Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Links and things for Hogmanay

This is pretty much my favourite time of year so Hogmanay is a Big Deal in this house. Last year – because we're so rock'n'roll – the kids stayed up for the bells and we spent the evening eating popcorn and watching Batman (the Tim Burton version with Michael Keaton), and then we saw the new year in with a celebratory glass of Irn Bru. There's nothing like starting the new year with two kids hopped up on caffeinated fizzy beverages and E numbers...

This Hogmanay we'll probably be doing just about the same. The house will be cleaned and tidied, the kids will stay up till gone midnight, and then the next day (which will probably start with pancakes) we'll be going to the in-laws to enjoy the obligatory steak pie. This time we're providing the pudding – sticky toffee pudding, to be exact (at Tom's insistence).

If you're looking for some inspiration, though, you might want to start with Gaol Naofa's video:

There's some of the usual links and things over on Tairis, which I'll link up just now if you're looking for some historical information or things to make and do:

But there's also plenty on here and elsewhere, too. If you're looking for some ideas for blessings to welcome in the new year these might be of use:
Whatever you're up to for Hogmanay, I hope you have a good one! And if I don't manage a post before Friday then I hope 2016 brings you all blessings of health, wealth, and happiness. 

Monday, 28 December 2015

Tairis has (finally) been updated...

Tairis: Gaelic Polytheism
As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was hoping to – finally – get on with fixing Tairis. It was obvious, by this point, that "fixing" it meant basically starting from scratch, and (ta da!) that's exactly what I've had to do.

Over the last two or three weeks (I've honestly lost track...) I've been moving everything over onto a brand new Wordpress. The new site is now live and you should find the following fixes and improvements:

Front page blog

Instead of a static home page I've decided to use a blog format so I can post and keep track of any updates as necessary. You'll find a bit of waffle about the changes I've made there, too. I'll still do my main blogging here, though.

New pages and some overhauled/re-written pages

It's hard to resist fiddling about with stuff, especially given the fact that some of the articles were first written almost ten years ago now. In those ten years I've had a bit more practice at writing, learned a whole lot more about Gaelic Polytheism, and the internet has opened up a huge amount of resources that I didn't have at my fingertips way back when. Because of that, some of the pages have simply been smoothed out and given a bit of spit and polish – editing out the clunkier bits of writing – while others have been almost completely rewritten or at least majorly overhauled. Some of the pages I feel could still do with scrapping and starting again but I just don't have the time to tackle them given everything I've got going on. Maybe that will happen in future.

The major overhauls/rewrites that are worth noting:

  • The Celebrations section has been majorly rewritten
  • As has the Offerings page
  • The Types of Offerings has been overhauled
  • The Gaelic has been added to the prayers in the Daily Practices section (and the 'thees and thous' removed from the translations)
  • Updates have been made to the liturgy outlined in the Practices section, too

New pages include:

Making a cros Bríde – including an overview of the history and practices associated with them
Celebrating Yule – now in addition to Hogmanay

For the cros Bríde page, this includes an example of an Irish prayer that's traditionally used in hanging up the crosses, which I was pretty excited to find in an article I stumbled across. Before now I've only seen such prayers referred to in passing, with no specific examples given.

I've also removed the Article Downloads page from the Resources section. Given the fact that Google Scholar and JSTOR have opened up so many more articles than I can ever keep up with, it seems pointless to maintain this one.

Slightly different ordering and new sections/names

This one's fairly minor but I've changed around the order of some of the sections. The section on Life Passages comes after Festivals and Celebrations now (I feel like it flows better, from the day to day stuff, to the seasonal stuff, to life events), and the section named Gods is now called An Trì Naomh to reflect the fact that it encompasses not just the gods but also the spirits and ancestors.

I've also added in a completely new section – Values – where I've moved the four-part article on Values, and the article on Gessi and Buada. These were originally housed in the Cosmology section, but that was rather large and unwieldy so splitting things up seemed to make more sense. The Values section now follows on from Cosmology.

Fixed footnotes

Updating the site has been a big job, mainly thanks to the huge amount of footnotes I've got on there. While I'd rather err on the side of caution and make it easy for people to look up stuff if they want to (never take my word for it, right?) there are a lot of footnotes. Which is never more apparent than when you're having to code every single one by hand. Now, however, in addition to actually working again, you can also hover over the footnote number and you'll get a preview of what the footnote says below. You'll still have to click down for any links there, but it should be a lot more convenient now.

A more consistent focus

Seeing as it's been nearly ten years since I started the site, a lot's changed in that time. In particular, identity politics and labels have evolved within the wider Celtic Reconstructionist community and those labels are something I struggled with in the beginning. To start with, when I first began writing stuff for Tairis, I used "CR." Then I began to use "Scottish Reconstructionism" as well as CR because I wanted to be more specific. And then, when Gaol Naofa was founded and they began using "Gaelic Polytheism," I came to feel that was the better term and switched to that. Apparently I didn't change everything on the site to make it all consistent, though, so I've gone through everything and tweaked the bits that needed tweaking: Gaelic Polytheism it is.

New links

Unfortunately this isn't an improvement per se, but it is a necessity. Moving the site over to Wordpress means that all the link paths are different now, so if you link to any articles on the site I'm afraid they're going to be broken now. I'm very sorry for the inconvenience!

*   *   *   *

I hope you find these changes are (mostly) for the better. If you don’t, older versions of the site can be accessed on archive.org, where you’ll be able to find the original versions of rituals or articles. So there's always that...

There's still a bit to do, however. I'm not entirely happy with the menu system, but with almost 115 articles on the site there are just too many to make the current menu bar house them all with drop-down sub-menus. I think it cuts off after a hundred articles, and then it shows everything in alphabetical order instead of the order I want to appear in (and it does with several themes I've tried so I think Wordpress is basically telling me that I talk too much). So my resident webmonkey husband is looking into finding a widget or something that might help with that. In the meantime, I'll work on putting up a site map.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Links and things for grian-stad a' gheamhraidh

As the winter solstice approaches, questions about whether or not the day (or, more to the point, the night) should be observed by Gaelic Polytheists. My feeling is: If you wanna.

Personally, I don't think the solstices or equinoxes were ever observed by the pre-Christian Gaels – not to the same degree as the Quarter Days, anyway. It's obvious they were aware of them, as were their Stone Age(s) and Bronze Age not-Gaelic-speaking ancestors; the fact that several ancient monuments are aligned to the solstice or equinox sunrises is evidence enough of that, and indicative of probable religious significance, too. So from that perspective I acknowledge the day as having been important to my ancestors, since I have some Irish and Scottish heritage flowing through my veins. Their wisdom isn't something I like to ignore, you know?

The solstices and equinoxes have also come to be significant in the modern calendar thanks to other influences, too. Granted these are influences from other cultures and some people aren't comfortable with adding those into the mix, but to me, I see the way these days are expressed – in spite of the outside influences – as having been thoroughly Gaelicised. It's a prime example of what syncretism is, and so I don't feel the need to separate it out; it's all part of the continuum and especially here in Scotland it's pretty hard to avoid anyway. Your mileage may vary, of course.

So. If you're interested in looking into solstice traditions, you might want to start with Gaol Naofa's video, which we released on our Youtube channel last year:

I gave a little overview of the kinds of things we tend to do for the solstice here at home in my post about the videos when we released them last year; it's generally a pretty low-key event for us since Hogmanay is what it's all about at this time of year (I'll do a separate post on that later), and we've already had a go at a chocolate Yule log in celebration of the kids finishing school for the Christmas holidays. We did a buttercream version to accommodate my husband's inability to digest cream, but it just wasn't as good as our usual squidgy chocolate log. I'm going to get hold of some lacto-free cream and do it properly on Tuesday so we can have a good one that doesn't end up making my husband wish he were dead when he has some...

The kids are both very keen on lighting candles to put in the window; traditionally it's a custom observed by the daughters of the household, but Tom wants to do it too so they'll both get a candle to light. I think we might have some beeswax sheets left so we might be able to make some, even.

If you're looking for some light (arf) reading then there's the two-part article I've done on Tairis along with a bit in the festival bannocks and caudle section that will be useful, too:
I'm sorry the internal links are still broken – I've tried fixing them but I can't get them to work, at all! That will be fixed on the new and improved site, when it's ready (I'm still working on it, but it's happening!). For some reason I didn't do a "celebrating Yule" article in the Celebrations section, which I'll rectify for the new-and-improved site, too.

