Saturday, 29 September 2012

Notes: Early Irish Attitudes toward Hair and Beards

Early Irish Attitudes toward Hair and Beards, Baldness and Tonsure
William Sayers
ZcP Volume 44 (1991)

There's something about reading an article that's entirely devoted to hair and beards in particular that...well, it points to a level of geekery bordering on the ultimate, does it not? If that's the case then I shall wear my Official CR TonsureTM with pride...The trick with the styling is to get the right balance of lime and urine. Just FYI.

Anyway, in case you didn't already know the medieval Irish took their beards seriously. I mean really seriously. See for example: Geisi Ulcai: The Prohibitions of a Beard. But as amusing as it might be on the surface to think of the fact that somebody went to all that trouble over facial hair, it really is serious business when you get down to the nitty gritty of what this kind of thing represents. This is where Sayers' article comes in, because happily enough he lays out the major points quite nicely.

Firstly, he notes that the word for hair - OIr folt (in Gàidhlig today it's falt) - can also mean 'foliage, thatch'. In cosmogonical terms (creation myths), where it's speculated that the Proto-Indo-European creation myth involved the dismembering of a giant or primordial being (each part contributing towards the making of certain things - in this case the hair of the giant or being making the world's trees and grass), it can therefore be seen to have an extremely deep significance. There's a Dindshenchas tale about the first hair cut in Ireland, incidentally, which is analogous to the clearing of plains, reinforcing the creative potential.

In the relationship between hair and grass/trees it's easy to equate hair with the over all physical and social condition of a person. Long, glossy hair suggests a healthy, fertile person, and also denotes beauty. It also implies a high social status, having the luxury to take care of such hair to keep it in good condition. Those of lowly status, or the unfree, have shorn hair - a sign of their bonds, but also their position in society; no muss no fuss. Baldness, on the other hand, is utterly shameful, and it is one of the penalties for failing to attend the fair of Carmun. Being a harvest festival, the associations of hair with fertility brings us back to the cosmogonical overtones of hair's significance.

Different styles of hair can express certain relationships, and lots of sources refer to a kind of "druidic tonsure" that serves as a marker of the druid's station. Early on in the Irish Church an argument broke out of the appropriate form of tonsure, with different styles being favoured by two different factions. The "Celtic" tonsure had the front of the head shaved back to a line going across the way from ear to ear, but with a "fringe" at the front which reached round to the side, connecting the fringe to the hair around the ears. The druidic tonsure was said to have been similar, but with more of a "tuft" at the front, so they Celtic tonsure was clearly seen to be related to that, although it came to be called "Simon's tonsure" after Simon Magus. Ultimately, the other method - the Petrine tonsure (with the bald spot on top of the head, the resulting ring of hair supposed to resemble Christ's crown of thorns) - won out.

Sayers notes that warriors are frequently described in terms of general appearance, stature, and the state of the hair - generally long locks that are combed backwards and shaved at the front. Conchobar is described as having long, wavy, yellow hair befitting his royal status, whereas warriors are often described as brown-haired. Cú Chulainn is described as having three colours in his hair at points, both brown, red and gold denoting the way he straddles all levels of society and beyond (with his semi-divine origins). Or:
The progression from inside to outside, top to bottom, and the three colours, black, red and gold, may be equated with the three estates of agriculturalists and herdsmen, warriors, and priests and kings. Cú Chulainn's semi-divine origin and responsibility to defend all Ulster during the debility of its king and hosts account for his subsuming all three functions, as does, in other instances, the king.(p160)
Red hair is typically associated with Otherworldly figures like Da Derga, while yellow or gold is often used to describe the English (Anglo-Saxons) if it's not being associated with kings. Women, on the other hand, are stereotypically blond to one degree or another, unless clearly Otherworldly.

Different hairstyles denoted different things as well, and mention is made of the fíanna or díberga (brigands) wearing distinctive hairstyles that were supposed to give a lupine or ursine effect. Warriors are frequently referred to as having bristly hair, especially during battle when the stiffness of their hair is made to reflect their virility and resolve; there are comments that if apples, crab apples or even nuts were to fall on their head, not one would reach the floor because the spikes of the hair would impale them, but they might also braid their hair or model it along an equine mane or that kind of thing.

