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In Search of the Awesome Mystery: …

24 February, 2012

Seán Ó Duinn evokes a range of spirituality from the extensive lore of megalithic, Celtic and Christian streams of worship. Drawing on a range of manuscripts, he opens with a wonderful description of the cult of the pagan god Crom Cruach, whom St Patrick is reputed to have smashed to pieces with a sledgehammer, seeing him as a serious rival to a Christian centre he wanted to establish in Armagh. Ó Duinn thinks that the site associated with this god at Ballymagauran on the Cavan-Leitrim border – and other megalithic sites such as Newgrange and Loughcrew – are indications of a ritual calendar of the feasts of the traditional religion. Ó Duinn traces the marks these have left on later calendars and even on the Christian calendar.

The author also explores a correspondence of theme between the winter solstice (Bainis Rí – the marriage of the Sun god and Earth goddess) and Christmas; between the summer solstice and the fires of the eve of the Birthday of John the Baptist. The equinoxes also have left echoes: St Patrick, Annunciation and Easter in the spring: perhaps St Michael in the autumn. Ó Duinn also points out how the Celtic feasts of Imbolg (1 February), Bealtaine (1 May), Lughnasa (1 August), and Samhain (1 November) have left their mark on the content of celebrations we still have today: St Brigid, Candlemas, St Blaise and fertility and the start of spring, May and the Maypole, as the time of celebrating creativity in older age, as well as Pentecost, Lughnasa and the climbing of Croagh Patrick (p. 41), the first fruits of the harvest, the Assumption and Samhain (Hallow E’en and All Saints and All Souls).

It is an exciting book for anyone interested in echoes of current spirituality in the mists of the past.

Seán Ó Duinn OSB is a monk of Glenstal Abbey. He has written a number books and articles on the connections between Celtic mythology and Christianity: Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality (Columba 2000); The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint (Columba 2005).


1 God, the Awesome
2 The Death and Re-Birth of the Corn
3 Lughnasa Rites of Wensleydale
4 Lough Gur: Enchanted Lake
5 Midsummer Fires on St John’s Eve
6 The Mystery of Fire and Water
7 The Tradition of the Three Sisters
8 The Age of the Megaliths
9 Man and Nature
10 The Cosmic Wedding
11 Brú na Bóinne and the Ancestors
12 The Constellation of the Swan
13 Psychomachia, Spiritual War
14 The Defence Prayer Tradition
15 Ancient Religions of Ireland
16 A Guided Tour of the Otherworld

311 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie



The rabbit emerged from the dark hedge to cross the road. His long ears picked up the sound of some tremendous force rushing towards him. The lights of the oncoming car fascinated him so that, dazzled, he crouched down unable to move, rooted to the spot. The car mowed him down. He died instantly confronting an awesome force over which he had no control.

The two words used here, ‘fascinated’ and ‘tremendous’, are significant. ‘Tremendum et Fascinans’ is the phrase used by the great theologian Rudolf Otto in his treatment of the subject of worship and the confrontation of the human with the divine. God, the divine, is both awesome and fascinating and very, very dangerous. We find that we cannot turn away from him completely and yet we are overcome by his power and magnificence. This results in the cry ‘Come, let us worship’ for worship, bowing down in awe before the majesty of God, is the natural reaction to the human’s confrontation with the divine.

Chapter 19 of the Book of Exodus describes the Theophany or ‘God-revealing’ on Mount Sinai where God reveals himself to Moses and the people of Israel through terrifying eruptions of natural forces: ‘… there were peals of thunder and flashes of lightening, dense cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast; and in the camp, all the people trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their stand at the bottom of the mountain. Mount Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke rose like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain shook violently! (16-18).

‘Experiencing all this, the people were all terrified and kept their distance’ (Ex 20:18).

Similarly, a biblical account (2 Sam 6:1-11) describes King David and a vast crowd bringing the great and holy treasure, the Ark of the Covenant, to Jerusalem, with tremendous rejoicing. The Ark rests on a cart pulled by oxen and at one point where the ground is uneven the oxen stumble. A man called Uzzah put his hand on the Ark to steady it, ‘and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the Ark and he died there beside the Ark of God … And David was afraid of the Lord that day.’

Another well-known account of the appearance of God to a human being is the biblical story of the Burning Bush. In the story Moses sees a bush which is on fire and yet it is not being burned. He draws near to examine this phenomenon more closely. Then ‘God called to him from the middle of the bush. “Moses, Moses”, he said. “Here I am”, he answered. “Come no nearer”, he said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where your are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors”, he said, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”. At this Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to look at God’ (Ex 3:4-6).

In this case, then, the human being, when confronted by the mystery of God, covered his face and took off his shoes. It seems that this was a natural, instinctive reaction — the man wanted to hide himself and place a barrier, however inadequate, a veil, between himself and the divine. By taking off his shoes he put himself into immediate contact with the earth as if hiding in it and becoming one with it as a frightened child flees to his mother. We will encounter again these two phenomena — the veil and the removal of shoes in the context the ancient liturgies of the Oriental churches.

Turning, then, from the Bible to the native tradition of Ireland, we find a colourful account of the worship of the god Crom Cróich in the Rennes Dindsenchas (Rev Celt, XVI (1895), No 85) associated with Maigh Sléacht near Ballymagauran, Co Cavan.

The Dinnseanchas begins in the ordinary way: ‘Magh Slécht, canas roainmniged?’ ‘Ní ansa’ — ‘Maigh Sléacht, how is it so named’ ‘Not difficult’. ‘There was there the king-idol of Ireland, namely the Crom Cróich, and around him were twelve idols made of stones; but he was of gold. Until Patrick’s coming, he was the god of every folk that colonised Ireland. To him they used to offer the firstlings of every issue and the firstborn of every clan. It is to him that Ireland’s king, Tigernmas son of Follach, came at Samhain (Halloween), together with the men and women of Ireland, in order to adore him. And they all prostrated before him, so that the tops of their foreheads and the gristle of their noses and the caps of their knees and the ends of their elbows broke, and three fourths of the men of Ireland perished at those prostrations. Whence ‘Maigh Sléacht’— the Plain of Prostrations.’

In quite a remarkable piece of research, John P. Dalton on ‘Cromm Cruaich of Magh Sléacht’ (PRIA, 1922, Sect C, 23-67) identified the site of Crom Cruaich’s extensive sanctuary in Maigh Sléacht near the village of Ballymagauran in Co Cavan and the site of the statue of the god along with ‘his sub-gods twelve’ at Darraugh Rath — a very large high-banked lios on an elevated site overlooking the lake-dotted plain of Maigh Sléacht below.

Today, this well-preserved rath is enormously impressive and, although no signs of the idols are visible, one can easily imagine Crom Cruaich looking down with disdain on his worshippers on the plain below from his exalted position on the hill. He occupied an elevated position separated by height and space from the plain below which was the domain of the populace — a situation not unlike the layout of a traditional Christian church in which the sanctuary, reserved to the priests and their assistants, occupies an elevated position separated from the lower nave, which is the place of the congregation. A further comparison may be remarked in the custom of many churches in having the offerings of bread and wine placed in the middle of the nave. Likewise, it was on the level plain below that the worshippers of Crom Cruaich deposited their offerings. If the offerings consisted of corn, cattle and children this would have occupied a large space, which in fact Maigh Sléacht is. A considerable distance, then, would have separated the worshippers from the god, expressing vividly the idea that the people were not anxious to approach Crom Cruaich too closely while at the same time making sure to pay their respects — an attitude not unlike the traditional Irishman who kneels at the back of the church during Mass and obstinately refuses to budge from there. Strangely enough, Christ commends the tax-collector who came to the temple but ‘stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”‘. (Lk 18:13).

If the level area at the foot of the hill-sanctuary served as the space in which the people brought offerings of very considerable bulk, such as sheaves of corn, bags of oats and barley as well as livestock, there must have been a highly organised system of dealing with this and storing the produce. It would have involved officials to serve as ‘sacristans’ who may have lived in local forts such as Rath Sléacht giving access to the Plain of Prostrations.

But, on the other hand, we may ask if the grain and other offerings were stored in buildings of some kind to be consumed gradually, who actually consumed them? Perhaps the local officials in charge of the cult of Crom Cróich were given a part of the offerings for their own use as would be expected. This would account for some of the produce offered to the god. These thatched wooden buildings would have disappeared with the passing of the centuries and the advent of the new religion of Christianity. But what of Crom Cróich’s own portion?

Presumably Crom was a supernatural being, a divine entity, and would not eat the corn offered him as a human being would. But he might be considered as consuming the vital essence of the corn, the unseen core or spiritual centre suitable for a supernatural being while the outward part might be left to decay in special offertory trenches built for the purpose. In Psalm 50 (49) the Hebrew God says to the people: ‘Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High.’ What God wanted in this case was the inner dispositions of the people’s heart — their feelings of thanksgiving to him for favours received and their admission of dependence on him. The two ideas are not exclusive and the outword sacrifice of cattle and grain was to be an outward expression of the inward submission of mind and heart.

It is doubtful if Crom Cróich was quite so spiritually minded as to concern himself with the dispositions of his worshippers, but the consumption of the vital essence of the offerings by the god while leaving their outward substance is an idea found expressed in a different context among the funeral rites of the Todas of the hills of southern India.

