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Irish Medieval Cooking – Worties

Worties - Irish Cabbage for Medieval Cooking

‘Worties’ was the common name in Ireland, from the English ‘wortes’, which were vegetable greens and members of the onion family, such as cabbage leaves, spinach, beet greens, leeks, wild garlic leaves and so on, as well as some of the leafy herbs used for seasonings, like borage, parsley, and sage.

When cooked together with butter, and the leftover bread added to soften and soak up the flavoured butter, a delicious mess of goodness is created, and this we still call Worties.

Believe it or not, this was a very popular dish at our living history re-enactments, particularly with the kids! They just can’t get enough of it, even the ones whose parents swear they wouldn’t let a green leaf touch their lips at home. I guess when you cook anything in enough butter it’s going to taste good.

From England in the 1400s, we see the description of “A Dish of Cooked Greens”. The original recipe runs like this:

“Buttered Wortes. Take al manor of good herbes that thou may gete, and do bi ham as is forsaid; putte hem on þe fire with faire water; put þer-to clarefied buttur a grete quantite. Whan thei ben boyled ynough, salt hem; late none otemele come ther-in. Dise brede small in disshes, and powre on þe wortes, and serue hem forth.”
(by Thomas Austin, from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books: Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016)

In other words, it can be read:

Buttered Greens. Take all manner of good herbs you may get, and do them as is forsaid; put them on the fire with clean water, and add a large quantity of clarified butter. When they have been boiled enough, salt them, let no oatmeal come in. Dice bread small into dishes, and pour on the greens, and serve them forth.

Our recipe uses 2 sweetheart cabbages, shredded or chopped to bite-size pieces, and a whole bulb of garlic, with each clove peeled and finely chopped. We get a large pot over an open fire (but your stove top will do just fine), melt a block of butter (about a lb) in there, and add the garlic to simmer. Throw in the cabbage, and sure if you’ve any other stray green leaves to use up you can toss them in there too. You could season with a little salt, but unless your butter is unsalted to start with, the extra is not really necessary.

Once the greens are softening but not mushy, we’d take a whole loaf of bread, break or chop it up, take the pot of greens off the heat and stir the bread right in with them. Tip it all out into a big serving bowl, or individual portions, and you’re done.

Worties!

I should probably note a few things:

  • Sweetheart Cabbage is a soft, fresh, green leafy variety grown here.
  • Our butter is salted and what’s called ‘grass-fed’ in the States; all our dairy is grass fed here in Ireland.
  • The bread we get the best results with is brown or white soda bread – a yeast free loaf baked with buttermilk, which you can find a recipe for HERE.

Worties would have been served as a side for meats in a main meal, and as a lunchtime or even breakfast meal to use up the previous day’s bread.

Indeed, there’s many a working man and woman who was coming home to some variation of the Worties dish after a hard day’s work in Ireland right up til the 1900s, and I’m sure it’s served up on Irish lunch and dinner tables even to this day!


The Curse of Macha

Macha pregnant-beach-sunset-mother

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.


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Queen Maedbh (Maeve) Cheat Sheet

Queen Maev by J. C. Leyendecker

Here we’ll look at the basics on Maedbh, the ‘Celtic’ warrior queen of Connacht (yes, that’s the correct spelling – ‘Connaught’ is the later anglicised version) – her home, family life, relationships, ruling from Rathcroghan, burial, and the cultural inspiration she has become.

“How do you spell that?!”

It depends on which version of Gaeilge, the Irish language, you are using.

Medb (the Old Irish spelling) – in Middle Irish: Meḋḃ, Meaḋḃ; in early modern Irish: Meadhbh; in reformed modern Irish Méabh, Maedbh, Medbh; sometimes anglicised Maeve, Maev, Meave or Maive (all modern versions are pronounced May-v).

I’m going to stick to using the modern Irish name Maedbh for this article, except for direct quotes from the manuscripts.

Who was Queen Maedbh?

Most notably, the warrior priestess queen of Connacht, the western province of Ireland.

It is said that her father gifted her with Connacht, and no king could rule here unless they were married to Queen Maedbh.  She had many husbands, and ruled for many years.

Maeve appears in much of the literature of the Ulster saga tales, and our most famous epic literary tale, the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) features her strongly as the protagonist.  Or is that the antagonist…?

Historically, she would have lived sometime around the years 0 – 100AD, if she existed as a real flesh and blood queen.  And that is the question – was she real?

