Tag Archives: irish history

Fulacht fiadh – tannery

In my last post “Fulacht fiadh – meat and fish curing facility” i said that fulachta fiadh were also called Fulachta Fian and were believed to be the cooking place of the Fianna, small, semi-independent warrior bands in Irish mythology. I also said that Geoffrey Keating, in his 17th-century History of Ireland, says that during the winter the fianna were quartered and fed by the nobility, during which time they would keep order on their behalf, but during the summer, from Beltaine to Samhain, they were obliged to live by hunting for food and for pelts to sell.
As I said in my last post, this was very interesting. If Fianna were “obliged” to live by hunting for food and for pelts to sell, they were basically full time, professional meat and fur hunters. Professional seasonal hunters have two problems that they have to solve if they want to profit from their hunt: How to preserve and store meat and skins. 
In my last post I talked about how the ancient Irish could have solved the problem of preserving and storing large quantities of fish and meat. 
In this post I would like to talk about how they could have solved the other problem: how to preserve and store large amount of animal skins and furs they would have accumulated during their seasonal hunt. 
The process of preserving animal skins aims to make animal skins resistant to bacterial decomposition and weather. This process is quite complicated and consists of many steps which have to be performed correctly and in strict order or the skins will be spoiled. 
I will here list these steps, based on an instruction for deer skin preservation process from the Wilderness Institute web page. And I will explain how fulachta fiadh could have been used in this process. 
Skinning
Hang the deer upside down to a branch. Cut the belly open and gut and clean the animal. Cut the around the hocks and then along the legs from the hocks to the beely cut. Put the knife away and removing the hide with a fist, not a knife. This is to prevent any knife or score marks on the hide. Score marks now will become holes later. This is a very good video showing how to skin a deer using this technique
Fleshing
Remove any meat and fat from the hide using scraper. You can use a metal scraper (a blunt long blade). Traditionaly a bone scraper made from a deer ulna bone was used
Salting
Salting is what sets the hair and keeps the hide from decaying. The moisture content of hides and skins is greatly reduced, and osmotic pressure increased, to the point that bacteria are unable to grow. There are two ways of salting the skins: wet salting and brining. 
But theoretically, all hides are brine cured. Crystalline sodium chloride, or common salt, cannot be absorbed by the hide. Only after the salt crystals have been dissolved in water to make a brine can the curing proceed. In the case of the conventional method (pack curing), the salt crystals draw moisture from the hide which dissolves the salt creating brine. 
In wet salting, the skins are heavily salted using fine salt by rubbing the salt into the inner side of the skin or hide. After salting, hides are rolled up and placed on an incline to allow fluids to drain away from the hide. After approximately 12 hours the skins are unrolled and all of the wet salt is shaken off. A new layer of fresh salt is applied to the skin as explained above. Skin is rolled again and left to rest for additional 12 hours. If after these 12 hours, the skin still appears excessively wet, the salting process is repeat again. If however the skin appears to be drying, with no more fluid draining from it, it can be hung up across a rack to finish drying for another 24 hours.
In the brine curing process, the hides are in contact with saturated brine at all times. This serves to reduce the time required to cure hides to about 16 hours. The hides have to be constantly turned and agitated to ensure that every part of the skin is properly soaked with brine.  
Both of these salting methods would involve use of fulacht fiadh. 
If wet salting was used, salt was probably grabbed from leather sacks or pots where it was kept and then applied to the skins by rubbing. The excess salt which was brushed off the skins at the end of each salting stage, could then have been collected and eventually purified and reclaimed through boiling in the trough using fire heated stones. 
If brining was used, brine was made in the trough. Different size skins require different size troughs to insure the skin was completely submerged and not tightly folded. This could account for great variety in fulacht fiadh trough size. At the end of the brining process the remaining salt could have been reclaimed from brine  through boiling in the trough using fire heated stones. 
This of course could only have been possible providing trough was made watertight. If not the brinning solution would either be diluted or chemically changed by influx of water from the soil, if the fulacht fiadh was located on marshy, waterlogged terrain, or the brine would disappear into the ground if the fulacht fiadh was located on dry well drained soil. 
At the end of the salting procedure, if the above steps were followed and completed carefully, the skin should be in a stable state. A stable state is when the skin can be safely left as it is for a period of time, even months, without fear of hair slippage or spoilage. This means that the process of preserving the skins can be interrupted at this point and continued at some later more suitable moment, like during the winter, after the end of the hunting season. 
It is quite possible that this was the end of the animal skin treatment process which was performed in summer camps. The skins would be salted and stored safely in a tent or in a wood lined pit dug in the well drained ground. They would then be carried to the village where the rest of the skin preservation process which turns skins into leather and pelts was carried away. 
There is one thing I have to add about salting. Salting is not a mandatory part of the animal skin preservation process. Salting is used in cases where there is a long enough period between the skinning and the rest of the skin processing. Bacteria in the skin will start decomposition pretty much straight away and even if only couple of hours have passes between skinning and the next processing stage you will be better off using salting to make sure the decomposition was stopped. But if you are going to flesh and wash the skin straight away after skinning, then salting is not necessary. You can basically just wash, stretch and dry the fleshed animal skins completely. You can then store these dry skins in a dry airy place for months until you decide to continue the skin preservation process. This is very important. As I already explained in my post “Fulacht fiadh – salt pan”, salt was a rare and valuable commodity in ancient Ireland and I doubt the Fianna hunters would use salt for treating animal skins unless it was absolutely necessary. 
Now next stage in animal skin preservation depends on whether you want to produce leather (hareless skin) or pelts (hairy, furry skin).  If you want to produce leather, then the next thing you need to do is bucking followed by rinsing, graining and membraning and then rinsing again.
Bucking
“Bucking” is the soaking process in the solution of lime or lye (wood ashes) the hide is soaked in to remove the mucus in the collagen layer of the hide, as well as to loosen the hairs. It’s the mucus that prevents the tanning medium from adhering to the fibers in the hide. You have to make sure that the bucking solution is not “too strong” which is possible with hardwood ashes, especially with ashes from woods such as oak and maple (the hard, dense woods). A good way to test how strong an ash solution is: float an egg, it should have a thumb nail sized portion floating above the solution (it has to actually float, not sit on top of the settled ashes); barely floating means a weak solution, tipping over means a strong solution.  
So mix wood ash into the water, float an egg to determine proper concentration of hard wood ash, then soak hide until hair slips. The skin should soak until the hair pulls free easily. If the water is about 20 degrees Celsius it should slip in about 3 days. 
This is another part of the animal skin preservation process which could have been done in fulacht fiadh. A trough would be filled with water. For this to be manageable fulacht fiadh would need to be located next to a water source, as they all are. Ash from camp fires would then be added to the water and mixed in to form bucking solution. When bucking was finished, remaining bucking solution could be scooped out of the trough using cups or pots and spilled on top of the burned mound. Or the water could have been evaporated from the trough using fire heated stones, and the ash then scooped out. 
Again, this could only have been possible providing trough was made watertight. If not the bucking solution would either be diluted or chemically changed by influx of water from the soil, if the fulacht fiadh was located on marshy, waterlogged terrain, or the bucking solution would disappear into the ground if the fulacht fiadh was located on dry well drained soil. 
Graining
Graining means removing the hair and grain, the part of the skin that holds the hair. Any grain will make the hide stiffer and will prevent the smoke from entering the hide when smoking the hide latter on. This means you are scraping the outer side of the skin. Traditionaly a bone scraper made from a deer ulna bone was used. It works great but must be sharpened through out the process. 
Drying Skins
After the hides have been grained set them in the sun to dry. This should not take any more then an hour on a dry day. This drying will make the membraning much easier and productive.
Re-hydrating
Dunk skins into a river or a stream to get them thoroughly wet. Another reason why fulactha fiadh would need to be built next to rivers or streams. This should not take more then about 15 min.
Removing the membrane
By the way bucking also works on the inner side of the skin softening any remains of meat, membrane and other tissue left after skinning. So during graining you can revisit the inner side as well and remove what ever was left clinging to it.
Using the fleshing tool remove the membrane which is what holds the blood vessels. Like the grain, if any membrane is left the hide will be hard and will prevent the smoke from penetrating the hide. You are now working the inner side of the skin. This part of the processing is done as part of fleshing if you want to produce pelts and not leather. 
Rinsing
After the membrane has been removed, put the skins in a gunny sack tied off in a river or a stream and leave them overnight. Again it is handy if your camp is next to the river or a stream…
Wringing
Next morning the skins should be thin. Wrap the hide so it forms a donut with the outside of the skin out. Wring in one direction then the other, then rotate the hide and do it again. Do not let the dry out you want the skins thirsty but not dry.
Opening (stretching) the skin
Opening the skin will make the skin be thirsty and will do a better job of taking up the tanning agent. 
At the end of this part of the process we have so called “stable” skins, skins which can be stored indefinitely and even used inside where they are not exposed to the elements. They can be smoked to be made more durable and resistant to bacteria and insects. But if you want your skins to be resistant to water and not go cardboard hard ever time they get wet, they need to be tanned, oiled and softened and smoked.
Tanning
Here you can choose which tanning solution to use to tan your skins. Four traditional and tanning processes that have been used for thousands of years in Europe are vegetable (wood) tanning, brain (oil) tanning, urine tanning and bran (flour) and salt tanning. 
Bark tanning
Tannins are chemicals, more precise acids, which occur naturally in most plants in various amounts. They transform proteins into insoluble products that are resistant to decomposition and this is why tannins are used as tanning agents for leather.
Tannins occur in nearly every plant. It is found in almost any part of the plant, from root to leaves, bark to unripe fruit to nuts and acorns, but it is most concentrated in the bark layer where it forms a barrier against microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria. Typical materials used for bark tanning include any of the oaks, fir, certain willows, chestnut…
If you want to use bark for tanning extract it is best to collect it in the spring. This is when the bark has the highest concentration of tannins and is the easiest to peel, but you can use bark from any time of year. Supposedly, an older tree has more tannin than a younger one, and the lower parts of the tree contain a higher concentration than the top parts. 
Now getting the bark off trees, even if you don’t cut the tree down, will kill the tree. It is good then to know that you can extract tannins not just from bark but also from acorns, oak galls and even leaves (as you can see in this video). 
How do you extract tannins out of the bark? You leach them out. You dry the bark, crush it, pound it into a pulp and then cook it. Tannin is water soluble. The warmer the water you soak the bark in the faster the tannin is extracted. But hot water darkens tannin resulting in a darker colored leather. Now remember my post “Fulacht fiadh – acorn leaching pit“? What i described in that post was a way fulacht fiadh could be used to leach tannins out of acorns. Basically you would fill the fulacht fiadh trough with water, heat the water using the fire heated stones, then dump a lot of shelled and crushed acorns into the trough, and keep simmering them, occasionally changing water until all the tannins were leached out and the water is finally clear. Here you can see what tanned water produced by leaching acorns looks like.

The same leaching procedure can be used for extracting tannins from barks. The tanned water which results from this procedure can be scooped out of the fulacht fiadh trough and collected in large clay vessels. It can then be boiled and concentrated. The concentrated tannin rich “tea” can then be poured back into the trough and used as tanning solution for animal skins.

Soaking of the skins in tanning solution should be done first in a relatively weak solution and then in progressively stronger solutions. It is very important to use a very weak solution for your first bath. If the hide is put into a strong tannin bath, the outside gets tanned and shrinks. This inhibits the tannins from penetrating to the center of the hide, leaving the inner parts raw. This is called “dead tanning” or “case hardening”. The ideal bath to start with is one that has already been used for another hide. That way all the large tannin particles have already been used up. This is known as a “spent liquor”. There is another advantage to spent liquors. In an old bark liquor, the bark sugars have fermented, forming lactic and acetic acid, which help remove any traces of lime as well as help preserve the hide. 

The skins should then be left in the strong solution for as long as it takes for the solution to penetrate all the way to the center of the skin. But how long that is depends on the thickness of the skin and can go from few weeks to few months. Here you can see skins submerged in the tanning pit and the pile of oak bark next to the pit, used to make tanning liquid. Fulacht fiadh trough uses for skin tanning would look very similar to this. 

During the soaking period, fulacht fiadh trough containing skins submerged in tanning solution can be covered with planks or split branches and then covered with hide and soil or peat. From time to time it can be checked on and more tanning concentrate or raw bark can be added to strengthen the tanning solution. 