For the morning of the solstice the focus is usually on the sunrise at Newgrange. The sunrise has been webcast in previous years but it doesn't seem it will be this year; you can take a look at some photos over at knowth.com, though, and there are videos there too. 

If you'd like to greet the sun as it rises, you might find this prayer useful. It's not necessarily only for the winter solstice, but on the morning after the sun is certainly a welcome sight when you know the days are going to be getting longer and longer from here on out. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Manannán set to return to Binevenagh mountain

As you may recall, a statue of Manannán mac Lir, which had been erected at the Gortmore Viewing Point on Binevenagh mountain in 2013, was stolen in January of this year. In its place, the thieves left a cross with the message "You shall have no other gods before me." A month later, after an extensive search, the statue was found by ramblers just 100m from its original position.

It's still not known whether or not the statue had been there all along, or if the thieves had dumped it at a later date (it was found exactly one month after the theft, suggesting the latter), but after a thorough examination it was decided that the sculpture was too badly damaged to repair – the back of the head had been hacked off and attempts had been made to remove the limbs. It was eventually resolved – after much deliberation and tense waiting, and a huge public outcry – that a new statue would be commissioned to replace the original, with the costs to be covered by the local council.

Yesterday, the sculptor Darren Sutton uploaded five photos of the new statue, announcing that it's almost ready to take its rightful place, which is great news! The BBC have since reported that – as yet – it hasn't been decided when this will happen. The Derry Journal, meanwhile, have spoken with Darren Sutton, who's given his thoughts on the culprits:
Mr Sutton said they had a job on their hands when removing it, and he doesn’t believe the culprits did it as a prank. 
“It took too much effort because you can see where they tried to saw it off at the beard, the neck and the arms,” said Mr. Sutton. “They obviously went to some effort, but they shot themselves in the foot. I don’t think they realised there would be such a backlash. Everybody was talking about it. They obviously didn’t think it through.”
Which makes sense. The cross that was left behind could easily have been some kind of attempt at throwing people off the scent of the actual vandals, but the effort involved in both removing and then trying to destroy the statue suggests that this was no mere prank. This was serious business.

Considering this fact, when the local council commissioned the new statue it was announced that the replica would have some extra reinforcements built into it to help strengthen it and prevent a repeat of the theft. Given the reaction by even some of the councillors – a minority of whom were vehemently against replacing the statue at all because it was too "paganistic" and for their tastes – we can only hope these measures will be enough to protect it against the religious extremists who stole the first statue, once it takes its rightful place on the mountain. At the moment there don't seem to be any other preventative measures planned beyond hoping in common decency:
SDLP councillor Gerry Mullan said: "I'm very excited at the prospect of Manannán Mac Lir returning home. 
"People from all over the world came to get photographs with it. Lets hope that happens again. 
"I urge people to take care of him and we hope a similar act doesn't happen again. 
"Santa may even stop by to see him."
Ho ho ho. But yes, let's hope it doesn't happen again. Let's hope that the reaction and support the statue received from all over the world will help deter those thieves or anyone else from trying again.

And personally, I'm still praying for justice to be done. There are still questions that need answering here.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Tairis update

So it's been well over a year since the Tairis website had a catastrophic crap out...

As you've probably noticed the website has been limping along in a barely functional and sorry manner since then. A lot of the links are broken, the footnotes don't work, and the header is non-existent (although to be honest, I never liked the font. Don't tell my husband...). The formatting in general is somewhat iffy. It's been a while since I updated anything because the back-end of the site has been barely functional. Or, more to the point, I'm too lazy to code everything when I don't have to.

After finally finding some time to figure out how to get the WYSWYG editor back, I've tried fixing the footnotes so they at least link where they're supposed to. Unfortunately, even trying to code a simple anchor isn't working like it should do, and it's clearly time to start over from scratch on a new platform...

Hopefully that will happen soon – as soon as I save all the pages safely copied and can transfer them to a new platform before transferring it over to the domain name. And finished with the inevitable tweaks and additions I'll end up making (at the very least, updating the book review section). The current version will stay up for now, and seeing as I was fiddling about with things anyway I'll point you to the now updated and expanded How To Get Started page, along with the slightly revised Quick and Dirty 'Where Do I Start?' Booklist. I'll keep you posted on any further updates (which I hope won't take another year and then some), but in the mean time I hope you enjoy.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Oran Buaile – Teiris a bhò

You may have noticed I have a bit of a thing about cows...

Part of the reason I chose "Tairis" as a name for my website is that I found a definition given in Macbain's Dictionary that described its meaning as:
tairis! int. The dairymaid's cry to calm an unruly cow at milking. 
Ordinarily, however, it means:
tairis -e, a. Kind, sincere, loving. 2 Compassionate, tender-hearted, soft, tender, kindly, urbane. 3 Confidential. 4** Trusty, faithful, loyal. 5** Acceptable. Cha tairis leam ur fàilte, your invitation is not acceptable to me; guth tairis nam bàrd, the mild voice of the bards.
And while the latter definition seems apt in itself, the former meaning tickled me enough for it to stick in my head. When the time came to buy a domain name I couldn't think of anything else so that's what I went with.

One thing I always wondered, though, was that in all of the milking songs I'd seen (in places like the Carmina Gadelica), the term was always absent. I figured maybe it was either a very localised term that Carmichael never came across, or else perhaps Macbain himself had kind of... made it up? Misheard it? Today, though, I came across the following song thanks to Google, and things make a bit more sense now. The song itself was recorded by the folklorist "Nether Lochaber," the pen name of Rev. Alexander Stewart, who lived in the area he took his pseudonym from. In the song we have teiris, not tairis, though Dwelly gives Macbain's spelling and lists teiris! as a local variant of the same word, recorded in Poolewe – which is in the Nether Lochaber area. As a plain old verbal adjective, however, the word teiris is listed as meaning:
teiris ** va & n. Tame, quiet, as unruly cattle. 2 Stop. 3 Be at peace.
So it all makes a bit more sense to me now.

Gaelic milking songs were kind of legendary – folklorists of the nineteenth century often liked to note that Highland cattle were some of the best milkers in the world, and it was said that a cow of the Highlands wouldn't give milk unless the dairy maid sang to it a soothing song. Since I can't find the song recorded by Rev. Stewart published anywhere else, I thought I'd transcribe it here (the site I found it on has a poorly done OCR transcription).

As this piece notes, the song was originally published in the Inverness Courier, though no date's given for that. In the copy I found, though, the date given is Saturday 23 March 1895, and it's interesting that this is from an Australian newspaper, the Northern Star from New South Wales. Anyway, here it is, with the newspaper's own write up. I've transcribed it as best I can, though some of it was difficult to read. I'll note that some of the words have the accents in the wrong place, as far as I can tell, but I've kept it all as-is and I haven't updated any spellings either. The translation is as given in the paper, though it's not completely literal – there's an extra line added in (and hopefully the table comes out OK; Blogger can be finicky with tables so if the formatting's off, apologies):
The following Oran Buaile or Shieling song, as sung in the Highlands of Scotland, was taken down from the words of a woman still living in Adnamurchan, and sent to “Nether Lochaber,” who gave it a place in the INVERNESS COURIER. It will be interesting to Highland readers, many of whom have perhaps heard it sung:


Teiris a bhò
Teiris an t’ aghan beag
Teiris a bhò
Teiris a Chaòmhag;
Bleoghnaidh mi bhò
Le lamh bhog nach goirtich i,
Mo dhearn mar an sìde,
Bleoghnaidh mi ‘Chaòmhag.

Gently my cow.
Gently my little heifer, gently!
Gently my cow,
Be gently and quiet, my darling:
I will milk the cow
With soft hand that will not hurt her;
With the palm of my hand soft and smooth as silk,
I will milk my darling.

Bi laghach, a bhò,
Bi laghach, bi ceanalta,
Bi siòbhalta, ceanalta,
Laghach, a runag;
Gheibh i bad feoir,
Is leaba de’n rainnich ‘nam,
Gheibh i min air burn lainnir,
’S am bainne cha diult i.

Be nice, now, my cow.
Be nice and be gentle,
Be quiet and gentle, [And all you should be now –]
Of all pets the dearest!
She will get a nice wisp of hay,
And a soft bed of ferns from me,
With (a drink) of meal on crystal-clear water,
And (meantime) she will not refuse me her milk.

