Filed under: Thomas The Rhymer
Let’s take a glance to some of them. Posted from the book “ The Folklore of the North-East of Scotland” CHAPTER XVIII. PLACE RHYMES by THE REVEREND WALTER GREGOR, M.A. – LONDON: PUBLISHED FOR THE FOLKLORE SOCIETY BY ELLIOT STOCK. 62, PATERNOSTER ROW, E.C.  - (Obtain this full work and many more backups by clicking here!)
Aikeybrae is a small hill in the parish of Deer. On it there was, at no very distant period, a number of stones, which bore the name of Cummin’s Craigs, near which one of the Cumyns, Earl of Buchan, was, according to tradition, thrown from his horse, and killed. He called Thomas the Rhymer Thomas the Liar. Thomas, upon this, uttered the doom of his slanderer in the following words:–
“Tho’ Thomas the Lyar thou callest me,
A sooth tale I shall tell to thee:
Thy horse shall ride,
He shall stumble, and thou shalt fa’;
Thy neck-bone shall brack in twa,
And dogs shall thy banes gnaw,
And, maugre all thy kin and thee,
Thy own belt thy beir shall be.”
The site of the stones is now believed to be occupied by a quarry.
The following is the tradition about the lands of Auchmedden in Aberdour. Thomas the Rhymer’s prediction was that–
“As long’s there’s an eagle in Pennan,
There will be a Baird in Auchmedden.”
For long a pair of eagles built their nest in the cliffs near the village of Pennan, and the Bairds protected them with the greatest care, and fed them by placing daily on a ledge of rock near their eirie a quantity of food.
William Baird joined Prince Charlie, and was an officer of his bodyguard at Culloden. He continued in hiding for some years, and afterwards took up his abode at Echt House, where he died in 1777. Auchmedden was not confiscated, but Mr. Baird was obliged to sell it in 1750 to relieve himself of the debt he had contracted to support the cause of the Stuarts; it was bought by the Earl of Aberdeen. At that time the eagles left their home. Lord Haddo, eldest son of the Earl of Aberdeen, married Christian Baird of Newbyth. The eagles returned, and continued to build their nest till the estate passed from the Aberdeen family to the Honourable William Gordon. Again the birds disappeared. When the estate came into the hands of Robert Baird, about the year 1855, one eagle took up its abode in the Pennan Rocks, but it soon after disappeared.
“The water o’ Awn (Avon) rins sae clear,
It wud deceive a man o’ a hundred year.”
The river Avon flows in a strong stream, clear as crystal, from Loch Avon, a lonely loch hemmed in by Cairngorm, Ben Maedhui, and Benamain, in the top of Banffshire. It flows past Inchrory, Tomintoul, and falls into the Spey. During its whole course it is remarkable for the clearness of its water. Many cases of drowning are said to have happened arising from the ignorance of those who attempted to ford it at places where the water is much deeper than it looks, owing to its clearness.
Banff forms the subject of various proverbs. One in use in the North is:–
“Gang t’ Banff
An buff ben-leather.”
“Gang t’ Banff
An bottle skate.”
The one in use in the West of Scotland is:–
“Gang t’ Bang and bettle [or bittle] beans.”
In Lothian the saying is:–
“Gang t’ Banff and bind bickers.”
“Gae to Banff
An buy bend-leather.”
“Banff it is a boroughs toon,
A kirk withoot a steeple,
A midden o’ dirt at ilky door,
A very unceevil people.”
Whatever may have been the truth of this saying at one time, it has lost its sting now. Its church has a handsome steeple. The town is a model of cleanness. Another version puts the assertion in the last line in another light, and in the true light:–
“Bang it is a boroughs toon,
A kirk withoot a steeple,
A bonnie lass at ilky door,
And fine ceevil people.”
“Gang t’ Birse
An bottle skate.”
In parts of Banffshire this is spoken to one who is importunate in asking, to get rid of him.
“Boyne fouck; Buchan bodies;
Strila lairds; barfit ladies.”
