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.
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.
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.”
*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