Sometimes a Goddess fancies a change.
Immortality can get awful boring after a time.
So it was with the Goddess Macha. She decided she wanted a home, friends of her own, a family… and that’s how she ended up on the doorstep of a wealthy merchant in the mountains of Mourne.
She knocked, asked to speak to him in person, and when he arrived down to greet her she made her proposal. She would bring wealth, prosperity, and abundance to his household (being a Goddess definitely has its perks), but in return she wanted a quiet life – to live out her days undisturbed, as a mortal. So he had to promise her privacy, and secrecy, and respect, and the love would come later, she was sure. And so he did.
She turned thrice sun-ways on his step to seal the deal, and stepped into his life as a mortal wife.
The years trundled on and his household prospered, as she had promised it would. She brought abundance and wealth to his life, as she had promised she would.
Love even bloomed, and she became pregnant, as is wont to happen at times, when a man and a woman are in love and doing the things that people in love might do.
The merchant rose in status, and he began to receive invitations for them both to attend all the feasts, and all the fairs – invitations which she always declined, but he attended. Unfortunately, his appetites grew right along with his status, and he began to feast and fair too much, eating and drinking until the wee small hours, and sometimes not even bothering to go home between events.
Macha didn’t mind too much; she kept herself busy, and was delighted when the physician told her she was carrying not one baby, but two – twins!
One month, near the end of her pregnancy, her husband was off again at one of his fairs. This was a big one: the Samhain festival at the court of the King. The merchant paid his tributes and tithes, ate his fill (and more) in the camp kitchens, and contented himself with wandering around the fair grounds, chatting to people he knew, looking through stalls and market tents, watching the competitive events, gaming for profit or loss… and of course drinking. Lots of drinking.
He sat eventually, content to watch the horse racing, and soon there was a cackling crowd, placing wagers on which would win. After a heavy loss, perhaps to salvage some part of pride perceived lost, the wine-soaked sot began to boast that as fast as those horses were, his own wife could out-run any one of them. Even the horses of the King himself, which were known to be the best of the best.
Now, it didn’t take long for this boast to reach the ears of the King himself: for his horses represented his rightful rule, and any slight on them was a slight on his very kingship. He insisted the woman be fetched, and made to race against the best horse of his stable.
Warriors went out, Macha was made travel, and told she would race the next day (as it was a three day festival). She bawled and cursed her husband – and his drunken, pounding, head – all through the night, but it was no use.
She was stood in front of king and crowd first thing in the morning, with the horse lined up next to her. She sweated and swore, for the pressure was doing strange things to her heavily pregnant body, and it looked like mother and babies were in serious distress, to anyone with eyes to see.
The king held firm, and she was made to race – but before she did, she cursed every single man of Ulster, to nine generations on, with a spell that gave each and every one of them the pains of labour and childbirth, to strike them whenever Ulster was under attack.
Macha raced that day, and indeed she won, but the exertion brought on the birth and she died there at the finish. Screaming her curse to the last breath.
This is why Ulster men were in bed each time their province needed them; but sure, they are all stories for another day.
A version of this article on the Rag Tree in the Irish Tradition first appeared as a guest post on the Call of the Morrigan community blog in 2016.
So, I’ve worked for the last 14 years as a professional tour guide to the sacred sites of Ireland, and let me tell ya, I’ve seen some shit. And some of that involves the Rag Tree tradition.
Or rather, the mangling of our rag tree tradition!
8 of those years were spent managing the sites and visitor centre at the royal complex of Rathcroghan, Cruachan; which (as many of you know, unless you’re believing the nonsense that there’s no Morrigan sites in Connacht), is where the Mórrígan ‘resides’ – Her primary site in Ireland is the Cave of the Cats, Uaimh na gCait.
This site is an ancient cave, worked by human hands in later times, known as the primary physical entrance to the Irish Otherworld, which Medieval Christian scribes referred to ‘the Gates of Hell’ due to the unfortunate amount of monsters and demons (to their perception) which flowed out from this hole in the earth on an all too regular basis.
