Friday 1 December 2023

The Poem of Finn mac Cumhaill


This wonderful poem attributed to Finn was translated by Lady Augusta Gregory in Gods and Fighting Men (John Murray, 1904), and is part of the medieval tradition of poetry in praise of spring and summer (in comparison to the harshness of winter). As to the age of the poem, the Fenian Cycle which relates the deeds of Finn mac Cumhaill dates in written form to the 8th century. The poem follows a brief account of how Finn received his poetic powers (by accident). 

The prophetic, wisdom-giving water of the well of the moon, guarded by three women of the supernatural Tuatha de Danaan, reminds me of the well or spring of the dwarf Mimir in Norse mythology, from which Odin drank to obtain wisdom and understanding, giving one of his eyes for the privilege; also to the spring of Urđr (fate), guarded by the Norns, three maidens whose daily task was to water Yggdrasil the World-Tree with its pure waters. The accidental splash that gets into young Finn’s mouth comes in addition to a previous adventure when, roasting the Salmon of Knowledge for the poet Finegas, he burns his thumb while ‘putting down a blister that rose on the skin’, and sucks the burn to cool it: ‘from that time Finn had the knowledge that came from the nuts of the nine hazels of wisdom that grow beside the well that is below the sea.’ A similar story is told in the Mabinogion about the Welsh bard Taliesin.

Whoever wrote the poem clearly knew and loved landscape and nature. We’re there with him (or her), hearing the rustling of the rushes and the song of the cuckoo, the murmur of the sad restless sea: a paean of joy to ‘May without fault, of beautiful colours.’


There was a well of the moon belonging to Beag, son of Buan, of the Tuatha de Danaan, and whoever would drink out of it would get wisdom, and after a second drink he would get the gift of foretelling. And the three daughters of Beag, son of Buan, had charge of the well, and they would not part with a vessel of it for anything less than red gold. And one day Finn chanced to be hunting in the rushes near the well, and the three women ran to hinder him from coming to it, and one of them, that had a vessel of the water in her hand, threw it at him to stop him, and a share of the water went into his mouth. And from that out he had all the knowledge that the water of that well could give.

          And he learned the three ways of poetry; and this is the poem he made to show he had got his learning well:–


“It is the month of May is the pleasant time; its face is beautiful; the blackbird sings his full song, the living wood is his holding, the cuckoos are singing and ever singing; there is a welcome before the brightness of the summer.

          “Summer is lessening the rivers, the swift horses are looking for the pool; the heath spreads out its long hair, the weak white bog-down grows. A wildness comes on the heart of the deer; the sad restless sea is asleep.

          “Bees with their little strength carry a load reaped from the flowers; the cattle go up muddy to the mountains; the ant has a good full feast.

          “The harp of the woods is playing music; there is colour on the hills and a haze on the full lakes, and entire peace upon every sail.

          “The corncrake is speaking, a loud-voiced poet; the high lonely waterfall is singing a welcome to the warm pool, the talking of the rushes has begun.

          “The light swallows are darting; the loudness of music is around the hill; the fat soft mast is budding; there is grass on the trembling bogs.

          “The bog is as dark as the feathers of the raven; the cuckoo makes a loud welcome; the speckled salmon is leaping; as strong is the leaping of the swift fighting man.

          “The man is gaining; the girl is in her comely growing power; every wood is without fault from the top to the ground, and every wide good plain.

          “A flock of birds pitches in the meadow; there are sounds in the green fields, there is in them a clear rushing stream.

          “There is a hot desire on you for the racing of horses; twisted holly makes a leash for the hound; a bright spear has been shot into the earth, and flag-flower is golden under it.

          “A weak little lasting bird is singing at the top of his voice; the lark is singing clear tidings; May without fault, of beautiful colours. 

“I have another story for you; the ox is lowing, the winter is creeping in, the summer is gone. High and cold the wind, low the sun, cries are about it; the sea is quarrelling.

          “The ferns are reddened and their shape is hidden; the cry of the wild goose is heard; the cold has caught the wings of the birds; it is the time of ice-frost, hard, unhappy.”


