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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



Given the insistence of the Roman authors that Pythagoras adhered to the teachings of the Celtic druids; and that Ovid tells us in his Metamorphoses, written at about the time of Christ, that one particular teaching of Pythagoras was that the souls of men pass into those of animals before going back again into men, what are we to infer from the following legend of Tuan mac Carell, found in the Book of the Dun Cow, an Irish manuscript dating to around AD 1100 but recording stories that are probably much older?

Tuan mac Carell, an old pagan warrior befriended by an early Irish monk of the sixth century AD is urged to tell the history of Ireland, which Tuan claims to know well. In fact, he claims to know it intimately since he has experienced it all! Once – he recalls – in the days of the first settlers of Ireland, he survived a plague and lived to old age going from crumbling fortress to crumbling fortress, from one barren and inhospitable place to another, entirely alone. Then one evening he fell asleep and awoke the next morning as a deer. New settlers had arrived in Ireland. Tuan lived to become the mightiest of all the stags: 'I was young again and happy to be alive!' The new settlers spread over the whole of Ireland and then mysteriously vanished. Tuan felt the onset of old age again and an encroaching weakness took over his life. Then one day, standing at the mouth of his cave, he found himself in the shape of a wild boar. He was young once again. He lived an active and successful life, the mightiest of all the boars in Ireland, watching the affairs of men from the fringes of the forest, until again he felt the imminence of another change of shape. Returning once more to Ulster, where all his transformations took place, he woke one morning to find himself in the shape of an eagle.

New settlers had by now arrived in Ireland, the people of the goddess Dana, the Tuatha de Danaan. Shortly afterwards the ancestors of the Gaelic speaking peoples arrived from Spain. After conflict, they agreed to split Ireland, the people from Spain to have the land, and the Tuatha de Danaan to have the interiors of the hills, and they would live alongside each other, sharing a land of two coexisting but separate domains, each living out the drama of their lives, like wild boars of the forest and men of the hunt, each certain of their own exclusive possession of the same land.

Old age affected Tuan again, and he became a salmon. Growing large but still remembering his previous incarnations he avoided the nets and lines of fishermen until one day he was caught and eaten by the wife of a chieftain, who conceived him in her womb and he was born again, Tuan, son of Carell.

Another such story is the tale of the children of Lir. The Irish god Lir was a principal member of the Tuatha de Danaan. Four of his children lose their mother and Lir remarries, wedding their mother's sister, who looks after her stepchildren until jealousy ignites within her and she at last conceives a plan to kill them. Unable to find the courage to perform the fatal act – or perhaps able to do so all too easily – she uses her magic arts beside a lake to transform them into four white swans and casts upon them the following destiny – to live for three hundred years beside the shore of the lake, then to live for a further three hundred years on Seal Island in the middle of the Irish Sea, and finally to live near the shores of western Ireland for three hundred years; and only after the elapse of nine hundred years will they be able to return to their human forms again. And this destiny is followed to the letter in a very beautiful and moving version of the story retold by Lady Gregory.

The mention of Seal Island, in fact, carries the implication that, although the children remain as swans in this tale, they may at another level, or in earlier tellings, have been transformed again, as was Tuan mac Carell, into other creatures, in this case ocean mammals, before their final return to human form.

And in this context, the identity of Lir is revealing. He is the father of Manannan, whom we have encountered in the Voyage of Bran, where Bran's coracle was, to Manannan, a boat drifting over the tops of the trees and meadows of his realm. So to have the children of Lir, other children, that is, besides Manannan, as creatures of the water and creatures who undergo reincarnation over and over again, brings their brother Manannan perhaps into better focus.


We have already seen how Angus Og, the son of one of the chief deities of Ireland, the Dagda, lamented the death of his own son in the great boar hunt that was organised after drunken arguments one evening in a hill of the Sidhe. Angus cursed Fionn, admitting that: '...what a great sorrow it is to me, the loss of my own flesh and blood. For that black pig that appeared before you during the hunt was no ordinary pig but my own dear son.'

There is a curious story told of Angus Og's father, the Dagda, in the days before the coming of the Gaelic-speaking peoples. The Tuatha de Danaan had decided to defy the Fomorians, who from their offshore strongholds exacted a crippling tribute on them. During hostilities, the Dagda was sent to spy out the enemy camp while asking for a temporary truce. The Fomorians agreed to the terms of this truce but sought to mix hospitality with humiliation. They brewed a cauldron of soup, a stew of fatty pigswill, and so that the Dagda might enjoy it to the full, they dug a trench for him and filled it with this broth. The Dagda thought the meal wonderful and having cleaned the trench dry, staggered home with his belly full.

The ensuing battle was won by the Tuatha de Danaan, largely because they had a well of healing, like one we have encountered before. Diancecht of the Tuatha de Danaan and his son and his daughter sang spells and put herbs into the well, '...and the men that were wounded to death in the battle would be brought to the well and put into it as dead men, and they would come out of it whole and sound, through the power of the spells.'

In the course of time, the Dagda's son, Angus Og, acquired his father's home; the huge circular chambered tomb of Newgrange, by the river Boyne in county Meath. And in this house two boys were brought up by Angus, who acted as their foster father; one was the son of his steward by a woman who had taken refuge in Angus's house, and the other was an older son of this woman, a child she had brought with her. This boy's name was Diarmuid. One day, the two natural fathers were together in Angus's house when some dogs began to fight near the hearth. The steward's son ran away from the dogs and, fleeing between the legs of Diarmuid's father, was deliberately crushed by him and thrown to the raging animals. The steward was beside himself with grief and anger at this callous and opportunistic murder of his son and, 'having a Druid rod with him', he struck the lifeless body with this stick and turned the boy into a wild boar. And he gave the boar the following destiny, that he would be the cause of Diarmuid's death, and their lives would end at the same time. And the boar rushed out of the mound and was afterwards known as the Boar of Slieve Gullion, and it was by the tusks of this boar that Diarmuid was killed in the end.

And in the days when the Dagda lived at Newgrange, a harper was called to rescue a swine that was being chased, and the boar careered northwards with all its strength and speed and into a lake, where the pursuers were drowned. And the Dagda gave the harper a handsome reward for rescuing the pig.

And in another hunting incident, a great boar attacked and killed most of Fionn's hounds except for one of his favourite hunting dogs, Bran, who began to get the better of the pig. And in its distress, the animal began to cry out, upon which a man of the Sidhe emerged from the hill and asked Fionn to let the pig go. '...a very tall man came out of the hill and when Fionn agreed to that, the man brought them into the hill of the Sidhe at Glandeirgdeis; and... he struck the pig with his Druid rod, and on the moment it changed into a beautiful woman...'

Isn't it the nature of storytelling that the listeners immerse themselves in a story and identify with some of its characters, imagining themselves to be in the same situation, or imagining that the message contained in the story is intended for themselves? Could this not, then, have been the purpose of these tales, to cause a listener to ask – if death leads to this for them, then why not for me?

Dogs and Deer

Time and again in the old stories of Ireland, a long chase could result in a pursued deer or fawn disappearing into the side of a hill and prompting an antagonistic encounter with the Sidhe. Fionn once chased a fawn up a mountainside only for it to vanish and reappear as the daughter of Cullen the Smith. And in a similar way, the mother of Fionn's son Oisin first appeared during a hunt. A fawn was spotted and chase given, until all the pursuers had dropped back except for Fionn himself and his two best-loved dogs, Bran and Sceolan. Letting the dogs run on ahead, Fionn came upon them licking and protecting the fawn instead of killing it. The dogs would let no harm be done to the animal and it followed them home to Fionn's fortress that evening where, later, a beautiful woman appeared in Fionn's hall. She had been cast into the shape of a fawn by an Otherworld druid whose love she had rejected, and for three years had wandered the forest until, being chased, she ran until her only pursuers were Bran and Sceolan, who have human minds, and she knew that she was safe, then, because they would be able to sense that her nature was the same as theirs.