The funeral rites are celebrated within a stone circle and the ashes from the cremated body are finally buried at the entrance to a ring of stones. The body is first laid on a bier and set down near the funeral pyre which burns very slowly. The body is wrapped in a cloak furnished with a large pocket and into this the mourners put their funeral offerings such as money, ornaments and various small luxuries as they pay their respects. The body is swung over the fire three times and then set down again. As the bier swings over the fire it is believed that the soul of the deceased takes flight to the other world taking with it the offerings which the people have contributed. But it is the inner essence of the offerings which go with the dead man to the other world. The outward substance still remains. This being so, the contributors put their hands in the pocket of the deceased’s cloak and recover what they have given. Naturally, the people consider this to be a very satisfactory operation — as well they might. The dead man has received desireable gifts from his friends which he will use in the other world while the contributors have suffered no loss by this transaction — a highly satisfactory arrangement all round based on a very clear distinction between the inner essence of the offerings and the external substance (cf Vulliamy, 1926,131-133).

The account of the people’s worship of Crom Cróich is continued by the Christian narrative of an episode in the life of St Patrick in which the saint comes into contact with the god. The ‘Quarto Vita’ (Colgan, ‘Triadis Thaumaturgae’, Acta Lovanii 1647, cap. liii) tells the story:

There was a certain idol (in Mag) Slécht adorned with gold and silver, and twelve gods made of copper placed on this side and on that facing the idol. Now the king and the whole people used to adore this idol, in which lurked a very bad demon who used to give answers to the people, wherefore they worshipped him as a god. St Patrick, moreover, when preaching all around, came to the plain in which the idol was situated and, lifting his right hand threatened to overthrow the idol with the ‘Staff of Jesus’ which he held in his hand. But the demon, was in the idol, fearing St Patrick, turned the stone towards its right side, and the mark of the staff still remains in its left side; and yet the staff did not leave the saint’s hand. Moreover, the earth swallowed the twelve other images up to their heads, which alone remain to be seen in memory of the miracle. The demon, indeed who (had) lurked for a long time in the idol and deluded men, came forth at St Patrick’s command. When the peoples with their king, Loegaire, saw him they were afraid, and asked St Patrick to command the horrible monster to leave their presence. St Patrick ordered him to depart into the abyss. Then all the peoples gave thanks to Almighty God who deigned to deliver them through St Patrick from the power of darkness.

This Latin text of the 8th or 9th century takes the tradition of Crom Cróich quite seriously and interprets it in a typical Christian fashion and mentions a significant item not recorded in the Dinnseanchas, that is, that this ‘very bad demon used to give answers to the people’ (in quo daemon pessimus latitabat; qui responsa populis dare solebat). In other words, this was an oracular deity / demon and Maigh Sléacht a sanctuary in which oracles took place like the great oracular temple of Apollo at Delphi. In the texts we have seen so far, two kings are mentioned — Laoghaire and Tigernmas — both of them associated with Tara. If Maigh Sléacht were an oracular site it is to be expected that kings would undertake the journey from their own kingdoms to consult the oracle on matters of state. From Greece comes the story of the reinstitution of the Olympic Games by King Iphitos of Elis, a shadowy figure of the 9th century BC. He is said to have re-established the Games on the advice he had received from the Delphic Oracle. The king had asked the Oracle how to end the civil wars and pestilence which was gradually destroying the land of Greece. The priestess advised him to restore the Olympic Games and declare a truce for their duration (Swaddling, 2004, 10).

With regard to oracles being a feature of the sanctuary of Maigh Sléacht, a curious piece of information is provided by Maire MacNéill in her great work The Festival of Lughnasa (Dublin 1982, Vol 1, 177-179). Not far to the north of Darraugh Fort, the presumed sanctuary of Crom Cróich, lies the hill of Benaghlin (Binn Eachlainn or Binn Eachlabhra) in Co Fermanagh. From its peak can be seen the ancient patrimony of the Maguires (Maguidhir).

This hill was a venue for the celebration of the Festival of Lughnasa on Domhnach Chrom Duibh the last Sunday in July. On this Sunday large crowds of people gathered on Binn Eachlabhra to admire the view, pick fraocháin (bilberries) and visit the caves of which there are many in the limestone highlands of southern Fermanagh, and generally entertain themselves with dancing, fiddling and wrestling as at other Lughnasa sites. The Binn Eachlabhra gatherings continued until the 1940s. Only four miles away at Cill Naile is another Lughnasa sight and within a 20 mile radius there are several others including significantly The Black Rocks or Maguire’s Chair from where Darraugh Fort — the supposed site of Crom Cróich — is visible. Some held that in pagan times there was a connection between the two sites.

Both The Black Rocks and Binn Eachlabhra are dominated by the Cuilcagh mountains. There is a tradition of runaway marriages in connection with the Lughnasa gatherings in this area as at the Tailtean Weddings in Co Meath. The area is richly endowed with antiquities from the Bronze Age and at one time may have been thickly populated.

Binn Eachlabhra is considered to be a particularly numinous place inhabited by Donn na Binne MagUidhir, the first prince of Fermanagh and now deified as belonging to the Irish Pantheon, the Tuatha Dé Danann — the goddesses and gods of Ireland. The Maguires were often assisted in battle by Donn na Binne, their deified ancestor.

An extract from a local tale explains the practices associated with this particular site:

Do chuir (Tromcheo Draoídheachta) a litreacha agus a theachta uadh d’iarraidh cuidigh … go Donn Binn Eachlabhra ris a ráidhtear Binn Eachlúna anois, as coigeadh Uladh; agus is uime dearthar Binn Eachlabhra ris an mbinn sin .i. a dtráthaibh na Samhna do thigeadh each sleamhain slíocaidh móruathbhásach as an mbinn amach go nuige a lár agus do labhradh do ghuth daonda frig cách agus do bhéaradh fios foirfe fíreolgach do gach neach dá n-iarrrfadh sgéala air fá gach nI dá n-éireochadh dhó go ceann bliadhna uadh an tSamhuin sin agus dfhaigfidís pronntaidh agus tíodhlacthaidh móra aice ann sin .i. aig an mbinn agus do ghéillidís na puible go haimsir Phddruig agus na naomhchléire dhi (MacNeill, 1982,1, 178).

(Tromcheo Draoédheachta sent letters and messages from Ulster to Donn Binn Eachlabhra — Donn of the Speaking-Horse Mountain seeking help. It is called Binn Eachlúna now. And the reason it is called that is that at Samhaintide (1st November) a slippery, sleek, great-horror horse used to come out of the mountain up to his middle and used to talk to everybody in a human voice and he used to give accurate truly-enlightened knowledge to anybody who asked him for information regarding all that would happen to him from that Samhain to the end of the year. And they would leave food and large offerings to it — at the mountain, and the people submitted to it (dhi — her — the mountain) until the time of Patrick and the holy clerics.)

(It is clear from the original Irish that the horse was male while the mountain (Binn) is a feminine noun.)

Here the oracular tradition of the two sites — Binn Eachlabhra, sacred to Donn and Darraugh Fort, sacred to Crom Cróich is clearly centred on the Feast of Samhain. This is to be expected because in Irish tradition Samhain (Halloween) is the beginning of the dark half of the year — from Samhain to Bealtaine (1st May). The bright half is from Bealtaine to Samhain. Then, since the Celts calculated the day as beginning with sunset on the previous night in a movement from darkness to light, so the year began with winter making Samhain New Year’s Eve from our point of view. There is a vestige of this system in the Liturgy of the Catholic and Orthodox churches where on great Feasts First Vespers or Evening Prayer of the Feast is sung on the Eve — the evening before. For instance, the Feast of St John the Baptist is on 24 June. The celebration of the Feast, however, begins on the previous evening 23 June. In modern practice, many Catholics go to Sunday Mass on Saturday evening on the grounds that Sunday begins at sunset on Saturday. This corresponds to the Celtic system though, of course, in the church it springs from Jewish sources.

Samhain, New Year’s Eve, the beginning of the year is naturally the occasion for divination, for foretelling what is to happen to us during the coming year and a remnant of this is to be found in the traditional domestic celebration of Samhain where four plates are placed on a table. One contains water, another earth, another a ring and the fourth salt. The person who wants to know his destiny for the coming year is blindfolded and touches a plate. Water means emmigration; earth death; the ring marriage and salt prosperity. This is fundamentally the same idea of prognostication, or foretelling the future for the coming year, as that practised at Maigh Sléacht and Binn Eachlabhra but on a reduced scale.

Nor is this idea of Samhain divination limited to the sacred cultic area of north-west Cavan. In the ancient story Airne Fíngein, the Bean Sí Rothniamh emerges from Sí Chliach on Cnoc Áine, the sanctuary of the goddess Áine near the village of Hospital (Ospidéal Áine) in Co Limerick, on the night of Samhain, to inform Fínghein, the local king, of the political events to take place during the coming year.

In this case, it is not a magical horse who gives the information but Roth Niamh (shining wheel — sun / moon) a Bean Si or member of the Tuatha Dé Danann from the sacred hill-sanctuary (Sí) of Áine, the local fertility goddess. In all three cases a uniform pattern is evident — a supernatural being gives information regarding events of the coming year at Samhain and this takes place at a sacred site or sanctuary of the Celtic deities.

A Welsh text based on the Historia Regum of Geoffrey of Monmouth says: ‘In the islands there are sixty cliffs and an eagle’s nest on each cliff; and once a year the eagles come together and by their cries they announce such events as will occur in the kingdom from this to the end of the year’ (Vendryes, J., 1953, xix).

