Seasons and Cycles in Irish Mythology
Irish mythology and lore is replete with instances of how important cycles were to the ancient Gaels of the Emerald Isle. As with most cultures, it governed their calendars and religious festivals, but it went much deeper than that, by governing most every aspect of their lives, including the supernatural and the martial.
A major duality of Irish lore is seen in how the people treat days, with a clear delineation between day and night. The day time is the time for humans, where we are safer from supernatural interference. The night time, however, is sinister and foreboding. It is the time of the Aos Si, the Shining Ones, those who you should not call fairies for fear of offending them. Once the sun sets, the Shining Ones emerge from their mounds in search of humans to play with. The Fae sense of humor and play is much different than ours, though. At its harshest end, it involves hunting the humans for sport or trading a human infant for a changeling, which is a look-a-like mischief maker who takes the child’s place while the real baby is taken back with the Fae. At the least worrisome end of “play,” the Lords and Ladies may just take their “guest” back with them, until they tire of the mortal and send him or her back, where they find decades or centuries have passed and all their friends and family have passed on.
The night is also the time for the dead. Ghosts and those who have risen from their graves are active at this time of the day, and great care is needed to not offend these beings. The best way to keep these undead from harming you is to be in your house and asleep before it gets very late in the evening. All your chores should be done, so everything is tidy and ready for the next day. To me, it sounds like it was a good way to make sure the children did their jobs without slacking off! I would not want to chance it, though, if the penalty is an animated corpse carrying me away to its grave site.
One of the most feared nighttime visitors, even into modern times, are the Sluagh. These are the horrific souls of the unwanted dead, who cannot rest after death. They take the form of a flock of crows or just long, dark shadows. Waiting for someone to pass away, they would swoop in and steal the soul, causing that person to become one of the ever-roaming host (host, by the way, is the translation of the word sluagh). To stop this, all westward facing windows and doors should be completely shut, to keep the vicious horde out and away from the dying human. You can see why day time was a much anticipated event!
For the ancient Irish, the year was also divided into two, with just a summer and a winter – not an uncommon practice for a pastoral culture that really took care of its livestock. Summer, which started at Beltane (the first of May), was much like the day light division of the day. Here, things were safer and there was much more activity. It was the time of year when the Fianna would roam the country side, living off the land. The Fianna were bands of landless young men that would fight each other for their provincial kings, although it was also thought to be one band that would fight for the High King. The summer was the time of war and cattle raiding and openness.
As summer matched with the day, so did winter match with the night. Beginning at Samhain (the first of November), it was a time to stay indoors and for planning, whether these plans were for livestock and agriculture or for warfare and raiding. Supernatural creatures held sway, not only because there was more night, but also because the natural world was in retreat. This was the time of the year for stories to be told around a fire, with a pint of ale and, in more modern times, a pipe of tobacco. The wise would stay indoors, as protection from not only the elements, but also from the creatures that roamed the country side, be they alive, dead, or immortal.
Although there were only two seasons, there were four quarter days, each of which held one of the main holidays for the Irish Gaels of antiquity. These special days figured in heavily with the mythology of ancient Ireland, and helps to emphasize the relationship of cycles with the Irish Gaels. (Note: All dates are also given for northern hemispheric celebrations – the southern hemisphere celebrates them on opposite dates, although some maintain the original northern dates. For the ancient Irish, days started at sun down, which is why modern Halloween starts on the evening of October the 31st rather than during the day on November the 1st.) To aid with pronunciation, I am using the modern spellings of the days.
The first of these to occur during in the modern calendar is Imbolc, which occurs halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and is generally celebrated in modern times on the first of February. This was a time of divination and visiting holy wells, and is thought to be sacred to the Goddess Brigid. It is still associated with Saint Brigid, the Christianized version of the pagan Goddess.
Beltane is celebrated on the half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, with the first of May being used as well. As mentioned above, this date marks the beginning of summer. Livestock would be driven between two bonfires to protect them from both natural and supernatural harm. The spirits and fairies were especially active on this date, as it was one of the two most liminal days of the year. As with Imbolc, holy wells were often visited. This is considered the day when the Tuatha De Danann, the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Ireland, arrived on the isle.
Lunasa occurs halfway between the summer solstice and fall equinox, being generally celebrated in modern days on August the first. This is a harvest festival and is named after the God Lugh, one of the chieftains of the Tuatha De. Many sporting games were played on this date and matchmaking was performed. As with most of the holy days, bonfires were lit and holy wells visited.
Samhain is both the beginning of winter and the beginning of a new year. It takes place halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, although generally is celebrated on November the first. Along with Beltane, It is one of the most liminal times of the year, where the fairies and the dead could most easily cross over from the Otheworld to our own. Divination was performed due to this liminality. In Irish lore, the Cattle Raid of Cooley began on Samhain. The Morrigan, one of the main Irish Goddesses, comes out of her cave at Cruachan every Samhain, with her red horse. Every year at Samhain, the God Aillen would burn down Tara until Fionn Mac Cumhaill slayed him, for which he was made leader of the Fianna. Oengus, son of The Dagda, was born on Samhain. This is also the date of the second battle of Maige Tuired, where Tuatha De Danann defeat the Fomorians, part of which was ensured by the mating of The Morrigan and The Dagda at this time.
The Gods and Goddesses themselves also represent cyclical change. Before the Tuatha De Danann defeated the Fomor at Maige Tuired, they were expected to give the bulk of their grain and cattle to the latter. Bres, the king of the Tuatha at the time, allowed this to happen until his leadership was taken over by Lugh. Bres represents the winter and times of dearth, while Lugh represents summer and abundance. The Morrigan herself understands the cyclical nature of the world. At the end of the battle, she recites a poem that is thankful for the outcome of the battle, but also acknowledges that times of want will return, as the world is always in cycle.
As a story that combines many of these concepts, one of my all-time personal favorite tales is “Echtrae Nerai.” In it, Nera, a member of Ailill and Medb’s household, takes the challenge to wrap a branch around one of two corpses that are hanging at a gallows. It being nighttime at Samhain, as he is putting the wood around the ankle of one, the corpse leaps down upon Nera and hilarity ensues. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t so much hilarity that ensued, but rather the corpse making Nera go through a lot of trouble and effort to rid himself of the dead thing and complete his quest. It is an interesting story that includes The Morrigan and many pieces of lore, but it is much too long to give in its entirety here. I considered giving away the ending, but thought by teasing it, you to go out and read it in its entirety.
Or perhaps I’ll keep working on my Irish and give my own translation in this year’s Halloween special.
© 2016 James Slaven