Celtic Tales: Deirdre of the Sorrows

The story of Deirdre originates from the Ulster Cycle, a group of legends and tales dealing with the heroic age of the Ulaids, a people of northeast Ireland from whom the modern name Ulster derives. The stories, set in the 1st century BC, were recorded from oral tradition between the 8th and 11th century and are preserved in the 12th-century manuscripts The Book of the Dun Cow(c. 1100) and The Book of Leinster(c. 1160) and also in later compilations, such as The Yellow Book of Lecan (14th century). Below is a short version of the tale. A longer version can be found at this link.

A girl-child was born to Siobha on the night of a full moon. Her proud father, Feidhlim cradled her gently in his arms and named her Deirdre. He took her to the druids and asked them to foretell his infant’s future. The druids looked towards the stars and glanced sadly at the newborn. “What do you see?” Feidhlim asked the druids anxiously. They answered “This child will cause great trouble. She will grow up to be the most beautiful woman in Ulster but she will cause the death of many of our men.” When the Red Branch Knights heard the druid’s prognosis, they were uneasy and wanted the child immediately killed. They journeyed to the King and urged him to take action. King Connor was reluctant to deny the child’s life and came up with a plan. “Deirdre will be reared far away from here and when she comes of age, I will make her my bride.” This was deemed a satisfactory solution and King Connor set about finding an appropriate guardian for the child. He sent her deep into the forest to stay with a wise woman, a witch named Leabharcham, who would care for and teach her.

As foretold by the druids, Deirdre grew to be a beautiful, though lonely young woman. One night Leabharcham discovered she had been sleepwalking and watched over her for the remainder of the night. When she awoke in the morning, Deirdre told Leabharcham of a dark-haired warrior who had been in her dreams for a month. “He is tall and handsome with raven-black hair. His skin is snow-white and he is fearless in battle.” Leabharcham recognised Naoise, one of the sons of Uisneach from this description and her brow furrowed with worry. “He is Naoise, one of the sons of Uisneach, but you must not mention your dream to a soul. You are to be married to King Connor very soon.” Deirdre begged Leabharcham to send for Naoise so that she might meet the man of her dreams. Leabharcham refused at first, but seeing how unhappy Deirdre was, she quickly relented. Deirdre and Naoise met and fell in love at once. “I cannot marry Connor now” Deirdre said, “we must flee Ulster straight away.” They set off and travelled all over Ireland but no one would help them, fearing the wrath of King Connor. Finally, they set sail and settled on an island off the coast of Scotland.

They lived happily on the island for five years until one autumn evening, a messenger arrived from the King. The messenger conveyed King Connor’s forgiveness and asked Deirdre and Naoise to return home. Deirdre didn’t trust the King and wanted to stay on the island but Naoise believed the news and began to prepare for the journey home. They set off shortly afterwards but Deirdre had a sense of foreboding and begged him to turn back. Naoise reasoned with her, promising that everything would be fine. When they arrived, they were sent to the fortress of the Red Branch Knights instead of directly to the castle and Deirdre was convinced they were walking into a trap. No sooner had they entered the fortress than they were surrounded. Naoise and his brothers fought bravely but they were outnumbered. They were captured and brought before the King. “Who will kill these traitors for me?” asked the King. None of the Red Branch Knights would kill a fellow knight. Suddenly an unknown warrior from another kingdom stepped forward and cut the heads off Naoise and his brothers with a single sweep of his sword. So great was Deirdre’s sorrow that her heart broke and she fell upon Naoise’s body joining him in death. Deirdre’s father left Ulster for Connaught and joined Queen Maeve in many bloody battles against the Red Branch Knights. Deirdre had brought sorrow and trouble to Ulster just as the druids foretold.


The Irish Triads

The Irish Triads are triple wisdom sayings that relate lessons of how to live a life of goodness in wisdom, prosperity and happiness. There are many ancient Irish and Welsh triads, a number of which have been Christianized or glossed-over with Christian imagery. Below are examples of triads that appear to have escaped the tamperings of Christian scribes.

  • Concerning three things that hide: an open bag hides nothing, an open door hides little, an open person hides something.

  • Three errors not acknowledged: fear of an enemy, torment of love, and a jealous persons’ evil suspicion of their mate.

  • Three possessions we value most take away pride from us: our money, our time, and our conscience.

  • Three things by nature cause their possessor to err: youth, prosperity, and ignorance.

  • Three things resemble each other: a bright sword which rusts from long staying in the scabbard, bright water which stinks from long standing, and wisdom which is dead from long disuse.

  • Three things not easy to check: the stream of a cataract, an arrow from a bow, and a rash tongue.

  • Three things hard to catch: a stag on the mountain, a fox in the wood, and the coin of the miserly scrooge.

  • There are three things each very like the other: an old blind horse playing the harp with his hoofs, a pig in a silk dress, and a merciless person prating about piety.

  • Three things as good as the best: bread and milk against hunger, a white coat against the cold, and a yeoman’s son in a breach.

