Monday, March 29, 2010


"I wanna hear some funky Dixieland, c'mon pretty mama take me by the hand..."

Today was the first spring day to crank down the car window and crank up the car radio, the first day to turn on the car air conditioner.

It was the first day to hit and surpass 70 degrees F. (72 degrees), the first day to open the house windows, the first day to leave the patio door open for Gracie to run in and out at will.

It was the first day (for me anyway) to go outside without a coat, first day to see joggers go by wearing only tank tops and shorts, the first day to say the snow is really gone, except for a few little icebanks left over from snowblowers or plows (they don't count!).

It was the first day to see a neighbor raking leaves, first day to hear the roar of motorcycles, first day to fire up the barbecue.

It was the first day to see (and purchase) daffodils at the supermarket, the first day to buy a Russell Stover Dark Chocolate Raspberry Creme egg (Okay, I bought lots of them. Bliss!), first day that inspired in me an urge to do spring cleaning and set out a few items of Easter decor.

And it is THE DAY of the first spring full moon (the first full moon after the spring equinox). In Native American folklore, this moon is called the Worm Moon (ick!). The name comes from increased earthworm activity in the warming soil, as evidenced by tiny, curling piles of dirt or "castings" that worms leave on the surface. As worms help prepare the soil for spring growth, this signals the growing season to come and the return of the robin.

Nicer names for the first spring moon are the Grass Moon (self explanatory) and the Egg Moon, because of all the birds laying eggs and animals giving birth. It is also called the Paschal or Easter Moon, because Easter always occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

The more northern Native Americans knew it as the Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signals the end of winter, or the Crust Moon because the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night. The Sap or Maple Sugar Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation.

The moon turns precisely full tonight at 9:35 p.m. in my time zone, Central Daylight Time. If it stays clear outside, it will beam between the golden planet Saturn and sparkling blue-white Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden.

In the northern hemisphere, the first full moon of spring always takes place in front of the constellation Virgo. Moreover, Virgo is first seen at nightfall in early spring. It will continue to come out as darkness falls all through spring and summer. However, by the time the leaves turn color and start to fall, Virgo will disappear from the evening sky – not to appear at nightfall again until the following spring. No wonder people in the northern hemisphere associate Virgo with the goddess of fruitfulness!

You probably will not see much of Virgo except for Spica. However, the early Greek stargazers saw these stars as Demeter, their goddess of fruitfulness. It was said that the god of the underworld, Hades, fell in love with Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. But Demeter didn’t approve and refused to allow them to marry. Eventually, Hades’ passions got the best of him. He swept Persephone away in his black chariot and took her to the underworld to live.

Demeter is said to have roamed the Earth searching for her daughter, neglecting her duties as Earth goddess. Seeds didn’t sprout, trees didn’t bear fruit, and a famine hung over the land. Finally, the king of the gods, Zeus, forced Hades to let Persephone go. Zeus had warned Persephone not to eat anything while in the underworld, but she, overcome with hunger, had eaten six pomegranate seeds. As a result, she could not return to her mother permanently. She would have to spend six months with her husband and then six months with her mother each year.

According to the legend, when Persephone is spending her six months in the underworld, Demeter grieves and we have fall and winter. Then when Persephone comes back to Mount Olympus, spring arrives!


"PERSEPHONE" by Meredith Dillman
By the next full moon, on April 28, we in North Dakota will have experienced many more "firsts" of spring. We will have had green grass and dandelions. We will have heard meadow larks. The leaves will have unfurled. Perhaps the earliest of the flowering trees, the almonds, will be in bloom. By the full moon on May 27, we will have had apple blossoms and maybe even lilacs. People will be setting out their bedding plants and finalizing plans for Memorial Day.
But for now, what we have of spring is more than sufficient unto the day.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


"Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain"
by Stephen Reid

Cuchulainn (kooHOOlin), also spelled Cú Chulainn with many other variations, is a famous Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, a series of tales revolving around the heroes of the Kingdom of Ulster (northern Ireland) in the early 1st Century.

Some variations of the legend say he was the son of Lugh the sun god; others say he was born of human parents. The nephew of King Conor, he was originally given the name of Setanta.

At a young age Setanta so outplayed the other youths in the sport of hurley (an Irish game like field hockey) that his future greatness could be seen by all of the court. The warriors of the Red Branch acknowledged him as a blood relative of the king and heard him proclaim before the Druids in the Hall of Heroes: "I care not whether I die tomorrow or next year, if only my deeds live after me."

Artist Unattributed

Setanta earned a new name after a remarkable act of courage. King Conor, invited to a banquet at the house of Culain, a blacksmith, asked Setanta to accompany him. Setanta was playing a game of hurley at the time and said he would follow his uncle shortly. When everyone sat down to the feast, Culain asked the King if all the expected guests had arrived and King Conor replied that they had, forgetting about Setanta. Culain unchained his huge hound to guard the house.