It will be noted that the divination tradition belongs to the Feast of Samhain both in Binn Eachlabhra, over the border from Cavan, and in Maigh Sléacht itself.

As is clear from the Dinnseanchas it was at Samhain also that the offerings were brought to Crom Cróich. This is the natural time for such offerings, as the harvest has just been completed. There was an abundance of corn and farmers sometimes killed off cattle that they may not have been able to feed during the long months of winter. This was the period when agricultural produce was at its most abundant. So this was the time for people to pay their taxes to Crom Cróich, the harvest God, for having given them an abundant harvest. If they contributed generously there was the hope that he would give them another prosperous harvest next year. Again, a remnant of this may be discerned in the rites of Samhain today. Young people in extravagant dress, masked and carrying the ‘aghaidh fidil’ or turnip-lantern go from house to house collecting money or goods. The belief is that if the householder treats them generously he will have a prosperous year but if they are treated badly misfortune will invade the house for the coming year. If the ‘Geamairí’ or mummers represent the Tuatha Dé Danann, or ancient gods who control the fertility of the land, they are in the position of being supernatural tax collectors for Crom.

So, the key to the interpretation of the Maigh Sléacht accounts in the Dinnseanchas and the Patrician documents may be found in the Samhain rites of the present day, if it is remembered that what is a small domesticised and mostly children’s performance today was once a major public celebration involving a lot of people, cattle, foodstuffs, and extending over an extensive land area.

We get a clearer view of the supernatural tax-collecting, reward-punishment ensemble (what the Americans call ‘trick or treat’) from the way in which the Rite of Samhain was performed in parts of Gaelic Scotland.

The masked Geamairí went from house to house collecting, but in this case they were grown-up men, not children and what they wanted was whiskey.

In many Scottish houses the fire was in the centre of the room — not against the wall. This arrangement was convenient for ritual movements. If the householder was very generous and treated the Geamairí well they lined up one after another and walked around the fire proceeding ‘deiseal’ — keeping the fire at their right hand. This is the well-known Celtic ritual movement — the ‘Cor deiseal’ or sunwise movement around a sacred object often seen at Holy Wells. The performers follow the course of the sun — a propitious movement to establish the householders in the order of the cosmos. This will bring good luck to the family for the coming year.

If, on the other hand, it proves to be a stingy household and they are treated badly, the Geamairí go around the fire proceeding ‘tuathal’ — going against the sun (anticlockwise). This ritual will bring bad luck to the house as it is not in accordance with cosmic order.

It is evident that the Rite of Samhain was a serious matter, having repercussions for the family and wider community. What is remarkable, however, is that the Samhain bonfire, which forms so important a part of the traditional celebration, is not mentioned in the writings on Maigh Sléacht.

Micheal Ó Duigeannáin, in a rather critical approach to Maigh Sléacht (On the Medieval Sources for the Legend of Cenn (Crom) Cróich of Mag Slícht, 1940 / 1995) concludes that ‘whatever claims Mag Slécht may have as the local centre of some widespread cult, it certainly was not what O’Curry, in a moment of fervour, called it: “the Delphos of our Gadelian ancestors”.’

Ó Duigeannáin (Féil-Scríbhinn Eoin Mhic Néill, 1940 / 1995) conveniently gathers together in one place the relevant sources regarding the worship of Crom Cróich at Maigh Sléacht from Leabhar Gabhála Eireann, the Metrical Dinnseanchas, the Prose Dinnseanchas, the Patrician Sources — Colgan’s ‘Quarto Vita’, Colgan’s ‘Tertia Vita’ and the ‘Vita Tripartita’.

He admits, however, that the folklore of Domhnach Chrom Dubh or Garland Sunday would have to be taken into account in any discussion of Maigh Sléacht as a great religious site of the pagan past. Here, he seems to equate Crom Cróich of Maigh Sléacht with the widely venerated harvest god Crom Dubh, and indeed, this equation would be widely accepted. He was of course writing over forty years previous to Máire MacNéill’s research on the cult of Crom Dubh in her great masterpiece The Festival of Lughnasa (Oxford 1962).

By putting the various documents together we can arrive at a comprehensive view of the data on Crom Cróich of Maigh Sléacht:

1 The king idol of Ireland (rig-hidhal Hérenn) was in Maigh Sléacht (LG)
2 He caused every ‘tuath’ to be without peace (Met D)
3 The idol was of stone and it was decorated with gold and silver (V4)
4 12 gods made of copper were here and there facing Crom (V4)
5 Four times three idols of stone in rows (Na srethaib — trí hídail chloch fo chethair) (Met D)
6 Twelve other idols covered with copper were around him (dá ídal déac aili cumdachta ó umai imme) (V Tri)
7 The people used to ask him for milk and corn (Met D)
8 From the kingship of Eremon to St Patrick worship had been paid to stones (Met D)
9 Crom Cróich was the god of every group that took Ireland until the coming of Patrick (Pro D)
10 A demon lurked in the idol
11 He used to answer the peoples’ questions and so they worshipped him as a god (V4)
12 The idol faced the south (south-east?) towards Tara

Features of the worship of Crom
13 The Gaeil used to adore him (Met D)
14 They used to offer the first-born of every stock to Crom (Pro D)
15 They used to offer the first-born of every family to Crom (Met D), (Pro D)
16 The King of Ireland, Tigernmas Mac Follaich, came to Maigh Sléacht with the men and women of Ireland to adore Crom (Pro D), (Met D), (LG)
17 This occurred at Samhain (Pro D), (Met D), (LG)
18 King Laoghaire also used to adore Crom at Maigh Sléacht (V3)
19 The crowds used to prostrate around Crom, the name cleaves to the great plain (the Plain of Prostrations) (Met D)
20 Tigernmas, with three fourths of the Men of Ireland around him,
21 died at the great assembly (Immórdáil Maige Slécht) worshipping Crom Cróich (LG), (Pro D)
22 4000 fell at the prostrations (Pro D)
23 They all prostrated before Crom until their foreheads, and the soft part of their noses, and the caps of their knees, and the points of their elbows broke; so that three fourths of the Men of Ireland died at these prostrations. Hence the name Maigh Sléacht (Pro D)
24 This is the reason why Maigh Seanaigh (the original name) is now called Maigh Sléacht (Met D)

St Patrick’s confrontation with Crom Cróich
25 Patrick used a sledge-hammer on Crom from head to foot. He removed with rough usage the weak monster that was there (Met D)
26 St Patrick came to the plain where the idol was situated and threatened to overthrow the idol with the ‘Staff of Jesus’ which he held in his hand (V4)
27 The demon, fearing Patrick, turned the stone towards its right side and on the left hand side of the stone the mark of the crozier still remains (V4)
28 Yet, the crozier did not leave the saint’s hand (V4)
29 The earth swallowed the other twelve idols up to their heads (V4)
30 Only these heads remain in memory of the miracle (V4)
31 At St Patrick’s command the demon emerged from the stone (V4)
32 King Laoghaire and his people were afraid and asked Patrick to banish the horrible monster (V4)
33 St Patrick ordered the demon to depart into the abyss (V4)
34 Then all the people gave thanks to Almighty God who deigned to deliver them through St Patrick from the powers of darkness (V4)
35 And at St Patrick’s prayer the image which the peoples adored was broken up and reduced to ashes (V3)
36 Patrick founded a church in that place — Domhnach Maighe Sléacht — and put his relative Mabran in charge of it (V Tripartita)
37 Patrick’s Well is there also in which he baptised many (V Tripartita)

While the details of the story vary slightly, it is a remarkably clear account of the worship of the god Crom Cróich at Maigh Sléacht so that he would give his people an abundance of food — blicht agus ith — milk and corn — and answer their questions regarding the future.

Crom is seen here as a god with a widespread cult with Maigh Sléacht as an important central shrine to which the kings of Tara with their numerous followers came on pilgrimage.

Patrick may have seen it as a serious rival to the Christian centre he wanted to establish in Armagh, and O’Curry’s idea of Maigh Sléacht as a kind of Irish Delphi may have been a real insight rather than a product of a ‘moment of fervour’.

According to the Vita Tripartita Patrick first saw the idol from the water called Guth Ard. This, undoubtedly is Garadice Lake (Guth Ard Theas —South Guth Ard). In the Metrical Dinuseanchas King Tigernmas and his crowd of pilgrims from Tara approached Maigh Sléacht with considerable misgivings: ‘They beat palms, they bruised bodies, wailing to the demon who had enslaved them’ — the lamentations (ac coi ri demun rosdaer) may have given the name to the lake — Guth Ard Theas — South Loud Voice.

Dalton opines that a direct path led from Tara to Maigh Sléacht and that this was taken by the royal pilgrims Tigernmas and Laoghaire and by St Patrick himself. Passing through Granard, they would have arrived at Tuam Sheanchaidh and sailed across Lough Garradice to the entrance to the sanctuary of Crom Cróich.

Dalton points out that near Carrigallen are two Tobair Phádraig which may recall Patrick’s activity. Obviously, the motives of the various visitors to Maigh Sléacht were different — the pagan pilgrims came as worshippers of Crom Cróich while Patrick came as a fervent missionary of a new religion bent on overthrowing him.

From the Maigh Rein, or Newtowngore side of Lake Garadice ‘the eye is instantly arrested by the graceful outlines of Darraugh, as well as by the venerable aspect of the quaint rath-frontlet’ (Dalton, op cit, 29). If the whole account were not a fantasy, here was Maigh Sléacht, the site of Crom’s sanctuary.