Fertility and virility equals strength and power. Slaves and lowly servants have a certain type of short or reoughly cropped hair, while charioteers have a special filet in their hair "reflecting the glory of their masters," as do poets. Picts apparently had cropped hair, of equal length at the front as at the back (a bowl cut, then!), and jugglers or fools were bald. I presume that means their heads were shaved. Not that they became jugglers just because they were bald; either way, the lack of hair is an indicator of their subservience. In the case of tonsures, partial baldness was indicative of their sacrifice (in return for knowledge and wisdom) and dedication to the gods, or God. Craftsmen and and farmers weren't supposed to have long hair or beards; these were reserved for the upper classes, warriors.

One of the most interesting bits, perhaps, is the implications of age and hair length. Long hair is associated with warriors, boys only being able to keep their hair long if they showed bravery and courage. In the case of beards (as per the Geisi Ulcae), beards are only appropriate for warriors or poets (a mark of maturity, the ability to fight or carry wisdom and the appropriate knowledge for their art/profession), but the warrior is only worthy of a beard if they observe the appropriate proscriptions. Cú Chulainn, being exceptionally young, occasionally had to fake a beard so that he might be able to fight; without a beard other warriors wouldn't fight him, because killing a mere boy would be a stain on their honour. Sometimes he used berry juice, other times he sang spells over grass (the hair:grass theme recurring once more).

In the case of women, their depictions are fairly uniform, yellow, gold, red-gold in colour, and aristocratic women tended to have long hair, plaited or loose (men might also wear plaits). Women's pubic hair is often described as well (the woman/goddess who arrives at Da Derga's hostel is described as having pubic hair down to her knees), and the penalty for shaving a woman's pubic hair was "two thirds of the éraic, plus her honour price if she is violated." Other fines covered offences to eyebrows, eyelashes and the hair or hair-pieces of "shorn girls", as well as against the beard and body hair of men. Seizing of hair during a fight between a wife and a concubine was not a punishable offence, however, given the understandable circumstances of the disagreement. For clerics, even touching their tonsure was a punishable offence.

So in general, hair articulated a few things - your social status, your station in life/profession, and sexual maturity. Cutting the hair appears to have marked various milestones of age and legal maturity, while hair colour could be very symbolic. Over all, the kind of hair you had helped to mark out your identity, and as such is an important motif in myth and legend.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Out and about

I took a walk in the woods at the weekend and conveniently forgot to charge the battery in the camera...But luckily things were so exciting (LOOK AT THE LEAVES, MUM!!!) Rosie wanted to go again yesterday, and it wasn't like the dogs would complain, was it?

This time I remembered to charge the camera battery in advance, all the better to capture the colours of autumn:

Crunchy leaves underfoot.



And red red hawthorn berries.

Sometimes it's the simple things, like showing a five-year-old that sycamore seeds fall like "helicopters" (and I suspect a couple of helicopters might have been buried in the garden by now...), that bring the greatest joy.

Friday, 21 September 2012


Last week I finally had surgery to try and help fix my back problems and I can say with absolute certainty that I still hate hospitals with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. It's not something I'm particularly keen to repeat, let's say.

It's early days yet and it's too soon to tell just how successful the surgery has been but as it is, things are much improved and I seem to be healing up nicely; touch wood it stays that way. For now I'm enjoying the novelties of being able to do exciting things like sit and walk again. That's nice. But I'm also facing the prospect of being able to do stuff and have a life again. Yay! The idea is liberating and a little scary at the same time, in a way, because being only a little less than housebound has meant that I've been holed up in a safe little cocoon for going on eighteen months. My world has been small and predictable in many ways, and stepping out of that is an odd sort of thought to entertain. Maybe I can get a job and be a productive member of society once more? That's going to have to wait a little longer while I see how my recovery goes, but the possibilities on offer could invite big changes. As I've discovered in the last week - in more ways than one - change can be painful and stressful, but sometimes it's for the better. One can only hope, anyway.

In the meantime, one of the things I could do is get back into my Gaelic lessons; I had to give them up when my disc went but hopefully now I might be able to think about going back and pick up where I left off (with a bit of revision over the next few days...). Lessons start next week so if I continue improving then it might be doable and hopefully this time I won't get so frustrated at the slow pace. I'm ultimately hoping to be able to find a way to get some sort of qualification in it; I think for me it's the best way to stay motivated, but that costs money and these lessons are free...In the current economic climate I'm surprised they're still going at all but I'm certainly not complaining.