I’m probably telling y’all stuff you already know here, if you’re folk who are interested in Herself. Although, I’ve also seen some pure shite being said by folk who claim to know all about Herself… so a quick recap never does any harm. I’ve been Her priestess for 13 years, and I know how hard she pushes us to do the work, and how important real information is to Her.
But what you might not be aware of, and what I’d really, really, like you to be aware of (and tell all your mates), is the absolute misconceptions and horrific disrespect that Pagan or ‘spiritual’ visitors to Ireland show at our sites.
In Ireland, we have long had the custom of the ‘Raggedy Bush’ or Rag Tree, and there’s similar in Scotland, with what they call ‘clooties’ tied to certain trees.
The trees are Hawthorn, one of our most prominent native trees/bushes – Crataegus Monogyna, or in Irish, the Sceach Gheal. The Irish name literally means something like, ‘that which makes the hedgerow bright’, and when it’s covered in colourful rags it sure does. Most often, there’s a particular hawthorn, growing near a particular holy well, and this is the local Rag Tree.
Occasionally there’s no well or spring to be found, but my theory on that is that there used to be one and it’s gone now, or that the misconceptions around Rag Trees stretch back further than your average modern American tour group, and some fecker just decided at some stage that a single growing hawthorn was actually a Rag Tree, way back in the mists of time, and it stuck. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s no magic there today… just that it probably didn’t start out that way. The water nearby is a pretty important part of the magic here.
What’s it all about then? Well, basically, the tradition goes that you take a piece of cloth from a sick person, tie it to the tree (often with prayers), and the sickness disappears as the rag rots away. The water nearby is most often a holy or healing well, which helps of course.
Sounds simple enough, right?
From a magical perspective, we’ve got sympathetic magic in the rotting of the fabric – the visual representation of the illness losing power and strength and eventually disintegrating. We’ve got an energetic loop that’s formed between the sick person (it has to be an item they’ve worn while ill, so imbued with their DNA or essence) for illness to flow to the tree, and back the way then with the healing energies from the water, through the roots of the tree.
Make sense? Sure!
You know what doesn’t make sense though? Folk who come along and tie their rubbish to the rag tree. Or tie strings or cloth so tight they damage the tree branches. I’ve removed everything from crème egg (candy) foil wrappers to junk jewellery rings to plastic covered wire wrap ties from the branches of our Rag Trees on this island. Not cool people, not cool. That, at least though, can be written off as ignorance of a ‘quaint’ local tradition they want to be a part of, by people who are really just here for lip smacking the Blarney Stone and the Guinness.
What’s more worrying is the visitors who come to sites where there’s no Rag Tree, on supposed spiritual pilgrimage, and tie their shit to whatever tree happens to be there.
The Cave at Cruachan is a prime example of this. I was a guardian there for 13 years, and for 8 of those I was paid to be in and out of it most days of the week. There’s a hawthorn that grows over the mouth of the cave, but it’s a relatively young one. Maybe 20 or 30 years old is all. It’s a fairy tree in the sense of it being smack bang over the mouth of a Sidhe dwelling, and it’s definitely magical… but it’s not a Rag Tree.
Every week though, there’d be some new bit of tat tied to it. One tour group got a nylon umbrella off their bus, ripped it to bits, and tied the bits to the tree. Then they left the umbrella carcass in the field, got on their bus, and drove off.
There were obviously some who wanted to leave an ‘offering’ at the site, to connect themselves there in some way, and perhaps that’s how some of the cloth strips got into the tree. Maybe some were even cloth from the garments of sick people. But this is not a healing site.
In my experience – personally, and collected from feedback of those who energetically interacted with the site – the entities at this site will gleefully follow any connection you choose to make there, go right back to source, and tear down anything weak that they find there. Ostensibly ‘for your own good’, of course, but they are absolutely merciless about it… if you lay a pathway for them they will follow it.