Picture credit:

Horseman: detail from the Book of Kells, circa 800 AD: Trinity College Library MS A. I 58. (Wikimedia Commons)


Saturday 18 November 2023

'The Tale of the Three Weird Sisters: Lost Fairy Tales' for the Folklore Podcast


This is just to give notice that a week today, on Saturday 25th November at 8pm GMT, I'll be giving an online lecture for the wonderful Folklore Podcast about my search for 'Lost Fairy Tales of 16th & 17th Century England and Scotland'. I'll be talking about fairy tales of which we know nothing but the names, others which have survived by the skin of their teeth, and some which can be inferred from references in poems and plays. It's been a lot of fun to research!

Here's the link to all the lectures: if you'd like to find mine, just scroll down.

Thursday 16 November 2023

Spells of Sleep, Enchanted Apple Boughs


Following my series of posts on 'Enchanted Sleep and Sleepers' (see links: #1, #2 and #3), here is a sort of appendix: three tales from Irish mythology. The Fenian Cycle tells how Finn son of Cumhail once tried to wed a woman of the Sidhe. He was hunting on the mountain Bearnas Mor with his companions of the Fianna, when a great wild pig turned on their hounds and killed most of them. Then Finn’s hound Bran got a grip on it. It began to scream, and at the noise a tall man came out of the hill. He asked Finn to let the pig go. Finn agreed, and the man led them into the hill of the Sidhe and struck the pig with his Druid rod. At once, it changed into a beautiful young woman whom he called Scathach, the Shadowy One. Whether this is the same Scathach who in the Ulster Cycle teaches warrior-craft to Cuchulain on the Isle of Skye, I do not know. Maybe! The extracts that follow are from Lady Augusta Gregory’s translations in Gods and Fighting Men, 1904.)

And the tall man made a great feast for the Fianna, and then Finn asked the young girl in marriage, and the tall man, her father, said he would give her to him that very night.

            But when night came on, Scathach asked for a harp to be brought to her. One string it had of iron, and one of bronze, and one of silver. And when the iron string would be played, it would set all the hosts of the world crying and ever crying; and when the bright bronze string would be played, it would set them all laughing from the one day to the same hour on the morrow; and when the silver string would be played, all the men of the whole world would fall into a long sleep.

            And it is the sleepy silver string the Shadowy One played upon, till Finn and Bran and all his people were in their heavy sleep.

            And when they awoke at the rising of the sun on the morrow, it is outside on the mountain of Bearnas they were, where they first saw the wild pig. 

In another legend, Bran son of Febal also falls asleep to Otherworldly music: 

One day, in the neighbourhood of his stronghold, Bran went about alone, when he heard music behind him. As often as he looked back, ‘twas still behind him the music was. At last he fell asleep at the music, such was its sweetness. When he awoke from his sleep, he saw close by him a branch of silver with white blossoms, nor was it easy to distinguish the bloom from that branch. 

Bran takes the branch into his royal hall, where a strange woman appears and sings: 

A branch of the apple-tree from Emain

I bring, like those one knows:

Twigs of white silver are on it,

Crystal brows with blossoms. 

After many verses praising the beauty of her home, Emain, the Land of Women, she takes the branch from Bran and vanishes, commanding him to follow her across the sea. Bran sets out with three coracles of nine men each. On the voyage they meet the sea-god Manannan mac Lir driving his chariot over the waves; the god explains that what to Bran and his men seems to be the wild ocean, for him is a fresh plain full of flowers. Arriving at the Land of Women, Bran and his men each take a lover and stay for what feels to be only a year, until his comrade Nechtán mac Colbrain begins to long for Ireland. The woman of the silver branch allows Bran to leave with his companions, but warns them not to set foot on Ireland’s shore. On nearing land, Bran calls out his name to the folk on shore – to discover that centuries have passed and he is now a figure of legend. Nechtán leaps from the boat and crumbles into ashes, and after recounting his story from the boat, Bran sails away, never to be seen again. 

