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THE MYTHIC GROUND

OF THE LONGING FOR WISDOM AND LOVE

IN WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS’S

THE SONG OF WANDERING AENGUS


by Tracy Boyd © 2008

RE-WEAVING THE SACRED THREADS: WRITINGS BY TRACY BOYD © 2004-2018

 

COVER OF THE FIRST EDITION OF YEATS’S 1899

THE WIND AMONG THE REEDS IN WHICH THE SONG

OF WANDERING AENGUS APPEARED.

    THE SONG OF WANDERING AENGUS

    by William Butler Yeats

   

   I went out to the hazel wood

    Because a fire was in my head,

    And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

    And hooked a berry to a thread;

    And when white moths were on the wing,

    And moth-like stars were flickering out,

    I dropped the berry in a stream

    And caught a little silver trout.


    When I had laid it on the floor

    I went to blow the fire aflame,

    But something rustled on the floor

    And someone called me by my name.

    It had become a glimmering girl

    With apple blossom in her hair

    Who called me by my name and ran

    And faded through the brightening air.


    Though I am old with wandering

    Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

    I will find out where she has gone,

    And kiss her lips and take her hands;

    And walk among long dappled grass,

    And pluck till time and times are done

    The silver apples of the moon,

    The golden apples of the sun. (1)

A flowing stream of voices runs beneath the poetry of William Butler Yeats.  The faint callings are the once indecipherable words of the ancient Irish poets who have gone before.  They have sung to us of Aengus, whom some called a ‘god of love’. They have praised the deeds of Finn mac Cumhail, a seeker of knowledge who bears the name of the hazel, the nut of wisdom.  The great poet Amairgin has himself sung with a fire in his own head.  And there are others whose distant whisperings are less distinct.  But of all the Irish filid, or poet-bards, only Yeats, in his The Song of Wandering Aengus, has woven the yearnings of their incantations into a single strand.  We are moved to tears by the beauty of this song, for we, too, are filled with longing. 



THE BREATH OF INSPIRATION


Yeats has been accused of writing poems of too personal a nature, of infusing his infatu-ation with Maud Gonne into his poetry with obsessive excess, of allowing his muse to overwhelm and overtake him. (2)  But, as Kathleen Raine so pointedly asks, “Where would we be without her?” (3)  Where, indeed!  She is his anima, which C. G. Jung reminds us, is a force of wind, which quite literally acts as the breath of inspiration. (4)


Yeats admits that he uses “the wind as a symbol of vague desires and hopes, not merely because the Sidhe [the Faeries] are in the wind, or because the wind bloweth as it listeth, but because wind and spirit and vague desire have been associated everywhere.” (5)  Speaking specifically of the sidhe, he says that, in addition to the word ‘sidhe’ being the name by which the poor called the Tuatha De Danaan (the Faerie Tribes of the goddess Danu), (6)


        Sidhe is also Gaelic for wind, and certainly the sidhe have much to do with

        the wind. They journey in winds, the winds that were called the dance of the

        daughters of Herodias in the Middle Ages, Herodias doubtless taking the

        place of some old goddess. When the country people see the leaves blowing

        on the road they bless themselves, because they believe the sidhe to be pass-

        ing by. (7)


Whenever Yeats conjures Maud Gonne in his mind, he associates her with the element of air.  But it is his own breath which animates her: 

   

        I went to blow the fire aflame,

        But something rustled on the floor

        And someone called me by my name. (8)


And in a moment, she vaporizes into thin air as mysteriously as she has appeared to him:

   

        It had become a glimmering girl

        With apple blossom in her hair

        Who called me by my name and ran

        And faded through the brightening air. (9)

   

Some twenty years after the writing of The Song of Wandering Aengus, when he is done with this anima (or so he thinks), this archetypal soul-image with all-too human flesh who has caused him so much misery and heartache for years and years, he employs an image of wind, or more precisely, of hot air, as it relates to The Fool in the Tarot deck, and wherever else s/he is found, to describe what she has become: “an old bel-lows full of angry wind”. (10)  What a far cry from their beginnings!


The anima-infused language that he uses to describe his first meeting, in 1889, with the woman who was to become his muse is of an entirely different feeling altogether. 


        “. . . that day she seemed a classical impersonation of the Spring, the

        Vergilian commendation “She walks like a goddess” made for her alone.

        Her complexion was luminous, like that of apple blossoms through which

        the light falls, and I remember her standing that first day by a great heap of

        such blossoms in the window.” (11) 


Is this not the very image of the “glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair” who eludes him in The Song of Wandering Aengus as she had done in life?  But were it that alone, we should not be moved in the slightest. 


It is the mythic quality of the glimmering girl that draws us in.  We care not a fig who she might have been in Yeats’s mind.  We know who she is in our own minds.  Some-how, we have all been there.  And what Yeats succeeds in doing is to transcend his own personal world with an image of such universal proportion that we cannot fail to recall our own longings.  This was his intention, which he lays out in his early autobiograph-ical writings, to touch upon those powerful emotions that everyone shares by weaving “an always personal emotion . . . into a general pattern of myth and symbol.” (12)  For, as Yeats further elaborates, this is the goal of all of the world’s great story-tellers. (13) 


In his later commentaries about the poems that had appeared in the 1899 volume, The Wind Among the Reeds, Yeats makes the most astonishing comment about the mythic genesis of The Song of Wandering Aengus.  He says, “the poem was suggested to me by a Greek folk song; but the folk belief of Greece is very like that of Ireland, and I certainly thought, when I wrote it, of Ireland, and of the spirits that are in Ireland.” (14)  And he is crystal-clear about the imprinting on his mind of the images of Irish folklore.  He confesses that:


        “When I wrote these poems I had so meditated over the images that came

        to me in writing ‘Ballads and Lyrics’ . . . , ‘The Rose’ . . . , and ‘The

        Wanderings of Oisin’. . . , and other images from Irish folk-lore, that they

        had become true symbols. I had sometimes when awake, but more often in

        sleep, moments of vision, a state very unlike dreaming, when these images

        took upon themselves what seemed an independent life and became a part

        of a mystic language, which seemed always as if it would bring me some

        strange revelation. Being troubled at what was thought a reckless obscurity,

        I tried to explain myself in lengthy notes, into which I put all the little learn-

        ing I had, and more wilful phantasy than I now think admirable, though what

        is most mystical still seems to me the most true.” (15)


And it is the “most mystical” aspects of this simultaneously plaintive and joyous song that we wish to explore so that we may arrive at a deeper understanding of the vast mythic ground that informs this poem of longing for love and wisdom.  The corres-pondences are numerous, emanating as they do, from the mind of a learned poet whose quiet erudition was rooted in a deeply spiritual life lived at a very intense frequency.



THE HAZELS OF POETIC WISDOM AND THE SALMON OF KNOWLEDGE


There is a sense of great urgency and rushing about when a fire is burning in one’s head, to put down into words the thoughts that are aflame before the heightened inspiration dies down and the images vanish.  T. S. Eliot‘s lines from the Four Quartets expand upon this momentary state of frenzied inspiration which Yeats here extolls, to include all of life – past, present, and future:


         . . . Not the intense moment

        Isolated, with no before and after,

        But a lifetime burning in every moment

        And not the lifetime of one man only

        But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. (16)


The very first line of The Song of Wandering Aengus underscores the unrelenting urgency of this moment with its forward-moving resolve to go out to the hazel wood to cut and peel a hazel wand.  This action serves the specific purpose of heightening the state of poetic madness, for the hazel, above all, is a tree associated with poets, magi-cians, and seekers of wisdom.  The wand itself, irrespective of its wood, is uniquely an instrument of magic.  In the mythology of ancient Greece, where it is known as the r(h)abdos, the magic wand is found in the very capable hands of both Circe and Hermes. (17)


The wand carved from the branch of a sacred tree was an essential attribute of the Druids despite the fact that they were masters in the casting of spells through the power of their words alone.  We find a wand, also, among the magical paraphernalia used by William Butler Yeats in his sacred occult practices.  ‘The Wand’, as it is respectfully referred to in the uppercase, represents the element of Fire, which corresponds to its meaning in the Tarot deck. (18)


As Yeats so well knew, the magical hazel is one of the most highly venerated trees, or more accurately, bushes, in all of Ireland, nine of which are known in the ancient Irish texts as “the Nine Hazels of Poetic Wisdom.”  They are nine in number because, as we learn from Robert Graves, the esteemed poet and scholar of ancient Irish poetry, in the Ogham tree alphabet of the Irish Druids, the letter “C”, or Coll (‘hazel’), is the ninth tree.  It stands for the ninth month in Graves’s calendrical scheme. (19)  Nine is one of the most sacred of Irish numbers, encompassing, as it does, the entirety of the world. (20) 


Yeats, himself, ascribes the greatest of powers to the hazel in his commentary on He thinks of his Past Greatness when a Part of the Constellation of Heaven, another poem from The Wind Among the Reeds, which we later quote in its entirety in a somewhat different context.  There, he notes that “the hazel tree was the Irish tree of Life or of Knowledge, and in Ireland it was doubtless, as elsewhere, the tree of the heavens.” (21)  These attributions, in themselves, would appear to incorporate the entire world.


Immediately upon entering the hazel wood, we are drawn back into the hazel’s age-old associations as the repository of all of the knowledge in the world.  Distant memories are awakened of stories long forgotten of a sacred well over which the nine hazels of inspir-ation and poetry spread their branches.  It is said that when the overhanging boughs dropped their purple-hued nuts into the waters, the hard husks dissolved leaving only the essence of the fruit, which we might aptly call the ‘kernels of wisdom’.  The kernels, then, were chewed by the salmon who inhabited the well, who thereby achieved instantaneous wisdom. 