Unaware of the danger ahead the young boy arrived at Culain's house. The vicious dog leapt at Setanta, who had only his hurley stick and ball with him. Undaunted by the ferocious beast the boy flung the ball down the animal’s throat. The hound was forced back by the blow and Setanta was able to grab the hound by its legs and smash its head on the stone courtyard.

When Conor heard the hound howling he remembered Setanta and ran outside expecting to find him torn to pieces. He was amazed to see him unharmed, standing above the dead hound. The blacksmith was distraught at the sight of his fallen dog. Setanta, although without blame in the duel, vowed to take the place of the dog, protecting the pass into Ulster, and became the Hound of Culain – Cuchulainn.

Artist Unattributed
Cuchulainn was short in stature yet no one could look upon him in his splendor without blinking. The heat of his body could melt snow and ice for yards around. He glowed red and when he dipped his body in water the water hissed and turned to steam.

His beautiful hair was tri-colored. Next to his skin the hair was brown, in the middle it was red and on the outside long golden yellow curls fell freely down his back. About his neck were a hundred tiny links of red gold flashing, with pendants hung from them. His headgear was adorned with a hundred different jewels. In battles, he fought from his chariot, driven by his loyal charioteer Láeg, and drawn by his horses, Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend.

Artist Unattributed (Stephen Reid?)

Although generally a gentle and sensitive person, Cuchulainn was known for his terrifying battle frenzy - or riastradh - in which he became a fearsome superhuman creature rather like the Hulk - an unrecognizable monster who knew neither friend nor foe.

It was prophesied that his great deeds would give him everlasting fame, but that his life would be short - one reason he is compared to the Greek hero Achilles.

Stephen Reid Illustration 1912

Cuchulainn's greatest achievements occurred during "The Cattle Raid of Cooley". It tells of a war against Ulster by the Connacht Queen Medb. The fighting men of Ulster had been disabled by an apparent curse and the only person fit to defend it was 17-year-old Cuchulainn. However, Medb's army took Ulster by surprise because Cuchulainn was off on a tryst when he should have been watching the border. Thereafter, he single-handedly waged a guerrilla campaign against the advancing army, then halted it by invoking the right of single combat, defeating champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months.

During these fights Cuchulainn is both helped and hindered by supernatural figures. Before one fight a beautiful young woman comes to him, claiming to be the daughter of a king. She offers him her love, but he refuses her. The woman reveals herself as The Morrighan, the Goddess of War, and in revenge for this slight she attacks him in various animal forms while he is engaged in combat.  As an eel, she trips him in the ford, but he breaks her ribs. As a wolf, she stampedes cattle across the ford, but he puts out her eye with a slingstone. Finally she appears as a heifer at the head of the stampede, but he breaks her leg with another slingstone.

After Cuchulainn finally triumphs, The Morrighan appears to him as an old woman milking a cow, with the same injuries he had given her in her animal forms. She gives him three drinks of milk, and with each drink he blesses her, healing her wounds.

After a particularly arduous combat he is visited by another supernatural figure, Lugh, who reveals he is his father. He puts Cuchulainn to sleep for three days while he works his healing arts on him. While he sleeps the youth corps of Ulster come to his aid but are all slaughtered. When Cuchulainn wakes he undergoes the most spectacular riastradh yet.  He makes a bloody assault on the Connacht camp and avenges the youth corps sixfold.

Illustration entitled "Cuchulainn Carries Ferdiad Across the River"
During these battles Cuchulainn is forced to fight his longtime friend, Ferdiad. It was displeasing to Cuchulainn to have to fight his friend of old. He tried to dissuade Ferdiad against fighting by reminding him of the days when they had trained together in their youth. Ferdiad would not be swayed. Lest he weaken under Cuchulainn's pleas he responded only with taunts against his friend, now foe. They fought an epic duel which lasted for four days. Eventually, after a tremendous effort, Cuchulainn killed Ferdiad and then fell into a trance of sorrow and weakness.

The death of his best friend was just one of the great tragedies of Cuchulainn's life. Years earlier, he had unwittingly killed his own son by warrior woman Aife. Enraged because she had been forced to bear Cuchulainn's son after he defeated her in battle, Aife decided to turn her son into a weapon against his father. She trained her son in all aspects of being a warrior and then sent him to Ireland after first putting three taboos on him: first he was not to turn back, second he should never refuse a challenge, and third he should never tell anyone his name.

When Conlaoch arrived, Cuchulainn asked asked his lineage, but Conlaoch could not tell it and so was challenged. In the terrible battle that followed the hero light came upon Cuchulainn and Conlaoch realised that he was fighting his father and that his mother had been treacherous. He cast his spear sideways so that it would miss Cuchulainn and shouted that he was his son, but it was too late. Cuchulainn had already thrown the terrible barbed spear which he had won from Aife. It was unstoppable once thrown and thus Conlaoch was slain.

