The Goddess Whom The Blacksmiths Adored Part One: The Cook-pit of the Carrion Birds

…’This is a cooking-place,’ said Finnachaidh, ‘and it is a long time since it was made.’

‘That is true,’ said Caoilte, ‘and this is the cooking-place of the Great Queen.’

Colloquy of the Ancients (1)

The late 9th or 10th century text known as Cormac’s Glossary (C) is ascribed to Cormac mac Cuilennáin, a bishop and King of Munster. (2) In it we find the entry:

Brigit the goddess whom poets adored… Whose sisters where Brigit the woman of leechcraft [and] Brigit the woman of smithwork (3)

In contrast to its brevity, this tidy passage proves itself to be a curious enigma; who is this mysterious blacksmith goddess? No other manuscript source provides testimony to a goddess whose function is related to the work of blacksmiths.

After taking stock in all limitations, and providing especial stress that hereafter is an engagement in speculation, it does appear a profitable inquiry to search for some insight on the background of an elusive Irish -or Celtic- blacksmith goddess. Clues may be discovered due to the surviving corpus of texts that concern the spiritual and supernatural female qualities of smithing.

To Render Oneself Nemed

Part One will review what could be the earliest surviving tract linking a mythological woman to the blacksmith profession. The Bretha Nemed Toísech, (B) which has been dated to approximately the second quarter of the 8th century by Liam Breatnech, concerns the triadic qualifications required of a myriad of skilled trades. (4) When it comes to smithing it reads:

bior decin fulacht morigna indeon an dagda nemtiger goba

[It is] the spit [bir] of Dechin, the cook-pit [fulacht] of the Morrígan, the anvil [indeon] of the Dagda that qualifies a blacksmith

This strange passage gives us a few avenues to proceed. In regards to the figures listed in the triad we first have Dechin, an obscure figure who does not appear outside of texts focused on the blacksmith triad. (5) The Dagda is prominent in Irish legendary tales, and is habitually referred to as a god. Texts usually connect him to abundance, fertility and the skilled arts. (6) The Morrígan shares an equally commanding position in early tracts, usually as a force of destruction. ‘Morrígan’ is normally interpreted as “Great Queen”, and she is often grouped with two sisters, and is associated with animals, particularly carrion birds. I think I should state that I won’t be equating the triple Brigids with the Morrígan and her siblings. These posts are merely surveying the lore of women attached to smithcraft in an effort to uncover any general phenomena that may increase our understanding of Brigid the blacksmith goddess. (7) The curious triad is left unexplained, though later texts attempt to elaborate further.

A 10th century tract found in the Yellow Book of Lecan (Y) attempts to identify, explain, and even illustrate the items of the triad. (8) The ‘fulacht’ illumination very much resembles a spit, with a leaf spearhead on one end piercing alternating squares and ovals. The ‘indeóin’ is designed as a rectangular frame containing 8 spokes arrayed from a central circular boss. The ‘bir’ is a horizontal line overlayed by 5 overlapping shapes that resemble a guitar body consecutively diminishing in size.

As for the text itself, Dechin, rendered Neithin, is bestowed a fascinating backstory: he is described as the first blacksmith to be recognized for his talents by the high king of Ireland. Given a seat far from the hearth at court, he miraculously fabricates a moving spit that can reach the fire.

The portion on the Morrígan’s ‘fulacht’ describes a spit skewering a piece of raw meat, a piece of cooked meat, and a cube of butter. When heated, the raw is cooked through, the cooked is not burnt, and the butter is not melted. The passage’s focus on the act of cooking has led Carey to believe that ‘fulacht’ in this instance should be more correctly understood as the goddess’s own action of culinary expertise, rather than some sort of earthen oven. But with all the respect due to the laudable professor, that seems less unlikely: the earlier (B) also contains, besides the triads, a list of precious objects that includes the Morrígan’s ‘fulacht’. If we are to understand that the meaning of ‘fulacht’ is as Carey believes, it would be inappropriate on a list of physical items. The description in (Y) may be a quality of the cook-pit utilized by the Morrígan. Admittedly, this argument does not disprove Carey at all, and his learned conclusion should be considered, but for the rest of this essay I will continue with the older attested meaning of ‘fulacht’ as cook-pit.