As to the exact location of this well, who can say?  For, in the various texts in which its story is told, there are a number of locales which claim possession of the magic well.  The details of place and persons differ from story to story, but the essential elements are identical.  Those who know the deep esoteric meaning expressed in these passages concerning “the means employed by the ancient Irish poets (filid) to obtain inspira-tion,” (22) say that they “are among the most mystical in Irish literature.” (23)


The acquisition of sacred wisdom from the hazel is most particularly exemplified in Irish saga by the story of the great boy-wonder, Finn mac Cumhail.  The fair Finn’s name itself is inseparable from the wisdom-bestowing hazel nut, for mac Cumhail, pronounced, and sometimes written as MacCool, (24) means ‘Son of the Hazel’. (25) Finn’s, or Fionn’s, oldest written story dates to the 9th century, where it is recorded in

a Psalter, (26) and then in larger form in The Boyhood Exploits of Fionn, a 10th century, or earlier, Irish text. (27) 


In the Welsh Bardic tradition, where he is known as Gwion Bach, or Little Gwion, his name being “the equivalent (gw for f) of Fionn, or Finn”, (28) the stories are older still.  Some date to the 6th century, but have been identified definitively as having an earlier basis of some “several hundred years.” (29)  The Irish poets sing the name of Finn MacCool still, for his memory is continued in the works of James Joyce, one of the greatest bards of all time, where we know this hero by the name of Finnegan, or “Finn-again,” in Finnegans Wake. (30)


The ancient Irish tale of Fionn begins with a magic well.  It is told that before the waters of the goddess Boann rose up, flowing over to form the River Boyne (and this is another story wanting to be told, but we must reserve it for a later time), (31)


        . . . there was only a well, shaded by nine magic hazel-trees. These

        trees bore crimson nuts, and it was the property of these nuts that

        whoever ate of them immediately became possessed of the knowledge

        of everything that was in the world. . . . One class of creatures alone

        had this privilege--divine salmon who lived in the well, and swallowed

        the nuts as they dropped from the trees into the water, and thus knew

        all things, and appear in legends as the “Salmons of Knowledge”. . . .

        [But when the river formed,] the all-knowing inhabitants of the well

        . . . wandered disconsolately through the depths of the river, looking

        in vain for their lost nuts. One of these salmon was afterwards eaten

        by the famous Finn mac Coul, upon whom all omniscience descended.

        (32)


“Druids and magicians sought anxiously for the Eo Feasa, the Salmon of Knowledge, in the hope of partaking of its flesh and thus acquiring universal wisdom.” (33)  One such Druid was Finneces, (‘Finn the Poet’) (34) who had devoted seven years to this so far unsuccessful endeavor.  One day, as Fionn mac Cumhail, or Finn (‘the Fair’), wandered the banks of the Boyne, he came upon the aged Druid.  No sooner had the seer agreed to instruct his wandering namesake in the arts of poetry, than did the elder Finn catch the long-wished-for fish. 


He instructed the boy to cook the prized salmon, with the strict injunction that under no circumstances was he to eat any portion of it.  But while it was cooking, a blister rose upon the skin of the fish, and he laid his thumb on it to remove the imperfection.  Being thus scalded by the heat of it, he placed his thumb in his mouth against his teeth to re-lieve the pain, “whereupon foreknowledge was vouchsafed him” (35) in an instant.  Of course it fell to him to eat the entire fish, for it had been foretold that such an honor would fall to one named Finn. (36)  And, as the genius of mythological thinking would have it, this fish had the name of Fintan. (37)



SHAPE-SHIFTING


In view of the mystic powers attributed to the salmon, Yeats’s substitution of “a little silver trout” might seem proportionately out of scale.  But, in Irish belief, along “with the salmon, the trout is associated with sacred waters and wells and represents the foreknowledge of the gods, otherworld wisdom and knowledge.” (38)  The two fish are, in fact, of the same family, that of the salmonidae; the salmon being a saltwater dwell-er, except when spawning in freshwater; and the trout, a denizen of freshwater bodies. (39)  Both are native to, and commonly found in, the River Boyne, which feeds into the Irish Sea.


As for Yeats’s specific identification of the trout as “silver”, we note that


        trout that live in different environments can have dramatically different colora-

        tions and patterns. Mostly, these colors and patterns form as camouflage, based

        on the surroundings, and will change as the fish moves to different habitats.

        Trout in, or newly returned from the sea, can look very silvery . . . ; it is also

        possible that in some species this signifies that they are ready to mate. (40) 


In addition to this tantalizing prospect, Yeats’s choice may have been to emphasize its silvery or lunar/female coloration as a reflection of the female form hidden within.  This archetypal association not only sets the stage for the “glimmering girl” whom it is about to become, but, because the word glimmering has the mean-ing of something that ‘shines with a wavering light’, in the way that moonlight moves on the waters, the changing mercurial color induces a kind of bi-amplification of related thoughts.  The entire scene, which is set just as dawn is beginning to break, is permeated with a flutter-ing, twinkling whiteness of moths and stars against a slowly lightening sky.  At such magical times as these, when the whole world is undergoing transformation, change is in the air.  What better time than this for a shimmering trout to become a “glimmering girl”?


The metamorphosis that we are witness to of the silver trout suddenly coming alive and rustling on the floor as it changes into a “glimmering girl”, is a familiar enough occur-rence in Irish folk belief.  But the hearer is brought back to the heart-stopping reality of sheer emotion when she calls him by his name, an experience of such enor-mous personal significance that Yeats repeats it twice.  Perhaps to reassure us that he hasn’t made all of this up, in his notes to The Song of Wandering Aengus, Yeats recounts two contemporary real-life examples of such transformations told him by two women of Galway. (41)  And in his usual very matter-of-fact way, he also has this to say about the shape-shifting fairy women: “The Tribes of the goddess Danu (The Tuatha De Danaan) can take all shapes, and those that are in the waters take often the shape of fish.” (42) 


Among highly evolved mystics, wizards, and poets, there is nothing at all unusual about such transmogrifications.  Shape-shifting comes naturally to the fairy populations.  Others have to work at it.  For the Druidic initiate, the ultimate goal is to become one with the “living elements of Creation” (43) in order to gain mastery over them.  There is the implicit understanding in the taking on of these other forms “that all matter is in-deed one and that the assumption of its various forms can readily be achieved through the spiritual and mental potency of the magical initiate.” (44)


When such mastery had been obtained, the Celtic Bard presented a recitation of his achievements in an encrypted and mysterious riddle form by stating who he had been, where he had been, and what he had accomplished.  This was delivered as a series of poetic clues whose cumulative effect revealed the essence of his being through the passing seasons of the sacred year, and the unending circularity of time.  The god-like

“I Am” revelations of what he had become, which is to say, the essence of everything, reflected a mystical understanding of the the entire universe.  One such ancient incan-tation, known as The Song of Amergin (1268 B.C.E.), combines the attributes of valor, sacred knowledge, clarity, and inspiration.  These are the prerequisites for achieving resolutions to the questions of the universe.


        THE SONG OF AMERGIN

        I am a stag of seven tines,

        I am a wide flood on a plain,

        I am a wind on the deep waters,

        I am a shining tear of the sun,

        I am a hawk on a cliff,

        I am fair among flowers,

        I am a god who sets the head afire with smoke,

        I am a battle-waging spear,

        I am a salmon in a pool,

        I am a hill of poetry,

        I am a ruthless boar,

        I am a threatening noise of the sea,   

        I am a wave of the sea,

        Who but I knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen? (45)


This is the song whose power was so great that it enabled the Milesian “invaders” to defeat the last remaining remnants of the Tuatha De Danaan in a contest of Druidic enchantment.  As the Milesian ships laid at anchor “beyond the ninth wave,” (46) the Tuatha raised a mighty storm of wind and heavy mists to keep them from coming ashore, but the charm was dispelled, some say, by the recitation of these words.  There is disagreement about whether the song was chanted on shipboard, or at the moment when Amergin placed his foot on Irish soil for the first time.  Regardless, it is Irish through and through.


Whether in dream or vision, the successful Druidic wizard transmogrifies, that is to say, happily takes the form of other sentient beings of the earth, air, and water, or the form or essence of trees, rocks, waves, clouds, and so forth.  We are given a recitation of this very same experience in Yeats’s poem, He thinks of his Past Greatness when a Part of the Constellation of Heaven.  Yeats informs us that his poem is a remembrance of “Mongan, [who] in the old Celtic poetry, is a famous wizard and king who remembers his past lives.” (47)  He recounts them with a certain mournfulness:


        I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young

        And weep because I know all things now:

        I have been a hazel-tree, and they hung

        The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough

        Among my leaves in times out of mind:

        I became a rush that horses tread:

        I became a man, a hater of the wind,

        Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head

        May not lie on the breast nor his lips on the hair

        Of the woman that he loves, until he dies.

        O beast of the wilderness, bird of the air,

        Must I endure your amorous cries? (48)



AENGUS, MASTER OF LOVE


We turn now to the love-sick Aengus, who is the subject of Yeats’s title, and whose story embodies the eternal search for the soul-mate.  Aengus’s fate, for a brief time, is that the tables are turned on the one who is, himself, the “Master of Love”, as Yeats calls him. (49)  This episode of his life is told in an Irish story known as Aislinge Oenguso, or The Dream of Oengus.  We see in its barest outlines the obvious influence that the 8th century Irish story had on Yeats’s The Song of Wandering Aengus, namely that one night as he dreams, Aengus has a vision of a beautiful woman who then comes to life, and as quickly, vanishes without a trace.  However, in the introduction to one of the most widely circulated contemporary translations of The Dream of Oengus, (50) Jeffrey Gantz makes the unequivocal statement that “‘The Dream of Oengus’ is the ultimate source of Yeats’s poem ‘The Dream of Wandering Aengus’.” (51)  He is so convinced of his claim, that he unconsciously misstates the title of Yeats’s poem! 


As we have shown, the underlying mythologies and symbologies in Yeats’s Song are far grander than one story, regardless of how immensely rich in material that single source might be.  Nothing is that simplistic, at least not in Yeats’s highly-crafted art, nor in the art of Irish storytelling.  Nonetheless, it shall behoove us to examine the extent to which the Dream may have had on the Song by re-telling it here.  And, in a wider context, we would be remiss if we did not explore the deeply-felt mystical associations, both person-al and archetypal, that Yeats and his closest circle of erudite mystics held for Aengus.  Regardless of whether The Dream of Oengus constituted a direct influence as the “ultimate source” of The Song of Wandering Aengus, the presence of this Eros-like god of love is an unspoken undercurrent in this, and in many others of Yeats’s works.


The figure of Aengus was so deeply imbedded in Yeats’s unconscious that, at times, when Aengus was so obviously in the foreground that one could trip over him, Yeats could barely bring himself to see the obvious.  Witness his somewhat tenuous recol-lection in his notes to another poem from the same collection in which The Song of Wandering Aengus appears, He mourns for the Change that has come upon Him and his Beloved, and longs for the End of the World.  Here, Yeats recalls that “the man in my poem who has a hazel wand may have been Aengus, Master of Love.” (52)  And, indeed, he is.  He could be no one else.

   

        A man with a hazel wand came without sound;

        He changed me suddenly; I was looking another way; (53)  


Perhaps his hesitation had more to do with a reluctance to reveal so much as a hint of the mysteries of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  As the “Conductor” of visions at their very secretive sessions, (54) Yeats called upon the gods of Ireland by employing “various epithets, like ‘master of the fairies,’ or ‘clearer away of the stone out of Meath’ . . . . (55)  The adepts crossed to the Other Side at will once Yeats had invoked the entities they sought.” (56)  Yeats must have appealed to the ‘master of love’ for his own purposes, for it is known that Aengus was among the “god-forms” sum-moned, (57) and this is how he most often refers to Aengus in his writings.