Bran and Sceolan have human minds? Indeed, their mother was Fionn's aunt Tuiren, his mother's sister. The story is this: Tuiren went with her sister to Fionn's fortress once and there Tuiren fell in love with one of Fionn's champions, who married her and took her to his own house where she soon became pregnant. But this champion already had a lover amongst the Tuatha de Danaan and she came one day to the house and contrived to bring Tuiren outside, alone, where she turned her into a pregnant bitch. Then taking her to a chieftain who hated dogs, she claimed that the animal was a present from Fionn, so that he would have to accept it. However, this pregnant bitch was so good-natured that the chieftain soon grew to love her and she gave birth to two fine pups. Fionn, meanwhile, had grown suspicious and demanded to know where his aunt had gone. The champion begged some time to look, and guessing the truth, went immediately to 'his sweetheart of the Sidhe', who agreed to turn Tuiren back into human form. The pups, however, were given to Fionn who named them Bran and Sceolan, and they grew to be the most trusted of Fionn's hunting dogs, and took an active part in many of his adventures.

Another, similar transformation occurs in a thirteenth century French prose romance known as the pre-Cyclic Lancelot. This romance, written sometime before 1220, is the first to detail Lancelot's boyhood at the home of the Lady of the Lake and his early adventures at King Arthur's court. It carries the reader for much of this time around a landscape that is similar to that evoked by Chrétien de Troyes in the Knight of the Cart, which we have visited already. This pre-Cyclic prose Lancelot is rooted in the same twelfth century Arthurian tradition as Chrétien de Troyes' work and is so-named in order to distinguish it from the slightly later usurpation of the Arthurian theme by Cistercian monks, which developed into the epic Lancelot-Grail prose cycle, or Vulgate Cycle.

Lancelot's father was King Ban of Benwick, a kingdom that lay on the borders of Brittany and Gaul, so the pre-Cyclic Lancelot tells us. Brittany, and other lands that had been under the control of King Arthur's father Uther Pendragon included 'the entire countryside as far as the borders with the Auvergne and with Gascony'. The Auvergne is a largely mountainous region of south-central France; Gascony, in south-west France, abuts the Pyrenees. Arthur, then, was now lord of kingdoms that extended as far southwards as the northern foothills of the Massif Central and the wine-making region of Bordeaux. Beyond, was Gaul, and during this time Gaul was under the control of Rome, and paid tribute... 'In the marches of Gaul and Brittany... [were] King Ban of Benwick... [and] King Bors of Gaunes. ... Aramont, who at that time was lord of Brittany... was overlord of Gaunes and Benwick, and all the land as far as the marches of Auvergne and Gascony; he should have been lord over the kingdom of Bourges, but [Bourges] had taken the King of Gaul as [its] overlord. At that time Gaul was subject to Rome, and paid tribute...' If this sounds more like the age of the expanding Roman Republic than it does the crumbling Roman Empire, then our interest should be aroused. Perhaps these Gallic kingdoms were the client Celtic tribes of southern France when Roman Provence was under direct Roman control, and when the surrounding Celtic kingdoms paid tribute in return for peace. Perhaps sometime around 100 BC. But local war and treachery, with the backing of the Romans, conspired to the downfall of Lancelot's father. As King Ban's principal fortress burned, his wife hurried to where the King had fallen dead, leaving her son lying beside a lake and very close to some horses' hooves as she ran to minister to her husband. Returning, she finds the baby in the arms of a damsel who plunges into the lake and disappears beneath its surface with the child. So let us assume, from what we now know of Celtic metaphor, that the baby has been trampled to death beneath the horses feet and taken down into the Otherworld. The child grows up in a house beneath the lake, but this house is shown to be in the real world when Lancelot acquires a hunting dog from an old vassal of his father's who recognises his former lord in the features of this young man of unknown lineage. The world in which Lancelot has been brought up, the world beneath the lake, is the same world that his father knew, and its towns are the same towns that his father ruled over. There is no water above him.

Having acquired two greatly-cherished dogs, Lancelot stays behind one day while his foster mother, the Lady of the Lake, goes with two dogs, possibly the same ones, to one of these towns to seek the release of Lancelot's two cousins from imprisonment. During a fracas to release them, she turns the boys into hunting dogs and the two dogs into the likeness of these boys, and the dogs-in-human-shape are recaptured, allowing the lady and the cousins-in-canine-form to escape.