A queen, or a Goddess of the land?  A priestess of a sovereignty Goddess, who rose to power?  An archetypal figure, representing… what?  These are some of the riddles of Queen Maedbh.

Queen Maedbh’s Family Tree

Meadb of Cruachan, daughter of Eochaid Feidleach, another of Conchobar’s wives, mother of Amalgad, Conchobar’s son, so that Conchobar was Meadb’s first husband, and Meadb forsook Conchobar through pride of mind, and went to Tara, where was the High-King of Ireland.

The reason that the High-King of Ireland gave these daughters to Conchobar was that it was by Eochaid Feidleach that Fachtna Fathach had fallen in the battle of Lettir-ruad in the Corann, so that it was as his eric these were given to him, together with the forcible seizure of the kingship of Ulster, over Clan Rudraidhe: and the first cause of the stirring up of the Cattle-raid of Cuailnge was the desertion of Conchobar by Meadb against his will.

Excerpt from Medb’s Men, or, The Battle of the Boyne
Yellow Book of Lecan, 351b-353a 

PARENTS

Eochaid Feidleach, Father, High King of Ireland at Tara

Crochen Crobh-Derg, Mother, Handmaid to Etain

  MAEDBH

HERSELF

CHILDREN

Maine Athramail
Maine Máthramail
Maine Andoe
Maine Taí
Maine Mórgor
Maine Mílscothach
Maine Móepirt
Findabair

Eh… why were all her sons called Maine?

Well, they weren’t, not originally, but Maedbh and Ailill did end up with seven sons, all called Maine.

Back when they all had other names, Maedbh asked a druid which of her sons would kill Conchobar (king of Ulster), and he replied, “Maine”.  A little bit concerned that she didn’t have a son called Maine, she decided to rename all her sons as follows:

  • Fedlimid became Maine Athramail (“like his father”)
  • Cairbre became Maine Máthramail (“like his mother”)
  • Eochaid became Maine Andoe (“the swift”)
  • Fergus became Maine Taí (“the silent”)
  • Cet became Maine Mórgor (“of great duty”)
  • Sin became Maine Mílscothach (“honey-speech”)
  • Dáire became Maine Móepirt (“beyond description”)

The prophecy was fulfilled when Maine Andoe went on to kill Conchobar, son of Arthur, son of Bruide — not Conchobar, son of Fachtna Fathach, as Maedbh had assumed the druid meant.

Maedbh and Ailill also had a daughter, Findabair.  She got to keep her own name, but was offered around as a prize during the Táin – Maedbh was bribing Connacht warriors with marriage to the fine Findabair if they’d go against the Ulster warrior CúChulainn in single combat.

 

Maedbh’s Mammy

Cruachú Crobh-Dearg (the spelling varies, as ever in our wonderful collection of tales) is remembered as a handmaiden of Etain, appearing in the love story of Etain & Midir.

She may have an older, sovereignty or tribal Goddess function, which is being remembered and carried through the later legends.

Some of her story, and associations with Cruachan (Rath Cruachan, or modern Rathcroghan, in Co. Roscommon) remains in the text quoted as follows…

Listen, ye warriors about Cruachu!
with its barrow for every noble couple:
O host whence springs lasting fame of laws!
O royal line of the men of Connacht!
O host of the true, long-remembered exploits,
with number of pleasant companies and of brave kings!
O people, quickest in havoc
to whom Erin has pledged various produce!
Manly in battle-rout multitudinous
is the seed of noble Brian, with their strong fleets:
in express submission to them have been sent
hostages from all Europe to Cruachu.
If we stay to recount its fame for every power,
we shall not be able to pour out the lore of noble science

for Cruachu, holy without austerity,
whose foemen are not few.
Known to me by smooth-spoken eulogy
is the designation of powerful Cruachu:
not slight the din, the uproar,
whence it got its name and fame for bright achievement.

Eochaid Airem — high career!
when the fierce, generous man was at Fremu,
the man who cherished feats of skill,
holding a meeting for horse-fights,
There came to them noble Midir
(he was no favourite with the gentle prince)
to carry off Etain in dreadful wise,
whence came lamentation of many tribes.
Ill-favoured was the man who bore off
Etain and hardy Crochen
the queen and her handmaid,
who was right lowly, yet ever-famous.
Westward Midir bore the fair captives
after boldly seizing them as booty,
to Sid Sinche of the ancient hosts,
because it was noble Midir’s hereditary possession.
Till three days were out he stayed
in the radiant noisy Sid:
after fruitful enterprise it is custom
to boast at board and banquet.
Then said strong Crochen
What fine house is this where we have halted?
O Midir of the splendid feats,
is this thy spacious dwelling?”
The answer of the famous man of arts
to Crochen blood-red of hue:
‘ Nearer to the sun, to its warmth,
is my bright and fruitful home.”