There is no doubt whatsoever in Yeats’s mind as to Aengus’s central role in the story of Baile and Aillinn, in which the ‘Master of Love’ acts as catalyst for the fate of its lovers.  Yeats’s far-reaching knowledge shines through in his 1903 poetic interpretation of Baile and Aillinn.  He prefaces the poem with a brief summation of the mythologi-cal details:


        Baile and Aillinn were lovers, but Aengus, the Master of Love, wishing them

        to be happy in his own land among the dead, told to each a story of the other’s

        death, so that their hearts were broken and they died. (58)


In a lengthy footnote to this poem, Yeats suggests that the reader consult Lady Gregory’s Cuchullain of Muirthemne for an authentic reading of the original story itself, but offers a few salient points of his own that enhance our understanding, not only of Baile and Aillinn, but of The Dream of Oengus as well.  He explains that


        the birds that flutter over the head of Aengus are four birds that he made

        out of his kisses; and when Baile and Aillinn take the shape of swans linked

        with a golden chain, they take the shape that other enchanted lovers took be-

        fore them in the old stories. (59)


In this regard, we must not neglect to mention that in so many of Yeats’s poems, and in his private exchanges with Maud Gonne, she most often is imaged as a swan, which is an archetypal symbol of the Soul.  The theme of the enchanted swan-lovers was clearly in his mind.  But, all things being equal, the swan held such an important place in the literature and folk-beliefs of Ireland that it became a constant figure in his poetry, regardless of his infatuation with her.  Every word that he ever wrote about swans captures the essence of that ineffable magical quality that surrounds them like an aura.  


We add a footnote of our own here before we enter the world of the Dream, and that is, that in the 7th century, the Abbot of Iona traced back the Old Irish name of Oengus to its Proto-Celtic roots and interpreted it to mean ‘one choice’. (60)  And that, in a nutshell, is what the whole dream is about.



A RE-TELLING OF THE DREAM OF OENGUS (AISLINGE OENGUSO)


The sole surviving source of Aislinge Oenguso, or The Dream of Oengus, from which its many transcriptions from Old Irish into English are based, is a very late manuscript copy from the fifteenth century.  Its beginnings, however, pre-date this single written source by many hundreds of years, for “the language of the text is believed to date back to the eighth century, and possibly to the first half of that century.” (61) Aislinge Oenguso is “the earliest tale” among “a group of swan legends, the majority of them stemming from the very earliest phases of the written tradition, . . . [in which] gods and goddesses appear in the form of swans.” (62)  As shall become apparent in our discussion of the Swans of Samain, its early date is of no small significance in the greater scheme of things.


THE DREAM OF OENGUS (AISLINGE OENGUSO)


One night, as Oengus lay sleeping, he had a vision of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen coming towards him, but when he reached out his hand to welcome her to his bed, she vanished in an instant.  When he arose the next day after a troubled sleep, he ate no food.  The next night she came to him again, this time with a harp-like tiompan, which she played upon until he fell fast asleep.  Again, the next morning, he ate no food.  Her nightly visits continued each night for a year, by which time he had fallen so in love with her that he became sick.  And then she came no more. 


He had told no one of his nightly visitations.  All of the physicians of Ireland who were called upon were at a loss to discover the cause of his wasting away, save for one, the Druid Fergne, who “could tell from a man’s face what the illness was.” (63)  Fergne pronounced that Aengus was “sick at heart”, (64) and sent for his mother, Boand, that she might tend to him and search throughout the land for the “form” (65) that had appeared to her son.


After a year of searching, the likeness of the mysterious girl was nowhere to be found, so his father, the Dagda, king of the Side of Eriu, was sent for.  He came at once, but pleaded a lack of knowledge to accomplish the task.  In his stead, he sends his messen-gers to Bodb, king of the Side of Mumu, whose knowledge and wisdom was known throughout the land.  Bodb agrees to search for the elusive girl, but asks that he may have one year to do so. 


At the year’s end, when she is found at Loch Bel Dracon in Cruitt Cliach, Oengus is asked to return with Bodb to see if she is, indeed, the girl who had appeared to him.  Following the great feast that was given in Oengus’s honor, which lasted three days and three nights, Bodb and Oengus departed for the ‘Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth’. (66)  On their way, Bodb ominously warns Oengus that “You may see her, but it is not in my power to give her to you.” (67)


When they reached the lake, they saw a most beautiful sight: three fifties of young maidens, Oengus’s beloved among them.  The others, who were no taller than her shoulder, were linked in pairs, each by a silver chain.  But Oengus’s girl wore a silver necklace with a chain of burnished gold.  He recognized her at once, and asked who she was.  With a most regal formality, Bodb answered that she was Caer Ibormeith (‘Yew Berry’), (68) daughter of Ethal Anbuail from Sid Uamuin in Connacht. 


After Oengus had seen her with his own eyes, he and Bodb departed for his father’s sid at Bruig ind Mac Oc, where they related what they had seen to the Dagda and Boand.  The Dagda left for Connacht at once to plead with Ailill and Medb (or Queen Maeve, as she is sometimes known), the rulers of that land, to seek their help in winning Caer for his still ailing son.  But Ailill and Medb, who otherwise made a warm welcome for the Dagda, made the most astonishing reply: “We do not have the power to give her to you.” (69)


But Ailill and a large retinue went to Caer’s father and sent an emissary to ask him to meet with Ailill.  Not only did Ethal Anbuil refuse outright, but knowing, through his gift of second sight, the real purpose behind this request, he added, “and I will not give my daughter to the son of the Dagda.” (70)  Whereupon Ailill countered, “He will come, and the heads of his warriors with him.” (71)  There followed the total annihilation of the fairy mound, or sid, of Ethal Anbuil by the forces of the Dagda and Ailill. Now, Ailill insisted that he give his daughter to the son of the Dagda.  Ethal’s response will astonish you: “I cannot,” he said, “for her power is greater than mine.” (72) 


Not a little surprised, Ailill asked, what great power it was that she had.  And Ethal replied, “Being in the form of a bird each day of one year and in human form each day of the following year.” (73)  Thinking that she could be caught if he knew in which year she assumed which form, Ailill asked which year it was that she would assume the form of a bird.  But Ethal replied, unhelpfully, “It is not for me to reveal that.” (74) 


When Ailill threatened to decapitate him on the spot if he did not disclose this secret (the answer to which he already knew, in fact, because Oenghus and Bodb had seen Caer and her maidens in “human” form), Ethal told all. “Next Samuin she will be in the form of a bird; she will be at Loch Bel Dracon, and beautiful birds will be seen with her, three fifties of swans about her, and I will make ready for

them.” (75)


So, at the coming of Samain, Oengus journeyed to Loch Bel Dracon.  And there, as he stood on the edge of the shore, he beheld three times fifty of the whitest of swans, each paired with silver chains linking them one to the other, and with golden ringlets about their heads.  Oengus called to his beloved swan-maiden: “Come, Caer, come.  Speak to me, Caer!” And she answered, “Who is calling my name?”  “Oengus is calling,”  he replied.  “I will come,” she said. (76) 


But she made him promise that he would allow her to return to the lake.  And, so he did.  But he followed her into the water.  And as he did, she went to him with all her heart, and he put his arms around her feathery whiteness, and at once transformed himself into a swan.  They slept like this, embracing, until they had circled the lake three times.  Having kept his promise to her, the enchantment was lifted and she was free to go. 


They alighted from the water, this pair of swans, spreading their wings to the air, and made their way to Bruig na Boinne, Oengus’s palace on the river of his mother, where it was still Samain.  And there they sang, “chanting sleep music,” (77) as swans are wont to do, lulling to sleep for three days and three nights, all who heard the melodious sounds.  And Caer remained with him always, which it is the nature of swans to do.  And all was right with the world. (78)



THE SWANS OF SAMAIN


The Eve of Samain (‘Summer’s End’), the fourth and last great fire festival of the Celtic year, which stands at the midpoint between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, marks the end of summer and the start of the bleak winter months.  The beginning of the dark half of the year is acknowledged by the re-kindling of all the fires in the land and the divining of fortunes for the coming year.  This Feast of the Dead, which is ruled by the Sidhe, the faeries, is a time when ghosts, demons, spirits, and bean-sidhes (ban-shees), or ‘women fairies’, fly about at large, and mortal men fear possession by the fairy-women seeking mates. (79)  How odd, then, that Aengus would be venturing out on such a night to seek his fairy-mate.  But we find, from the archaeological record, and from a closer look at the swan myths that it was imperative for him to do so. 


We now know the identity of the mysterious girl who sings Aengus into a swoon every night for a year and then vaporizes.  It is understood that she is under such a powerful enchantment that even the mightiest of magicians and kings and queens of faerie cannot break through.  And they know enough not to try.  Each, in turn, declares that it is not within their power to give Caer to Aengus.  Aengus himself, it seems, is at such a low ebb, that he just lies sick and languishing in his bed while others, beginning with his mother, go off in search of her.  Only after she has been found, does he arise, first to identify her, and then to bring her to his palace.  It goes without saying that the original hearers of the sacred tale knew full well the reason for the necessity of Caer’s enchant-ment, but because The Dream of Oengus is respectfully silent in this respect, we are left in the dark. 


Fortunately, the archaeological record speaks in its place.  The unearthing of a profusion of images of chain-bearing swans from both the Late Bronze Age 12th century Urnfield culture and the Early Iron Age Hallstatt culture of the 8th to the 6th centuries, establishes a definitive link between the role of the Irish swan-goddess and the cult of the sun.  The ground-breaking interpretation of these finds by Anne Ross in Pagan Celtic Britain answers many questions.  It is her contention that “the proto-Celts and the Celts shared with the rest of Europe in the propitiation of a god or gods whose functions were primarily concerned with the sun, especially in its therapeutic capacity.” (80)  


Ross bases this very convincing theory, in part, on the fact that even after these Central European cultures had died out, the continuation and preservation of identical cultic practices was recorded “in the literature of early Ireland, . . . [where] the swan contin-ue[d] to occupy a place of importance.” (81)  Of these, she says:


        In this group of tales, the salient features are that gods and goddesses

        appear in the form of swans, but are recognisably supernatural on account

        of the chains of gold or silver that they wear about their necks. The earliest

        tale in which motifs of this kind occur is the story of the dream of Angus,

        Aislinge Oenguso. (82)


Among the archaeological finds are numerous swans with rings under their beaks from which chains are suspended, (83) and “votive models of carriages drawn by stags, oxen or swans . . . in which “the image of the deity would be set.” (84)  The notion that the sun is wheeled across the sky in a chariot drawn by swans, or that the swan escorts the sun to its resting place, or place of death, is a very ancient idea.   The Greeks believed that swans carried the dead king’s soul to the Otherworld when they migrated to their breeding grounds at Midsummer. (85)  This, too, must be the thinking behind the story of Aengus. 


