Myth in Folktale: The Ensorcelling Stone

The ruins of Kilmacduagh Church, photograph by Ed Hannon, find more of his amazing work at his website: https://visionsofthepastblog.com/

In Episode 64 of the House of Legends podcast Scottish oral storyteller and author Daniel Allison bemoans to his guest Clare Murphy the dearth of indigenous Scottish mythological texts.* At around the 14:30 minute mark Allison suggests that the ancient lore of Scotland can be found reverberating through its rich oral and ballad tradition. “I do believe those stories go way way back… the legends are echoes of the myths,” he states. Luckily, some evidence suggests that he could be right.

The Tale of The Ensorcelling Stone

Good was I to thee, Fionn,

Surely to thee was I good

I was good on the day of the ford dwelling,

And I was in Lon MacLibhion’s smithy.

Three kings came from the waves,

My hand it was left them headless;

And it was I loosed thee with blood

Lay of Diarmaid (1)

The quote above comes from a version of the Lay of Diarmaid given by Campbell, a ballad first copied down in 1530, and alludes to a tale of Finn mac Umaill and his “Feena” warrior-hunter band. Popular in both Scotland and Ireland in many variant forms, the folktale plot invariably involves:

1. Finn and company are lured to an isolated location by treachery, usual the promise of a feast.

2. Finn and a number of others become adhered to enchanted stones. By this entrapment the antagonist plans to kill them.

3. An uncaptured ally or allies of Finn slay the antagonist and use the enemy’s magic blood to free him and the others.

4. Often a humorous passage follows concerning Conán Maol where he has to be yanked free of the ensorcelling stone, leaving behind the skin of his shoulders or butt or soles of his feet.

The earliest Irish version comes from Seathrún Céitinn in the 17th c. (2) and a very similar incident occurs regarding Saint Colman of Kilmacduagh. (3) In the hagiographic episode given in the Menology of Aengus (9 c?), the Saint and his comrade pray for a sumptuous feast after a long period of consuming only game fowl. (4) The nearby king and his host, while sitting down to supper, are shocked when all the victuals spread before them rise up into the air and levitate out the door. Curiosity whetted, the monarch and his guests pursue the errant banquet. St. Colman, for some reason, is terrified at the sight of the approaching royal cavalcade, and so petitions God for deliverance. The marchers’ feet become stuck to the rocks. Afterwards the misunderstanding is revealed and the king and his folk are released. It is said the their footprints can still be seen on the rocks of the area, called the ‘road of dishes’ or ‘Bóthar na Mia’s’.

Now to turn our attention to Wales. The third volume of the Cambrian Register records a legend about Saint Tydecho and Maelgwn. (5) In it we find Prince Maelgwn taking revenge against the Saint for turning his white horses a golden hue by driving off the oxen of Tydecho’s monastic settlement. Some time later Maelgwn returns to the vicinity with his pack of white hounds on a hunting trip. He sits down on a peculiar blue stone, and to his dismay he finds it impossible to rise. Saint Tydecho arrives and scolds him. Maelgwn begs forgiveness and promises to return the rustled cattle, whereupon Tydecho releases him.

The Cambrian Register refers to the source of this tale as “ancient MSS” but this statement is not elaborated on. One may guess it refers to poet Dafydd Llwyd ap Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (f. 15th c.) who wrote tales about Tydecho, but that’s hardly clear.

An even earlier mention of a stone of entrapment comes from the Welsh Triads. In Bromwich’s Triad 52, The Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain, we find prose addition to the triadic tract:

And one, who was more exalted than the three of them, was three nights in prison in Caer Oeth and Anoeth, and three nights imprisoned by Gwen Pendragon, and three nights in an enchanted prison under the Stone of Eichymeint. This Exalted Prisoner was Arthur. And it was the same one who released him from each of these three prisons – Goreu, son of Custennin, his cousin. (7)

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find more information on the Stone of Eichymeint.

Other Legends

Outside of Ireland and Britain there is a mention in Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology about the sorceress Jetta, who enchanted a stone in the forest of the Heidelberg area of Germany called Heidenloch (Heathen’s Well). Anyone who touches the stone is said to stick fast. Regrettably I have been unable to uncover any additional information, so it remains a tantalizing mystery.

The Ensorcelling Stone as Myth

In Duanaire Finn volume 3, Gerard Murphy’s groundbreaking analysis of the Finn Cycle, he compares the various literary and folk versions of the ‘ensorcelling stone’ type tale with an obscure myth concerning Theseus. (6) Murphy reports an anecdote drawn from Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca:

But when Theseus arrived with Pirithous in Hades, he was beguiled; for, on the pretense that they were about to partake in good cheer, Hades bade them first be seated on the Chair of Forgetfulness, to which they grew and were held fast by coils of serpents… Hercules brought Theseus up and sent him to Athens.

From the scholiast on Aristophanes:

Indeed men commonly call the Athenians smooth-buttocked, and they make a legend about Theseus, that when pulled up by Herakles he left behind upon the rock [a portion of] his buttocks.

