Chapter 10: Irish Nonsense

Change AHG to AG everywhere

It is now easy to show that the ‘shape-changing’ which is a regular element in Irish myths, and sometimes the main feature of such tales, reflects hunting terminology.

In the tale known as ‘Da Chophur in Da Muccida’ in the Book of Leinster, two Otherworld swine-herds called Friuch and Rucht quarrell with each other and in turn change into two stags, two champions wounding each other, two phantoms terrifying each other, two dragons beating (melting?) the snow on the land of the other, and finally two worms from which come the two great bulls, the Findbennach and the Donn of Cualnge. In another version the two swine-herds are consecutively men, ravens, seals or sea-dogs, warriors, phantoms, worms or moths and bulls (George Henderson 133) and in a third, birds of prey, fish, stags, warriors, phantoms, dragons, fighting each other all the time, and finally maggots which are reincarnated as bulls. The bulls also fight, that being the theme of the Tain Bo Cualnge.

The Síd or fairy world and the mention of warriors, champions and ghosts tell us from the beginning that we are dealing here with archaic or obsolete hunting lore. These terms are all synonyms or honorific terms for a hunter or, in later terms, a warrior. The probably origin of the alleged metamorphoses can be found in the Tain Bo Cualnge, in the extravagant eulogies in which a warrior is described as a fierce lion, a bear, an eagle, a mad bull, in size like the overwhelming sea, in red blazing like fire, and so on. Even more appositely a well-matched pair of warriors are described as ‘two men of valour, two equally strong-necked ones, two bright flames, two bright torches, two champions, two heroes, two chief hospitallers, two dragons, two fires, etc etc (Irish Texts Society 259-262). No doubt Friuch and Rucht began as a similar pair.

It is not ideal to work from an English translation but the elaborate language of the final version of the Tain Bo Cualnge suggests that it has been very much worked over, in which case the original words are likely to have been improved upon. Dragons and hospitallers are not common Gaelic motifs.The scribes of Early Modern Irish manuscripts took pleasure in substituting words or phrases from other exemplars, other stories or poems, or their own heads for those in their exemplar.’ A. Bruford, 1987, 26.

Donn: his name gives little away but by analogy with the Findbennach, the Donn of Cualnge was also a tribal beacon, or the whole tribe. It seems probable that a dun was first and foremost a beacon site used by hunters: its etymology means ‘gathering place’.
Findbennach: G. fionn ‘white, bright, light’; fine ‘soldier, hunter’; bann ‘belt, girth, bond, band of men, chain, fetter, sling, death’; bàn ‘white, pale, light, fair’. There are enormous numbers of derivatives from both roots but the most general sense of ‘gathering fire’ is no doubt correct. The ‘bull’ is a metaphor for the tribal beacon or for the tribe who responded to it. cf. . boineid, boinich, boinne, bonnach discussed elsewhere.
Friuch: G. friogh ‘sharp, keen, piercing, stabbing’, so a hunter; cf. fraoch ‘anger, fury’, ie, ‘battle-frenzy’, the Macdonald battle cry ‘Fraoch!’ and ‘The Death of Fraoch’.
hospitaller: G. aoigheach ‘hospitable person’ is also aoigheach ‘stranger, guest’; aoigh ‘stranger, guest, skilful person, hero’, the traveller as always in an early context being a hunter from the neighbouring territory.
maggot: G. spiantach; cf. spion ‘snatch, take away by force or violence’, ie, to catch an animal.
moth: leòman, presumably for leòmhann ‘lion’; also cnuimh but this does not seem to lead anywhere. (E. knife?)
raven: fitheach, is a pun on fiadhach ‘Lord’, ie, hunt-master: fiadhach is also ‘hunting, herd of deer, venison, deer forest’.
Ruchd: as G. ruagadh ‘pursuing, chasing, hunting’.
swineherd: G. mucair; the muc or pig has already been proposed as a pun on mac ‘hunter’, linked to magh ‘field of battle, deer forest’, but this requires further study.
worm: G. snìomh. This is perhaps the ‘snow’ which appears in one translation (above).

Iain dubh mor, mac righ na Sorcha, Big Black John, Son of the King of Sorcha.
The Archaic Gaelis thesis proposes that all early fiction, both secular and religious, arose from attempts to explain obscure but treasured hunting lore. For a long time bards passed it on as they had received it but as its relevance declined they began to try to explain it and came up with a great many different and inventive ideas. Their descendants, no longer bound to respect the integrity of this material, collected and collated different versions, improvising freely as they did so. A standard type of story, found in several versions, is Iain dubh mor, mac righ na Sorcha, ‘Big Black John, Son of the King of Sorcha’. J. MacDougall 1910, 38-55.