Cuchulainn was thrown into a fit of rage and grief in which he lost his senses and started attacking anything in sight. In order to save him and his friends from further tragedy, a Druid cast a spell upon Cuchulainn causing him to see the waves of the sea as armed opponents. He battled with the waves until he collapsed from exhaustion.

As is the way with such heroes, Cuchulainn died on the battlefield. His body was then propped against a large rock. With a spear in his hand, a buckler on his arm, and a defiant attitude even in death, he was able to strike fear into his enemies.

The image of Cuchulainn is invoked by both Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists. Irish nationalists see him as the most important Celtic Irish hero, and thus he is important to their whole culture. By contrast, unionists see him as an Ulsterman defending the province from enemies to the south. In more modern times he is often referred to as "The Hound of Ulster."

Saturday, March 20, 2010


"SPRING, VERNAL EQUINOX" by Christina DeHoff

Today, March 20, is known as the day of the Vernal Equinox in the Western World. The vernal, or spring, equinox arrives this afternoon precisely at 12:32 p.m. in my time zone, CDT. But long ago, it was known by other names. One of those names was Alban Eiler, the Celtic name for the time when day and night are equal in length.

Alban Eiler, a Druidic name for the festival celebrated at this time, means "Light of the Earth". This rare balance in nature made this day a powerful time of magic for the ancient Druids. From this day forward the forces of light wax and the forces of darkness wane, but on this day they are equally balanced, poised on the razor’s edge. Alban Eiler is a between time, one of the eight portals of the seasons, during which we may more easily move from this world into the realms of Faerie.

Vernal Equinox card by Ernestine Grindal
The Vernal Equinox was celebrated long before the Celts, by the Megalithic people who lived in Britain before the Celts, the Romans and the Saxons. Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Ancient Mayans all celebrated the equinox, as did Native Americans. Ancient Persians called it NawRaz, their New Year's Day.

A cluster of megalithic cairns from ancient times are scattered through the hills at Loughcrew, about 55 miles northwest of Dublin, Ireland. Loughcrew Cairn T is a passage tomb which is designed so that the light from the rising sun on the spring and summer equinoxes penetrates a long corridor and illuminates a backstone, which is decorated with astronomical symbols.

The following is a link to the sun's path across the backstone of Loughcrew Cairn T at the vernal equinox: (Scroll down to the U Tube video.)

"VERNAL EQUINOX" by Anita Luckett

Spring officially begins on this day. Indeed, the earth does appear to glow with the burgeoning of new life. The tender green of new leaves in the sunlight creates a dazzlement like no other. Alban Eiler was associated with the "Rites of Spring," which had to do with the fertility of both plant and animal life.

The celebrations at the vernal equinox anticipated or celebrated the first plowing of the fields, which signified the land’s annual resurrection from the long, cold sleep of winter, inaugurating a new season of fertility. Homes, lanterns, hearths and children were all given a renewed blessing with earth. Crossing the forehead with soil as a symbol of one's connection with the earth was one way of enacting this.

Household animals were often led out to wooded hills to drink from freely flowing springs. This was done to cleanse and strengthen them, symbolically, for the summer’s work. As at all the equinoxes and solstices, rowan twigs were used in pagan Europe to make equal-armed crosses that—when placed over doors, on magical altars or over hearths—symbolized divine and psychic protection.

BRAN AND THE ALDER, Artist Uncredited
(Bran and the Alder tree are both
associated with the vernal equinox)

Alban Eiler was once thought of as presided over symbolically by the ancient deities Bran and Rhiannon. Bran was a Welsh Celtic king who always sought to bring enemies into peaceful accord with one another, and therefore may represent the balance implicit in the equinox. Bran is connected with ravens and was a god of prophecy. Known as “the blessed,” he was the brother of the Sea God (Manawydan ap Llyr in Wales; Manannán mac Lir in Ireland). He was “the Son of the Sun” and a god of music, writing and the arts.

"RHIANNON", Artist Uncredited

Rhiannon was a Welsh mother goddess. She was connected with horses and birds, especially falcons and hawks. As the horse goddess, she may be the Welsh version of Epona, the horse goddess of ancient Britain. She was often seen riding a fast white horse, into which form she could shapeshift herself. She is the Mistress of the Gates of the Otherworld, Enchantment and Fertility. It’s this last role that links her to Alban Eiler. As the mother goddess connected with the vernal tides, she is thought to aid the new green vegetation, helping it to grow with her deep and craefty draíocht (i.e., magic). As a white mare she may be imagined as riding around plowed fields, chanting blessings over them to make the ground fertile.

