…’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).
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
(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