This tale might also be called ‘The Case of the Missing Tooth’, for it hangs on the fact that Iain dubh mor, for reasons that are not explained, steals a tooth ‘out of the door of the mouth of the King of Greece’, who is at that moment sitting on the hunting-hill with his three sons. They depart to look for their father’s missing tooth, and the story-teller spins a great long tale out of their subsequent adventures. Even by the standards of folk tales the theft of the tooth makes little sense. It begins to make sense of a kind when one realises that almost every significant word in the introduction is an AG pun referring to hunting.

Iain dubh mor, mac righ na Sorcha
Bha ann roimhe so Rìgh na Gréige a chaidh le ’thriùir mhac, Uthar, Art, agus Uilionn, doo ’n
bheinn-sheilge. An uair a ràinig iad a’ bheinn, shuidh iad sìos air tolman bòidheach uaine air
chùl gaoithe ’s ri aodann gréine, far an faiceadh iad gach duine, ’s nach faiceadh duine iad.
Thubairt am mac ’bu shine, ’s e ’na shuidhe air làimh dheis ’athar, agus a dhà bhràthair air
a làimh chlì: ‘Dh’ fheumadh an duine sin a bhi glé mhath air a shon féin a thigeadh a nis agus
a bhuaileadh buille air m’ athair, agus a bheireadh fiacail á dorus a bheòil’. Fhreagair am mac a
b’ òige: ‘Cha chuala sinn riamh iomradh air duine ’dheanadh sin ach Iain Dubh Mór mac Rìgh
na Sorcha.’ Cha bu luaith’ a chaidh am facal as a bheul na thàinig Iain Dubh Mór mar
sheabhag na seilge bho ’n chreachann agus bhuail e ’n Rìgh anns a’ bheul, agus thug e leis
fiacail a chuir e á dorus a bheòil.

There was before now a King of Greece who went with his three sons Uthar, Art and Uilionn to the hunting hill. When they reached the ben they sat down on a pretty little green knoll behind the wind and before the sun, where they would see every man, and no man would see them. The eldest son, as he was sitting on his father’s right hand, and his two brothers on the left, said: ‘That man would need to be well able to defend himself who would come and strike a blow at my father, and take a tooth out of the door of his mouth.’ The youngest son answered: ‘We never heard mention of any man who would do that unless Big Black John, son of the King of Sorcha.’ No sooner had the word gone out of his mouth than Big Black John came like the hunting falcon from the rocky summit and struck the king on the mouth, and took with him a tooth he sent out of the door of his mouth.

These elements are found very widely. A story of revenge taken by three sons following the loss of two teeth by their father in a dispute over cattle has been placed in the fifteenth century and attributed to Old Norman MacLeod of Pabbay. W.C. Mackenzie, The Western Isles: Their History, Traditions and Place-Names, 1932, 79-90. The pretty little green knoll is found also in the archaic tale of Murachadh mac Brian where it is identified as Knock Seanan in Ireland, ‘the hillock of the gathering … behind the wind and before the sun, where they could see each man, and man could not see them’. J.F. Campbell, II, 211. It is also found in Am Bron Binn ‘The Sweet Sorrow’: Turas a chaidh Righ Artair ’s a shluagh gu tulach nam buadh a shealg – ‘One day King Arthur and his followers went to the knoll of the hunting troop to hunt’. Dewar MSS, II, 376-9, in J.L. Campbell (ed), Hebridean Folksongs II, Waulking Songs from Barra, South Uist, Eriskay, and Benbecula, 1977. Am Bron Binn has been taken to mean ‘The Sweet Sorrow’ and a story of lost love has been devised to explain it, but in archaic terms it means ‘the beacon mountain’. Uthar, Art and Uillionn, as sons of the King of Greece, belong to a very early phase in the evolution of Arthurian romance, before Arthur became a king.

Such tales are different from the shinty dialogues, children’s rhymes and cumulative stories. They typify the Irish treatment of archaic material, as opposed to its Scottish treatment. The Scottish incantations or prayers for good luck were addressed by the leader of a hunting troop to the Lady of the forest and are still in their original form. The hunter prays that his fire will light, that they will find deer, that his ambush or trap will hold them, and that his weapons will kill them. Hunting terms became obsolete but the outline of the recital and even its sound remained close to the original in Scotland and was repeated, in some cases into the twentieth century, for something close to its original purpose (if shinty is accepted as a paradigm of the hunt). Other Scottish tales try to explain and make sense of similar fragments or folk sayings.

In Ireland the traditional lore was well preserved, and was probably written down as soon as the Irish became literate, but it was also considerably modified over a very long period, which continued into the Middle Ages, by efforts to display learning, flatter a client, disguise some political purpose, adapt to Christianity, or simply create an entertaining and popular piece of fiction which would ensure an appreciative audience. Reinterpretation also played a significant role in Ireland where, for example, attempts to explain the meaning of place-names became a recognised branch of literature.