Bheir i am bainne dhomh,
’S i bheir am bainne dhomh,
Criosalt no buarach
Cha luaidh mi ri m’ eudail,
Cha thog i eas idir,
’S cha teann i ri crosdachd,
Mar a ni an crodh mosach nach tuig ach a bhéurla!

She will give me her milk,
Ay, her milk she will freely give me;
Foreleg fetter or handset shackles
Shall not be so much as mentioned in connection with my darling;
She will not lift a leg,
Nor will she show any ill-temper,
Such as is only shown by the nasty cows
That understand only the English language!

Tha’n t’sine bhog, bhlàth
Aig martan an aigh,
Tha ‘bainne bog, blàth,
‘Se fo bharr a ta cùraidh;
Mo ghaol is mo chíali
Air an aghan bheag, lurach,
Fhuair mise do ghealladh,
Am bainne orm nach diult thu.

Soft and warm is the teat
Of my charming little cow;
Soft and warm, too, is her milk
Under its froth of delightfullest odour.
My dear and delight
Is the beautiful little heifer;
She has given me her promise
That she will not refuse me her milk.

Mach thu ’n an ionaltraidh,
Mach thu ’n an ionaltraidh,
Mach thu ’n an ionaltraidh,
Moch maduinn a màireach,
Bi’dh ‘m féur thu’n na glùn dhuit
‘An Doire-na-Giubhsaich,
Bheir thu dhachaidh làn ùth,
’S cinnt’ nach diult thu dhomh pàirt deth!

Out to the grazing ground,
Out to the grazing ground,
Out to the grazing ground,
To-morrow morning early!
The grass will reach well up to thy knee
In Doire-na-Giubhsaich (the Fir Tree Woodlands);
She will thence carry home a full udder,
And sure I am that she will not there-of refuse me a fair, full share.
There is considerable humour in the song, as in the way the heifer’s character is exalted at the expense of the Ayrshire cattle of the township, who are spoken of with contempt as only understanding English, while her own heifer (a genuine West Highlander, we warrant her!) is so thoroughly up in Gaelic that she understands its every word! TEIRIS is a term of conciliation and kindness used in soliciting the friendship and good behaviour of cattle in stall – something like the “Gently, now,” of a good-natured groom when astride a steed disposed to be skittish. To be of effect it has always to be uttered in a conciliatory, or in what may be called a wheedling tone of voice. It is never addressed to horses; only to the bovine race, in their every stage of growth from clashed to extremest old age.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The saga of the costume, and other things...

The run-up to Samhain was so busy I forgot to do a links post for it... You can blame Rosie for that one, mostly.

It's been nearly eight years since we moved into this house and it's only recently that I've learned that the valley we live in officially has its own microclimate – notable enough that sciency types study it and stuff. While everywhere else around us, even just five minutes away, is under a foot or so of snow, some winters we've barely had a frost let alone a hint of a snowflake, that kind of thing. Over the years I've noticed that the seasonal shifts tend towards extremes around here (in comparison with the surrounding area) and they're either very late or very early. In particular, things like fruit ripening on bushes or trees can happen up to a month or more later or earlier than just down the road, so if I were to time our celebrations by the usual markers – things like first frost, first fruits, and so on – then sometimes I'd be celebrating one festival at the same time as another, or with only a week or so apart.

Since that's become clear I've mostly stuck with aiming for the fixed dates (or as close as I can), but at the same time I've been trying to learn the seasonal rhythms of our little valley. Living by the coast there are obvious markers like the storms we get in spring and autumn (and throughout the winter), and there are those things that aren't much different from anywhere else around us – the length of the days and so on. One thing that Tom said recently has stuck with me: He's been looking forward to winter because he gets to see the stars again. He doesn't just mean in the sense that he often has to go to bed before the sun sets during the summer; round here, during the summer months the night sky never gets truly dark, especially at the full moon. Not compared with the winter, anyway, so in the summer months you only get to see a few stars twinkling away up there. When the nights draw in, though, you can make out bands of the milky way (we live far away enough from any cities that we get a good view of the night sky in winter), and it's a very different view. So one thing I've come to view as an indication that winter is on its way is the night sky; when we can see that thick band right above our heads, it's definitely not summer anymore.

For festivals like Samhain, it's hard not to celebrate it on the fixed date anyway, especially since it's so tied up with Hallowe'en. The kids are at that age where Hallowe'en is serious business now, and Rosie (who's always been more keen on playing dress up than Tom has) in particular has taken her costume very seriously this year, so our preparations for Samhain this year have seemed like they've almost been never-ending. She's been so excited about Hallowe'en – wearing her costume to school for the parade, going out guising, bringing home all those SWEETS (dear gods, the sweets) – that she's actually been losing sleep over it. Several times she'd come down and tell me she couldn't sleep because it's just so exciting. In particular, her plans for her costume have been very specific and she just couldn't wait for everyone to see it. And guess who had to make it, eh?

I'll spare you a good chunk of the details, but suffice it to say that at the tender age of eight, Rosie is officially in the grip of But What Will My Friends Say?, along with It's All Wrong And Nobody Understands, GUH. It's not quite as bad as the teenage years yet, but dear gods I could do without the child insisting on the most inappropriate costumes for an eight-year-old, ever (no, Rosie, you will not be wearing an opaque blue body stocking and nothing else). So there was something of a battle over what a certain somebody was going to wear, and of course, at this time of year, that's the most important thing when you're eight. In Rosie's world, at least.

The situation reached crisis levels at one point, mainly because her first idea wasn't possible in the "I'll order you the costume and that's sorted" sense, at least, and every other idea she had wasn't possible (or appropriate, I felt) either. Rosie wanted to be a supervillain – none of your goodies, please (although Madam Vastra from Doctor Who was briefly considered), so we had a limited range to work with, let's say. She was hesitant to have a costume tailor-made in case it turned out badly and she looked silly, but in the end I convinced her to at least let me try. If it did turn out badly, I promised her we'd do something else instead.

So, long story short, I ordered two pairs of leggings – one red, one black – and two tops, also one red/one black, and set about cutting them in half and sewing them together to make a Harley Quinn costume. One of Mr Seren's white t-shirts was sacrificed to make the cuffs and the collar. Rosie's experience of the character is from the Lego Batman game, so she wanted the original jumpsuit version of her costume (and frankly, given the other options/iterations of the character, that was the only version she was going to get), although she conceded that a two-piece version would be more practical than the jumpsuit itself. Thankfully she didn't find the jester-style hat appealing, so I didn't have to make that.

If I do say so myself, it all turned out rather well in the end. We'll ignore the fact that after unpicking the leggings apart to sew the one red and one black leg back together, I ended up sewing two left legs. But never mind.

Tom's costume was easy, he wanted to recycle his Minecraft Steve costume into an Enderman (another character from the game, who throws pumpkins, apparently), although it took a little fixing after rescuing it from the garage, and we had to make a new head. Then disaster struck – the school decided that kids wouldn't be allowed to wear make-up, face paints or masks "in case it scared the little ones." Which is kind of the point, no? Weapons and other kinds of props like wands weren't allowed, either, nor "inappropriate footwear," so Rosie decided that she didn't want to wear her costume for school if she couldn't do the whole thing. Parents and family were no longer invited to the parade, either (hmph).

The kids were both outraged and upset (it was a last minute announcement which made it worse – most of the kids at school had already decided on their costumes and it meant that most of them either couldn't do them properly, or at all because of the new rules). Tom was at least eventually allowed to take his costume in so the teacher could decide if it was too scary to wear for the parade, but all in all it hardly seemed worth the effort. Nana came to the rescue for Rosie and dumped a load of old dance clothes on her, which used to belong to my nieces, so she eventually decided to go as "America" in red, white and blue, with a hastily made statue of Liberty as a pointed comment about her FREEDUMBS, which had been unjustly taken away by the head teacher's arbitrary and illogical decision-making (the kids were allowed masks, weapons and/or face-paints for the evening disco, along with footwear of their choosing, so the ban on "weapons" and such was hardly a safety reason). So for school, this is what we ended up with:

And then for Oidhche Shamhna itself (Hallowe'en) Tom wore his costume again and Rosie did her Harley Quinn costume. Because I'd made it, damn it, and she was gonna wear it:

We got some coloured spray for her hair but it's not very obvious in the photos, but she was very happy with how it turned out in spite of the fact that she hated every second of having her hair sprayed. She's decided she quite fancies having black hair, though.