But Aengus’s mythology is more complicated than that of most sun gods, for he is the master, also, of love and death.  We find a strange parallel in the figure of the Greek Aphrodite, who, while clearly not a deity of the sun, is most certainly the pre-eminent goddess of love and death.  Ancient images show her seated on a swan throne, and there are later examples in art of her Roman counterpart, Venus, being wheeled across the sky in a chariot drawn by swans. (86)  And, so, we find the enchanted white-plumed Caer at Loch Bel Dracon decked out in her finest silver necklace with a chain of burnished gold.  


The enchantment that Caer is under, which no one has the power to undo, requires her to lead the circle of one-hundred-fifty swan-women who encircle the sun at summer’s end to guide it swiftly to its place of rest.  As Anne Ross once again so astutely ob-serves, the Irish tales of swan metamorphosis that have to do with escorting the sun to its winter resting place, which date to the very earliest appearances of a written tra-dition, are unique to Ireland. 


They are unlike the better-known transformations found in the universal stories of the swan-maiden in which human women have the magical power to transform themselves into bird-form at will by means of a feathered garment, and back again into human form simply by laying aside the veil of feathers.  The shape-shifting maidens in the Irish stories experience a spontaneous change of form without benefit of a swan-cloak, and their transformations occur only at certain specifically regulated intervals. (87)  What these swan-maidens all have in common is an eternal existence of being suspended between two worlds, always on the threshold of change. (88)



THE MEANING OF THE TIME


Samain, it would appear, has a particular significance for Aengus.  This is as it should be for a god of darkness and death, a god of the Winter sun who presides over the dark half of the solar year.  “By abundant testimony, Samain was the principal calendar feast of early Ireland.” (89)  This festival of the dead is a turning point of the year when the diminishing light of the sun begins its journey into darkness until it reaches its lowest point at the Winter Solstice and then, as if by an act of magic, the light begins to return once more.  On this eve of the dying sun, nothing is as it seems.  All the rules are sus-pended.  It is a time-out-of-time.  Things are “neither this nor that.”  There are no boundaries.  The dead walk among the living.  Everything is adrift, suspended in a no-man’s land.  The future is uncertain.  Everything is Chaos.  

   

This is the atmosphere which marked Aengus’s beginnings.  On this holy and uncertain eve, when divinations of future marriages were cast with hazel nuts and apples not so long ago, (90) a ritual mating was consummated to assure the continuity of the tribe and the land. (91)  The memory of this rite survived for more than a thousand years, because “in Irish and Scottish Gaelic oral tradition, Samain time was thought most favourable for a woman to become pregnant.” (92) 


The ancient sacred sexual rite was carried out by the Dagda (‘the good god’), the father-god of the faerie tribe, the Tuatha De Danaan, with the river goddess-mother, Boann, or Boand, whom we have met in the story of Fionn as the River Boyne itself.  Their one day union, which is said to have lasted for nine months although it was but a day, was consummated at dawn on that eve of Samain (‘Summer’s End’), which we call Hallowe’en (‘Holy Eve’).  Oengus is born that same evening, before the dawning of the New Year.  The child is called Oengus in Mac Oc, ‘in Mac Oc’, meaning, “(‘the Young Son’) for his mother said: ‘Young is the son who was begotten at break of day and born betwixt it and evening’.” (93)


In the faerie realm, the passage of time is always longer than it feels, so that what may seem like a fleeting moment in that world, turns out to be years when a person returns to the “real” world.  But that phenomenon does not explain the mystery of the time frame of this monumental event, an event of such cosmic proportion that the explana-tion must be far grander in scale.  And, indeed, it is.  For, Dagda is credited with “causing the sun to stand still for nine months, so that Oenghus was conceived and born on the same day.” (94)  The necessity for this extreme measure is said to be due to the “illicit” nature of their mating, for Boann was the wife of Nechtan, or by some ac-counts, of Elcmar of the Bruig. (95)  Such conventional explanations have the familiar ring of patriarchal Christian tinkering.  We should do better to think like a Pagan, so as to find the truth and divine the meaning of the time.


The time is Samain, the zero point before the beginning of the dark half of the year when time does not exist.  Another way of saying this, is to declare that the sun stands still at this moment in no time.  We are clearly in the otherworld, or again, maybe we are not.  For, where we are is Brugh-na-Boinne, where Aengus is begotten and born betwixt dawn and evening, and it is to this ancient magical palace that he flies home with his swan-bride, a place that we know by another name: Newgrange. 


Perhaps this is where the swan-maidens bring the Sun to its place of winter rest so that its brilliant rays will re-emerge from its hibernation at the dawning of the darkest days

of the year.  After all, it is here, at the Winter Solstice, that the sun makes a dramatic appearance inside the darkened womb of stones. 


        The passage and chamber of Newgrange are illuminated by the winter

        solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the

        entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic

        event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn [each day] from the 19th to the 23rd of

        December. (96)


The labyrinthine tri-formed and double spiral patterns incised on the megalithic stones that guard the entryway depict the meandering circuits of the sun.  The spirals move in two distinct directions.  Those on the left side of a clearly etched dividing line drawn on the stone itself and on the lintel above the doorway, take a left-handed trajectory, while those on the right assume a right-handed path. (97) 


This alternation of the changing shadows of the sun as it progresses through the year has been delineated with great clarity and detail by Martin Brennan in The Stars and the Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland.  He explains that


        If the shadows of the sun are correlated over a period of one year in chrono-

        logical order following their curvature they form a double spiral.  In winter

        the spiral is counter-clockwise and the coils are wide.  The shadows begin

        to straighten as equinox approaches, and after equinox they begin to wind

        into a clockwise spiral and tighten.  They contract until the summer solstice

        and the right-hand spiral begins to expand after the solstice, straighten again

        at equinox and return to a left-handed spiral again in winter to continue the

        process perpetually. (98) 


The ancient labyrinthine dances that were performed in many places imitated the movements of the sun through its seasons with steps that followed a spiraling path without beginning or end, such as we have just described.  The undulating spirals of the dance pulsed with the rhythm of the sun, and despite the attempts of the Church to entirely erase these movements from memory, we can see them, still, in the stones.


The Church did succeed in throwing us completely off-balance by disrupting the natural flow of the ancient rhythms of this age-old homage to the sun.  This they did by assign-ing a truly sinister connotation to the counter-movements, which became the identifying mark of the “left-hand path” of the witch. (99)  Thus, circumambulations that moved towards the left in a counter-sunwise, or widdershins, direction, were stigmatized as “unlucky”.  With the demonization of the left-handed path, the celebrations of the journey of the winter sun became shrouded in darkness and evil. 


Against this perfect backdrop, behold, a savior was born who shone his light upon the world.  He made his appearance at the moment of the Winter Solstice, thereby banish-ing the darkness forever, for he was a sun-god whose light never dimmed.  He was unlike any of the sun deities who had come before, who, like Aengus, needed their winter’s rest like the sun itself.  There were those who recognized the absurdity of this claim, who saw the precarious imbalance that such a priori assumptions of power established.  From this point forward, Pagans who could not accept such an unnatural view of the natural world simply concealed their ancient wisdom from the outside world, feeding it into a ceaselessly flowing underground stream, from whose waters those who wished to acquire a true knowledge of the world simply “hooked a berry to a thread” and . . . . 


The Tarot deck was a notably important source of this wisdom; the images acting as non-verbal repositories for the sacred secrets of a pre-Christian world in hiding.  We have shown elsewhere, in “The Tarot Fool’s Hand”, (100) how The Fool card of the Tarot deck, acting as surrogate for the Holly King, or King of Winter, dances in exactly this counter-clockwise motion.  His identity and his association with winter and the waning half of the year is an absolute certainty because of the widdershins direction of his dance. He dances against the light.  And this is the very definition of widdershins, for aside from its meaning as a movement towards a left, or ‘sinister’, counter-sunwise direction, “in certain circumstances it can be used to refer to a direction which is against the light . . . where you are unable to see your shadow.” (101)  His dance is the winter sequence of the annual procession of the sun across the sky.


Yeats knew, all too well, the meaning of the time.  We find him in The Wild Swans at Coole standing on the shore “under that October twilight”, counting “nine-and-fifty swans”, (102) perhaps imagining himself to be Aengus at Loch Bel Dracon, but knowing himself to be less fortunate.  And how perfect was Yeats’s understanding of this whole season that he should associate the Tarot Fool with Aengus?  Yeats notes in his Autobiography, almost in passing, that when the Theosophist, George W. Russell, better known as ‘AE’, “came to stay at Coole he asked who was the white jester he had seen about the corridors.  It was a form I associated with the god Aengus.” (103) 


The white jester wandering about would be The Fool of the Tarot deck who, in some very early decks, was pictured exactly in this way. (104)  Yeats’s correspondence of him to a wandering Aengus is a staggering revelation only because it is so true.  Given their identically shared esoteric associations with zero time and nothingness, of being before the beginning, of playing the role of initiate and initiator – the comparisons could go on and on –, it is a more than obvious conclusion. 


Others have seen close, but not identical, connections between Aengus and the arche-typal Fool, which have appeared to them in visions.  One such occurrence, which is of particular interest to our discussion, is related by Yeats in The Celtic Twilight.  He says,


        “I knew a man who was trying to bring before his mind’s eye an image

        of AEngus, the old Irish god of love and poetry and ecstasy, who changed

        four of his kisses into birds, and suddenly the image of a man with a cap

        and bells rushed before his mind’s eye, and grew vivid and spoke and

        called itself “AEngus’ messenger.” (105)


While this is but one degree of separation from the real thing, only one who has per-sonally identified with the Tarot Fool as a wanderer on the sacred path through the journey of life could make such an absolute and direct connection as Yeats himself has made.  And as Kathleen Raine, the noted scholar of Blake and Yeats and a poet in her own right, reminds us, “the figure of the wandering fool appears again and again in Yeats’s poems and mythologies.” (106)  Aengus, too, is never far from his thoughts.   