Consequently the AG element in tales such as Iain dubh mor has been reworked over a very long period into a fictional story designed to entertain and is beyond reconstruction, even though its hunting context is explicit. At most we can deduce that the loss of the king’s tooth is based on a fragment of local beacon lore which gave information about the precedence of signals in a certain deer forest, and warned about the disastrous consequences of confusion, for the Rìgh na Gréige, sitting on his mountain and surveying all, is the major hunt-beacon in a deer forest, while his three sons Uthar, Art and Uilionn are probably subsidiary beacons in the same area (though uilionn ‘elbow’ is a deer trap). Iain dubh mor, who comes as swift as a falcon from his rocky summit, is a competing beacon who steals the deer out of the deer ambush, in other words, disturbs the hunting in the forest. There are no doubt other ways of reading the references in this text but it certainly refers to beacons in a deer-forest and may reflect some inter-tribal rivalry. It is the result of the deliberate and creative rewriting of hunting lore by competent professionals of a kind who did not exist in Scotland, though their tales were much appreciated there, at least in the West where the language was probably similar. There is divergence between the vocabulary of the shinty dialogues and the folk tale, though both respond to decoding in terms of AG. Since both were collected in Scotland, the probable source of this divergence is the presence in Scotland of itinerant Irish story-tellers.

A useful demonstration of the power that AG has to explain origins, etymologies, and the original sense of early fiction is its application to the characters and motifs of the works known in Ireland as the Fiannaíocht, which are prose tales or dramatic recitals referring to episodes in the lives of the Feinne or Fingalians. This very varied collection of texts is known from both literary and folk sources in both Ireland and Scotland. Their content is in the main non-historical, the landscape is imaginary, events are supernatural, and many of these recitals, as currently interpreted, are virtually meaningless, in much the same way as a fairy tale is meaningless. But the Feinne live in the forest by hunting deer and boar, and are in regular contact with the Fairy world or Síd – several of them have ‘fairy wives’. In terms of authenticity, it is difficult to understand why James Macpherson is accused, in the words of Alan Bruford, of constructing ‘a fake epic’ out of elements of some of the ballads (AB 1987, 26), while it was acceptable for Irish scribes in the same century to write ‘new sequels to stories they had copied’, to compose ‘new romances on the traditional pattern’ or even to take ‘complete folk tales from oral tradition and recast them to a varying extent in literary language’ (AB 1987, 27-8). Macpherson did nothing more than this. The Fiannaíocht is popular fiction and its themes are fair game for creative writers. Macpherson’s work in creating an epic out of a lot of isolated scraps has also, and perhaps more correctly, been compared to the efforts of Homer. Is the problem perhaps that Macpherson was a Scottish gentleman and not an Irish bard? Some reveal attempts to explain fragments of archaic hunting lore, like the relatively unevolved Scottish fairy tales. For a general discussion of Fenian themes see A. Bruford, ‘Oral and Literary Fenian Tales, in B. Almqvist (ed), Fiannaíocht, Essays on the Fenian Tradition of Ireland and Scotland, 1987.