A visitation similar to this Otherworld woman with her sleep-bringing silver branch comes to Cormac, grandson of Conn, King of Teamhair: 

And this is the way it happened. He was by himself in Teamhair one time, and he saw an armed man coming towards him, quiet, with high looks, and having grey hair; a shirt ribbed with gold thread next his skin, broad shoes of white bronze between his feet and the ground, a shining branch having nine apples of red gold on his shoulder. And it is delightful the sound of that branch was, and no one on earth would keep in mind any want or trouble or tiredness when that branch was shaken for him, and whatever trouble there might be on him, he would forget it. 

A complicated story follows. The stranger – who in fact is Manannan mac Lir – gives the branch to Cormac on the condition that he shall receive three gifts in return, whenever he shall ask for them. Perhaps foolishly Cormac agrees to this carte blanche and accepts the branch. 

He went back then into the royal house, and there was wonder on all the people when they saw the branch. And he shook it at them, and it put them all to sleep from that day to the same time on the morrow. 

Wondrous though it is, this sounds most inconvenient... Then things get trickier. The stranger asks first for Cormac’s daughter, then his son, and spirits them both away. Everyone grieves, but when Cormac shakes the branch they forget all their sorrow. For the third gift, the stranger Cormac for his wife. This is granted, but then Cormac sets out to find and rescue his family. He enters a land where Riders of the Sidhe are thatching a hall with the white wings of birds. After more wonders, he comes to a great king’s house and is welcomed as a guest by a tall man and lovely woman. The man is Manannan himself, who after showing him many marvels, sings him to sleep. When Cormac wakes his wife and children are standing before him: and because Cormac kept his word, Manannan swears friendship with him and gives him a magical gold cup which can judge between truth and lies. Next day, Cormac wakes in his own house, his family restored. 

There is no real lapse of time in Cormac’s tale or in Finn’s. An enchanted sleep of a night or twenty-four hours can hardly compare with the lost centuries experienced by characters like King Herla, Rip van Winkle or the Sleeping Beauty. Nevertheless, all three of these tales involve a visit to the Otherworld: the under-hill dwelling of the Sidhe in the adventure of Finn, reminiscent of the caves visited by many characters in my first two posts; and the Land of Women and the Land of Promise - alternative names for the same Otherworld island, the home of Manannan mac Lir. In each tale the heroes cross a boundary between this world and another: they go under the earth or pass over water. In all three tales, a musical instrument figures: the three-stringed harp played by Scathach, the branch of silver apple-blossom which enchants Bran and the branch of golden apples which Cormac desires. These produce enchanting music which sends the hearers into a deep sleep. And the fact that the magical branches are apple-branches is suggestive. 

Miranda Aldhouse-Green, commenting on the story of Bran in her 2015 book The Celtic Myths, says of the Land of Women: 

This Otherworld was the Land of Forever Young (Tir na n’Og) but the enchantment ceased to work if humans returned to their own world of time. The name Avalon, the legendary island burial-place of King Arthur, means ‘Apple-Tree Island’. According to medieval French Arthurian romances, such as the story of the Holy Grail, Avalon was situated at Glastonbury, an ‘island’ in the middle of the marshy, low-lying and apple-rich Somerset Levels. 

Another name for Manannan’s Otherworld island is ‘Emain Ablach’ or ‘Emain of the Apples’, and according to James Mackillup’s wonderful Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (1998), ‘Emain Ablach appears to be one of several Celtic contributions to the Arthurian concept of Avalon’. The apple, he says, was ‘celebrated in numerous functions in Celtic mythology, legend and folklore; it is an emblem of fruitfulness and sometimes a means to immortality.’ I suspect that this immortality is equivalent to death: those given it possess it only for so long as they remain in the Otherworld. To make the return journey, to set foot on mortal soil – is to re-enter time and crumble into dust. 

There is doubtless much more to be said about the enchantments that cause sleep in folklore and fairy tales (think of the Hand of Glory!), but I will revisit the theme another time. 

Picture credits:

The Voyage of Bran: Bran meets Manannan mac Lir.  Tapestry by Terry the Weaver, 1996

Tuesday 31 October 2023

THE SEAL-MAN by John Masefield


This tale comes from John Masefield’s collection of sea stories A Mainsail Haul’, first published in 1905 when the author was only 26. It's beautiful, although like most tales about selkies it is quite dark and sad. ['Loanings' means 'lanes'.]