In the texts that explain how Aengus acquires the magnificent dwelling of Newgrange as his own, Aengus displays a bit of linguistic brilliance that could rival the kind of fool-logic typical of the thought-patterns of Lear’s Fool.  He employs a play on words in-volving a trick of time, a skill that he must have inherited from a father who made the sun stand still.  In point of fact, in some versions of the story in which Elcmar is said to have remained as master of the house long after Aengus had achieved manhood, it is made explicit that it is the Dagda himself who passes on the secret of time to his son so that Aengus can expel Elcmar from the Brugh-na-Boinne.  Of course, Aengus is helped by time itself, for in these tellings, the sun god’s philosophical exegesis on the meaning of time takes place on Samain. (107)  


In the considered opinion of Alwyn and Brinley Rees, the gurus of all matters Celtic, “the symbolic meaning of Day and Night as the microcosm of time, and indeed of the ‘whole world’, could not be stated more explicitly than it is in a story preserved in the Book of Leinster.” (108)  There, we are told that:


        After the Dagda had appointed all the sid mounds of Ireland between the

        lords of Tuatha da Danaan, the Mac Oc came to him and asked for land.

        ‘I have none for thee,’ said the Dagda, ‘I have completed the division.’

        ‘Then let me be granted,’ said the Mac Oc, ‘a day and a night in thy own

        dwelling.’ That was given to him. ‘Go now to thy following,’ said the

        Dagda, ‘since thou hast consumed thy (allotted) time.’ ‘It is clear,’ said

        the Mac Oc, ‘that night and day are the whole world, and it is that which

        has been given to me.’ Thereupon the Dagda went out, and the Mac Oc

        remained in his sid. (109)

 

Until the coming of Aengus, the male residents of Brugh-na-Boinne seem to have taken up residence in this palace of the rising Solstice sun on a relatively temporary basis. (110)  Its very name, Brugh-na-Boinne, which translates transparently enough as ‘fairy-mound of the Boyne’, which, as we know, is eponymous with Boand herself, betrays any claim to their original primacy here.  In the accounts that name Elcmar as Boand’s husband, this temple of the sun is “sometimes called Bru mna Elcmair, or ‘the Bru of the woman of Elcmar’.” (111)  This place-title alone would suggest that the mound is thought of as Boand’s proprietary domain. 


Elcmar’s tangential place in Boand’s residence is reinforced by the fact that although he is a magician, apparently known to be envious and spiteful, for that is the meaning of his name, (112) he doesn’t seem to have much power.  The Dagda removes him from the house with the greatest of ease by dispatching him on what would appear to be a fool’s errand on the Eve of Samain, and during his absence, copulates with his wife.  One wonders whether Elcmar is not, in fact, an actual Fool – a surrogate for the King –, or more likely, a King of Summer whose time is up. 



THE WATERS OF THE LEFT-HAND PATH


While the names of her consorts are ever-changing, Boann remains at the center, the pivot-point of the turning wheel.  Sometimes we hardly know she is there.  In her own way, she, too, is forever changing, the evidence of which is offered almost subliminally in the ancient tale of Fionn, which begins at her magic well and ends at her sacred river.  That sacred well, shaded by the nine magic hazel-trees whose crimson nuts drop into the water and are eaten by the salmon who thus gain knowledge of all things, is where her own story begins.


The dramatic tale of the well’s violent eruption is related in a number of texts, the most well-known being the Metrical Dindshenchas, a collection of Druidical bardic verse recitations of the mythological histories of notable places in the Irish landscape.  The 12th century, and later, revisions by Christian scribes are all that have survived.  We are hindered, additionally, by the fact that we must rely upon the one transcription that has been made of only one text, (113) which, in turn, has been enlarged upon in subsequent scholarly presentations with an assortment of moralizing embellishments.  We must read between the lines and fill them in with our own knowledge of these things in order to extract the essence of that which has been purposely veiled, and the rest, which has been obliterated. 


We present, here, an abridgement of the story in actual sequence, which is based entirely on the 1925 transcription. (114)  We interrupt the flow with our own comments inserted between stanzas so as to illuminate the real meaning of the lines from the perspective of ancient Druidical practice.


In the opening lines of the story of Boand, the Dindshenchas traces the meandering geographical paths of some of the most noble rivers of the world, “fifteen names

. . . given to this stream we enumerate,” (115) the first of which is said to originate at the Well of Segais at Nectan’s Sid.  The majestic rivers flow effortlessly one to the other, until finally, they return to their source, which has, in the meantime, become the river named for Boand. 


        River Tigris in enduring paradise,

        long is she in the east, a time of wandering

        from paradise back again hither

        to the streams of this Sid.


        Boand is her general pleasant name

        from the Sid to the sea-wall;

        I remember the cause which is named

        the water of the wife of Labraid’s son.


        Nectain son of bold Labraid

        whose wife was Boand, I aver;

        a secret well there was in his stead,

        From which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil. (116)


Following the long and very flattering preamble, and the all-important identification of the location and ownership of the Well of Segais at the Sid, or fairy mound, occupied by Nechtan, a highly esteemed Druid-king, and his illustrious wife, Boand, (117) the actual story begins.  The praiseful tone of the opening lines shifts with a jarring sud-denness the very moment that we arrive at the first description of the well itself.  That incongruous last line, “. . . every kind of mysterious evil,” alters the flow so as to accommodate judgments which are antithetical to the Druidical worldview.  It is a Medieval Christian characterization of the carefully guarded sacred wisdom acquired by the learned Druids, who believed that all the knowledge of the world resided in the well.  The Druids would be the first to agree that the acquisition of such knowledge would constitute a danger to anyone not worthy to receive it, which is why it was veiled in secrecy.


There is something else going on here, too.  If we were to substitute the word “woman” for the word “well” in this last line, we would arrive at a close approx-imation of the Church’s view of women in general, and of the female body, in particular: that it “gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.”  Perhaps this is

the allusion that the Christian revisionists intended.  This is not as far-fetched as it might seem if we consider that, not only has water been viewed as a feminine element since the beginning of time, but wells were frequently places of healing dedicated to goddesses and female spirits long before Christianity arrived in Ireland, or anywhere else. 


To make matters worse for the prudish censors whose deity was a celibate, (or so they claimed) sun god, there are numerous instances in Celtic belief in which the goddess to whom the well was devoted “was the indwelling deity of the waters into which . . . [the male sun-god] descended at night.” (118)  This, of course, was the rationale behind the “affair” of the sun-god Dagda with the goddess of the River Boyne.  The love factor notwithstanding, perhaps the sun-god Aengus’s determination to enter the waters of Loch Bel Dracon also had its basis in this belief. 

       

Immediately following the Christian scribe’s rude interjection of loathing, he regains his senses sufficiently to let stand the Druidic praises singing the power of the well, which he has either misunderstood, or thought scary enough to serve his own evil purposes.

       

        There was none that would look to its bottom

        but his two bright eyes would burst:

        if he should move to left or right,

        he would not come from it without blemish. (119)


We would interpret these first lines to mean that looking down into the well was a means of acquiring instant ‘second sight’, an indispensable necessity for a Druid.  We have noted the dangers of receiving this kind of brilliant flash of sudden insight in an article on the blind seer, Teiresias.  There we have said that “to come face to face with God is a shattering experience.  The veils that shield mortal eyes from such illumination are there for good reason.  The deity must be concealed from view until sufficient wisdom has been attained to handle the intensity of the truly awesome light without losing one's mind.” (120)


        Therefore none of them dared approach it

        save Nechtan and his cup-bearers: –

        these are their names, famed for brilliant deed,

        Flesc and Lam and Luam. (121)


These Druid cup-bearers would appear to be Keepers of the Grail.  In whatever form the Grail is imagined, it is always perceived as a font of wisdom, and in this instance of the well, that truth is quite literally so.  The Christianizing of the Grail as a Eucharistic vessel, or cup, is reflected here in the function of the guardians of the well as ‘cup-bearers’.  That they are four in number suggests not only the presumptive iconography of the Christian cross, but the indigenous four cross-quarter days of Samain, Imbolc, Beltain, and Lughnassa of the earlier Celtic calendar. 


Bridget Haggerty, writing on “The Holy Wells of Ireland”, informs us that visitations to wells in Pagan Ireland were special occasions, occurring most particularly at the four turning points of the year, and especially at Samain when “the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest.” (122)  The geomancer, Nigel Pennick, has remarked that, today, one of the “most auspicious” days for taking well water is on New Year’s Day, “a transference from the winter solstice, the time of the longest night when the sun spends the most time beneath the earth, and the waters are especially empowered.” (123)


        Hither came on a day white Boand

        (her noble pride uplifted her),

        to the never-failing well

        to make trial of its power. (124)


Disdaining the supposed dangers, the ancient goddess-queen Boand, or Boann, whose name is thought to mean ‘white cow’, approached the magic well.  As we are told, she does so with great purpose (and pride) “to make trial of its power.”  In other words, this great queen of the faerie realm has come to pit her formidable knowledge and skill against that which is contained in the well, as is the usual protocol in the contests be-tween Druids.


        As thrice she walked round

        about the well heedlessly,

        three waves burst from it,

        whence came the death of Boand. (125)


Boand’s triple circumambulations are anything but ‘heedless’, or reckless.  Dismissive terminology is here employed to evade the details of her magical ritual, namely that she trod in a widdershins direction against the forward-movement of the sun, which is most decidedly unchristian.  If we were Druids, we would know that Boand walks a left-hand path because she is aligned with a deity of the winter half, or waning portion of the year, during which the sun appears to reverse its own course.  In contradistinction to this is the Christian practice, still observed today, of treading an unofficially man-dated one-way path to the right.  There is a whole set of age-old “prescribed rituals” called “patterns” that are customary to pilgrimages made to these sacred wells, which “almost always included some sort of circular walk, always done ‘deiseal’ – in the same direction in which the sun travels.” (126)


Despite what we are told in these dire lines of the Dindshenchas, Boand does not die.  She changes. 


        They came each wave of them about a limb,

        they disfigured the soft-blooming woman;

        a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye,

        the third wave shatters one hand. (127)


Each of the tumultuous waves that erupts from the well, wave upon wave, contributes to her “disfiguration”.  At last, she is quite literally drowned in all of the knowledge of the world.  (This must be a Druid joke!)  She is left with one usable foot, one hand, and a single eye, which any respectable Druid would recognize as the three components of the most famous of all poses with which to direct a powerful curse on one’s opponent.  “In pronouncing incantations, the usual method employed was to stand upon one leg, to point to the person or object on which the spell was to be laid with the fore-finger, at the same time closing an eye, as if to concentrate the force of the entire personality upon that which was to be placed under ban.” (128)  Disfiguration is the usual result of such a curse. (129) 


As proof that Boand is not dead, but merely in the midst of a chaotic process of total transfiguration, witness her rush to the sea in this mutilated state. 


        She rushed to the sea (it was better for her)

        to escape her blemish,

        so that none might see her mutilation;

        on herself fell her reproach. (130)


In Boand’s case, however, in spite of her outward appearance, there is no shame in any of this, no disgrace.  This last line is written by one who has understood nothing of this whole incarnation in which the body of this fairy-goddess-mother-queen is subsumed, literally ‘taken below’, to become one with the waters of wisdom, which assume her holy name from that point forward until the end of time. 