Arca dubh: in AHG terms, ‘the vagina of the deer’. A standard hunter’s metaphor for a deer trap (see discussion elsewhere of a deer trap seen as the vagina of the Cailleach or Hunting Goddess). The folk tale created to explain the arca dubh is more than usually desperate.
Ball seirce, the magic love spot worn by Diarmaid which made every woman fall in love with him. At its simplest the ball seirce is a cake of wax, prepared for fuel: G. ball ‘ball’, and seirce as G. céir ‘wax’, céirseach ‘old-fashioned candle-holder’, Fr. cierge ‘candle’. Such a tempting morsel was irresistible to the Flame Maidens (q.v.). G. ball ‘penis’ no doubt provided various sexual and bilingual puns. G. bal-seirce ‘carver at a prince’s table; master of ceremonies at high feasts; herald’: at least the second two can be equated with a beacon signal. But it is also found as a punning form of beoll ‘fire’.
[in fairy tale: seargta ‘withered’ is also ‘blasted with heat, scorched’, from céir ‘wax’ (cf also suire ‘syren, fairy’)]
Biorach mac Buidheag or Barra-Buadh, ‘the sharp one of the hunting troop’, was a whistle or horn made out of the shin bone of a lon dubh (q.v.). This may be quite literal, in which case it offers a clue to the identity of the elusive lon dubh, at least in this context.
Birds. References to birds in general rest on the widespread pun between G. eun ‘bird’ and àin ‘light, fire’. In addition, many names for birds are hunting puns or allegories, and were evidently coined by hunters when birds became part of the scene. That this is not mere lexical coincidence is also suggested by the many folkloric stories of wrens, robins, ravens and other birds. G. riabhag ‘lark’ is a pun on reubag ‘wounding, goring’ (reubair ‘hunter’ is the original ‘robber’). G. dreadhan ‘wren’ is a pun on druidhean, from drùidh ‘pierece, bore through, drain’: druids were specialised butchers, among other things. G. fithich ‘raven’ is a pun on fiadh ‘deer’, and iolair ‘eagle’ is a pun on iolairig ‘deer trap’. G. ruadhag ‘robin’ also means ‘young deer’. G. lon dubh ‘blackbird’ is ‘deer trap’ and meirle ‘blackbird’ means ‘thief’ or ‘hunter’. To understand what the birds are saying is to be able to read beacon signals.
Bodach an Chóta Lachtna ‘The Churl in the Drab Coat’, occurs in an Irish folk tale. A bodach ‘old man, churl, boor’ is often a personified beacon. A coat plays a part in many folk tales, such as Rashiecoat and the cóta lachtna is not far from the cóta luachair ‘coat of rushes’, both containing ‘fire’ or ‘light’ words; cf. G. luachair ‘splendour, brilliance’ and E. light.. A cóta appears to be a shelter, as E. cot. The Bodach an Chóta Lachtna is thus the beacon in the light-house.
Bruidhean, a ‘fairy dwelling’ in which the Fenians are imprisoned and threatened with death. The term is related to G. bruid ‘captivity; stab, thrust; fire’. This was either a deer trap or a beacon site. Dwelly explains bruigheann as ‘fairy hill’ which was an outlook point or signal station. G. bruighseach ‘womb with young’ rests on the ‘deer-trap-as-womb’ metaphor. Bruidhean chaorthainn, a magical place where the heroes stick to their seats, is the deer trap of the caoir-teine ‘firebrand’ and the heroes who get stuck in it must, in this case, be deer, not hunters. This opens up the possibility that the Feinne originally were personified deer; as the names Caoilte, Dubhan, and Oisín also suggest.
Caoilte, one of the Feinn, is ‘the narrow, sharp one’, explained as a good name for a sword, but it is also a narrow, sharp place used as a deer trapmbush and may also refer to an antlered stag. The word has the usual sexual connotations.
Céadach was a foreign warrior who was killed by a magical opponent (Lon Dubh) but was resurrected (relit) by his fairy wife (the Cailleach), who copied the action of birds (q.v.). From this we can deduce that Céadach and Lon Dubh were competing beacons in some prehistoric story. The first element, cé, is the archaic ‘fire’ root found in céir ‘wax’. G. cé ‘night’ might be the time when fires are lit. G. cé ‘world’ is the deer forest, controlled by fire. Céadach was also fear go n-aoibh, on one level ‘happy man’ but perhaps originally ‘man of the spoils’, from faobh ‘spoil, booty’; cf. also G. faobhair ‘giant, champion’, faobhar na lurgann ‘shin bone’. A happy hunter was one who had eaten his fill of fat meat.
Céirseach, a ‘bird’, is associated with the lon dubh. G. eun ‘bird’ is a common and appropriate pun on G. àin ‘light’, both being swift on the wing. The same word is found as G. céirseach ‘candle-holder’ (see ball seirce). The association suggests that both the céirseach and the lon dubh (q.v.) were hunting beacons.
Diarmaid O Duibhne means ‘the hunting meet of the deer’, from dubhan ‘deer’ and so a suitable ‘ancestor’ for the Campbells. Other names such as Macarthur, Macdiarmaid, Macdougal, Macgregor, and Macfarlane also refer to hunting.
Dubhan was one of the Feinne but the name, found frequently in other contexts, means ‘little deer’. G. dubh ‘deer’ is literally ‘two-pronged’. G. dubhan ‘hook’ is found as a pun. The original dubhan may have been a barbed harpoon made of reindeer antler. An Dubhlaoch, the villain in a late romance, is not ‘the Black Knight’ but ‘the deer calf’.
Fairy Ring. The ring which keeps Ossian from hunger (or from going blind) is the timchioll or ring of hunters driving and encircling the deer. In some cases they encircled a hill and drove the deer to the top, closing in on them meantime.
Fionn ‘resplendent, bright’. This is a strong indication that Fionn was neither a god nor divine hero but the personification of a tribal beacon (though there may be little to choose between these two concepts). This is also the meaning of Vin in place-names. The fashion for personifying the tribal beacon as a king or hero or champion (later a saint) appears to have been an early conceit, contemporary with their period of importance. Such personifications often had red or yellow hair (flames) or shaggy grey hair (ashes), and only one eye or one leg. They wore skin clothes (a beacon was contained in a rawhide bag) and were hung on a pole or tree or surrounded by water.
