Stags

In addition to their role as the quarry of hunters in the Irish and Welsh literature, stags receive a great deal of attention in the vernacular tradition. They are associated with wild nature and with the forest, with speed and strength and sometimes with wisdom. The 'Tale of Culhwch and Olwen' describes a supernatural stag which can communicate with one of Arthur's men and helps in the quest for Mabon. In the Mabinogi, a stag is the agent through which Pwyll and Arawn meet.10 The Irish band of warriors, the Fianna, are presented as being closely linked with the natural world, for which the deer may be used as a symbol. In the Fionn Cycle, Finn's wife Sava is part-deer, part-woman: the first time Finn meets her, she is in the shape of a fawn, having been transformed thus by the magic of the Black Druid. Her son, Oisin, is perceived as having an affinity with deer and is sometimes described as half-fawn, half-child:

his name means 'Little Deer'.11 In another story of Finn, a lady from the sidh (or Otherworld dwelling-

place) of the Irish god Donn mac Midir is sent in the shape of a fawn to lure Finn to Donn's domain. In a second version of that tale, it is the god Donn himself who turns into a stag by his own magic, in order to entice the hero to the underworld. In one story about the Irish underworld god Donn, which is concerned with jealousy and revenge, we hear of the sidh of one Cliodh, whose queen turns a hundred girls from the sidh into deer, in a fit of jealous rage. Donn acts as their guardian but the queen next changes him

into a stag. The hero Finn hunts the deer and both stag-god and enchanted hinds are killed. Thus in both the Welsh and Irish traditions the stag is bound up with the notion that gods needed living humans to come to their realms and employed stags as intermediaries. The whole concept that living men were required by the gods seems to be based on the idea that in the shadowy lands of the dead, the strength of a living, full-blooded hero is needed to fulfil a particular purpose: in the case of Pwyll, Arawn required him to kill Hafgan; it was apparently impossible for Arawn to accomplish this himself.

Figure 7.3 Stone relief of Gaulish hammer-god with dog, Nîmes, France.

Figure 7.4 Late Iron Age bronze figurine of a stag, Milber Down, Devon. Miranda Green.

Stags are associated with the divine world in other ways: we know of an Irish goddess Flidhais, deity

of forests and wild things, who kept herds of deer as if they were cattle. Stags were often associated with shape-changing: we have seen this already with Finn. It occurs again, for instance, in 'Math', the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, where Math, lord of Gwynedd, punishes his nephews Gwydion and Gilfaethwy for their trickery. The penance imposed on the brothers is that, for a year each, they are changed into three different pairs of animals, one of which consists of a stag and a hind. In the 'Tale of Culhwch and Olwen', various magic animals are consulted, including a supernatural stag, the Stag of Rhedynfre, who is able to speak to Arthur's man Gwrhyr Interpreter of Tongues.15 In Irish mythology, the war/mother-goddess, the Morrigan, is able to change shape from human to stag form. In the Irish 'Colloquy of the Ancients', a three-antlered stag is mentioned,16 a magical creature whose antlers are increased to the sacred power of three, presumably to enhance his symbolism as a potent supernatural being.

Boars and pigs

It is impossible, in the literature, to separate wild and thus hunted pigs/boars from domestic pigs, since the two are usually not distinguished in the legends. What is clear from the writings of Wales and Ireland is that pigs were crucially important both in terms of food and religion and often the two are very closely interlinked. Like stags, fierce wild boars of supernatural size and strange appearance occur as enchanted, Otherworld creatures, sometimes luring humans to the realms of the gods. Mention has already been made of the great white Welsh boar encountered by Pryderi and Manawydan in the Mabinogi, and the enchanted Twrch Trwyth in the 'Tale of Culhwch and Olwen'. Another magical boar in the same story is Ysgithyrwyn Chief Boar, whose tusk the giant Ysbaddaden demands of Culhwch in order to shave

himself with it. One of Twrch Trwyth's seven follower-pigs is Grugyn Silver-Bristle, who speaks with Gwrhyr, Arthur's man who is able to communicate in any language, whether that of human or of beast.18