Said Cruachu the lovely,
in presence of the spacious tribes,
“O Midir, yet unconquered,
shall my name be on this Sid?”
He gave the fine dwelling as reward for her journey
to Crochen, a fair recompense:
by Midir, report says, northward at his home,
by him her name was given to it as ye hear.
Hence men say Cruachu,
(it is not hidden from kindly tribes,)
since Midir brought (clear without falsehood)
his wife to Sinech of the Side.
As for Midir, he was no sluggard thereafter,
he went to Bri Leith maic Celtchair:
he carried with him the bright indolent lady, whitely radiant,
whom he bore off by force from Fremu.
Eochaid at the head of the numerous ranks
of his brave troop,

…was on the track of Midir, the great champion.
Said his druid to Eochaid,
“Thou shalt not be fortunate all thy life long:
lamentation for evil has come upon thee
for the loss of Etain of the golden tresses:”

“Come from the judgment-seat of Fotla
without warning, without royal proclamation;
bring with thee thereafter to Bri Leith
thy host — no cowards they — to sack it.”
“There shalt thou find thy wife
in noble beauty, beyond denial:
be not faint-hearted for long, O warrior;
bring her with thee by consent or by force.”

This is a beginning, with famous perils,
for the proud Wooing of Etain,
though it be a pithy tale to hear,
the tale when men came to Cruachu to listen to it.
It was Crochen of pure Cruachu
who was mother of Medb great of valour:
she was in Cruachu — it was an open reproach-
awhile with Etain’s spouse.

Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The Metrical Dindshenchas (Author: [unknown]) poem 63 – Rath Cruachan

Maedbh and her Lovers

Ok, well, how long have you got? Yes, there were a serious amount of men who were getting it on with the Queen. She was a woman of large appetites.

There’s a whole Irish text devoted to this very topic called ‘Medb’s man-share’ (Ferchuitred Medba). The text was also called ‘Medb’s husband allowance’, ‘Medb’s men’, or Cath Boinde (the Battle of the Boyne), and you can find the translated version HERE. It originally comes from the Yellow Book of Lecan manuscript.

In the Tain Bó Cuailnge, we can see how she offers her own favours to the owner of the Brown Bull of Cooley, King Daire, to sweeten the deal… before she heads to an all out murderating war raid. It’s hardly her fault he refused and forced her hand, now is it?

“Go there, Mac Roth,” orders Medb. “Ask Daire to lend me Donn Cuailnge for a year. At the end of the year he can have fifty yearling heifers in payment for the loan, and the Brown Bull of Cuailnge back. And you can offer him this too, Mac Roth, if the people of the country think badly of losing their fine jewel, the Donn Cuailnge: if Daire himself comes with the bull I’ll give him a portion of the fine Plain of Ai equal to his own lands, and a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and my own friendly thighs on top of that.”

 

Queen Maedbh and Her Lovers… the Book!

For a really interesting examination of Maedbh as a Lover, Initiator, and Intoxicator, you won’t go far wrong with this book.

The author is a Jungian Psychoanalyst, looking at the Maedbh myth in the context of her modern practice, which is a fascinating angle that makes for exploration of Queen Maedbh in directions we’d never thought of.

Publisher: Nicolas-Hays; 1 edition (October 2001) – it’s still available on Amazon HERE. (affiliate link)

 

Queen Maedbh – Dead and Buried

Awww, she’s Dead? How?!

In her later years, Maedbh often went to bathe in a pool on Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), an island on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery in County Roscommon. Furbaide, who’s mother she had killed (so it is said), sought revenge, and set about planning her demise. He was quite dedicated about it. But I suppose it’s the type of thing that you’d really want to get right.

First, he took a rope and measured the distance between the pool and the shore, and practiced with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Maedbh’s height, from that distance. The next time he saw Maedbh bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese.

Yes cheese. Queen Maedbh was killed by cheese. Her son, Maine Athramail (he who was originally Cairbre, and most ‘like his mother’, ascended to the throne of Connacht in her place.