‘The seals is pretty when they do be playing,’ said the old woman. ‘Ah, I seen them frisking their tails till you’d think it was rocks with the sea beating on them, the time the storm’s on. I seen the merrows of the sea sitting yonder on the dark stone, and they had crowns on them, and they were laughing. The merrows are not good; it’s not good to see too many of them. They are beautiful like young men in their shirts playing hurley. They’re as beautiful as anything you would be seeing in Amerikey or Australeyey, or any place. The seals is beautiful too, going through the water in the young of the day; but they’re not so beautiful as them. The seals are no good either. It’s a great curse keeps them the way they are, not able to live either in the sea or on the land.

          ‘One time there was a man of the O’Donnells came here, and he was a bad man. A saint in Heaven would have been bothered to find good in him. He died of the fever that came before the Famine. I was a girl then; and if you’d seen the people in them times; there wasn’t enough to bury them. The pigs used to eat them in the loanings. And their mouths would be all green where they’d eaten grass from want of food. If you’d seen the houses there was then, indeed, you’d think the place bewitched. But the cabins is all fell in, like wonder, and there’s no dancing or fiddling, or anything at all, and all of my friends is gone to Amerikey or Australeyey; I’ve no one at all to bury me...

          ‘This O’Donnell I was telling you. My father was at his wake. And they’d the candles lit, and they were drinking putcheen. My father was nearest the door, and a fear took him, and he got up with his glass in his hand, and he cried out, ‘There’s something here is not good.’ And another of them said, ‘There’s something wants to get out.’ And another said, ‘It’s himself wants to go out into the dark night.’ So my father flung the door open; and, outside, the moon shone down to the sea. And the corpse of the O’Donnell was all blue, and it got up with the sheet knotted on it, and walked out without leaving a track. So they followed it, saying their prayers to Almighty God, and it walked down to the sea. And when it came to the edge of the sea, the sea was like a flame before it. And it bowed there, three times; and each time it rose up it screamed. And all the seals, and all the merrows, and all them that’s under the tides, they came up to welcome it. They called out to the corpse and laughed, and the corpse laughed back, and fell on to the sand. My father and the other men saw the wraith pass from it, into the water, as it fell. It was like a little boy, laughing, with great long arms on him. It was all black, and its hands moved like he was tickling something.

          ‘And after that the priest had him buried, like they buried the Old Ones; but the wraith passed into a bull seal. You would be feared to see the like of the bull seal. There was a man of the O’Kanes fired a blessed shilling at him, and the seal roared up at him and tore his arms across. There was marks like black stars on him after till he died. And the bull seal walked like a man at the change of the moon, like a big, tall, handsome man stepping the roads. You’d be feared, sir, if you saw the like. He set his eyes on young Norah O’Hara. Lovely she was. Wasn’t it a great curse he should take her when there was old hags the like of Mary that has no more beauty than a done-out old gather-up of a duck that a hungry dog would blush to be biting? Still, he took Norah.

          ‘She had a little son, and the little son was a sea-man; the priest wouldn’t sign him with the cross. When Norah died he used always to be going to the sea, he would always be swimming. He’d little soft brown hair, like a seal’s, the prettiest you would be seeing. He used to talk to the seals. My father was coming home one night from Carnmore, and he saw the little seal-man in the sea; and seals were playing with him, singing songs. But my father was feared to hear; he ran away. They stoned the seal-man, whiles, after that; but whiles they didn’t stone it. They had a kindness for it, although it had no holy water on it. It was a very young thing to be walking the world, and it was a beautiful wee thing, with its eyes so pretty; so it grew up to be a man.

          ‘Them that live in the water, they have ways of calling people. Them who pass this seal-man, they felt the call in their hearts. Indeed, if you passed the seal-man, stepping the roads, you would get a queer twist from the way he looked at you. And he set his love on a young girl of the O’Keefe’s, a little young girl with no more in her than the flower on its stalk. You would see them in the loanings, coming home, or in the bright of the day going. There was a strong love was on them two young things; it was like the love of the Old Ones that took nine deaths to kill. They would be telling Kate it was not right she should set her love on one who wasn’t like ourselves; but there’s few indeed the young will listen. They are all for pleasure, all for pleasure, before they are withered old hags, the like of my sister, Mary. And at last they shut her up at home, to keep her from seeing him.