Murphy also notes anecdotes about Theseus’ travels in the underworld in the work of Aulus Gellius, and the subsequent loss of his rear-end by Suidas.

Conclusion

The narrative elements in these stories bear an astonishing symmetry. A humorous myth that features a hero imprisoned to a rock by magic and freed by an ally while losing a piece of his flesh, especially his gluteus maximus, corresponds well with the Finn and Maelgwn tales we’ve appraised. The comedic ‘voice’ that characterizes the tale may have served as a protective shell for the myth to survive. Daniel Allison may well be correct that these narratives go “way way back.”

Endnotes

*I am not affiliated with Daniel Allison or House of Legends podcast in any way. His website is here: https://www.houseoflegends.me/podcast

(1) Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, IV, p. 122, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/pt4/pt408.htm

A Scottish folktale version Maghach Colgar can be found here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/pt2/pt228.htm

(2) Murphy, Duanaire Finn: The Book of the Lays of Finn, III, p. XXIII, reader p. 28, https://archive.org/details/duanairefinnbook03murpuoft/page/n27/mode/2up

(3) Kellner, Heortology: A History Of The Christian Festivals From Their Origin To The Present Day, p. 404: https://archive.org/details/Heortology/page/n429/mode/2up

(4) Fahey, The history and antiquities of the diocese of Kilmacduagh, pp. 62/4: https://archive.org/details/historyandantiq00fahegoog/page/n88/mode/2up

(5) Pughe, Cambrian Register, III, p. 540, https://archive.org/details/B-001-003-176/page/n559/mode/2up

(6) Murphy, XXX-XXXI, https://archive.org/details/duanairefinnbook03murpuoft/page/n35/mode/2up

(7) A selection of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein: http://www.lundyisleofavalon.co.uk/texts/welsh/triads.htm

9 thoughts on “Myth in Folktale: The Ensorcelling Stone

  1. On the Stone of Eichymeint, there’s a verse from Prydydd y Moch (12th/13th c.):

    O uro Echeifyeint uchelgruc
    Hyd Wynnuryn Llundein, lle clodluc

    (From the land around the high rock of Echeifyeint
    To the White Hill in London he is renowned

    a poem in praise of Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd.

    This is supposedly a reference to the breadth of the Island of Britain and a suggestion from Saunders Lewis for the location of the rock is Harlech.

    On the stone to which people become attached and cannot escape being an ancient motif, I’m sure this is so. It also occurs when Pryderi is captured in the Third Mabinogi, and Pryderi has been seen as an analogue of Mabon. The inclusion of Arthur in the additional prose to the triad about the Exalted Prisoners may be a transposition as Rachel Bromwich suggests, as there is no other story about Arthur being imprisoned but he does release prisoners, including Mabon of course.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hey Greg, so good to see you, and sorry about my absence once again. Thank you for the wonderful insights on the Welsh! Your knowledge makes you truly indispensable. I’m so happy you agree that the tale type has ancient origins and the Pryderi and Mabon suggestions are intriguing! I’m aware that you’re acquainted with Elenor Hull’s work on the Oldest Animal motif that plays a part in the rescue of Mabon episode, but there is also a 10c Finn tale that resembles the second part: where the hero follows a River course by magical means to find and rescue a young man (Oisín) from a aquatic subterranean stronghold where he’s held prisoner by monsters. That would be a good post. But a post on Pryderi comes first. Also blacksmith goddess… Always illuminating comments from you Greg, thank you again!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Bon Repos, thank you for the read and wow! Thanks for helping me out trying to track down further examples! Who knows what’s out there; I’ve been consulting the work of Hervé Le Bihan, and he laments that a comprehensive research and translation/publication of many Breton MSS has yet to be undertaken, even at this time. One has to wonder what treasures are buried in those old manuscripts of Brittany! Ack I want to know so very badly!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting! With all these sticky stones, I can’t help being reminded of the flytrap skin kelpies and each-uisge sometimes had. I doubt there’s a direct connection, since those tales are have much grimmer tones compared to the ensorcelling stones. The Finn macUmaill version sounds a bit more serious until it gets to poor Conán Maol’s part, but the Saint Colman one is almost a comedy of errors.

    I wonder if it’s just for humorous effect that the rear end usually pays the price with these stones or if there was some hidden metaphor behind it. Er, pun not intended. Then again, though, I can well imagine such a detail developing from practical experience with sitting down on rough stones without a good layer or two of protective cloth. Those things can really scrape!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ceridwen! That’s a great thought concerning kelpies etc. Murphy notes a bunch of stories (including the sticking rope from the 7th c Immram of Bran) with sticking objects/creatures from all over the world, but suggests that the specifically “fat derrières stuck to rocks” type shows an uninterrupted transmission of a single sort of pre-Christian story.
      Conán Maol is a dip though, so it’s not too sad to see him sometimes get his comeuppance, lol! 😆

      “Er, pun not intended”
      🤣🙃
      Another clever idea about metaphors – I don’t have the foggiest !
      Thanks for your alway inimitable comments!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: