A Modern Celt – Mabh Savage

Dec 12th, 2013 | By | Category: Book News

A Modern Celt – Seeking the Ancestors

Chapter One: From Here to Eternity – The Children of Danu
Chapter Two: Turning the Wheel – The Seasons and Celebrating Them
Chapter Three: Magic – The Craft of the Fae
Chapter Four: Taming the Wild – Celts and their Creatures
Chapter Five: Inspiration from the Elf Mounds
Chapter Six: Speaking with the Ancestors
Chapter Seven: Fingers through the Veil – Personal Experiences with the Fae
Chapter Eight: Sunset
Appendix A: A Few Exercises in Celtic Magic
Appendix B: Celtic Inspired Correspondences
Appendix C: Key figures and Beings from Celtic Mythology
Glossary of Gaelic Terms

Chapter One – From Here to Eternity – The Children of Danu
I never really referred to myself as a Pagan until I was in my early twenties. I always thought of myself as a witch, and I guess even with this I had my own definition. I know some people shy away from using the word witch because of its many negative connotations, but seeing as my path, or set of beliefs, wasn’t really something I discussed with, well, anyone (not even some family members until quite recently), it didn’t seem to matter. Meeting other likeminded, or similar minded people led me into the somewhat dubious habit of referring to myself as a Pagan, simply to help others pigeon hole me.

I’m not sure I actually fit the current definition of Pagan, seeing as most definitions you find will refer to the religious aspects of the term, and I do not think of myself as particularly religious. Understanding the changing of the seasons and the way the world transforms as it turns is not a religion. What I practice is about delight, celebration and respect; worship (which seems to be at the heart of most religions) has very little part to play in it.

In recent years I have been drawn more towards particular deities, and have to concede that this may be the first formation of some semblance of religious devotion. However, if life’s path drew me away from this I would celebrate that life in the same way I do now. I don’t so much ‘believe’ in gods and goddesses, but accept their existence; I’ve always found that belief implies doubt, and I have no doubts about the beings that share my world with me. It doesn’t matter to me at all what others choose to put their faith in, or invite into their lives, except when I am sharing that experience with others directly. It’s these shared experiences that have brought me closer to my Celtic heritage than I ever thought possible.

If you go to any Pagan gathering and ask ten different people what being a Pagan means to them, you will most likely get ten completely different answers! But I do practice witchcraft; I do follow the wheel of the year and celebrate the festivals accordingly and have done since I was a very young child, so because many Pagans do this I guess I fall into that bracket. So why, here, does it seem that I refer to myself as a Celt? A modern Celt?

Really that’s an oxymoron, as the term Celt is a point of historical reference for a people that no longer exist; people who came to our shores from across Europe and possibly the Far East, bringing magic and mysticism which has been absorbed into history, tales and legends. When I speak about being a modern Celt, I’m referring to the aspects of the Celtic world that have survived into the 21st century; the festivals such as Samhain and Lughnasadh; art; beautiful poetry; magic, mystery and the stories and legends of their gods and spirits, including the race of beings known as the Tuatha Dé Danann.

… they landed with horror, with lofty deed,
in their cloud of mighty combat of spectres,
upon a mountain of Conmaicne of Connacht.

Without distinction to discerning Ireland,
Without ships, a ruthless course
the truth was not known beneath the sky of stars,
whether they were of heaven or of earth.1

This excerpt highlights a key point for me; this uncertainty as to whether the Tuatha Dé Danann are truly otherworldly, or simply so fierce and unstoppable that they seem more than human: like phantoms; like spirits from another world. The Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála Érenn) is broadly accepted as a fictitious version of the history of Ireland and, of course, having been written over a millennia after Iron Age Celts settled in Ireland, in a time when most history and legend was passed through word of mouth, there is no way to really say how much is exaggeration, and how much is fantasy. Perhaps this is part of the attraction; the history is debateable; even the legends themselves have many versions that are all well documented today.

It’s tantalising to imagine that there really could have been a race of people, of beings so wild and unearthly as to inspire immense fear into an entire culture (The Fir Bolg in this case). The thought that humans themselves could have inspired such stories and legends is for me, in some ways, more exciting than the thought of a supernatural race. Imagine that in 2000 years’ time you are thought of as so superior, so extraordinary, that you must be a god: heady stuff.

I don’t want to confuse you – am I telling you that they are gods (and goddesses) or not? Do I revere and worship them, or not? I guess the best way to explain how I understand the Tuatha Dé Danann and their relationship to our universe is to look at some of the key characters from Irish legend; we can explore a few facets of how they manifest themselves in a modern world, and what benefit this can have.

The Morrigan: Bloody Queen of Battle
Streaming red
Cloak of hair
Like yarn spun wild
For a coat of dreams
Of war and time
To pass the line
The blood along
Like velvet wine
Lady great and fierce of heart
Builds you up then tears apart
Protect thyself but know her if you can.
Devotional verse for the Morrigan, 2012

Let me introduce you to the Morrigan. Well, I can’t really. You will either know her at some point in your life, or you won’t, and really, that’s entirely up to you and her. It’s possible she may be a presence you haven’t even recognised. Ever felt that red mist rise up behind your eyes with very little prompting? Ever felt a fierce passion in what would normally be a dispassionate context, like the sudden urge to kiss in the cold rain?

In my experience, people I know have been drawn to the Morrigan for many different reasons; these people who feel this strong connection to her seem to gravitate together, sometimes becoming connected in ways that have little or nothing to do with their spiritual path at all. She is the phantom queen, a great red haired warrior who is fierce in battle wielding sword and spell with equal ferocity. She is the dark haired maiden, scrubbing shirts by the ford, a prophetess, and a doomsayer. She is fear and anxiety, but also the resignation of things to come. She is the raven on the battlefield, plucking the eyes from fallen heroes, reminding us we are all the same in the end, and also that war and violence can be necessary, but may be futile. A really great book to read to explore all these aspects is The Guises of the Morrigan by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine. My goal here, however, is to tell you what it’s like to experience her; face to face, toe to toe, and still be in a fit state to write the experience down!

The Morrigan was one of the first mythical creatures I ever knew of that related directly to the Book of Invasions, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was reading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner and the evil witch in the story is named The Morrigan. Like most baddies in kids’ books she’s a fascinating character; even though the similarity to the figure in ancient mythology is slim, well done to Garner for getting children like me to sit up and take notice of the names that come from our history and our legends, as of course it prompted me to ask questions and discover who the real Morrigan is.

After years of distant appreciation, I was literally astounded when I discovered that the first Pagan group I ever worked with took the Morrigan as their tutelary goddess. Here I was, apparently by chance, in a group of people who had made her the focus for all things magical. I had spent a great many years at this point being cynical and doubtful of many ideas that I had previously taken for granted. I had become wary of the idea of a presence of any sort of energy one may refer to as fate, or destiny, or the idea of being on a path where one is supposed to be.

This single incident alone pushed me closer to the idea of external forces guiding us than probably any other event in the past ten years. It was as if someone had said, OK, you want to know about your Celtic roots? Well let’s introduce you to one of them and see what happens!

I’ve made her sound terrible and formidable, as indeed she is, but there is more to her than that. She is also a mother figure, and in modern popular culture is sometimes portrayed as being ‘with child’ in her dealings with other beings or humans2. She is very sexual, and her sexual pursuits are often an integral part of legend. She is widely recognised as having a triple form, as many other ‘popular’ goddesses do – though I don’t find her easy to simply put into the ‘maid, mother, crone’ goddess pot, although certainly at one time or another she clearly employs all these forms.

Badb and Macha, greatness of wealth, Morrigu
springs of craftiness,
sources of bitter fighting
were the three daughters of Ernmas.

Wealth, craft and violence are describing the three aspects of the daughters of Ernmas, often seen as three separate aspects of the one Morrigan. Often this is modified to Badb, Macha and Nemain, and Morrigan is used as a name for all the aspects put together.

I don’t like to say one is right and another is wrong; I have found solace and understanding in many of her aspects, and believe that she is ever changing: mysterious and elusive. Even in Garner’s book, she is portrayed as a shape shifter, and I think that is one of the keys to understanding her: she will change and you have to keep up with that change, or at least accept it, in order to understand it. If you reflect upon this, you will see that this is a very human idea; you are constantly changing and growing, therefore becoming a different person. As well as changing to develop ourselves in some way, we also change who we are depending on the situation we are in. We often use masks, figurative or otherwise (think about how you dress for work compared to a day around the house perhaps) and we change our manner to please others, or indeed to aggravate them.

We don’t often admit to ourselves that we are doing this, and this is where the Morrigan may confront you; she forces you to face yourself, to see you as you really are, whether you like it or not! She can be cruel, but often it really is the old cliché of ‘cruel to be kind’. There are some things you may have hidden about yourself, and she may shed light on them; other parts of yourself (such as insecurity or a tendency to try to please everyone) may fall into darkness as she takes you on the journey you need to go on.

One of my mentors once referred to her as the ‘Domestos’ of goddesses. This is a very apt metaphor for this book I think: in a modern world, she steps in and helps you spring clean; getting rid of the dust and clutter within one or many aspects of your life. These may be bad habits, destructive people, or the hundreds of other things we cling to in the false conviction that they are needed, that they are somehow ‘part of our lives’. She gives you the power to say no, to walk away, but also to grasp a hold of the things you need and the things you have to draw close to yourself.

She expects commitment and a true word, and you feel that she will be watching you as you watch yourself. If you say you are throwing something out then you better mean it, because she can be utterly devastating to those who go back on their word. But isn’t this just me being hard on myself for failing? I hear the intelligent and cynical self-analyst say. Well, of course it is. All your power comes from within you at some level. The Tuatha Dé Danann aren’t there to mollycoddle you or pick you up and set you on your path. They’re there to remind you that you are the power in your life, and to fail in a promise to one of them is to fail yourself miserably.

