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Unravelling Old Magic in Irish Folklore – a Story about Wolves

Irish Folklore - Wolves in Ireland

Today, I wanted to learn about Wolves in Ireland.

Hold up, actually, let’s back it up a bit, and explain where I’m coming from, for those who aren’t familiar.

My Monthly Work

Each month on My Patreon Membership Site I release a series of Rewards through various tiers of membership/support. For example:

  • Seanchaí Storytellers receive a unique Tale of Ireland, Retold – $3 per month.
  • Journey Seekers receive the story, plus script and MP3 Audio for a new Guided Journey – $5 per month.
  • Patrons receive access to the full set of Photographs, Video, and Site Report from a Sacred Site Visit – $10, $15 or $20 per month.

There are other reward tiers and benefits, but if you want more on that just pop over to My Patreon and take a look. The point I’m making is… each month, I look for inspiration for the Irish Folklore or Irish Mythology story to write, the Guided Journey to create and record, and the Sacred Site to visit.

This month (November 2018), I will be visiting one of the oldest Ogham stones in the country.

Ogham of the Wolves

Now, it’s notoriously difficult to date stone, particularly when a lot of the Ogham Stones in Ireland have been moved out of context from their original positions and functionality.

But we know this one is pretty feckin’ old due to the lack of vowel affection… but I also love the inscription, which has been translated as: “Of Conda son of the descendant of of Nad-Segamon”.

The truly cool part of that though? (I mean besides the fact that we’re reading an inscription in an ancient script and language from 1600 years ago? Coz that bit’s pretty cool too, right?!)

The primitive name Cuna, or more recently Conda, means ‘champion of wolves’.

Champion of Wolves!

And so we get to the part – eventually – where I’m wanting to learn more about wolves in Ireland.

Wolves in Irish Folklore

When I’m researching for my Patreon Stories each month, if I don’t have a particular character or deity from Celtic mythology or Irish legends that I want to have a look at, I’ll often dip into the Schools’ Collection over at Dúchas, the National Folklore Archive. It’s an amazing resource, do go and check it out.

Flipping through the transcribed Irish folklore tales about wolves, a particular one piqued my interest.

Only the second page of it was transcribed, so I quickly typed up the first page and registered it for approval (please do consider some transcription volunteering if you’re up for that!). Here’s the result, it’s not long:

Once upon a time there were two wolves on the Sliabh an Iarann mountains. The wolves used to kill everything they used to catch on the mountain. The people of the district sent for a man named Gildary (Gildea) to shoot the wolves. When the wolves would hear a whistle they would come to the place where the whistle was let. Gildea went up to the mountain and he started to whistle and one of the wolves came. Gildea fired at him. He had to hit him on the head between the two eyes on the star of his forehead. He had to shoot him with crooked sixpences. He fired several times at the wolf. At last he fell dead in the river which bounds Slievenakilla and Carntulla. The water ran red with his blood from the place where he died down to Lake Allen. After that the other disappeared. The wolf that was shot was much longer than a dog. The people were very glad when the wolf was killed because they could graze their cattle and sheep on the mountain then.

[ARCHIVAL REFERENCE] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0206, Page 214
https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4605946/4604716

Now, a couple of things stand out for me here.

  • Sliabh an Iarann – the Iron Mountain – in County Leitrim is associated with the Tuatha Dé Danann.
  • Wolves coming to a whistle. I mean, that’s not natural wolf behaviour.
  • The star on the forehead of the wolf, which may indicate an Otherworld marking?
  • Shooting with ‘crooked sixpences’… what’s that about eh?

Sitting with it for a while, a story began to formulate, about the Tuatha Dé Danann – what happened to the members of the tribe who weren’t big names in the tales?

All of the elements matched up within the story I was telling, but I was a little stumped still about those crooked sixpences.

The Killing of Wolves with Magic

At first I thought about maybe a werewolf/silver connection, and wondered if my friends who study Irish lore as I do would have any insight.

Morgan Daimler, as usual, was exceptionally helpful (GRMA mo chara). But even they hadn’t come across the sixpence thing specifically.

Going with the possible wolves and silver bullets connection, I began to research what the old Irish sixpence was made of (Nickel, then a Nickel and Copper alloy), but that didn’t shed any light.