This sanctuary extended over a landscape of hills, woods, level land and lakes. This is a site where earth and water meet — a ‘threshold area’ evocative of the meeting of the divine and the human.

At the top of the wonderfully detailed map produced by Dalton, the mountains of Cuilcagh and Sliabh Rossan and Binn Eachlabhra delineate the ritual area to the north, while in the south a line may be drawn from Killeshandra to Fenagh Abbey. Within this area of about 15 miles by 12 lie a great number of ancient sites of various types to testify to its sanctity.

From the north-west the Blackwater makes its way windingly into Garadice Lake and on the other side is the river Gráinne. In the triangle formed by the meeting of these two rivers in the extensive lake area, Darraugh Rath is situated on a high level, and this, according to Dalton, is the site of the holy place of Crom Cróich/ Cruaich or Cenn (Ceann) Cruaich — the head of the hill. The name Darraugh is probably connected with ‘Dair, darach, doire’ — a place associated with oak trees and 2000 years ago the area may have been more densely wooded than it is today. Moreover, Dalton maintains that the water area may have been more extensive also so that it extended partially around the foot of the hill on which the rath is situated. This phenomenon of isolating the Neimheadh or sanctuary and making it somewhat inaccessible is a feature of another sacred site associated with the Fomhóraigh or dark gods on the coast of Sligo of which we will see further later. At any rate, the partial isolation of the sacred place, the separation of the sacred from the profane would be in accordance with the worship-traditions of many races. There is the biblical tradition of the Holy of Holies which only the High Priest entered and that only once a year. A continuation of this feature is plainly seen in churches of the Byzantine, Syrian and Coptic Rites where a screen with curtains separates the sanctuary from the nave.

Close to Darraugh Rath is the ‘fair green’ of Ballymagauran where from time immemorial fairs have been held at the two pivotal points of the Celtic year — Samhain and Bealtaine (1 November and 1 May)

The church — Domhnach Maighe Sléacht — in the area was founded by St Patrick and a rath once enclosed the building and the graveyard. Only a part of the enclosing rampart now survives in Kilnavart. St Patrick’s Well was near and a tradition states that the saint performed a pilgrimage on his knees from the well to the church. There are church ruins on Garadice Lake, and on Mogue Island on Templeport Lake there are the remains of the church of St MoAodhÓg.

Another Tobar Phádraig is placed to the north-west near Brackley Lake and still another near a bend in the Blackwater not far south of Bunerky Lake. Again, a Tobar Phádraig is found in the Crimlin townland of Maigh Réin in Co Leitrim about two miles south of the Cavan border. Could this possibly be ‘Cromlinn’? — Crom’s pool?

Southwards from this is St Caillin’s monastery and holy well — Fenagh Abbey. His feastday is on 13 November — the significant date of Samhain.

Such a profusion of early ecclesiastical sites in a small area dotted with remains of an earlier race would indicate that the early Christian missionaries considered it important to establish the church there in a very definite way and, as it were, invading the enemy camp.

We have seen that two annual fairs were held at Samhain and Bealtaine at the fair green of Ballymagauran (Baffle Mhic Shamhradhdin) and that Samhain was the feast associated with Crom Cróich himself. This leads to the idea of the possibility of a ritual calendar — not a calendar hanging on the wall — but a calendar laid out on the landscape for pilgrimage purposes so that a specific shrine could be visited by the worshippers on a specific day or period in the course of a yearly cycle.

The calendar in daily use today is of course based fundamentally on the ‘Four Stations of the Sun’. At four times in the course of the year the sun seems to behave in a peculiar way which can be observed and noted by the people of the earth, and this enables them to pinpoint certain key periods of the cycle.

On 21 December we have the shortest day of the year — the Winter Solstice. For the past six months the sun has been weakening — it has been rising each day a little further to the south with the result that the days have become shorter and shorter until the Winter Solstice when the sun recovers, as it were, and begins to rise a little further to the north each morning so that the day is becoming longer and this increase in sunlight continues until the sun reaches its most northerly rising point at the Summer Solstice (21 June) and from that time on it begins to decline again. The beam of light from the rising sun entering the megalithic monument at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) at the Winter Solstice is a remarkable calendrical marker which has been functioning for 5000 years. If, for instance, in the simplest possible way, one were to put up a stone for each day beginning on the day after the sun entered Newgrange, by the time you had collected 365 stones you were back at the Winter Solstice again. The Winter Solstice is emphatically marked in Ireland by the Newgrange phenomenon, the Feast of Christmas and the ancient rite of the ‘Dreoilín’ — ‘Hunting the Wren’.

On the other pivot of the year — the Summer Solstice — bonfires blaze to encourage the declining sun to keep up its strength to ripen the corn and to honour St John the Baptist whose birthday it is. The church took over this calendar by putting the Birth of Christ (the Light of the world) at the Winter Solstice when the light is increasing and the Birth of St John the Baptist who was six months older than Our Lord at the Summer Solstice when the light was decreasing. This corresponds to the Baptist’s saying regarding Christ: ‘He must increase and I must decrease’ (John 3:30).

The other two ‘Stations of the Sun’ are the Equinoxes, the Spring Equinox (21 March) and the Autumn Equinox (21 September). At these points the sun rises exactly in the east so that night and day are of equal length. Upon these ‘Four Stations of the Sun’ our calendar is based.

The insular Celts of Ireland and Wales, however, introduced four other feasts into this basic solar calendar. These are the well-known Feasts of Samhain (1 November), Imbolg (Féile Bríde) (1 February), Bealtaine (1 May) and Lughnasa (1 August). These introduce the four seasons and it will be noticed that each of them falls exactly half way between the solar feasts. For instance, Samhain occurs half way between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice while Bealtaine occurs half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice.

The reason for the introduction of these festivals is not entirely clear but they seem to be linked up with major points of the agricultural year as would be expected from a people whose civilisation was rural rather than urban.

The custom of the ‘Buaile’ persisted until comparatively modern times. At Bealtaine with the arrival of summer the cows were taken up to the hills for summer grazing. Younger people accompanied them to do the milking, butter and cheese-making. They lived in makeshift huts for the duration, and at Samhain as the weather turned cold, the cows were brought down to the low sheltered fields near the farmhouse.

It is surmised that the constellation of the Pleides (The 7 Sisters) played a part in this and that the cows remained below from Samhain to Bealtaine while the Pleides were high in the night sky. Then at Bealtaine, Maya the principal sister, is supposed to perform a little farewell dance and lead the others down below the horizon. This is the signal for the cows to be taken up to the hills. So in this charming legend there is a kind of see-saw action between the affairs of earth and sky — when the cows go up the 7 Sisters come down and when the cows come down the 7 Sisters go up. In Irish the word for Pleides is An Treidín — the little herd — giving again the idea of a heavenly and an earthly herd.

The numerous Tobair Phádraig or St Patrick’s Wells in this area, with the ‘Pattern’ or ‘Turas’ — pilgrimage — to them on St Patrick’s Day (17 March) — is a significant date — the Spring Equinox, the beginning of the year . ‘Lady Day’ – 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary — was the official start of the year in Britain until the British belatedly adopted Pope Gregory’s Calendar in 1752 (Danaher, 1972, 67). For much of Europe, the Spring Equinox was associated with Easter — the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox — with new growth of vegetation, the increase of herds, all spoke of rejuvenation and new beginnings. In accord with this, St Patrick’s Feast occurs at this time to emphasise that this is a new beginning, the introduction of a new religion and a new mentality.

A short distance west of the Lughnasa site Binn Eachlabhra with its talking horse is another Lughnasa site — at Cill Náile — the Church of Náile — a saint also venerated at Inver in Donegal. His Feast is on 27 January, coinciding with the Celtic Feast of Imbolc. At Magauran Fair, then, Samhain and Bealtaine were celebrated at the same site and similarly at Cill Náile Imbolc and Lughnasa were celebrated. At these two sites one could celebrate the full complement of the four Celtic Feasts of the year by visiting them on the appropriate dates and performing the appropriate ritual.

Again, the ruins of St Mogue’s (MoAodhÓg) church are in St Mogue’s Island in Templeport Lake close to Darraugh Rath. While belonging to Breifne, he became Bishop of Ferns and was a dominant figure in the ecclesiastical life of the south-east. His feast-day is on 31 January coinciding with Imbolc.

Dalton’s map lists several Lughnasa sites: Binn Eachlabhra, Cill Náile, one near a bend on the Blackwater River, one near a bend on the Claddagh River and one at Scararoo.

The feastday of St Caillín of Fenagh Abbey is again on a strikingly significant date — 13 November — a Samhain date.

Dotted around this labyrintine landscape of lakes, islands, mountains, hills, woods are sites to which pilgrimages were made and at which rituals were performed at the four feasts of the Celtic Calendar embracing the cycle of the year. In terms of extent this is a small area of about 15 miles square but it contains numerous ritual sites. This may be due to the presence of Crom Cróich’s ritual centre sending its influence outwards towards the whole of Maigh Sléacht with the other lesser sites concentrating on the celebration of Lughnasa while the central site emphasised Samhain. This may not be the case, however, if it is taken into account that Lughnasa may be a later introduction and due to the defeat of Balor of the Evil Eye (probably Crom Cróich in another guise) by Lugh Lámhfhada at the Battle of Maigh Tuireadh.