          ‘And he came by her cabin to the west of the road, calling. There was a strong love came up in her at that, and she put down her sewing on the table, and “Mother,” she says, “there’s no lock, and no key, and no bolt, and no door. There’s no iron, nor no stone, nor anything at all will keep me this night from the man I love.” And she went out into the moonlight to him, there by the bush where the flowers is pretty, beyond the river. And he says to her, “You are all of the beauty of the world, will you come where I go, over the waves of the sea?” And she says to him: “My treasure and my strength,” she says, “I would follow you on the frozen hills, my feet bleeding.”

          ‘Then they went down into the sea together, and the moon made a track upon the sea, and they walked down it; it was like a flame before them. There was no fear at all on her; only a great love like the love of the Old Ones, that was stronger than the touch of the fool. She had a little white throat, and little cheeks like flowers, and she went down into the sea with her man, who wasn’t a man at all. She was drowned, of course. It’s like he never thought that she wouldn’t bear the sea like himself. She was drowned, drowned.

          ‘When it come light they saw the seal-man sitting yonder on the rock, and she lying by him, dead, with her face as white as a flower. He was crying and beating her hands to bring life to her. It would have drawn pity from a priest to hear him, though he wasn’t Christian. And at last, when he saw that she was drowned, he took her in his arms and slipped into the sea like a seal. And he swam, carrying her, with his head up, laughing and laughing, and no one ever saw him again at all.’

Picture credit:

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry; artist unknown: source: 

(If anyone can tell me the name of the artist, I will be delighted to credit them.)

Thursday 5 October 2023

'Nagas and Garudas, Dreams and Stars', a guest post by Shveta Thakrar

I’m delighted to welcome for the second time to my blog the author Shveta Thakrar, whose second YA novel The Dream Runners was published by HarperCollins last year. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Star Daughter and this one's even better. Shveta weaves into her YA fantasies all kinds of mystical beings from Hindu legends and sacred texts, and Holly Black describes her writing as ‘beautiful as starlight’. In this post, Shveta retells the story of the enmity between the nagas and garudas, describes the creative thinking behind her novel, and challenges us to consider ways to turn old enmities into friendships.  



We all know about faerie courts. Night Courts and Bright Courts, Seelie and Unseelie. But what of nagas and garudas?

          The Dream Runners, the second in my Night Market triptych of YA fantasy novels based on various aspects of Hindu mythology, started out as an answer to that question. I’d finished all work on Star Daughter, and my editor reached out to ask me what was next. I took some time to ponder that. I knew I loved changelings and faerie courts, but I wasn’t ready to stop writing about Hindu mythology and folklore when I’d really only just begun.

Garuda devouring a naga

          Then it struck me: I already knew of a similar scenario, that of the ancient mythical war between the nagas—serpent shape-shifters—and their cousins and mortal enemies, the garudas—eagle shape-shifters. With such sharp lines of division, these two groups might as well be two opposing courts. In fact, since I am a storyteller, allow me now to tell you their tale.


(There are, of course, different variations and even different narratives, but this is the version I learned as a child. And if you enjoy it, I highly recommend seeking out a series of comic books called Amar Chitra Katha, which recount many Indian myths and legends.)

          Long, long ago, in the time of the Mahabharata, there were two sisters, the elder called Vinata and the younger Kadru, daughters of Lord Daksha. Wed to the same rishi—sage—Kashyapa, both sisters bore children by him after requesting that boon: Vinata gave birth to two eggs, which contained Arun, who later became Lord Surya’s charioteer, and Garuda, while Kadru gave birth to a thousand eggs, from which emerged the first nagas.

          One day, Kadru, known for her wily nature, challenged Vinata to name the color of the tail of Uchchaihshravas, the divine horse born from Samudra Manthan, the churning of the Cosmic Ocean of Milk. However, the wager came with a cost: should Vinata answer incorrectly, she and her son would then become enslaved to Kadru and her brood. If she answered correctly, the reverse would be true. The question seemed simple enough, and as the seven-headed horse was radiantly white from head to toe, Vinata guessed that his equine tail was white.