Going back to the whole surgery thing though: It's been a long journey to get to this point, mainly because my bog-standard, boring old prolapsed disc didn't present itself in the usual manner, which apparently confuses orthopedic surgeons who lack the imagination or foresight to actually listen to their patients (I'm not bitter...). Along the way I've tried to look into ways of dealing with it from a spiritual perspective, if anything to find comfort, and maybe grow and learn a little. I don't believe the gods are there to hold my hand and stroke my hair and make it all better, or shield me from the kinds of trials and tribulations that tend to come everybody's way now and then. Nor do I believe that when bad things happen that we're being punished for something we've done that's wrong...But I do believe that they can offer some comfort in the right circumstances while remembering that first and foremost, one must help oneself, because shit happens. And when it does, at least you're not alone.

So aside from seeking comfort and even perhaps a little wisdom and understanding in it all, I tried looking for the kind of things I could do. With limited success, to be fair (and funny how I revisit the subject almost a year to the day), but recently I did find something from an Irish source (though not too helpful to my circumstances) and an anecdote in Mary Beith's Healing Threads about a journalist who saw a wise woman about his sciatic problems back in the 70s, and he was given a thread to wear. Beith says that much to the man's surprise the threads worked until they got worn and broke, at which point the pain soon came back. So I thought that maybe I could do something like that myself; maybe not as effective as getting it from a bonafide fiosaiche or ban-fhiosaiche, but it's worth a try, right?

It so happened that while Rosie was helping me make the wind-chimes for the garden she found some extra wooden beads that were plain, so she painted them and snuck them upstairs to get Mr Seren to help her thread them. She then proudly presented them to me, saying I could take them with me to hospital and they'd help me get better. That seemed like the perfect sort of thing to adapt to my purpose, and so I have, though a bracelet isn't really feasible for a variety of reasons so I've made a sort of key ring instead.

And now...I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to get out and about; enjoy the beach, walk the dogs, take a walk through the woods and watch the autumn unfold...I managed to go pick some brambles just before I went into hospital and with the cold weather starting to bite hopefully I'll be able to go get some more soon. It's a bumper harvest this year:

I have some rounds to make, offerings and thanks to give. At times it's been a struggle to keep grounded and connected. I'm sure most people can agree that having to deal with pain or illness on a long-term basis can be incredibly wearing. Exhausting, at times. There are times when compromises have to be made, ambitions have to be lessened somewhat, or else there are just not enough spoons left to do much of anything at all. In amongst it all you can end up feeling a little lost or disconnected.

You learn to adapt, and work within your limitations as much as you can. You focus on what you still have - all the many wonderful things, and I'm not talking about faith or belief or personal practices, or material possessions or whatever; I'm talking about community as well. There's a ways to go yet but in amongst all of this the kind of support I've received from close friends (online or in real life, in or out of the CR community) and people I maybe don't know so well yet; people who've commented here with good wishes, or else listened patiently to me while I moan and wail, offered wise words and prayer, or sent the occasional wonderful surprise in the post that brightened my day more than you could know...I think in many ways those are the things have meant the most to me, and makes me realise not just how lucky I am, but how great this community can be.

I want to thank you all for that. Words seem a little inadequate, really. But seriously. Thank you.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Volume IV

There comes a point of blogging and trawling the internet where I'm not sure if I'm repeating myself...Have I said this before? Do I know this already? I'm not sure...I'll blame it on the painkillers.

Anyway, if I didn't already know this and haven't already posted this, then hurrah! Volume IV of the Carmina Gadelica is online:

Carmina Gadelica

It takes a while to load but the formatting is good. Volumes 1-3 are also listed there.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Plans for Gàidhlig-only village on Skye

I saw this on tumblr referencing The Times (which is behind a pay wall), and the only other source I can find on this at the moment is a teaser from The Press and Journal:

The new £40million village beside the Gaelic college at Sleat will include almost 100 new homes – from affordable to high-market seafront plots – college buildings for research and teaching, and a new conference centre. There are also plans for hotel accommodation, a retail outlet and cafe bar as well as sport facilities, a central green, and parks, paths and cycle networks.