Eventually the skin is taken out of the tanning solution. It then needs to be rinsed in running water (river, stream next to which fulachta fiadh were usually built) and squeezed and rinsed and squeezed…Until it is rinsed I suppose. 🙂
The skin then needs to be oiled. Oiling the bark tanned skin makes it dry softer, darkens it and prevents it from cracking. Vegetable oils (beach nut oil), tallow, brains, bear and boar fat and fish oil have all been used to finish bark tanned leather. The hide that is being oiled should be damp. It should then be stretched in all directions. Oil should then be spread evenly on the skin and the if you want soft leather the skin should be worked soft as it dries. When the hide is dry, it can be lightly dampened and then oiled and worked again. This process of oiling, working and drying can be repeated until you get the softness you desire. 
This is a good video showing primitive bark tanning of animal skins. 
Brain tanning
This is truly ancient tanning method. It is quick and well suited for single skin processing in the wild. And as opposed to bark tanning it is environmentally friendly. 
There are two distinct methods of brain tanning, one in which you apply tanning solution onto the skin and the other in which you soak the skin in the tanning solution. 
Making the brain solution
Every animal has enough brains to brain tan its own hide. Except for buffalo for which you need brain and bone marrow. To prepare brain tanning solution use warm water but not too hot.  A good rule of thumb is that if its too hot for you, its too hot for the animal. Too hot will ruin the hide.  You have to mix the brains from the animal into warm water and mash them up into a paste. 
Applying the brains
The biggest trick to good brain penetration is proper hide moisture content. You want the hide damp in that you can not squeeze and moisture from it, but feels like a sponge. Too dry and the pores will be too tight to let the brains through, too damp and the pores and fibers will be too full to let anything else in. 
Rub the brain mixture into the stretched hide until it is thoroughly saturated and soaked in. If you are treating hair on hide, make sure you only apply brain solution on the inner side of the hide, as it will make the hair slip if applied on the outer hairy side. Wait until the skin almost dries, then apply the brain solution again. Wait until skin dries again. Remove it from the frame and soak it in water again and then wring it out. Stretch it on the frame again.  
This series of videos shows how to brain tan a bear on a frame. This part shows applying brain tanning solution on the skin stretched on a frame.
But the skin doesn’t need to be stretched on the frame for brains to be applied to it. This is a very good series of videos showing how to apply brain solution on a skin stretch flat on the ground.
Softening
After the skin has completely dried out, it needs to be softened. This is done by simultaniously stretching and rubbing the skin. If the skin is stretched on the frame, the softening is done by pushing and scraping the hide with a blunt stick. You have to make sure that every bit of skin is pushed and shoved and scraped… 
Otherwise you can use a pole, a tree stump, a rope or anything else that you can stretch the skin over and pull it from side to side. Here you can see softening of the hide on a stump. 
Regardless how you decide to soften the hide, you have to keep the hide in motion stretching, pulling, pushing for a very very long time. This is a hard process which is continued until the hide is soft. If it gets hard in any places it is because those places dried without being in motion. Rehydrate that part the skin and continue to soften it until it is dry and loose.
Smoking
In order to make a brain tanned hide resistant to water, it has to be smoked. Otherwise the hide fibers would glue themselves back together again and the hide would become hard. The resins in the smoke penetrate the hide and prevent them from gluing them back together again if they get wet.
Smoking of hides is identical to cold smoking of meat. You need to place the hide on some kind of frame over a smoldering file. If you are smoking one hide or few hides you can just make a temporary tripod from sticks and spread the hide over it, inner side in. 
Then you place the tripod over a fire. This needs to be a cool smoking fire made with punkwood. Punkwood is the wood from any tree that is in a stage of decay where it feels almost styrofoam-like in consistency… very light and slightly squishy.

You have to make sure that the smoke rising from the fire is cool and damp. If the smoke starts to feel dry add more punkwood. It the fire stops smoldering and starts to flame the hides will be ruined. Hides will need to be smoked like this for several hours. Or you can hang the hides under the roof of your wigwam or round house and let them smoke over constantly smoking heart fire. As I already wrote in my post about Curing = Smoking, this is probably how the curing ability of smoke was originally discovered. After the smoking is done, the brain tanned hide will be water resistent. 

Urine tanning

In ancient history, tanning was considered a noxious or “odoriferous trade” and relegated to the outskirts of the town, among the poor. This is because Old Mediterranean and Messopotamian cultures for some reason thought that the best tanning agent was urine. And poo. 
Is this why there are no fulachta fiadh inside villages?
Urine tanning is one of the oldest tanning methods. And one of the stinkiest. Urine tanning consists of dunking skins in a half – half mixture of water and urine and leaving them to soak for a period between 1 day (Source: “Leather – Preparation and Tanning by Traditional Methods” by Lotta Rahme) for fish skins to 30 days for hides with fur. 
Why use urine? Urine contains ammonia, and ammonia is an amazing basic solvent that can break down fats and oils, clean surfaces and stop decay from forming. When our bodies and the bodies of all mammals break down amino acids as a part of normal metabolism, we produce ammonia. Since ammonia is toxic to us while in our bodies, our livers covert that ammonia into urea and salts, which we excrete in our urine. But that separation is only temporary. If you leave the urine to lie around for any amount of time, the urea and salts will start binding back together to form ammonia again. This is why it is the stale pee that is used in tanning.
In order to tan skin with urine, you need to have enough urine to completely submerge the skin in it and have it float without being tightly pressed. Basically what you want is that every bit of the skin is in contact with urine water mixture. For a salmon skin or a small animal like squirrel this means 4 – 8 liters of urine per skin. For larger animal skins you will need a lot more. Normal daily output of urine for an adult is one to two liters per person. So a group of 10 hunters would be able to collect say average 15 liters of urine a day. If an average fulacht fiadh trough contains about 200 liters, they would need 80 liters of urine to make 160 liters of urine water mixture and fill the trough. To collect this volume of pee would take about a week. And where you might ask yourself would the fianna collect their pee in? Well how about the fullacht fiadh trough…Every morning fianna members would emerge from their camp shelter, bloated from all the fulacht fiadh brewed beer they drank previous night. They would gather around the fulacht fiadh trough and then….
As I said, I would take a 10 man hunting band a week to 10 days to fill the trough. During that time they would skin killed animals, flesh and membrane the skins, rub them with urine or mixture of ash and urine to help get rid of hair (if they were making leather rather than pelts) and would then grain the skins wash them and dry them in the sun. These stable skins would then be stored in one of the shelters until the fulacht fiadh trough was full of pee. 
Collection of urine for tanning is well documented, The so called “piss-pots” were located located on street corners, where human urine could be collected for use in tanneries or by washerwomen. So theoretically our fianna boys could have collected new urine in large beakers 🙂 while the skins were pickling in fulacht fiadh trough full of old urine. This way there would be no pause in the trough use…
Once the trough is filled the skins can be then be submerged in the tanning solution and left there until they have been properly tanned. After the skins are submerged and stirred the trough should be covered with hide pressed with stones to prevent excessive evaporation of ammonia. 
You’ll check the skin every day and give it a stir.  It shouldn’t smell too awful, and if it does, you need fresh solution because bacteria has set in. I couldn’t find any instruction how do you distinguish between awful and too awful…I guess years of smelling old pee baths filled with decomposing animal skins will teach you….
Once curing is finished, the skins need to be taken out of the trough. The trough would then need to be emptied of used pee water solution, as it should only be used once. And the new cycle of pee collection would start. As for hides, they would need to be thoroughly washed in water. Few times….It helps if its rubbed in with soap and then rinsed several times. Ancient Irish could have used soap made from camp fire ashes and animal fat. It is also possible to make a warm solution of soap mixture in water, let it cool and then soak the skins in it. You can then make a scented solution of strong smelling barks and flowers in water (tea) and then soak the skins in this water…North American Indians used this type of skin washing procedure after pee tanning. However, even after all this washing, the skin will stink like old pee when wet but as it dries that smell will go away. However some people say that it is the stink that goes away but the smell never really goes away…
Anyway, smelling or not, washed skins would then need to be dried properly. After that it would need to be oiled and stretched and softened. The urine tanning leaves skin very pale. So If you want to change the color of the skin, you can then tan it using vegetable tannins. And then smoked. And that is it. 
Again, the use of fulacht fiadh trough as a tanning vat, could only have been possible providing trough was made watertight. If not the tanning solution would either be diluted or chemically changed by influx of water from the soil, if the fulacht fiadh was located on marshy, waterlogged terrain, or the tanning solution would disappear into the ground if the fulacht fiadh was located on dry well drained soil. 
Bran (flour) and salt tanning
I came across another very interesting way of tanning pelts, which is not very well known: wheat (oat) tanning. This type of tanning was in Scandinavia used to tan sheep skin rugs, and in Serbia, Romania and probably other places for tanning sheep skin for coats. This is how you do it:
Scandianvia
Two handfuls of flour and one handful of salt was rubbed into the fleshed and membraned inner side of the skin. Then the skin was folded, a weight is put on and it was then left in a dry place to set for three days. After 3 days, the flour and salt were scraped off the skin and skin was stretched and broken until soft. Finished!
A skin treated like this will be white and relatively brittle. The Scandinavian rugs where used mainly as bed covers, if kept dry, they could last for a lifetime and more.
Romania
The process of tanning sheepskin was practiced by most of the peasants at home, with traditional techniques.
Boiled salty spring water (brine) was let to cool down. Oat flour and wheat bran were added, while stirring. The sheepskins were then treated with this mixture and folded, for 3 days. After 3 days, they were dried, then cleaned and stretched and softened.
Serbia
In Serbia salt and flour tanning is done in two ways: dry and wet. 
Dry tanning
Stretch well washed, fleshed and membraned sheepskin or fur. Rub mixture of flour (bran) and salt into the inner (flesh) side. Leave the skin to dry in a draft our of the direct sun. Once the skin is completely dry tanning is done. The sheepskin or fur is then scraped, brushed and worked to soften. 
Wet tanning
Bran and non ionized salt are poured into luck-warm water (40C) and is left to ferment for 3-4 days. You need 50 – 60 grams of bran and 70 grams of salt per liter of water. Once the tanning solution was ready, skins were submerged in it and left soaking for 1 to 2 weeks. After tanning is done, skins were taken out of the tanning solution, washed, dried, scraped, cleaned, brushed and then stretched, worked until soft. Metal containers and utensils react with salt and rust and should never be used in this type of tanning. So wooden tubs and wooden spatulas or sticks were traditionally used. 
This second procedure could have easily been used for tanning furs in fulachta fiadh. 
Fulacht fiadh troughs which were lined mostly with wooden planks and sometimes with stone plates are ideal containers for this type of tanning. For a 150 liter container (1 meter X 0.5 meter X 0.2 meter), which is an average size fulacht fiadh trough, you would need about 8 kilos of bran and about 11 kilos of salt. To prepare the tanning solution you could pour water into the trough and then heat it using fire heated stones. Once the water is cool enough to put your hand into it, bran and salt could be poured in and stirred. This bran soup would then be left in the covered trough for 3 – 4 days to ferment. The furs were then submerged in the through and pressed with logs so that they don’t float on the surface. The though would be covered again and furs would be left in the tanning solution for one to two weeks. They would be stirred and mixed from time to time to ensure that every part of the skin was in contact with tanning solution. When the tanning was finished, furs would be taken out, dried, scraped, cleaned, brushed and then stretched, worked until soft. The salt still remaining in the tanning solution could be reclaimed by dropping fire heated stones into the trough and boiling the water out. 
After tanning skins were unintentionally smoked. This type of primitive tanning was done by peasants and they lived in very smoky houses with no chimneys. Like this one from Croatia. 
Any skin worn or in any other way used in such houses would soon be completely impregnated with smoke resin and made resistant to elements…
This is a brilliant video showing traditional sheepskin tanning performed by three grandmothers in a village in Croatia. They actually only use salt as a preservative agent, but the procedure is the same as in salt + flour tanning. 
Now we know that Bronze age Irish did grow grains, so they could have used either one of these methods for tanning furs using mixture of salt and bran (flour). By the way this is a very environmentally friendly way of tanning. 
So, there you have it. Geoffrey Keating, in his 17th-century History of Ireland, says that during the winter the fianna were quartered and fed by the nobility, during which time they would keep order on their behalf, but during the summer, from Beltaine to Samhain, they were obliged to live by hunting for food and for pelts to sell. If the Fianna really lived from hunting for pelts to sell, they had to be able to turn animal skins into durable, useful and good looking leather and pelts. To do that they had to preserve (tan) the skins.  And as we have seen Fulachta fiadh could have been used as efficient tanneries (providing troughs were made watertight).  So was this one of the usages of fulachta fiadh? 

Can you see me?

Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) is a patriotic work of Danish history, by the 12th century author Saxo Grammaticus (“Saxo the Literate”, literally “the Grammarian”).

It consists of sixteen books written in Latin and describes Danish history and to some degree Scandinavian history in general, from prehistory to the late 12th century. In addition, Gesta Danorum offers singular reflections on European affairs in the High Middle Ages from a unique Scandinavian perspective, supplementing what has been handed down by historians from Western and Southern Europe.

The sixteen books, in prose with an occasional excursion into poetry, can be categorized into two parts: Books 1-9, which deal with Norse mythology, and Books 10-16, which deal with medieval history. Book 9 ends with Gorm the Old, the first factual documented King of Denmark. The last three books (14-16), describe Danish conquests on the south shore of the Baltic Sea and wars against Slavic peoples (the Northern Crusades), are very valuable for the history of West Slavic tribes (Polabian Slavs, Pomeranians) and Slavic paganism. Book 14 contains a unique description of the temple at Rügen Island and Slavic pagan rituals that took place there.