If the dogs taken by the Lady of the Lake are Lancelot's two dogs, and there is no reason to believe otherwise since these are the only two dogs the reader knows about, then we have an almost exact parallel to the Irish tale of Fionn mac Cumhail and his dogs Bran and Sceolan; that two well-loved hunting dogs contain, at least temporarily, the souls of their owner's cousins. More evidence, if any were needed, of contact between the Arthurian tales and stories that undoubtedly reach back to pagan times. And there is, of course, the lake. Much more of Lancelot later.

Another rich source of material with roots in the pre-Christian past are the Welsh poems and stories contained in the four Ancient Books of Wales. In the youngest of these, the Red Book of Hergest, which was written round about the time of the death of Geoffrey Chaucer, there is a collection of prose stories collectively known as the Mabinogion. It is in this same Red Book of Hergest that are found the allegedly hopelessly scrambled poems that so excited Robert Graves' poetic intuition in The White Goddess. Some stories in the Mabinogion also survive in the White Book of Rhydderch, dating to a little earlier, about 1325. Contained within the Mabinogion are abridgements and retellings, with Welsh variations, of three of Chrétien de Troyes' five extant works, though not the Knight of the Cart, and there are many other tales also, each of which, like the enigmatic Welsh poems, may be 'far older in origin than the manuscript in which it has chanced to be preserved.' The Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Olwen, for example, has been dated in its final form to the late-eleventh century and contains allusions to stories that are much older still, like the hunting of the boar Twrch Trwyth. The Four Branches of the Mabinogion, a part of the Mabinogion that recounts the adventures of Welsh gods and goddesses such as Pryderi, Manawydan, Bran, Mabon, Gwydion, Lleu and Rhiannon, may also preserve underlying tales that are much older than the fourteenth century manuscripts in which they have been preserved. Lleu, in Irish Lugh, is the god Lug, who was worshipped all over Britain and Gaul during Roman times. Like Culhwch and Olwen, the Four Branches of the Mabinogion contain episodes that are alluded to in poems elsewhere dating back as far as the eighth century and curiously, in these older poems, Arthur is the principal hero. Lleu, Manawyddan and Gwydion, along with Cei and Bedwyr, are his compatriots and assistants. Perhaps, by the fourteenth century, Arthur had become too caught up in his own story-cycles to sit comfortably in the retellings of these older mythological tales in which he truly belonged.

An episode found in the story of Math, son of Mathonwy, one of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion, recounts the following sequence of events: Math has discovered that his nephews, Gilvaethwy and Gwydion, have conspired to violate his virgin foot-holder, who is now no longer a virgin. Gwydion, as accomplice to this crime, is punished by being turned into a stag, and his guilty brother Gilvaethwy is turned into a hind. 'Since you are in league with each other,' says Math, 'I will make you go off together; you shall mate, and shall have the nature of wild deer...'

So off they go, and a year later return leading a young fawn. Math takes the fawn, changes it back into human shape, but turns his nephews into pigs; Gwydion a wild sow and his brother Gilvaethwy a wild boar. They go off into the forest again and a year later return with a little piglet. The youngster is changed into a little boy but Gwydion is changed into a wolf and Gilvaethwy into a she-wolf. Off they go again, and only on their return once more with a youngster, a year later, are all three of them changed back into human shape. 'Men,' says Math, 'you have been punished enough for your crime, for it is a great shame and a great humiliation that each of you has born offspring to the other.'

Perhaps this is an allusion to their having been killed for the crime they committed and reincarnated into deer, then pigs, then wolves, and finally back into men again.

Once, in a boat off Fionn's Ireland, two rivals fought; they started out as little boys and fought until they were old and grey; then they took on the form of young puppies and they fought one another until they were two old dogs; and then they became two foals and fought with each other until they had become two old and tired horses; and then they became two young fledglings and they fought until they had become two adult birds, and it was in this form that at last they managed to kill one another. Fionn returned one of the corpses to Ireland and presented it to a daughter of Manannan who took the body of her husband into a little boat that she had. While on the water, she noticed two birds flying towards an island carrying a dead bird between them. When they had dropped the corpse onto the island, it returned to life; so Manannan's daughter did the same. Coming ashore and laying her dead husband out on the sand, she wrapped him in leaves and immediately he raised himself off the beach, in human form once more and as healthy as he had ever been.

