of time, between seasons.

The rescue takes place at Miles cross, that is, at a crossroads, a place between places, a place that is liminal in that it partakes of two or more places at once. Crossroads, places where two roads, or two tracks meet, represent decision points; you must choose which road to follow. Crossroads are liminal in that if you stand in the center, you are not really “at” any of the four roads; you are in a special place that is “between”; between roads, between choices. It is at once “some place,” and “no place.” Consequently, crossroads are rich with potential in folklore. They are, for instance, a logical place for a deal with the devil.

In the ballad of Tam Lin, Tam Lin, about to be offered as a tithe to Hell by the fairies, tells his mortal lover Janet that she must meet him and pull him from his horse when he rides with the fairies:

Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide.

Janet can rescue Tam Lin from the fairies at at midnight because it is between night and day, and at Miles Cross because it’s a crossroad, a place that is neither fairy nor mortal turf but that is “between” territories, and hence, neutral territory. Crossroads are places where journeys are shaped, because the traveler must make a choice about which path to take.

Although Samain was principally a harvest festival, a time for feasting and giving thanks for the harvest as you consume what won’t keep, there are several references to a tax due at Samain; for instance, in the Lebor Gabala Eirenn, during the reign of Nemed, we are told that the descendants of Nemed were taxed by the Fomoire:

§44. Two thirds of the progeny, the wheat, and the milk of the people of Ireland (had to be brought) every Samain to Mag Cetne. Wrath and sadness seized on the men of Ireland for the burden of the tax. They all went to fight against the Fomoraig.[3](Lebor Gabala Eirinn. Ed. Trans. R. A. S. MacAlister. Irish Text Society 1832.

Here Samain is associated with tax-gathering, paying a tithe, an appropriate thing to do at the end of the harvest. It might in fact be considered a kind of sacrifice, since the Formoire were certainly supernatural.

In the ballad, Tam Lin says that

Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a teind to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.

The idea of the teind, an old Northern word for a tithe, is particularly intriguing in light of the timing of Samain in the late autumn. The Medieval English Thomas Of Erceldoune (closely related to Child Ballad #37 “Thomas the Rhymer”) makes a similar reference to “þe foulle fende” fetching his fee in the form of a human sacrifice.  The fairy queen who absconded with Thomas when she found him sleeping under the Eldone Tree, tells him she must return him to the mortal world lest he be sacrificed:

“To Morne of helle þe foulle fende
Amange this folke will feche his fee;
And þou arts mekill mane and hende,—
I trowe full wele he wolde chose the.
ffor alle þe gold þat euer may bee,
þou bese neuer be trayede for mee;
þere fore with me I rede thou wende” (ll. 289–94).[4]Thomas of Erceldoune is a 15h century medieval romance. The best text is that of the 15th century Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91. The Thornton Ms. Nixon, Ingeborg. Ed. Thomas of Erceldoune. Publications … Continue reading

One of the more interesting aspects of the liminality of Halloween (and the earlier Samain) is that the ease of passage between the mortal world (or Middle Earth as Thomas of Erceldoune has it) and the fairy otherworld on Halloween, as on May Day (or Beltaine) marks the way the otherworld is dependent on this world, even if it’s only for occasional sacrificial victims. Another interesting facet is that in both the story of Tam Lin, saved by the love of his mortal sweetheart Janet, and in the case of Thomas the Rhymer, saved by the love of his immortal sweetheart the fairy Queen, love wins the day.


1 Probably the best known cover of Tam Lin is this 1969 performance by British folk rock band Fairport Convention, from their lovely Liege and Leaf album.
2 A fair number of writers have used all or parts of the ballad of Tam Lin in their books. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Elizabeth Marie Pope’s YA The Perilous Gard are two of my favorites. Other writers, principally Patricia McKillip in Winter Rose and Elizabeth Bear in Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water use the ballad in interesting and compelling ways.
3 (Lebor Gabala Eirinn. Ed. Trans. R. A. S. MacAlister. Irish Text Society 1832.
4 Thomas of Erceldoune is a 15h century medieval romance. The best text is that of the 15th century Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91. The Thornton Ms. Nixon, Ingeborg. Ed. Thomas of Erceldoune. Publications of the Department of English University of Copenhagen. Volume 9 Part 1 Thomas of Erceldoune. Volume 9 Part 2 Introductions, Commentary and Glossary. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 1980.

Lady Charlotte Guest

Portrait of Lady Charlotte GuestThe Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s “Life of the Week” post this week is a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion, including the four mabinogi proper, as well as the three Welsh tales, and the four Arthurian romances, as well as several other tales, including the prose Taliesin fragment from the sixteenth century, edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin in 1991.

Lady Guest’s translation, with the accompanying notes, is actually quite wonderful; it was the first translation I ever read, and it still remains well-worth reading. It has become fashionable to sneer at her—and imply that she wasn’t responsible for the work. She was; I’ve seen some of her handwritten notes, and while she has, quite understandably, Victorian sensibilities, she had a scholarly frame of mind. I wish that her notes from the first editions were still printed; they are well worth reading, and in fact her translations of the four romances, particularly Gereint (the Welsh version of the tale Chretien called Erec et Enide) inspired Tennyson’s take in Idylls of the King.

You can read more about Lady Charlotte Guest here and here. Angela V. John has written a solid biography: Lady Charlotte Guest. An Extraordinary Life

Salmon and the Celts

Initial T depicted as a salmon
Salmon as an initial T from the Book of Kells.

I live very near a small fresh water estuary and salmon hatchery in Washington state. This month, the Pacific salmon are swimming upstream to spawn. They are stunning; gorgeous silver scales with bands and spots of pink and green, even blue. They are much larger than I’d expected; many are well over a foot in size, and wider than the palm of my hand.

These salmon have come from miles away, upstream, over rapids and falls and fish ladders to arrive at their original hatchery, where they jump over a series of fish ladders, to reach their home. There they will remain to spawn (and then die), or in some cases,  continue upstream to a different estuary, or even out to sea.

Pacific Northwest First Nations inspired stylized salmon

The annual return of the Pacific salmon (and steelhead trout) to Puget Sound rivers always reminds me of the importance of salmon in medieval Irish texts. The value placed on salmon by the ancient Celts and North American First Nations peoples is similar, in terms of both the salmon’s intrinsic value as a crucial part of people’s diet, and their value as a vital cultural symbol.

Given the value salmon offer as food items, and the seasonal aspect of the salmon spawn, the return of the salmon every year had to have been a momentous occasion to the ancient Celts just as it was (and is) for First Nations peoples in the Pacific Northwest, as the Salish celebration of the First Salmon’s return suggests.

The salmon’s ability to remember and navigate to its own birth place to spawn suggests wisdom beyond the ordinary. Words for salmon (, , éicne in Irish, eog in Welsh) are parts of a number names, for both people and places. The place name Leixlip, in County Kildare along the river Liffey is derived from the Norse of the Viking settlers who traveled up the Liffey, and settled; in Old Norse Leixlip is leax hlaup or “salmon leap,” a name that is likely a reference to the annual return of the salmon from the Atlantic to swim up the Liffey to spawn.

Lushootseed, one of the the Salish-family language used by First Nations peoples in the Puget Sound, is equally rich with salmon references in place names. Salish cultures are also  rich with stories. One of the Salish stories explains why salmon return from the sea, swimming up river to spawn, and then die, except for the Steeleye.

The story goes like this:

Once long ago when the Salish were starving, Raven searched for help, and discovered Salmon Woman and her children Sockeye, and Steelhead and Coho and King salmon. Raven persuaded Salmon Woman to marry him and she gave her children to the Salish so they would not starve.

Because the salmon were abundant, in time the Salish forgot their hunger and their desperation. They began to be greedy and over fished. Salmon Woman called her children back to her, and left the Salish, returning to the sea and the longhouse of her father, the Salmon Chief. She vowed never to return to land and the Salish, and soon the Salish again knew starvation and hunger.