So the run up to Samhain was mainly taken up with making all of the costumes and props that were needed, and then trying to get the house in order in time for the evening. After spending so much time on making stuff, a good clean and tidy was desperately needed.

The night before our celebrations began I carved the turnips and pumpkins:

And felt pretty pleased with myself because I managed to carve a turnip without ballsing things up
with the knife going accidentally off course, for the first time ever.... There's something satisfying about a hard won carved tumshie. I missed a trick with the pumpkins, though – the cat pumpkin was Rosie's choice, but I could've done the other one to match Tom's Minecraft pumpkin. Oh well.

Decorations were put up and the Saturday went verrrry slooooowly for two excited kids who were forced to tidy their rooms and make their beds. Eventually it came time for them to go guising (or galoshans, as we call it in this neck of the woods) and Mr Seren took them out with the neighbour's kid. I decided to do a beef stew with dumplings for our evening feast because it was something I could mostly leave to its own devices while I was concentrating on fielding guisers, and it's a good wintry meal so it seemed apt.

While the kids were out I set up a bucket of water for the dookin', and lit the whole house by candle-light. The lanterns were put up at the window to let the guisers know they were welcome, and I did some quick devotions to get the evening officially started. We didn't get nearly as many guisers as we usually do – normally the streets would've been full of kids in costumes with a harried parent in tow, but I think maybe because it was a Saturday night a lot of people were at parties instead this year.

The kids came back with a good haul of treats and they set to the dookin' with enthusiasm. The neighbour's kid looked at us as if we had two heads when he realised we were going to actually dunk our faces in the water for the apples, though – he'd only ever done it by trying to spear the apples with a fork. He and Rosie opted for that method, which I think is what they do at school (though they didn't hold it between their teeth like you're supposed to), while Tom did it old style. Unsuccessfully, but doggedly nonetheless:

Eventually, as water began to spread all across the floor and he was no nearer to getting the apple, I told him to use a fork. It took some persuading and he wasn't going to make things easy on himself, though, so he did the teeth method with his fork. And finally won his apple after many, many attempts.

We had dinner as the neighbour's kid was called for his, and then he came back and we carried on our wee party, but as usual all of the excitement of the day saw them tire out pretty quickly. Rosie was barely awake by 9:30pm so it was time for her to shower to get all of the dye and face-paints off.

I'd seriously overdone things and needed a good sit down by that point – I could barely walk – so once the kids were tucked in the rest of the night was pretty low key for me. Before bed I spent some time making some offerings to finish off the evening, chatted with the ancestors (with honourable mention of Eddie and Yoda, the two pets we've lost in the last year – Rosie's convinced Eddie's been around), welcomed in the winter and made prayers of blessing and thanks, and left some food out for any ancestral visitors overnight, and then went to my bed. I slept a deep and dreamless sleep that night.

I was still suffering for my efforts the following day – it was worth it, though – and I decided to stay home while Mr Seren took the kids to the in-laws for the afternoon. The car journey wouldn't have done me any good. That wasn't before Mr Seren and the kids went out to buy a new iPad to replace the one that had finally given up the ghost (har), and they came back with the most tasteful artwork for me, ever:

Which now graces my living room, on the wall above the sofa where I typically sit. It was an apology from the kids, really – they'd got into trouble that morning for not listening to either Mr Seren or me, in spite of dire warnings, and I'd eventually had to go tell them off. Standing up was a little too much at that point and I couldn't help but burst out crying, so that freaked the kids out and made them feel terrible. But I was very touched by their thoughtful gesture.

By the time they came bearing woolly cows I was feeling a lot better, and I managed to sain the house and put the meal I'd left for the ancestors outside as an offering. I still haven't managed to find a satisfactory sort of shelf (or something) to put near the pond, where I can put my offerings out of the way of the dog's reach, so they're still currently going up on the wall on the other side of the patio. I need to figure something out for that.

But we've successfully ushered in the winter here, I think – I hope. As much as I'm not exactly the greatest or most enthusiastic seamstress, I ended up enjoying the opportunity to make both costumes for the kids. It allowed me to do a little extra protection work, too, cutting or sewing or painting deiseil, and sewing in or painting a few protective symbols for them for when they'd be out and about. It did mean that the preparations for our celebrations were a little lengthier than usual, but that in itself provided an opportunity for time to contemplate and meditate on things, and it also seems apt in the sense that winter itself seems to be taking its time in arriving, although the predictions are that it will be a cold and bitter one, once it does.

In spite of the fact that I over did things (physically, at least) I'm glad that for once I managed to do all of the things I wanted to. I chose to push myself. I suppose in a way I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, in spite of my limitations these days. I know, though, that it's not the trappings that are important, as such – doing is all well and good, but it's kind of pointless if you don't have that connection, that communication... But at the same time those trappings help provide a focus, and become devotional acts in themselves, and it's something I wanted to do. In a way, I think it's something I needed this time, too.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Here be zombies... (and Celts)

Just so you know, there aren't any actual zombies in this post. It's just that I went to visit my mother, who now lives in deepest darkest East Anglia (for no apparent reason) and I swear I saw a group of zombies shuffling down the road once. Ask my husband. He'll tell you all about it. Actual. Zombies.

But it has to be said, it's not my favourite place in the world to visit, and nor is it Rosie's. Mainly because my mother obviously chose to live in the arse-end of nowhere, down many a twisty-turny country lane, and she has a small car and a terrible sense of direction. And even worse driving skills.

That said, in amongst the brief periods of fearing for our lives ("Oooo look, there's the cathedral!" she says, as she swerves two lanes across the motorway in its general direction), I got to see my nephews and we got to go crabbing. I think it must be a good 25 years since I last did that, and I always loved it as a kid. And I caught the biggest:

In a new-fangled net thingy. Not the way we used to do it when I was a kid, but much easier, and Rosie caught two shrimps in hers.

My sister and her family could only stay the weekend because the kids had to go back to school on the Monday (mine are on their half term at the moment, though), so after they'd gone we had a quiet day at a park so the kids could enjoy some sunshine for once, and then I convinced mum to have a day out in London. It was a bit of a trek but seeing as we were – relatively – so close, how could I not take a visit to the Celts exhibition at the British Museum? It's coming up to Edinburgh in the new year but I'm impatient.

And I was a little disappointed, ultimately, I have to admit.

I was hoping to take some photos but in spite of the fact that you can take photos everywhere else in the museum, it's not allowed in the exhibition itself. Mr Seren suggested it's because of the complexities of licensing agreements between the various museums who've loaned pieces, and while he has a point, legally speaking, I still maintain it's utter fucking bullshit. For £16.50 a visit they could take the time to sort their shit out, thankyouverymuch. I snuck as many photos as I dared but the staff were fairly well on top of things. If only I knew how to turn the sound off on the camera....

We got to the museum around midday and it was fairly busy, mostly full of people of a certain age, shall we say. London being as it is, everyone's rude and pushy and it was no different in the museum – people crowded round the exhibits and refused to budge until they were good and ready, and it probably wasn't helped by the fact that it was really dark and hard to see the information blurbs (especially if you're of a certain age and/or your eyesight's not top-notch). But gods forbid you take your own time. In amongst the atmospheric, calming music you could mostly hear tuts and sighs from the disgruntled people waiting to get their turn at the front, while the people already at the front got shirty about it and deliberately took even longer. It didn't help that the entrance to the exhibit was clogged up by people watching an introductory slideshow that lasts three-minutes, so you instantly walk into what's essentially a meat market.

But anyway, there really are some amazing pieces on display. The Battersea shield's there, and so is the original and then replica of a carnyx, or battle horn (I guess you'd call it), that was found in Deskford, near Moray in Scotland. Here's a photo of the replica from the Creative Commons:

By Dun-deagh
It's a very cheerful carnyx considering it's probable purpose is to induce and encourage mass slaughter, but hey. Times change. There were some headsets available so you could listen to what the horns would sound like, which was one of the few things that impressed the kids. They've tried, with a "follow the boar signs for family fun" but in general there's not much for kids there.

And yes, the infamous divination spoons are there, with cautious commentary about how they "might" have been used for "fortune telling" or ritual purposes.

The true star of the exhibition is the Gundestrup cauldron, though, it really is. There's a small replica on disply in the National Museum at Dublin but the real thing is both surprisingly huge and amazingly detailed. I never fully appreciated its magnificence until I saw the real thing, I guess.

I snuck a photo of one side:

Which really doesn't do it justice. The cauldron's set pretty high up so you can see the outer side panels without having to bend down too much (I'm guessing), but it does mean that if you're short you can't see the inside panels very well. Rosie was disappointed because she's quite keen on the artwork of the cauldron (I showed it to her as part of some homework a while ago and she drew it for her teacher) and she couldn't see her favourite panels. There's a step up so you can peer down to the panel that's in the centre at the bottom of the cauldron, which shows a female figure (described on the information panel as a "woman-warrior," I think, wielding a sword), with a large bull in the middle, but there really needs to be steps all around it so you can get a better view of everything, and so you can see the base panel from different angles.

There was a bucket with ducks on, from Hallstatt, Austria, that Tom was keen on (for no apparent reason he loves ducks more than anything else in this world):

Which was situated next to the Dunaverney flesh-hook:

Which Tom was also keen on. Technically this flesh-hook is more likely to be Bronze Age, only very possibly very early Iron Age, and it's got nothing to do with the bucket it's sat next to, but it's a stunning piece.

An altar to Brigantia (Romano-British) is also on display, which was found at Birrens in Dumfries and Galloway. It's not known for certain if Brigantia was honoured by the Britons this far north, into what's now Scotland, or if the person who erected the altar had come from further south and happened to erect the altar as they were passing through, but the altar is impressive to see nonetheless – the sandstone it's carved from is very glittery and sparkly, which doesn't come out in photos, and the information card had some really interesting details on it. Here's the altar:

You can probably just about make out her name at the bottom there, and the inscription translates to 'Sacred to Brigantia: Amandus, the engineer, fulfilled the order by command.' The figure of Brigantia is portrayed in a very Roman style. If you look carefully you can see that she has wings folded behind her shoulders, which is supposed to be a motif linking her to the Roman goddess, Victory. She's wearing armour, which links her to Minerva (I presume the spear does as well?), and she's also wearing 'turretted headgear' marking her as a goddess of a city. The globe she's holding, along with the pointed stones at her feet, link her with Juno Caelestis, goddess of the heavens. On a different altar, from Yorkshire, she's referred to a Caelestis Brigantia (Heavenly Brigantia) so that's not a unique motif here. So it's really very complex and shows just complex she is as well; she doesn't fit neatly into one box, so the imagery and motifs draw from all kinds of goddesses, I guess. There are some more details about the statue here, including mention of a Gorgon's head on her breast and the fact that it seems to have originally shown evidence of having been gilded.

Over all I thought the information presented was sound and provided a good introduction to the subject of the Celts – and noticed a very strong emphasis on the fact that the Celts are a cultural and linguistic term, not a genetic one – but we got talking to a very nice lady from Cornwall who'd come to see the exhibition and she commented that she'd had a hard time understanding what some of the terms meant and had wanted to ask a member of staff what a "boss" is, for example (I gave a highly technical answer of "the knobbly bits on shields"), so I guess some of the information presumes a greater level of archaeological jargon than most non-archaeologists might have.

The gift shop – which you get conveniently filtered into on the way out of the exhibiton – has lots of shiny things (as well as books with glossy pictures) but much of it's as over-priced as you might expect. I treated myself to a wee Pictish boar pin to put on my coat (although the Picts were largely overlooked in the exhibition itself), along with a laser cut card of the same boar that I might frame and hang up somewhere, and a nice little "Fun with Celtic Stencils" booklet, and then we went on to look at the Greeks (for Tom) and Egyptians (for Rosie). There was plenty more Celtic stuff in the Iron Age Europe section of the museum too, so I spent a while taking photos there while the kids and my mother went on ahead (I've posted some of the pics on the GN page on Facebook already).

I'd be interested to see what the exhibition's like once they get to Edinburgh next year (though I doubt the kids would agree to a second go-round). Most of all, it would be interesting to see what the crowds are like and whether the rudeness is just down to location (London. Bleh) or maybe layout (dark and crowded).

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The "weird bannock scone thing."

Sometimes things don't quite work out as you hoped. It's not like it's a total disaster, really, but the image you have in your head doesn't quite translate into what you end up with what's in front of you. You visualise a triumph of culinary delight...

And end up with... culinary ooze...

To back up a little, I decided (and mentioned in the links post I did for Là Fhèill Mìcheil) to have a go at making a different version of the Strùthan Mhìcheil than I've done before. Here's one I made earlier:

It's a very dense bannock because it doesn't have any butter in it, and the caudle topping was very thick so I was able to spread it on and it stayed put. This one above was the large one, but I made individual ones as well:

Which turned out rather neatly.

The recipe I used for the most recent batch is here, and it kind of requires a certain level of psychism to actually figure out how to make it. For one, there aren't any instructions on how to make the bannock itself, but seeing as it was referred to as a scone I made it like that – rubbed the butter and flour together into fine breadcrumbs, then mixed in the rest to make the dough. I didn't need nearly as much milk as the recipe suggested – I'd say I used half a pint, if that. That part turned out really well – it's much lighter than the ones I've tried previously (because of the addition of butter), which tend to be rather solid and chewy if you don't eat them right out of the oven, so I'll do this version again, for sure. Although in future I think I'll use dried fruit rather than caraway.

Like the ones I've done before, I opted to use golden syrup rather than treacle for the topping, although technically it does call for treacle (black syrup); I find treacle has a rather heavy, bitter taste that overwhelms my tastebuds, so I prefer golden syrup over all. With this version, the topping is more like a proper caudle, involving eggs and milk, whereas the previous version I've tried only has a little milk and no egg at all. For this version, though, t's not entirely clear how thick the caudle topping should be, so I had to guess, and suffice it to say as far as the consistency of the topping goes, I'm pretty sure I guessed wrong:


Treacle and golden syrup have about the same consistency so I don't think switching from one to the other had much to do with it. The recipe suggested adding more flour to the mixture if it seemed too runny, and I did – about half the amount of flour again, and even then I was worried it was too runny. I think I could've doubled the flour and it would've still been a little on the runny side. Too runny to end up with something "pretty," I suppose, anyway, assuming it's not supposed to ooze all over your oven (I'm fairly sure it isn't but I could be wrong...). The individual bannocks I made – one for each of us, and each bannock blessed – all ended up oozing together.

But damn the topping tastes good. Frankly, I could happily just make it by itself and sod the bannock...

For my tastebuds it didn't really compliment the caraway flavour in the scone (I didn't put much in at all – caraway's a very strong flavour, but perhaps I over-did it anyway – although then again, with the heavier flavour of treacle I imagine they'd work together a lot better) but I definitely think with fruit instead of caraway it would work nicely.

Rosie wasn't overly keen on the scone part, but Tom and Mr Seren really enjoyed it. Mr Seren would sidle into the kitchen and wonder if there was any of that "weird bannock scone thing" left. The kids decided, hopefully, that some extra syrup or honey drizzled on top of the scone part would Make It Better, but Speaking As A Mother, I vetoed that idea on the grounds of too much sugar, thankyouverymuch. Maybe next time.

Practice makes perfect, though, right? I'll keep trying.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Book Review: Constructing Gender in Medieval Ireland

This is another book I got from the library during the school holidays (and of course after confidently declaring that it "won't take long" to get through them all, I'm two books down and due to return them in two days....).

Before I get into the review itself, I think it's worth mentioning an article I read a while back that's titled 'One Flesh, Two Sexes, Three Genders?' by Jacqueline Murray, which you can find in a book called Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe, edited by Lisa Bitel and Felice Lifshitz. This was another library find, and while I didn't read the whole book (it wasn't quite what I was looking for – there wasn't much on Ireland at all), Murray's article caught my eye and had quite a bit of interesting food for thought, which I think is relevant in terms of discussing the book I'm about to review. For one, it introduced me to the concept of the "third gender," which the article broadly equated with a "clergy gender."