   

        Every way the woman went

        the cold white water followed

        from the Sid to the sea (not weak it was),

        so that thence it is called Boand. (131)


As the narrator has boasted from the very beginning, this “stainless river / whose name is Boand ever-full” (132) flows throughout the world, presumably spreading

her wide knowledge as she goes.  The immeasurable vastness of Druidic knowledge embodied in the well has proved its omnipotence over the formidable skills of faerie magic, such as we have witnessed on a grand scale in the victory of the Druid Amairgin over the entire faerie population of the Tuatha Da Danaan.  But as was the case in that instance, here, both sides have won, and each has been transformed.  The waters of the “secret well” have branched out into the world to spread the knowledge of the sacred underground stream, and Boand has achieved the goal of all learned Druids: to become one with the universe.  With this ultimate of all transmogrifications, the incantation, “I am a wave of the sea,“ (133) takes on a whole new meaning.

 


“THE GARDENS OF THE SUN” (134)


Boand’s mystical waters flow through eastern Ireland for some seventy miles, from what is now Trinity Well in County Kildare to the Irish Sea.  She is Sovereign of this rich Valley of the Bhoinn, where the ancient Neolithic mounds of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth are nestled into a bend in her river where they have stood for more than five thousand years.  From these megalithic sites and from the nearby Hill of Tara, the very center of Ireland itself, you can see her river flowing ceaselessly. 


Brugh-na-Boinne is Paradise on earth, where, in Aengus’s own words, ‘night and day are the whole world’. (135)  This god, who is all at once a god of death and initiation, a deity of the sun and the Otherworld, and an incurable romantic, is quite at home in this idyllic setting.  It suits him.  Aengus’s palace, with its “Gardens of the Sun”, (136)  “contained three trees which always bore fruit, a vessel full of excellent drink, and two pigs–one alive and the other nicely cooked ready to eat at any time; and in this palace no one ever died.” (137) 


This is no Old Testament Eden, where the Tree of Life, or more accurately, the lower-cased “tree of life”, stood “in the midst of the garden”, (138) with the lower-cased “tree of knowledge of good and evil”, (139) whose magical fruits its inhabitants were forbidden to taste, or even to touch, (140) by a vengeful, jealous god.  And having tasted of the fruit of knowledge thereof, not only were they mercilessly punished, but they were sent forth from the Garden of Eden because God feared that Adam might “put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” (141)  To assure himself that Adam would never reach the Tree of Life, “he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” (142)


No.  Brugh-na-Boinne is an Eden such as Yeats has imagined in The Song of Wandering Aengus, very much alive, and welcoming to true lovers and seekers of wisdom alike: 

   

        I will find out where she has gone,

        And kiss her lips and take her hands;

        And walk among long dappled grass,

        And pluck till time and times are done

        The silver apples of the moon,

        The golden apples of the sun. (143)


It is a place that we know, a place like all the others in the world of faerie which are so familiar to us that they feel like home.  This is the world that the poet inhabits always, allowing us to enter but for a time.  Like the Tarot Fool, the poet initiates the journey to an enchanted land where the apple blossoms of the Silver Bough are always in bloom and ancient memories of the Golden Bough are everywhere.  Lest we forget where we are, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, reminds us of the true nature of that other world, and what is needed to gain full entry. “The silver apples of the moon” and “The golden apples of the sun,” it seems, are the actual prices of admission to this realm of splendor and tranquility that some have mistaken for illusion. (144)


Initiates who wished to participate in the most sacred Mysteries of the ancient world, the underworld rites of Persephone, the Greek Queen of Hades whom we have met at the Mysteries of Eleusis, were expected to bring a suckling pig as an offering. (145)  At the rites of her Roman counterpart, Prosperine, the plucking and presentation to the goddess by the initiate of a branch of the Golden Bough was the requirement for entry into Pluto’s Otherworld. (146)  As Evans-Wentz so astutely observes, “it seems to have been the symbolic bond between that world and this, offered as a tribute to Prosperine by all initiates, who made the mystic voyage in full human consciousness.” (147)  He cites one of the most well-known examples in literature of such a journey, that of Aeneas, who, in Virgil’s Aeneid, is commanded by the Sibyl to pluck the sacred bough, which he must carry when he enters the underworld. (148)  It later proves indispensable in lighting his way toward illumination.


That precious bough of gold, as Sir James George Frazer proved in his voluminous study, The Golden Bough, is none other than the mistletoe.  The winter-blooming plant, which has glowing, silvery-white, perfectly round berries that set themselves against a background of small dark evergreen leaves, is a parasite which attaches itself to the oak tree, the two, thereby, “becoming one” with the other. (149)  The famous image of the Druid priests cutting the mistletoe from its parent oak with a golden moon-shaped sickle in a lunar ritual of great pomp and ceremony, which included the sacrifice of two white bulls, is recorded in Pliny the Elder’s First Century C.E. Natural History. (150)


Whereas the sacred oak is identified with the waxing year, which at its moment of full-ness at the Summer Solstice, opens the door to the dying portion of the year, (151) the mistletoe represents “the waning part of the year”. (152)  Thus, “the conjunction of mistletoe and oak refers to the whole course of the sun from its infancy at the winter solstice to its prime at the summer solstice and back.” (153)  From the mistletoe’s as-signed place of December 23rd in the Druid’s alphabetic tree-calendar, (154) which is, not coincidentally, its approximate time of blooming, we can see that this perfect cycle of the sun was deserving of special recognition, for that day is the extra day of the year, a day that is “neither here nor there”. (155)


Aside from these solar considerations, it is more than a little obvious that the mistletoe is inherently lunar, both in its appearance and in its sexual symbolism; the lunar partner to its solar oak.  In fact, the sexual significance of the mistletoe is all that has survived of its meaning through these many centuries.  That is why we find it at Christmastide hanging from the lintels of doorways, where, under its magical luminescent presence, kisses are exchanged, either by choice or by accident. 


As for the magnificent, extravagantly blossoming Silver Bough, its sudden appearance in story is always a clear sign that we are either in, or are about to cross the threshold of, the world of faerie, where it is always and forever springtime.  Evans-Wentz presents adventure after Irish adventure in which the hero who is destined “to enter the Other-world before the appointed hour marked by death,” (156) is given the gift of a “silver branch of the sacred apple-tree bearing blossoms, or fruit,” by the Celtic fairy queen. (157)  Sweet fairy music seems to emanate from the fully-flowering blossoms themselves, lulling its hearers to sleep, (158) or sending them into a swoon to prepare them for what they are about to experience in the Otherworld.  The initiate emerges with a knowledge that can be found nowhere else. 


Crossing the limits of consciousness to enter such paradises of wisdom again and again, making an infinite number of journeys, forever and ever until the world is ended, is exactly what Yeats contemplates in the lines:


        And pluck till time and times are done

        The silver apples of the moon,

        The golden apples of the sun. (159)


The experience of that wondrous other world is accessible, also, through the dream state, that place between worlds from which wisdom and love and poetry arise; that “twilight . . . between the ‘sleeping and the waking mind’, as Yeats has described the place of poetic inspiration.” (160)  Yeats tells us in the first draft of his unexpurgated Autobiography, that when he was not calling upon his symbols to guide the specific energy of a dream, and he wished merely for dreams to come “unsought”, he some-times slept “with a spray of apple blossoms on my pillow”. (161)  The dreams that ensued from the presence of these fragrant boughs were of the “most profound” sort. (162)  


And, although we know that his association of apple blossoms with Maud Gonne was deep and abiding, and perhaps inseparable from her, he does not spread these flowers “under” his pillow to “invoke” her “image”, as one scholar has erroneously fantasized. (163)  Yeats’s language is clear.  When he wished to “send his soul” to Maud Gonne as he lay sleeping, he called upon esoteric symbols, (164) of which he had quite a number at his disposal, for the accomplishment of this task.  He reserves the use of a small branch of the blossoming apple tree for the purpose of gaining entrance into the world of dream in exactly the same way as the profusely flowering bough is employed in the world of myth.


If we were to conjure a vision of the Faerie Queen, or read the rapturous descriptions of her beautiful form and wondrous deeds in the stories of the heroes of Ireland, we would arrive at a very close approximation of Yeats’s own imagery:


        . . . a glimmering girl

        With apple blossom in her hair

        Who called me by my name and ran

        And faded through the brightening air. (165)


Yeats’s memory of Maud Gonne on the first day of their meeting could have been taken right out of the pages of these stories.  We must repeat his words again: “Her complex-ion was luminous, like that of apple blossoms through which the light falls, and I remember her standing that first day by a great heap of such blossoms in the window.”

(166)  Is this not Maud Gonne as the Faerie Queen herself?  Who would not wish to “find out where she has gone, /And kiss her lips and take her hands; / And walk . . .” (167) through paradise with her?  It is no small wonder that he held out such hope of winning her over.  But she was but a mirage, a mere reflection of his soul, and thus, his longed for nirvana was not to be.  He was fated to trod another path to the Otherworld, entering its splendid passageways with heady apple blossoms of his own making. 


We are afforded the rare opportunity to enter the interior of such magnificent Other-world surroundings as they are envisioned by Yeats’s dear friend and fellow traveler, the “Irish mystic . . . and seer,” (168) George W. Russell, or “AE”, as he was known to all.  AE shared Yeats’s fascination with Aengus, and in 1897, the same year that The Song of Wandering Aengus first appeared in print, (169)  AE wrote his own version of A Dream of Angus Oge.  When W. Y. Evans-Wentz’s exhaustive study of The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries was published in 1911, an excerpt from A Dream of Angus Oge served as the headliner for the section of the book devoted to “The Cult of Gods, Spirits, Fairies, and the Dead”. (170)  The book is dedicated to two men: A. E., and William Butler Yeats. 


A Dream of Angus Oge is a mind-blowing psychedelic discourse narrated by Aengus himself, who takes us on a guided tour through his 225 foot in diameter (171) palace at Brugh-na-Boinne, leading us into the cave, and then directly into the innermost sanc-tum sanctorum itself, all the while telling us in the great “I Am” style of elocution, exactly who he is. (172)  In the ethereal atmosphere that AE has created, there is a tre-mendous sense of deja vu for anyone who has experienced an initiation by means of a near-death event.  During such life-altering states, a brilliant soft light is seen at the distant opening of a cylindrical passageway, where sometimes there stands a beautiful figure whose melodious and seductive voice is “for ever calling to come away.” (173)  Again, we hear the echo of Aengus’s voice calling to Caer who is caught between two worlds on the lake of swans.  And we hear her answer, “I will come.”  