The Morrigan is in some ways easily related to as the personification of our ‘fiery’ emotions; anger, lust, passion, the need for justice, protectiveness, love, creativity and excitement. She is also linked to deception and vindictiveness, and if you read some of the tales about her you will understand this.

Then came the Morrígu, daughter of Ernmas, from the elf-mounds in the guise of an old woman and in Cú Chulainn’s presence she milked a cow with three teats. The reason she came thus was to be succoured by Cú Chulainn, for no one whom Cú Chulainn had wounded ever recovered until he himself had aided in his cure. Maddened by thirst, Cú Chulainn asked her for milk. She gave him the milk of one teat. ‘May this be swiftly wholeness for me’. The one eye of the queen which had been wounded was cured. Cú Chulainn asked her for the milk of another teat. She gave it to him. ‘Swiftly may she be cured who gave it’. He asked for the third drink and she gave him the milk of the third teat. ‘The blessing of gods and non-gods be on you, woman’.—The magicians were their gods and the husbandmen were their non-gods.—And the queen was made whole.4

Prior to this excerpt, the Morrigan came to the hero Cú Chulainn in the guise of a heifer, an eel and finally a wolf seeking to destroy him, but he wounded her gravely each time. In the section above she uses further transformation and the strength of his greatest desire at this time – his overwhelming thirst – to trick him into healing her. Despite the fact that he knows from the battle previously that the Morrigan clearly has the power of shape shifting, he is not suspicious. Or, if he is suspicious, he is so desperate for succour that he is uncaring of the situation.

I suppose it’s possible that in his tired and parched state, that it doesn’t occur to him that the great Morrigan would ever consider portraying herself as old and feeble. He is grateful and sincerely wishes the old woman well, and his sincerity heals the wounds he originally caused. The messages within this story are numerous, but what I take from it is that a lack of pride at times can be a powerful shield; posing as a powerful creature only brought the Morrigan pain and suffering, but posing as the old woman brought her charity and kindness.

Sometimes we should give into the more fragile aspects of our character, and not be afraid to let them show, and we may find some of the things we need coming to us. I know people who are afraid to show certain kinds of affection, because they think it makes them look weak, or foolish. And even though they feel strong, and independent, they are lonely; they freely admit this, and feel they are better off in the long run. If that is true, well I say good luck to them. But perhaps letting down their guard, and letting someone get close, could be a wonderful thing? A new experience to be treasured?

I think often it is fear that stops us changing ourselves and transforming ourselves; not into another external shape, like the wolf or the eel, but into a different creature inside. We become scared of rejection, scared of change, scared of being too hard and above all too many of us fear the opinion of others. The Morrigan shows here the benefit of letting yourself change into something you never thought possible, never imagined you could be; and lo, she is healed.

Dagda: Good God of the Club and Cauldron
There was a famous king of Ireland of the race of the Tuatha Dé, Eochaid Ollathair his name. He was also named the Dagda i.e. good god, for it was he that used to work wonders for them and control the weather and the crops. Wherefore men said he was called the Dagda.5

Here again is a figure with multiple faces, although the most obvious is of the fierce warrior, with his enormous club that could kill nine men in one blow. The other side of this coin is, apparently, he could also revive the mortally wounded with the handle of this club. Straight away we are talking about the interconnectivity of life and death, and how in this world, one cannot exist without the other. The Dagda is, from this evidence, a metaphor for life itself; things die and things are born again, and without one the other would cease to be.

The Dagda was (is) also a musician, and closely connected with the turn of the seasons, and the onset of battle. Whoa, whoa, whoa I hear you cry! Where does it end? How can one deity encompass all this? And how can you draw upon something that has such ever-changing facets? It’s like reaching into the cupboard to get the coffee only to find it has changed to tea, then the next day to sugar!

Well, this is why I have already mentioned the possibility that the Tuatha Dé Danann are a people, a race of earthly beings, rather than deities in the truest sense. Here’s an exercise to help you understand what I mean: think of anyone you know, that you are reasonably close to. Tell me three things about them. Now take each of those three points e.g. they are kind; they can have a bad temper; they like to play football. Now tell me three details about each of those points.

We’ll take kindness as our first example. You know they like dogs, because they have one which they love to pieces. You know they give to a charity for homeless people. And when you were short of cash, they lent you some money, although they were keen to get it back as soon as you could afford it. So that’s three aspects of kindness right there. With regards to their bad temper, you heard them shouting at their brother once, in a fierce argument about a wager. You heard that they took gleeful revenge upon someone who played a practical joke on them at work. They also didn’t talk to you for a week when you couldn’t give them back the money you owed them! So there we go: even though we have only covered kindness and temper, we have already uncovered so many facets of this person’s personality.

Now think about a deity or spiritual being, regardless of whether or not they are a part of a mythological cycle; why should they be any different? Every deity has multiple facets. The Tuatha Dé Danann are characterised by the fact that these facets are curiously human; the Dagda’s love of music coupled with the turning points of battles; these are very specific and focused points that paint a picture of a powerful yet worldly being; the Dagda is not above the concerns of humans as some deities appear to be, because these are his concerns, his battles, and indeed, his songs.

So again, how do we draw on this? Well, if you were in a situation where you wanted to calm yourself about your own fear of mortality, perhaps you could think of the Dagda and his club which causes both life and death, and use that as a focus point for a meditation on how death is an intrinsic part of life, and death is just another turning point in the cycle you cannot help but be caught in. Hmm, that’s a bit deep perhaps for an ‘everyday’ example; maybe you are just having a hard time dealing with a mistake that you have made; perhaps you dealt with someone rashly at work, and are reaching within yourself to find the strength to see the correct course of action.

‘Put the staff in my hand,’ said the Dagda. And they lent him the staff, and he put the staff upon them thrice, and they fell by him, and he pressed the smooth end upon his son, and he arose in strength and health. Cermait put his hand on his face, and rose up and looked at the three dead men that were before him.

‘Who are these three dead men before thee?’ said Cermait.

‘Three that I met,’ said the Dagda, ‘sharing their father’s treasures. They lent me the staff, and I slew them with one end, and I brought thee to life with the other end.’

‘That is a sad deed,’ said Cermait, ‘that they should not be brought to life by that which caused me to live.’

The Dagda put the staff upon them, and the three brothers arose in health and strength.6

This excerpt from ‘How the Dagda got his Magic Staff’ shows a rash and desperate action, but rooted in that most noble firmament – love. Yet the object of his love, his son, is honest and hard enough to tell this great warrior he has done wrong, so the Dagda corrects his mistake, even knowing the retribution for his original actions may be great.

Stories such as these reach out to us, even today, as they speak of flawed, human reactions to extraordinary situations. They help us understand our own reactions, and sometimes make us glad of the way we already are, by holding our own standards up against some less than desirable behaviours! Likewise, if we found ourselves behaving in this rash manner, we would hope that this type of story would move us to improve the situation either by action or words. I think all of us have been Cermait at some point: forced to tell a loved one that they have done wrong.

The Dagda, like the Morrigan, also has a prominent sexuality, and by that I mean his lust is sometime very prominent, as is his, er, equipment! Many images show the huge stature of his club being mirrored by the equally huge stature of his penis. Perhaps the idea that one end of his club can give life is a little more complex (or simple – depending on your viewpoint) than just touching the wood to a dead body; perhaps there is the implication that the Dagda gives life by the simplest and most well-known way; through sex! Something most adults can relate to.

Sex is a way of becoming close to someone, or indeed the result of the same, and also of course it should be fun, exciting, exhilarating. A deity that is seen to be powerful sexually not only is showing that he gives life but that he is full of life, he embraces life, he is capable of spontaneity and representative of giving into wilder urges and desires. Sometimes, it is good for us to be in touch with the parts of ourselves we restrain at times; the need to twirl and dance and laugh; the desperate urge to sing at the top of our lungs, or the yearn to scream and beat our fists against something when we feel frustrated or angry. Most of us strive for some sort of balance, and balance means accepting these parts of one’s self and giving them a place in your life.

The fact that the Dagda has a club and a cauldron straight away paints a picture of a god that carries symbols for both male and female fertility. As king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the ruler of Ireland maybe this is how he ensures the fertility of the land and keeps it eternally renewed. I think we can draw upon this strength to renew ourselves, not necessarily sexually, but to literally breathe new life into things that have maybe gone stale for us: relationships; projects; a place that has lost something for us. We can use the imagery and the energy the Dagda creates to detect the beauty and the power in these situations, and move ourselves forward with a heightened sense of contentment.

Brigid: Songs, Sons and Smithies
Brigit, that was a woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble. And she was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night. And the one side of her face was ugly, but the other side was very comely. And the meaning of her name was Breo-saighit, a fiery arrow.7

Interestingly my first direct working within the group I fell in with was not actually focusing on Morrigan, but on the goddess Brigid. The name of many pronunciations! Even in a ritual setting I have heard her name perhaps pronounced three different ways, but indeed it does seem that she has had many incarnations over the years so perhaps this is appropriate. St Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints, is a possible Christianisation of this triple goddess of spring, and indeed they share the same feast day at the start of February. St Brigid was the patron saint of farmers, smiths and children: yet more links to her faerie forebear8.

It’s not a huge jump to see links to Persephone in Brigid’s legend too, furthering the theories that the Celts who settled in Ireland had indeed travelled greatly across Europe and the Mediterranean, absorbing aspects of the religion and culture in and around areas such as Greece. Both Persephone and Brigid are daughters of ‘kings of gods’ – Persephone is Zeus’s daughter, while Brigid is daughter of the Dagda, and both are strongly associated with the springtime.