But it certainly sounds like exciting news, and I just hope they can make this work without too much of a negative impact on the local environment.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012


So this is happening on my rowan tree:

And some other rowans in the village, too. While the horse chestnuts and some other trees are already putting on their autumnal suits, the rowans can't decide on whether or not it's spring or autumn. It's not something I've ever seen before, though I'm sure it's not uncommon, and as far as the trees go it's only rowans that seem to be flowering again. The weather has been all over the place - further up north the first frosts have already been and gone, while here we're still basking in warm sunshine one minute, only to find howling winds and droves of rain hurling themselves our way the next. No wonder the plants are confused! The blackberries are starting to ripen but the main crop is still a week or two away, I think, unless we get more sunshine.

I've had to neglect the garden this year and things are pretty overgrown in the flower beds at the moment but I'm enjoying the wildness of it all, at least, and the bees certainly are too. This is the time where I should be cutting back all of the bulbs and so on that have finished flowering before they sow yet more bulbs to overcrowd the beds even further, but in the absence of being able to get my hands dirty right now, I'm trying to get out there and tend to things in my own way. I don't want to neglect my space completely, so instead of digging and pruning, decorating it is...

The rowan - which I planted four years ago now - has matured a little (after recovering well from getting Mungo'd in its first year - the dog managed to snap it in half in a manic frolicking session that ruined most of the plants. Sod) and the branches are thick enough to tolerate some things hanging from it. I think it will need a while yet before I can hang anything heavy, like a bird feeder, but some light decorations will do and I always intended to turn it into a clootie tree of sorts. So the first thing I've put on it are some 'wind-chimes', though I'm not sure bamboo can qualify as a "chime" per se:

I bought one of those do-it-yourself kits from the kids section of the local craft shop, and my capable assistant, Rosie, helped with the painting, with blues and reds for health and protection. A while before I'd found some tiny wee key charms with triskeles on them that I couldn't resist, so on they went too:

I was supposed to have gone back to my hometown for a visit last month but I just couldn't manage the journey at the time and in the end I had to cancel, so my wonderful friends posted me the belated birthday present they'd been holding onto - a paint your own birdhouse (thank you so much!). It was a lovely surprise and Rosie helped with painting that too (one of Tom's friends has decided to basically adopt us these days, so as usual they were busy playing together while Rosie and I were hard at work). With starting school last month Rosie's needed a little more quality time lately as she settles in to her new routine and she loves to do anything creative, especially if it provides an opportunity to do something good for the garden too. So the arrival of another wee project for us was great, and will make a great addition to the tasteful aesthetic I'm going for...

I've yet to find a home for the bird house, I'm still deciding on whether or not I should try putting in on the fence or maybe donate it to one of the trees in the field behind us, but it's finished now. I told Rosie that rowan berries can be dried and worn as a necklace (traditionally for protection, as with amber) and she's quite keen on the idea; I'm not sure making her a necklace is practical, but maybe drying the berries to make a garland for her room is something we could make a project of. I made the kids a rowan charm a while ago but their room is in need of redecorating, so it might be nice to add something new once it's done.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Ice cream! And another review

Autumn is well and truly here now - no more wavering on the matter in these here parts. And with it comes the end of the school holidays (finally) and now, for me, a little more freedom than I'm used to. Both of the kids are in school now and as of tomorrow my daughter will be in school full-time, after spending the first couple of weeks only going in for the mornings.

To celebrate the start of a new era, and finish our holiday in style, I took the kids out to Largs (a nearby town and something of a tourist trap) for an ice cream. Not just any ice cream:

Proper ice cream. It's definitely a perk of living in a place like this, even if the weather sucks a lot of the time.

Once my back problems are resolved - hopefully in the very near future - I shall have to start making myself useful again. In the meantime I'm sure I'll think of some things to do to keep me out of trouble, but for now, here's another review:

Celtic Christianity and Nature: Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions
Mary Low

A common problem when trying to figure out this whole Gaelic Polytheism thing is finding where the Christianity starts and the paganism ends when we look at all of the source material we have to work with. A lot of what we see might look pagan, but there are things that we really can't take at face value, because things are never that simple or easy. Otherwise we might end up getting a bit over-excited about things and leap to conclusions like deciding that if we just strip out the obviously Christian bits we'll get the paganism and it's all cool and groovy. It's not as simple as that, for sure, but the situation's not as dire as some academics might like to think when they try to see everything as irreconcilably Christian just because it comes from the hands of Christian scribes, so let's call the whole thing off...