This third gender essentially encapsulates the idea that people who devoted themselves to religious life in medieval Europe in effect othered themselves from otherwise normal expectations of their gender. Whereas "normally" men and women occupied fairly well-defined roles based on their gender – getting married, having babies, taking on certain kinds of domestic roles or duties, etc. (for example, the focus of a child's education was very different depending on whether you were a girl or a boy, in preparation for those kinds of roles you'd be expected to take on as an adult) – people who dedicated themselves to a religious life as priests, monks, nuns, or hermits, effectively stepped outside of those expectations. Instead of a "normal" life, they were expected to be celibate and couldn't marry, and in the case of monks and nuns, they might live in fairly secluded, women- or men-only monasteries or nunneries, with only limited contact with those of the opposite sex. Because of this, there was more leeway in terms of the kinds of roles that they might take on – having to adopt roles that weren't typically associated with their gender. In secular society, things like that might be frowned upon, but the rules were different for religious dedicants (of one kind or another), whether out of necessity or for other reasons, so it was more accepted and expected, arguably, than people who occupied other areas of society.

To be clear, this is a concept that isn't explicitly articulated in medieval Europe – there's very much a gender binary view of "male" and "female"/"man" and "woman" (hence the examples of "gender norms" I gave above) – so this "third gender" is something that's implied, more than anything. So in practical terms, it's more of an academic concept that can be useful in discussing certain subjects, though it's by no means necessarily universally accepted and agreed upon. It's also a relatively recent concept, as far as I'm aware, and not something you'll encounter in most books that find their way onto reading lists you might find on various websites.

Anyway. Onto the review. Yes, it's time to talk about the cross-dressing nuns (or lack thereof).

Constructing Gender in Medieval Ireland
Sarah Sheehan and Ann Dooley (Editors)

There aren't very many books that deal exclusively with gender or sexuality in terms of Irish studies, so this volume here goes some way towards filling that gap (as the editors themselves note). Although it should be said from the start that if you're looking for any in-depth articles about attitudes towards anything other than heterosexual relationships or sexuality, you're going to have to look somewhere else, I'm afraid.

The book contains nine articles from nine different authors, and as usual I'll concentrate on the ones I found to be the most interesting, throught-provoking, or useful. Some of them weren't as engaging for me as others were, but the ones I did enjoy gave me a lot to think about, especially because the authors consider not just the historical view of things – this is what we see in the sources, so when we put it all together this is how we see society was, etc. – but they also consider how historians have dealt with the materials before now and how different approaches, different ideas and social attitudes or trends, and personal biases, have influenced our own interpretation of things as the field of Celtic Studies has evolved. This is especially important when we consider some of the better-known figures in Irish myth, like Medb and Macha, who both present a very atypical expression of gender expectations of the time, and both of them are discussed at various points in the book.

We get off to a good start with the first article by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, with a look at 'Travelers and Settled Folk: Women, Honor, and Shame in Medieval Ireland.' It's an obvious choice to put first because this article introduces the differences in expectations between men and women, and the kinds of gender roles that were expected of them (by and large), which are important to understand in helping us interpret what we find in Irish myths, laws, and other historical sources. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, and these are considered as well, and in particular Ní Dhonnchadha touches on the topics of female poets and warriors – both of whom would have had to travel as part of their jobs.

A large part of the issues surrounding travel were on safety and sexual propriety, and the latter point follows on nicely into chapter 2, 'Sex in the Civitas: Early Irish Intellectuals and their Vision of Women' by Catherine Swift. Swift starts off with a quote from Yeats – "After Cuchulain, we think most of certain great queens – of angry amorous Maeve with her long pale face, of Findabair... of Deirdre who might be some mild modern housewife but for her prophetic vision... I think it might be proud Emer... who will linger longest in the memory, whether she is the newly married wife fighting for precedence, fierce as some beautiful bird or the confident housewife who would waken her husband from his magic sleep with mocking words" – noting that these references to "queens and housewives" speaks more to Yeats' own view and expectations of women than how it was for the women he's talking about; Emer or Deirdre, as women of high status, were hardly housewives. They had servants and slaves to be doing all of that while they had the freedom to pursue all the things expected of a lady of good breeding. From this we move on to how these attitudes are prevalent throughout time, especially when it comes to looking at the kind of sexual mores we find in early Ireland. Aside from the myths, which often play with themes of gender expectations and sexuality, our view is mainly involved by the men of the Church who wrote extensively about what marriage should be, how sex should be, and the kind of penances that should be performed when transgressions were made, and they had their own biases, of course, and the views they espoused are often contradicted by the myths.

This article has a lot of post-it notes from me, and another one that got the same treatment was Amy C. Mulligan's 'Playing for Power: Macha Mongrúad's Sovereign Performance,' which takes a fascinating look at the story of Macha Mongrúad's reign. Mulligan discusses a lot of good points about the story, though I anticipate her view that the Macha we see here is not an expression of a divinity per se, but is rather a figure who contains elements of a sovereignty goddess, is not something that will be met with universal agreement...

Skipping ahead to the cross-dressing nuns ('They Kept Their Skirts On: Gender-Bending Motifs in Early Irish Hagiography,' by Judith L. Bishop), this was another article I greatly enjoyed, and it's what made me mention the stuff about third gender above, because it seems to fit in with the "gender-transgressive" theme of the article, especially in the sense that it's specifically in the context of religious expression and attitudes towards gender. In particular, one of the main threads of the article here is that gender transgressive acts in Irish hagiography ("saint's lives"), where saints are forced, or choose, to dress in clothes that are the opposite of their gender, just aren't a thing, even though it's clear that the stories of such saints from further afield were definitely known to the Irish. It's interesting, then, that there aren't any stories of Irish saints that picked up this theme and ran with it, even though we do see, in a broader sense, there are certainly examples of saints who engage in "gender-transgressive" acts – Brigid being ordained a bishop, say, even though women can't normally be bishops. In spite of this fact, the ordainment is said to have been accepted and Brigid remained a bishop, although as Bishop notes, she's never seen performing the trappings of a bishop. In fact, there are references made about the fact that she's unable to fulfil certain roles associated with that of a bishop specifically because of her gender.

There's plenty more that's worth a read here, but I don't want to go on for too long. As much as I'd recommend the book, I think it's probably going to appeal to people who've already got a pretty good grounding in the basics and/or have an interest in this particular area of study. This is very much an academic read, so if you're looking for some light bedtime reading, I don't think I'd count this one as falling into that column...

I did feel that (at times) different articles touched on themes that had already been dealt with elsewhere, in a way that felt rather repetitive. That's only a very minor quibble, though, and perhaps it's inevitable when it comes to a book that's so focused on a particular theme. I suppose my biggest disappointment is the lack of any discussion of anything other than heterosexual relationships. For one, scant though the evidence is for lesbians (or bisexual women, etc. Perhaps I should say "Women who sleep with women, though not necessarily exclusively?") and "playful mating," we do have the tale of Niall Frossach that I think would be worthy of attention from the kind of approach towards gender theory and gender studies found here... So I guess, in conclusion: More please. And more diversity? That would be very much appreciated.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Links and things for Là Fhèill Mìcheil

I accidentally typed "kinks" and things in the title there, which would put an altogether different tone on the rest of this post...

But anyway, as usual, let's start off with a video from Gaol Naofa's Youtube channel:

Which gives a short introduction to the festival as well as some ideas for things to do. I've done a more in-depth article over on Tairis, along with a short piece going over some practical ways of celebrating:
Given the associations of St Michael and horses and the sea, along with the harvest theme, there are a number of deities that could be connected with the festival, and Kathryn wrote a bit about that on her blog. She also did the meme we posted on the GN Facebook page on Monday:

Photo collage from original images by efilpera (horses) and Duarte JH (field)
Along with the adaptation of the prayer, which you can find in full on the Gaol Naofa website's new meme page.

As far as things to do go, the big one is making a Strùthan Mhìcheil, or Michaelmas struan, which is a specially made bannock that's coated with a kind of caudle. I've posted a recipe for it on Tairis, which is taken from Margaret Shaw's Folksongs and Folklore of Uist. The Ceolas website has a more scone-like version, which I'm going to try tomorrow, hopefully (I prefer to use golden syrup as opposed to treacle, personally, though). An offering can be made of some of the strùthan, perhaps as you "beat the bounds" of your property, if you're able.