he interesting thing about the 'Tale of Culhwch and Olwen' is the amount of boar symbolism in the story. This comes sharply into focus with the recognition that Culhwch himself has pig associations and, according to some scholars, is actually a personified pig.19 'Culhwch' means 'pig-run' and the story is that his pregnant mother was badly frightened by pigs, gave birth to Culhwch at the sight of them and abandoned him. He was found and reared by the swineherd, and given his pig-name because of the circumstances of his birth. Elsewhere in the Welsh tradition, enchanted, transmogrified pigs are encountered. One of the three punishments inflicted by Math on Gwydion and his brother consists of their transformation into a boar and a sow: they produce a piglet whom Math metamorphoses by magic

into a human boy, but he retains his pig-name 'Hychdwn' (hwch means 'pig').21

There is a great deal of pig lore in the Welsh tradition. When Pwyll, lord of Arberth, has killed Hafgan on behalf of Arawn, king of Annwn, Arawn in gratitude sends Pwyll, and later his son Pryderi, a number of gifts, the most valuable of which were herds of pigs, hobeu, the first introduction of the pig to Wales (according to the literature). This gift is the reason for the conflict between North and South Wales chronicled in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi: Math and Gwydion want to obtain these animals for Gwynedd and so make war on Pryderi of Dyfed, who owns the only pigs in Britain. In the story, Gwydion goes to Pryderi and asks for some of the pigs: Pryderi replies that he is under a bond or covenant with his country not to give away or sell any pigs until they have bred twice their number. Gwydion replies that Pryderi need not break his bond, if he will accept a better gift in exchange for the pigs.

Pryderi agrees and receives from Gwydion a magnificent present of twelve stallions and twelve greyhounds decked with gold. But Gwydion and his followers make haste to depart with the pigs, since he has conjured up the stallions and hounds by magic, and the spell will last only the one day. Battle is joined on discovery of Gwynedd's treachery, and Pryderi is slain. The pigs can be seen to represent an extra-ordinarily valuable asset for the Celts of the Welsh literature, made especially significant by their origins as a supernatural gift from the Otherworld.

Another special pig in Wales is again associated with the Gwynedd magician Gwydion. In the tale of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a swineherd tells Gwydion how his sow goes out each morning and he can never keep track of where she goes. Gwydion tracks the sow and finds her feeding in the valley now called Nantlleu, under the oak-tree where the stricken Lleu Llaw Gyffes is perched as an eagle. The sow is clearly a super-natural pig, whose role is to lead Gwydion to Lleu and thus effect the transformation of Lleu by Gwydion back into a human being (see pp. 172-3).— One of the early Welsh Triads, The Three Powerful Swineherds of Britain', describes another magical or supernatural sow, called Henwen (the Old White), who gives birth to a number of very curious offspring including a wolf-cub, an eagle, a bee, a

kitten and a grain of wheat.

Boars and pigs are equally prominent in Insular tradition. As in the Welsh stories, these creatures may be fierce, shape-shifters and associated with the Otherworld. Their role in secular, ritual and underworld feasting is particularly prominent. In Irish mythology, there was a series of bruidhne or hostels which belonged to gods of the Otherworld. Each bruiden would host feasts which featured great cauldrons which were continually replenished, especially with pork. Pigs were killed and boiled or roasted every day, but were constantly reborn to be killed again. The sidh or fairy mound of the Dagdha, the Irish father-god, has three trees which perpetually bear fruit (indicative of immortality), an inexhaustible supply of drink and a pig that is always alive, no matter how many times it is killed and consumed.26 The Irish sea-god Manannan possessed magic swine who reappeared after having been eaten. The imagery is very similar to the New Testament story of the loaves and fishes. There are a number of Ulster tales concerning pigs and the feast. In the story of Mac Da Tho's pig, Mac Da Tho, king of Leinster, acts as host of the feast to the enemy companies of Ulster and Connacht, and provides a huge pig over whose best portions rival champions squabble. A similar situation occurs at the 'Feast of Bricriu' (a divine mischief-maker), where there is again a quarrel over the hero's joint of pork. In both these stories, the enormous size of the pig indicates that it is the Otherworld Feast which is described, though classical writers such as Diodorus Siculus27 also record this champions' dispute in secular contexts. The pig is inextricably linked with this supernatural banquet: indeed, the divine lord of the Otherworld was perceived in the form of a man with a pig slung over his shoulder. In the story of 'Da Derga's Hostel', the doomed King Conaire, on his way to his pre-ordained death, meets this Otherworld deity: he is grotesque, with one arm, one leg and one eye (this last feature is a magic sign, as is the case with Odin in Norse myth). He carries an iron fork and, on his back, a roasted pig which - horrifically - is still squealing.28