"THE HORNED GOD", Artist Uncredited

The re-awakening fertility of nature was long thought of in terms of Cernunnos, the horned god. Born at winter’s solstice, he is in his adolescence at Alban Eiler. Sometimes known as the Green God, Cernunnos will come into his own powers between now and Beltane (May 1). Connected with the revivification of green vegetation, Cernunnos may be imagined cavorting through the in the woods and playing around fields, dancing wittily, playing his pipes (pan pipes or the more traditional uilleann pipes) and singing to bring the goddess' powers to greater manifestation.

An Irish Pooka, Artist Uncredited

The pooka is one of the Old Irish spirits long connected with Alban Eiler. In its most ancient, mystical guise, the pooka was either a man transformed into rabbit form or else a rabbit transformed into the likeness of a man. The pooka has now been demonized in Christian mythology, but before that it was known as the consort of the Fair Lady of the Vernaltides; i.e., the boyish lover of the goddess. The pooka was a spirit servant who acted as a helper in bringing the powers of the vernaltides to presence in field, garden and wood. In some stories, the pooka acts as the boon companion spirit of the Irish Earth Goddess Tailtiu as the vernal equinox approaches.

The pooka is connected with rabbits, which are an old Celtic icon of the fertility of the land. Rabbits have been symbolic of the potency of life in many pagan traditions. To have a rabbit living near where you live is to be reminded, day by day, of the ancient goddess. It was said that if you fed rabbits near your door, the Triple Goddess would come and visit you over the course of the summer months.

"VERNAL EQUINOX" by Michaela Popping


In balance are the stars and sun
Rejoice! The Father Sun has won
We know the fertile Spring's begun
On this our Alban Eiler day

Snow melts 'round young Nature's toil
Pushing life through the thawing soil
The daffodil, tulip and trefoil
On this our Alban Eiler day

The shamrock with its leaves of three
Like a blessed triple goddess be
Or earth and fire and ether free
On this our Alban Eiler day

- Dobhran, 1999

"SPRING EQUINOX", Artist Uncredited


Glad Bringer of Brightness, hail!
Maiden of Grace, Lad of Laughter
Gifts of vigor are returning,
Spring's surprise, rainbow's embrace
Quickened be the heart within us,
Opened be our souls to grace,
May the blessing be abiding,
Welcome sit in every face.

Caitlin Matthews, "Celtic Devotional"

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


"ERIU" by Nicole Cadet

I propose that we rename St. Patrick's Day. Everyone knows the story of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. But surprise, surprise, there have never been snakes in Ireland. What Patrick did drive from Ireland were the Celtic goddesses. And gods. The Christian church took away the Celts' ancient religion and forced them to replace it with theirs.

As a Celt, that pisses me off. So let's rename St. Patrick's Day and call it after one of the ancient gods or goddeses of Ireland. There are many to choose from, but Ériu lent her name to the country, so let's make March 17 Ériu's Day.

Ériu (modern Irish Éire) was one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the god-like inhabitants of pre-Celtic Ireland. With her sisters, Banba and Fódla, she was part of an important triumvirate of goddesses of sovereignty. When the Milesians from Spain defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann each of the three sisters asked that her name be given to the country. This was granted to them. Ériu became the chief name in use, although Banba and Fódla are still sometimes used as poetic names for Ireland.


"BRIGID'S DAWNING" by Michele-lee Phelan

Brigid is one of the primary goddeses of Ireland (later turned into St. Bridget by the Christian church), but I won't write much about her here. I have written several posts devoted solely to her on her day, February 2. Following are eight more of the most popular Celtic gods and goddesses in the pantheon.

"THE DAGDA" by Howard David Johnson

The Dagda (or just Dagda), is the Irish-Celtic god of the earth and treaties, and ruler over life and death. Many talented and powerful, The Dagda is one of the most prominent gods and the chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He is a master of magic, a fearsome warrior and a skilled artisan. He was also known as Father of All and The Good God.

The Dagda is portrayed as possessing both super-human strength and appetite. He owned a bottomless cauldron with an inexhaustible supply of food, a magical harp with which he summons the seasons, and an enormous club, with one end of which he could kill nine men, but with the other restore them to life. He also possessed two marvellous swine---one always roasting, the other always growing---and ever-laden fruit trees.

"THE MORRIGAN" by James McPartlin

The Morrighan is a Celtic goddess of war, battles and the dead. Her name translates as either "The Queen of Ghosts" or "The Phantom Queen". A shapeshifter, The Morrighan can appear as a beautiful maiden, a grotesque hag, or in the form of a crow or raven. (Crows are associated with death, since they often hover over battlefields.) If The Morrighan in one of her aspects is seen by a warrior before battle, that warrior will die. It is said that she, like the Valkyries, carries the souls of slain warriors to the next world.

Sometimes the title The Morrighan - or Morrígu - is used for a trio of war goddesses called Badbh, Macha and Nemain. Confusingly, sometimes The Morrighan is named as one of the three war goddesses, joined with Badba and either Macha or Nemain.

