Poem: Equinox

The blue has returned, a harbinger

of the next generation of robins,

the bold hydrangeas on the neighbor's bush

 

but that's all in the planning just now.

There is white snow and shreds of white cloud

the meltwater rushing over gravel

 

and everywhere a song: the wild laugh

of the woodpecker, the sigh of lovelorn

chickadees, the blackbirds' electric trill

Crocus by Jenne Micale

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.

Druidic symbol approved for VA gravestones

Circle Sanctuary's Lady Liberty League reports: "On January 9, 2017, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) added the Awen to its list of emblems of belief authorized for inclusion on the gravestones and other memorial markers it issues to honor deceased veterans.   It is number 65 on the list: http://www.cem.va.gov/hmm/emblems.asp

The first VA headstone with the Awen is already in production and is for retired Air Force Captain Wayne Laliberte of Texas (1954-2013)."

Click here for the full article.

Poem: After the Solstice

Clent standing stones, winter sunset, by Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons

The night lies heavy now, a starless quilt
that holds the gloom close. Candles in windows
call the errant soul home and light the way.

Know, too, that the geese are still flying south,
writing their great letter in the dawn sky.
See the field mouse creeping across the road.

See the goldfinch and his mate greet the Sun.
Know, too, that She is pushing back the night
minute by minute each sunset and dawn.

Light in darkness: Ritual ideas for the Feast of Rebirth

Photo by Cypresseyes

Photo by Cypresseyes

The snow drifts down, light and powdery with the breath of the cold. Dawn tarries and night hurries in.

Now is the time of Meán Geimhridh, what the Henge of Keltria terms the Feast of Rebirth. Traditionally, we honor the Dagda (the Good God, as in "good at everything") and Brighid (her name has been interpreted as "exalted" or "she who rises") for this feast day.

If you have Keltria's Book of Ritual, you'll notice that they don't include suggestions for "Grove's Choice" for the Feast of Rebirth; you're meant to come up with your own ideas here. Grove's Choice is essentially the symbolic act at the heart of the ceremony, and is up to the practitioners; since most people operate as solitaries, I like to call it the meat (or tofu) of ritual.

So, what's my tofu like for Meán Geimhridh?

This year, I'm doing something different: Making a set of prayer beads, according to the instructions set forth in Lunaea Weatherstone’s Tending Brigid’s FlameThe making of the beads is part of the ritual. From my script:

I call upon you, Brighid Bean-Goibhne, Brighid the Smith, for your inspiration in this work. I call upon you, Dagda, the Good God, who is good at all things. Bless my work.

Afterwards, I will immediately use the beads for their intended purpose. Later on in the rite, I will also light candles and chant to strengthen the waxing light, which is something I do every year. The chant (which I always sing, rather than speak) comes from the lore, although the melody is my own:

Peace up to the sky

Sky down to earth

Earth beneath heaven

Strength to everyone

The prayer beads are a new innovation. We'll see how it goes this year. As I make the beads, I plan to play a mix CD I made for Brighid some years back. (Yes, I do make mix-tapes for the Gods. I also have a Morrigan mix and Aonghus Og mix about.)

In previous years, I've tried different innovations. I've honored Brighid as the Goddess of the Hearth and the Dagda as the Lord of Abundance by holding the ritual in the kitchen, baking bannock and meditating on the Gods of the Season while the bannock baked. I've done a trance-meditation on the light reaching the spiral in the heart of Brugh na Boinne (Newgrange).

When White Cat Grove was more than just me, I also had each member present write a blessing on a slip of paper and put it in the bowl; they included such things as health, warmth, financial security, right livelihood, etc. Here's the meditation:

Dagda, the Good God, has a cauldron from plenty from which none ever go hungry. He is the father that feeds the tribe, lover and protector and nourisher. The Red One of Knowlege bestows blessings without stinginess, without fail, for all those who seek. And so, in this time of cold, let each of us follow example, granting blessings in a time of darkness.

What blessings does the world need most -- you, your family, your Druid sisters? Ask not for yourselves, but as the bestower of blessing. When the Dagda's spirit moves you, take up the paper and pen and grant four blessings on separate slips of paper. Then fold them and out them in the offering bowl

At the end of the meditation, each of us took one slip to show the Gods' blessings on our own lives. The rest went into the offering fire.

These are just some of the ways I cook my ritual-tofu for the Feast of Rebirth. Feel free to use any of these ideas, and to share your own!