But buried in Sligo, right?

Well, not exactly. Maybe. ‘Maedbh’s Cairn’ in Co. Sligo, is the best known burial site of Queen Maedbh, but it is one of three possible sites. According to some legends, she is indeed buried in the 40ft (12m) high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Rí in Irish, Hill of the King/Queen) in County Sligo. The story goes that she is buried upright, facing her enemies in Ulster.

In Bronze or Iron Age burials though, it would be common enough to hack an important dead person apart and bury bits of them along different boundaries, for protection and guardianship. Another story goes that she is buried in the hill of Knockma (Cnoc Medb in Irish, Hill of Maeve), near Belclare in Co. Galway, which is also where Fionnbharr, King of the Connacht Sidhe, holds court. The Fairy connection is an interesting one, and maybe related to her later associations with Mab, the English Fairy Queen? The boundary theory holds here too though, as the views from the top of Knockma are spectacular. Very convenient for a guardianship position, I’d say.

Her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon is the third, and most likely burial site, with a long low slab named Misgaun Medb being given as the probable location. In the ‘she got chopped up in bitty bits and buried’ theory, this is where her soul (most likely to be contained in her head, according to thinking of the time) would be.

Or possibly her heart. Whatever bit of her was deemed the most important part would have stayed at home, with other bits spreading out at lesser sites along the boundaries.


Meeting Queen Medb (Maeve)

Medb of Connacht is an ancient Irish Initiator, Brehon and Sovereign Queen. (Two Classes)

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Medieval Marriage in Ireland

Candle

In Gaelic Ireland, your husband being too fat to have sex was grounds for divorce.

A woman could easily divorce her husband for obvious reasons, like hitting her hard enough to cause a blemish, but she also had the legal protection which ensured he couldn’t go down to the village pub and blab about their sex life to his mates (instant divorce).

While divorce could – and did – happen at will, it wasn’t an easy or uncomplicated approach to Medieval marriage in Ireland.

The Irish Brehon Law system allowed for nine different types of union; from a marriage of equals, where both parties brought equal property to the match, down to a one night stand, it was all legalised and taken care of. Because there was no such thing as illegitimacy when it came to a woman’s offspring, it was just a question of who was legally responsible for their care.

In his article ‘Marriage in Early Ireland’, Donnchadh Ó Corráin looked at the different types of unions Irish lawyers divided first and principal marriages into. There were three categories based on property:

  1. ‘marriage of common contribution’, marriage in which, apparently, both parties contribute equally to the common pool of marital property;
  2. ‘marriage on man-contribution’, an arrangement by which the bulk of the marriage goods are contributed by the man; and
  3. ‘marriage on woman contribution’, marriage to which the woman brings the preponderance of the property.

The Brehon Laws in medieval Ireland held out until the mid-sixteenth century, and represent a very different, more civilized and emancipated world view than the sacramental system which followed. There was a big divide between the Anglo-Irish laws that had been put in place with the invasions from England, and the native Gaelic laws and traditions around marriage.

Gillian Kenny, in her paper ‘Anglo-Irish and Gaelic marriage laws and traditions in late medieval Ireland’, notes that:

“The rights of the wife at marriage, her behaviour and freedoms within marriage and the right of a wife to leave a marriage varied enormously between the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish worlds.”

An English woman, for example, once she was married, was severely limited in her right to acquire or even manage land under the common law, and only legitimate heirs born after the marriage could inherit under the common law. An English man could not marry again while his first wife still lived.

Compare and contrast then, how in Gaelic culture and custom, the cétmuinter (first or principal wife) had some control over the other wives her husband could bring into the household, because she could divorce him if she didn’t like the new girl.

Yeah, polygamy was pretty normal back then, and it allowed the original wife to make her own choices based on the new situation, although there was a little leeway given if her feelings were hurt by his new choice. A higher status wife had three days on the arrival of the new woman, in which she could beat, batter and generally vent her spleen, as long as she wasn’t marked in the process. And the other woman was allowed to scratch back and pull hair!

Between the polygamy, the remarriages, and the allowance of illegitimacy, it made for an interesting sprawl of seed options for your average Gaelic nobleman. Mulmora O’Reilly, who was the lord of East Breifne until 1566, had at least fifty-eight grandsons recorded and acknowledged.

Katherine Simms, in ‘Legal Position of Irishwomen’, shows that ordinary concubines in a Gaelic household were of lower status to any wife, but were afforded protection in the households of the men they were having a relationship with. All of that was covered under the nine different types of union.

