Ancient Ireland

When history adds to your modern practice

Today I dived head first down the rabbit hole of Google Scholar and a wide array of historical academic papers that are available to read. While saving a whole bunch to read later, one caught my eye.

Washing and Bathing in Ancient Ireland

A. T. Lucas

The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Vol. 95, No. 1/2, Papers in Honour of Liam Price (1965), pp. 65-114

I am relatively well known to be a woman of Feasting, as I consider food, the acts of hospitality and feasting to be a huge part of  my spiritual well being. There is however another portion that is likely not as well known because it’s just not something that I was able to concretely connect as “Gaelic” in my practice. Certainly it is something that has always been a important aspect of my practice, but I chalked up a lot of that to be unique to me. Sometimes, you read something and then you make historical and spiritual connections you didn’t “know” were there but were completely there and now can consider more ways to incorporate it. In this case it’s, Ritual bathing.

Since childhood the pleasure and just comfort of a good hot bath has always had a place in my heart. My household regularly used hot showers and baths as a way to help aid the healing process of headaches, colds, flu, muscle aches, and pretty much everything under the sun. There is the vinegar bath for a bad sunburn. The oatmeal and milk bath for chicken pox. The Epsom salt bath for other illness. When I moved out of my parents house, I started having intense migraines and stumbled on the remedy of showers where you turn the water to as hot as you can stand and then as cold as you can stand, repetitively. You kinda feel like your getting torn apart and are exhausted afterwards but for a long time it was the only relief I could find.  Along my witchcraft path I learned the value of purification baths, and adding a variety of other herbal and stone items for magical purposes. Likewise I discovered that while I sucked a meditation and trance work, I could easily slip into trance and meditation in a steamy shower or bath.

At that time, it made sense to me, in that water, especially running water, is a gateway to the Otherworld, and steam seemed associated with the mist and fog that is also seen in Irish myth and folklore to be a portal to the Otherworld. The act of bathing seemed to create a liminal state of its own that I’ve always felt connected to and it’s been a useful way to de-stress and in general keep emotionally balanced over the years.

But I had never made any stronger connections to Irish mythology or lore until recently. A few years back, my partner was experiencing some intense stress at work. Anyone who has a lot of stress in their lives, know how it just starts to take a toll mentally and physically. For some reason, I called to mind the story of the young Cúchulainn returning from battle still in his battle frenzy and being dunked/bathed in three vats of water to cool his furor and return him to a more human state. I felt a connection with the stresses and dehumanizing aspects that service jobs can reap upon a person and the inhuman state of Cúchulainn in the story. It seemed to me that the act of being bathed ritualistically as the young hound was, was a way of bringing him back into the fold of his people. Bringing him back to peace and civilization in some way. I started to use showering in this way, after work. A way to wash away the grim and rat in a maze feelings that Corporate America can bring, and return to a state of comfort, balance and humanity. It helped. It became sacred and essential in our comfort rituals.

The article highlights some facets of bathing and washing in Ancient Ireland and in Irish myth that I hadn’t taken the time to ponder before. In particular it’s connections with hospitality and even feasting(!).

It outlines various examples of how a bath was one of the requisite amenities given to a guest as part of the rules of hospitality. We are given the example of the bad hospitality of King Bres Mac Mac Eladain who had a poet of the Tuatha dé Dannan visit. He was conveyed to a small house which was narrow, dark and dim, there was neither fire, nor bath, nor bed. Three small cakes, and they dry, were brought to him on a little dish. The next day he rose and he was not pleased. From this and the other examples tales of Cúchulainn, King Donn, Mael Dúin, being greeted with lavish beautiful welcomings the included lovely women to bath them, the argument that having a comfortable and plush bath available for guests was considered the mark of a good household.

Comfort is one of the tenets of hospitality, and while I have generally considered my mother’s propensity for buying copious amounts of soft bath towels and having over flowing baskets of colorful washcloths available, to be her desire for a magazine type home,  I now look at it at it as being very gracious. If I were to show up at my mother’s house unannounced with 5 or more guests unexpected and we all needed showers, she would have clean fresh towels and cloths ready and waiting. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for my own. In fact to own the truth, my house has only a handful of towels and they are almost never all clean at once. Something to consider.