Feed the fish: Drop your hazelnuts into the Well of Wisdom! We're always looking for submissions to the Keltria blog: poetry, photos, essays, articles, recipes, random musings related to the Henge and more! Share your imbas with your fellow Keltrians. Contact HH-Editor@keltria.org or dulcimergoddess@keltria.org.

Name Poem: An exercise for the poetically-minded

I recently finished Lunaea Weatherstone's Tending Brigid's Flame, a truly wonderful book about my matron Goddess. I can't recommend it enough, truly.

One of the many explorations and exercises Weatherstone recommends is the creation of a name-poem, similar in spirit to the Song of Amergin or the Song of Taliesin. The poem captures your essence of self -- your attributes, perhaps the turning-points in your life if you choose to include them -- in imagery that speaks to your spirit.

Weatherstone doesn't go into the purpose of the poem, specifically, but I imagine it can be used to give strength when you are weary and courage when you are afraid. It sings the soul back home, and changes when you feel that you need to change it -- like your life.

My name-poem follows. What is yours?

I am the fox that escapes every hound

the speckled veery on its forest perch

the tune of a song threaded by birds

 

I am the ink that scribes the words of truth

the artisan of the air, beading words

and music into a vast creation

 

I was born of blossoms in the sun's heat

the much-cherished daughter of the heavens

who bears a name of ill-repute and boldness

 

I am a warrior of the wind

who lands no blows but sends the opponent

into the diamond net of gravity

 

I am the pale phantom and the noose

whose borrowed name asks: “Who is like god?”

I am the namer and the describer.

 

I am the walker in dreams, the changer

behind the veil of sleep, the traveler

in my coracle of harp string and drum

 

I am a fisher-cat for fierceness

and an owl for grace. I am the great leaves

of borage, the blue stars of its bloom

 

I am an oak tree, a green stone, a stoat,

a spear, the strength of the arm and the foot

I am a priestess of flame and delight

 

I hold the dream-spear of the Red Woman

I wield the sword of the Fisher King

I serve at the altars of all the Gods

the_arts_poetry

"Poetry", part of the series The Arts, by Alphonse Mucha (1898) via Wikimedia Commons

Ogham Poem: Sail, the Willow

Willow tree in spring, England, by Sb2s3 via Wikimedia Commons

Willow tree in spring, England, by Sb2s3 via Wikimedia Commons

This is the latest in my series of Ogham explorations through poetry. For interpretations, I rely on Erynn Rowan Laurie's Weaving Word Wisdom, which -- in my view -- is the best book on Ogham currently available. For her interpretations, she relies on traditional poetic phrases associated with the feda; these are what I draw on in my poetry. Sail, of course, means willow. I use the Latin salce (pronounced sul-chay) to mimic Verdi's "The Willow Song."

 

Your long hair swinging, you sway over

the mere to peer in its murky depths,

the bees singing the song of your name

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

and the branches underneath the dun

forge the faces of the dead, beloved

and gone, humming with the bees their song

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Music is the delight of the dead.

Fleshless skulls sing from under the skree

send tendrils to the waters below

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

The heavy scent of your garlands mask

the compost of misplaced desires, sins

and crimes. Even maggots make their place

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Make a garland of your hair, a harp

strung of its gold that tells always truth

the muddy pond steals back from the sky

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Garland dead lovers and living seers --

The moon pulling the tide to ebb

unveiling the dead under the foam

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Nine times nine, a chorus of witches

hums with the bees and the mighty dead

under that ghost light, that lamp of time

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Let your voice rise with the time and tide,

rush like waters under the tree,

lave the unclean, unshroud the hidden

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Your long hair swinging over the hole

that mirrors the sky, you sing with the bees

"Music is the delight of the dead"

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

First ancestor, Lord of the Dead: Donn Tétscorach

From Wikimedia Commons: North Pacific storm waves as seen from the NOAA M/V Noble Star, Winter 1989.

From Wikimedia Commons: North Pacific storm waves as seen from the NOAA M/V Noble Star, Winter 1989.

Donn was the first to die.

Listen to Teach Duinn by Kwannon here.

The storytellers don't always say this, as they spin the threads frayed through time and broken tradition. Instead, they say, Éber Donn was the eldest of the seven or eight sons of Míl, brother of Amergin. Sometimes, they say he cursed his brother Ír as he rowed toward Ériu, causing the oar to break and Ír to drown – a crime that made his Druidic brother judge him as unworthy of landing (Jones). Other times, they say he landed and insulted the land-goddess herself, refusing to thank her for their victory. “Thank our gods and our own might,” he retorted (Lebor Gabala Érenn). In return, Ériu cursed him and his progeny to never benefit from the land.