There were also clerical concubines though, way outside the sanction of the church but very common in the Gaelic areas, who wielded a much higher status, even being treated as a proper wife. Some of their names were recorded in the Annals when they died, just like any other noblewoman.

The church was kept out of the marriage business, as much as possible, though marriage ‘irregularities’ became subject to occasional ecclesiastical penalties. Kenny wrote:

“Throughout the middle ages in Ireland, the Gaelic Irish persisted in keeping many of their civil laws and traditions regarding marriage separate from the church’s teaching on the subject. For instance, Irish couples were not commonly united by the sacrament of marriage as Gaelic law regulated their relationship. Gaelic law allowed divorce at will followed by remarriage.”

There were undoubtedly some very marked differences between the two cultures, though they ran side by side for a long time. Kenny outlines some of the main contrast in her conclusions, where she says:

“Anglo-Irish wives (and their property) were legally subject to their husbands. This does not seem to have been wholly the case in Gaelic Ireland where wives could enter into contracts of their own volition and kept control of their own lands and goods after marriage. With these riches they often acted independently as important and influential patrons of the arts and also, in some cases, actively participated in the military and political life of their community. However they could not themselves become chieftains or hold power in such a formal and official fashion. Gaelic wives were still subject in some ways to the influence of their kin which could be disadvantageous. Similarly after her marriage ended whether through death or separation the Gaelic Irishwoman was once again subject entirely to the will of her own family whereas an Anglo-Irish woman found her rights more fully protected as a single woman or as a widow.”

It would seem that where a woman had a choice, she would stay within the Gaelic traditions while it suited her best, but it became increasingly common to see applications to the church courts to secure their property (and the inheritance of their kids) on widowhood, or to right a marital wrong such as being abandoned for no good reason.

It was easier, and clearer perhaps in the higher side of Gaelic society, for a woman to take advantage of the native rules. Ó Corráin wrote:

“It was a dignified state for the wife in question: if it was a marriage ‘with land and stock and household equipment’ and if the wife was of the same class and status as her husband, she was known as a bé cuitchernsa, literally ‘a woman of joint dominion, a woman of equal lordship’, a term which seems to be rendered domina in the canon law tracts. Neither of the spouses could make a valid contract at law without the consent of the other.”

Although it became easier as time progressed to apply to church law for safety and security, and the inheritance of a Gaelic woman’s children, there were other ways feasible through Gaelic Law.

An heiress could marry a cousin, for example, and keep land in her family that way; which the church wasn’t at all happy about, but Gaelic lawyers found multiple biblical instances to prove it was alright in the eyes of God, really. It didn’t even have to be a principle marriage, a second or third would do. And an even more liberal minded example from Ó Corráin:

“A woman could acquire land by outright gift of her father… land which was his personal (as distinct from family) possession, and women could also possess land which is called ‘land of hand and thigh’. It is possible (though quite uncertain) that two kinds of land are in question here: land acquired by the woman’s own labour and land got as a marriage portion or for some other sexual service, but the precise meaning of the term is not clear from the contexts.”

I think he’s hit the nail on the head at the end there, personally.

As Kenny put it, in an interview for ‘The History Show’ on Irish national radio:

“I mean the whole idea of marriage as being a monolithic, unchanging institution is incorrect, if you look back into the past in Ireland, further than the last couple of hundred years, you can see just how complex it was on both sides, English and Gaelic, so you know it’s only been sacramentalised very recently in historical terms.”

All in all, the Gaelic attitude was more practically tolerant of the ins and outs of human relationships than the English system which followed, and we’re the poorer for it.

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Celtic Woad – an Authentic Resource?

Kiera Knightley as a Woad

Ah, the Celtic tribes – they painted themselves blue with woad and ran naked into battle. Right?

Got high as a kite to scare the bejaysus out of their enemy and improve their ferocity because, as we all know, woad is a powerful hallucinogen. Right?

We’ve all seen Braveheart, and that King Arthur film on the telly box – they even called the people ‘Woads’ in that, didn’t they? Sure, then it must be true…

Though seemingly well attested in eye witness accounts, scholars question the veracity of this belief, but that doesn’t seem to filter into the body art or Celtic re-enactment communities with any great speed.

Personally, I believe that ancient tribes of Ireland and the British Isles, such as the Picts and more southern Britons, did utilise methods of tattooing and body decoration as part of their battle, spiritual, and even everyday rituals.