The original name of the island Rügen or Danish Rugia at the Baltic Sea was Rujan (meaning red in Old Slavic); thus the name would in translation imply ‘The Red Island’. The autochthonous inhabitants of the island were the Slavic tribe, the Rujani, whose name was cognate with the island’s; thus translating as “people from Rujan” or “red people” or “redheads”??? After the destruction and/or assimilation of the Rujani by the Danes, in 1168, the original Slavic name of Rujan was corrupted as Rügen in German and Rugia in Danish.

According to Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, and also Chronica Slavorum by Helmold, the main temple on the Island was located in Arcona, late renamed to Jaromarsburg. The temple was dedicated to the god Svantovit (Svetovid), the main Sun god of the Slavic pantheon, and was used from the 9th to the 12th century. It contained a giant wooden statue of Svantovit (Svetovid) depicting him with four heads (or one head with four faces) and a horn of plenty. 

The temple was also the seat of an oracle in which the chief priest predicted the future of his tribe by observing the behavior of a white horse identified with Svantevit (Svetovid) and casting dice (horse oracles have a long history in this region, being already attested in the writings of Tacitus). The temple also contained the treasury of the tribe and was defended by a group of 300 mounted warriors which formed the core of the tribal armed forces.

The main ritual was celebrated once a year, at the end of the harvest at the beginning of November (Samhain?). All the inhabitants of Arcona gathered in front of the temple on this occasion. On the eve of the celebration the priest, who contrary to the common people had long hear and beard, meticulously cleaned the chapel, to which only he himself had access. The ritual which took place the next day was described by Saxo like this:

The following day, when the people camped out by the temple doors, the priest took the horn from the statue’s hand and carefully examined it to see whether the drink in it was evaporating, which was taken to be a warning that the harvest would be poor the next year, in which case he [the priest] obligated the people to save something of their current harvest for next year.  If the drink did not disappear, that foretold a bountiful year.  Thus, depending on what the horn predicted, he ordered the people either to save their harvests or to use them till they be sated.  Next he poured the wine as an offering at the feet of the statue, filled the horn anew and pretended as if he had drunk to honor him [the God], while at the same time he asked with lofty words for success/good luck for himself and the people of the country, for riches and for victory, and after that he brought the horn to his lips and drank all of it in one gulp, and thereafter he filled the horn again and placed it in the statue’s right hand.


There was also there as an offering an oval-shaped honey cake which stood almost as tall as a man. The priest would place it between himself and the people and asked thereafter whether they could see him [from behind the cake].  When they answered him, he then wished them that next year they should not see him, whereby the meaning of this was such that he did not mean death to himself or the people but rather that the next year should be bountiful [i.e., and the cake bigger].

Next he blessed his people in the name of their God, told them that they should honor Him with frequent offerings, which he expected as a the right payment for [their] victories on the land and sea.  And when this was done, they spent the rest of the day on a great feast, where they ate the offerings [for the God], so that that which was consecrated for the God they themselves ate.  At this feast, it was believed pleasing to the God to get drunk and as a sin to remain sober.

You can find the description of this ritual in “The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe” By Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer, David Warburton.

The “oval bread” the Slavic priests at Arcona were hiding behind is still made in Serbia as a traditional Christmas cake. The bread is called “česnica” and is an oval bread which is decorated at most with the cross, making it look like the “Celtic cross”. 

This is actually the solar agricultural cross which symbolizes  solar year divided into four parts by two solstices and two equinoxes. Sometimes the cross will have small semi circles on the edges of the cross hands. These are called “hands of god”.  They represent the three months of every season. You can read more about the solar cross in my post “Two crosses“. Česnica can also contain additional decorations symbolizing various crops, farm animals…

The preparation of this bread used to be always accompanied by various rules and rituals all indicating the Pre-Christian origin of this bread: 

The česnica is baked on Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning by the head of household or the woman of the house. The person who will prepare the česnica must bathe before that. In eastern and southern Serbia, after they kneaded the dough for the česnica, the head of household or the woman of the house take hold with dough-stained hands of the fruit trees, beehives, and cattle to make them more fertile.

Dough is usually made with wheat flour. But the flour is taken only from a full sack or the flour is milled from the last sheaf of wheat from the previous harvest. The water for the dough is in some areas collected on Christmas Day before sunrise from a spring or a well, into which a handful of grain is thrown. It is called the “strong water” or “living water” and is believed to be imbued with beneficial power. Or the water for the dough is collected from three springs. 

A coin is put into the dough during the kneading, some families using the same coin from year to year; it may be a valuable piece. In some regions, little figures carved from cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, and the like, are also put into the dough. In other areas, the inserted objects include grains, broad beans, walnuts, tufts of wool, twigs, and splinters from various wooden buildings. In Semberija, families insert a piece of the first splinter produced in felling the badnjak (young oak tree which is the traditional Serbian Christmas tree). Badnjak is ceremonially burned through Christmas eve on the house fire. In Jadar, western Serbia, the number of embers of the badnjak equal to the sum of grain and livestock sorts grown by the family are taken out of the fire and placed on the česnica. Each of the sorts is associated with its own ember on that loaf. The sort whose ember retains its glow longer than the others should be the most productive in the coming year. In Bosnia, when the dough is shaped and ready for baking, a number of notches are cut in the upper surface of it, and seeds of various crops are placed into the notches. The more a notch has risen when the česnica is baked, the more productive the crop whose seed is in it will be in the following year. To ensure an abundance of grain, some people place a bowl filled with grain on the česnica.

All of this indicates that česnica is directly linked with fertility and particularly grain fertility. 

The word “česnica” could be derived either from the noun “čast” meaning honor, or “čest”, meaning “share”. Both roots describe this bread perfectly. It is a bread made in honor of Dabog, Triglav, the Sky father, the father of grain who was in Christianity replaced with Christ. The bread is also made to be shared. 

In Serbia Christmas dinner is the most festive meal of the year. It begins about noon, or even earlier. The family members seated at the table stand up when the head of household gives a sign. The head makes the Sign of the Cross and lights a candle, before blessing the gathered relatives and saying a prayer, after which they all kiss each other while saying, “Peace of God, Christ Is Born.” The head of the family and another man of the family hold the česnica between themselves, rotating it three times counterclockwise. The fact that česnica is turned three times shows that the bread was originally dedicated to Dabog – Triglav. The counterclockwise rotation of česnica is an example how an old Pre -Christian ceremonies and symbols which could not be eradicated where in Christianity turned into its opposites. Originally česnica must have been turned clockwise, to the right, the way the sun moves across the sky. Making people turn česnica counterclockwise implements magical way of destroying the symbol’s power by either turning it upside-down, or the other-way-round. We see this being used over and over again with Christianized pagan symbols, rituals and beliefs…Anyway, after it is rotated, the česnica is then carefully broken among the relatives, so that each of them gets his own piece of the bread, without a crumb falling off. Bread falling onto the ground, and throwing bread away are still considered a big sin in Serbia. 

Up to three pieces of the loaf may be set aside: one for the absent relatives (if there are such), one for a stranger who might join the family at the dinner, and one for the položajnik (polaznik), their first visitor on Christmas Day (if he is not present). The rest of the česnica is consumed during the dinner. The family member who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. The head may try to buy the coin from this lucky relative. Each of the other objects hidden in the bread indicates the segment of the household economy in which the person who finds it in his share of the česnica will be especially successful. 

Now remember the giant bread from Saxo’s description of Slavic pagan fertility ritual? They are still made in Serbia too. These are giant communal česnica breads which are ceremonially broken and shared among all the members of the community. Or at least everyone quick enough to get a piece 🙂 

And we have ethnographic evidence that česnica breads were in the past used for the same “peekaboo” grain fertility ritual described by Saxo. 
In his dictionary, Vuk Karadzić says this about the verb “milati”: “I have heard that in Herzegovina people “milaju” at Christmas with česnica (large round flat Christmas bread, cake). This is what they do: Two people take česnica, one of them holds it in front of himself and asks the other: “Milam li se”? meaning “Am I visible? Can you see me? Am I sticking out from behind the cake?” The other man then says: “Milaš malo” meaning “you are visible a little, you are sticking out a little”. The man holding the bread then says “Danas malo a dogodine ni malo” meaning “This year a little, but next year hopefully not at all”. 
Ljubomir Pećo noted the same custom among Croats in the village Zabrđe in Bosnia. 
Similar custom was recorded in Old Serbia. Jastrebov, in “Obыčai i phsni tureckihь Serbovъ. S. Petersburgъ”, 1886, str. 41, upor. i RJA talks about the custom called “milanje”: A househusband hides behind a pile of breads and asks his family: “do you see me?”. The family members reply “We see you this year, but we hope not to see you at all next year”, meaning “We hope the grain harvest next year is so big, and that we can make so many breads, that you can hide completely behind them”. 
In some parts of Old Serbia and Makedonia, the househusband hiding behind the Christmas cake says “You see me now, but may god give such huge ears of wheat this year that you wont see me at all behind them. Sometimes the “milanje” ritual was performed in Serbia at the end of the harvest with newly harvested grain. In the village of Grmljani in Lika near Trebinje this ritual was performed during the threshing of grain on the threshing floor. A pile from newly threshed grain was made on the threshing floor. Two people would stand on the opposite sides of the pile. The first man would then ask the second: “Do you see me?” and the second would answer: “I don’t see you”, to which the first man would reply “May god give that you don’t see me next year either!”
The word “milanje” comes from “maljanje” which comes from “malo” meaning “a little”. So the meaning of “milanje” is “sticking out a little”…
This is a magical ritual which is performed with the intention to give god a hint to make the next years grain crop even bigger. In a way people are trying to trick god, as bread used in the ceremony is never big enough for a person hiding behind it to fully disappear from view, no matter how big the harvest was. 
This custom was also preserved as a a new year or all souls (samhain), end of harvest, thanksgiving tradition in some other Slavic nations. 
Ukrainians and Belarusians have the same custom, except that they use a shief of wheat instead of bread. 
Karpatho Rusyns have the same custom. In the article about Christmas and New Year customs of the Rusynes, written by Mykola Musinka on “carpatho-rusyn.org” we read that most magic customs were connected with Christmas Eve (Svjatyj vecur, Korocun, Vilija). On that day the husbandman covered the floor with straw. An unthreshed grain sheaf, usually oats (called in some localities “Didko” or “Diduch” meaning grandfather), was placed on the honorable seat at the table, i.e., “into the corner” under the icons. According to historical and ethnographic literature, in the archaic Slavic homes one corner was reserved for a representation of the pagan gods. Oats or straw were also used for decorating the festive table on which there had to be seeds from all crops. In the spring these very seeds were used in the first sowing. The oats and straw had a magical function in pagan society: they were expected to secure plenty of fodder and grain. Christianity provided another rationalization for the custom, stressing the birth of Jesus on straw and oats, thus transforming the two into symbols of that event. Also placed in the place of honor was the festive bread (korocun, kracun) decorated with wintergreen or periwinkle (barvinok) and various small figures. Prosperity was symbolized by a “mountain” of bread at the end of the table. At the beginning of the evening meal the husbandman hid behind this “mountain,” asking: “Can you see me from behind the bread mountain?” The children replied in a chorus: “We can’t,” after which the husbandman concluded: “Let us wish you’ll not see me either in the spring from within the hay or in the summer from within the wheat!”
So….
So lets recapitulate. 
Serbs are people whose main deity was once Dabog (giving god) also known as Hromi Daba, and Triglav (the three headed one). They have a special votive bread called “česnica” which they bake for Christmas, the Christianised Winter Solstice, the end of the solar year. They use this bread for magic ritual related to fertility and good fortune. The bread is round made from sweet dough. A coin is put into the dough during the kneading. In some regions, little figures carved from cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, and the like, are also put into the dough. In other areas, the inserted objects include grains, broad beans, walnuts, tufts of wool, twigs, and Christmas tree splinters… The bread is broken by family or community members and consumed during the Christmas dinner. The family member who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. Each of the other objects hidden in the bread indicates the segment of the household economy in which the person who finds it in his share of the votive will be especially successful. This bread seams to have also been made at the beginning of November, for the thanksgiving ceremony marking the end of the harvest and the end of the agricultural and vegetative year. Saxo Gramaticus in the 12th century mentions this bread as the votive bread made by Pagan Slavic tribe known as Rujani, (red, redhead people???)  who lived on an island of Rujan (red, redhead people???) island, which lies just of the coast of South Baltic, which Slavs call Pomorje meaning seaside. People from Pomorje are known as Pomori, Pomorci. 
Now this is very interesting because:
The Irish are people whose main deity was once Dadga (giving god) who is believed to be another name of Crom Dubh, and who is possibly the god who was represented by three headed idol found in Ireland. The Irish have a special votive bread called Barmbrack which is today made for Halloween, Christianised Samhain. Samhain, which was originally celebrated at the beginning of November, was the thanksgiving ceremony marking the end of the harvest and the end of the agricultural and vegetative year. Barmbrack  traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Samhain was also the time when Fomorians extract their taxes of corn, milk and live children. Fomorians were an evil race of people who came from across the sea and their name is said to mean “sea (seaside???) people”. Samhain is also the time when the Irish sacrificed first fruit, including first born children, to the evil god Crom Cruach (Crom Dubh). Samhain was also the time when a demon known as Aillén Tréchenn (from trí ceann, three-headed) came from Cruachan in Roscommon, and caused havoc in all of Ireland, especially Emain Macha (Armagh) and Tara.  O and in Irish the word “rua” means red-haired person. 
Do you think that this is all a coincidence? Or maybe there is some kind of connection here? 
But the best part is still to come: 
The etymology of the word “barmbrack”. In Ireland “barmbrack” is sometimes called “Bairín Breac”, and the term is also used as two words in its more common version. The official translation of “Bairín Breac” is 
bairín – a loaf – and breac – speckled (due to the raisins in it), hence it means a speckled loaf, a similar etymology to the Welsh “bara brith”. Bara brith comes from Welsh “bara” meaning bread and “brith” translating as speckled”
But this Welsh name could just be a direct transliteration of the Irish Bairín Breac. The Irish Laigin, who gave their name to the province of Leinster, used to rule the north Wales Llŷn Peninsula, which was named after them. So I believe that they might have brought this bread and the name with them. 
But that is beside the point. The important bit is that I don’t think that the translation of the “Bairín Breac” as “speckled bread” is correct. Sure now raisins are added to the dough, but I don’t think that the ancient Irish had access to grapes and raisins. I believe that this is a recent addition to the recipe and that originally the “Bairín Breac” was made from plain sweat leavened dough. I believe that the correct translation for “Bairín Breac” is patterned bread, bread which has patterns inscribed on it. Why? Because believe or not the word “breac“, apart from meaning speckled, which by the way also means patterned, has another very interesting meaning: carve, engrave, mark with letters, figures, to write…Now this is most interesting because it perfectly describes “česnica” which is always marked with letters, figures, patterns…Decorating of special votive breads with patterns has been practiced in the Balkans since early Neolithic. Special bread stamps were developed for stamping breads probably to standardize and make easier the inscription of the religious patterns used by all the members of the community. Some of the patterns and patterned stamps actually haven’t changed since neolithic and are still used on votive breads today. 
Vinča culture was one of the cultures which decorated their breads with patterns and which had bread stamps and votive breads. I mentioned one of these votive breads in my post about Newgrange, because a giant stone copy of the small Vinčan clay votive bread stands in front of the entrance into Newgrange. 
This is small Vinča votive clay bread:

This is giant Newgrange votive stone bread:
Both of these votive breads are decorated, inscribed with patterns and symbols. Both of them are “Bairín Breac”. Both of them are “česnica” breads. 
Now remember the Redhead Rujani people from South Baltic. On Samhain, they would bring a giant, inscribed, patterned česnica bread in front of the temple entrance, and the priest would hide behind it and would ask his people: “Do you see me”? Serbs performed the same ritual on Christmas day, the Christian replacement for Winter Solstice. 
Newgrange tumulus is aligned with the sunrise on the Winter Solstice so originally it was probably used for ceremonies on Winter solstice morning, beginning of the new Solar year. However Irish tradition strongly associates Newgrange with Samhain, so it is possible that the original alignment and use of Newgrange was over time forgotten and the date on which Newgrange was used for ceremonies shifted from Winter Solstice, the beginning of the new Solar year to Samhain evening, the beginning of the new Agricultural year. Regardless of how and when Newgrange was used for ceremonies, I believe that Newgrange was used as the temple of the divine marriage of Heaven and Earth, the marriage which produces grain, bread. Hopefully lots and lots of big breads, as big as the votive stone bread standing in front of the tumulus entrance. Or bigger. So is it possible that similar to the Slavic tradition, a pagan priest would come out of the Newgrange tumulus on Summer Solstice or Samhain, stand behind the giant votive stone bread and ask his people: “Do you see me?”. 
Well we will never know, but… 
Sources for “milanje” ritual in the Balkans:
Српски рjечник, истолкован њемачким и латинским риjечма” Вук Стефановић Караџић (Dictionary of Serbian language by Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic)
Srpski Mitoloski Recnik – Grupa Autora” (Serbian mythological dictionary)
Stara slovenska religija u svjetlu novijih istraživanja posebno balkanoloških” – Akademija nauka i umjetnosti Bosne i Hercegovine, 1979
Christmas in Croatia” by Dunja Rihtman-Auguštin
“Kalendar srpskih narodnih obicaja” by Mile Nedeljkovic. Not available online

Wren or wran?

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds…
This is wren. The Wren is small and rather inconspicuous. But it lives life at a fast, relentless pace and it sings this way too – it trembles as it puts everything into its song, which lasts about 5 seconds and usually ends in a trill.They are either the first or one of the first birds to start singing at dawn and once they start their song is so loud that it drowns out everything else. So they are known as the heralds of the rising sun. 
In European folklore, the wren has always been considered the king of the birds, as its name in European languages indicates. Aristotle and Plutarch called the wren basileus (king) and basiliskos (little king). In Latin he was known as Regulus – prince. In French, Roitelet – little king. Celtic names of the wren (draouennig, drean, dreathan, dryw etc.) all mean druid bird, and in Welsh the word dryw actually means both druid and wren. It is the same in Germanic languages. In Teutonic wren is Koning Vogel meaning king-bird. In Old German wren is Schneekönig meaning snow king, in Modern German wren is Zaunkönig meaning king of the hedge and in Dutch wren is winterkoninkje meaning winter little king. The same situation is in Slavic languages. In Serbocroatian wren is carić maning little tzar, in Russian wren is korolek, in Ukrainian wren is korolik, in Sorbian wren is kralik, In Slovenian wren is kraljiček, in Slovak wren is hrdlik all meaning prince, little king. 
It was generally believed that wren brought good fortune and harming the bird or its nest was strictly forbidden. It was also believed that anyone who broke this taboo would die from a lightning strike. 
Well wren was considered the bringer of good news everywhere except in Ireland where he was considered to be the bringer of bad news. This is the list of local beliefs related to wren from Ireland from “Pagan Celtic Britain”, by Ann Ross, Chapter VI, page 260:

…if it call from behind you importuning of your wife by another man in despite of you. If it be on the ground behind you, your wife will be taken from you by force. If the wren call from the east, poets are coming towards you, or tidings from them. If it call behind you from the south, you will see the heads of good clergy or hear death tidings of noble ex lay men. If it call from the south robbers and evilkinsmen are coming. If it call from the north west, a noble hero of good lineage and noble hospitallars and goodwomen are coming.
If it call from the north, bad people are coming whether warriors or clerics or bad women and wiched youths are on way…

So no wonder that in Ireland on Christmas day wren was hunted and killed…
Long ago, on Christmas day, in Ireland, group of men an boys, called “wren boys” go out “hunting the wren”. Pursuit of the bird persisted into the early years of the 20th century. Accounts relate that for a day or two previous to the holiday wren was, ‘hunted and knocked over with stick or stone. Two or three of them were tied to a branch torn from a holly bush, which was also decorated with coloured ribbons. Sometimes a pole or a basket was used to carry the dead wren. If the group as “unlucky” and couldn’t find and kill a wren, an effigy, a bird doll was used. 
Yates drawing of “wren boys”
Then on the St Steven’s day, the “wren boys” or as they are sometimes called “straw boys” get dressed up in masks, straw suits, and colorful motley clothing, and go from home to home displaying the dead birds and begging for money “to bury the wren.” They play music instruments, sing and make a lot of noise. At the door step of each home the ‘Bean an Tí’ (the woman of the house), is beseeched:

The wren, the wren, the King of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.
So up with the kettel and down with the pan,
and give us a penny to bury the wren.

The house that is least generous is likely to have the wren buried under their door, “through which no luck would then enter for a twelvemonth”

Here are some pictures of “wren boys” or “straw boys” from Ireland:

Similar traditions of hunting the wren have been performed on the Isle of Man on Boxing Day and in Pembrokeshire, Wales on Twelfth Day (6 January, the old Christmas day) and, on the first Sunday of December in parts of Southern France, including Carcassonne. 
What is the explanation for this strange custom? Why, of all birds, is this tiny bird chosen as the martyr for display by groups who take their name from it? 
Apparently because of its treachery. Here are the explanations given in Ireland for this custom:
When the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwells troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldiers drums made a noise that woke the sleeping sentries just in time, thereby saving the camp.  
Another explanation is that wren betrayed St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, by flapping its wings to attract his pursuers when he was hiding in a bush. 
Another explanation for the hostility towards this most harmless of creatures says that it is all the result of the efforts of clerics in the middle ages to undermine vestiges of druidic reverence and practices regarding the bird. Medieval texts interpret the etymology of wren, the Irish for which is dreolín, as derived from ‘dreán’ or ‘draoi éan’ the translation of which is ‘druid bird’. So once venerated and protected bird, whose harming was by the Irish believed to be punishable by death by lightning, became the target of the ritual killing on the same day when it was originally celebrated. 
The last explanation for the hatred towards wrens is also the explanation for how wren got to be called the “little king”.This explanation is associated with the fable of the election of the “king of birds”. The story goes like this. The birds decided to elect the king of birds and decided that the bird that could fly to the highest altitude would be made king. The eagle out-flew all other birds, but he was beaten by a wren that had hidden in his plumage. And when the eagle tired, the wren flew out above him and won the race. 

This fable is already known to Aristotle (Historia Animalium 9.11) Plutarch (Political Precepts xii.806e) and Pliny (Naturalis Historia 10.74). 

Plutarch implied that this story teaches us that cleverness, trickery is better than strength. Hmmmm…Great lesson….

What is interesting is that this old fable is actually still told as a fairy-tale in Ireland and in Slavic lands. 

In Irish version, god wished to know who was the king of all birds so he set a challenge. The bird who flew highest and furthest would win. The birds all began together but they dropped out one by one until none were left but the great eagle. The eagle eventually grew tired and began to drop lower in the sky. At this point, the treacherous wren emerged from beneath the eagle’s wing to soar higher and further than all the others. And this is why wren is hunted and killed. In Irish the word Dreoilín means wren and the word dreolán means trickster…

In the Slavic version the bird which flies the highest, while carrying the wren hidden in his feathers,  is eagle (in East Ukrainian and Polish version) or heron (in West Ukrainian version) or stork (in Sorbian version). Once the eagle (heron, stork) out-flies all the other birds, wren flies out of its plumage and out-flies the eagle (heron, stork). 

That wren is seen as trickster in Slavic mythology can be seen from the fact that wren is also known as “obluda” meaning “trickster”, “durisvit” meaning “charlatan, fool”, “zvoditelj” meaning “joker”. But in Slavic version of the story, the trick is discovered and wren is forced to run and hide in order to avoid punishment. In Ukrainian and Sorbian versions of the story, this is not the end. Angry birds decide that because they could not find the king of the bird through a “who can fly the highest” competition decide to stage a context in “who can get the deepest”. The bird that can get the deepest into the ground will be the king of the birds. And again wren won the contest. The wren scientific name Troglodytidae is derived from the word “troglodyte”, which means “cave-dweller”. The wrens get their scientific name from the fact that they forage in dark crevices and hide from the cold in holes just like mice. This small, brown bird that scurries through the undergrowth and into log piles and holes in search of insects and any other small animals, particularly beetles and spiders, from a distance actually looks like a mouse. Thus in Ukrainian and Polish tradition, wren is also known as mouse king. It is interesting that Icelanders also consider wren to be the “mouse’s brother”. 

The Celts and the Slavs seem to have understood the story slightly differently from the Greeks. Wren’s trickery was not seen as virtue but as a crime, a sin…punishable by death…

Are Slavic wren stories versions of older Celtic stories preserved in Central Europe when Celts morphed into Slavs? Or does this story about the cheating wren predate both Celts and Slavs? Or is this story about the cheating wren a later corruption of a much earlier story which doesn’t involve wren at all but another bird whose name sounds very much like wren, making the wren an unfortunate victim of a mistaken identity? 

Let’s see what we can dig out. 

Remember that wren forages and hides in holes in the ground, in “the underworld”. This makes wren, the bird that can be under ground, on the ground and in the air “the bird that connects the three worlds”. 

As I already said, wren is the first bird to start singing in the morning. And the loudest. This is why wren is known as the herald of the rising sun. 

So every evening both the sun and wren go underground. And every morning wren emerges from the underground before the sun does, effectively out-running the sun during their race from the underworld to heaven. Now the bird most associated with the sun is eagle, who is the solar bird pretty much in every religion in the northern hemisphere. So wren racing the sun can be nicely represented with wren racing an eagle. Is this the origin of the story about the bird race in which a wren beat an eagle?

Also because wren announces the arrival of the sun, during the Pagan times, wren, the “little king of birds”, was announcing the arrival of the Sun, the “big king of heaven”. That is a particularly important role in sun worshiping religions. No wonder wren was so venerated and protected. 

European Wrens are migratory in some parts of Europe, flying anything up to 2500 km (1500 miles) with some migrating all the way from Scandinavia down to Spain. But in British Isles wren is one of the few non migratory songbirds and is often the only bird singing during the winter solstice period. Its song on the Winter Solstice morning, not only announces the sunrise, it announces the beginning of the new solar year, the birth of the new sun, new sun god, new little king of heaven.