A DREAM OF ANGUS OGE

by AE

(EXCERPT)


As he spoke, he paused before a great mound grown over with trees, and around it silver clear in the moonlight were immense stones piled, the remains of an original circle, and there was a dark, low, narrow entrance leading therein.  “This was my palace.  In days past many a one plucked here the purple flower of magic and the fruit of the tree of life . . .”  And even as he spoke, a light began to glow and to pervade the cave, and to obliterate the stone walls and the antique hieroglyphics thereon, and to melt the earthen floor into itself like a fiery sun suddenly uprisen within the world, and there was everywhere a wandering ecstasy of sound; light and sound were one; light had a voice, and the music hung glittering in the air . . .  “I am Aengus; men call me the Young.  I am the sunlight in the heart, the moonlight in the mind; I am the light at the end of every dream, the voice for ever calling to come away; I am desire beyond joy or tears.  Come with me, come with me: I will make you immortal; for my palace opens into the Gardens of the Sun, and there are the fire-fountains which quench the heart’s desire in rapture.” (174)

NOTES:

THE MYTHIC GROUND

OF THE LONGING FOR WISDOM AND LOVE

IN WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS’S

THE SONG OF WANDERING AENGUS


NOTE: THE IMAGE OF THE ENTRANCE TO THE GREAT CAIRN OF NEW GRANGE ON THE BOINNE WAS PHOTOGRAPHED SOMETIME BEFORE 1905, AT ABOUT THE TIME THAT AE WOULD HAVE SEEN IT.


IT WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN CHARLES SQUIRE’S THE MYTHOLOGY OF THE BRITISH ISLES, 1905, REPUBLISHED AS CELTIC MYTH AND LEGEND POETRY AND ROMANCE, 1975.  AN ANONYMOUS CONTRIBUTOR TO WIKI COMMONS HAS VERY SKILLFULLY ENHANCED THE IMAGE THAT WE PUBLISH HERE, WITH THANKS.

W. B. YEATS  ca. 1902

  1. 1.William Butler Yeats, The Song of Wandering Aengus from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899. Public Domain.

  2. 2.See: Herbert J. Levine, “Freeing the Swans: Yeats’s Exorcism of Maud Gonne” in ELH, Vol. 48, pp. 411-426. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

3. I cannot locate the source of this quotation, but Kathleen Raine did say it. If anyone finds it, please let me know.

  1. 4.C. G. Jung, "A Psychological Approach to the Trinity", in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Volume 11 of the Collected Works. R. F. C. Hull, Trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XX, 2nd Ed., 1969), CW Vol. 11, Para. 197, p. 131; See: Tracy Boyd, “Wind Over Water: The Breath of Creation” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

5. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats. Peter Alt and Russell K. Alspach, Editors. (New York: Macmillan Co., Inc., Sixth Printing, 1973), W. B. Yeats’s Notes on A Cradle Song [retitled The Unappeasable Host], p. 806.

6. W. B. Yeats, ‘A Note On “The Hosting of the Sidhe”,’ from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), in W. B. Yeats, Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth. Robert Welch, Editor. (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1993), p. 208.

7. Ibid.

8. William Butler Yeats, The Song of Wandering Aengus, from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899. Public Domain.

9. Ibid.

10. A Prayer For My Daughter, in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Richard J. Finneran, Editor. (New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, Revised Second Edition, 1996), p. 188.  This poem, which is dated “June 1919”, originally appeared in Yeats’s volume, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921.

11. William Butler Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil. Book I, Four Years: 1887-1891, in The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats: Consisting of Reveries over Childhood and Youth, The Trembling of the Veil, and Dramatis Personae. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., 1965), p. 82.

12. Ibid. pp. 101-02.

13. See: Ibid., p. 101.

14. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Notes on The Song of Wandering Aengus, p. 806.

15. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Notes on The Wind Among the Reeds, p. 800.

16. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker”, V. 192-96.

17. For in-depth discussions on the wand, See: Tracy Boyd, “Circe’s Circle of Oaks at the Edge of the World” at <www.sacredthreads.net> and Tracy Boyd, “Teiresias, The Androgynous Seer: A Question of Balance” under the heading: “The Hermetic Solution of the Serpent-Twined Caduceus” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

18. Kathleen Raine, Yeats the Initiate: Essays On Certain Themes in the Work of W. B. Yeats. (Savage, MD: Barnes & Noble Books, 1990), p. 197 photos.  See the chapter, ”Yeats, The Tarot and the Golden Dawn”, pp. 177-246 for a full appraisal of Yeats’s involvement with the Tarot.  This chapter was originally published in Dublin by Dolmen Press, 1972, Revised 1976.

19. Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974; 7th Printing of Amended and Enlarged Edition of 1966), pp. 181-82. See also: Tracy Boyd, “The Tarot Fool’s Hand” under the heading “The Irish Tree Alphabet-Calendar According to Robert Graves” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

20. For a discussion on the importance of the number nine in the Celtic fire festivals at the turnings of the year, see: Tracy Boyd, “The Daunce of Nine-Men’s Morris and the Boundaries Between Worlds” under the heading “Fire Rites” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

21. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Note after title of: He thinks of his Past Greatness when a Part of the Constellation of Heaven, p. 177.

22. Nora K. Chadwick, Imbas Forosnai, in Scottish Gaelic Studies, Vol. 4, Part 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935). Most of Chadwick’s brilliant writings on this and other sacred subjects, have been long out-of-print, and are nigh impossible to access.  Those of us who cherish the ancient wisdom are indebted to Molly Kathryn Mc Ginn (formerly Ni Dana), who has transcribed Imbas Forosnai in its entirety and reprinted it on the web at <www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/4715/>

23. Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, Inc., First Printing, June 1966, First published in this form by Oxford University, 1911), p. 341, Note 1. Cormac’s Adventure in the Land of Promise, and the story of Connla’s Well are two such examples, pp. 338-343.

24. Jeremiah Curtain, Myths and Folk Tales of Ireland. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975, unabridged republication of Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), p. 135, note 1.

25. Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, op. cit., p. 182.

26. Charles Squire, Celtic Myth and Legend Poetry and Romance. (USA: Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975. First published as The Mythology of the British Isles, 1905), p. 211.

27. John Matthews, Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman. (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991, 2002) , p. 31.

28. Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, op. cit., p. 75.

29. John Matthews, Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman, op. cit., p. 4.

30. Joseph Campbell & Henry Morton Robinson, A Skeleton Key To Finnegans Wake. (New York: The Viking Press, 1944; Viking Compass Edition, 1961, 6th Printing, 1968), p. 4.

31. See below under the heading: “The Waters of the Left-hand Path”.

32. Charles Squire, Celtic Myth and Legend Poetry and Romance, op. cit., p. 55.  The author notes that the ancient sacred well is “now called Trinity Well.” , p. 55, note 2.

33. Lewis Spence, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999 unabridged republication of 1945 edition), p. 64.

34. Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1961), p. 250.

35. Lewis Spence, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, op. cit., p. 64.

36. For an in-depth discussion of Finn mac Cumhail and the intertwined connections between the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’, the ‘Hazel of Wisdom’, and the ‘Thumb of Knowledge’, see: Tracy Boyd, “Titania, the Queen of Faerie, and the Druid Tom Thumbe” under the heading: “ ‘The Salmon of Knowledge’, the ‘Hazel of Wisdom’, and the ‘Thumb of Knowledge’ ” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

37. James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), “Fintan”, p. 203.

38. J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978), “Trout”, p. 182.

39. See: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon> and <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trout>

40. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trout>

41. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Notes on The Song of Wandering Aengus, p. 806.

42. Ibid.

43. John Matthews, Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman, op. cit., p. 51; and pp. 51-53 passim.

44. Lewis Spence, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, op. cit., p. 16.

45. The Song of Amergin, in Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, op. cit., pp. 207-08. See also: Charles Squire, Celtic Myth and Legend Poetry and Romance, op. cit., pp. 119-131 for an in-depth discussion of Amergin and the touching story of the defeat of the fairy race by mortals. The author notes that Amergin’s incantations, of which there are a number, “are said to be the oldest Irish literary records.” They are “preserved in both the Book of Lecan and the Book of Ballymote.” (Ibid., p. 123, and Note 1) For an in-depth discussion of this “hymn” as a composition originally composed in the Ogham language, see: R. A. Stewart Macalister, The Secret Languages of Ireland. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), pp. 30-32.  Macalister gives the “head afire” line as: “I am the god who formeth fire for a head”, and notes that this “= giver of inspiration.” (p.31.) His entire chapter on Ogham has been reprinted in John Matthews, The Celtic Seer’s Sourcebook: Vision and Magic in the Druid Tradition. (London: Blandford, 1999), pp. 198-220.

46. See: Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., pp. 96-97.

47. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Note after title of: He thinks of his Past Greatness when a Part of the Constellation of Heaven, p. 177.

48. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s, He thinks of his Past Greatness when a Part of the Constellation of Heaven, p. 177.  This poem, here printed in its entirety, is in the Public Domain.

49. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Notes on He mourns for the Change that has come upon Him and his Beloved, and longs for the End of the World, p. 807.

50. Jeffrey Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas. (New York: Dorset Press,1985), pp. 108-112.

51. Ibid., p. 108.

52. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Notes on He mourns for the Change that has come upon Him and his Beloved, and longs for the End of the World, p. 807. Italics, mine.

53. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s, He mourns for the Change that has come upon Him and his Beloved, and longs for the End of the World, lines 6-7, p. 153.

54. Susan Johnston Graf, W. B. Yeats-Twentieth Century Magus. (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 2000), p. 40, quoting Lucy Shepard Kalogera, “Yeats’s Celtic Mysteries”, Dissertation, Florida State University, 1977, p. 115.

55. Ibid., p. 41, quoting Kalogera, p. 248.

56. Susan Johnston Graf, W. B. Yeats-Twentieth Century Magus, op. cit., p. 41.

57. Ibid.

58. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Baile and Aillinn “Argument”, p. 188.

59. Ibid., Baile and Aillinn “Text”, p. 188.

60. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aengus>

61. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1996; Originally published in 1967), p. 305.

62. Ibid.

63. Jeffrey Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, op. cit., p. 109.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Thanks to Scholars and Students of Old Irish at <https://listserv.heanet.ie/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0101&L=old-irish-I&P=5751> for this translation of Loch Bel Dracon, which, they add, is in Tipperary County.

67. Jeffrey Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, op. cit., p. 110.

68. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, op. cit., p. 305.

69. Jeffrey Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, op. cit., p. 111.

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid.

74. Ibid., pp. 111-112.

75. Ibid., p. 112.

76. Ibid.

77. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, op. cit., p. 307.