Also called the Queen of the Witches and the Goddess of Magic, The Morrighan is a powerful sorcerer who, it is said, was the inspiration for King Arthur's half sister Morgan LeFay, a sorceress as strong as or even stronger than Merlin.

"MAEVE", Artist Uncredited

Maeve (Medb) was another goddess of war. Where The Morrighan used magic, Maeve wielded a weapon and was a fierce fighter. However, it was also said that the mere sight of Maeve could blind her enemies.
Of the great female figures of Ireland, Maeve was probably the most splendid. Originally a goddess linked with Ireland's mystical center at Tara, Maeve was demoted in mythology to the mere mortal Queen Maeve as the centuries went on and Irish culture changed under Christian influence.

But no mortal queen could have been like this one, this "intoxication" or "drunken woman" (variant meanings of her name), who ran faster than horses, slept with innumerable kings whom she then discarded, and wore live birds and animals across her shoulders and arms. If there ever was an actual woman named Maeve who reigned as Queen of Ireland, it is probable that she was the namesake of the goddess.

Maeve is also known as a goddess of fertility. She was a very lustful woman who needed 30 men a day to ease her sexual appetite. She was a great conqueror and enjoyed enslaving the men of the armies she defeated as spoils of war to pleasure her at will.

by Corina Thornton

Manannán mac Lir is an Irish god of the sea. He was always seen carrying "the Crane Bag", a magical horn of plenty, and he was known to roam among the Celtic tribes in a disguise and aid them in their endeavors.

Manannan mac Lyr was a powerful God, associated with fertility, rebirth, weather, sailing and magic. He is also the Guardian of the Blessed Isles. He often traveled on a magical ship that moved without sails. Sometime he is described as riding over the sea in a chariot. His cloak makes him invisible, his helmet is made of flames and his sword cannot be turned from its mark.

"DANU" by Lisa Hunt

Danu is the oldest Celtic goddess. In Celtic mythology, she was the great mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann (The Tribes of Danu). Few stories about Danu have survived, and yet the reverence in which she was held still remains.  Her influence spread far across the British Isles and Europe, where the Danube River was named for her. Danu is a goddess both famous and obscure. Famous, because her name appears in so many place names and texts. Obscure, because no image or narrative of her survives.

Danu, also known as Anu, Dana and Don, is the earth mother, the power that is in the land, never to be overcome by mortals. Danu, which means "swift flowing" in Irish, is the goddess of rivers and wells, and also of prosperity, plenty, magic and wisdom. Depending on the source, she has been called the mother, wife or daughter of The Dagda.

"LUGH", Artist Uncredited

Lugh was a sun god, a young, strong and radiant hero with hair of gold. He was master of all arts, skills and crafts. He was expert in carpentry, masonry, poetry, druidry, medicine and goldsmithing. One day he arrived at the court of The Dagda and demanded to be admitted to the company of the gods. The gatekeeper asked him what powers he possessed that would make him worthy of this honor. For every skill or art Lugh named, the gatekeeper replied that there was already one among the company who had mastered it. Lugh at last pointed out that they had no one who had mastered them all, and so he gained a place among the deities.

He is sometimes called the "Shining One", or "Lugh of the Long Arm". Some accounts say he was the father of the great Irish hero, Cúchulainn.

"NIAMH AND OISIN" by Bojana Dimitrovski

Niamh (Neev) was the daughter of the sea god, Manannan mac Lir. She crossed the Western Sea on a magical horse, Embarr, and asked Fionn mac Cumhail of the Fianna if his son Oisín would come with her to Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth) where there is no sadness, no aging, and no death. Oisín agreed and went with her, promising his father he would return to visit soon.

Although Oisín fell in love with Niamh during their time together in Tír na nÓg, he became homesick for the Fianna after what he thought was three years. Niamh let him borrow Embarr, who could run above ground, and made him promise not to get off of the horse or touch Irish soil. The time he had spent in Tír na nÓg turned out to be 300 Irish years. When Oisín returned to Ireland, he found that Fionn mac Cumhail and the Fianna had been long dead and were now only remembered as legends.

Whilst traveling through Ireland, Oisín was asked by some men to help them move a standing stone. He reached down to help them, but fell off his horse. Upon touching the ground he instantly became an old man. He is then said to have dictated his story to Saint Patrick, who cared for and nursed him. Niamh returned to Ireland to search for him, but he had died.

"AINE OF KNOCKAINE" by  Helena Nelson-Reed

Aine (anya) is one of the great goddesses of Ireland. Also called Aine Marine and Aine of Knockaine, she was the daughter of King Egobagal, one of the Tuatha De Danann. An extremely popular goddess, Aine has been viewed, at various times, as both a sun goddess and a moon goddess. While she was in her original role as a sun goddess, she was able to shape-shift into becoming “The Red Mare,” the horse that never could be outrun. Traditionally, sun goddesses have been known as goddesses of love and fertility, and Aine followed in that tradition with great enthusiasm.