When the Sons of Míl went behind the ninth wave to make their approach, Donn – some tellers say – planned to put the isle's inhabitants to the sword and claim the land for his people. But a great wind caused his ship to founder, drowning him and several of his brothers at the island of Tech Duinn (Lebor Gabala). It was, some storytellers say, due to his insult to the goddess or punishment of his bloodthirsty nature (Rolleson). In the Metrical Dindsennchas, Donn instead climbs the mast of his ship to utter incantations against the Tuatha de Danann, and is cursed by them with disease. Rather than allow the illness he carries to spread to the mainland, Donn consents to being left on the rocky shore of Tech Duinn. As in other tales, the magical wind causes his ship to founder and he drowns, and is later buried on the rocky island (Gwynn 311).

But beneath the unlikely mythic history of the Invasions runs another truth: Donn was the first to die, but not on the coast of Ireland. He is, in short, the first ancestor – the first human to suffer death, and thus the ruler of the land of the dead.

According to Caesar, the Gauls claimed to be descended from Dis – another name of Roman Pluto or Greek Hades – whom they claim as a common father (Chadwick 146). This is a teaching of the Druids, Caesar relates in The Gallic Wars. This identification with the dead influences their timekeeping system, Caesar notes: “Because of this they measure time by the passing of nights, not days. Birthdays and the beginnings of months and years all start at night” (Freeman 43). The First Ancestor thus continues to influence the lives of his many children, establishing their traditions and ultimately greeting them in death.

Abounding in furious horses

Akin to the Greek Hades, the Celtic God of the Dead is aloof, dwelling apart from the rest of the Tuatha de Danann. His name means “dark,” but also the color brown, the hue of the earth and graves. It's a name with old roots, deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root dhus-no for dark or dusky one (Lincoln 35). He was also called Donn Tétscorach, with the latter word seeming to mean “abounding in furious horses,” according to scholar James MacKillop (117). Those furious horses make an appearance in the lore: they are the swift steeds ridden by the three red men in the tale of Da Derga's hostel, whose appearance announces the High King's doom.

“We ride the steeds of Donn Tétscorach from the elfmounds. Though we are alive we are dead,” the riders tell doomed king Conaire Mór. “Great are the signs: destruction of life: sating of ravens: feeding of crows, strife of slaughter: wetting of sword-edge, shields with broken bosses in hours after sundown” (The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel). The omens of death are thus coupled with swift horses whom none can outrun, ridden by spirits between both life and death. It's an image reminiscent to that of the Wild Hunt: the wild dash of Otherworldly riders, associated with the dead.

Donn Tétscorach ultimately becomes conflated with Donn mac Miled of the Invasions, even down to the eponymous island off the southwestern coast: Tech Duinn, the House of Donn. In the pseudo-historical Invasions lore, the island host only the graves of Donn and several other children of Mil. In folklore, however, Tech Duinn is the grave of all mankind; it is Donn's hall, where he hosts the spirits of all those who died, whether on a permanent basis as the Land of the Dead or a temporary one as a way-station to other Otherworld lands or rebirth. The island itself is an inhospitable rocky outcrop, today called Bull Rock and home to a lighthouse

In County Limerick, Tech Duinn isn't an island but a hill with a function akin to a sidhe-mound: Cnoc Firinne. There, the god was known as Donn Firinne, and associated with weather, storms and – again with the equine theme – a white horse. Scholar Sharynne Paice MacLeod notes that people believed they would be brought into Cnoc Firinne after death (57), a function remarkably similar to that of Tech Duinn. Interestingly, Cnoc Firinne means “Hill of Truth.”

South Indian depiction of Yama, via Wikimedia Commons. From E. A. Rodrigues, The complete Hindoo Pantheon, comprising the principal deities worshipped by the Natives of British India throughout Hindoostan

South Indian depiction of Yama, via Wikimedia Commons. From E. A. Rodrigues, The complete Hindoo Pantheon, comprising the principal deities worshipped by the Natives of British India throughout Hindoostan


Whatever his guise or mythic origin, Donn ultimately represents the oldest reality of all: that of mortality. As the ninth century poet Maél Muru of Othan describes his burial:

A stone cairn was raised across the broad sea for his people,

A long-standing ancient house, which is named the House of Donn after him.