Christmas is repackaged Winter Solstice and that many old rituals related to winter solstice were moved to Christmas. So instead of the birth of the new sun, new sun god, little king of heaven which happens on the Winter Solstice morning, we have the birth of baby Jesus, the son of God the king of heaven, which happens on Christmas morning. Now correct me if I am wrong, but the son of the “king of heaven” is defacto the “prince of heaven” or the “little king of heaven”. Right?

When the Winter Solstice celebration of the birth of new Sun God was replaced by the Christmas celebration of the birth of the Son of God, Christians didn’t want to be reminded of the old Sun God by the wren, who was still announcing his arrival. So Is this why wren had to die on the day the new Son of God was born to replace Sun the God? Look at the day on which the dead wren, the dead herald of the old Sun God was paraded around. That day is the day after the Christmas day, the St Stephen’s day. Now who is this St Stephen? St Stephen or St Stephan is traditionally venerated as the Protomartyr or first martyr of Christianity. Now this means the first one to be killed in the name of Christ, Son of God. And the first to be killed in the name of the Son of God is Sun the God. New young Sun God, old “little king of heaven”, which used to be born on the day of the Winter Solstice is now killed on Christmas day, replacement for the Winter Solstice, and is replaced by Son of God, new “little king of heaven”. And the day when this “first victim of Christianity” is celebrated is St Stephen’s day. Funnily name Stephen or Stephan was originally a title meaning “crowned” or king, the origin of which is in the  Ancient Greek word “στέφανος” which means crown. It was the title given to many kings in medieval Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Poland. So the death of the old “little king” and the enthronement of the new “little king” is celebrated on the day of Stephen, the day of the “crowned one” the day of the king. Do you think that there is some kind of symbolism here? 

But this is not all.

Why is the killing of wrens or disturbing of their nests punished by thunder? And why is it said that wren is the bird of Lugh, the Celtic thunder god? Well to understand this we need to look at what happens to the newly born Sun God after the Winter Solstice.

Remember my post “Two crosses“?

As soon as he is born on Winter Solstice, the Sun God starts its ascend to the throne. He finally sits on its throne on Summer Solstice. This is the day when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky above the northern hemisphere. This is the maximum sunlight day. One would expect that the day after the Summer solstice, as the days start getting shorter the weather would start getting colder. But that is not the case. The days start getting shorter but the weather continues to get warmer. Until the 2nd of August. This is the maximum heat day. This is the sun at its maximum strength. After that the days finally start getting cooler.

In Serbia the 2nd of August is Perun day, but also the day of Ilija Gromovnik, the Thundering Sun, the Thunder Giant. In Serbian Thunder Giant is Grom Div. In Ireland 2nd of August is the day of Chrom Dubh, the Sky God and the main agricultural deity of the old Ireland. But also the day of Lugh, the thunder god.

Now if we look at wren life-cycle we will notice something very interesting. This is an excerpt from Edward Armstrong’s THE WREN (1955) which talks about wren’s singing patterns:

Usually there is little song in January apart from imperfect phrases, lacking in verve, during the day, especially in the morning if the weather is mild, and some rallying songs at dusk, if it is severe. …. Favourable weather in February elicits a fair amount of morning song, a song or two in the afternoon and a little regular song before roosting. … In March [if the weather is mild] there is intermittent singing for two or three hours in the morning, an increase in the evening output and a general advance towards day-long song .. at the end of the month, when nest-building has begun, song is in every way well developed. … In April there is still more territorial song … apparently there is some diminution in May [when females are incubating or, towards end of May, feeding young] … it is difficult accurately to assess the output of song at this stage as individuals vary according to the phase of the breeding cycle. … In June many reach their highest daily production of song and a few young Wrens begin to sing at the end of the month. During July song decreases and deteriorates, and some adults go almost out of song, but the number of juveniles singing increases. The moult in August is accompanied by an abrupt diminution of song, so far as most adults are concerned, but the birds of the year frequently utter their broken ditties, mainly during the hour and a half after sunrise. This may continue until about the beginning of October when song becomes bolder and clearer, though still incomplete. In November if the weather is [mild], there is little change: Wrens are heard for about half and hour after sunrise and a few phrases are uttered in the late afternoon and towards sunset. Song diminishes in December, but even when it is freezing Wrens occasionally engage in song duels.

So wrens sing the most around Summer Solstice period as befits the herald of the Sun. But they get almost completely silent around Crom Dubh, Lugh, Ilija Gromovnik, Perun day. And this is the only time when these loudmouths shut up. Why? The reason for the sudden silence of wrens, is the annual moult: a complete change of feathers after the final wear and tear of the breeding season. Even juveniles are changing into adult plumage. Moulting takes energy, as the bird’s metabolism speeds up to grow new feathers and push out the old ones. The birds become lethargic, reluctant to fly very far, and spend much of the day resting in deep cover. Keeping their beaks shut.

And this coincides with the period when Summer turns into Autumn and the beginning of the harvest. For early farmers this must have been very auspicious. As I wrote in my post about the Sky Father, the beginning of the harvest is the most critical period of the whole grain vegetative cycle. Sudden storm, heavy rain and particularly strong winds can destroy everything farmers worked for the whole year. On Summer Solstice Sun God was powerful and merciful. On the 2nd of August he is even more powerful but he is angry, angry because his reign is coming to an end. This is why 2nd of August is the real seat of the Sky God. Because this is when he is most dangerous.

And in Serbia, on the 2nd of August people celebrate St Stephen the Wind maker. This saint is Christianized version of Stribog, the old Slavic wind god.

In the epic “Slovo o polku Igorovu” it is said that the winds are the grandsons of Stribog. He was imagined as an old man who had a warrior’s horn with which he woke the winds up. Stribog was especially worshiped in Kievian Russia where they built idols dedicated to him…Festivities in Stribog’s honor were organized in the summer as well as in the winter.

Now I know that the Eastern Slavs worshiped Stribog as a separate deity, but I believe that Stribog was just an attribute of Perun. Here is why. 

Eagle was his sacred animal. Just like Perun’s. His sacred plants were hawthorn and oak. Just like Perun’s. His day was the 2nd of August. Just like Perun’s.  When pledges were made, Stribog was often guarantor who would punish cheaters and wrongdoers. Just like Perun. 

Also apparently we don’t officially know what Stribog means. Well in Serbian the word “trti” means “to rub in, to stomp in, to erase”. The word “strti, zatrti” means “to destroy utterly, to level to the ground”. The word “stri, zatri” is an imperative of “strti, zatrti” meaning “destroy utterly, level to the ground”. So Stribog = Stri, Zatri + bog = destroy utterly, level to the ground + god = The one who destroys utterly, who levels to the ground. 

This is wheat field destroyed by a storm. 
All the stalks are broken by wind and rain. This is the nightmare of all grain farmers. And this is what “strti, zatrti”, “to destroy utterly, to level to the ground”, means. This the terrible power that the Sky God, the Thunder Giant wields. 

Basically Stribog was the destructive face of Perun. It is interesting that Stribog was replaced by Stefan or Stepan. In Serbian the word “tepati” means “to hit, to beat up” and the word “stepati, zatepati” means “to destroy utterly, to level to the ground”. Stepan is the one who “destroys utterly, who levels to the ground”… So Stepan could be stepa + on = destroy utterly, level to the ground + he = the Destoryer. Maybe St Stepan (Stefan) is just another version of Stribog and has nothing to do with crowned and king? Or maybe you only get crowned as a king when you utterly destroy, level to the ground everything that stands in your way…Interesting… So it is no wonder that Stribog was the favorite god of military commanders. Even more interesting is that the word “stepan” also means destroyed, leveled, which is what happens to someone who was stoned to death like St Stepan, Stephen…I will not even go into how come an early Palestine saint, the first martyr of Christianity who was stoned to death, has a name which in Slavic language means”the one one who was utterly destroyed, leveled, killed”…

And here is the best bit: Stribog was particularly popular with princes, who often built his idols and worshiped them….There is something poetic about the fact that Stribog was the favorite idol of the princes, who are waiting for their fathers to die so that they can inherit the throne. Perun as Stribog is the sun god in is most terrible, super powerful but on the way out and knowing that he is on the way out. The winter is coming and his power is vanning and in December he will die and will be replaced by his son, the “new sun”, “little king of heaven”, “prince of heaven”. And there is nothing Old Sun God can do. This is just the way things are. 

I love this. 

So during this “dangerous” harvest period, during the reign of Perun the destroyer, Stribog, wren doesn’t sing. It hides and it looks like it has disappeared. Well this looks like a fitting announcement of the arrival of the old cranky god, don’t you think? Run and hide… And then it starts singing again when the harvest is finished and the reign of the sun is over. Right on time for the arrival of the Lady, Virgo. Is this why there is the link between the Storm god and wren and why those who harm wrens are punished by thunder? I also believe that the fact that wren is in Slavic countries also known as “bull’s eye” is another thing that confirms this link between the Sky god in his terrible Destroyer role and wren. The sacrificial animal of both Perun and Crom Dubh was bull…

O and by the way in Japan, the wren is labelled king of the winds…

But it is possible that the hunt actually originally happened on winter solstice day but that the bird that was hunted was not wren but wran, vran meaning crow, raven.

In English tradition, “the cock robin and the jenny wren are the Queen of Heaven’s cock and hen”.
The shape-shifting Fairy Queen took the form of a wren, known as “Jenny Wren” in nursery rhymes.

In my post “Babje leto – Grandmother’s summer” I talked about the transformation of the old mother goddess into Mary the mother of god, the Queen of heaven. According to the old Serbian and Celtic tradition, the year was divided into two parts: the white, light, warm part dominated by the Sky father and the black, dark, cold part dominated by the Earth Mother. These two opposites mix during the year and produce life. But in their extremes they are both destructive and bring death. 

The period between the Summer solstice (21st of June) and the beginning of Autumn (2nd of August), is the extreme Sky Father period. This is the period symbolized by the Eagle. The period between the Winter solstice (21st of December) and the beginning of spring (2nd of February) is the extreme Earth Mother, Baba, Cailleach period. This period is symbolized by crow and raven. In my post “Bran Vran” I talked abut the word “bran, vran, wran, fran” which is found in both Slavic and Celtic languages and which means “crow, raven” but also “black”.  Crow and ravens, the ominous black birds of death are sacred birds of the mother goddess in her most extreme form as the old hag of winter. 

The eagle, the big king of the summer skies and the crow, the usurper, the little king of the winter skies. Interestingly crows are the only birds which are not afraid of eagles and are known to gather in groups and attack eagles…On top of this crows and ravens are the smartest birds. So if any bird was to outsmart an eagle and use smartness against strength it would have been crow (wran) and not wren. 

In Ireland the “wren boys” don’t actually sing “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds…”. They sing “The wran, the wran, the king of all birds…”. Is this just the mispronunciation or were the original “wren boys” actually “wran boys” who didn’t hunt wrens but “wrans”, crows and ravens?

Crows and ravens can devastate the grain fields during the winter and early spring. They gather in huge flocks, land on fields and can basically poke and pull every last seed out of the ground. This is why farmers since the time immemorial considered crows their enemies and built scarecrows

Now here is again the picture of the “wran boys”:

Don’t they look like scarecrows dressed in old mismatched colorful clothing? And look at the “straw boys”. Don’t they look like walking grain stacks? 

Giant grain stacks, good harvest, is reason why crows (wrans) are killed… 

The “wran boys” go through the fields, bang drums, blow pipes and shout. Just what you want to do if you want to scare the crows and ravens (wrans). And if you also manage to kill a crow and raven (wran) or even many crows and ravens (wrans) even better. And to prove that you have done your job of protecting the fields well, you attach the dead crows and ravens (wrans) on the holy branch and parade them through the village and you ask for money to bury them. And you kill the crows and ravens (wrans) on the day of the Winter Solstice, the day when the Sun is reborn, to help the Eagle win over crows, to help light win over darkness, to help the summer win over winter…

Remember how in Ireland wren was considered the bringer of bad news, which is the role dedicated to crows and ravens in Slavic countries where wren always brings good news? Did someone seriously misunderstand something here? I believe so. I believe that the old custom of killing crows and ravens on Winter Solstice was, when the meaning of the word “wran” was forgotten, replaced with killing of wren, which is the closest English word that sounds like “wran”…

What do you think?

I will leave you with this great song by Snakefinger and Residents called “Kill the great raven”. You can hear the song here.

Kill the Great Raven 
Kill the Great Raven 

His tiny eyes, they search the skies 
He looks so alone, so he must die 
“Oh, does he really have to die?” 
“Oh yes, he really has to suffer” 

Kill the Great Raven 
Kill the Great Raven 

And when he dies, 
to his surprise 
The sun will set 
and he will rise
“Where will he go?” 
“He’ll become the sun of course. 
We must have one you know…

Kill the Great Raven 
Kill the Great Raven 

Fulacht fiadh – sweat lodge?

Some fulacht fiadh reconstructions, such as the one at Ballyvourney, include circular, hut-type structures based on the post holes found at the sites. One theory is that these small buildings on site were used as sweat houses. This theory was based on:

1. In Irish legends, Fulachta Fiadh were not just described as “the cooking place of the Fianna” (Fianna – small, semi-independent warrior bands in Irish mythology). They were also said to have been used by Fianna for bathing. 