Pigs and boars are thus associated with Irish feasting and the Otherworld. Pleasant though this image is, it has overtones of death which lead to another aspect of the pig in Insular tradition, as a destructive, death-dealing creature. The Welsh Twrch Trwyth has his Irish counterpart in Orc Triath, a huge, destructive animal who is described in the Book of Invasions. In the Insular tale of the Battle of Magh Mucrime, numberless pigs issue from the mouth of the underworld, the Cave of Cruachan: these are

magical pigs of death, who can be neither counted nor destroyed. In the Fionn Cycle of tales, a huge boar named Formael kills fifty soldiers and fifty great hounds in a single day: Formael is terrible to behold - enormous, blue-black, with stiff bristles and such a sharp, spiky dorsal ridge that each spine can impale an apple. (In the National Museum of Wales's coin collection is a Celtic Iron Age coin depicting a boar on whose erect spines are impaled circular objects which could be fruit.) Formael's supernatural status is confirmed by his huge jutting teeth and by his lack of either ears or testicles. The link between the boar of destruction and the Otherworld Feast is epitomized by the boar hunted by the hero Finn. The screech it lets out when Finn corners it summons a huge peasant who picks up the boar and carries it off over his shoulder (evoking an image precisely similar to that of the lord of the underworld feast). The great churl leads the Fianna into his sidh by chanting a spell over them. The pig itself is transformed by

the peasant into a young man, his own son. Another enchanted and destructive pig is the boar of Boann Ghulban, who also appears in the Fionn Cycle. This creature is used by Finn to rid himself of his rival for the beautiful Grainne. Finn induces Diarmaid to hunt the boar (knowing it will be the cause of his death). The story varies in its conclusion: in one version, Diarmaid is slain by the boar; in the second, he overcomes the beast but is killed by the poisoned bristle of the dead animal. The tale has a twist in that the boar is in fact Diarmaid's enchanted foster-brother.

Birds

In Welsh and Irish early literary tradition, birds feature as enchanted, metamorphosed creatures, with magical and supernatural qualities. It is probably above all because of their power of flight that birds were endowed with particular symbolism, but colour, the ability to swim, voice and character were all factors in defining the specific roles of birds in the British and Insular stories. The main species of bird which appear are the raven, the swan, the crane and the eagle. Eagles feature particularly in the Welsh sagas: in the Triad called The Three Powerful Swineherds of Britain', the notable sow Henwen gives birth to some curious offspring including an eagle. In the 'Tale of Culhwch and Olwen', the Eagle of Gwernabwy is described as one of the oldest animals on earth. This creature is one of the beasts whom Culhwch and Arthur consult in their search for the divine hunter Mabon and to whom Gwrhyr is able to speak.34

Figure 7.5 Iron Age bronze chain and pendant in the form of a wheel and birds from a grave at NemejicDe, Czechoslovakia. Paul Jenkins.