Fionn had a few of these features. He was of course the leader of hunters and as such the beacon that controlled the deer forest. In this capacity, he used to sit on hill-tops to direct the chase. He was helped in this by his dogs, of which Bran (a BRN ‘fire’ name) had white sides and a single fierce eye. He was placed in water immediately after birth and later acquired gold hair and a purple and white spot on his breast; his hair went grey after being immersed in water; he fought a one-eyed enemy and quenched the fiery Aillén while guarding the entrance to Tara. D. O hOgain, 1991, 217-220 He was swifter than deer, which is suggestive of a light signal. Fionn killed his son inadvertently, a common feature in beacon stories where the generations are often confused. Like Bran, his head continued to talk after his death - the beacon was relit and continued in use. Fionn was a prophet or seer, another beacon attribute, since the lighting of a beacon heralded future events. The Otherworld which he visits so often, a bright and shining place inside a hill-top cairn, is identified with Slievenamon, or Sui Finn, Finn’s Seat, on a hill-top in Co. Wicklow.
It may be claimed that he was a real chief whose fame gathered such elements to it, but they seem in many cases to provide the essence of the stories.
Righ Domhain, The King of the World, is the master-beacon in a domain or tribal hunting forest, G. domhan, the world of the earliest tribes. The same word provides a pun on Dòmhnach ‘Sunday’. The root of both is damh ‘stag’.
Lochlann is taken to mean Scandinavia but this usage cannot be earlier than the ninth century and belongs to a recognised category in which the familiar elements of traditional lore, already converted into fiction, are given an additional allegorical meaning. Lochlann is a word for a deer forest or a deer trap in which loch has the same meaning as E. lock. Loch Loch in Atholl was the loch of the ambush, where the great deer drives ended. (A loch was a place in which water was trapped.) Lochlann as ‘the place or enclosure of the deer trap’ corresponds to G. luchairt ‘the place of the deer trap’, in modern place-names as Lockhart and Luncarty (WJW 1926, 494). Lochlane, a district in Strathearn immediately west of Crieff, is low-lying and appears to have been a place where deer were ‘soiled’, or driven into water or mud. The original Lochlannach were not Viking pirates or Norwegian invaders but hunters and at most outlaws who lived in the wild areas beyond settled society. From the use of words for robber, bandit, and stranger, it is easy to see how the conversion was made.
Lon dubh is said by lexicographers to mean ‘black-bird’ and ‘elk’, and it may well do so. The elk disappeared from southern Britain eleven thousand years ago, but no doubt survived for longer in the north, and it is entirely possible that a memory of a giant deer and its name survived in Gaelic tradition. But there are other parallel possibilities. In Gaelic folklore the lon dubh was a huge bird whose leg was bigger than a quarter of beef and Lon Dubh is also the magical opponent of Céadach. The second element is AHG dubh ‘deer’. If the first element is taken to be G. long or lann ‘land’, then lon dubh means ‘deer-forest’. But if Céadach was a beacon, his opponent, Lon Dubh, was logically also a beacon. This allows us to compare lon with G. lainnir ‘brightness, brilliance’, loinn ‘fatness, joy, beauty, enclosed ground (deer forest)’, loinnear ‘light, gleam of light, flash of light’, loinnear ‘bright, shining, clear, glittering’, and lon ‘food’. Here are additional reasons for understanding lon dubh as a hunting beacon. Ir. lónd laith ‘hero’s light’ appears in the metamorphosis of Cú Chulainn’. In the same tradition, Fionn’s sword, Mac an Luin, was made by Lon son of Liomhtha, a giant with three arms, one eye, a single foot, and a face black as coal. Any one of these attributes would be enough to identify him as a beacon. G. Murphy (ed), Duanaire Finn, Part II, XXXVI, Irish Texts Society 1933.
Mac, now ‘son’, in AG ‘young’, i.e., ‘hunter’.
Oisín, son of Fionn, is literally ‘little deer’. His mother, a fairy woman, was also a deer: ‘She used to come hither in the shape of a deer, to meet the warrior band, so that thereof a fawn was begotten’. This suggests that the warriors were stags. There was of course only one fairy woman, though apparently she had many mates.
Shinty is used as a synonym for the hunt, particularly when played with silver camans and a golden ball, both themselves coded.
Thumb, G. òrdag ‘little hammer’ is linked by a pun to AG or or oir ‘to hunt’. The wisdom that Fionn obtained from sucking his thumb was hunting wisdom. A more concrete link is the use of a hammer to stun or kill animals. Fionn’s hammer was also used to send a message over a long distance: was it hammered on a stone, or on a log or a drum?
Tir na hÓige ‘the land of youth’. Bruford pointed to the essential identity of Tir na hÓige, the ‘land of youth’, and the Gaelic Otherworld. Both are ruled by the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the aes síde, the síobraigh, the sìdhichean or the fairies. In the AHG perspective all such concepts are deer forests or deer ambushes, in which wild resources are miraculously and generously renewed. Men evidently dreamt in remote prehistory of an idealised Otherworld where champions could hunt all day and never be tired or hungry. The idea of journeying overseas can be referred to the regular pun between AHL mar ‘to hunt’ and mar meaning ‘lake’ or ‘sea’, i.e., a great gathering or collection of water. In origin, Tir na hÓige is a pedestrian term meaning ‘land of hunting’ which has been reinterpreted. G. òg ‘young’ comes from the same AHG word meaning ‘hunt’ which is found in òglach ‘servant, soldier (hunter)’, ogluidh ‘awful, gloomy, dismal, wild’ (applied to deer drops such as Glen Ogle and the Ochils), oig ‘champion (hunter)’, oighid ‘guest’, and oigimh ‘stranger’, i.e., a hunter come from a distance. Hunters were young men; hence the link. Among the many other manifestations of this kind of paradise is Fiddler’s Green (fidhlear ‘hunter’, from fiadh ‘deer’). It also finds expression in the motif of the Everlasting Hunt, in which dead ‘men’ come to life again. The Fairy woman who invites mortals to this paradise is the Cailleach or Deer goddess. Oisín, like Murechadh, is led to the Otherworld by a deer that he chases while in another version he is guided by a bird (àin ‘light’). Fáinne na hÓige, ‘the ring of youth’, a magical object which appears in Irish folk tales, may be understood as ‘the ring of hunters’, the timchioll or chain who drove the deer.
Woman forced to bake for the fairies is the bean-fuine ‘kneading woman’ found already in a Gaelic folk tale. Her name is a pun on bean-feine ‘Lady of the hunting troop’ and she is in fact the Queen of the Fairies or Cailleach. Her bannocks are a pun on G. bàn ‘white (light)’ and the loaves or buns that she kneads were probably made of wax.