2. Ireland has a very long tradition of sweat houses which are in Ireland called “Tigh ‘n Alluis” meaning houses of sweat.

Traditionally the Tigh ‘n Alluis was built in the form of beehive huts made of dry-stone walls covered in clay and turf, with seats within which were covered with straw or grassy sods upon which the subject sat or lay. It usually had a small opening in the roof and a low doorway, both were covered by flag-stones when the subjects were inside.

The Sweat House was heated by a variety of means, most commonly by igniting a large peat fire in the hut’s centre and clearing the ashes before entering. The fire would heat the stone walls which would then radiate the heat towards the inside of the hut. Another method was by heating bricks, which were carried into the house in a creel in which herbs had been placed, especially when inhalation was a part of the cure.

This description of the use of sweat houses is taken from ‘Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland’ by W.G. Wood-Martin:

When men used it as many as six or eight stripped off and went in, when all openings were closed except what afforded a little ventilation. A person remained outside to attend to these matters. When they could suffer the heat no longer, the flag was removed, and they came out and plunged in a pool of water within a yard or two of the sweat-house, where they washed, got well-rubbed and put on their clothes. In case of women, they put on a bathing dress whilst using the bath, and generally omitted the plunge…

Another description of the Gaelic sweat houses and their use can be found in the book “A smaller social history of ancient Ireland, treating of the government, military system, and law; religion, learning, and art; trades, industries, and commerce; manners, customs, and domestic life, of the ancient Irish people” by Joyce, P. W. (Patrick Weston):

The hot-air or vapour bath was well known in Ireland, and was used as a cure for rheumatism down to a few years ago. It was probably in use from old times; and the masonry of the Inishmurray sweating-house, represented opposite, has all the appearance—as Mr. Wakeman remarks—of being as old as any of the other primitive buildings in the island. The structures in which these baths were given are known by the name of Tigh ‘n alluis [Teenollish], ‘sweating-house’ (allus, ‘sweat’). They are still well known in the northern parts of Ireland—small houses, entirely of stone, from five to seven feet long inside, with a low little door through which one must creep: always placed remote from habitations: and near by is commonly a pool or tank of water four or five feet deep. They were used in this way. A great fire of turf was kindled inside till the house became heated like an oven; after which the embers and ashes were swept out, and water was splashed on the stones, which produced a thick warm vapour. Then the person, wrapping himself in a blanket, crept in and sat down on a bench of sods, after which the door was closed up. He remained there an hour or so till he was in a profuse perspiration: and then creeping out, plunged right into the cold water, after emerging from which he was well rubbed till he became warm. After several baths at intervals of some days he commonly got cured. Persons are still living who used these baths or saw them used.

Knowing this, it easy to see how the theory that the fulachta fiadh were used as sweat houses – baths could have sprang forward.

In the “Cois tSiuire – Nine Thousand years of Human Activity in the Lower Suir Valley” by Eogan, J. and Shee Twohig we can see this reconstruction of a Fulacht fiadh used as a sweat house.

On the above artist’s depiction of a fulacht fiadh used as a sweat house, you can see the low domed yurt type hut full of people. On the left if the hearth where stones are heated. These stones are then brought into the hut to create heat. In front of the hut is the through used as a plunge pool. Again I have to repeat, that only throughs cut into a well drained dry soil, or into the reiver bank or a beach could have been used as plunge pools. It is quite possible that the fulacht fiadh through found on the Coney island could have been used as a bath.

You definitely don’t want to lay into a through cut into a marshy boggy soil which is full of acidic bog water…

Anyway, the hut on the above depiction of the fulacht fiadh looks very much like the “inipi” sweat house used by Native American.

This is a short instruction how to build this type of sweat lodge hut.

Building the “inipi” sweat lodge frame

The average sweat lodge hut has a diameter of about 9 feet. This is why. You need to dig a pit two feet in diameter in the center of the lodge. This is where the hot rocks are placed to heat the hut. You then need to be able to sit cross legged facing the hot rocks at about 2 feet from the rocks. Add about 5 feet for sitting area, enough for a person sitting cross legged leaning against the wall. You end up with 9 feet.

Use a short sharpened stick and stick it into the ground. This is the center of your hut. Attach a string to it. Stretch the string two feet from the stick. Attach another smaller sharpened stick (drawing stick) to the string and draw a circle two feet in diameter. This is where the hot rock pit will be dug later. Stretch the string another 5 feet. Reattach the drawing stick to the string and draw a circle 9 feet in diameter. This is where the hut wall will go. A nine foot diameter lodge will seat twelve people comfortably.

The frame can be made from willow or hazel, but any sapling will do. You need about 12 saplings with about two inches in diameter each. After the saplings are cut, the branches need to be removed and the bottoms need to be sharpened. Stick the sharpened ends into the ground at an equal distance around the drawn outer wall circle, leaving an opening for the doorway. You have to make sure the saplings are embedded deep enough into the ground so they hold firm when they are bent and tied together to form the domed frame. The bend of the sapling should allow for a large man to sit comfortably. Don’t build your lodge too tall or it will be difficult to heat. Bind the opposite saplings together to form arches and then tie the arches together to form a dome. To strengthen and reinforce the hut structure, weave sapling horizontally between the upright saplings and tie them together. The procedure is as if you are building a large upturned basket.

Covering the “inipi” sweat lodge

Originally the Native American sweat lodge huts were covered with hides, then blankets and then with hides again. This combination of materials provides both thermal insulation and is water resistant. Today you can use any combination of the materials with the same characteristics: plastic sheets, tarps, blankets…

The bottoms of the covers should lay on the ground for about a foot. Pile rocks on the bottoms, all around the sweat lodge. This is to seal the bottom up from drafts. You can make the door from several folded blankets wider than the opening.

Using the “inipi” sweat lodge

In order to turn the hut into a sweat lodge, you need red hot rocks. For the 9 feed diameter hut probably about 20 – 30 red hot rocks. Rocks are heated on the pyre burning in the fire pit which should be built facing the hut entrance. Like this one in the picture below.

The sides of the fire pit are covered with the rocks from previous sweats. They are not reused because most get pretty cracked. As the fire pit is cleaned for the next heating of the stones, the ashes and coals are swept on the sides of the fire pit. Then the stones from the last sweat get piled on top. This results in the creation of a U shape burned mound just like the burned mounds in fulachta fiadh.

When the rocks are red hot, they are dragged into the hut using long forked sticks or carried using into the hut using a long handled pitchfork. There they are pushed into the hut’s rock pit which is positioned in the center of the hut.

Once the rock pit is full of hot stones, people sit inside the hut around the stones and the entrance is covered with blankets. As the temperature inside the hut rises, people will begin to sweat. Water can be splashed over the hot rocks to produce steam and turn the hut from sauna into a steam room.

It is very important to note that the Native American sweat lodges are temporary structures which once dismantled would leave very little to no footprint, apart from the burned stones and hearths used for their heating. Add the through used as a plunge pool and you have the fulacht fiadh…

Also these sweat lodges can be made by a small group of people in several hours. Fianna, the people who supposedly build fulacha fiadh (or as they are also known fulachta fian) were in the Irish legends small, semi-independent warrior bands. It is believed that they are based on historical bands of landless young men in early medieval Ireland known as kerns. Geoffrey Keating, in his 17th-century History of Ireland, says that during the winter the fianna were quartered and fed by the nobility, during which time they would keep order on their behalf, but during the summer, from Beltaine to Samhain, they were obliged to live by hunting for food and for pelts to sell.

So these hunting bands would set into the wilderness in May and would, once reaching their hunting grounds, need a place to rest, recuperate, clean up. And the “inipi” type sweat lodge plus a through serving as a plunge pool or a bath is easy and quick to make and run and is ideal for a hunting party which stays in one place for a week and then moves on. These hunting parties probably moved following rivers as the easiest ways to travel through thick forests. And they would probably follow the same route through their hunting grounds every year, camping at the same camp grounds and reusing the old sweat lodges year after year. After several years the amount of burned stones would accumulate to the point where we would see appearance of characteristic “burned mounds”.

Now what is interesting to note that the Native Americans who built “inipi” sweat lodges, used exactly the same technique to build their lodgings, huts used for living. The Native Americans called these types of huts wigwam, wickiup or wetu.

This type of domed, round shelter was used by many different Native American cultures. 
This is Apache wickiup
This is Ojibwe wigwam
These videos show how to make a wigwam using primitive tools:
The rock pit in the center of the inipi sweat lodge became a fireplace in the center of the wigwam. The seating area along the wall used for sitting in the inipi sweat lodge, became sitting and sleeping area in the wigwam.  
What is very interesting is that some Irish archaeologists suggested that the Irish round houses didn’t, as is commonly accepted, look like this:
 but that they were actually wigwam shaped domed structures. 

Here is a reconstructing a Late Bronze Age dwelling based on the continuous beehive basket weave method put forward by Damien Goodburn of the museum of London.
The layout of the dwelling is based on structure 12 which was excavated during the Ballyhoura hills project in Ireland. The basket walls were made from hazel coppice, young offshoots of the hazel tree which are ideal for basket weaving and are with willow coppice the best material for making baskets. To finish the shelter, you would proceed by covering the basket frame with some kind of waterproof material. 

But basically they could have been just build using the above described wigwam construction technique, which is identical to the the technique used for making sweat lodges, which is the same technique used for making wigwams. 
Please note how these huts look almost identical in shape to the “Tigh ‘n Alluis” Irish sweat houses just made from different material….
Now interestingly the translation of “inipi” is actually not “sweat lodge”. The actual translation is “The way we live” or “We live” or “A shelter which can be both a sweat lodge and a spiritual place and a lodging and a living place….”.
And 
Remember how fulacht fiadh were also called fulacht fían? Well the word fían does mean “a warrior” and “a hunter” and “hunt” but the word fían also means “bedding, cover” and “a hunting-bothy“, “a hut made of branches or similar construction in a forest or wild spot, an improvised shelter”.
Maybe something like this Mesolithic Ertebolle culture hunters hut perhaps?
Maybe Fiana hunting camp looked something like this:
It’s easy to make, functional shelter used world over for millenniums…
So….
Regardless what the permanent Irish bronze age houses looked like, is it possible that the hunter warrior gangs, like Fianna, built fulacha fiadh as their temporary campaign camps, consisting of a group of wigwam type huts plus a through, plus pit ovens? We have seen that these types of shelters are extremely easy to make. And that once built they could be used as lodgings, storage rooms and sweat lodges. Everything hunters and warriors on the campaign need in a camp. We also saw that these huts can be heated by fire-heated stones or hearths. And that once dismantled, they would leave very little trace behind except for hearths and mounds of burned stones. 
Is this what fulachta fiadh were? 
Interestingly, there is a place in Europe where we still find a particular type of temporary shelters which are built by soldiers, hunters and travelers on campaigns, which are very similar in construction to wigwams or inipis, which are heated by fire heated stones, and which are used as sweat and steam rooms…A permanent version of this temporary shelter was until very recently used both as a dwelling and as sweat and steam room. 
I will talk about this in my next post.

Fulacht fiadh – a cooking pit?

fulacht fiadh or fulacht fian is a type of archaeological site found in Ireland. In England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man they are known as burnt mounds. They commonly survive as a low horseshoe-shaped mound of charcoal-enriched soil and heat shattered stone with a slight depression at its center showing the position of the pit.

Radiocarbon dating indicates that the majority of fulachta fiadh were constructed during the mid to late Bronze Age (c.1500- c. 500 BC), though some Neolithic examples are known. 
Originally it was thought that fulachta fiadh were still in use up to medieval times. But in the paper entitled “Medieval fulachtai fia in Ireland? An archaeological assessment” by Alan Hawkes, published in the Journal of Irish Archaeology, Hawkes concludes that it is unlikely that the burnt mound tradition continued into the medieval period. Fulachta fiadh are the most common archaeological sites in Ireland, with over 4,500 recorded examples, of which some 2,000 are found in County Cork. Permanent structures are rarely found near to fulachtaí fiadh, but small hut sites are common and it is unknown whether early sites were built by permanent settlements or nomadic hunters.

Fulachtaí fiadh generally consist of three main elements: a mound of stones, a hearth used to heat the stones, and a trough, often lined with wood or stone. Troughs may be cut into subsoil or, more rarely, into bedrock.

The site may contain the remains of structures such as stone enclosures or even small buildings, and sometimes multiple hearths and additional, smaller pits. A number of the fulachtaí fiadh pits are approximately a meter wide by 2 meters long and maybe half a meter or more in depth. However, size can vary a great deal from site to site, from rather small pits lined with stones to pools conceivably large enough for people to bathe in.

The exact usage of these sites and even the exact meaning of the word fulacht is still debated. So lets see if I can help this debate in any way. 