The most important eagle story is to be found in 'Math', the Fourth Branch of theMabinogi. Lleu Llaw Gyffes (the Bright One of the Skilful Hand), son of Arianrhod, has a curse put on him by his mother, that he will never have an earthly wife. The magician Gwydion intervenes and together with Math, his uncle, conjures for Lleu a woman of flowers, Blodeuwedd. But she is unfaithful and conspires with her lover Gronw to murder Lleu. Since Lleu is a supernatural being, he can only be killed in a certain position. Blodeuwedd tricks her husband into simulating the manner in which he may be slain; Gronw is waiting for this and runs him through with his spear. As Lleu feels the mortal blow, he gives a great cry and turns into an eagle, which flies up into an oak-tree. There follows a gruesome image in which the eagle sits in its tree, shaking its feathers and raining down a shower of rotting flesh and maggots onto the ground beneath. Gwydion traces the transformed Lleu by following a certain sow who goes to the tree to feed on the maggots and tissue. The magician then entices the eagle down from the oak with a song or spell, strikes the bird with his magic wand and Lleu returns to human shape, albeit as a shrunken man of skin and bone. As punishment, Blodeuwedd is transformed into an owl, cursed and o c shunned as the enemy of all other birds and compelled never to show her face by day. The character of Lleu is interesting. His name, Bright One, may refer to his nature as a sun-god of light. Certainly, the bird of the Romano-Celtic sky-god was the eagle and Jupiter's sacred tree was the oak. So we may be seeing here a genuine link between the symbolism of the European sky-god, which is evidenced archaeologically, and the western post-Roman literary tradition. In addition, the cult of the sky-god involved dualism, a positive and negative, light and dark, conflict and interdependence, which may also be reflected in the symbolism of the eagle and the owl (birds of day and night) in the Mabinogi legend.

Figure 7.6 Bronze cauldron-mount in the form of an owl, third century BC, Bra, Jutland, Denmark. Paul Jenkins.

Swans

Water-birds, and swans in particular, feature in the Insular legends, generally as metamorphosed women, and very frequently they are described as being linked to each other by gold or silver chains. In the tale of the 'Dream of Oenghus', the young god of love dreams of a girl whom he has never seen and with whom he falls in love. He eventually finds out her name and discovers that she dwells at a lake where, along with 150 companions, she is transformed every alternate year to the form of a swan. The girl's name is Caer Ibormeith (Yew Berry) and, significantly, her transformation occurs at the great winter festival of Samhain, which marked the Celtic new year, a time when the barriers between the natural and the supernatural worlds were temporarily dissolved. The image of the chained swans occurs here: when Oenghus finds Caer's lake, he sees the 150 young women, each pair linked by a silver chain. Caer is the tallest and she wears a chain of gold, signifying her special status. Oenghus asks Caer's father, Ethal Anbual, for his daughter's hand but he will not countenance the match, and Oenghus learns that the only way he can take Caer is at Samhain, when she has changed into her swan shape. He goes to the lake, changes himself also into a swan, and the two fly to Oenghus's dwelling at Brugh na Boinne, first circling the lake three times, lulling everyone to sleep for three days and three nights with their enchanting song. The chains and the metamorphosis indicate that Caer is a superhuman being, as indeed

is Oenghus himself.36

The Ulster demi-god Cu Chulainn is repeatedly associated with Otherworld swans. A flock of splendid but destructive birds appears at the time of Cu Chulainn's conception, laying waste the area around the royal palace of Emhain Macha. The timing of the episode suggests a profound link between swans and the life of the hero, and indeed the birds recur throughout Cu Chulainn's adulthood. In one story, he is associated with a flock of swans; significantly, as with Oenghus, this happens at the festival

of Samhain: the hero fastens a flock of swans to his chariot when it is stuck in a marsh. In another tale, a girl called Derbforgaill falls in love with Cu Chulainn and she and her maidservant pursue him, having first taken the form of two swans. As with Oenghus's birds, the pair are joined by a chain, this time of gold. Cu Chulainn aims his sling at one of the two birds: she is struck by the stone and falls to the ground badly wounded, returning to the human form of Derbforgaill as she hits the ground, the blow apparently acting as the catalyst which has effected the transformation. Cu Chulainn sucks the stone from the wound but, in doing so, tastes her blood. He is thus debarred from mating with her because of a taboo.

