Sword, harp and singing bird: Aonghus Óg

Edain came out of Midhir’s hill, and lay

Beside young Aengus in his tower of glass,

Where time is drowned in odour-laden winds

And Druid moons, and murmuring of boughs,

And sleepy boughs, and boughs where apples made

Of opal and ruby and pale chrysolite

Awake unsleeping fires; and wove seven strings,

Sweet with all music, out of his long hair,

Because her hands had been made wild by love.

When Midhir’s wife had changed her to a fly,

He made a harp with Druid apple-wood

That she among her winds might know he wept;

And from that hour he has watched over none

But faithful lovers.

– William Butler Yeats, “The Harp of Aengus”

Amid the falling snow, the light lengthens; buds began to swell on the icicle-laden branch. The green force of life trickles and then flows in tandem, rising forth as winter’s cloak melts from the land.

It is at this time – the birth of spring and its slow swelling – that Keltrian Druids honor Aonghus Óg, the Young Son with the swan wings.

Áengus_mac_Óg,_Irish_deity

A painting of a Victorian era description of Áengus mac Óg, via Wikimedia Commons. Painter unknown.

His name has been variously spelled, and variously interpreted. Scholar and linguist Marie-Louise Sjoestedt interprets his name as “unique force,” while Celticist Mary Jones translates it as “Chosen One.” Writer Aedh Rua, drawing on other research, connects it to the old Celtic/Gaulish name Oinogustus, interpreted as “one choice” or, occasionally, “one strength.” His title is a bit more consistent: Mac Óg means “young son,” and Óg simply “young.” There are, however, variants: Mac ind Óg “son of the young/son of youth” and even Mac in Dá Óg, “son of the two young ones,” which perhaps refers to his parents, Boann and the Dagda (Sjoestedt 41-42).

He is associated with swans, which appear in a variety of myths, as well as four birds that continually circle his head, bringing joy and love (Rolleston 121). Some descriptions have him playing a harp of gold, drinking the ale of immortality and using his cloak of invisibility to protect chosen lovers (McKillop 138). In a larger sense, he appears to be the same god as the Welsh Mabon and Gaulish Maponos, the Divine Youth whom the Romans interpreted as Apollo. To draw on a wider range of Indo-European mythology, he has qualities in common with the Indian Kama, the Slavic Lado/Yarilo and the Norse Baldur.

But don’t let the swans and the flowers fool you; Aonghus is more than a winged Victorian Cupid figure. To use a Greek analogy, he’s equal parts Eros, Apollo and Hermes: the lover, the poet and the trickster. His is the primeval force that shatters the arbitrary chains of tradition — a bit like sex itself. Love may have swan wings and a harp, but he also carries a sword. And he’s not blind; in fact, he’s sharp-sighted and pretty darn smart.

A love that crosses boundaries 

Aonghus Og, from the 1914 book "Heroes of the Dawn," via Wikimedia Commons

Aonghus’ parents, “the Two Young Ones,” are the river-goddess Boann and father-god Dagda. There is a catch, however; Boann is already married to a god named either Elcmar or Nechtan, who may be the same as Nuada Airgetlám, the Tuatha de Danann god associated with rulership, justice, the sword and law. Associated with fresh water and a magic well that eventually transforms Boann into a river, Nechtan must be tricked the allow Aonghus Óg to be born; when the Dagda sends him off on an errand, the gods stop the passage of time to make a single day last nine months, allowing for the birth of the Young Son, who is then sent to his brother Midhir (“judge,” whom I interpret as the Celtic moon god) to raise. Upon his birth, his mother said, “’Young is the son who was begotten at break of day and born betwixt it and evening’” (Rees and Rees, 216), the origin of his title and also a hint of the god’s interesting relationship with time.

While Boann never leaves Nuada, it is perhaps telling that Aonghus is born of an affaire de coeur rather than a sanctioned partnership. He later helps his foster-father Midhir in his own matters of the heart, winning him the hand of lovely Etain (or Edain) via a series of impossible tasks with some help from dad – and conveniently ignoring the fact that Midhir is already married to the goddess Fuamnach. His brother and new wife live with him for a year, perhaps circumventing the rule in which the elder wife would be able to work her will on the new bride during the first days of partnership. When Fuamnach turns Etain into a jeweled insect, he provides Etain a home and protection in the form of a glass room. When the elder wife tricks Aonghus and Midhir away from Etain and blows the latter away with a Druidic wind, it is Aonghus who seeks vengeance, ultimately beheading Fuamnach in a rare act of violence (Heaney 25).

In short, propriety and social rules do not matter to the Young Son; throughout myth, he supports the path of the heart, no matter the cultural ramifications or consequences. He’s probably a great fan of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, although he’d likely give the titular couple more time together before the inevitable disaster.

He does meddle in human affairs of the heart, although in a protective role rather than the typical Cupid-armed-with-arrows image. His foster-son, Diarmuid of the Love-Spot, has the magical ability to inspire transgressive love, which he tries to curtail by keeping the infamous spot covered. He inevitably slips up and Grainne, new bride to his chief Finn, falls in love with him – although, dismayed by an arranged marriage to a man older than her father, she was admittedly on the lookout for a better opportunity. She forces Diarmuid to run away with her via a potion and a geis, over his protests. Interestingly, Aonghus seems to bless this love – spiriting the couple away in his cloak of invisibility over the heads of Finn and his men, giving Diarmuid advice on how to keep one step ahead of Finn, and later also spiriting away Grainne alone as Diarmuid fights on. As Diarmuid fights, he uses Aonghus’ sword, Manannan’s spear and a hefty dose of trickery to win the day.

Swan in snow. Photo by Jenne Micale

Love and Time

Aonghus has a complex relationship with time and its manipulation. As seen above, his birth comes after an alteration of time – an illusion that allows a day to last nine months. He is also heavily involved in the myth of Midhir and Etain, which involves the repeated transformations and ultimate reincarnation of the latter, who is continually gained and lost by her love, a cycle reminiscent of the waxing and waning moon.

He gains Brug na Boinne, his home, through the verbal manipulation of time-concepts. He asks the occupant at the time, the Dagda, to borrow the house for a day and a night. Feeling generous as Aonghus does not have a sídh mound of his own, his father grants the request. When he shows up the following day, Aonghus won’t hand over the house-keys. Irish, as it happens, has no article that differentiate “a day” from “day” itself. Or as the god explains it: “’It is clear,’ said the Mac Óc, ‘that night and day are the whole world, and it is that which has been given to me’” (Rees and Rees, 88). It’s a bit of trickery that would make the Greek Hermes proud.

From his conception, Aonghus alters the perception of time – although not time himself. He doesn’t stop the sun’s passage or count the years of Etain’s loss; other gods do that. Instead, he’s an illusionist, making us question the reality of what we see and experience and to look to the loopholes in the contract. In some senses, the Young Son stands outside of time, a perspective that influences the One Choice that must be made. These choices aren’t only limited to love; he advises his father, for example, to trick the ravenous Fomorian satirist Cridenbel by mixing gold coins in his food (Blamires 101), thus poisoning the Fomhoire and providing an alibi all at once. Standing outside of time and recognizing the limits of perception are, in essence, the key to cleverness.

Aonghus interacts with time in another way: by freeing the light and warmth of spring. According to a Scottish myth, the Cailleach – a goddess of winter – imprisons his sister Brighid in the mountain Beinn Nibheis, and Aonghus rides on a white horse to save her (Kondratiev, 152). The god associated with youth, poetry, love and springtime frees the fire-goddess, and together they bring the spring to the wintry land.

The fort of the yew-berry

While Aonghus plays a role in many myths, he’s the focal point of Aislinge Óenguso, the Vision of Aonghus. For a year, the god sees a beautiful woman in a vision or dream; she plays the lute or harp. He falls deeply in love with this vision-woman and begins to pine away, unable to rouse himself from his trance-state. Physicians call in his mother Boann, who searches the world for this woman to no avail. Then they call in his father, the Dagda, who has a rather comical, if pragmatic, response: “What is the use of talking to me? … I know no more than you do” (Celtic Miscellany, 94).

The Dagda, however, calls in another of his sons: Bodhbd (Bodb) Dearg, whose name means “Red Raven” and who is associated with arcane knowledge. Bodb’s search is successful and he finds the woman at Loch Bél Dragon, the Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth. Her name is Caer, a name that appears to be connected to the word cathair, which means a city or rocky fort; she is also called Ibormeith, or Yew Berry. Bodb takes his brother to the lake, where he recognizes the woman of his dreams – who wears a silver band around her neck, connected by gold chains to 150 other young women.

Unable presumably to catch her attention, Bodb refers Aonghus to the rulers of the land, the famous Maedhbh (Maeve) and Aillil, who summon Caer’s father, Ethal Anbhuail, to their hall. He refuses to come, and their forces – aided by the Dagda – overun Ethal’s sídh. Amid threats to his safety, Ethal tells them that he cannot give Caer to them, for she is a shapeshifter whose own power exceeds his own – and possibly that of Aonghus. After a little ungentle prodding, he admits to them how she may be approached: she changes shape each Samhain at the lake. Caer’s hand, as it turns out, cannot be won by either force or trickery.