The ancient Egyptians, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote in the fifth century BC, insisted that after death, the soul migrates to another creature as it is born. 'The Egyptians say that Demeter and Dionysus are the chief powers in the underworld; and they were also the first people to put forward the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and to maintain that after death it enters another creature at the moment of that creature's birth. It then makes the round of all living things – animals, birds, and fish – until it finally passes once again, at birth, into the body of a man.'

We have seen that there is a lot of overlap between the Medieval Arthurian tales, the Breton lais of the twelfth century and the stories from Ireland that are set in a pagan land before the arrival of Saint Patrick. They often describe a journey across water, or through the surface of a lake or a spring, into an Otherworld. And we have seen ample evidence that the Otherworld may, in addition to being a land of the dead, be a world of animals. We saw it way back in chapter three when we followed Caoilte into the side of a hill where he destroyed a number of birds before he was allowed to receive his healing, a healing that allowed him to emerge once again into the world of men. We saw it also in the Breton lai Yonec, when the young lady went through the side of a hill into a land where her lover came from, a knight who was also a hawk.

We have been looking principally at Medieval Arthurian tales and romances, but there are, in fact, a great many Medieval romances that are not set in an Arthurian world but which, nonetheless, resonate with it in all the things we have been looking at. Some of these romances claim to derive from Breton tales. The Middle English tale of Sir Gowther hails, the author tells us, from Brittany. 'A law of Breyten long y soghht · and owt ther of a tale ybroghht · that lufly is to tell.' It relates the story of a child who is fathered by an Otherworld 'fiend'. The child grows to become a terror in the country of his birth, but upon learning the truth from his mother, he travels to Rome to receive penance from the Pope. The penance he receives entails eating nothing that has not beforehand been in the mouth of a dog. The reason for this curious penance – the real reason, that is – is surely revealed when Sir Gowther is quickly transported to Germany where he lies down under a hill and then a greyhound brings him food each day, as though he were her pup. Perhaps the most likely explanation for this would be if he really was her pup. And when he races like a greyhound past porters and into the Emperor's hall where he dives beneath a table and is threatened with a stick, it is difficult to resist the impression that Sir Gowther has turned into a dog. He lives with the dogs and eats beneath the table, but on three occasions sallies forth with arms provided by God, as a black knight, then as a knight in red arms and finally as a white knight, in a way that is not so dissimilar to the disguises that Sir Gareth assumed by virtue of the ring he had obtained from Avalon.

At the end of the tale, the Emperor's daughter, who has fallen from a high tower, comes miraculously back to life on the day of her funeral and marries Sir Gowther, whose true identity is at last revealed and whose penance is now complete.

This theme of transformation is echoed in the Romance of William of Palerne, or William and the Werewolf; an Old French tale translated into Middle English in about 1350. William is born in Sicily but a plot by his uncle to murder him results not in his death, curiously, but in his being carried away in the jaws of a wolf across the Strait of Messina and on to the outskirts of Rome where he is brought up at first by the wolf, who is a werewolf - that is, outwardly a wolf in every way but with human intelligence. Not the movie image of a man with fangs in his mouth and hair on the backs of his hands. A wolf.

William is found in the wolf's den by a cowherd and raised as his son until the Emperor of Rome discovers the boy, now a young man, in the forest and takes him home to his palace to be brought up with his daughter Emelior, as though he is her brother. The Emperor 'loves and cherishes him as his own son, the son of his own wife.' However, William and Emelior are not brother and sister and they fall in love, and when she is betrothed to another man and the marriage is imminent, it seems that the only way out for William and Emelior might be death. But rather than ending the tale in true Romeo and Juliet style, they don, instead, the skins of two white bears and maintain this disguise, this animal identity, for many weeks, when it would be far more expedient to discard them; for soon the whole country is on the lookout for these two distinctive white bears. However, as Emelior says when they are eventually cornered in a quarry: "What? Do you believe, darling [William] · that I would leave you · for any death or injury · that these people may cause me? · No! by he who with his blood · took possession of us on the cross · the bear's skin shall never leave my back · be sure of that!" Perhaps we should be. Soon afterwards, they become deer; for the werewolf, who is really the son of the King of Spain, has brought down a hart and a hind and William and Emelior skin them and sew themselves into these hides so expertly that they are later mistaken for deer. Again, following a situation that may well have resulted in their deaths, they are transformed into animals. In the shape of deer, they make their way into Sicily.