It was only when I saw the picture and was reminded of what it looked like that things started to make sense. An Irish Sixpence carried the image of a wolfhound. So, we’re into sympathetic magic territory now.

The Old Irish Sixpence

If I want to charm a weapon to harm a specific being, a great way to do it is to use an image to represent that being, name it for the target, and then bend or break the weapon – symbolically killing the being that it represents.

Now, if you add the physical element of doing that symbolically and energetically, and then using the bent weapon to literally shoot the target… there folks, we have ourselves some powerful magical weaponry. Powerful enough to kill a member of the Aos Sí.

Excited as I was to include this element in my story, I did a quick check in with myself (and my good friend Morgan), to make sure I wasn’t twisting the tradition in any way to suit my own ends.

Cultural Appropriation is difficult when it’s your own culture, granted, but I do still like to stay aware and make sure my work is faithful and respectful at all times.

Satisfied that what I wrote is “fair and true to the spirit of the folklore”, I finished the rest of the story.

Which sort of ended up accidentally also as a gay wolves love story, a little in passing, but there you go. Homosexuality is also fair and true to the spirit of the Irish tradition, as it happens 🌈👍

A Story about Wolves

And that my friends, is an example of how we can unravel Old Magic in Irish Folklore. I teach a LOT more about Irish Magic in my courses on the Irish Pagan School:

The story we’re discussing is for Patrons only currently (but if you sign up for $3 now you’ll get instant access to that story PLUS over a year’s worth of other Tales of Old Ireland, and a new one every single month!) – Sign Up for $3 Here.

Or, if you’re reading this in December 2018 or beyond, you can go read the story right now…

Scéal Na Mac Tíre (A Wolf Story) – Tales of Old Ireland

 

Irish Faith Healers & Folk Cures

Faith Healers recommend a Stolen Bride's Breakfast Bread

Visiting Faith Healers for ‘Getting the Cure’ was – and still is – a big thing in Ireland.

There’s copious amounts of folklore around herbs, faith healing, and various other remedies in the Irish tradition, but if you didn’t grow up here you might be surprised to learn that Irish people still believe.

I’m 40 years old now, and I can honestly say that every time a family member has been seriously sick, from warts to cancer to mystery ailments – has been taken to a faith healer, or been given a traditional folk cure in some form.

(Ok, warts maybe don’t count as ‘seriously sick’… unless you’re a young teenager and your hands are covered in them. Then talk to me about what’s serious or not.)

Lets look at an example of the lore around Irish Faith Healers and Folk Cures:

There are various kinds of home-cures.

It is mostly old people that has these cures and some of those cures, are often better than the cure a doctor could give you.

Edward Gormley of Esker has the cure of the strain. The cure consists of a piece of thread which Mr. Gormley gives to the person, who wants the cure made, before giving the person the piece of thread, he holds it in his hands and says certain prayers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He makes this cure between sunrise and sunset.

There are several other people in this locality who has the cure of the strain as well as Mr. Gormley, James Quinn of Clontumpher has the cure of the thorn. The cure consists of different kinds of mixtures, all mixed together along with certain kinds of prayers, which Mr. Quinn says over the mixture this mixture is to be put on the spot, where the thorn, is supposed to be, and after a couple of days the thorn will come out.

Paddy Callaghan of Esker has the cure of the warts, any person who has warts on their hands or feet, can get them cured easy. Mr. Callaghan makes the cure on Tuesday and Thursday evening before sunset. He rubs his hands on the wart and while rubbing says certain kinds of prayers, he then tells you to rub washing-soda on the wart every evening and morning and in about a fortnight or so the wart disappears.

Edward Gormley (Esker), has the cure of the heartache also. Rose Tynan (Esker), has the cure of the burn.

When Edward Gormleys Father was dying he left him (his son) the cure of the strain. And when Edward Gormley dies, he can leave the cure to any of his sons he likes.

John Quinn Drumlish makes the cure of the ring worm.

Some people often gets the cure of the hoopen-cough. It is very peculiar cure and it is very hard got. If a child in any house has the hoopen cough and if two people gets married of the same name, during the time that the child is bad.