Come Samhain, Aonghus goes to the lake, where he picks out Caer from 150 identical swans linked by silver chains. He simply calls to her, introduces himself and asks her consent to the match. She gives it, provided that he permit her return to the lake. He happily grants this and they fly off together in the shape of swans, singing the song that puts all into blissful slumber for three days. “The girl stayed with him after that,” the eighth century version of the tale ends (Celtic Miscellany, 97).

In some senses, the story is reminiscent of the Roman Cupid and Psyche, save that the roles are reversed; it is the god who must pursue the vision of his soul and win her hand. Force and flattery cannot win her, only the ability to choose the beloved correctly from others – a task that resurfaces in Midhir and Etain, except the king mistakenly chooses his own daughter rather his wife. After the choice is made, the beloved is asked her consent, which she gives in exchange for free will. Perhaps tellingly, she never leaves him – even though she has the right to leave and return to her lake at any time.

The Rees brothers compare this story to Indian tales of Gandharvas, or nature-spirits who appear as half-bird and half-man; their wives, the Apsaras, are water-nymphs (276). Kama, the Indian god of love with his flower-tipped arrows, “is also called ‘The Gandharva,’” they note (278); Aonghus turns into a swan alongside his bride, in essence, becoming a nature spirit. To take a larger view, shape-changing swan-maidens persist in folklore throughout the world, as part of a larger theme of animal brides.

The Fort of the Yew Berry is obviously something other, a boundary-crosser with great power, the last according to the admission of her father. Where, or what, is the City of the Yew Berry? James MacKillop provides this answer: “Her nickname Ibormeith (yew berry) implies something of the nature of her character. The long-living evergreen yew is commonly a symbol of immortality in European tradition and is still often seen in Christian cemeteries. Wood from the tree is hard to burn and was the favoured material in druids’ wands” (167). The City of the Yew Berry represents a kind of immortality, the numinous, shape-changing power of spirit that lies behind magic.

The story of Caer and Aonghus can be seen as the definition of ideal love: seeking, finding, asking consent and granting free-will. It can also be seen as the artist’s pursuit of the “Muse,” the creative spirit behind the work. (MacKillop, interestingly, sees Aonghus as a god of poetry rather than love.) It can also be interpreted as the sacred’s courtship of and relationship with the soul, who has her own free will and agency.

Restorer of the soul

On swan wings, we alight on another of Aonghus’ roles: the restorer of the soul. Caitlin Matthews considers Aonghus as a powerful “healer of souls” (283), and a primary guardian of the soul-shrine with his sister Brighid (328). In support of this, we may remember the songbirds (or swans, depending on the story) that circle his head, whose tunes inspire joy, love and release from depression. Aonghus and Caer also bring bliss and restful sleep to all those who hear them sing. In some tales, when his brother Midhir loses an eye breaking up a quarrel, Aonghus is the one who brings the physician Dian Cecht to restore him.

Matthews in particular cites Aonghus role in protecting Etain when she was in the shape of a fly, and thus vulnerable to Fuamnach, and his treatment of Diarmuid after his foster-son’s death. While Aonghus cannot restore him to human life, he brings him to the brug, where he breathes the spirit into him every day, allowing the two to converse for a while. Diarmuid experiences, in short, an eerie kind of half-life similar to that of the speaking head of Bran the Blessed in Welsh lore. To Matthews, “Aengus is concerned with the harmony which should be in the soul-shrine” (328), which perhaps explains his violent reaction to the repeated disharmony caused by Fuamnach.

As spring edges into fullness, allow your soul to listen to the song of Aonghus – his birds and his harp, his longing and his love. Like springtime itself, he is fresh and new – the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as poet Dylan Thomas puts it. That force – chi, prana, spirit – is a powerful one binding us to the cosmos and its cycles as long as we live, and to art, love, music and visions. Aonghus Óg is a manifestation of this force, which is not limited to lovers or the young, but feeds all who drink from its sweet waters.

Bibliography

A Celtic Miscellany. Ed. and trans. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson. New York: Penguin Books, 1951.

Blamires, Steve. The Irish Celtic Magical Tradition. Cheltanham, UK: Skylight Press, 1992, 2012

Heaney, Marie. Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Jones, Mary. “Óengus mac ind- Óg.” Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia. http://www.maryjones.us/jce/oengus.html. Accessed Dec. 29, 2015.

Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Citadel Press, 2003.

MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Matthews, Caitlin and John. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook.Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1994.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1917.

Rua, Aedh. Celtic Flame: An Insider’s Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008.

Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise. Celtic Gods and Heroes. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.

“The Wooing of Etain.” from Heroic Romances of Ireland Volume II, ed. and trans. A.H. Leahy. London: David Nut, 1906. Published on http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/etain.html, Accessed Dec. 30, 2015.

Leave a Reply