In the run up to the festival you could also try going out to look for some wild carrots (also known as Queen Anne's Lace), which are traditionally gathered at this time of year, although they may not grow in your area (and they're considered a problem in some parts of the US so it's probably not a good idea to grow them yourself). If you do go looking for them, it's important to be cautious because they're easily confused with poison hemlock (conium maculatum) and a couple of other plants. If you'd rather play it safe then the more usual orange variety of domesticated carrots (or more specialist variants, like purple or white ones) could be harvested (or obtained by other means) instead.

Of course, a good party is always a great way to celebrate any festival, and as Carmichael notes (two links up) there's a traditional dance that's done to the tune of Cailleach an Dùdain ('The Old Woman of the Mill-Dust'). Here's an example of the tune with a peurt-a-beul accompanying it:

The Carmichael Watson Project Blog has some interesting commentary on it, and also notes that the last sheaf of the harvest is often woven into a doll called the Cailleach. As winter approaches, she's certainly making her presence felt as she prepares to resume her wintry reign, and let's not forget that she also has associations with the equinox in Ireland, at Sliabh na Caillighe (Loughcrew), where Cairn T is oriented to the equinox sunrise.

That's about all I can think of at the minute, but check back on the Gaol Naofa Facebook page for another related meme on Monday...

Friday, 18 September 2015

New page and lead mines...

First off, a quick note about a new page on the Gaol Naofa website...

If you're following us on Facebook then you'll have noticed that we've been putting out a number of memes on proverbs, prayers, triads, and so on. Our latest meme is a prayer to the moon:

Gaol Naofa meme – Moon
Original image: Dawn Perry
And now that we have quite a few of them we've created a page to host (and archive them) in the library section of the site. If you'd like to share any of them feel free, but please make sure you credit the original photographer, as per the terms of the Creative Commons licence. (Thanks).

Anyway, at the weekend the kids and I went on a fieldtrip with my mother-in-law and the archaeological society she's involved with. It was a long day with a few stops arranged (plenty of opportunity for my mother-in-law to show off her grandkids), the first one being to a lead mine situated in the highest village in Scotland. It's maybe not the most typical thing I'd be blogging about here, but the mine was really interesting and also involved a visit to a cottage that's been laid out in three sections, each section showing what living there would've been like during that period. It brought home a lot of things, for me, that I want to waffle on about here.

The mines date back to around the eighteenth century and it first started off with men setting up camp in the area and mining – rather haphazardly – whatever they could find. They lived in makeshift tents during the summer and worked as much as they could, then returned home in the winter. The conditions in the winter were too harsh to survive comfortably in tents, and being so high up it was pretty uncomfortable at other times of the year as it was.

Then a company moved in and advertised jobs that came with a real home. Men flocked to the area, bringing their families, encouraged by the prospect of a roof over their heads and a regular income; being able to settle permanently in the area meant that a regular income from mining was possible. As far as the houses go, what the company really meant was that they'd give the workers a small plot of land and then – along with working in the mine all day – they'd have to build the house themselves. Which wasn't exactly what was advertised, but people made do, and a village began to flourish... This is one of the streets today:

If I recall correctly, things like water mains, sewers, gas, and electricity were still being installed in parts of the village in the 70s.

The men would go to work in the mines for ten or twelve hour shifts during the summer, going down to around six hours in the winter. They got double the wages in the summer, given the longer hours. Boys from around eight years of age were employed to wash the galena that was mined out of the hills, before it was sent for smelting. In the summer they'd spend ten or twelve hours standing barefoot in the stream. In winter they'd often have to smash through the ice before they could begin washing – again, spending the whole shift barefoot in the water. The mining company would advertise the positions as "healthy outdoor work" for boys.

At the age of twelve the boys who worked in the stream would be allowed to move up in the world, being promoted to work in the mine. They wouldn't do the mining itself – not yet. Instead, they'd spend their shift dragging the lead out from where the miners were working, to pass their load on to the boys washing the galena in the stream and then trudge back in for more.

Of course, using the stream tainted the water with lead and other minerals, but it was the smelting that was the most dangerous job: A by-product of the smelting was arsenic, which was freely inhaled. To begin with, the furnace was situated near the village to cut down on the time it took to get the ore there, but it soon became obvious that the fumes hanging over the village weren't doing anyone any good. Eventually the furnace was moved further out, and built into the hillside. Boys would be employed to clean out the flues of all the soot and sediment – men were too big to climb up there – exposing them to the arsenic, too. The average life expectancy in the village – in the 1750s – was 35, although the high rate of infant mortality is the main factor in giving such a low figure. The age group with the highest mortality rate was between 0-2.

As new shafts were opened, the miners would leave the first piece of galena that alerted them to a potential seam they could mine. The rest of the galena would be taken, but that first piece was left, for luck; take it, and the mine would take you. So there it stayed. Each day as the miners entered the shaft they'd walk pass that piece of galena and rub it for luck. At the end of the shift they'd rub it again as they made their way out. The mine deserved this respect.

The tour guide showed us the piece in the mine we explored:

You can see how worn it is. The moss is from the damp and the spotlight they use to show it off – the tunnels are otherwise too dark for anything to grow ordinarily, but it's just as damp as it ever was.

Once they were in the mine they'd stay there until the end off the shift – in the dank and dimness. They'd eat where they worked and they'd piss and shit there too, so the mines were full of rats. The miners would tie their trouser legs at the knee so the rats couldn't run up inside them. They didn't have any specialist clothing, they just wore everyday clothing that they covered in melted wax so help give some waterproofing. It was always damp in the mines, but especially so in the rainy seasons when the rain water would filter down through the hills and drip into the mine shafts.

While the galena was dragged out by the older boys, the rest of the rock was usually stacked up on the wooden props used to shore up the shaft walls – it was a waste of time dragging out rock that wasn't going to make any money, because less ore meant less pay. The piles of rock added weight to the props, and with the damp in the mines it meant that the wood could rot quickly and there would often be collapses. Conditions left a lot to be desired...

The lead that was produced from the mines was only shipped off once a year – perhaps two years if the mines weren't especially fruitful. They wouldn't be shipped off until the load could fill up a ship, which meant the miners wouldn't get paid until a whole load was ready to go. Each miner would have to buy their own tools, pay for their own candles to light their way, and so they relied on the mining company to provide a store where the families could get food and any other supplies they needed, on tab. The miners worked in groups called "bargains," because the head of the group would haggle and bargain with the mining company to agree a rate of pay for the group. When the miners were finally paid they'd have to settle their tab and hope they had money left over; in a bad year, sometimes the miners would find that they owed the mining company more than they'd been paid, and would need to work another year and hope that this time they'd earn enough. Families would try to supplement their incomes by panning for gold in the streams that ran through the village, and the miners would carefully cultivate stalagtites of hematite that would form from the shaft ceilings from the minerals that leeched out of the rock. When the stalagtite was big enough, the miner would break it off and take it home to polish it up, and then sell it on to travelling merchants.

So conditions were hard. On top of the long hours and demanding physical work, the earliest houses built by the miners had to be erected using the cheapest materials available. Rock wasn't hard to come by for the walls, but the roofs were often little more than thatches of bracken and heather – not always completely waterproof, but slate or proper thatching cost money that most workers didn't have. The glass tax of the eighteenth century meant that most families couldn't afford windows either, so they just had small holes in the wall, with wooden shutters that were kept closed in winter. The floor of the house was little more than earth (or mud at times, because the thatch wasn't exactly water-tight).

The hearth was roughly in the middle of the room; there was no chimney, so the smoke would just have to work its way out through the thatch. The furniture – a chest, a few stools, and probably not much more – were low down to help keep people out of the worst of the smoke. The beds were little more than piles of heather and bracken to provide a mattress, covered over with warm blankets. Cottages typically housed between 8-10 family members:

The weather was pretty miserable on the day we visited, and even though it's only September the damp and cold really brought home how it important it would have been to keep the hearth alight day and night. The fire was smoored each night – smothered over to keep it at a steady, slow smoulder rather than a roaring blaze, to conserve fuel and so it wouldn't need constant attention throughout the night, and so it could be easily raised up again in the morning without having to start from scratch. Allowing the fire to go out completely could mean freezing conditions. I can't help but think of all the feeling that was put into the smooring prayer as those words were said each night. In the face of such uncertainty, routines of daily prayers like that could provide a sense of comfort and consistency.