One of the most poignant early Irish stories concerns the children of

Lir, a sea-god. Lir marries one Eve, the eldest of the three foster-daughters of Bov, king of the divine race of the Tuatha De Danann. Lir and Eve produce four children, two sets of twins (a girl and a boy in each pair). Eve dies giving birth to the younger twins, and Lir then marries her sister Eva. The twins are adored by their father, but Eva soon develops a maniacal jealousy of the children and plots their downfall. She entices the four to a lake, named Lake Derravaragh, in the centre of Ireland where, with the aid of a druidical wand, she turns them into swans. The full curse is that they remain in bird form for a total of 900 years, though they retain the power of human speech. Eva proclaims that the curse will not be lifted until the swan-children hear the bell which is the voice of Christianity in Ireland and until a prince from the north marries a princess of the south. The four bewitched children remain human in all but shape, and they possess the power of incredibly sweet singing, which makes all who hear it happy and which attracts many other birds to their lake. By the end of the 900 years, St Patrick had arrived in Ireland to spread the Christian message. One of Patrick's followers, Kernoc, builds a church on Inish Gloria, where the enchanted swans dwell. They hear the church bell and come to Kernoc, who takes care of them. Soon afterwards, the other part of the prophecy comes to pass and Decca, daughter of Finnin, king of Munster, weds Largnen of Connacht. The curse is over, the swans are released from their bird form but, alas, they are humans 900 years old and they instantly die of old age. Kernoc buries them together, raising an earth mound over them and marking their graves with a

tombstone with their names in ogam (an ancient Celtic linear script).

Figure 7.7 Pottery dish ornamented with red-painted swans, c.400BC, RadovesicDe, Czechoslovakia. Diameter of dish: 28cm. Miranda Green.

In Insular mythology, whilst swans are generally portrayed as beautiful, sweet-voiced birds, often associated with comely young women, cranes are conversely depicted as unpleasant and mean, though again linked closely with females. In the Book of Leinster, the divine Midhir, a god of the Tuatha De Danann, possesses three cranes which guard his sídh, Bri Leith, from intruders. But these birds possess the additional reputation of unmanning warriors, robbing them of their will to fight. So the cranes are essentially birds of ill omen, to be feared and avoided. This bad-luck image may be linked with the taboo on eating crane flesh in early Ireland, which was noted by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Expugnatio

Hibernica. The identification of cranes with unpleasant women may have been due to the harsh and raucous screech of the birds which could have been perceived as similar to the hectoring speech of a scold. The Irish sea-god Manannan possessed a 'crane-bag' full of treasures, the skin of a crane who was once a woman transformed as a result of her jealous nature. The Irish hero Finn is also connected with cranes in at least two stories. In one tale, 'Cailleach an Teampuill' ('The Hag of the Temple'), Finn is associated with cranes of death: here the hag's four sons are in the form of cranes who can only become human if the blood of an enchanted bull is sprinkled over them.40 The association between bulls and cranes is interesting because of certain Romano-Celtic iconography (chapter 8) which consists of images of bulls with cranes on their backs. In another tale, the crane appears in a pleasanter light: as a child, Finn is saved from falling to his death over a cliff by his grandmother, who metamorphoses to the form of a crane and breaks his fall.41 Like the swan, certain characteristics of the crane lend themselves to a particular image and mythology. The swan is associated with grace, beauty and youth, but the crane is identified with parsimony, harshness, death and old age. In both cases, particular heroes are perceived to have an affinity with the birds and their destiny is inextricably bound up with them: for Cu Chulainn it is the swan; for Finn, the crane.

Cranes

Figure 7.8 Cheek-piece from first-century BC helmet with crane design, Smarjeta, Yugoslavia.

Figure 7.9 Celtic coin depicting two cranes, Maidstone, Kent. By courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

Ravens

The major characteristic of ravens in the early literature is of evil, death and destruction. In addition, a strong image repeated in many of the stories is that of ravens as prophets, foretelling the future - which was itself usually linked with death. The concept of ravens as birds of omen is interesting; indeed, they were

used by Irish Druids in augury (predicting the future by studying the flight of birds). In the Insular tradition, their prophecy is generally associated with the disastrous outcome of battles. The connection between ravens and oracular utterances may have arisen because of the harsh but distinctive 'voice' of the raven, which may have been perceived as resembling human speech. Usually the gift of prophecy is sinister, but in the case of the Irish hero-god Lugh, ravens warn him of the approach of his enemies, the Fomorians, and thus influence the result of the second Battle of Magh Tuiredh. Indeed, some authorities identify Lugh as a raven-god.43 In one Irish poem, 'The Hawk of Achill', this association is very clear.44

The relationship between battles, prophecy and ravens occurs above all in connection with a group of Irish war-goddesses who sometimes assume the form of ravens or crows. The Badbh and the Morrigan both possess the ability to appear as one or three entities and to transmogrify into raven form. Their most unpleasant habit is to appear on the battlefield, as prophets of doom and disaster, causing fear and havoc among the warriors and gloating over the bloodshed. One of these raven-deities, the Morrigan, advises the Dagdha on the outcome of battles before they take place.45 Badbh Catha (Battle Crow) gloats over the destroyed soldiers at the battles between Ulster and Connacht.