This is not a good thing, for most people. Especially unprepared people. People who maybe think that Irish entities and Sidhe spirits are essentially pleasant and good natured, full of the craic, and harmless to let in. People who are perhaps sick, and not at full energetic defensive strength.
There was once a baby’s bib tied through the branches of the hawthorn tree at the Morrigan’s Cave. Just take a moment, and let that sink in for yourself.
You see now why I might be a bit ranty on this topic? Can we not do this anymore?
My best advice is to take local advice. If you want to find a real Rag Tree, there’s websites and books that will tell you where to begin your search, but first and foremost you should be talking to local people.
Get exact directions. Check that the tree you think might be the one is actually the one.
DON’T tie things that are not biodegradable to the trees – to any tree?! Tying strings and straps around our trees that stay there for years – I’ve literally seen the poor trees trying to grow around the shite that has been tied to them – will, in the worst cases, literally strangle and kill the branch it’s tied on, and sicken the whole tree.
And remember, just because some eejit has tied something to it before you got there, doesn’t make it a Rag Tree.
Please, be sure?
Let’s go now to a lake away in Italy, where a group of distinguished visitors – all elegant and intelligent folk, we can be assured – had gathered on the private yacht of a good friend of theirs, an Italian Nobleman by the name of Count Neilsini.
He was a proper gentleman, of refined tastes and company; so one of his guests, a Colonel, was very surprised to notice a crooked, grubby woman with her back to them, right down at the end of the boat. Due to the seating arrangements, the other guests were not in a position to observe as he was. Politely, he said nothing, but continued to watch her shuffling and swaying about down there, with no apparent purpose or employment.
Eventually his curiosity got the better of his manners, and he queried the Count as to who the queer looking old thing could possibly be, while keeping her in view out of the corner of his eye. The Count’s response concerned him, for he was assured that there were only the visiting ladies present, and one young stewardess elsewhere.
The other guests looked on in trepidation as he quickly rose from his seat, turning the corner and disappearing from their view, but not from their hearing, as he continued to protest that he was indeed correct, and he would fetch back the strange woman to prove it. His assertions turned to a scream of horror though, and when the other guests got to him he’d collapsed in a heap on the deck. There was nobody else to be seen at all.
By the time they’d brought him round, and the gibbering had stopped, he was the fuller for three large brandies but not exactly calm yet. The Count of course was demanding to know what had happened, but all the sense they could get from him was that he’d seen the woman’s face as she turned on his approach, and it was like “nothing belonging to this world.
It was a woman of no earthly type, with a queer-shaped, gleaming face, a mass of red hair, and eyes that would have been beautiful but for their expression, which was hellish. She had on a green hood, after the fashion of an Irish peasant.”
One of the ladies present was American, of Irish descent, and had heard of such a thing before. When she suggested that the description was like that of an Irish Banshee, the others laughed, but the Count grew pale, and decided to partake of some restorative brandy of his very own.
It turned out he was actually an O’Neill, or at least descended from one. His family name was Neilsini, but had been O’Neill not more than a century before, when his great-grandfather served in the Irish Brigade. On the Brigade’s dissolution at the time of the French Revolution, the Count’s grandfather had escaped the massacre of officers, and fled across the frontier to Italy in company with an O’Brien and a Maguire. When he died, his son (who had been born there, and was far more Italian than Irish) changed his name to Neilsini, and from then on the family was known by that name – but the blood in his veins was still Irish. None of the others knew what it could mean?
His concerned American guest solemnly explained that the appearance of the Banshee is a harbinger for the death of someone close in the family, though the person who shall die will never see the Fairy Woman for themselves. The Count quickly sent word to land that his wife and daughter were to be looked after well that night, and he would return first thing in the morning, for he was frightened it’d be them the Banshee claimed.
He needn’t have worried so much about them though, because just as his yacht touched shore – but before he set foot on Italian soil again – wasn’t the Count himself seized with a violent attack of angina pectoris, and died before the morning.
And that’s not the only time I’ve heard such tales of the Banshee, not by a long shot, but sure, they are all stories for another day.
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