Brigid is an Irish goddess who tells a very human story. She works with smiths, bards, healers and farmers and others who create something not simply for themselves9. Festivals for her bring communities together in anticipation of the coming spring and defeat of winter; in celebration of the fertility of the land and indeed of the young women who dance in her honour. Dolls are made and fires are burned all to show that though the cold months are not quite through, the human spirit is not only surviving but thriving.

Her story tells that as the daughter of the Dagda, she was born at daybreak, rising into the sky with fire burning in her hand, spreading sunlight across the land. Later in her tale she marries Bres of the Fomorians, hoping to achieve unity and a peace between the two peoples. Her sons are great warriors, and when one dies on the battlefield it is Brigid’s grief-stricken keening that prevents further bloodshed10.

She is the power and passion of a parent; the enormous love that you can have for one person or one group of people, and the ability to show that love and emotion unashamedly. She is hard work; grafting for something you need, something you want, or simply for pleasure. She is the delight in the simplest meal shared with a loved one, and the joy in the most elaborate feast. She is the soul of song, and the muse to all musicians. She is fire being built in the morning, the kindling of new thoughts and ideas; the ember still glowing in the hearth at the end of a hard day; the spark of desire; the beginning of things, and the reflection on what has gone before. She is honesty and clarity, and the understanding of necessary sacrifice.

Again, we are talking about an enormous amount of different aspects to one being, and in any situation where you bring one being or deity into focus e.g. for worship or meditation, it’s worth considering these aspects, to make sure you are choosing the right person for the job. To generalise, Brigid is about productivity and being the best you can be, which hopefully we can apply to many situations in all parts of our lives. As a musician, I have often found that after a ritual where Brigid has been present, I yearn to pick up the guitar or pen some lyrics, and have even found that after previously ‘dry’ spell, where I found it hard to pluck songs and melody from the ether, my efforts suddenly become productive and fruitful.

I find Brigid’s presence less forceful than, for example, the Morrigan’s; she is less intimidating, but at the same time, somehow commanding just as much respect. Rather than being forced to self-analyse and strip away the layers to get to your core, Brigid encourages you to act, to do and to build; to keep your hands busy in the hope that your mind may follow. She brings clarity through creativity, reminding us that our skills and crafts are as much a part of our heritage and link to our ancestors as the written histories and stories we look to for clues to our beginnings.

Lugh: Long Arm, Fierce Shout
‘I am Lugh, son of Cían of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and of Ethlinn, daughter of Balor, King of the Fomor,’ he said; ‘and I am foster-son of Taillte, daughter of the King of the Great Plain, and of Echaid the Rough, son of Duach.’
‘What are you skilled in?’ asked the door-keeper; ‘for no one without an art comes into Teamhair.’
‘Question me,’ said Lugh; ‘I am a carpenter.’
‘We do not want you; we have a carpenter ourselves, Luchtar, son of Luachaid.’
‘Then I am a smith.’
‘We have a smith ourselves, Colum Cuaillemech of the Three New Ways.’
‘Then I am a champion.’
‘That is no use to us; we have a champion before, Ogma, brother to the king.’
‘Question me again,’ he said; ‘I am a harper.’
‘That is no use to us; we have a harper ourselves, Abhean, son of Bicelmos, that the Men of the Three Gods brought from the hills.’
‘I am a poet,’ he said then, ‘and a teller of tales.’
‘That is no use to us; we have a teller of tales ourselves, Ere, son of Ethaman.’
‘And I am a magician.’
‘That is no use to us; we have plenty of magicians and people of power.’
‘I am a physician,’ he said.
‘That is no use; we have Diancecht for our physician.’
‘Let me be a cup-bearer,’ he said.
‘We do not want you; we have nine cup-bearers ourselves.’
‘I am a good worker in brass.’
‘We have a worker in brass ourselves, that is Credne Cerd.’
Then Lugh said: ‘Go and ask the king if he has any one man that can do all these things, and if he has, I will not ask to come into Teamhair.’11

This excerpt from Lady Gregory’s retelling of the tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann says a great deal about the diverse nature of this deity, Lugh, known as the long armed because of his skill with the sling and spear, although there is reference to throwing the sacred Gae Bolga from the fork of the toes, rather than by hand12.

Lugh is a foster child, given by his father Cían to Tailltiu, who is actually one of the original Fir Bolg; the tribes inhabiting Ireland at the time the Tuatha Dé Danann begin their conquest of the land. According to the book of invasions, after Tailltiu dies Lugh commemorates her by performing games and singing a song of lamentation in her honour, showing his dedication to her. The festival, which lasts four weeks, is called Lughnasadh, and we’ll cover this festival in more detail later on. Lugh goes on to rule Ireland, and destroys his own grandfather, Balor, with a stone thrown from a sling; a popular theme in folklore and mythology: the mighty king slain by a single blow from a simple weapon. As well as showing how the mighty can fall from a single, well placed blow, this highlighted Lugh’s skill with the weapon, because Lugh had to ensure he hit Balor in his eye.