The Ulster hero Cu Chulainn is as closely linked with ravens as he is with swans: in general, ravens reflect the malevolence of the under-world.46 The Morrigan alights on Cu Chulainn's shoulder at his death, to symbolize the passing of his spirit. Two magic ravens act as oracles in the tale of the 'Wasting Sickness of Cu Chulainn'. On one occasion, the young warrior uses his sling to destroy a large flock of Otherworld ravens who are swimming in the sea and whose evil nature is made clear. Cu Chulainn performs a curious ritual with the last bird he kills, beheading it and bathing his hands in its blood,

before setting its head on a rock. This image of carrion-birds emerging from the underworld to do evil on earth recurs elsewhere. In the first Battle of Magh Tuiredh, between the Tuatha De Danann and their enemies the Fir Bholg, the Irish high king Eochaid has a vision or dream which he asks his Druid to interpret for him. In this dream he sees a huge flock of birds emerging from the depths of the ocean, alighting all over Ireland, wreaking havoc and destruction among the people. Similarly, in the story of a hero named Caoilte, he and his followers journey to an Otherworld sidh for Caoilte to be healed. The divine sidh-dwellers tell him that, before they will cure him, he must rid them of a terrible scourge, three ravens that appear every Samhain (the 1st of November festival) and carry off three boy-children from the sidh. Caoilte kills all three ravens which scream horribly as they die.48 The triple form of these creatures suggests that they are in fact the triple raven-goddesses, the Morrigan or the Badbh.

Their habit of eating carrion, black colouring and cruel character make ravens natural symbols of death. But white ravens also appear in the stories. The Irish god Midhir has two white ravens which fly out of his sidh when it is dug up by the king Eochaid.49 Perhaps they represent the souls of the divine occupants of the mound. Ravens with white feathers were considered to be birds of good omen. Interestingly, the Greek geographer Strabo alludes to white-feathered ravens being used in the settling of disputes: the man whose barley cakes were scattered by the birds won his case.50 It is possible that the white-feathered birds were not in fact ravens but magpies, also members of the crow family. If that is so, then it is interesting that their good-luck symbolism, still part of today's superstition, should have such antiquity. Ravens occur, though less frequently, in the Welsh myths. The Second Branch of the Mabinogi revolves around the superhuman hero Bran (Bendigeidfran - Blessed Bran, whose name means 'Crow'). In the 'Dream of Rhonabwy', Owein has an army of ravens who possess magical powers of recovery after injury. The birds are harassed by Arthur's warriors and, even when they are grievously wounded, they are instantly healed and turn on their aggressors, routing them in their turn.51 The Welsh tale of 'Peredur' is interesting because the raven symbolism there precisely parallels that of the Irish story of Deirdre. Peredur sees a raven eating a duck in the snow: he likens the colours of the scene - white, red and black - to the colouring of his beloved, with her white skin, red cheeks and black hair.52 In the story of Deirdre, she witnesses her foster-father Conchobar skinning a calf in the snow and a raven drinking the blood. She prophesies that the man she loves will have hair as black as the raven, skin as white as the snow and cheeks as red as the blood.

Figure 7.10 Stone relief of god with fruit, ravens and dog, Romano-Celtic, Moux, Burgundy. Width: 27cm. Miranda Green.

Figure 7.11 Triskele with birds' heads, on a first-century BC bronze plaque at Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey.