Oisín, the last survivor of the Feine, has lodgings with St Patrick, whose housekeeper thinks she is doing well to offer the old hero a quarter of an ox, a churning of butter, and a huge oatcake for every meal. But Oisín knows of the leg of a black bird which is bigger than her leg of beef, a rowan berry which is bigger than her churning of butter, and an ivy leaf which is bigger than her bannock. In another version, Oisín says that in his young days, a lark’s leg was as large as the present shoulder of mutton, the berry of the wild ash was as large as a sheep, and an ivy leaf was as broad as a knight’s shield. P. Kennedy, Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, [date?], 242.The riddles have not been completely solved but it is clear from the start that they have nothing to do with food. In the most accessible Irish version, the three pairs of elements are as follows:

1 ceathrú luin ba mhó ná a ceathrú mhairt
2 caor cárthain ba mhó ná a cuigeann ime
3 billeógh eidhneáin ba mhó ná a císte arám. Bealoideas 2 (1929-30), 65-68.

1 The black bird, lon-dubh, has been discussed above and is either a giant elk, a deer-forest, a beacon or all three, but in AHG it appears to be the latter. The quarter, ceathramh, may be a pun on caithream ‘loud noise, shout (a war-cry or hunting shout or signal)’ and on ceatharn ‘fighting band’. A mart is any animal killed for winter food and the ox of English versions is G. damh, originally a stag. Taken at face value, this suggests that the lon, as a type of signal, takes precedence over the ceathream mhairt.

2 G. caor ‘rowan berry’ and caora ‘sheep’ are both common puns on caoir ‘blaze of fire’ and provide the clearest sign that this riddle concerns types of beacon signal. Caor carthain ‘a blaze of hospitality’ suggests a beacon inviting the neighbours to a joint hunting. The cuigeann or churning can be compared with còigchreach ‘plundering, sacking (hunting)’ and with caigeann ‘rough mountain pass (deer trap)’. (See Glossary for coig as ‘deer’.) G. ime ‘butter’ is a pun on G. ioma ‘much, many, numerous, encircled’, or imire ‘flitting’, which describes the moving of bands of hunters from one place to another, and this line suggests that a caoir cárthain takes precedence over a fire announcing a routine local round-up.

3 G. eidheann ‘ivy’ is punned on aodhan ‘fire’. The billeog or little leaf is also a bill-hook (a type of axe) and AHG bile is a BL ‘fire’ word. The bile at Coshieville (Perthshire) is associated with the deer ambush in Glengoulandie, Appin of Dull, guarded by the castle of the Stewarts of Garth and would be widely visible in Strathtay. A císte or chest is used of landscape features suitable as deer traps (cf the Chest of Dee), and arám ‘bread’ can also be related to G. àr ‘battle, slaughter’. The císte arám is thus an ambush site but the bannock has been identified elsewhere as a small fire and that is perhaps the original word. Certainly here it is compared directly with billeógh eidhneáin ‘the fire of the axe, or killing’.