78. We have relied upon many different renderings into English of this tale to arrive at our sense of it, quoting directly where noted.  The most beautiful of these is that of Yeats’s dear friend, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory’s 1902 version of The Dream of Angus Og, from Cuchulain of Muirthemne: The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster, reprinted in A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore. Claire Booss, Editor. (New York: Gramercy Books, 1986), pp. 487-491; Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, op. cit., pp. 305-06, especially for her erudite views on the archaeological parallels to Irish texts; Jeffrey Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, op. cit., pp. 108-112; and Caitlin Matthews, The Dream of Oengus, in John and Caitlin Matthews, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Legend: A Definitive Sourcebook of Magic, Vision, and Lore. (Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2004), pp. 189-194.

79. Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., p. 289.  I was puzzled for many years as to why my good Irish friend, Henry Donnelly, would not join in on the fun of cheering on the Halloween parade held in Nyack, New York that we attended with his wife, June, and other friends every year.  So one year, about 1990, I think, I half-jokingly asked him if he was afraid that the fairy-women would take him, and he said, “Aye. You bet.” He was dead serious.

80. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, op. cit., pp. 302-03.

81. Ibid., pp. 304-05.

82. Ibid., p. 305.

83. Ibid., Illus. 150, p. 304.

84. Ibid., p. 303.

85. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. Two Volumes. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc, 1960), Vol. I, p. 126.

86. See: Tracy Boyd, “The Queen of Fortune” at <www.sacredthreads.net> See also: Buffie Johnson, Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her Sacred Animals. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), Aphrodite Illus. 91, p. 78; Venus illus. 97, p. 64.

87. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, op. cit., p. 306.

88. For an in-depth discussion of the mythology of the swan, see: Tracy Boyd, “The Queen of Fortune” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

89. James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, op. cit., “Samain”, p. 333.

90. Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., pp. 90-91.

91. See: Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, Gods and Heroes of the Celts. Myles Dillon, Trans. (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1982), pp. 55-56.

92. James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, op. cit., “Samain”, p. 333.

93. Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., p. 216.

94. Miranda J. Green, Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1992), “Oenghus”, p. 164.

95. Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., p. 216.

96. <www.knowth.com/newgrange.htm>

97. See: Martin Brennan, The Stones of Time: Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1994), p. 72.

98. Martin Brennan, The Stars and the Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983), p. 190.

99. See: Barbara G. Walker, “widdershins”, in The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983), p. 1076.

100. See: Tracy Boyd, “The Tarot Fool’s Hand” under the heading “The Fool’s Dance” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

101. <www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Widdershins>

102. William Butler Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole. Title poem of The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919.

103. William Butler Yeats, Autobiography, in Memoirs: The Original, Previously Unpublished Text of the Memoirs and the Journal. Transcribed and Edited by Denis Donoghue. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., First American Edition, 4th Printing, 1977), p. 125.

104. See, for example, the 15th century Visconti-Sforza deck.

105. W. B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004. An unabridged republication of the work originally published in 1902 by A. H. Bullen, London), p. 98.

106. Kathleen Raine, Yeats the Initiate: Essays On Certain Themes in the Work of W. B. Yeats, op. cit., p. 203. See the chapter, ”Yeats, The Tarot and the Golden Dawn”, pp. 177-246 for a full appraisal of his involvement with the Tarot.

107. See: Jean Markale, The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. Trans., Jon Graham. (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 2001), pp. 73-74.

108. Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., p. 88.

109. Ibid.  For a very lucid explanation of the Celtic division of time into halves of dark and light, see pp. 83-89.

110. For an excellent recitation of the various occupants and/or changes of name, see: James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, op. cit., “Elcmar”, p. 157.

111. Martin Brennan, The Stones of Time: Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland, op. cit., p. 10.

112. James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, op. cit., “Elcmar”, p. 157.

113. Edward Gwynn, Metrical Dindshenchas, “Boand I”, Vol. 3., 1925, unpaginated, at <www.shee-eire.com>

114. Ibid.

115. Ibid.

116. Ibid.

117. James MacKillop notes that although Nechtan’s Latin name is ‘Neptune’, Nechtan’s name is now thought to be “a pseudonym for Nuada Airgetlam”, (James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, op. cit., “Nechtan 1.”, p. 302.) a very ancient king of the Tuatha De Danaan who was responsible for bringing the faerie people into Ireland. “In earliest Irish tradition Nuada is associated with the Boyne as the consort of the river’s eponym Boand under his pseudonym Nechtan; under yet another pseudonym, Elcmar, he has an affair with her.” (Ibid., “Nuada Airgetlam”, p. 307.)  Other versions claim Connla’s Well as the site of her “offense”, but, no matter, the story is the same. See: Ibid., “Connla’s Well”, p. 91; “Boand”, p. 40.

118. Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscapes. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 66; and “Springs, Wells and Places of Healing”, pp. 63-78 passim.

119. Edward Gwynn, Metrical Dindshenchas, “Boand I”, op. cit., unpaginated, at <www.shee-eire.com>

120. Tracy Boyd, “Teiresias, The Androgynous Seer: A Question of Balance” under the heading “Amazing Grace” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

121. Edward Gwynn, Metrical Dindshenchas, “Boand I”, op. cit., unpaginated, at <www.shee-eire.com>

122. Bridget Haggerty, “The Holy Wells of Ireland” at <www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ALandmks/HolyWells.html>

123. Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscapes, op. cit., p. 69.

124. Edward Gwynn, Metrical Dindshenchas, “Boand I”, op. cit., unpaginated, at <www.shee-eire.com>

125. Ibid.

126. Bridget Haggerty, “The Holy Wells of Ireland” at <www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ALandmks/HolyWells.html>. The strict ban against the counter-circumambulation of a church became so ingrained that it was memorialized in the famous English tale The Ballad of Childe Rowland, where we are warned that such behavior would surely land you in the dark world of faerie. See: <Childe Rowland - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia>; and “Childe Rowland” in English Fairy Tales. Collected by Joseph Jacobs. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967 unabridged and unaltered republication of the Third Edition, as published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons and David Nutt in 1898), pp.117-24, and Notes and References XXI, pp. 244-251.

127. Edward Gwynn, Metrical Dindshenchas, “Boand I”, op. cit., unpaginated, at <www.shee-eire.com>

128. Lewis Spence, The Encyclopedia of the Occult. (London: Bracken Books, 1994), “Celts”, p. 97.

129. For an in-depth discussion of this subject, and the results of such curses, see: Tracy Boyd, “Titania, the Queen of Faerie, and the Druid Tom Thumbe” under the heading: “Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum . . .” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

130. Edward Gwynn, Metrical Dindshenchas, “Boand I”, op. cit., unpaginated, at <www.shee-eire.com>

131. Ibid.

132. Ibid.

133. First line from The Song of Amergin, in Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, op. cit., p. 207.

134. Line from George Russell (AE), A Dream of Angus Oge, 1897. published in Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., p. 397.

135. Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, op. cit., p. 88.

136. Line from George Russell (AE), A Dream of Angus Oge, op. cit., p. 397.

137. Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., pp. 292-93.

138. Genesis 2:9. King James Version.

139. Ibid.

140. Genesis 2:17; 3:3. King James Version.

141. Genesis 3:22. King James Version.

142. Genesis 3:24. King James Version.

143. From: William Butler Yeats, The Song of Wandering Aengus from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899. Public Domain.

144. See: Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., pp. 336-377  passim.

145. See: Tracy Boyd, “I Am Baubo, The Acorn Fool” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

146. Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., p. 337.

147. Ibid., p. 336.

148. Ibid., p. 337.

149. Gertrude Jobes, Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols. Two Volumes. (New York: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1962), “mistletoe”, Part 2, p. 1111.

150. Pliny, Naturalis Historiae, XVI, 95.

151. See: Tracy Boyd, “Titania, the Queen of Faerie, and the Druid Tom Thumbe” under the heading “The Thumb in the Pudding” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

152. Gertrude Jobes, Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols, op. cit., “mistletoe”, Part 2, p. 1111.

153. Ibid.

154. Ibid., “alphabet, Druidic”, Part 1, p. 75.

155. See: Tracy Boyd, “The Tarot Fool’s Hand” under the heading: “To Every Thing There Is A Season” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

156. Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., p. 336, and pp. 336-351 passim.

157. Ibid.

158. Ibid.  See especially, “The Voyage of Bran, Son Of Febal”, pp. 338-40, and “Cormac’s Adventure in the Land of Promise”, pp. 340-43.

159. From: William Butler Yeats, The Song of Wandering Aengus from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899. Public Domain.

160. Kathleen Raine, W. B. Yeats and the Learning of the Imagination. (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2001), p. 109.

161. William Butler Yeats, Autobiography – First Draft, in Memoirs: The Original, Previously Unpublished Text of the Memoirs and the Journal, op. cit., p. 128.

162. Ibid.

163. See: Herbert J. Levine, “Freeing the Swans: Yeats’s Exorcism of Maud Gonne”, op. cit., p. 425, Footnote 7.

164. William Butler Yeats, Autobiography – First Draft, in Memoirs: The Original, Previously Unpublished Text of the Memoirs and the Journal, op. cit., p. 128.

165. From: William Butler Yeats, The Song of Wandering Aengus from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899. Public Domain.

166. William Butler Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil. Book I, Four Years: 1887-1891, in The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats: Consisting of Reveries over Childhood and Youth, The Trembling of the Veil, and Dramatis Personae, op. cit., p. 82.

167. From: William Butler Yeats, The Song of Wandering Aengus from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899. Public Domain.

168. Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., p. 59.  The author interviews AE and publishes his testimony, which provides further evidence of fairy-belief, but does not reveal his name. AE’s entire testimony appears on pp. 59-66.

169. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of William Butler Yeats, op. cit., W. B. Yeats’s Notes for The Song of Wandering Aengus, Printings, p. 149.

170. Excerpt from: George Russell (AE), A Dream of Angus Oge, 1897, in Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., p. 397.

171. Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., p. 409, quot. G. Coffey, in Rl. Ir. Acad. Trans., Dublin, 1892, xxx, 68.

172. For an in-depth discussion of the cult of Aengus, the Tuatha da Danaan, and the mystic rites of Newgrange, see: Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., pp. 409-417 passim.  For a discussion of the “I Am” style, see: Tracy Boyd, “Who Am I (Notes to Myself)” at <www.sacredthreads.net>

173. This line is spoken by Aengus and quoted below in George Russell (AE), A Dream of Angus Oge.  A perfect depiction of this near-death state is captured by Hieronymous Bosch in his Vision of the Afterlife: Ascension to Empyrean. (Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

174. Excerpt from: George Russell (AE), A Dream of Angus Oge, 1897, in Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, op. cit., p. 397.


ENTRANCE TO THE GREAT CAIRN OF NEW GRANGE ON THE BOINNE.