Flowing near Darraugh Rath is the river Gráinne (Woodford River) which divided the ancient territory of Breifne into West Breifne ruled by Ó Ruairc and East Breifne ruled by Ó Raghlaigh, the two great dynastic families of that region. The County Coat of Arms shows two circles of wavy lines, symbolising the watery lake-filled terrain, surrounded by three lions. The two rampant lions are from the arms of Ó Raghlaigh while the lion passant is from the arms of Ó Ruairc. The motto ‘Feardhacht is Fírinne’ (Manliness and Truth) is associated with Ó Raghlaigh.

The definitive location of Crom Cróich, however, is difficult to ascertain due to the number of megalithic remains in this area of Killycluggin, Kilnavert and Lissanover near Ballymaguaran but near Kilnavert there is a hill called ‘Crom Cruaich’, so that, at any rate, we are in the vicinity of the sanctuary.

The recent writer Cary Meehan, in her magnificent book The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland (Gothic Image 2002), lays much stress on the Killycluggin Stone now in the County Museum in Ballyjamesduff and suggests that this may have been Crom Cróich himself. The injury to the top of the stone might correspond to the tradition of St Patrick hitting him on the head with his crozier.

This stone is a rounded boulder probably originally about five feet tall. It is elaborately decorated with spirals interconnected with La Tene style patterns, and resembles the Turoe Stone in Galway and the Castlestrange Stone in Roscommon. It stood at one time outside the Stone Circle in Killycluggin as a kind of outlier. The circle still exists though some of the stones have fallen, and trees grow around it making it a very impressive and mysterious site. A replica of the Killycluggin Stone stands at the side of the road so that it is readily accessible to visitors. Killycluggin is of Christian derivation being ‘Cill a’Chlogáin’ — the church of the little bell.

What is called in English the Woodford River flows past these sites associated with Crom Cróich. In the original Irish it bears the significant name of ‘Gráinne’ — a name familiar from the romance ‘Toraíocht Dhiarmada ages Gráinne’ in which Gráinne escapes from her intended husband Fionn Mac Cumhaill and elopes with the hero Diarmaid Ó Duibhne. The medieval romance, however, may hint that Gráinne, with her predilection for alternating husbands, was originally a goddess. The name is possibly associated with grain (grán) or ugliness (gránnacht). Its significance in this cultic context is that Gráinne the river is, like nearly all rivers in Ireland, feminine. Now, presumably like other gods such as An Daghdha’s marriage to the MórRíoghan at the River Uinnius as described in ‘Cath Maighe Tuireadh’ and likewise Lugh’s marriage to Baoi after his great victory over Balar of the Evil Eye (Crom Cróich in another guise) in the same battle, (cf Tochmarc Emire) it is reasonable to suppose that Crom the corn god also married a goddess.

This marriage could be expressed in different ways. The most obvious one is the custom of the ‘Cailleach’ or last sheaf of the harvest. This is a well-known usage in Ireland, England and Scotland and involved special attention to the very last sheaf in the last cornfield of the farm to be reaped.

It was felt that this was the grain goddess who was being evicted from her own domain so that a certain degree of reluctance accompanied the cutting of the last piece of corn in which she had been forced to take refuge. In some places the last piece of standing corn was bound in the middle and the mowers stood back and threw their sickles at it as if to avoid as far as possible personal responsibility for killing the goddess. The ‘Cailleach’ (old hag) was brought home and hung up in the house or sometimes buried in the land or sometimes the grains were taken off the straw and mixed with the seed-grain for next year’s harvest. In other words, the Cailleach joined the corn-god in marriage to ensure next year’s harvest.

In some places the last sheaf was called the ‘Bride’ /’Oats Bride’/’Wheat Bride’ and in parts of Germany the corn-spirit was personified in double form as an Oats-Bridegroom and an Oats-Bride, both swathed in straw like the ‘Strawboys’ in Ireland. They danced together at the harvest festival.

At the great Stone Circle at Grange, Co Limerick, within the Lough Gur megalithic complex stands a huge stone, much bigger than all the others, to the righthand side of the entrance passage. This was known as Rannach Chruim Dhuibh, otherwise ‘Ronadh Crom Dubh’ (MacNeill, 1982, 346; 594) The exact meaning of Rannach is unknown but in view of its connection with Crom Dubh / Crom Cruaich / Crom Cróich and the harvest, one wonders if it is connected with ‘rann’ — a part, a division, a portion — referring in this context to Crom’s Portion — of the offering of sheaves of corn or other goods to Crom at Samhain or Lughnasa. This immense stone could be the Offertory Table at which the people laid their sheaves of corn as an offering to Crom. Local tradition of the Lough Gur area associate it with Lughnasa celebrations, horse racing, and Crom Dubh or ‘Black Stoop’, bent (crom) down under the weight of corn he carried on his back. This echoes Cary Meehan’s description of the marriage of the harvest god with the corn-maiden in her discussion of the Killycluggin Stone at Maigh Sléacht:

This stone stood at one time outside the stone circle in Killycluggin and was decorated all over with gold. It represented the god Crom Cruach, or Crom Dubh who is the dark god, the ‘bent one’ who receives the ‘first fruits’ at Lughnasa or harvest in the form of the corn maiden, and carries her on his back down into his underground kingdom. This ritual or ‘sacrifice’ ensured the continuing fertility of the earth. The 11 stones of the nearby circle formed his court’ (2002, 75).

It may be remarked that the great father-god An Daghdha carries the goddess daughter of Indech of the Fomhóraigh on his back in the scurrilous account in Cath Maighe Tuireadh (Grey, 1982, Sect 93). In the matter of the worship of Crom Cróich / Crom Dubh we can distinguish two separate Feasts –

Lughnasa itself – Domhnach Chrom Dubh (c.1 August) or the last Sunday in July or the first Sunday of August. Perhaps the most spectacular expression of the Festival of Lughnasa remaining today is ‘Puck Fair’ in Killorglin, Co Kerry, lasting for three days at the beginning of August where a great white Puck Goat from the Kerry Mountains presides over the fair from a high platform. He represents Crom Dubh for this is the time of the first fruits of the harvest. The first of the corn is ripe and the rest will follow in due course. The festival atmosphere of the fair reminds Crom Dubh, as Lord of the Harvest, to continue the good work of ripening the rest of the corn. The Festival of Lughnasa serves as a first-fruits festival somewhat on the lines of the Jewish practice: ‘The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt say to them: When you shall have entered into the land which I will give you, and shall reap your corn, you shall bring sheaves of ears, the first fruits of your harvest, to the priest, who shall lift up the sheaf before the Lord’ (Leviticus 22:9-11). This tradition was preserved in the Pentecost Ember Days of the Tridentine Missale Romanum but, of course, the harvest in Italy would occur nearly two months earlier than in Ireland, in May rather than in August.

The Feast of Samhain (1 November) came at the end of the harvest, when the corná had been reaped and brought into the barns. This was the time of plenty and this was the time that taxes had to be paid to Crom Cróich/Dubh. Some cattle would also be killed but this may have been a practical necessity due to insufficient fodder to bring them through the winter. While Lughnasa and Samhain were the two pivotal points, the mystique of the corn involved the whole year as is evident from Cath Maighe Tuireadh:

‘Spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for maturing the strength of the grain, and the beginning of autumn for the full ripeness of the grain and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it’ (Grey, 1982, 157). The four Celtic Festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasa marked the beginning of the seasons.

Following this system, it is at Samhain that the Hieros Gamos or sacred marriage between the corn god and the corn goddess would take place. Nine months later, at Lughnasa, the ripened sheaf of corn would be placed on the sacred Lughnasa Hill – the belly of the earth goddess, the Great Mother.

Bringing the sheaves of corn, representing the earth-goddess, to the ‘Cromleac’ – Crom’s stone / flag – may have been symbolic of the sacred marriage of god and goddess. In Egypt, cultic images were often taken from their cloistered sanctuaries and carried in procession on portable boats for quite long journeys. The goddess Hathor of Dendera travelled over 100 miles each way to visit Horns of Edfu for the yearly consummation of their sacred marriage (Bell, 1998, 134).

Megalithic monuments often occupy a situation close to water whether a river, stream or lake. It is a phenomenon often remarked on by researchers, and local legends tell of stones going to the river or lake to bathe or drink at certain times. One wonders if here there is not a dim folk-memory of a megalith representing the god being taken to the local river or lake and doused in it as a symbolic mating of god and goddess of the harvest. Or, what is more likely to have happened, a bucket of water from the lake or river being thrown over the megalith — the meeting of stone and water symbolising the sacred marriage.

Frazer gives an account of the Egyptian custom of providing a ‘Bride of the Nile’. The life of Egypt was bound up with the annual flooding of the Nile which guaranteed the growth of corn and crops by which the population lived. The cutting of the dams and admission of the rising river was a great occasion occurring around the beginning of August in the Cairo area. At one of the canals a dam was built and behind it a an earthen figure, in which a little corn was sown, was raised up. This was the ‘Bride of the Nile’. The river rose steadily and then the dam burst. The Nile with one mighty sweep carried off his bride (1923, 370). He literally ‘swept her off her feet’.

Tradition states that at an earlier stage a young woman, beautifully arrayed, was thrown into the river as a sacrifice to ensure a proper inundation. This still carried the character of the sacred marriage — the Nile being male, the victim female.

A similar tradition is associated with the Sullan River in the West Cork region of Cúil Aodha and Baile Bhóirne. The Sullan, contrary to the ordinary condition of rivers in Irish, is masculine.