Putting this together, the black-bird, the rowan-berry (or sheep), the butter, the ivy leaf and the bread or bannock can be more or less plausibly identified as some kind of fire or light signals related to hunting. The huge bird which is summoned in the subsequent part of the same tale and thus justifies the hero’s boast, is ‘as big as the whole plain’. This also suggests that the lon dubh, in an archaic context, was not a giant elk, but an archaic word for a hunting beacon which was so big that it covered the entire deer forest. These riddles appear to have been at one time part of hunting lore, perhaps worked up as ludicrous puns to make these important distinctions easier to remember.

‘Then his first distortion came upon Cú Chulainn so that he became horrible, many-shaped, strange, and unrecognisable. His haunches shook about him like a tree in a current or a bulrush against a stream, every limb and every joint, every end and every member of him from head to foot. He performed a wild feat of contortion with his body inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees came to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams came to the front. The sinews of his calves came on the front of his shins and each huge, round knot of them was as big as a warrior’s fist. The sinews of his head were stretched to the nape of his neck and every huge, immeasurable, vast, incalculable round ball of them was as big as the head of a month-old child.

‘Then his face became a red hollow(?). He sucked one of his eyes into his head so that a wild crane could hardly have reached it to pluck it out from the back of his skull on to the middle of his cheek. The other eye sprang out on to his cheek. His mouth was twisted back fearsomely. He drew the cheek back from the jawbone until his inner gullet was seen. His lungs and his liver fluttered in his mouth and his throat. He struck a lion’s blow with the upper palate on its fellow so that every stream of fiery flakes which came into his mouth from his throat was as large as the skin of a three-year old sheep. The loud beating of his heart against his ribs was heard like the baying of a blood-hound … or like a lion attacking bears. The torches of the war-goddess, the virulent rain-clouds, the sparks of blazing fire were seen in the clouds and in the air above his head with the seething of fierce rage that rose above him. His hair curled about his head like branches of red hawthorn used to re-fence the gap in a hedge. Though a noble apple-tree weighed down with fruit had been shaken about his hair, scarcely one apple would have reached the ground through it but an apple would have stayed impaled on each single hair because of the fierce bristling of his hair above him. The hero’s light rose from his forehead so that it was as long and strong as a hero’s whetstone. As high, as thick, as strong, as powerful and as long as the mast of a great ship was the straight stream of dark blood which rose up from the very top of his head and became a dark magical mist like the smoke of a palace when a king comes home to be attended to in the evening of a wintry day.’ C. O’Rahilly (ed), ‘Táin Bó Cúalnge’, from The Book of Leinster, Irish Texts Society vol. 49, 1969, Gaelic 60-2, English 200-2.

This passage has been explained in a variety of ways but by now it is surely obvious that it is a description of a good-going bonfire. If the language is often excessive, much of it remains surprisingly literal. What does not make immediate sense in the English version will predictably make sense when explained in terms of ‘fire’ words in the original Irish. The following elements are already familiar.

apple: G. éibheall ‘flame’. Wherever the apple appears in folklore or fiction, it is an adaptation or transformation of a word corresponding to G. éibheall ‘flame’, as in the following instances. When St Servanus (a personification of the beacon at Culross on the Firth of Forth) flung his pastoral staff across the Forth, it stuck in the ground, took root, and became an apple tree. He was one of several intervisible beacons in the Forth, on islands and on the mainland. The story of the birth of Kentigern ‘great lord’ or ‘lord of the hunting ambush’ links Traprain Law, the Isle of May and Culross in this connection. When Cuchulain (an Irish beacon figure) visited Scotland, he found his way successfully across the Plain of Ill-luck by following a magic apple (a signal light). Avalon, the Celtic paradise, might mean ‘apple land’ but in fact it means ‘fire land’ and in the original terms was the tribal hunting forest transformed into a paradise of plenty where the weather was always warm and animals gathered of their own accord to be killed and eaten.
crane: fiadcorr, found already as corr ‘heron’, a pun on caoir ‘blaze of fire’. The fiadcorr or ‘wild crane’ is a pun on ‘deer fire’, i.e., a hunting beacon.
dark magical mist: a magical mist is a common feature of folk tales. The dark mist is in fact smoke, as this passage shows, and dubhchiaich means ‘deer smoke’, not ‘dark mist’. There is nothing magical about the smoke, as described, so ndruidechta must mean something quite pedestrian XXXX
eye: súil, the ‘eye’ of a beacon, which was a bright eye which saw the entire world.
mouth: bél is a pun on beol ‘fire’, also ‘robber’. cf beolach ‘ashes with living embers’.
whetstone: G. àirneamh. This is the anachronistic modern meaning. Before iron weapons existed to be whetted, an àirneamh must have been a hard stone like flint used to produce sparks in order to light a fire. A clue to this evolution is the pun on ‘iron’, which was later used for the same purpose in strike-a-lights and which may well owe its English name (which is closer to Gaelic than to any Germanic cognates) to this connection. Another clue to a fiery connection is àirne ‘wild plum’, since round, red objects like plums and apples were seen as little fires when they first appeared in the post-glacial forest. Other relevant words include G. àirnean ‘watching at night’, àirneas ‘cattle, stock (deer)’, airnmheadh ‘a herd of cattle (a gathering of deer)’ and airndeal ‘stag’. Another word for a whetstone, found in the cumulative tales, is clach-faobhair ‘hunter’s stone’. There is nothing in either name to suggest that the stone in question was used for sharpening an iron blade.

The Hunting Heritage.
In conclusion, it is impossible to overstate the influence of archaic hunting lore on European literature and culture. It is fundamental to language itself. It is the raw material from which heroic poetry, fairy-tales, folk-tales, and Arthurian romance evolved, from which the Irish story-cycles and pseudo-histories were spun, and which inspired tales of saints which were every bit as fabulous as the tales of King Arthur. In physical form it supplied the mystical and often sexual imagery of Romanesque churches, including the sheela-na-gig (‘hunting of the deer’?) and the Green Men whose ‘leaves’ are more probably tongues of fire. Its last authentic manifestation was in Scotland, in the great poem praising the deer forest of Ben Dorain, composed by the illiterate bard, Duncan Ban Macintyre (1724-1812), who latterly worked as a policeman in Edinburgh. He composed orally, like all true bards, and the true value of his verse does not survive translation, since every line is capable of being heard in two ways, the pedestrian Gaelic description of hunting on the mountain, and its mystical AHG counterpoint.

His Preparation for the Hunt.
In preparation for battle (the hunt), Cu Chulainn put on ‘twenty-seven tunics worn next to his skin, waxed, board-like, compact, which were bound with strings and ropes and thongs close to his fair skin … Over that outside he put his hero’s battle-girdle of hard leather, tough and tanned, made from the best part of seven ox-hides of yearlings which covered him from the thin part of his side to the thick part of his arm-pit; he used to wear it to repel spears and points and darts and lances and arrows, for they glanced from it as if they had struck against stone or rock or horn. Then he put on his apron of filmy silk with its border of variegated white gold, against the soft lower part of his body. Outside his apron of filmy silk he put on his dark apron of pliable brown leather made from the choicest part of four yearling ox-hides with his battle-girdle of cow’s skins (cathchris – a hide lassoo?) about it. Then the royal hero took up his weapons of battle and contest and strife.’ – catharm catha 7 comraic 7 comlaind (all words for a deer drive).

His weapons in terms of light.
The next passage deals with his weapons and with them we move into a different reality. Cú Chulainn was equipped with an ivory-hilted sword with eight little swords, a five-pronged spear with eight little spears, a javelin with eight little javelins, and a deil chliss with eight little darts. The etymologies of these words support an interpretation in terms of a beacon sending rays of light in each of the eight directions.

claid ‘sword’, G. claidheamh; cf. the fabulous ‘sword of light’. The use of fire to send a signal came long before the sword as a weapon and was presumably named first. Claid is an archaic ‘fire’ word found also in Sc. gleed ‘a spark’, gleet ‘to shine’, gleid ‘burning coal’ and E. glitter, G. cladhaire ‘hero’ and clàideag ‘lock, wreath, ringlet’ (the chain of hunters). Cladhaire ‘hunter’ has the inverted meanings of ‘coward, poltroon, rogue’.
sleig ‘spear’, G. sleigh, c.w. sealg ‘hunt, hunting, the chase’ and sluagh ‘host, army, people’; also ‘the spirit world’. ‘O shluagh!’ was a call for help to the fairies. The sluagh-gairm was the battle cry or hunting shout. cf. also G. sliochd ‘tribe, clan’ and slios ‘coast, border, edge, or side of a country’. The sleig in the original is presumably a pun on slios, a tribal hunting forest controlled by a beacon. The root is also found in G. solis ‘light, phase of the moon, illumination, any radiating heavenly body’, in solus ‘light, as a lamp or candle’, in solus ‘quoit’ and súil ‘eye (of a beacon)’.
gothnait ‘javelin’ G. gath ‘sting; dart, arrow, javelin’ but also ‘ray of light, sunbeam’.
G. gaoth ‘wind’ was another very fast and sharp thing.
deil chliss does not appear to have survived as the name of a weapon. As a light signal the first element is found in G. dealan ‘nocturnal brightness in the heavens; coal, flaming coal; dealan bàis ‘lightning of death’, presumably a hunting beacon; dealan-dé ‘the appearance produced by shaking a burning stick to and fro’. G. fir-chlis are the merry dancers or auroro borealis and probably not ‘nimble men’ but ‘fire of the alarm, or signal’; cf. clisg ‘start, startle’. The deil chliss was a beacon.

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