Lugh is strongly associated with hounds, and his own son is known as Cú Chulainn, which means ‘Cullan’s Hound’. Lugh is a strong leader; at the time he joins the Tuatha Dé Danann he is surprised that they have allowed themselves to become cowed by the invading Fomorians, and because of his fierceness in the face of repression he is given command and leads the Tuatha Dé Danann to victory. He is not above deceit, as can be seem from the tale of the sons of Tuireann. The sons of Tuireann kill Lugh’s father, Cían, for nothing other than bad blood between the families.

Cían has a heavy ‘blood price’ (a fine you pay to the victim’s family when you have killed someone) although this is almost lost, as Cían is in the form of a pig when the sons of Tuireann, two of them also magically transformed into the form of hounds, find him. He begs to die in his own form or be spared. The eldest son, Brian, refuses to spare him (is in fact quite venomous about wanting him dead!) but allows him to revert to his own form. Cían has one bittersweet moment of triumph by telling them they will have to pay an extortionate blood price, as he has the highest blood price of anyone, anywhere, in any time.

Lugh knows who has killed his father, and he is heartbroken but resolute that Cían will be avenged. He advises the Tuireann brothers that all they need to get are some paltry items: pig skin, apples, that sort of thing. They agree, and then he reveals that every item on his seemingly innocuous list is actually a unique or magical item (in one case a unique person!) and the journey to get these items is so perilous they will certainly die. So it’s win/win for Lugh. If they die, he has vengeance (or justice, depending on your outlook). If they get his items, he will be uniquely advantaged as he will own some of the most precious and useful items in the world, just as he is about to go into full-on battle with the Fomorians. This seems not only pretty underhand, but very cool and tactical thinking under enormous emotional stress.

It’s nice to think that we’re above revenge, and that justice should be fair and compassionate, but there are times in everyone’s life I would think, when an eye for an eye seems the best way, even if it is only a passing thought that we squash with our better nature. I’m certainly not saying we should all rush out, vigilante style, to avenge the death of our loved ones, but it’s good to recognise the vengeful side of ourselves. If it is inappropriate then we are only able to quash it if we accept it is there. Lugh follows his vengeful streak, and actually uses the whole situation to his advantage. I won’t spoil the ending in case you want to go and have a look at The Sons of Tuireann; it’s a great legend and well worth a read.

Lugh is also often seen as a sun god, perhaps because of his shining visage (literally, in one story it is asked, ‘Is the sun rising in the west today?’ and the reply is, ‘No, that is the shining of the face of Lugh’13) and because of his strong association with the first harvest, Lughnasadh; pretty much the height of summer in this part of the world. I know that some who honour a god and goddess as a dual deity partnership, for example in some Wiccan paths, choose Lugh as their named God, the aspect of the male, as he can be seen as alive and rampant as the corn and harvest during the summer days, and also in the darker months as the hunter; mischief personified.

Lugh is loyalty, family and a keen sense of self-worth. He is skill, craft, cleverness and quick with words. He is motivation to greatness and the courage to take chances: it takes guts to walk up to the doors of a great hall, in the lands of a great lord, and say, ‘Got anyone better than me? I don’t think so. Gimme the job!’ But that’s what he did, and he ended up a leader of his people; loved and revered, and feared by his enemies. Lugh is definitely a force you want in your life if you need a boost of courage, or just a nudge to remind you that what you’re good at, you’re really good at, and no one can take that away from you.

Cú Chulainn: A Very Human Demi God
And when the stars go out
You can hear me shout
‘Two heads are better than none,
One hundred heads are so much better than one’.
I’m a boy who was born blind to pain
And, like a hawk, I’ll swoop and swoop again.
I am the flash of Hawkeye in the sun.
When you see me coming you had
Better run . . . run . . . run . .
From Dearg Doom (Red Destroyer) by Irish band Horslips14

Cú Chulainn is an extremely interesting character from the Ulster cycle with many links to the Tuatha Dé Danann. His tales weave a rich and vibrant thread in the tapestry of Irish history and mythology. His origin story is told in many different forms, but it’s generally accepted that he is the son of Lugh, a god of the Tuatha Dé Danann and a great leader, and the charioteer Deichtine (daughter of Conchobar King of Ulster), a fierce and proud woman who possibly had the power to transform into a bird, along with her 50 maidens, according to varying forms of the tale.

Cú Chulainn seems on the surface violent, reckless and hungry for glory, and his tales are of battles and quests and difficulties overcome. Yet he is also fiercely loyal, a great friend and in need of love and approval. I’m lucky enough to have a great friend who is named for Cú Chulainn – indeed his family name ‘McCullough’ translates as ‘The Son of the Hound of Ulster’.

I ask my friend, Chris, about his own origins and how it felt to discover the story behind his name sake.

He says: ‘As I was growing up, I was Irish protestant. Always went to church, Sunday school; but through that my Dad always instilled in me: you’ve got a good name; you’ve got a proud name. It was only when I was a teenager he told me, ‘You know what it means? It means Son of the Hound of Ulster.’ It was only much, much later, into my thirties, that I looked into it: what is the Son of the Hound of Ulster? I didn’t know. I found out that Cú Chulainn was the Hound of Ulster, so I am a descendant of his. So you look back, and you think, ‘Yeah, I am the son of the hound of Ulster’, and then you found out what Cú Chulainn done; his fights and his battles and his conquests; wow, that’s some ancestor to have. And then to be given the mantle and given the prize of a demi-god, as the Greeks say; even though he was a mortal man he was the son of Lugh; sort of like Hercules. And to think that was my ancestor! Which he has to be because I’m carrying the name. I wouldn’t have got it for nothing.’

I express how amazed I would have been to find something like that out; I know I have some faintly royal blood in my ancestry and am proud to know some of the story behind that, but to find out you are a living legacy of the Ulster Cycle… Wow, that’s something else entirely. How did Chris feel about this?

Chris says: ‘When I first found it out it was just something to be proud of: this is my name and this is what it means. Then I started following this [Celtic] path and looking into it a bit further and it meant a lot more. Especially when, through sheer coincidence, I happened upon a group that, well, I wouldn’t say worshipped, but looked up to the Morrigan; and even then, I didn’t make the connection.’

I want to break off here to comment on Chris’s discomfort with the term worship; I think many people on a less monotheistic path have trouble with the term ‘worship’. Worship implies utter devotion and sacrifice to the being or deity, whereas in my experience it has been more of a case of honouring the spirits, ancestors and deities.

Yes, as Chris says, looking up to them, as something greater than we are, but not necessarily better than us. We don’t use them as role models; we want to be ourselves, but greater. We want to develop who we are, not become something else entirely. We look for guidance, not for answers. We are responsible for our own actions; we don’t wait for a god, or being, or spirit to tell us what to do and what is right.

However, we listen and we learn. We follow the examples in the stories of our ancestors and when faced with similar trials, try not to make the same mistakes. We give offerings and thanks for bounty placed our way and make magic in the name of gods and spirits to move obstacles out of our way.

Is this worship? It seems more to me like younger siblings looking up to a big brother, or sister, and trying to reach for that greatness while also laughing at the antics when the big sibling gets it wrong. We see these beings reaching for greatness in the tales we tell and hand down through the years, and we promise ourselves we will reach just as high and far, but in our own endeavours, remaining true to our own desires. We stand on our own two feet but we’re not ashamed to ask for help when we need it. We embrace our humanity, feel awe at that which is beyond us, but truly realise we have our own special place in the universe, just as the Tuatha Dé Danann do, and nothing, not even their majesty, can detract from that.

I wonder if Chris had any experience of the Morrigan before he found the group. Had his namesake Cú Chulainn led him to discover stories of the Morrigan already?

‘No,’ he says. ‘I looked into the name of McCullough and that was it. That was as far as it got. What is McCullough? Son of the Hound of Ulster. OK, and the hound of Ulster is Cú Chulainn. OK. What did he do in his life? Why is he so special?

‘So I read the stories, and it was, ‘Oh he goes in to battle, so on and so forth, the Morrigan comes down, etc. etc. and she changes her guises, and she’s the washer at the ford,’ and I’m thinking OK, it’s just a story. This Morrigan character plays a good part in this story. The cattle raid; she played a part in that; here’s that character again. And that’s all she was; she was just another character in the story of Cú Chulainn.

‘One night, after being invited to someone’s house, they started passing around the horn, and you had to salute: give a salute to your ancestors. I’d never done anything like this before in my life. I thought, I’m reading about Cú Chulainn, so I’ll do that. The horn came to me and I said ‘To my ancestor, Cú Chulainn’, and there were three people in that room whose faces dropped! Their jaws hit the floor. F**k. Who have we got in our presence? I didn’t know who the Morrigan was. For those three people to stand and look at me going F**k. That’s Cú Chulainn in the presence of the Morrigan, ‘What have we got here?’ And from that day onwards, I’m destined to follow this path to find out, how’s it going to pan out? There has to be an answer, doesn’t there.’

I wonder out loud if this is an incredible privilege and opportunity, or a terrifying responsibility.

‘I’m very lucky. Extremely lucky. How many other McCulloughs are out there that either a) know the name and know what it means and live with it or b) haven’t got a clue what it means? For that to fall to me, ah, brilliant.’

I know from my own experiences that the Morrigan can be a temperamental force, powerful and fierce in passion and emotion. With Chris honouring his ancestor, Cú Chulainn, does he ever find them pulling him in different directions? Is there a sense of conflict between these two powerful presences who have so much ancient history between them?

‘At times there is a bit of conflict in decision-making, or in the outcome, but I think I’ve trained myself well to go with my gut. Roll with the punches, because I think that’s what my ancestor would have done.’

I ask Chris if he felt there was some ancestral nudging, some coughs and whispers from the wings, to get him to where he is now; some supernatural prompting that led him to the people he now knows. Because I myself can’t believe that I fell in with the same group of people, knowing my heritage (some of my heritage, anyway) and also how fascinated I had been with the Celtic tales since being a tiny child. I add that it doesn’t feel like coincidence; it almost felt like something had been pushing me.

Chris thinks about this and responds: ‘To fall in with that group, which so tied in with Cú Chulainn’s life; well I thought, this is just history repeating itself. This is the other side playing out their lives through us mere mortals, like chess pieces. There has to be tugs; the veil between this and the next world is so thin; there has to be tugs somewhere. Tugs and pushes. If you were to sit down and really, really think back along your own life, the amount of decisions you’ve made, whether they be right or wrong, at that time they were the decisions to be made. Did you make that decision or were you slightly pushed in that direction? Were you nudged in a dream state and thought ‘Oh, I know what I’ll do today! I’ll do this’.

‘Just because they’re our ancestors: people think ancestors and they think of the dead; they think of hundreds and hundreds of years ago; but they’re not. They’re there; they’re right beside you. Even your grandparents, they’re your ancestors, and we are the ancestors of the future. So we in ourselves are ancestors, so the word ancestors can be taken out of context completely.’

I ponder that it’s easy to forget that no matter what time you lived (or live) in, or how the trappings of day-to-day life may change, people are still people. They have the same sort of fears and dreams and hopes and that’s why you can understand your ancestors and therefore your ancestors can understand you. If you’re getting prods and pushes it’s probably because they’ve been in a similar situation at some point in their own lives, although the settings and backdrops may have differed.

Chris replies: ‘It’s either that or they’ve got to that same point you are at now in their own lives and they made the wrong decision. In that case, they’re saying, ‘I know where you’re going; you don’t want to do that, you want to do this’. For several reasons; like you say, they’ve been there, they flipped the coin; they took the tail side; they never experienced the head side so they want to know what would have happened if they’d chosen differently. In the future you now know if you choose tails you do this; if you choose heads, you do this.

‘But, as we know, every path has many forks. So on the tails side, on the red tablet, you’ve gone off and done this, which in itself caused this effect and that effect. On the heads side, OK, let’s see what happens, I’m now down this path; oh, I’ve got another choice. Two separate, different choices from the ones I would have had down the other path. It’s infinite – it blows your mind. So at each juncture, each choice, it just doubles, and doubles. So if you take that through the generations you’ve got plenty of time to work out what’s right and what’s wrong.’

This makes me wonder if we will also end up in this position, as sometime watchers and guardians of our descendants, seeing how our own lives potentially could have played out, through the actions of those who come after us. I ask Chris if he thinks we will get that opportunity.

‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘if we haven’t already done so. I know; it’s a real mind f**k! Time has no significance!’

So, in essence, we could be getting the insight, the inspiration, either from our ancestors, because they knew what happened in their lives in a similar circumstance and want to help, or equally from our descendants, who have learnt from our own example!

Chris concludes: ‘Yeah, it’s a full circle isn’t it? Where one life ends, another begins.’

So living with your ancestors may not just mean living, as Chris does, with the knowledge that he is descended from a great hero such as Cú Chulainn, and may not even just mean simply learning all you can about them, and trying to honour them by following their ways and traditions. We may actually be talking here about walking side by side with people who, to us and the way we perceive reality, died thousands of years ago, and who are simply a step away through a veil rarely breached within our lifetimes. Whether they are there or not, we certainly keep them alive with the fantastic tales and myths that abound about this fascinating culture.

So what’s the relevance of all these stories in this modern age? How can we possibly relate to a world of human gods and goddesses, tribal disputes and deep, dark magic?

Well I guess there’s a touch of sarcasm in my carefully chosen italic there, as the sentence kind of answers itself. We all aspire to be something greater than we are: every one of us. The idea of gods and goddesses not as distant, unreachable enigmata, but as real, emotional, flesh and blood and above all flawed beings is very attractive. We don’t need standards to live up to which are handed to us with barely any explanation, but something which allow us to examine and judge ourselves.

The world is constantly torn by war and especially civil unrest, as seen so often on the news lately, so the stories of the warring Celtic tribes and the Book of Invasions (the ‘history’ of the many tribes that invade Ireland) seem to have a particular poignancy right now. And how can we not be enticed by the magic and mysticism; fantastic worlds of things just beyond the mind’s eye? The lure of the Tuatha Dé Danann is in the combination of fantasy and reality; astonishing magical creatures caught in very human situations; war, love, sex and death. The best TV shows aspire to bring you all this in popcorn crunching glory but it’s already here, combined with real-life lessons and a good dose of magic to boot. Each story can be a metaphor for something in your life, each being a personification of an attribute or skill you either want or need to bring into focus in your life.

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