The name

In “Lapidibus in igne calefactis coquebatur: the historical burnt mound ‘tradition’” which was written by John Ó Néill and printed in the Journal of Irish Archaeology Vol. XII/XIII, 79-85 we read that:

Many commentators suggest that the Irish word “fulacht” denotes a pit used for cooking. “Fiadh” in Old Irish meant something like “wild”, often relating to animals such as deer. However, all commentators acknowledge significant difficulties in deriving a genuine etymology for the word “fulacht”. As some historical references clearly use the term “fulacht” to describe a cooking spit…the word probably carries a deliberate reference to the Irish words for blood (fuil) and meat (feoil)….Further corroborating evidence that in the Irish antiquity pits dug in the ground were used for cooking, is found in Geoffrey Keating’s early seventeenth century history of Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, which describes a pre-Christian tradition of hunters boiling meat in earthen pits, and a late medieval ecclesiastical biography of the Irish St. Munnu, describing the boiling of porridge on fire heated stones

In the “Early Irish Farming: A Study Based Mainly on the Law-Texts of the 7th and 8th Centuries Ad” by  Fergus Kelly we read that:

The early Irish literature also shows that the word fulacht is not only applied to a water filled pit for boiling meat but also to an outdoor cooking pit where meat was roasted on a spit or over an open fire

The cooking

In legend, fulachta fiadh were the cooking place of the Fianna. As they were lead around the country by Fionn MacCumhal, the band of young warriors would feast on wild boar and deer. It had been suggested that the term ‘fulacht fiadh’ meant ‘cooking place of the Fianna’ and indeed on earlier maps the sites are sometimes called ‘fulachta Fian’. 
Now considering that fulacht fiadh consists of a trough (a pit) and a mound of burned and cracked stones, archaeologists suggested that the cooking was done in the trough, with the water being heated by hot stones which were heated in the hearth and then dropped into the trough….

The Ballyvourney reconstruction of fulacht fiadh included successful attempts at heating the water and cooking meat in this manner. In the experiment it took about half an hour to bring 450 L of water to the boil and four hours to cook a 4.5 kg leg of mutton.

Impressive some would say. And the proof that fulacht fiadh were indeed used as cooking pits.

But one of the people who took part in these cooking experiments had this to say about it:

..having used a fulacht fiadh for a day down in Wexford in the way it’s described in the books in Ireland, I have no doubt that the books are wrong. It took a good few hours of constant work by a team of us to maintain the fire, keep the stones going into the water and maintain that boiling water for long enough to cook a joint of meat…So I don’t think that fulachts were used for cooking. There are a lot of much easier ways to cook a joint of meat…“.

The reason why pit boiling is extremely unlikely usage for fulacht fiadh is that its dimensions are all wrong for a cooking pit. They have much larger surface area compared to their dept. Now meat cooking requires reaching and maintaining a boiling temperature in the trough for the duration of cooking. But “the heat loss due to evaporation of water from a surface of an open tank is totally dominant at higher water temperatures“. What this means is that at boiling temperature, it becomes extremely difficult to keep the water in the shallow trough with the large surface boiling for long enough to actually cook the meat. You have to constantly feed the fire in order to heat the stones. You have to keep adding new heated stones into the trough and take the cooled ones out, while engulfed in a cloud of steam for 4 hours. Because of the wide surface and shallow dept the heat will try to escape straight up through the surface which means that you have to constantly stir the water in order to spread the heat. This is a lot of hard work for cooking some meat, and this is exactly what the above participant in the fulacht fiadh cooking experiment concluded after the “successful” fulacht fiadh cooking experiment. It is possible to use fulacht fiadh to cook, but why would anyone bother doing it when we know that there were other much easier ways of cooking large quantities of meat which were available to the Bronze Age builders of fulachta fiadh?

So what other easier procedures could the Bronze Age Irish use for cooking large quantities of meat? Well depends how they wanted to cook the meat.

Boiling

What is the most efficient way to boil water? When you heat water, the hot water rises. So if you heat the vessel containing water from the bottom, the bottom layer of water will be the hottest and will rise, while the cooler water layers from the top will sink only to be heated and to rise…This natural heat convection means that you don’t have to stir the water to spread the heat. If your vessel is narrow but deep, this heat convection will create a powerful mixing flow which will result in very quick heating of the whole volume of water. Now remember that I said that the heat loss due to evaporation of water from a surface of an open tank is totally dominant at higher water temperatures. Major heat loss can be avoided only by covering the surface. And at the same time the heat loss through insulated walls can be almost neglected.

So if you want to quickly and efficiently bring to boil and keep boiling a large volume of water, you want to put it in a vessel which is the exact opposite of the fulacht fiadh trough. You want something that is narrow, deep, and covered. Something like a cooking pot.

This is why cooking pots used for high temperature high volume cooking have been shaped in the same way since they were invented in late Mesolithic. They are deep and narrow, which minimizes the evaporation surface relative to the volume. This is a 15,000 year old pot from Jomon culture, an early acorn eating culture from Japan,

This is a 6000 year old cooking set from Europe. You can see that the shape of the pot is still the same.

And this is the same type of high temperature, high volume cooking pot still used for high volume cooking in Serbia today. You can see that the only addition to the original design is the heavy lid. These are extremely efficient cooking utensils which require a small amount of wood to cook large amount of food.

This is a great picture showing the size of  these pots relative to the human body. You can see that you can use them to cook over a hundred kilos of food, in this case sour kraut and smoked pork (Serbian bacon and cabbage).

We know that these types of pots existed in Ireland at the time when fulachta fiadh were made. Here are some burial pots found in Ireland dated to 1900-1300BC. They belong to the “food vessel” type funerary vessels found in Irish early bronze age Wedge Tombs and pit and stone cist burials like this one at Bunnamayne, County Donegal. If people were able to make these kind of pots for burials, they were surely able to make them for cooking too (hence the name “food vessels”). The one on the left looks particularly suitable for cooking and very similar to the above cooking pots from Serbia.

So in order to cook hundreds of kilos of meat and veg, in the pots like these, you need to chop the meed and veg and fat, put all in the pot, add water, herbs, salt (sea water), pile hot charcoals near the bottom edge of the pot, and then sit and wait until it is cooked….No hours of hard work necessary.

So why would anyone who was able to make these types of cooking pots torture themselves by cooking in fulachta fiadh? Well they probably didn’t use fulacht fiadh troughs for cooking. 

The cooking hypothesis is rendered even less convincing by the near absolute lack of animal bone or plant material within the troughs. Moreover, the location of many burnt mounds on marshy upland terrain makes the notion of cooking somewhat unlikely: the prospect of carrying large quantities of food to such inconvenient areas seems unappealing. Proponents of this view have argued that the lack of animal material is likely due to preferential decay associated with elevated soil acidity, which is a key feature of burnt mound sites. Now in these marshy areas a hole dug into the ground would quickly fill with water. Acidic marshy water. A very very bad water for cooking food. No normal person would cook food in water like that. Imagine the taste of meat cooked in such water. Now if the fulacht fiadh trough was cut into a bedrock or into a clay rich soil next to a clean stream, we could pour clean fresh water into it and use it for cooking (if we could be bothered going through the torture of the whole procedure), but then we would have had some traces of meat and plant residue, which again were not found. 

So I believe that we can safely discard fulacht fiadh trough as a cooking pit. But there are other cooking pit types which are still used around the world, specifically for large ceremonial feasts where large amounts of meat need to be cooked at once. And they produce a lot of burned cracked stones.

Pit ovens

In wrote a whole article about pit ovens. In short, an earth oven or cooking pit is one of the simplest and longest used cooking structures. It is  also the oldest oven type used by people. The earliest ones were found in Central Europe, and dated to 29,000 BC. They were situated inside mammoth bone yurts and were used to cook mammoth meat.

So how do you make an earth pit oven?

At its simplest, an earth oven is a pit dug in the the ground. A fire is lit at the bottom of pit and let to burn until only hot coals are left behind. The pit walls and the stones placed in the fire absorb and then radiate the heat back towards the center of the pit. This heat is then used to bake, smoke, or steam food inside of the pit. To make the earth ovens more efficient you can line them with stones as they are much better at absorbing and radiating back heat than the ordinary dirt. The food is placed inside the pit, either directly, covered in clay, wrapped in grass or leaves and then the whole contraption is covered with dirt, sealing the heat inside the pit. The stones slowly release the heat and cook the food. after several hours, when the food is cooked, the food is uncovered and taken out of the pit. The cracked stones are discarded on the burned mound and the intact ones are reused. The type of stones used, granite and sandstone can on average be reheated few times before they crack and have to be discarded. If you want to cook a whole large animal like a deer you need to make a fairly large pit and use a big fire and a lot of stones. So if the same cooking pits were used year after year, and we know from ethnographic data the they were, they would relatively quickly produce big piles of burned cracked stones…

An example of cooking pits used for large-scale cooking producing large “burned-rock middens” can be found in Central Texas. 

Is this what the Irish histories meant when they talked about the “cooking pits”? Again this is much much easier way of cooking large amounts of meat than using stone heated large troughs. Possibly, but only on dry well drained grounds. On marshy waterlogged grounds these pit ovens suffer from the same problem that the cooking pits suffer from: seeping marsh water. The seeping water would quickly extinguish any fire lit up in the pit. But there other surface stone ovens, which can be used for cooking of large quantities of meat, which also produce burned mounds and which are not affected by the soil drainage. I will talk about these ovens in my post about stone ovens.

As for boiling using heated stones, don’t get me wrong. Stone water heating was used for cooking all over the world, and particularly for porridge cooking, just as the biography of the Irish St. Munnu describes it. We know that from the ethnographic data collected in United States where hated stones were used for cooking acorn porridge. I wrote about this in my post about eating acorns.

Stone boiling was used when available cooking vessels were baskets or some other type of watertight but not fire resistant container, such as wooden bowls or containers. 

In California,the hot stone cooking was done in this way by the local Native American people. Hot rocks the size of tennis balls were heated by fire. Then, they were put into baskets or wooden bowls or containers filled with water and acorn meal. The stones were stirred in the baskets gently and slowly with a wooden paddle or looped stirrer. When the mixture began to boil it was cooked, exactly like when you make a cereal porridge. The stones were then removed from the basket with wooden tongs. 

Stone Boiling was also used by plain tribes. A bowl-shaped pit would be dug into the hard earth. It would then be made watertight by pushing a fresh buffalo hide, fleshy side up, into the bottom of the pit. The pit would then be filled with water. Large heavy cobbles would be heated in a nearby fire until they glowed red. They would then be carried on a forked stick to the pit. By continually replacing the rocks as they cooled with hot rocks, the water would get very hot. Food would then be added and cooked. The material stacked up on the right is buffalo dung (commonly called buffalo chips). Since trees tend to be scarce on the Great Plains, dried buffalo dung was the standard fuel used by the Plains Indians. This type of cooking was used for cooking things that could not have been cooked in pit ovens which was preferred way of cooking buffalo meat. For instance this type of cooking was used for extracting bone marrow from broken bones.

There is an old story called “Stone Soup“. The story involves a stranger coming to a village, building a hearth and placing a pot of water over it. He (or she) puts in stones and invites others to taste the stone soup. The stranger invites others to add an ingredient, and pretty soon, Stone Soup is a collaborative meal full of tasty things. Not to mention a stone or two. 

So stone cooking was used, and could have been one of the oldest cooking methods ever used. But look at the dimensions of the basket on the picture above. It is again narrow with the dept the same as the diameter, and relative size much closer to the size of the hot stones being dropped in. This means that the water in the basket will be heated to boil and kept boiling much easier then if the cooking vessel was a gigantic hundreds of liters fulacht fiadh trough. O one other thing. This method of cooking was abandoned for cooking in earthen pots heated from the bottom whenever they were available because cooking with hot stones is much harder and time consuming.

Now remember that the early Irish literature also shows that the word fulacht is not only applied to a water filled pit for boiling meat but also to an outdoor cooking pit where meat was roasted on a spit or over an open fire. Cooking pits can also be used for spit roasting.

Cooking spits

In Serbia and in the rest of the Balkans, no major celebration can be imagined without a roasted pig or lamb on a spit. Where I come from, the roasting process always started with digging of a ditch, an oval shaped pit. The pit was then filled with slow burning hardwood which was burned and turned into a charcoal. Once the pit was full of the smoldering charcoal, the spit was put over the ditch and the roasting would start. Basically the pig was a spit roasted over a pit oven.

Again this is a very easy way to cook a very large amount of meat. Actually the easiest. In Serbia they roast whole cows on spits, so a deer or a wild boar wouldn’t be very difficult to cook at all. No wonder this remained through the ages the most favorite method from cooking large quantities of meat.

So if fulacht fiadh or fulacht Fian really was a place where members of Fianna cooked their food using pits, spits and open fire, then pit ovens are the best match. Not only that you can use them for steaming (boiling) and roasting of large quantities of meat in the pit, but you can also use them to cook the same large quantities of meat on a spit positioned over the pit. And if the cooking is done in the pit, the pit ovens produce large quantities of burned cracked stones and particularly charcoal-enriched soil. 