According to local belief, every seven years it can be heard murmuring: Is mise an Sullán fuar fada fireann; anois an t-am, cá bhfuil mo dhuine? (I am the cold, long masculine Sullan; now is the time, where is my victim?)

The Sullan expects someone to be drowned every seven years in exchange for all the fish he provides. Here it is unspecified if the victim is expected to be female.

In the other great megalithic complex of Lough Gur and Cnoc Áine in East Limerick, although a Lughnasa site in which horse-racing took place at Lughnasa, Crom is less prominent than Áine or Áine Chliach who dominates this area. She is associated with the lake in which, according to the local tradition, she has been seen standing combing her hair. While she was bathing in the lake Maurice Fitzgerald, the first Earl of Desmond, had sex with her and the fruit of their union was Gearóid Iarla Mac Gearailt the celebrated magician who now lives under this enchanted lake until Lá na Cinniúna, the day of destiny.

Every seven years, when the moon is full, he can be seen riding his white horse around the lake. The white horse has silver shoes and when these are worn out this will be the day of destiny. Then Gearóid Iarla, along with his Norman Knights, will awake from their enchanted sleep, rise up out of the lake and set Ireland free. This piece of Gaelic eschatology resembles that of Arthur of Wales — the once and future king — who will return again from the mystic land of Avalon when his people have need of him.

This late medieval tradition may be an echo or a retelling of the earlier recorded mating of Áine and Ailill Olom son of Eoghan Mór of the Eoghanacht dynasty of Munster. This was the Bainis Rí — the sacred marriage of the king to the goddess of the territory to ensure the fertility of the land and the legitimacy of their kingship. This idea of legitimacy may have been in the minds of the Normans as they moved into the area, and marriage to Áine linked them to the most archaic traditions of the Celtic peoples.

The Bainis Rí, however, was the marriage of a human king to a supernatural goddess. But we may push this further back and ask if at an earlier time the union was between two supernaturals — between a god and a goddess as in the case of An Daghdha and the MórRíon, Lugh and Baoi, Neachtan and Bóinn, Aonghus Óg and Caer, Midhir and Éadaoin.

In the archaic tradition of the sacral kingship a human king was symbolically married to the local goddess to ensure the fertility of the land and the prosperity of the kingdom. This Bainis Rí — wedding of the king — was not concerned with the queen — the king’s human wife —but with the otherworldly goddess — a Bean Sí or woman of the supernatural hollow hills (Cnoc na Sí) of the divine race of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Thus, in the kingship the divine and human were united — the human king was the consort of the divine goddess. On this union of human and divine rested the prosperity of the land. The idea of the goddess handing over the territory temporarily to the king finds its expression in the story of the adventure of the five sons of Eochaidh Muigmedóin (Eachtra Mac Eachagh Muigmedóin). In the story, the five sons are out hunting and at the end they are very thirsty. One son goes off in search of water and arrives at a well guarded by a cailleach or ugly old woman who demands a kiss in exchange for a bucket of water. He refuses and goes off empty-handed. The same occurs in the case of three others. The last, Niall, has no hesitation in kissing the old woman and immediately she is transformed into the most beautiful woman in the world. She gives him the water saying ‘Mise an Fhlaith’—’l am the kingdom’. In giving him the water she was giving him herself — the sovereignty. It is thought that a pun or play on words is involved in this ritual of royal inauguration for Laith is ‘liquid’ — water, mead, wine — and Flaith is ‘kingdom / sovereignty’. When the goddess handed over the ‘Laith’ to the candidate for kingship she handed over the ‘Flaith’— the kingdom itself. This incredibly archaic rite may have its origins in Sumer (modern Iraq) between the two rivers where civilisation began. Here, the king mated with the goddess at the beginning of the new year. Travellers could have transported the rite to the Celts of the Danubian region who eventually brought it to Ireland.

In contrast to our secularised governments of today, depending on human wisdom and resources exclusively, this ancient system presents a mystique in which the human and divine are mingled and the earthly ruler seen as the cohort of a divine woman.

The hill of Shantemon, three miles north-east of Cavan town, is said to be the site of inauguration of the O’Reilly kings. And so the landscape speaks of gods and goddesses, of the spirits of the land, of ancestor cults, ancient dynasties and mystical modes of thought. This quiet uncluttered countryside of lakes, trees, hills, mountains and plains and monumental relics of the past invites us to enter into an alternative experience of reality.

The profusion of megalithic monuments in Breifne suggest that it had been populated by a numerous population from the earliest times, while invaders from Europe at a later era may have found the profusion of lakes convenient for the building of defensive crannóga or lake-dwellings with which they were familiar.

It is difficult to know if Crom Cróich was a Celtic god imported by the invaders, or if he, as it were, grew from the native soil. If Maigh Sléacht were indeed a place of pilgrimage for the kings of Tara, this would indeed give the area considerable prestige as a national shrine.

If Crom Cróich of Maigh Sléacht is the equivalent of Crom Dubh as is generally agreed, then we have, as it were, the original source of the great Festival of Lughnasa which Máire MacNeill has shown to be so widespread throughout the country. In forms such as Puck Fair, dancing on Cnoc Fírinne (near Croom, Co Limerick), various fairs, and Christian pilgrimages such as those to Croagh Patrick, Lough Dearg and Cnoc Bhréanainn, lasts on to our own day. However, the cult of Crom Cróich in its original form of prostrations and offerings to him at Samhain — the end of the agricultural year — may have been modified by the defeat of Crom Cróich, alias Crom Dubh, alias Breas, alias Balar of the Evil Eye by the great generous god Lugh Lámhfhada. It is likely that the two gods united in their responsibility for the production of the corn, it being recognised that Crom / Balar / Breas and the dark underworld gods of the Fomhóraigh had a greater competence in agricultural matters than Lugh and the gods of light — the Tuatha De Danann. After his defeat by Lugh, the stingy god Crom/ Breas / Balar, who demanded exorbitant taxes in grain and livestock, was still left in charge of the harvest though he was under the supervision of the generous Lugh and the Tuatha Dé Danann. It is probably Crom, who in the form of King Puck, still presides over the great harvest fair of Killorglin. At Cappawhite in Co Tipperary, it was a white horse draped in white that, from a fort, presided over the fair of Lughnasa (MacNeill, 1982, 292). Traditions speak of a head on a hill, and it may be, that at least in some places, a stone head representing Crom was taken from its place of storage and placed on top of the Lughnasa Hill for the duration of the festival, looking out propitiously on the ripening corn in the surrounding fields.

In a local church in Cloughane, Co Kerry, a stone head said to represent Crom Dubh was preserved and kissed to cure toothache. It was stolen some years ago and never recovered. One wonders if in former times this head presided over the Festival of Lughnasa which was a great occasion of games, dancing, singing, courting, faction fighting and feasting at Clochán (MacNéill, 982,104). The same might be surmised for the three-faced stone head of Corlech Hill in Cavan, now in the National Museum in Dublin with an excellent replica in the museum in Ballyjamesduff. Crom was connected, then, to two great festivals of the Celtic calendar — Lughnasa and Samhain — the beginning and end of the corn harvest, and when one considers the place corn holds in human sustenance one can readily understand the significance of what was said of Crom Croich in the Dinnseanchas: ‘He was the god of every folk that colonised Ireland.’ The complicated arrangement of two festivals commemorating the same god seems to lie in the fact of Lugh’s intervention to defeat Crom Cróich under his alternative guise as Balar of the Evil Eye at the Battle of Maigh Tuireadh. At a later stage, during the process of Christianisation, St Patrick takes the place of Lugh and in a series of encounters defeats the pagan Crom and in some accounts actually succeeds in converting him to Christianity. This explains the system by which some Lughnasa sites became sites of Christian pilgrimage.

We might reflect for a moment on the nature of the two religions which occupied successively the same sites on certain cases such as Croagh Patrick, Mount Brandon, St Brigid’s Well, Liscannor, Co Clare and many others — a pattern well-known from the number of Protestant Cathedrals and churches which once belonged to Catholics.

Indeed, the instances of a later religion taking over the sacred sanctuaries of an earlier one is instanced in one of our most famous monuments, Brú na Bóinne, Newgrange, constructed about 3000 BC by the Megalithic People and later peopled by the much later Celtic deities, the Tuatha Dé Danann. In the ancient literature An Daghdha, Ealcmar, Aonghus Óg, Bóinn, Midhir, Éadaoin, Manannán Mac Lir, Eithne, Fionnbhar and Curcóg wander around Brú na Bóinne confidently as if the place had always been theirs.

The liturgy of Crom Cróich, according to the Dinnseanchas, was simple, consisting of prostrations and offerings even if these took on a very extreme form. The purpose of this was to obtain milk and corn (Blicht is ith uaid nochuingitis for rith dar cend trip a Botha slain). It was theologically recognised that Crom was a harvest god who had control over the produce of the earth and that without his goodwill the corn might not ripen and people would die of hunger. Even the Christians believed that the stone statue was inhabited by a demon. St Patrick expelled him and commanded him to descend into the abyss: ‘The demon, indeed, who had lurked for a long time in the idol and deluded men, came forth at St Patrick’s command. When the people saw him they were afraid, and asked St Patrick to command the horrible monster to leave their presence … St Patrick ordered him to depart into the abyss. Then all the peoples gave thanks to Almighty God who deigned to deliver them through St Patrick from the power of darkness’ (Colgan’s Quarto Vita).