People would worship Aine in the hope that she might bestow abundance, prosperity and fertility upon them. Aine took her primary responsibility, that of encouraging human sexuality, very seriously. She had a reputation for being exceedingly friendly with human men, and became lovers with many. With them she conceived a lot of children, and by doing so, it is believed that she gave birth to a magickal faerie-human race. She is sometimes known as Queen of the Faeries.

It was during a much later period in time that Aine developed the characteristics of a more maternal moon goddess, and as Goddess of Agriculture, was believed to guard her followers’ livestock and crops.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


"TRISTAN AND ISOLDE" by Edmund Blair Leighton

Before there were Romeo and Juliet, before there were Lancelot and Guinevere, there was another pair of star-crossed lovers, Tristan and Isolde.

The tragic tale of the love between the Cornish knight Tristan and Irish princess Isolde has been told and retold retold by numerous writers with as many variations. Virtually all versions evolve around conflicting themes of romantic love for one person and loyalty to another.

The best-known version is the one by Sir Thomas Malory, who set the story in Arthurian times. Malory's treatment of the material is notable for its concentration on Tristan's chivalric behavior and feats of valor.

by J. W. Waterhouse

The name Tristran was sometimes spelled as Tristan, and Isolde's name has many variations, including Isold, Isolt, Iseult, Yseult, Ysolde. I will use the spellings Tristan and Isolde. Here is one version of their story:

Isolde was the daughter of Angwish, King of Ireland. She was betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall. King Mark sent his nephew, Tristan, to Ireland to escort Isolde back to Cornwall.

Before Isolde left Ireland, her mother, fearing that Isolde might not love the much older Mark, gave Isolde's handmaiden a love potion, with strict instructions to keep it safe until they reached Cornwall. It was then to be given to Isolde on her wedding night. Sometime during the voyage, Isolde and Tristan drank the potion by accident and fell forever in love.

Isolde did marry Mark of Cornwall, but could not help but love Tristan. The love affair continued after the marriage. When King Mark finally learned of the affair, he forgave Isolde, but Tristan was banned from Cornwall. Tristan moved to King Arthur's court and later went to Brittany.

"TRISTAN AND ISEULT" by Herbert James Draper

There he met Iseult of Brittany (also known as Iseult of White Hands). He was attracted to her because of the similarity of her name to his true love. He married her, but did not consummate the marriage because of his love for Isolde.

After falling ill, Tristan sent for Isolde in hopes that she would be able to cure him. If she agreed to come, the returning ship's sails would be white, or the sails would be black if she did not agree. Iseult, seeing the white sails, lied to Tristan and told him that the sails were black. He died of grief before Isolde could reach him. Isolde died soon after of a broken heart. Iseult regretted her actions after she saw the love that the two had for each other.

The two were buried in Cornwall. From Isolde's grave a rose tree grew, and from Tristan's came a vine that wrapped itself around the tree. Every time the vine was cut, it grew again - a sign that the two lovers could not be parted in death.

"TRISTAN AND ISOLDE" by Sidney Harold Meteyard

As with the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle, Tristan, King Mark, and Isolde all hold love for each other. Tristan honors, respects, and loves King Mark as his mentor and adopted father; Isolde is grateful that Mark is kind to her, which he is certainly not obliged to be; and Mark loves Tristan as his son and Iseult as a wife.

The story has Celtic roots. Tristan may have been based upon a real person, the Pictish prince named Drust, believed to have lived in the Highlands of Scotland in c. 780. By the time story had reached south into Wales, Drust had evolved to Drystan. The Welsh Drystan was clearly a fictional and romantic figure, compared with that of the historical Drust.

From Wales, the story found its way to Cornwall and then arrived in France, where it circulated in Celtic folklore in the northern region of France known as Brittany (that region also being a Celtic stronghold).  The legend was eventually set down in writing, including French romances by two poets in the 12th Century.
A hundred years later, the French "Tristan de Léonois" ("The Prose Tristan") appeared. Written by an unknown author, it provided the background for the writings of Malory, who completed "Le Morte d'Arthur" in 1470. Malory has Tristan appear as a full-fledged knight of the Round Table, for example, jousting with Sir Kay and (unknowingly) with Sir Lancelot, and saving King Arthur’s life.


Tristan and Isolde's conflict of love and loyalty is one of the classic tales of Western literature. Their tragic trajectory rivals and complements that of the later story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and likely influenced it.

The tale has had a substantial impact on Western art and literature since it first appeared. Matthew Arnold, John Masefield and Thomas Hardy have been among modern authors to retell the Tristan story. Painters, especially the Pre-Raphaelites, loved to portray the doomed lovers. Indeed, the tale of potion-induced passion has proved irrestible to artists in all media, including music. German composer Richard Wagner premiered his opera "Tristan und Isolde" in 1865.

