Sunday, 28 May 2017

Whitethorn ~ on the threshold of the Otherworld.

The month of May sees a procession of whitethorn stretching their long white fingers across the green land. 

They stand in the liminal places, between land and water,

beside sacred wells.

They guard ancient sites,

Oweynagat, “Cave of the Cats”, Co. Roscommon, home of the Morrigan.

Grange Stone Circle, Co. Limerick.

And gathering points where the Good People meet.

Distant whitethorn on the local Fairy Path where the Daoine Sídhe are said to gather. 

They trail across forgotten pathways

The path to Sheean. Link to read more: SHEEAN

and carry healing spells.

The Rag Tree at Killeigh, Co. Offaly. Link to read more: RAG TREE 

Standing between this world and the Otherworld the whitethorn, An Sceach Gheal, ‘bright, shining thorn’, is steeped in folklore and regarded with respect for fear of supernatural retribution. 

Felling a lone thorn brings bad luck and today many farmers continue to work around them.

Injury or even death could also befall anyone who damaged or cut down a lone bush. 
The close relationship between tree and Good People was acknowledged across the island. 

Some thorns were believed to have almost human attributes. 

In Co. Cork it was understood that a stick of whitethorn would have a temper of its’ own if used in anger and elsewhere blood was believed to flow from a lone bush if felled.

The kinship between thorn and Daoine Sídhe was occasionally utilised by people.
In Co. Laois it was once customary to sprinkle sprigs of whitethorn with holy water before planting them in fields in the belief that banishing the connection to the Otherworld would discourage the Good People from taking the crops.

Within old church yards thorns are left in place although they are often pruned 
to reflect Christian symbolism.

This bond was understood to be of service to cattle too.
Farmers would hang the afterbirth of a premature calf on a whitethorn believing that the bush would help it to survive and in some areas a sprig from a fairy thorn was hung in the milk parlour to encourage cows to produce creamier milk. 

The May Bush decorated skeletal remains of whitethorn and ivy.
Link to read more: MAY BUSH 

On May Eve when the bush was decorated there were differing views on the use of whitethorn for this purpose. 

In some areas it was acceptable and in others, using a branch of thorn was considered unlucky.

Throughout the country however, it was believed that bringing blossom into the house would shortly be followed by illness and death.

Whitethorn blossom exudes a scent that many find unpleasant and it has been found that the chemical trimethylamine, which is formed when animal tissues decay, is also present in the blossom. 

Unbaptised infants who had died and were denied internment in consecrated ground, were buried in the ‘sacred space’ beneath lone thorns, especially if they stood within fairy forts.

Lone thorn on Rath Coffey used as an infants' grave.
Link to read more: Cillín

Others mark age-old stopping places from hearth to grave.

Whitethorn standing between farm yard and road. 
It was customary for bearers to rest the coffin at the foot of this bush and local lore states 
that the thorn must not be removed. 

By the end of Lughnasadh the Whitethorn has become the Hawthorn,
limbs laden with red haws. 

And as the year progresses the tree reveals her true nature.

Thorn on the Burren - image © eyeem.

Living an average of 400 years, with some reaching 700, they become twisted and gnarled, claws sharp and fingers bent with age.

Thorns on the Burren coast.

A procession of bent forms reminiscent of hags, ridden by the wind.

'Wind-blown Trees' by Paul Henry.

At Samhain, standing starkly on the threshold of the Otherworld, they guard supernatural paths awaiting transformation.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Bealtaine, Water & Sun~Enchanted Dew.

Bealtaine Eve, Oíche Bealtaine, and the supernatural prevails.

On May Day, the start of summer, especially in the moments before dawn, water was understood 
to possess magical qualities and in rural Ireland the Good People used this medium to meddle in the affairs of humans.

Folk belief was rich in traditions surrounding wells, rivers and dew at this time.

Tobar Geal, Bright / White Well, Co. Galway. 

The first water taken from the well after dawn on May Day, known as Barra-bua an tobair , 
sgaith an tobair, ‘the top of the well’ or ‘the luck of the well’, was collected from the surface using 
a milk-skimmer. 
This water, which brought luck to the household, was used as protection against evil intent and 
was saved for healing. 

Village well, Co. Offaly.