Raven begged his wife to forgive the people and return to them with her children. Eventually, he persuade Salmon woman to return, but first she changed her children’s lifecycle to teach the Salish a lesson.

Before this, the salmon at the mouth of the river, near the Salish village, all year long. But Salmon Woman changed her children so that the salmon would spawn upriver, then return to the ocean, and not return to the Salish until spawning season.

The Salish were instructed never to go up river to harvest the salmon, and instead to only take salmon during the harvest moons. But not everyone heard the instructions. Bear, Raven’s brother, was one who did not hear. One year when Bear’s wife was pregnant, Raven was hunting and fishing for Bear’s family, because Bear’s wife was pregnant, a status that was much valued by the Salish.

Bear became bored and restless. He decided to hunt salmon, and went upriver. But each salmon species he touched died, and floated down stream, the coho, the chinook, the chum, the sockeye, all died as soon as he touched them.

The Salish people became worried about starving. They called Raven and asked to find Bear, and stop him. Raven knew his brother was upriver where the salmon spawning beds were, and he hurried to stop him.

But Raven was too late. When Raven arrived at the spawning grounds, Bear has already touched every species of salmon.

Except one, the steelhead.

And that is why even today, when other species of salmon return to spawn and then dies, the steelhead survives spawning and swims out to the ocean.

This tale* serves a number of functions, beyond explaining the miraculous return of salmon to spawn after a year at sea. It also teaches the importance of seasonal fishing, and restraint; notice, for instance, that just as Raven hunts for his brother’s family, a family about to be increased with the birth of a child, they do not hunt the salmon while they are spawning.

That drive to return to where they were born in order to spawn, has helped the salmon take a special place in Celtic myth. Salmon are otherworldly animals in Irish myth; their spots are one of the markers of such creatures.The salmon’s spots are because salmon eat the hazelnuts of the nine hazels of wisdom, one of which grows at the heads of each of the seven primary rivers of Ireland, one at Connla’s Well, and one at the Well of Segais. Salmon are said to bear a spot for each hazelnut they have consumed.

In Irish tradition, salmon are ultimately responsible for the preternatural knowledge of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. In one version of the myth, the poet Finnécces (etymologically Finnécces means “white salmon.”) has been trying to catch Fintan, the ancient salmon of knowledge that lived at the base of the Boyne. He finally managed to catch the salmon and is cooking the fish prior to consuming it. Along comes the youthful Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Having touched the salmon on the fire, and burned his thumb, Fionn stuck it in his mouth—thus gaining the otherworldly oracular wisdom Finn had intended for himself by consuming the salmon. From that point on, Fionn merely sucks his thumb, and gains the answer to any question.

For the Irish, the salmon’s miraculous return is seen as a sign of wisdom, and the power of memory. In Welsh myth, in the tale of Culwch ac Olwen, the salmon Lyn Llyw in the Severn, is the oldest of all living creatures, and one of the forty wisest animals. It is Lyn Llyw who tells the hero Culwch where Mabon is held prisoner, the ultimate task Culwch must perform in order to win Olwn from her father. Salmon are important iconographically, even for the ancient Gauls. One relief on a Gaulish altar shows a human head between two very large salmon; another altar, this time Gallo-Roman, depicts a strikingly-salmon looking fish talking into the ear of a human head, as if imparting wisdom directly

At the Romano-British temple at Lydney Park above the Severn estuary, dedicated to the god Nodons, the god is shown seated, fishing, with a salmon on his line. Nodons, or Nudd, is linguistically related to the Irish deity Nuadu, and to the Welsh mythological figure Lludd Llaw Ereint.

It is equally telling that salmon have been over fished in Ireland and Scotland; indeed, the Atlantic salmon is largely a farmed fish now, with what few Atlantic salmon that remain in the wild protected as endangered species. I wish the Celts had learned the Salish lesson about seasonal moderation.

* There are several versions by various Salish story tellers of this tale. I’ve merely paraphrased the high points of one version. See the original version here. But see alternate versions too, like this one from Marguerite Which-Ta-lum and this one from Jewell Praying Wolf James.