  • Three sweet things in the world: power, prosperity, and error in action.

  • There are three things which move together as quickly the one as the other: lightning , thought , and the help of the Mighty Ones.

  • Three things not loved without each one it’s companion: day without night, idleness without hunger, and wisdom without reverence.

  • There are three whose full reward can never be given to them: parents, a good teacher, and the Mighty Ones.

From Trioedd Ynys Prydein: (The Triads of the Island of Britain).

In the House of Blackthorn, students learn to write their own triads, which can be used as an incantation or part of a magical working. New classes begin September 2019. To schedule an interview, contact houseofblackthorn@yahoo.com.


Brigid and the Festival of Imbolc

Brigid is both Goddess and Saint.

Brigid is often described as a Celtic goddess of fire, smithcraft and poetry, but she is so much more. She is a goddess of the hearth and healing, with a triple aspect. Worship of Brigid was so widespread and ingrained within Celtic culture that when Christianity tried to wipe out paganism in Ireland, they could not eliminate Brigid, so they transformed her into a “saint”. She became St. Brigid. The Goddess Brigid and Saint Brigid are one and the same. Her name is also spelled “Bride”, “Brighid” and sometimes “Brigantia” or “Bridget”. There is no definitive answer regarding the pronunciation. Most pronounce her name as “bridge-id” or “breed”. Some Celtic lore indicates that Brigid is a daughter of the Morrigan. Brigid is usually honored on February 1st or 2nd, at the festival of Imbolc, with many lit candles and rituals welcoming the return of the light. Candlemas is the Christianized version of the ancient pagan holiday.

The many customs of Imbolc speak to how beloved Brigid is and how warmly she is welcomed. Offerings if milk, butter, bread and beer sustain her on her journeying…Brigid’s crosses are made, their sun-wheel shape symbolizing the increasing strength of the light. Another custom evokes the tradition of sacred hospitality and invites Brigid to come and take her rest within the shelter of the home. A symbolic bed is lovingly prepared for her in a basket, and a doll dressed in pure white is made and tucked in for the night”. Lunaea Weatherstone, Tending Brigid’s Flame.

Those who follow Brigid faithfully are known as Flamekeepers, keeping alive an old tradition of the Brigidine Sisters tending the holy flame at the monastery of Brigid at Kildare. Ord Brighidach International is a Brigidine Order of Flamekeepers founded in 2005. The order has 700 flamekeepers worldwide, each of whom vows to faithfully tend a flame in Brigid’s name for a daylong shift. You can join the Order at http://www.ordbrighideach.org. It is open to everyone.

Brigid’s Cross.

On or around the 1st of February in the northern hemisphere and 1st of August in the southern, Imbolc is often seen as the first of three Spring festivals. Imbolc is correctly pro-nounced “Im-Olc”. The B is silent. It is hard sometimes to think of Spring in what feels like the depths of Winter. But if we look at the ground we can see the first shoots of green beginning to reach towards the Sun. Imbolc can be celebrated on either the 1st or 2nd February, or more naturally when the Snowdrops cover the ground. This is the seasonal change where the first signs of spring and the return of the sun are noted, the first sprouting of leaves, the sprouting of the Crocus flowers. In other words, it is the festival commemorating the successful passing of winter and the beginning of the agricultural year. It is also a day of celebrating the Celtic Goddess Brigid. Brigid is the Goddess of Poetry, Healing, Smithcraft, and Midwifery. This is a time for communing with her, and tending the lighting of her sacred flame. Imbolc celebrations are held by some pagan communities on February 1st in the northern hemisphere, to observe the astronomical midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is named after an Irish word originally thought to mean “in the belly” – although it can also be translated as “ewe’s milk”. The day is referenced in some of the earliest Irish literature, an indication of its significance throughout Gaelic history. It is believed that Imbolc was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid, considered goddess of fire and the arrival of early spring in Celtic mythology. Imbolc was one of the cornerstones of the Celtic calendar. For them the success of the new farming season was of great importance. As winter stores of food were getting low, Imbolc rituals were performed to harness divine energy that would ensure a steady supply of food until the harvest six months later. The lighting of fires celebrated the increasing power of the sun over the coming months. For the Christian calendar, the holiday was reformed and renamed Candlemas – where candles are lit to remember the “purification of the Virgin Mary”. Imbolc is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. It is believed that it was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid and that it was Christianized as a festival of Saint Brigid, who is thought to be a Christianized version of the goddess. There is some debate about what came first, Imbolc or Candlemas, however, the date of Imbolc is thought to have been significant in Ireland since the Neolithic period A celebration of hearth and home and the sign of longer days to come, traditional customs included hosting special feasts, visiting holy wells and practicing divination. Brigid crosses were also made and hung over doorways and hearths to invoke her protection. Another tradition of Imbolc was weather divination, and the ancient tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers emerged from their winter dens – which is thought to be the origin of the American tradition, Groundhog Day.