The article also make the connections to prestige and honor to be the first to bath, making several references to chieftains and kings being granted the right to “the first bath and the first drink” at a feast. There is some interesting information that makes a strong case that bathing of somekind (whether full body or hands and feet) were done prior to feasting. This makes sense in a logistical and hygienic sense, as well as adding a layer of ritual cleansing to feasting that just makes energetic sense. It also reminded me a lot of a podcast I was recently recommended, Dark Ages Feasting – The British History Podcast. Which, while predominately looking at Anglo-Saxon traditions, covered the ritual handwashing that took place before eating at a feast. He also pointed out how uncouth many of we modern folks are in comparison, how often do you actually wash your hands before a meal? More things to consider ;

The article only briefly touches on the connection of ritual bathing by women being connected to healing and magic, but there is enough to make note of and keep an eye out in further reading.

There is a lot of minutia of daily life in ancient Ireland, that perhaps not everyone would consider interesting lol, but I love it.  Things like theories of what sort of detergents they used, how they heat their water, what the tubs looked like, the different words that meant different types of bathing. These things don’t necessarily add anything to my modern practice, but they help to provide another piece of the puzzle to a worldview of the past. I feel like that helps to create a depth of understanding that solidifies my modern practice.

If you have made it this far in this much longer ramble than anticipated post, all of this is to say that I recommend the article lol. It has opened some ideas in my head as far as ritual feast  activities, and that I for sure need an lovely washing station in my future feasting hall. It reinforced  my I practice of using bathing for sacred ritual purposes as well as for community and hospitality building in some ways. More food for thought on how to relate to the every day life and I suppose a little window in how I break out academic articles and relate them to my practice.

Táin Tuesday: The Wealth of a King

This is a continuation of “How Conchobar was begotten, and how he took the Kingship of Ulster” but whereas the first part of the story I feel is more his mother Ness’s story (of being a mastermind and all around sharp lady), the second part of the story tells us more about what is to be expected from Kingship, idealized and legendary kingship, but in the paragons of myth we can find the lessons of the mundane. The first paragraph extols Conchobar’s virtues and how beloved of Ulster he was. There are the things you would expect such as:

There was no wiser being in the world. He never gave judgement until it was  ripe, for fear it might be wrong and the crops worsen. – Kinsella

Now later on we may talk about how true this statement actually is in reference to some the judgments he actually makes as King. But for now it is a telling piece of what is valued in a leader and very neatly and simply showcases the connection between sovereignty and the land.  This is a theme that you might have heard espoused before, especially if you have been looking into or have any connections with any of the many Irish Sovereignty Goddesses. Cue the Morrighan, Macha, Aine, just to name a few. I feel like there is a lot that could be said about this connection, but the one thing that strikes me in this reading may be the simplest. The sacred connection between mankind and the land.

If we concentrate down this, the king’s actions/words/being can cause crops to worsen and the people to suffer, we clearly see the ownership of stewardship in all things. We as human beings are not separate from the land that we live on.  This is a very animist view of things, and further gets complicated for those of us on U.S. soil and other places wherein colonialism has left us a history to have to weigh-in. But the solid foundation that there is a sacred connection between all of our actions and the land seems pretty clear and worth remembering. This simple foundation gives weight to the meaning of offerings, to seeing signs and omens in the day to day life, to cultivating the skills of wisdom and judgement. Because ultimately if you are taking on the mantle of personal sovereignty then you are taking up the mantle of your actions, your words, having profound affect on your world.

There are things that make the modern person raise an eyebrow and make a face, namely these:

So high was their regard for him that every man in Ulster that took a girl in marriage let her sleep the first night with Conchobor, so as to have him first in the family[…]Any Ulsterman who gave him a bed for the night gave him his wife as well to sleep with.

Ahhh Ancient times, when men were men and women were chattle. Now besides this being a very sexist way of showing the adoration and love Ulster had for it’s king it may also show a bit more of the practice of Ancestor worship and the ties of kingship. There is an interesting article written by Fedelm Cruithn titled A Semiotics of Kingship in the Tain which goes deeper into the topics that I am brushing over, but talks directly about this connection:

The Táin also indicates a very important relationship between the king’s popularity and his genealogy. The men of Ulster worship Conchobor so highly, they allow their new brides to sleep with him on the first night, in order to “have him first in the family.” (Kinsella 4) Try to imagine an Egyptian king sleeping with the wife of every man in Egypt! In this part of The Táin, there seems to be a break from the droit de cuissage or ius primæ nocti, (law of the first night), which reflects the right of a ruling man to “sample the wares” of his family subjects. In this instance, there’s a peculiar combination of a worshipful gesture made by free men honouring their beloved king and a genealogical insurance policy for the tribe: a figure of royal blood who shares his blood with the people of his kingdom. This points to the possibility that in Celtic kingship, unlike many other sovereignty traditions, the king was not only expected to be of perfect stock, but was also expected to revitalise and perfect the stock of the tribe. In this way, Conchobor becomes a prize breeding bull, woven into the very fabric of a story about the royal cattle theft of a sacred bull. (Mac Cana 52)

This idea of genealogy, of being descendants of legendary heroes, and even the Gods themselves, is not a new idea or one that is only found in the Celtic context. While overall interesting to think about on it’s own, for me personally it just throws more weight into the respectful practice of Ancestor worship. These Legendary Heroes and Kings were looked on as family, as kin.

Extrapolating further and tying this back into the ideas of personal sovereignty in the modern context, this close connection of king and people teaches me that those that I consider part of my tribe, my community should be treated as family. Again writing that out seems like such a given, but I was lucky enough to grow up in a family were taking care of each other is given. It is easy for me coming from that background to extend that outward to know that there are times when the good of the all is more important, and that these duties when founded in love hold great rewards.

The last part of this tale goes on in great detail on the houses and wealth of the mighty King. Of note that he had three houses each with a different task. Lets just go ahead and point out that three is a number of great weight in the Irish world and it will be something to look for in future. Craebruad the Red Branch, Tete Brec the Twinkling Hoard, and Craebderg the Ruddy Branch.

Craebruad, was where the kings sat and presumably where Conchobor lived. We are told that it is the Red Branch and red is for royalty. This is just flat out interesting to me and endearing to me. Red is not usually the color associated with royalty, that would be purple. It could very well be that there was not readily available dye for making purple at the time, one of the leading facts to purples elevation to royalty in other places and times. But I’m inclined to think not…I could be wrong, but having seen a lot of the craft work of Ancient Ireland and knowing that they did have some contact and trade with the outside world if only from Viking influence it seems far fetched to believe that purple was just not a color they could replicate. So then why the elevation of red? In Rome red was the color of the army, due mostly to the great availability and thus cost effectiveness of the color. Gotta love the Romans and their keen accounting skills. But then that is just it, red is the color of war. Red is the color of blood and passion. I would even venture to say that red is the color of courage. Could this also be a contributing factor to it’s royal associations in Ancient Ireland, where valor and courage were such prized items? Another interesting note is that red usually helps to depict Otherworldly things, White animals with red ears and so forth. Perhaps this too tied the Kingship and royalty to the spiritual and sacred.

All and all I find it a fascinating tidbit. Not the least of which is that Red is a color I associate very clearly with.

But what of the other houses? Tete Brec, is the place that holds all the beautiful and deadly weapons and armor of legendary heroes. Everything from Cuchulainn’s shield to everyone else’s and their goblets and javelins and swords beside. And in Craebderg is where all “the severed heads and spoils” were kept.  There are several ways that these houses could be analyzed, but again on this reading I am struck by Craebruad representing the King’s duties to politics and the people. Such a fine house with all it’s decorations and trimmings much play host to many heroes and Chiefs, foraging alliances and offering hospitality.  A point underlined by Gerg’s vat, from which at any time 30 men may be drinking from it in Conchobor’s room and the vat is always full. Such abundance and generosity are things that a sovereign must maintain. With Tete Brec I see the need to maintain protection, an entire house filled with arms and shields of mighty warriors, of whom may be called upon at any moment. It speaks to the bravery and the heroism that is idealized in sovereignty. And then Craebderg, the ruddy branch, where we see that bravery and heroism has been tested and proven true. This is not just a king who speaks of valor but who has the proof of those swords and shields in a house all of their own. The grandeur and glory must not be without merit.

This speaks to the heroic morality versus the passive morality that is seen elsewhere, and was one of the key things that turned me away from Judeo-Christian religions. With them it is all about the things that you should not do. Whereas to me being judged and held to your actions is more in alignment with the make up of my soul. I am not a “good person” because I do not steal or any number of the other tenets of “Thou shall not”. It is through my actions based on the real features of the situations that mold and shape me. Just as it is that Conchobor’s actions, be them in judgement or on the battle field is what molds and shapes him into a legendary king.