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The tale of Tristan and Isolde continues to be told to this day. The movie "Tristan and Isolde" was released in 2006. As mentioned above, there are many variations to the legend. The movie has Tristan and Isolde meeting and falling in love in Ireland. After King Mark discovers their affair, he forgives them both, partially because they had fallen in love before Isolde ever married Mark. From there, events in the movie are markedly different from the version printed above. In my research I did not see any versions that the movie might have drawn upon, so what occurs in the movie may be a brand new version.

Knowing very little of the legend before I saw the movie, I enjoyed it very much. The scene of splendly-dressed Isolde arriving for her wedding on her torchlit Celtic barge is alone worth the price of admission.

Scene from the movie "Tristan and Isolde"
with Sophia Myles and James Franco

Monday, March 8, 2010


"RIDERS OF THE SIDHE" by John Duncan

In Irish lore, The Sidhe (pronounced shee), or Aos Sí (shee), were descendants of the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland. They are members of a powerful supernatural race comparable to the fairies or elves of old. They are often called the Kings and Queens of the Fairies. However, they are neither winged nor diminutive, and are in no way like the cute little fairies of our modern-day imagination.

Rather, Aos Sí (as I will refer to them throughout this post) are otherworldly beings who resemble humans in size and appearance. (Many call them The Sídhe, but that is incorrect, sídhe being the Irish word for mounds. Rather, they are Aos Sí, "People of the Mounds".)

Aos Sí are considered to be a distinct race, quite separate from human beings yet who have had much contact with them over the centuries. They are tall, with a noble appearance and silvery sweet speech. They are generally described as stunningly beautiful, though they can also be terrible and hideous. They are sometimes described as transparent beings who walk without making a sound or leaving tracks. They are dressed very finely and their halls are richly decorated places with sumptuous foods and drinks.

Detail from the John Duncan painting shown above

Aos Sí were descended from the "Tuatha Dé Danann" who settled in Ireland millenia ago. When the Milesians arrived in Ireland from Spain, they found these "people of the Goddess Danu", described as "gods but not gods", a race of beings somewhere in between the two. It is said that they came from heaven, on account of their intelligence and vast knowledge.

The Milesians fought the Tuatha Dé Danann and defeated them. As part of their surrender terms, the Tuatha Dé Danann agreed to retreat and dwell underground in the hollow hills, or sídhe, where it is said they remain to this day as Aos Sí, also called "Daoine Sídhe" (pronounced deena shee).

Each leader of the distinct tribes of the Tuatha Dé Danann was given one mound. Every king or queen has his or her own palace where they feast and play music. They also have regular battles with neighboring tribes.

by Howard David Johnson

In addition to living under fairy mounds, Aos Sí are variously believed to inhabit fairy raths and cairns or to live in the land of "Tír na nÓg", a mythical island to the west of Ireland.

No matter where they abide, it is in an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans, a different dimension of space and time other than our own. This world is described as a parallel universe in which the Aos Sí walk amongst the living.

"Water Sidhe" by ArwensGrace

Belief in this race of beings who have powers to move quickly through the air and change their shape at will once played a huge part in the lives of people living in rural Ireland and Scotland.

Down through the ages the Aos Sí have been said to be in contact with mortals giving them protection, healing them and even teaching them some of their skills  - smithcraft or the working of metals being one such skill. In a just battle, they will fight beside mortals. When they fight, they go armed with lances of blue flame and shields of pure white.

In folk belief and practice, the Aos Sí are often propitiated with offerings, and care is taken to avoid angering or insulting them. Often they are not named directly, but rather spoken of with euphemisms such as "The Good Neighbors," "The Fair Folk," or simply "The Folk", in the hope that if humans describe them as kind, they are more likely to be so. Other names are "The Gentry", "The Lordly Ones" or "The Good People".

"SIDHE OF THE MOOR" by Alexandra Dawe

Aos Sí are generally benign until angered by some foolish action of a mortal. Many trees and mounds are considered under their protection and if a mortal destroys or damages these then a curse is put upon him and his family. In some parts of the countryside people would not build their houses over certain "fairy paths" because of the type of disturbances which would ensue.

However, Aos Sí are notorious for destroying wheat and the goodness of the milk. To propitiate them, the people of Ireland leave them offerings of milk and butter.

Aos Sí are fierce guardians of their abodes - whether that be a fairy hill, a fairy ring, a special tree (often a hawthorn), or perhaps a particular loch or wood. The Gaelic Otherworld is seen as being closer at the times of dusk and dawn, therefore this is seen as a time special to the Aos Sí, as are some of the festivals such as Samhain, Beltane and Midsummer. Whenever a host of the Aos Sí appears there is a strange sound like the humming of thousands of bees and a whirlwind or shee-gaoithe appears.