The cure is for some person to steal a piece of cake that was left after the bride’s breakfast and give it to the child to eat, it is said that the cure is no good unless the bread is stolen with out the Bride or groom or anybody at the breakfast knowing it. Nobody is to see the bread a stealing or know about it, except the person who is stealing it, and the people in the house where the child is sick.

Some people has great belief in this cure and more people have no belief in it at all. Long ago the old people would be very angry with any one who would say they would not believe in it. Some people say that when a child has the hoopen-cough the best cure is, is to keep giving it butter and sugar, that it is by far the best cure.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0760, Page 236
Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5009172/4994159

 

Do you believe in Faith Healers?

It works, whether you do or not. Maybe that’s due to a placebo effect – the Faith Healers could trigger the body’s healing mechanism. Maybe it’s a genuine Irish magic, that we haven’t figured a way to quantify or explain through our scientific methodology. Yet.

However you feel about it, the laying on of hands by Faith Healers with ‘the Cure’ has been shown, throughout the centuries, to end a lot of suffering.

And sure, if you’re suffering, or a loved one is… why wouldn’t ya give it a go?


 

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Irish Pagan Magic – The ‘Tarbh Feis’

Beef Stew Cooking

It means ‘bull feast’. FYI. 

“A bull-feast is gathered by the men of Erin, in order to determine their future king; that is, a bull used to be killed by them and thereof one man would eat his fill and drink its broth, and a spell of truth was chanted over him in his bed. Whosoever he would see in his sleep would be king, and the sleeper would perish if he uttered a falsehood.”

{From “The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel”,  translated by Whitely Stokes in 1910.}

A bull was killed.  A seer would eat his fill of the flesh, and drink the broth (the liquid in which the meat had been cooked, probably with some blood added in too), and lie down for a sleep.  

A truth spell was chanted over him as he lay in his bed, and he would dream of the person who would be the true king. In this manner was Conaire Mór chosen as King of Tara.  

Prionsias MacCana writes that there were four druids doing the chanting, and Miranda Green echoes this. I’ve not found the reference for that, but I have no reason to believe they were telling fibs.

These days, there’s probably not going to be much sacrificing of bulls for divination purposes.  For most of us, at least. We can adapt the Tarbh Feis to our own purposes however, and utilise it’s power.  

First, we need the flesh of a bull.  A few packets of frozen beef burgers from the local supermarket aren’t really going to cut it on this one.  

Locally reared, organically kept, freshly (humanely) killed prime bullock would be the best option; happy meat.  

Visit small local butcher shops, ask them where they get their beef, how it has been kept, and how long they hang it for.  If you can find one who does his/her own slaughter, all the better. Buy the best cut you can afford, about one pound in weight.  

The best way to consume it is in stew, unless you want to just boil it up, drink the broth and eat the flesh plain (this can be done over a ritual fire outdoors if you have a pot.  And the facility for an outdoor cooking fire, of course).

If you prefer to actually make a meal of your ritual, then a stew (broth included) is the best way to go. It could be made a part of a solo or group Samhain ritual, particularly relevant as part of the divination and feasting.  

Ingest the stew or meat and broth during the latter part of your ritual or working, when any seasonal work you do has already been accomplished.

Your “spell of truth” should be short and simple, so it can be chanted repetitively.

No, I am not going to write it for you! Use your imagination, and make it relevant to when, where, and who you are, and what you wish to achieve or see the truth of.  

In a group setting, one should be chosen (probably the one among you who is usually most prophetic) and the others chant over him or her.

It is possible to all take part, but those who take the flesh and broth should be sleeping that night at the location where the ritual has been held. On waking, take careful note of any dreams, write them down in great detail before you do anything else. Don’t trust to your memory!

There are lots of methods for making Irish Beef stew available, any Internet search or library cookbook should give you recipe options.  Most will include the addition of Guinness, a black Irish stout drink, which does make it taste lovely, but don’t add too much or it gets quite metallic…  and for a ritual meal, perhaps supporting a familiy of colonisers isn’t the best way to go, energetically speaking.