Within a hundred years things had improved some. Slate became more widely available and affordable for roofing, and the window tax had been abolished so people had the luxury of natural daylight. The central hearth was becoming a thing of the past, being replaced by a cast iron fireplace off to one side of the room, with a chimney to take away the smoke. A bed was built into a cosy nook near the stove, and wood panelling on the walls provided extra insulation:

(A bit blurry but the light was crap, sorry). The nook was the prime spot for sleeping, especially in the winter.

Life was a little more comfortable and dry, although the slate roofing could still be a bit leaky. The average life expectancy in the village had risen to 55 by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1910, housing had improved once more:

People had warmer housing and better access to education and health care. Life expectancy had risen even further, hence baldy granddad in the corner there. One of the major changes was that the mining company recognised the benefit of a healthier workforce, so they'd begun to offer subsidies to the workers so they could buy seeds to grow vegetables. A healthier diet was a major improvement.

So that's the museum. The little tidbits of folklore – like preserving the first bit of galena – were really striking, for me. I doubt the miners thought of the mine as having a spirit, as such, but all the same they behaved as if the mine had a life of its own, and they worked to appease it just as they did with their offerings of milk to the Good Folk, the smooring and setting the house in order each night to make sure that the spirits couldn't come in and interfere... Life may not be so precarious as it was then – for most of us – but our concerns remain much the same. And respect to those we share our space with is always due.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Review: Studies in Irish Mythology

Before I get into the review of Grigory Bondarenko's book (AKA my new favourite book, ever), I'll just make a note of the new page I've created where all the book reviews I've done here on the blog are listed and linked to, arranged by subject matter.

Studies in Irish Mythology
Grigory Bondarenko

As I noted when I blogged about my trip to the library, where I picked this book up along with a bunch of others, this one is a compilation of sixteen articles and essays written by Bondarenko over the course of around ten years. You can find some of the articles compiled in this volume freely available online, so if you want a taster of what you'll be getting, here they are:
I'm going to assume that most people who find this review don't read Russian, but I'll link to the first chapter as well, and note that the version given in the book is most definitely in English, unlike that version online. And as a bonus, here's a preview of the book.

But don't let the availability of these articles put you off from investing in getting the book for your probably overcrowded shelves; it's well worth it, and I'll definitely be adding it to mine on a permanent basis. You'll have to buy directly from the publisher, from the looks of it, but it's reasonably priced compared to a lot of academic books these days.

Although focusing on Irish mythology, most of the chapters take a rather comparative approach, making comparisons with Slavic or Russian myth in some places, or drawing on Indo-European, Gaulish or Welsh evidence to help support an argument in others. It's something that's easy to over-do (see, for example, the Rees brothers' Celtic Heritage) but I think here, for the most part, the comparative approach genuinely complements what Bondarenko is trying to do, rather than detracts from it. Many of the chapters deal with various aspects of cosmology and attempt to dig out evidence of pre-Christian ritual or belief, so a comparative approach can be helpful in figuring out what we should be looking for, for one.

It's this cosmological and pre-Christian stuff that I'm most interested in (in case you hadn't guessed), and I found a number of the chapters to be extremely illuminating. There's an article on 'The migration of the soul in Early Irish tales,' (link above) which is especially good, and I think it will definitely be of interest to anyone looking for a rundown of the evidence and the different ways that the evidence has been approached and interpreted. There's also a bit of a tangent about the word carddes, which can be interpreted as being 'a friendly agreement,' and which is found in relation to the agreement of peace between the Milesians and the Tuatha Dé Danann mentioned in De Gabail in t-Sida. That's also touched on in an earlier chapter, which is also worth a read.

The final chapter, 'Fintan mac Bóchra: Irish synthetic history revisited,' makes a good companion piece to the article on the migration of souls, since it deals with Fintan and Tuán mac Cairell, both of whom are said to have transformed into different kinds of animals as a way of surviving many thousands of years, and who are often cited as examples for supporting evidence of the belief in metempsychosis (the transmigration of the soul, which can include and encompass reincarnation). Fintan is said to have been the only person to have survived the Flood, who then lived for thousands of years until he related the history of Ireland to an audience (and then died), and Bondarenko gives an overview of the possible meanings of his name and the various interpretations academics have made over the years in terms of who, or what, Fintan is – a god, an example of a "primordial man," and so on. All of this is especially interesting if you have a thing for cosmogony/creation myths, and if that's not enough there's also some meaty stuff on the concept of silence or "dumbness" in relation to revelation and obtaining hidden knowledge, and possible hints of its use in ritual.

Some of the earlier chapters deal with various aspects of the tale Airne Fíngein ('Fíngen's Vigil'), which relates the events surrounding the birth of Conn Cétchatach, one of Ireland's most reknowned legendary kings. Here again we have some good stuff to mull over – aspects of "ideal kingship" in Ireland, the possible meaning of Conn's name and his epithet "Cétchathach," usually interpreted as "Conn of the Hundred Battles," but, as Bondarenko notes, the epithet could mean "a hundred treaties," or perhaps even "first-warlike." Conn, meanwhile, can have connotations of "protuberance, boss, chief, head," or "sense, reason." At Conn's birth, Airne Fíngein mentions the spontaneous appearance of the five royal roads of Ireland, and the meaning and symbolism of these are explored in a chapter of their own, which also appears in the Celtic Cosmology book I reviewed not too long ago.

As the article on 'The Case of Five Directions' notes, fives are a common grouping in Irish myth – five royal roads, five directions, five sacred trees (bile), and so on. A couple of chapters look at various aspects relating to the sacred trees of Ireland, including one on 'The alliterative poem Eó Rossa from the Dindshenchas.' This is a poem that describes the tree (possibly a yew), and it includes some intriguing lines, including one that calls the tree "dor nime/door of heaven," which has been interpreted in some CR circles as being evidence that the bile spans the three realms. Bondarenko gives a detailed and fascinating analysis of many of the lines from the poem, including this one (noting the possible Biblical references it makes), and it makes for a thought-provoking read.

One of the later chapters, 'Goidelic Hydronyms in Ptolemy's Geography: Myth Behind the Name,' is an article that puts the comaparative approach that Bondarenko favours to particular good use. This one was of especial interest for the discussion of Boann and her relation to a river name Ptolemy notes that's likely to correspond with the Boyne river, and Bondarenko brings in the comparative evidence to explore the meaning of the name, mentioning Indo-European theories, Gaulish evidence of similar names, as well as the Dindshenchas stories relating to Boann (and similar tales, like that of Shannon/Sinann), in discussing the possibilities. Although Bondarenko makes his own views clear, he makes an effort to cover different angles and other approaches, so it's easy to make your own mind up or hunt up those other academics while you chew on it.

I'll finish off with mentioning one final article that stood out for me – another one on a Dindshenchas poem, but this time it's a translation of a rosc poem that hasn't been translated before. Both Edward Gwynn and Whitley Stokes, who translated the bulk of the Dindshenchas between them, left this one out, apparently because of the difficult and obscure nature of the language, and they didn't even mention it (except for a brief reference to it by Stokes in his own privately printed compilation of his translations). This fact in itself is interesting to me, and Bondarenko goes on to offer a translation and analysis of the poem, which centres around five heroes who must defend themselves from "phantoms, ancient armies" from the Otherworld, who come out to attack them during the Feast of Tara at Samhain. Again, it links in with a number of details described in Airne Fíngein, starting with mention of the five royal roads that appeared at the birth of Conn.  

There's so much more here besides the few tidbits I've covered so far, and it really does make for a good read. I can't say I don't have my disagreements, or questions, here or there, and I can't say every single chapter was of as much interest to me as the ones I've mentioned above, but there's nothing here that makes me want to throw the book at the nearest wall and then stomp on it (I do quibble and grumble over the questionable use of "shaman/shamanism" in the first few chapters, though). Even where I wasn't so interested in the subject being discussed, I can say that at least I learned something new.

This isn't a book that I'd recommend for a total noob; it's certainly a hefty and dense read that isn't aimed at a general, populist audience, and I think it would really benefit from being approached with an already decent foundation of knowledge with regards to Irish mythology and the study of it. As academic works go, the language used is fairly accessible – I don't think you'll be overwhelmed by jargon – but it's the nature of the beast that these things can be rather dry, especially if it's not your usual kind of bedtime reading.

If you feel like you've read all the 101 books you can stomach and you're looking for something with more depth to it, then I'd say definitely add this to your wish list. If you're interested in all things Irish cosmology then I'd suggest you have done with it and just order a copy now...  And if you take my advice then I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!