And this was his mighty testament for his hundredfold offspring:

“You shall come to me, to my house, after your death.” (Lincoln 34)

Whether that last statement is viewed as a statement of the afterlife or strictly an allegory – all men must die – is left to the reader.

The Man and the Twin

Befitting the Lord of Death, Donn may be one of the most ancient gods in the Irish pantheon, with firm Proto-Indo-European roots. He has a good deal in common with the Indian Yama, a Vedic god of death who, like Donn, was also the first to die.

Yama means “twin” and in Hindu myth he is the brother of Yami, goddess of the Yamuna river. But Puhvel, noting that Hindu mythology tends to double figures in male-female pairs, believes that his twin is truly Manu, progenitor of humanity, who introduces both sacrifice and religious law. Manu, in fact, makes his twin the first sacrifice (Puhvel 286). Bruce Lincoln speculates that Donn's original name may be Emon, or Twin, in line with the Proto-Indo-European root Yemo, also the source of Yama's name.

Modern Druid Ceiswr Serith, in his reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European mythology and religion, names the pair of primordial twins Yemós (“Twin”) and Mannus (“Man”). Mannus functions as the first priest, making his brother the first blood sacrifice – initiating both religious law and the Underworld. “Yemós gets into the very structure of the world, while Mannus stays behind and starts history rolling,” Serith writes (57).

This pattern is repeated in the story of Donn and his brother Amergin. Described as a poet, the latter acts largely as a Druid priest: offering magical incantations that allow him to call the powers of the land and claim it for his people, as well as parlaying with the Gods (the Tuatha de Danann). His judgment of Donn after Ír's death – or, in the Dindshenchas, his statement that Donn will die of disease – could be seen as a death-curse, a magical sacrifice of his brother. In all the tales of the Sons of Mil, Amergin and Donn are opposites even as they are repeatedly shown together: peace and war, magic and physicality, life and death, sacrificer and sacrificed.

What is the nature of Donn's realm – the twin realm of the Dead? Bruce Lincoln describes the kingdom of Yemo as “a happy one, a paradise where sickness, cares, death, and extremities of climate are all unknown” (41). It is, in short, a paradise similar to other Otherworld isles: Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise; Mag Mell, the Delightful Plain; Tír na nÓg, Land of the Young.

Leader of the Wild Hunt, first ancestor, Lord of the Dead, Donn shows us the pathway to the Otherworld and greets us in his hall after our death.

Donn, the dark one, the brown one, hue of the Earth! Donn, the dark one, first of the Sons of Mil! First ancestor, first one to tread and tend Death's halls, you who entered the Otherworld through the waters of the southwest so soon after sighting Eriu. Donn, dark one, brown one, hue of the Earth! You who welcome us at the Western Isle of Tech Duinn as we make our passage from this life to the next. Father whose halls make room for all the mighty hosts, in whose house we rest at the end of our life-journey, be welcome, welcome and thrice welcome!

Bibliography

Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. New York: Penguin, 1971.

Freeman, Philip. War, Women and Druids: Eyewitness Reports and Early Accounts of the Ancient Celts.

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002

Edward Gwynn, The Metrical Dindshenchas: Volume 4 (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1991, originally 1906). http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T106500D/

Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of Invasions.” Celtic Literature Collective, Mary Jones. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/lebor5.html Originally from Lebor Gabála Érenn: Book of the Taking of Ireland Part 1-5. ed. and tr. by R. A. S. Macalister. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1941

Lincoln, Bruce. Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1991

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

MacLeod, Sharon Paice. Celtic Myth and Religion. Jefferson, NC:Macfarland & Company, 2012

Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, 1990 (originally 1911)

Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2007

Stokes, Whitney, Trans. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, c 1100.”

Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Ed. Paul Halsall. Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York, 1998.

Poem: Red Woman (for the Morrigan)

How you tremble at the Red Woman!
You fear the guest at the door who breaks
the arbitrary rules that bind you

the technicalities that keep you safe.
You never know how she will appear:
eel, gray wolf, red-eared cow, crow, the wind,

your fresh-faced daughter holding a blade
under her smile, your mother, the lady
at the deli counter with her knives --

You never know what she'll do, that one,
even if you pretend. She is not yours
in any shape, and oh how you fear!

By Artist Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874 - 1951). Cropped and colours adjusted by CorbieVreccan. Via Wikimedia Commons

By Artist Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874 - 1951). Cropped and colours adjusted by CorbieVreccan. Via Wikimedia Commons

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