Here St Patrick is shown performing an exorcism in which he drives out a demon — not from a person but from a megalith. The idea of a stone taking on the form of a man is found in the fourteenth-centurystory Forbhas Droma Dámhgháire (The Siege of Knocklong) from the Book of Lismore, in which the warrior Colpa thinks he is attacking his opponent Ceann Mór and spilling his blood while all the time it is a stone he is striking. While all this is going on, the real Ceann Mór is safe and sound under the appearance of another stone. Similarly, at the end of the same story Mogh Roith, the great druid of Munster, turns the three druids of Cormac Mac Airt into stones: ‘Maidir le Crotha, Ceacht agus Cith Rua ón Maigh — draoithe de shíol Chonn Cheadchathaigh — rinne me cruachlocha díobh i Maigh Roighne rua. Beidh na leaca sin ann go brách mar chuimhne ar an eachtra — cúis náire do Leath Choinn. Beidh an t-ainm Leaca Roighne orthu go deo na ndeor’ (Ó Duinn, 1992, 106) (As regards Crotha, Céacht and Cith Rua from Maigh — druids of the seed of Conn of the Hundred Battles — I made hard stones of them in red Maigh Roighne. The stones will be there for ever in memory of the event — a source of shame for the northern half of Ireland and they will be called ‘Leaca Roighne’ until the end of time.)

The distinction between these stones and a statue is quite clear. A statue of a famous soldier or statesman is carved to resemble that person but in no way is it believed that that person — who may be dead and gone for centuries – is actually inhabiting the statue. The statue is a reminder of the person who once was – even though it may inspire strong memories, as when Nelson’s Pillar was blown up in Dublin.

The case of ritual megaliths, however, is quite different. In the ordinary stone circle the standing stones are not carved to resemble persons human or divine, though indeed, as seems to be the case in the great stone avenue in Avebury in England, gender was sometimes indicated – long stones alternating with diamond (lozenge) shaped stones to indicate male and female.

There is the folk-tradition of the stones going to a nearby lake or river on certain occasions to bathe or drink. Perhaps a variation of this idea was the custom in Navarre in times of drought of taking the statue of St Peter from the church and at the end of a great procession plunging him into a river three times as a reminder that rain was needed (Frazer, 1923, 77).

Then there is the folkloric explanation of stone circles. The orthostats were young people turned into`stone by an angry God for dancing on the Sabbath Day, and the outlying megalith outside the circle was the piper who played for them. While this ‘explanation’ is probably a product of Puritan England, behind it may lie an idea of ‘inhabited stones’ going back to a very remote period. Were the great Ancestors incarnated or ‘instoned’ in the megaliths at least on certain significant calendrical dates on which they made contact with the people? One can readily visualise a ritual meeting of the tribe at a stone circle at a specific sacred time to invoke the help and inspiration of the blessed ancestors who from their position of power in the Otherworld could assist the living by guaranteeing health and prosperity and the fertility of the land. Perhaps no scholar has described the part played by the Ancestors among ancient agricultural societies as vividly as the great Egyptologist, R. T. Rundle Clark:

The early agricultural peoples combined fertility rites with the cult of the dead. They were, in fact, two aspects of one religion – expressions of the hopes and anxieties of the community. The world seemed full of power, everywhere would be found signs of the life-force, manifest in all living creatures, both animal and vegetable – in the heavens, in the waters and in the mysterious events of disease, death and decay. These forces could be temporarily localised in some person or place but ancient men were not sufficiently self-conscious to think of them as residing in individuals as such. The community was not merely composed of the living but of the ancestors as well. Life on earth was a temporary exile from the true undifferentiated group – life somewhere beyond. The ancestors, the custodians of the source of life, were the reservoir of power and vitality, the source whence flowed all the forces of vigour, sustenance and growth. Hence they were not only departed souls but still active, the keepers of life and fortune. Whatever happened, whether good or evil, ultimately derived from them. The sprouting of the corn, the increase of the herds, potency in men, success in hunting or war, were all manifestations of their power and approval. Hence the place where the ancestors dwelt was the most holy spot in the world. From it flowed the well-being of the group. Without the tomb or the cemetery, life on earth would be miserable, perhaps impossible.

The ancestors were not particularised. They were a collective concept without individual names. To the ancient Persians they were the Fravashis. The Romans had their Manes, the Chinese their Tzu’s. The Egyptian knew them as’the Souls’, the ‘Glorious Ones’ or ‘the Gods’, but chiefly as ‘the Ka’s‘ (1959 / 1991,119-120).

This powerful analysis of the basic tenets of ancient religion answers questions left unanswered by archeological excavations. The reports published by careful archeologists give details of the length, breath, height, circumference, date of an early monument with great detail and precision. On visits to important sites visitors are made aware of the period of construction, period of use, sources of the stones used, how many man-hours required to build the monument and so forth and this information, arrived at after much careful investigation demanding great patience and dedication, is of great importance and interest. This scholarly research is the basis from which universal principles can be established.

The average visitor to a sacred site such as a megalithic tomb or a stone circle will ask questions such as: ‘What did the people do here?’; ‘Why did they go to so much trouble dragging these huge stones here from a distance and lifting them without modern machinery?’

These are the difficult questions. It is easier to measure the diameter of a stone circle than to enter into the mind of prehistoric man. Since few artifacts such as pins, brooches, knives, pots are found at stone circles it is generally concluded that they were not used as domestic sites in which people lived and worked. They are often described as being of ‘ritual use’ or used for ‘ritual purposes’. These phrases, however, are rather vague and leave the visitor unsatisfied.

Rundle Clark’s religious analysis goes far beyond Egypt and it is quite extraordinary that so many of the same ideas and practices are found in parts of the ancient world separated by enormous time and space spans. This strange phenomenon gives rise to the persistent question if this is due to diffusion from a common centre or does it spring from a basic unity in the human psyche which reacts in the same way to fundamental drives and mindsets. Megaliths are found over vast areas of the world. ‘In 1872, the British traveller Fergusson revealed that he had seen megaliths not only throughout Europe but also in Algeria, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Palestine, the Caucasus, Baluchistan, Kashmir, and India. After this came reports from almost all over the world, referring to every possible period. What could connect a megalithic tomb built in Ireland in 3000 (BC) with another from the eighteenth century (AD) in Madagascar?’ (Mohen, 1990, 5).

Rundle Clark’s analysis goes a long way towards explaining the purpose of these archaic megalithic monuments.

Even though some of them may contain graves they were not merely tombs — as a Cathedral may contain the graves of former bishops but is by no means merely an episcopal cemetery — they were above all sanctuaries or shrines where the living encountered the deified ancestors.

The ancestors had power to bring health, prosperity and fertility to the local community and these shrines were the places in which such help was sought. Here the tribe would gather and indeed pilgrims from a considerable distance may have come, as King Tigernmas and King Laoghaire are said to have come to Maigh Sléacht from Tara — a considerable distance even today. The motives for undertaking a pilgrimage to such a sacred site would vary with the needs of the pilgrim and probably differed little from those of the modern Catholic pilgrim to Lourdes or to Santiago de Compostela — they would include the basic things of life such as health, security, prosperity. Máire MacNéill has argued that the religious importance of Croagh Patrick has its origins in the Celtic festival of Lughnasa and the local tradition supports the Lughnasa period (around beginning of August) as being the primary time to perform the pilgrimage, particularly on Aoine Chrom Dubh (Crom Dubh’s Friday) — probably the last Friday in July.

The Archeologist Chris Corlett, following on the footsteps of Máire MacNéill, remarks on the highly impressive appearance of Croagh Patrick — Ireland’s most sacred mountain with its commanding view of the local landscape. It may, in prehistoric times have been viewed as a great guardian presence — a MáthairShliabh or mother-mountain as in the case of Sliabh Eibhlinne in Co Tipperary, or as the twin hills Dhá Chíoch Anann (the Paps) on the border of Cork and Kerry. Ana, according to the great 10th century scholar Cormac Mac Cuilleannáin, was the mother of the gods of Ireland. She gave her name to the Irish Pantheon the Tuatha Dé Danann (Peoples of the goddess Ana).

Standing stones, mounds and rock art are found in the vicinity of Croagh Patrick. At Killadangan the stone row is aligned to the setting sun at the Winter Solstice, 21 December, the day on which its beam reaches into the recesses of Newgrange at its rising. Standing stones and local traditions suggest that the present Tochar Phádraig — the pilgrim path to The Reek — is a continuation of a pre-Christian pilgrim path (‘Prehistoric Pilgrimage to Croach Patrick’, Archeology Ireland Vol 11, No 2, Summer 1997, 8-11). All of this suggests that the present Christian pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick at the Lughnasa period is a direct successor of a pre-Christian pilgrimage to the same place at the same time, and what a wonderful experience this is for the modern pilgrim to feel that he is continuing a tradition going back countless ages and forming a link with all those people who have climbed the sacred mountain throughout the centuries.

Now, apart from the question of time, place and the actual physical climbing of the mountain, is it possible to see any link with the pre-Christian pilgrimage in terms of ideas?

In general, the present-day Christian pilgrim to Croagh Patrick will have such motives as prayer for the success of his life, penance for his sins, compensation for past negligence, participation in an ancient religious tradition, a demonstration of a certain heroism demanded by such an exhausting and difficult exercise, and so forth. This extraordinarily difficult undertaking is certainly a challenge to the individual as in the case of other pilgrimages. On his return he will feel that he has accomplished a heroic and worthwhile undertaking. The shell which pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela brought back with them was often found in their graves, showing that they regarded the pilgrimage as a major event in their lives and wanted to bring it into the Otherworld with them.