Of all the individual bird species in the written mythology, the raven is perhaps the most complex and interesting. It has a close affinity with the supernatural world and indeed can be a form of female divinity. The overwhelming image of the raven is that associated with the evil aspect of the Otherworld. It issues from the nether regions as a harbinger of doom and death. It appears to armies, reminding them that in war no one wins except death itself. The raven is an oracle, but again most of its portents are negative and fear-inducing. The blackness, the cruel, tearing beak, glittering, pitiless eyes, and its predilection for dead flesh endowed the raven with this dark, sinister imagery. Only occasionally is the raven projected in a more positive light, as friend to man, appearing to warn and to protect.

Birds as magical creatures

Particular species of bird were perceived as symbolic and representative of certain qualities or features possessed by - say - ravens, cranes or swans. But birds in general also played a role in the early Celtic literature, probably because of their powers of flight and their ability to sing. Birds could be seen as messengers from the supernatural world and as mediators between god and humans. In the Irish Happy Otherworld, magical birds lulled sick or wounded men to sleep and healed them with their sweet music.54 The Insular goddess Cliodna possessed birds who dwelt on two Otherworld islands in the sea. They are described as being similar to blackbirds but larger, red in colour, with green heads: they laid eggs of blue and crimson. If humans ate these eggs, they themselves began to grow feathers, but when they washed their bodies, the feathers fell off. Other birds, eating huge purple berries in a forest, had white bodies, purple heads and golden beaks.55 The description of Cliodna's birds makes it quite clear that they are unearthly, belonging to the divine world: they are of no known species and their colouring is exotic. These Irish birds have their counterpart in early Welsh tradition. In 'Branwen', the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, the hero Bendigeidfran prophesies that after his followers have beheaded him (at his own behest), they will dwell seven years in Harlech and the Birds of Rhiannon will sing to them from over the sea.56 The three birds of Rhiannon reappear in the 'Tale of Culhwch and Olwen,'57 where they are described as having power in their song to wake the dead and lull the living to sleep. There is another bird episode in 'Branwen'. In the story, Branwen is persecuted at the court of her husband Matholwch, king of Ireland. He has cut off all her means of communication to mainland Britain, but Branwen overcomes this problem by training a starling to fly over the sea to her brother Bendigeidfran, with a message begging him for help. This triggers the great war between the Britons and the Irish.

Figure 7.12 Romano-Celtic clay figurine of a cockerel, Nijmegen, Netherlands. Paul Jenkins. Snakes

Before leaving the creatures of the wild, we need to look at the role of serpents in the early myths. These reptiles possessed a complex symbolism in the Romano-Celtic world (chapter 8), evoking images of water, fertility, death and regeneration. All these concepts emanated from qualities or properties perceived in the physical appearance or the behaviour of snakes. Their rippling, sinuous movements and long winding bodies endowed them with river imagery; their shape, large numbers of young and the male's double penis evoked fertility symbolism. The association between snakes and renewal or healing came about because of their habit of sloughing their skin several times a year, apparently being reborn. The chthonic or death symbolism is self-evident: snakes are carnivorous and their method of poisoning their victims well-known. In addition, they are generally earthbound, and can emerge from narrow crevices, seemingly from deep below the earth.

The superhuman Ulster hero Conall Cernach had an affinity with snakes: there is a story in the 'Tain Bo Fraich' of an enormous serpent which guards a fort containing treasure. Conall is induced to attack the stronghold but the creature, far from opposing him, instead dives into his waist-belt. When the fort has been overcome, Conall releases the reptile and both are unharmed by the encounter.59 Another treasure-guarding snake is recorded in Pembrokeshire by Giraldus Cambrensis: he describes a well containing a precious torc or neckring which is protected by a snake who bites potential thieves.60 Interestingly, this story has its counterpart in Norse myth, where supernatural snakes protect treasure: one such animal was Fafnir, a serpent killed by Sigurd the Volsung in order to get at the guarded treasure.61 War, evil and destruction are associated with snakes in a number of Irish stories. The hero Finn kills a series of fantastic snakes, including a gigantic water-snake, that are threatening the land.62 In another Insular tale, the war-goddess the Morrigan produces a son named Meiche, who carries within him the seeds of Ireland's destruction. He is slain by the divine physician Dian Cecht, and the boy's heart is found to contain three serpents: it was believed that if the creatures had been allowed to grow to maturity inside Meiche's body, they would eventually have wiped out all animal life from the face of Ireland.63

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