The tale attached to the Dagda’s anvil seems to relate the artifact’s origins. To summarize, brigands in a band of “three nines” ask an unnamed person to make for them an ‘indeóin’. The ‘indeóin’ is created in nine sections for assembly, disassembly and storage. Presumably the man who created the ‘indeóin’ is the Dagda himself.

Even later texts also describe the items of the triad, but these are suspect. While evocative in places, they more or less imagine the spit, cook-pit and anvil as lost relics of Ireland’s mythical past. For now we will build on the information in (Y).

Finn’s Anvil

The word “brigands” in (Y) is Irish ‘díbergaig’, a word that was in very early usage to describe Finn son of Umaill and his companions. (9) Furthermore, several Old and Middle Irish texts reference Finn’s possession of an ‘indeóin’. (10) The fullest example is an entry also in (C), given the title Finn and Lomna the Fool. (11) Within the text we find the anvil used by fiann warriors to griddle fish, echoing the cooking theme of the (B) triad. Apparently besides “anvil” the term ‘indeóin’ also connoted something of a cooking surface. Some other statements in the text may be relevant to this inquiry as well: it relates that in every forest and mountaintop was a woman hospitaler and lover to Finn. It is difficult to discern the reason behind women dwelling in the isolation of every forested wilderness. It may stem from some mythic understanding or a total fabrication. Nonetheless it is suggestive of certain things.

Another Fenian example, The Colloquy of the Ancients, alludes to the triad in a (13th c?) poem. As noted above, these later lyrics cast the items of the (B) triad as part of a bygone era, but the context surrounding the poem may be instructive. Fiann hunters, embarking on one of their expeditions through the wild, enter a dense wood. While seeking to refresh themselves in the water of a brook, one party member notices that they have come upon an ancient cooking place. His companion rejoinders that they have stumbled across “The cooking-place of the Great Queen”.

The Short and the Long of It

It can’t be said with confidence what the meaning behind the blacksmith triad once held. As the historian of early Irish blacksmithing B. G. Scott contends, the triad itself makes little obvious sense. He explains that the art of the blacksmith was deeply characterized by mysticism, and often intentionally shrouded with mystery. (12)

With that in mind and with the caveat that these texts span several centuries, a certain amount of continuity nevertheless seems to appear. The overview:

1. An 8th c. professional blacksmith must understand a tripartite saying in regards to mythological beings, including a supernatural female force.

2. By the 10th c. at least, the context is vaguely expanded to connect the items of the (B) triad with a mythological forefather of the blacksmith trade, and with fiann brigands residing in the wild. The later corroborates several independent earlier references to Finn and his outlaw band that are contemporaneous with (B).

3. 9th c. Finn references include wilderness dwelling females.

4. By roughly the 13th c. the supernatural Morrígan of the (B) triad is also established as belonging to the wilderness as well.

While undoubtedly some evolution of this tradition must have occurred over the centuries, it seems striking that overall this illustrates a blurry picture connecting blacksmithing with cooking, the wilderness, supernatural women, and the fiann.

Apple Tree, Hazel Tree, Sacred Grove

The Triads of Ireland

Let me now make, as far as I’m aware, an unorthodox suggestion: that the (B) triad is in some way an allusion to the insular phenomenon of burnt mounds.

Archeological evidence shows that burnt mounds had been constructed in wild areas since before the beginning of the Bronze Age, and concluded by the start of the Medieval period. (13) Catherine Mcloughlin explains that these sites consist of large areas of heat-shattered stones surrounding a trough, pit or basin. Sometimes evidence of small chambers are present. It is believed that in ancient times the trough was filled with water while stones would be cast inside after heating in a fire. Burnt mound sites would require a source of wood, water and stone. Referred to as a ‘fulacht fiadh’ in Ireland, the “cook-pit of the fiann”, they had been connected to the warrior hunters since at least the 9th century. Theories on the purpose of the burnt mounds include: cooking, brewing, bathing, leather working, and interestingly, metal working. While any and all of these things could be true, consider that they also might have functioned as sacred spaces dedicated to the worship of a goddess of crafts, particularly the smith goddess mentioned in (C). I would suggest that there is some merit to the possibility that they possessed a spiritual significance. An anecdote from Togail Bruidne Dá Derga mentions the ritual of the Samhain fire:

A “boar of a fire” is kindled… and from yonder beacon the beacon of samain is followed from that to this, and stones (are placed) is the samain-fire (14)

Though the text dates to the beginning of the 12th century, it records a memory of ritual practice resembling the heat-splintered stones of the Bronze Age burnt mounds. Being connected to Samhain in the text, the spiritual function of the custom is also highlighted. That is not to say that this passage perfectly mirrors pre-Christian belief and customs, but merely provides perhaps a vague remembrance of such.

…Minerva [whom teaches] the elements of skill…

De Bello Galico (15)

How the spit, cook-pit and anvil fit in the framework of a sacred space is yet another difficult matter. We may hypothesize that they reflect allegorical wisdom teachings, are coded references to a ritual process, or of course nothing like that at all. It seems that there is potential though that this brief look into the the triad has dimly illumined the shadowy character of Brigit the blacksmith.

I’d like to thank Mael Brigde for the inspiration for this post! Check out her excellent blog here: http://brigitssparklingflame.blogspot.com/?m=1

Endnotes

(1) The Triads of Ireland, Meyer, p. 17: https://archive.org/details/TheTriadsOfIreland/page/n36/mode/1up

(2) Many legends about him survive, including his encounter with the sovereignty goddess. Miracles were said to occur at his tomb, and he has been beautified as a saint in the Orthodox Catholic Church.

(3) Cormac’s Glossary: https://archive.org/details/sanaschormaicco00stokgoog

(4) Magic, Metallurgy & Imagination in Medieval Ireland, Carey, p. 49

(5) ibid. With a single notable exception.

(6) Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, Koch, p. 553-554

(7) There will be more comparable characters anyway. We are just looking at phenomena.

(8) see (4) p. 56-7

(9) The Fenian Cycle, Murray, p. 53

(10) Magic, Metallurgy & Imagination in Medieval Ireland, Carey, p. 50, 59

(11) Three Irish Glossaries, Stokes, https://sejh.pagesperso-orange.fr/keltia/fiana/finnlomna.html

(12) The crafts of the blacksmith,

(13) An excellent article on the subject of burnt mounds in Ireland by archeologist Catherine Mcloughlin: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2012/07/the-enigmatic-fulacht-fiadhburnt-mound/

(14) The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, Stokes: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1100derga.asp

(15) The Celtic Heroic Age, Koch, p.22

10 thoughts on “The Goddess Whom The Blacksmiths Adored Part One: The Cook-pit of the Carrion Birds

  1. Super interesting. I hadn’t heard of the Cooking Place of the Great Queen before and was unaware of its possible connections to Finn’s Anvil. The lore that ‘in every forest and mountaintop was a woman hospitaler and lover to Finn’ is also new to me. Of course, here in Britain, Great Queen translates as Rigantona, who I believe is Queen of Annwn and the beloved of the King of Annwn – Vindos/Gwyn/Arawn. Could these links lie behind your findings?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Lorna, thanks for the comment! The blacksmith goddess is so intriguing, and although these texts come from a space of roughly 500 years, with so much corroborating tracts about Finn I hope my thesis is compelling.

      About your question – the next installment will probably include some Welsh material, and I suspect you’d be better at pointing out the more obscure British evidence. As of now it could very well be true.

      By the way, would you say the motif of Finn’s wild lovers is symmetrical to what’s found in the invocation to Gwyn? In the translation provided by Mary Jones it says, “for love of your mate” but I see the original Latin reads “pro amore concubine”. ‘Concubine’ is of course rather interesting, and reminded me of Finn’s situation in his early texts.

      Take care!

      Like

  2. Some fascinating strands of information here that deserve to be drawn together. Smithing was, of course, regarded as a magical craft in the metal ages so it is no surprise that there should be a set of references defining this in terms of divine figures.

    Like Lorna I also noted the ‘Great Queen’ link with Rigantona (>Rhiannon) though I had thought Morrigan meant ‘Phantom Queen’. Pulling together references to Morrigan and Brigid as linked to smithcraft is no mean feat. So I’ll be interested to see how you progress this with the promised Welsh references.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Greg!