"THE SHINING FOLK", Larry Elmore

Belief in Aos Sí has survived for thousands of years.The hold that they had on the Celtic mind was so strong that the new religion of Christianity could not shake it. In "The Colloquy of the Ancients", a dialogue which supposedly took place between St. Patrick and the ghost of Caeilte of the Fianna, St. Patrick is amazed to see a fairy woman coming out of the cave of Cruachan, wearing a green mantle with a crown of gold on her head.

Whereas the fairy woman is young and beautiful, Caeilte himself is old and withered. When Patrick enquires of this, Caeilte tells him: "She is of the Tuatha De Dananns who are unfading... and I am of the sons of Mil, who are perishable and fade away".

by Helena Nelson-Reed

Aos Sí are sometimes considered to be nature spirits, divided into distinct categories of wood spirits, water spirits, air spirits and so on, the elemental spirits of each place.

There are guardian Aos Sí of most of the lakes of Ireland and Scotland. Lough Gur in County Limerick is a very magical place where many of The Sidhe kings and queens of Ireland can be found. The lake lies within a circle of low lying hills, but once every seven years it appears as dry land, where an entrance to the Land of Youth may be found. The lake's guardian is known as Toice Bhrean (the lazy one) because she neglected to watch over the well from which the lake sprang forth. It is believed that once every seven years a mortal meets their death by drowning in the lake, taken by the Beann Fhionn, the White Lady.

There are different types of Aos Sí, the most well-known being the Bean Sídhe, or Banshee. The word banshee simply means woman of the sídhe, but has come to specifically indicate the supernatural women of Ireland who announce an oncoming death by their wailing and keening. Her counterpart in Scottish mythology is the Bean Shìth.

"BEAN NIGHE", Artist Uncredited

Other varieties of Aos Sí are the Cat Sìth - a fairy cat, the Cu Sìth - a fairy dog, and the Scottish Bean Nighe - the washerwoman who is seen washing the bloody clothing or armour of the person who is doomed to die.

The fae creature known as Leannán Sidhe is the "Faery Lover". She seeks out artists and poets, and in return for inspiration, she feeds off their life force. These men in turn fall madly in love with her, and then she leaves them. The enchantment is so extreme and intense that the men feel they can't live without her, and they soon waste away and die.

A distinction is often made between the sidhe who are seen walking on the ground after sunset, and the Sluagh Sídhe, "the fairy host" who travel through the air at night, and are known to take mortals with them on their journeys. These airborne spirits of an unpleasant nature are perhaps the cursed, evil or restless dead.

Artist Uncredited

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Taken from Mary's "Across the Pond" blog 

"No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn."

- Hal Borland

"If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant."

- Anne Bradstreet

Hal Borland and Anne Bradstreet, I'm hanging on to your every word. It's as if you're telling me, "Hang in there."

Regular readers of this blog will know that winter is difficult for me. This winter has been even more difficult. Remember that short-lived Steven Weber TV show (not "Wings"!), in which he was always shown walking around with a dark cloud over his head? That's me. For weeks now, we in central ND have been experiencing low clouds, frost and fog. Day after day after endless day.

We haven't had as much snow on the ground for this time of year since 1979. It hasn't been above freezing since sometime in January. The average temperature in February was 10 degrees below normal. If the weatherman tells us the temps will be in the 30s, they've been in the 20s. If they've told us they'll be in the 20s, they're in the teens. (My sis says that meterology is the only profession in which they get paid big bucks to be wrong.) The weathermen also tell us that the air sitting above us is warmer, it just can't get to the ground. All we need, they tell us, is to get that cold heavy Arctic air scoured out.

I like that phrase, "Scour Out". I wish I could take a big scouring pad and take it to the sky, to let some of that uplifting blue in.

Once again, forecasters are saying that temps will be "near freezing" this weekend. That's a phrase that bugs me. Temps of 30-31 F are not near freezing. They are freezing. Temperatures of 33-34 are near freezing. The forecasters should be saying "near melting" (and how much better that sounds). 

I haven't felt like blogging, except for my book blog, where I have been faithful to my New Year's Resolution to review every book I've read. And I've read a record number of books. I read 9 in January and 14 in February. This winter, books have been my solace, my friends, my occupation, my pastime, my salvation, my escape, my sanity.

Getting back to this blog: Although I have neglected it recently, I noticed the other day that I now have over 100 followers! I can hardly believe that that many people find what I say of interest. (Especially when I rant about SAD and the weather.) I seldom hear from any of you, but I thank you for being there, for validating me.

Having over 100 followers makes me feel responsible to provide a more interesting blog than it's been, and to be more prolific. The weather has been so uniformly dreary that I hardly noticed the calendar page turn. But it is March, and we are only about two weeks from the vernal equinox and less than two weeks to St. Patrick's Day. To that end, I am going to take up the theme I used last March, and write about "All Things Irish" (and Celtic).

I hope these posts are interesting and thought-provoking. But if they're of no interest to you, I'm repeating what I said last March: "See you in April!"