This is a book that I think is invaluable in getting a more balanced view, and more than that, it's a fantastic resource for looking at the kind of things we might see that are pre-Christian in origin (and thus useful to us, as polytheists) as far as Gaelic belief is concerned. Or not, as the case maybe, and accounting for all of the various shades of grey in between (and I'm sure there's far more than fifty shades there, and none of them involve abusive relationships or bad fan-fic, so that's cool. Anyway).

The purpose of this book is to explore the relationship between Christianity, native belief (as evidenced in the earliest Irish literature through to the relatively modern Hebridean evidence primarily gathered by Carmichael), and what's come to be known as "Celtic Christianity." Given Celtic Christianity's emphasis on nature, each chapter looks at a different subject like the land and the landscape, trees, water, fire, birds, the seasons, and the elements and explores whether such attitudes towards them might be evidence of pre-Christian belief, Christianity, or a synthesis of the two. For the most part there can't be any solid conclusions drawn and to Low's credit she let's the evidence she compiles speak for itself, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The broad scope - from the earliest literature to the modern - is something that I particularly liked because it underscores the point that often seems to be missed in CR these days: It's not just about looking at the Iron Age, it's looking at the whole continuum from what we know of pre-Christian times to the survivals we find today, and all the bits in between.

This is all great stuff and there is so much food for thought it's difficult to cover everything. All of the usual things you'd expect to find are there - the relationship between the land, the goddesses, and the people, the tradition of the sacred tree - the bile - the associations of birds with the gods, and so on, along with parallels that might found in the Bible that ultimately may have led to the survival and adaptation of such pre-Christian concepts into a Christian context. And so on.

Of particular interest to me was the chapter on the seasons and nature, as we see it articulated in nature poetry. There is a lot of Christian poetry devoted to the subject in medieval Ireland, but Low (following Kenneth Jackson) suggests that some of the earliest examples - Finn's song to the summer, or the famous poem heralding winter - may be hangovers from pre-Christian belief, where the seasons were possibly heralded (in the case of summer) or lamented (in the case of winter) in the form of seasonal carols. In the chapter on fire and the sun Low gives an overview of the arguments for and against solar deities. Being firmly on the side of the no camp on that one - which I happen to agree with - it was great to see the argument laid out so plainly, but she does explore the alternative view as well, if only to refute it. It would be interesting to see what those who might argue in favour of solar deities might have to say about it, but personally I found it to be one of the most useful bits of the book.

This is not to say the book is without its flaws. I don't think there's anything major here but you might find yourself quibbling with some of the arguments given, but that kind of thing is par for the course with any book. It's a fairly slim volume so some things get glossed over more than you might like (or maybe that's a good thing if you don't want it to get too complicated), and there are certainly some things that are missing - including some references I was surprised not to see, which doesn't have a massive impact over all, but I would've been interested to see some comment about it all nonetheless. Noticeably absent was discussion or even mention of the three realms, but I'm fairly sure that this has more to do with the time of publication - a few years, at least, before Liam Mac Mathúna's work was published, for sure - so it might be that Low just wasn't aware of it. It does date it slightly, though.

My main issue is the fact that Low refers to pre-Christian beliefs and religions as "primal." I really think that it's maybe an instinctive thing because it does seem to be a valid term to use in an anthropological sense, but I was always taught to try and avoid terms that might imply judgement values; that something primal is less evolved, perhaps. I couldn't help but wonder, why not just say "pre-Christian"?

Aside from that niggle I really enjoyed the book and would put it on my highly recommended list for sure. I'm not convinced it's a good book for a total beginner, though. This far in it's hard for me to judge because I found it an easy and straightforward read  - there aren't a lot of Teh Big Wurdz to have to keep up with, and where something that's been previously discussed is referenced again a page number is given to allow a quick jump back if needed - but I do wonder if it's maybe a bit more than a beginner might want. It's not a book that spells things out plainly, "this is what the pre-Christian Irish believed" and that's probably what beginners are looking for. I'd still appreciate a book like that, to be honest...Still and all, I think this is about as good as it gets right now. For the non-beginner, or the beginner who wants to stick with it, I think the book is absolutely invaluable.