      “it is no surprise that there should be a set of references defining this in terms of divine figures.”

      Good point Greg, and the debate surrounding the significance of these figures to blacksmithing wages on.

      In the case of the “name” ‘Morrígan’, the meaning behind it is still unsettled. Due to the ambiguous rendering in Old Irish the etymology has been argued terror + queen, or great + queen. It was regularized to be understood as ‘great queen’ by the Middle Irish period, which is the time period from the quote.

      The Rhiannon connection is rather alluring, but remember that Morrígan was just as often considered a title for supernatural women as it was a name of a specific individual, and therefore I hesitate to put much emphasis on it.

      “Pulling together references to Morrigan and Brigid as linked to smithcraft is no mean feat.”

      I choose to read this as praise, haha, and it’s so good to get a compliment from you! But of course tell me if I’m wrong.

      About the Welsh material: I hope you find it compelling, but I don’t want to overhype anything. I think it’ll be no more convincing than this first part. I can’t decide if it’ll be included in part 2 or 3 yet, either.

      Thanks again for your pertinent comment, I love getting into discussions about this stuff.

      Like

  3. Ah, I recall reading about the blacksmith version of Brigit and wondering briefly about it. I associate her with flame, so I thought that might play into it. It’s interesting to get a closer look at the various legendary links between goddesses and smithing, though.

    I can’t help wondering if Morrigan may be connected with forging partly because forged weapons were essential in war, which she often follows. As for the fulacht of Morrigan, I agree that it makes more sense that this is a magical object rather than the culinary skills of Morrigan. I mean, it would be great if a goddess could bundle up her cooking smarts and lend them to people, but it’s unlikely. Especially since there are several food or cooking-related artifacts in legends, like the Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant. Your theory about the burnt mounds would also tie things neatly together with both cooking and metal-working represented. It’s certainly an intriguing possibility!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Ceridwen! It’s so good to see you! Thanks for the great comment.

      I think you’re point about the blacksmith goddess and fire is insightful. I’ve found references of mythological women and blacksmithing with an emphasis on fire. And I think it just shows how smart your thoughts are.

      I also would say your ideas about the Morrígan/blacksmithing/weaponry are compelling. You know, I’ve been primarily looking at the texts in which the Morrígan appears, but your comment makes me wonder if there is some scholarship focusing on the Morrígan’s relationship to weaponry.

      I never even considered the cauldron of Dyrnwch! Speaking of magic cookery in Briton tradition, there is apparently something like the fulacht connected to King Arthur. I remember from a couple years back that some author was arguing that a tradition which names various British localities as King Arthur’s cooking sites, though recorded only fairly late and in exclusively Anglo-Norman texts, reflected genuine Welsh tradition for its similarity to early tradition in Ireland linking fulachts to Finn McCool. I f&@$!!! forgot to ask the Welsh crew about that! Well I’m on it now, I can always do a follow up. Thanks for reminding me!

      Take care, and happy NaNoWriMo by the way!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, it’s always fun to read your work! 😊

        Ok, to be totally honest, I only just found out about the cauldron of Dyrnwch. I had this vague notion that I’d read stories with magical cookware in them but couldn’t remember their names. I knew I’d seen an item in a fantasy novel that was called the Cauldron of Plenty, so I Googled “magic cauldron legend” and stumbled on a reference to Dyrnwch’s. Funny the paths even quick research takes!

        That Arthurian fulacht connection sounds like a fascinating line of research. I’d love to hear more about it! Come to think of it, wasn’t there a cook involved in Le Morte d’Arthur?

        Happy NaNoWriMo to you too! 😄

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you, it really means a lot that you find my stuff interesting to read!

        You know, I was breaking my brain trying to figure out why the triad would imply cookware = learning to blacksmith. Your suggestion about the cauldron made me realize that mystical knowledge is routinely depicted springing from cookware. Your comment was the best sort of insight; the kind where I read it and go “Oh yeah, she’s on to something! Why didn’t I think of that myself?!” Lol I can be such a dummy sometimes… but I’m just glad that I have insightful friends like you to catch what I couldn’t see!

        And as always I look forward to reading your latest work, and I hope your fiction writing is coming along too!

        Thx again!

        Liked by 1 person

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