Blackthorn Druid Witches honor Brigid at Imbolc by making their own Brigid Crosses, invoking her protection with a special incantation, and giving an offering of ale and milk.

The Sacred Mistletoe

Mistletoe, from the Old English misteltãn, is a parasitic plant that grows on various trees, particularly the apple tree, it is held in great veneration when found on oak trees.

Mistletoe and The Druids

The ancient druids believed mistletoe to be an indicator of great sacredness. The Winter Solstice, called ‘Alban Arthan‘ by the druids, was according to Bardic Tradition, the time when the Chief Druid would cut the sacred mistletoe from the oak tree. The mistletoe is cut using a golden sickle on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice. A cloth held below the tree by other members of the order to catch the spigs of mistletoe as they fell, as it was believed that it would have profaned the mistletoe to fall upon the ground. He would then divide the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils. The druids are thought to have believed that the berries of the mistletoe represented the sperm of the gods. When pressed, a semen like substance issues from the white berries. Mistletoe was considered a magical aphrodisiac. The plant in old folklore is called All Heal, used in folk medicine to cure many ills. Druids considered the mistletoe to be a sacred plant and believed it had miraculous properties which could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft.

Mistletoe Folklore

Mistletoe was a plant of peace in antiquity. If enemies met by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms and maintained a truce until the next day. This is thought to be the origin of the ancient custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship and goodwill. According to the Anglo-Saxons, kissing under the mistletoe was connected to the legend of Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. According to legend, a man had to kiss any young girl who, without realizing it, found herself accidentally under a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. If a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf” (Mistletoe for the New Year). It is often associated with thunder, and regarded as a protection against fire and lighting. Shakespeare, in Titus Andronicus II calls it ‘the baleful mistletoe’. It is interesting to note that mistletoe was excluded from church decorations, probably due to its connection with the druids, and it’s pagan/magical associations.

During the month of December, Blackthorn Druid Witches carry a pouch filled with mistletoe for three days and meditate with the plant.

The Cailleach

Of the many Celtic legends, those of the Cailleach are some of the most mysterious. She is called by many names, but she is largely known as the “Crone of Winter”. In Scotland, where she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter, she is credited with making numerous mountains and large hills, which are said to have been formed when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her apron or wicker basket. In other cases she is said to have built the mountains intentionally, to serve as her stepping stones. She carries a hammer for shaping the hills and valleys, and is said to be the mother of all the goddesses and gods.

The Cailleach displays several traits befitting the personification of winter: she herds deer, she fights spring, and her blackthorn staff freezes the ground. In partnership with the goddess Brigid, the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhain and Beltane, while Brìgid rules the summer months between Beltane and Samhain. Some interpretations have the Cailleach and Brìgid as two faces of the same goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Beltane and reverting to human form on Samhain in time to rule over the winter months. Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Imbolc at the earliest, the Spring Equinox, or Beltane at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of Spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìgid. The Festival of Brigid is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on February 1st is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if the Festival of Brigid is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over.

On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on St. Bride’s Day in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak. In Scotland, the Cailleachan (‘old women’) are also known as the Storm Hags, and seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They are said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A’ Chailleach. There are indications from early writings that there once existed a priest/esshood of the Cailleach, with followers who were solely dedicated to her. On the west coast of Scotland, the Cailleach ushers in winter by washing her great plaid (Gaelic: féileadh mòr) in the Gulf of Corryvreken (Gaelic: Coire Bhreacain – ‘cauldron of the plaid’). This process is said to take three days, during which the roar of the coming tempest is heard as far away as twenty miles inland. When she is finished, her plaid is pure white and snow covers the land.

In Scotland and Ireland, the first farmer to finish the grain harvest made a corn dolly, representing the Cailleach (also called “the Carlin or Carline”), from the last sheaf of the crop. The figure would then be tossed into the field of a neighbor who had not yet finished bringing in their grain. The last farmer to finish had the responsibility to take in and care for the corn dolly for the next year, with the implication they’d have to feed and house the hag all winter. Competition was fierce to avoid having to take in the Old Woman.

In the tales of the Cailleach, there are some common themes:

  • Shaping the land deliberately or accidentally, including the creation of lakes, hills, islands and megalithic constructions
  • Association with water, through wells, lakes and rivers
  • Association with the season of Winter and Winter storms
  • Gigantic size, also manifesting her presence in winter storms and blizzards
  • Her vast age, being one of the first beings
  • Her guardianship of particular animals, especially deer
  • Her ability to shape-shift to a variety of forms, including maiden, heron and rock
  • Her ability to control the elements
  • Her ability to charm animals with her songs

The Cailleach is known from her many guises as:

  • Crone of Winter
  • Lady of the Beasts
  • Bestower of Sovereignty
  • Seer and Foreteller of Doom

Blackthorn Druid Witches are encouraged to honor the Cailleach by lighting a black candle on the night of the Winter Solstice.