Leaving aside the physical impossibility of fitting a human being convincingly inside a deerskin, the author of this romance is peculiarly reluctant to let William and Emelior out of their skins. One is left with the feeling that there must be a reason for this – that something significant must lie beneath all this unbelievable chicanery.

Another source of clues to pagan British belief can be found in the Christian tales of legendary saints. So little information was available to Medieval biographers sometimes that legendary material and their own imaginations were all they had to draw upon. It was also Church policy to absorb and assimilate pagan tales and practices wherever possible, a policy that led, for example, to many sacred springs and wells being first created by the miracle-working of a Christian saint. It is not known whether the author of the life of Saint Brendan, in The South English Legendary, knew how perilously close he came to expertly promulgating a pagan Celtic myth, but what he leaves intact is truly astonishing. The South English Legendary is the name given to a collection of saints' lives in Middle English. The earliest manuscript dates to the end of the thirteenth century and contains fifty-nine 'lives' in all. In one of the later manuscripts, dated to around 1400, the collection had expanded to include one hundred and thirty-five 'lives'.

Saint Brendan, the story tells us, inspired by a man who claimed to have sailed to the very gates of Paradise, resolved to set out in a boat with a contingent of his monks, over whom he was abbot, to seek out this place for himself. So he sailed across a 'sea of Ocean' until he came to an island where sheep dwelt in perfect bliss.

Here Saint Brendan meets with a man who fills his boat with provisions and guides the vessel on its way again. If this was originally an Irish story like the Voyage of Bran or the Voyage of Maeldun in which the hero embarks upon a journey across an enchanted sea, then this figure would undoubtedly be Manannan. In fact, the South English Legendary spells Saint Brendan's name Brandan throughout, and it is Manannan whom Bran met on his voyage to the Isle of Woman, one of many hundreds of islands, he was told. Saint Brendan and his monks encounter a great fish, a whale, and one of the crew climbs on its back as it lies in the water. Then they sail to a Bird's Paradise. And from here, they journey across the sea of Ocean to an island where there are two wells, and beyond one of these wells lies an abbey. Saint Brendan is told by his guide and provider, perhaps by Manannan himself, that he must follow a similar round of visits each year for seven years; visiting Sheep's Heaven on Good Friday, then climbing onto the back of the Great Fish on the day of Christ's resurrection, then sailing on to Bird's Paradise to spend the eight weeks from Easter through Whitsun to Trinity, and then on to the Isle of Abbey to spend Christmas and the winter period with the monks. And at all other times he is fated to voyage for months on end in the turbulent 'sea of Ocean'.

One season, a south wind blows Saint Brendan's boat into the region of the islands of hell, where he loses one of his monks. And on the way back, he sails to an island where a monk has been sustained by an otter for many years – an Isle of Otter – in a passage of the tale whose mystery resonates with the opening pages of the Breton tale of Guigemar, when the monk relates how a mysterious boat came for him one day and brought him to this island by itself. Then finally they arrive at a Land of Promise, where lies heaven, perhaps in confirmation that this is intended to signify a voyage into the afterlife. But he and his monks are not allowed to stay. They can only gaze across a channel of water from these idyllic approaches into a land of indescribable beauty. But Brendan's has not been a journey to this one destination only. Perhaps in some way, each individual island is intended, in these tales, to signify a single life.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan is obviously based upon the Old Irish tale of the Voyage of Bran and is an attempt to Christianise this pagan allegory. It bears similarity also with a related story of the Voyage of Maeldun found in the Gaelic manuscript The Book of the Dun Cow of around AD 1100. In this tale, Maeldun sails, like Saint Brendan, around an enchanted sea and encounters, in his case, a great number of strange and Otherworldly islands. On many of these, giants roam. On one island, they encounter a giant herding cattle; on another a giant grinding corn; and near yet another island: – 'As they approached this they heard from afar as it were the clanging of a tremendous smithy, and heard men talking of themselves. "Little boys they seem," said one...'


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