Halloween, Samhain, and such

It’s the time of year when I start seeing incredibly daft posts about the antecedents of Halloween, particularly Samain (Samhain, for you moderns). This year, I’ve created an FAQ about Samain, and what it means.

For those of you already in the know, here’s a link to a translation by Kuno Meyer of the very odd Echtra Nera, mostly based on Eg. 1782. Echtra Nera is a tale tied closely to Samain, and features a sojourn in a síd, as well as the observation that “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.”

In the beginning of the tale, a dead man directs Nera to take him to a house for a drink; he rejects houses that properly stow washing water and slop-pails at night, for one that violates purity sanctions, and has a washing-tub, and a bathing-tub and a slop pail, available.

He then drinks a draught of either of them and scatters the last sip from his lips at the faces of the people that were in the house, so that they all died. Henceforth it is not good [to have] either a tub for washing or bathing, or a fire without sparing, or a slop-pail in a house after sleeping.

We have in this medieval Irish text the same association of purity and the otherworld that Pistol alludes to in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor when he says:

Elves, list your names; silence, you airy toys.
Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap:
Where fires thou find’st unraked and hearths unswept,
There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry:
Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery (V.v).

We see this same association in the sometimes-attributed-to Ben Jonson “Robin Goodfellow,” in which Robin the fairy or Puck says:

When house or harth doth sluttish lie,
I pinch the maids there blacke and blew.

Herrick too uses the same motif of poor housekeeping earning otherworldly punishment in “The Fairies”:

IF ye will with Mab find grace,
Set each platter in his place;
Rake the fire up, and get
Water in, ere sun be set.
Wash your pails and cleanse your dairies;
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies;
Sweep your house, who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe.

The Otherworld, White Horses, and Genetics

She turned about her milk-white steed,
And took True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bridle rang,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.
“Thomas the Rhymer A” Child 37
The horse she rode on was dapple gray,
And in her hand she held bells nine;
I thought I heard this fair lady say
These fair siller bells they should a’ be mine.
“Thomas the Rhymer B” Child 37

In the first branch or tale of the medieval Welsh mabinogi Pwyll Pendeuic Dyfed, Pwyll and his retinue, desiring to see a marvel (rywedawt), sit on the mound or gorsedd of Arberth, where he in fact does see a marvel:

As they were sitting, they saw a woman mounted on a great, majestic pale-white horse, dressed in brilliant gold silk brocade, coming along the main road that ran past the mound. To anyone who saw it, the horse appeared to have a slow, steady gait as it came even with the mound (Ford, Patrick K, trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. 42).

Ac wal y bydynt yn eisted, wynt a welynt gwreic ar uarch canwelw mawr aruchel, a gwisc eureit, llathreit, o bali amdanei, yn dyout ar hyt y prifford a gerdei heb law yr orssed. Kerdet araf, guastat oed gan y march ar uryt y neb a’y guelei, ac yn dyuot y ogyuuch a’r orssed (PKM 9; PPD ll. 203–07).

For three days, no matter how they try, neither Pwyll nor his followers are able to catch up to the woman, despite riding Pwyll’s fastest horses (Ford 1977, 43–44).

This is neither a normal horse, nor a normal rider. The horse is described as “uarch canwelw mawr aruchel,” that is, a pale white horse. A pale horse, usually white or gray, is typical for an otherworld mount (Ford, 1977, 8). The inability of Pwyll and the other men to keep up with the woman, never mind overtake her and her otherworldly horse, is reminiscent of other otherworldly animals and psychopomps, like the magnificent white hinds of Breton lais like Graelent, or like the the otheworldy horse Arawn, the king of the Welsh otherworld, rides when he meets Pwyll in the first part of the same text:

Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, is hunting at dawn in Glyn Cuch. He has released his hounds ahead of him when he is separated from his companions. Pwyll hears first his own pack, and then another pack coming towards his and answering them. At the edge of a level clearing he sees a pack of unfamiliar, white, red-eared dogs bring down a stag.

Despite the strange appearance of the dogs, Pwyll drives them off the stag in favor of his own pack. While Pwyll’s dogs are feeding, a stranger rides up.