I usually just make one up with a pound of beef, some barley (pearl barley is freely available in supermarkets), carrots, cubed potatoes, peas, onions, black pepper and butter mixed to a paste with flour to season and thicken.  All in one big pot, easy and delicious.

If anybody out there happens to find out who should be the right and proper royal ruler of Ireland while using this method, please do let us know?!


 

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Irish Pagan Magic – Piseoga

Drinking Whiskey

A group of friends sit around a table.  Scratch Scratch Scratch. “Ah, me nose is itchy”, says one.  A few light punches are exchanged, and all is well again.

Did you understand this exchange?  Do you actually believe that an itchy nose is the sign of an impending fight, and that a mock fight should be carried out to ensure that the bad luck is done with?

Do you remember who first told you this was true, or is it something you have picked up, like so many of us, through school yard antics or around the family dinner table – and carried on into adult life?

How many others can you remember, now you’re thinking about it?  

Itchy palms are a sign of money to come. Itchy knuckles, another fight.  Itching on the temples and you’ll soon have cause to weep, while if your eyebrow should need a bit of a scratch, you’ll soon be drinking whiskey.  

Perhaps those last two are connected.

But it’s not all about the itching.  A gap between the two front teeth is the sign of a beautiful singing voice, and if the mouth is wide, there’ll be a great strength in it too.  There is a vein that connects the third finger of the left hand directly to your heart – making it the most logical place to wear your wedding ring.  “One for sorrow, two for joy…”, counting magpies to see what fates they foretell.

And indeed, waving to them respectfully to ensure they don’t bring any bad fortune down on you.  A spot, or worse, a black spot, on your tongue was a sign of telling lies; the suspicious parent would often be heard to tell a child to “stick out your tongue ’til I see if you’re lying”.  Should you spill the salt, you must throw a pinch over your left shoulder to get rid of the bad luck. A bride will have ill fortune through the marriage if she gets married on a Monday, or a Friday, or if she wears green.  Also if it rains on the wedding morning, a glass or cup is broken, the ring is dropped, or she is licked by a dog. If your ears are ‘burning’ , someone is talking about you. This early warning system has been further refined – should it be the right ear that feels inexplicably warm all of a sudden, you are being praised, but if it is the left ear, the talk is bitter and full of malice.

In Ireland, the word for superstition is Piseog, but it means much more than simple sayings and quaint beliefs. We’re not talking Wicca here, and it wasn’t even really called Witchcraft in Ireland. Just, ‘the Old Ways’, or similar. 

A charm, a spell, a superstitious practice – anything connected with magic – is deemed a piseog, pishog or pisreog in the old stories.  

Those who carry out the practices were known as Piseogaí. These people could provide the beneficial charms and cures, they could counter any malicious piseogs that were placed upon a family or an individual, or they could be the ones who did the placement.  

A classic one is connected to May Day morning, the turning of the year at Bealtaine from winter into summer, and so a time for changes. A malevolent person could go out on this particular morning and mix rotten produce into your farm – to try and turn your luck.  This could be rotten meat in the haystacks, or rotten eggs in through the soil… either way the imagery is clear, and unless the foulness was found your luck would turn. Of course the sensible farmer would have already taken precautions against this type of shenanigans, and deployed one of the many available counter charms to turn aside ill intent in plenty of time for the big day.  

May Day was also a time for beneficial changes – washing one’s face in the sun kissed dew on this morning was said to ensure fresh beauty throughout the year. Who needs expensive lotions when dew drops are free?!

These folk beliefs, or superstitions, may seem silly to us now, thinking about them in the cold harsh light of modern science and technological advancement – but they are reflective of our psychological needs, of how we as humans have thought, felt, and interacted with the world around us, and with each other.  Though we can perhaps figure out a certain logic as to how or why some of them started, it is not rationality that has ensured their survival, it is repetition.

When something is done again and again, down through the generations, it becomes not a superstition but a tradition, and those are held on to. A link to the past, connection through the generations, common ground from which each new family builds their own rituals.  Maybe the old Piseogs avert the bad luck, and bring about the good luck… maybe they don’t.

But before you decide either way, it might be wise to bear in mind the old Irish saying – “Ná dean nós, agus ná bris nós”.

Don’t make a custom, and don’t break a custom.


 

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