Where a water source was in a village or shared by neighbours there was rivalry 
between households to be the first to skim the well for luck after the sun rose on May Day.

So strong was the belief in Other-worldly forces that precautions were taken to protect the water supply from interference. 

Village pumps were also defended, especially at dawn on May morning and some were chained 
and locked overnight to prevent their use.

People sat guarding the well, salt or holy water was sprinkled around the site or a slip of mountain ash or piece of iron was placed in the water itself. 

Flowers collected on Bealtaine Eve were placed in wells to safeguard water and the health 
and livelihood of the community. Later in the day May flower water could be taken from the well
for use as a cure and as a means of protection.

However, it was not only the Good People who were believed to be abroad at this time. 
Certain individuals who harboured evil intentions would steal well water or dew from fields to appropriate the fertility, luck and prosperity of their neighbours.

The Hag of the Mill - LINK HERE

Those who worked charms were understood to be older women with supernatural powers, gained from invoking 
the devil or associating with the Good People. 
They obtained assistance from the Otherworld by crawling naked on May morning under an arch of briar then bathed naked in dew. 

Water was understood to hold a subtle connection to people and to animals which could be 
utilised by fairy and human alike.

Taking water from three different wells on May morning had the power of stealing the butter yield from the neighbours, whilst water taken from a point where 3 farm boundaries or townlands met, uisce na dtrí teorann, ‘water of three mearings’, was especially potent for use in magical workings and setting charms, so these areas were safeguarded.

Drinking place for cattle on the River Barrow.

Watch was often kept overnight at streams which flowed through farmland as the spots where cattle drank were also vulnerable. 
Strangers or Otherworld beings, who could approach in the form of wild creatures, were warned off with a shout or a blast from a shotgun.

To avert malign influence neither milk nor cow dung was permitted to fall into streams lest the water be used magically. 
Even after milking, hands to be washed elsewhere to avoid drawing unwanted attention to the contaminated water. 

Dew was of great value on the first day of summer.

In some places as much as possible would be gathered before sunrise in order to ensure enough money for the rest of the year.

Washing the face or rolling naked in May dew bestowed beauty as well as giving a resistance 
to sunburn, freckles, chapping and wrinkling of the skin in the following year. 

Dew was collected before sunrise by shaking long grass or herbs into a dish or by placing a clean cloth on the grass and wringing it out when soaked.
The most powerful dew was understood to collect on green corn or wheat.

Dew on May morning was considered most potent and walking barefoot through grass 
ensured healthy feet.

The collected dew was transferred into a clear glass bottle then placed on a window sill to stand in the summer sunshine. 
During this time any dirt settled at the bottom then the liquid was decanted. 
This process was carried out several times as the action of ‘sunbeams’ on the dew itself was considered purifying and increased its’ potency. 
By the end of summer the dew would look ‘whitish’ and could be kept for a year or two as a 
medicine to cure headaches, skin ailments and sore eyes.

Dew was at its’ most potent when used before sunrise on May Day especially when it was employed in the working 
of malevolent magic.
‘Stealing the butter’, increasing your butter yield at others’ expense, was accomplished by gathering dew from a neighbours’ field where their cows grazed whilst repeating a charm.

“Come butter come!
Come butter come!
Every lump as big as my bum!”


Today many May Day water customs have long been forgotten but the practice of washing the face in May dew continues.
Where did this reverence for dew originate?

The late folklorist Dáithí Ó hÓgáin wrote of a source of wisdom employed by the druid-poets which describes the action of sun on dew resulting in inspiration. 

imbas gréine, … defined in early literature as ‘bubbles which the sun impregnates on herbs, 
and whoever consumes them gains poet-craft.
This is a reference to dew.”

Ó hÓgáin goes on to say:

“Elsewhere there are highly significant references to druchtu Déa, (dew of a goddess), 
which in early poetic rhetoric was a kenning for the all-important 
ith ocus blicht (‘corn and milk’). ”

The land-goddess is fertilised by the sun, her body produces dew and the corn and milk which are essential for the nourishment for the community. 

As Ó hÓgáin theorised this may be an early understanding of agriculture and the partaking of dew an element in druidic ritual during summer.

At dawn tomorrow, when you wash your face in the dew, beware, 
you may be taking part in a tradition that stretches back further than you imagine.