          But Kadru had been scheming. She sent her children, the nagas, to cover Uchchaihshravas’s tail, then brought her sister to see him. “Black,” she pronounced, and her unfortunate sister had no choice but to agree.

          The humiliation of being proven wrong would have been unpleasant but bearable, had that been the only consequence. Of course, it was not, and so Vinata and Garuda began their indenture, waiting upon her sister and her nieces and nephews. Watching his mother endure their abuse was an indignity Garuda could not accept, and from that day forward, he nursed a grudge against his cousins, stoking the fires of his hatred.  

          At last, having grown mighty, with a wingspan that could block the sun, he demanded of Kadru that she free Vinata. Kadru, naturally, would do no such thing without a price: the amrit from the heavenly realm of Svargalok. Garuda then fought all the gods in the realm, even Lord Indra, and came away with the nectar. Kadru freed her sister and instructed Garuda to distribute the amrit amidst her children.

Garuda returns with the vase of Amrita

However, Lord Indra had beseeched him not to grant it to the nagas, so instead, Garuda commanded them to wash and purify themselves before they could imbibe. While they did so, Indra’s son, Jayanta, stole the vessel back. When the nagas returned, Garuda consumed them all.

(Yet in the contradictory way of mythology, there are still more nagas and later a race of garudas, who continue this enmity forever more.)

          And that, gentle reader, is why eagles eat snakes.


I’ve always been fascinated by this story—and the antics people get up to when they have no true purpose driving them—so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I had initially used it in my first attempt at a novel, now trunked. But when my editor came calling, it occurred to me that I could cannibalize elements from that trunked novel and incorporate them into what became The Dream Runners. By then, I had become a skilled enough writer to do the myth justice.

That original attempt featured a human main character named Sameer, who became relegated to a tertiary character in The Dream Runners, while his girlfriend, the delightful and audacious nagini Princess Asha, now took on a greater role as a secondary character. I also—of course—resurrected the magical bar with its enchanted libations such as silver wine (distilled moonlight) and set it in the Night Market from Star Daughter, thus connecting the two books.

          Meanwhile, two new characters, Tanvi, a dream runner who starts waking up, and Venkat, the dreamsmith she previously sold her harvested dreams to in return for a beloved bracelet, ran away with the story of boons and dreams and arranged marriages between naga clans, all set against the backdrop of the mythological war between the garudas and the nagas.

          And so, The Dream Runners became my loving fanfiction of the original myth.


Myths exist for many reasons, one of which is to reflect our lives back to us. I cannot help but see the connections between things, and I think a lot about interpersonal communication, empathy, and what plays out on the world stage when we forget that we’re connected and view others as our rivals, if not as our enemies. When we forget that, as the Sanskrit saying goes, we are all one world family: वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम (vasudhaiva kutumbakam), we harm both others and ourselves.

As in the myth, that fundamental truth gets dismissed again and again in a dog-eat-dog global society focused on greed for the few at the cost of the rest. Though I didn’t intend it, there’s definitely an anticapitalist slant to The Dream Runners. I might not have realized that’s what I was writing in Tanvi and her harvesting, but I stand by it.

So, returning to the matter at hand: What do you do once a war has calcified into what appears to be inevitability, and seemingly unmovable, unbreachable lines have been drawn? When you hurt me, so now I must hurt you, and because I hurt you, you will now hurt me?

          How do we break old cycles of violence and hatred?

I won’t spoil how my characters choose to solve that problem, but I personally believe that we need to find answers to these questions. Our world depends on it. I wrote The Dream Runners to be a magical escape for my readers, to celebrate Hindu mythology and shine a spotlight on the beings lesser known in the West, but also to get us to consider if there might be alternatives to the way it’s always been. If we can write a new ending to an old story.

I invite you to start writing yours.

Picture credits

The Dream Runners by Shveta Thakrar, HarperTeen. Cover art by Charlie Bowater

Garuda devouring a naga: Painting at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok, Wikipedia

Uchchaihshavras: origin unknown:

Garuda returns with the vase of Amrita: V&A collections