Herodian, in the First Century CE (Common Era), said of the tribes –

“they puncture their bodies with pictured forms of every sort of animals. And this is the reason why they wear no clothes, to avoid covering the drawings on their bodies.”

I am inclined though, to at least challenge the ‘fact’ that they used woad to dye themselves blue.

The most often quoted source for this prevalent belief is the Roman emperor Caesar’s recorded description of the Brittani, a Celtic tribe. It has been commonly translated as:

“All the Britons dye their skin with woad, which produces a blueish colour and makes them appear horrifying in battle”.(1)

The original Latin, however, says: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem”. The “vitro inficiunt” could translate classically as ‘stain/dye with glazes’, or ‘infected themselves with glass’.(2)

The blue colour he describes could have been caused by body paint rather than tattoos, or it is possible the tribe used scarification techniques or glass ‘needles’ to tattoo themselves. But probably not with woad. Why not?

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

Although it makes a wonderful indigo coloured dye for materials, a safe, biodegradable natural ink, and is also showing usefulness as a wood preservative; it’s pretty crap as a body paint, or a tattoo ink.

It’s extremely caustic – when used as tattoo ink it literally burns itself to the surface, and though it heals fast, it leaves an excessive amount of scar tissue. Alas, none of it blue.

The extremely knowledgeable Celtic art tattooist, Pat Fish, is often quoted as saying she believes that Celts used copper as a blue colour and firewood ash or lampblack for a black.(3)

Traces of copper based pigments were found on an ancient body, excavated from a bog in Cheshire, UK. This would seem to indicate the presence of copper tattoos of some sort, which would have been coloured blue. Of course, we now know that copper is highly toxic, and would not use it on or in our bodies.

From my own experiences with powdered woad, using it as a body paint, I’ve had to mix it with something (I’ve tried hair gel, commercial body glitter gel, and even PVA glue!) to try and get it to stay on at all. Even then it streaks all over the place or just dries up and flakes off. Not entirely reminiscent of a battle hardened warrior.

It also doesn’t seem to particularly stain the skin. Perhaps it would stain in certain areas, such as the finger tips or elbows, through prolonged contact. But so would pretty much anything.

And besides, blue smudged cuticles and tinted elbows aren’t going to particularly impress anybody in battle, even if you take the time to assure them that it’s genuine Celtic woad.

And to the other common belief, that of high Celts running round?

Woad is not a strong hallucinogen. A mild psychotropic, at best. Reports of woad induced ancient battle/modern festival madness must have, to my mind, been greatly exaggerated. Pagan types, collect your people?

All in all, the only practical possibility is that woad was used on the battle field as a possible wound cauterising agent, on account of its astringent properties.

It’s a nice thought for those of us who are proud of our ‘Celtic’ heritage – and I use the term in the academic sense, please understand that – being able to use the same materials or techniques as our ancestors, to look the same or perhaps even produce the same effects.

I can see why it can be difficult to give up on. Even if the actual evidence or effect achieved is disappointing at best, and at worst, somewhat risky in the hands of the inexperienced.

A possible alternative to woad or copper, which would also have been available at the time, is iron.

Julius Caesar, while commenting on early Celtic tribes, said that they had “designs carved into their faces by iron”.(4) Iron could possibly be used to produce a blue coloured ink or dye, if handled by an expert.

Don’t try this at home, girls and boys! However, with the sheer beauty of the Celtic art and wonderful tattoo artists that are available now, I’d be encouraging the use of these to connect with or emulate the warriors of old, rather than the crude inks they employed.

After all, the Celtic people were nothing if not highly adaptable. If they had the kind of high quality ink that we have available to us now, I seriously doubt that copper filings, or woad, would even get a look in.

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Resources

(1) – Philip Freeman, “War, Women, and Druids”, University of Texas Press, U.S.A. ISBN: 0-292-72545-0
(2) – Encyclopedia, Columbia University press (online): http://www.answers.com/topic/picts
(3) – e.g. In her article for ‘An Scathán’, entitled “Celtic Tattooing: Primitive art form emerges in America”, available online at: http://www.underbridge.com/scathan/archive/1995/11_november/11.11.tattoo.html
(4) – Julius Caesar, “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”, circa 55 BCE (Before Common Era)


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First North American Publication, Tattoo Revue Magazine.
First Canadian Publication, Celtic Heritage Magazine