According to Chris Corlett, local tradition speaks of a road leading from Tara and Cruachán, the royal seat of Connacht, to Croagh Patrick intimating that this was a pilgrimage place visited by royal patrons even in pre-Christian times.

Some hesitation is experienced when dealing with oral traditions of this kind. Nevertheless, it is well to remember the case of the entrance of the rising sun into Newgrange at the Winter Solstice. Before this extraordinary phenomenon was discovered by Professor O’Kelly, it was known to the local people that at some time of the year the sun entered the tomb. They didn’t know when it was, but given the orientation of the monument it was easy to surmise that the tradition referred to the rising sun in the east at the Winter Solstice. And so it proved to be making Brú na Bóinne one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world. To the credit of Professor O’Kelly he put the local oral tradition to the test. In her Illustrated Guide to Newgrange, his wife, Claire O’Kelly, has this to say: ‘Witnessing this phenomenon for myself has caused me to remember that I dismissed as an “old wives’ tale” a tradition current many years ago to the effect that at a certain time of the year the sun lit up the 3-spiral figure in the end-chamber’ (1971,94-95).

In the case of Croagh Patrick, then, the pointers are towards a great Lughnasa pilgrimage site in pre-Christian times, continued in Christianised form to modern times.

The question remains, however, as to why people undertook such a demanding exercise. One can understand a great and ambitious athlete setting out to perform a prodigious task and so acquire universal fame but in this case large numbers of ordinary people are involved today who do not consider themselves to be particularly heroic and in pre-Christian times it was probably no different. When the archeological facts are listed and itemised, the question always seems to remain – why?

Why is Cruach Phádraig a place of pilgrimage for pagans and Christians?

I think that the myth behind the ritual is the ancient story of the war of the gods, Cath Maighe Tuireadh na bhFomhórach, and that this story tells us why people climb the mountain at Lughnasa.

Maigh Tuireadh is an elevated plain north of Lough Arrow in Co Sligo, an area dotted with prehistoric monuments and is regarded as the setting for the celebrated battle between two groups of deities, the Tuatha Dé Danann, the bright gods of prosperity, and the Fomhóraigh, the dark gods of the ocean depths and the northern lands of the world. It must be remembered, of course, that this was a supernatural battle between two different groups of divinities, but a human geographical setting is chosen for the battle so that the story can be told in human categories.

According to the story, the Tuatha Dé Danann are being terrorised by the tyrannical and stingy Fomhóraigh who limit the food rations of the Tuatha Dé Danann chiefs and demand exorbitant taxes. Like Maigh Sléacht, the people have to leave their offerings of corn at Maigh nItha – the plain of corn. At one point the Fomhóraigh had planned to put a chain around the island of Ireland, attach a fleet of ships to the chain and drag Ireland northwards close to the Scandinavian lands where they could keep a closer watch on the Irish. In this, however, they never actually succeeded.

The god Breas had a Tuatha Dé Danann mother, Eri, and a Fomhórach father, Ealatha. It was hoped that by electing Breas King of the Tuatha Dé Danann that he would bring peace and reconciliation to the two parties. This, however, was not the case. The Fomhórach half of his nature asserted itself and he proved to be a tyrant and oppressor. The file (poet) Cairbre subjected him to satire on account of his stinginess. Visitors to the king’s house came away without the smell of beer from their mouths nor the grease of meat on their knives. After this denunciation Breas appealed to the Fomhóraigh for help.

After due negotiations, the Fomhóraigh agreed to make war on the Tuatha Dé Danann and proceeded to assemble a massive army with a great fleet of ships. Their leader was to be the formidable Balar Balcéimneach or Balar of the Evil Eye. He had a destructive poisonous fiery eye which normally had to be kept covered for it destroyed whatever it looked upon. Folklore describes its setting fire to drying up pools of water and setting trees on fire. Balar had acquired this baleful eye through looking through a window while his father was preparing a magic brew. The venom from the brew entered his eye making it an instrument of mass-destruction.

While the Fomhóraigh are amassing their army, the Tuatha Dé Danann are also preparing for battle. The great god Lugh Lámhfhada is appointed war-leader. A year is spent in organising the battle. Lugh summons those experts who will play a major part in the battle and discusses the procedures to be followed. The druids of Ireland are summoned, with their physicians, charioteers, smiths, wealthy landowners and lawyers. The magician Mathgen agreed to shake the 12 great mountains of Ireland to inspire fear on the Fomhóraigh. The cupbearer announced that he would dry up the 12 great lakes of Ireland against the Fomhóraigh in their thirst. The druid Figol will cause three showers of fire to fall on the Fomhóraigh and An Daghdha says that he himself will do everything already mentioned by the others.

Finally all is ready and the two armies assemble for battle on Maigh Tuireadh at Samhain. It has been arranged beforehand that Goibniu, Luchta and Credne will repair the weapons of the Tuatha Dé Danann so that they are always sharp and effective. The physician Dian Ucht, his sons Ochtriúil and Miach and his daughter Airmedh have a magic well full of herbs called ‘Tobar Sláine’. They chant spells over this, and those of the Tuatha Dé Danann who have fallen in battle are submerged in the well and come out as good as new. Lugh urged on the Tuatha Dé Danann to battle fiercely as it was better for them to die than to be in bondage to the Fomhóraigh and subject to tribute. He chanted a spell going around the army on one foot with one eye closed.

The breaking point of the battle came when Balar of the Evil Eye arrived. The lid was lifted up so that the baleful eye was exposed. But Lugh was ready and waiting for this development. In his sling was a stone. He whirled the sling with a mighty power. With deadly accurate aim, the shot went through Balar’s head carrying the baleful eye with it out the back of his head. The venom spread to Balar’s own troops and this was the beginning of the end for the Fomhóraigh. They were driven back to the sea and their tyranny curbed for ever. The MórRíon in the form of the Badhbh or crow of battle flew around the country announcing the great victory of Lugh and the Tuatha Dé Danann over the Fomhóraigh. A new era of prosperity had begun with the triumph of the generous god Lugh over the stingy god Breas and the destructive Balar. Breas, however, was allowed to live as he had knowledge of the mysteries of agriculture. Breas may be seen as Balar under a different aspect along with Crom Cróich / Crom Dubh and all associated with corn.

A great victory march took place then, from the battlefield of Maigh Tuireadh to Tailteann (Sliabh na Caillí, in Co Meath) and there the Bainis Rí takes place — the wedding of the new king Lugh with Boi the goddess of the land. It is thought that Loughcrew — the great megalithic cemetery, Sliabh na Caillí — may be named after her — ‘Loch Chnoc / Chroc Boi’.

The fruit of this sacred marriage is seen at Lughnasa, in August, as the corn turns golden as it ripens. A sheaf of ripened corn is brought by the farmer to the summit of the Lughnasa hill and left there as an offering to the harvest god Crom, and at the same time an acknowledgement to Lugh to the effect that Lugh is ultimately in charge and that Crom is not allowed to take liberties with the distribution of the harvest.

Lughnasa is a ‘First-Fruits’ festival, not a ‘Harvest Thanksgiving’ for this is the beginning of the harvest, not the end. The god is urged to keep the sun shining and the weather mild to ripen the remainder of the wheat, oats and barley.

And so, the Battle of Maigh Tuireadh, in which the Tuatha Dé Danann led by Lugh Lámhfhada, won a signal victory over the dark Fomhórach gods led by Balar of the Evil Eye (Crom) leaves its mark on the Irish countryside century after century as people take to the hills at Lughnasa to commemorate the great victory by which corn — the staff of life — becomes available to them through the benevolence of supernatural forces.

The myth of Lugh the sun/sky god subjugating Crom the earth / underworld god may have been expressed in some remarkable sculptures to be found in parts of Europe. According to Miranda Green: ‘The most common form in which the Celtic sky-god appears as a warrior is on horseback. He is in the guise of a Roman general, driving his horse at a gallop over a hybrid creature, half man, half serpent, with a human head and torso but whose legs are in the form of snakes’ (1992, 124). The Jupiter-Giant column of Neschers shows the giant with his large head and snake legs crouching down as the horse’s front legs rest on this head and shoulders as he is driven into the earth (Green, 1992, Fig 53, 127).

The giant under the rider is iconographically very interesting: its snake-limbs endow the being with a chtonic, earth-linked imagery. The portrayal of an uncouth, earthbound strength is frequently suggested by the massive head and shoulders, braced against the sky-horseman’s weight; and the strained, aghast expression of its face demonstrates how intolerable was its burden …. We can see this at Koln, on a third-century group, where the giant consists merely of a hunched head and two snakes’ (Green, 1992, 128).

While the sculptures portray the dominance of the sky-god, nevertheless the earth/ underworld god has a part to play, for his domain is the earth with its mysterious powers of fertility without which the human race would cease to be. The distinctive virtues of sky and earth must work together in harmony to achieve the welfare of mankind and this harmony was symbolised in Celtic terms by the justice of the reigning kind — the Fir Flatha. If the king observed the four conditions — observance of the geasa or taboos that bound him, freedom from any physical defect, féile or royal generosity and fir flatha, strict integrity, freedom from corruption, justice in all his ways — harmony would prevail and there would be peace and prosperity in the land. Thus the role of the king was to ensure cosmic harmony. Indeed, the king carried a monumental responsibility and it must have been a heavy burden for a frail human being with all the doubts, weaknesses and faults to which we are prone, to be the consort of a divine woman.

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