As he was feeding the dogs, he saw a horseman coming up behind the pack on a large dapple-gray horse, a hunting horn about his neck, wearing a pale grey garment for hunting gear (Ford 1977, 37).

Ac ual y byd yn llithiau y cwn, ef a welei uarchauc yn dyuot yn ol yr erchwys y ar uarch erchlas mawr; a chorn canu am y uynwgyl, a gwisc o urethyn llwyt tei amdanaw yn wisc hela (PKM 2; PPD ll. 25–27).

The stranger’s horse (later we learn he is Arawn, lord of the Welsh otherworld) is described as erchlas a compound formed of erch “speckled, dappled” and glas (GPC glas). Welsh erch is cognate with Irish erc 2 “speckled, also dark red” (DIL erc).

Spots, dappling or speckling, like gray and white, are otherworld markers (Tymoczko 1981, 87) in medieval Celtic narratives (Welsh 1989, 24). Welsh and Irish each contain two words for gray, one of which (glas in both languages) refers to a color spectrum from dark blue-gray through sea-green to a pale foggy tint. The GPC entry for glas offers “light blue, pale blue, pale green, grayish-blue, slate-coloured,” and cites glas being used to mean “transparent,” when, for instance, the color is applied to rain. The Indo-European root for glas is *ghel-, the root which gives us a variety of words in English that relate to shiny things (glint, gleam, glitter) and glass, as well as a range of yellow-ish things, like gold and gall (AHD *ghel), again, connoting a bright, shifting, shining effect. While Glas describes a shifting tonality associated with liminal states, the other gray (in Welsh llwyd, in Irish liath) is typically used to describe hair or beard color (Coe 1989). Gray, neither black nor white, the color of dusk and pre-dawn, is, like dapples and speckles, a liminal coloration, neither one thing or the other, located in the area between two colors.

Albino horse with dark eyes and pink skin
Albino horse with pink skin and dark eyes Image: Wikipedia Arsdelicata

Sioned Davies points out that “‘fairies riding white horses’ is an international motif”—which in fact it is, specifically FF241.1.1.1 in the Stith Thompson motif index (Davies, Sioned and Nerys Ann Jones Eds. The Horse in Celtic Culture. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997. 126). Ballads and romances are filled with otherworld folk favoring white horses; in Sir Orfeo, the fairy king is accompanied by otherworld knights “al on snowe-white stedes” (l. 144). There are some really interesting things about this white/gray/dappled horse obsession. First, unless the horse is a true albino, born without any pigment, it isn’t a white horse, it’s a gray horse. Mostly such horse are born dark, and get lighter as they age. There are lots of specific breeds known for this color shift—Icelandic horses (ponies, for those counting hands), for instances, and the horses from the Camargue, and the Connemara ponies, too.

Nature Genetics July 20, 2008 has published an article by Leif Andersson of Uppsala University, parto of a collaborative resarch team whose research indicates that gray or “white” hair coloring is caused by a single, unique genetic mutation. The research suggests that this mutation must have been inherited from a common ancestor that lived thousands of years ago. Andersson says in this Science Daily summary:

It is a fascinating thought that once upon a time a horse was born that turned grey and subsequently white and the people that observed it were so fascinated by its spectacular appearance that they used the horse for breeding so that the mutation could be transmitted from generation to generation.

The original article points out that the mutation is closely tied to cancer, and suggests that humans almost certainly interceded to encourage the mutation: “The Gray horse provides a notable example of how humans have cherry-picked mutations with favorable phenotypic effects in domestic animals.” The Nature Genetics piece is here.

They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives Kalamazoo 2008

I’m going to be doing a link-post to others who are blogging Kalamazoo, and maybe add some general impressions of my own, in a bit. I’ve uploaded my paper on medieval fairies, and speech and silence in Sir Orfeo, Thomas of Erceldoune, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “‘They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die’: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives” here. Mostly I’m smug that I aimed for a fifteen minute paper, and I nailed it, even though it meant reducing about twelve thousand words to three thousand.