So I think that we can safely say that fulachta fiadh were not used in the way the mainstream archaeology suggest they were used:  for cooking large amounts of meat in troughs full of water heated by hot stones. The Bronze Age people who built fulachta fiadh had much more efficient ways of cooking large quantities of meat at their disposal. But what about the troughs? Every fulachta fiadh had a trough, so they must have been used for something. But if not for cooking, what were they used for? Particularly the ones built on the marshy boggy acidic terrain. I will talk about this in my next few posts.

Dreamtime

In my post about the Montenegrian tumuluses, I argued that the Irish annals contained true historical accounts about the migration of the Partholon and his people from the sea of Azov, via Anatolia, Montenegro, Sicily, Iberia into Ireland which happened in the mid 3rd millennium BC. The Irish annals were originally oral histories which were only written down in the medieval time. And so the main complaint that I got about my Partholon theory was that it is impossible that oral histories can be preserved for so long.

Well we now seem to have proof that some oral histories could be as much as 45,000 years old if not even older…

In a genetic study in 2011, researchers found evidence that the ancestors of the Aboriginal population split off from the ancestors of the European and Asian populations between 65,000 and 75,000 years ago. These Aboriginal ancestors migrated into South Asia and then into Australia, where they stayed, with the result that, outside of Africa, the Aboriginal peoples have occupied the same territory continuously longer than any other human populations. These findings suggest that modern Aboriginal peoples are the direct descendants of migrants who left Africa up to 75,000 years ago.[2][3] The same genetic study of 2011 found evidence that Aboriginal peoples carry some of the genes associated with the Denisovan (a species of human related to but distinct from Neanderthals) peoples of Asia. Examining DNA from a finger bone excavated in Siberia, researchers concluded that the Denisovans migrated from Siberia to tropical parts of Asia and that they interbred with modern humans in South-East Asia at some stage before 45,000 years ago, before Australia separated from Papua New Guinea. [4] They contributed DNA to Aboriginal Australians along with present-day New Guineans and an indigenous tribe in the Philippines known as Mamanwa. This study makes Aboriginal Australians one of the oldest living populations in the world and possibly the oldest outside of Africa, confirming they may also have the oldest continuous culture on the planet.[7]

Now when did these ancestors of the Aboriginal Australians move into Australia is uncertain. But it is possible that this happened sometime between 45,000 and 40.000 years ago. This is supported by the archaeological finds of human remains near Lake Mungo.

Lake Mungo is a dry lake located in south-eastern Australia,in the south-western portion of New South Wales. It is at the Lake Mungo where a so called “Mungo Man and Mungo Lady” remains were found. Mungo Lady is particularly interesting. Mungo Lady, a partially cremated female body, was discovered in 1969 by Dr Jim Bowler from the Australian National University (ANU). Mungo Lady was only partially cremated before the remainder of her bones were crushed. She was initially estimated to be 25,000 years old, although a more recent multi-university study in 2003 determined that she was probably closer to 40,000 years old.

Mungo Man was also discovered by Dr Bowler, on 26 February 1974. The remains were covered with red ochre, in what is the earliest known incidence of such a burial practice. Red ochre is commonly used in burials for ritualistic purposes. The site was dating using OSL dating, or luminescence dating. The site is dated to be 60,000 years ago. If the fossils are actually from 60,000 years old, the fossils would be that of archaic Homo sapiens.

The different years for which artifacts and the remains were found puts into debate the actual time in which Australia was inhabited. If it was inhabited 60 thousand years or over, it puts in question the theory that all civilizations derived from Africa. If, however, Mungo Man and Mungo Lady truly are evidence that Australia has only been inhabited for about 50,000 years, the theory of Africa is stronger than ever. This would put Mungo Man and Mungo Lady’s civilization in the same time frame as other cultures that were just beginning to settle outside of Africa.[5]

But regardless, it seems that at some stage between 65,000 and 40,000 years ago the Aboriginal Australians crossed into Australia, and have been isolated there from the rest of the world until the first Chinese and European explorers reached the continent not more than 500 years ago.

During that time they have been carefully preserving their beliefs through a complex set of rituals and stories which are today known as “Dreamtime”. But it seems that the “Dreamtime” stories are not just mythologies, but are a mix of mythological stories and actual histories accumulated and preserved over who knows how many thousands of years.

The term Dreamtime is based on a rendition of the indigenous (Arandic) word “alcheringa”, used by the Aranda (Arunta, Arrernte) people of Central Australia. The word actually has a meaning closer to “eternal, uncreated” or “so old that it seems that it has been here forever”. In “Dreamtime” an individual’s entire ancestry exists as one, culminating in the idea that all worldly knowledge is accumulated through one’s ancestors. This is extremely good description of the accumulated  memories which were passed through direct contact from generation to generation through stories and rituals. 

And as I said, some of the Dreamtime memories could turn out to be actual ancient histories.  

The flood

“In the beginning, as far back as we remember, our home islands were not islands at all as they are today. They were part of a peninsula that jutted out from the mainland and we roamed freely throughout the land without having to get in a boat like we do today. Then Garnguur, the seagull woman, took her raft and dragged it back and forth across the neck of the peninsula letting the sea pour in and making our homes into islands.”


This is a paraphrase of an Aboriginal story about the origin of the Wellesley Islands, a group of islands off the coast of north Queensland in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria:

This story has parallels along every part of the coast of Australia. Along the coast, Aboriginal stories written down early in colonial times talk about the ancient time when these areas were dry, a time when people hunted kangaroo and emu there, before the water rose and flooded them, never again to recede.

In a recent paper [8] presented at an indigenous language conference in Japan, Nick Reid, Associate Professor, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England and Patrick D. Nunn, Assistant Director, Sustainability Research Centre; Professor of Geography, University of the Sunshine Coast analysed 18 stories from around Australia’s coast.

They found that all stories tell tales of coastal flooding and argued that these stories recall coastal inundation as sea levels started to rise after the last Ice Age.

During the coldest time of the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, the sea level around Australia stood about 120 metres below its present level. When the ice started to melt, a few thousand years later, huge masses of ice that had built up on the land, particularly in the northern hemisphere, began melting. Water poured into the world’s oceans, raising their levels in ways that are now well understood. By about 13,000 years ago, sea level had risen to around 70 metres below its present level. One thousand years later, it had risen to about 50 metres below present. These dates give us a ballpark for how old the Aborinial stories of flooding may be. Could they have reached us from 13,000 years ago?

I already mentioned the story about the Wellesley Islands. The local tribes from the Cairns area claim that they once lived “where the Great Barrier Reef now stands”. Their story states that the Fitzroy Island was once part of the mainland. 

And that the offshore Green Island was four times larger. 

The story describes several named landmarks with remembered historical-cultural associations that are now underwater.

During the last ice age this whole area which today lies between the Great Barrier reef and the Australian coast, would have comprised broad floodplains and undulating hills with a range of subsistence possibilities, bordered in most parts by steep cliffs plunging down to the narrow shore.

The Great Barrier reef has an average depth of 35 meters in its inshore waters, while on outer reefs, continental slopes extend down to depths of more than 2000 meters. Based on these depths, the above stories about the flooding of the reef might date from as much as 12,000 years ago. A more conservative interpretation, based on a sea level just 30 meters lower than today, would place the age of this story at around 10,000 years ago.

Similar stories come from Spencer Gulf in southern Australia. 

Those from the Narrangga people of Yorke Peninsula recall the time when there was no Spencer Gulf, only “marshy country reaching into the interior” lying just above the ocean surface and dotted with “freshwater lagoons” where birds and other animals flocked.

One day the sea came in, perhaps through the breaching of a natural barrier, and the area has since been submerged. If these stories refer to flooding across the outermost lip of Spencer Gulf, which today lies around 50 metres below present sea level, then they may have originated 12,000 years ago. Even if they refer to inundation of the central part of the Gulf, they are likely to be more than 9,000 years old.

How sea levels changed after the ice ages around Australia is now well known. So if these stories are accepted as authentic and based on observations of coastal flooding, it is clear that they must be of extraordinary antiquity.

But believe or not these are not the oldest Dreamtime stories which could be actual ancient histories. 

The palms

This is Central Australian Cabbage Palm (Livistona mariae). 

How the only native palm tree in Australia got to an isolated Palm Valley in the center of the country has long been a mystery.

Recent research findings seem to back up Aboriginal legend on origin of these palms. Several years ago Tasmanian ecologist David Bowman from University of Tasmania, did DNA tests on palm seeds from the outback and near Darwin. The results led him to conclude the seeds were carried to the Central Desert by humans at some stage between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. What is interesting is that after he published his findings, Professor Bowman read an Aboriginal legend recorded in 1894 by pioneering German anthropologist and missionary Carl Strehlow, which was only recently translated, describing the “gods from the north” bringing the seeds to Palm Valley.

Professor Bowman said he was amazed. 

“We’re talking about a verbal tradition which had been transmitted through generations possibly for possibly 30,000 years,” he said.

“Just an amazing coincidence that we’d independently concluded that the seeds had been transported and then subsequently we discover an Aboriginal legend is exactly what we found scientifically.

“The concordance of the findings of a scientific study and an ancient myth is a striking example of how traditional ecological knowledge can inform and enhance scientific research.

“It suggests that Aboriginal oral traditions may have endured for up to 30,000 years, and lends further weight to the idea that some Aboriginal myths pertaining to gigantic animals may be authentic records of extinct megafauna.”

This is amazing. A 30,000 years old oral history??? But this is nothing compared to the Dreamtime story which explains the origin of the black swans. 

The swans

The Dreamtime story of the black swans tells how two brothers were turned into white swans so they could help an attack party during a raid for weapons. It is said that Wurrunna used a large gubbera, or crystal stone to transform the men. After the raid, eaglehawks attacked the white swans and tore feathers from the birds. Crows who were enemies of the eaglehawks came to the aid of the brothers and gave the black swans their own black feathers. The black swan red beak is said to be the blood of the attacked brothers, which stayed there forever.

This is truly an amazing story. Evidence suggests that swans evolved in Europe or western Eurasia during the Miocene (23.03 to 5.332 million years ago), spreading all over the Northern Hemisphere until the Pliocene (5.333 million to 2.58 million years ago). 

The swans are generally found in temperate environments, rarely occurring in the tropics. 

Four (or five) species occur in the Northern Hemisphere (all white).

One species is found in Australia and New Zealand (black).

And one species is distributed in southern South America (white with black neck).

The swans are absent from tropical Asia, Central America, northern South America and the entirety of Africa. This is the map that shows the natural distribution of swans in the world. 

Now you can see that there we have black swans in Australia ans white swans in the Central and Northern Asia. But no swans of any kind in the huge area between China and Australia. As we have seen from the evidence found in the lake Mungo site, Aboriginal Australians have crossed into Australia at least 40,000 years ago. We have also seen that the scientists believe that the mixing between the Denisovans and modern humans, which produced the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal Australians, happened in the tropical parts of Asia at some stage before 45,000 years ago. 

Now there are no swans in tropical South East Asia, and the only swans that live in Australia are black swans. This means that the only swans Aboriginal Australians could have seen for over 45,000 years have been black swans. So where and more importantly when did they last see a white swan? Well somewhere on their way from Africa to South East Asia, at some stage between 75,000 and 45,000 years ago. This means that this Dreemtime story is more than 45,000 years old and could be as much as 60,000 years old….

How’s this for the resilience of the oral tradition? What is measly 5000 years, which is how old I believe the story of Partholon’s migration from the Irish Annals is, compared to the age of the Australian Dreamtime stories?

Why and how did Australian Aboriginal cultures achieve transmission of information about real events from such deep time? Professors Nick Reid and Patrick D. Nunn who wrote about the Aboriginal Australian flood myths suggested that: 

The isolation of Australia is likely to be part of the answer. But it could also be due to the practice and nature of contemporary Aboriginal storytelling. This is characterised by a conservative and explicit approach to “the law”, value given to preserving information, and kin-based systems for tracking knowledge accuracy. This could have built the inter-generational scaffolding needed to transmit stories over vast periods.

And this is exactly the kind of environment that was found in Ireland. A close knit clan based community living for a long time in a relative isolation at the edge of Europe. No wonder that the Irish managed to preserve such old myths, legends, beliefs and histories  in Europe. 

I also believe that some European myths are much much older and come to us from Mesolithic and maybe even Paleolithic times. But more about this later…Until then stay happy and sweet dreams…

References:

1. “Outback palms were planted”, David Bowman, University of Tasmania
2. “An Aboriginal Australian Genome Reveals Separate Human Dispersals into Asia”, Rasmussen, Morten; et al.
3. “The first Aboriginal genome sequence confirms Australia’s native people left Africa 75,000 years ago.”. Australian Geographic. 23 September 2011.
4. “First Aboriginal genome sequenced”, Callaway, Ewen. Nature.
5. “Pleistocene human remains from Australia: A living site and human cremation from Lake Mungo, western New South Wales”, J. M. Bowlerab, Rhys Jonesab, Harry Allenab & A. G. Thorneab, World Archaeology

6. ” Ducks, Geese and Swans. Bird Families of the World. “, Kear, Janet, ed
7. “DNA confirms Aboriginal culture is one of the Earth’s oldest”. Australian Geographic.
8. “Ancient Aboriginal stories preserve history of a rise in sea level“, Nick Reid and Patrick D. Nunn