This saying, no doubt, has come from the Boyne, and shows in what estimation the “fouck” of the Boyne held their neighbours.
Tap o’ Noth, an Bennochie,
Is four laun marks fae the sea.”
This is a saying applicable to the Moray Firth.
The rhyme about the Cabrach, attributed in the district to Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon, is:–
“I hae a kintra caa’d the Cabrach,
The folk’s dabrach,
The water’s Rushter,
An the corn’s trushter.”
The Rushter, or Royster, is a stream that flows about a mile north of the church, having its source in the heights to the westward.
“Cairnmuir an Cairnbyke,
Rumblin Steens and Stoney Dykes.
Atween the centre an the pole
Great Cæsar lies intil a hole.”
On Cairnmuir and Cairnbyke, which are in the parish of Pitsligo, were at one time several tumuli. Who Cæsar was cannot be divined.
“Caul Carnousie stans on a hill,
And mony a fremit ane gangs theretil.”
Carnousie is a fine estate with a neat old-fashioned mansion, situated on a height above the Deveron, in the parish of Forglen. It has been thought that the words of the last line have reference to the frequent change of owners.
“A’ the wives o’ Corncairn
Drilling up their harn yarn;
They hae corn, they hae kye,
They hae webs o’ claith forbye.”
Corncairn is a district in Banffshire, not far from the Knock. The rhyme praises the thrift of its goodwives.
The rhyme about the parish of Cruden is:–
“Crush-dane the field and parish then were styled,
Tho’ time and clever tongues the name hath spoiled.”
Culblean was burnt, and Cromar harriet,
And dowie’s the day John Tam was marriet.”
In explanation of these lines tradition has the following to say. During the wars of Montrose and Dundee, the district of Strathdee was visited by bands of MacGregors from Rannoch, and Grants and Macintoshes from Badenoch, to reduce to order the disaffected. After a time they themselves took to evil ways, and plundered wherever they could. The marriage of one of the Cromar men was to be celebrated with great pomp, and the indwellers were invited to a man. This was known to the freebooters, and a foray on a grand scale was planned. On the marriage day, when the country was left defenceless, they swept over the district, carried off the cattle and flocks of the inhabitants, and burnt several of their dwellings. This aroused the vengeance of the people, and they arose to drive their enemies from their hiding-places. The only effectual way of doing this was by setting fire to the forest of Culblean.
Another tradition says that it was Mackay, after the battle of Killicerankie, that set fire to the forest, in forcing the Pass of Ballater, and at the same time wasted the Strath of Dee with fire and sword, and levied a contribution on the day John Tom was married-an event set forth in the lines:–
“Wo to the day John Tom was married,
Culblean was burned, and Cromar was harried.”
Cullen, in Banffshire, seems to have stood low in public opinion:–
“Aiberdeen ’ill be a green
An Banff a borrows toon,
An Turra ’ill be a restin place,
As men walk up and doon;
Bit Cullen ’ill remain the same,
A peer fool fisher toon.”
“Fin the ween cums aff o’ Cullycan
It’s naither gude for baist nor man.”
This is a weather-saw current in Macduff. Cullycan is a headland to the east of the borough. The saw embodies the evil effects of the east winds.
“Daach, Sauchin, an Keithock Mill,
O’ Tam o’ Rivven owned the will;
Balveny, Cults, and Clunymoire,
Auchindroin, an many more.”
“Tam o’ Rivven” was Thomas Gordon of Ruthven, who fell fighting against the Abbot of Grange. Tradition says that
Thomas Gordon, of Ruthven, laid claim to certain lands that belonged to the Abbey of Grange, on the Balloch Hill. The Abbot of Grange was not a man to stoop to give up what belonged to the Church, and he made ready to uphold his claim in the only way open to him by arms. Tam, with his followers, met the brave Abbot and his men on the north shoulder of the Little Balloch. Both Tam and the Abbot were killed. The spot where the Abbot fell is called the Monk’s Cairn, and is about 300 yards north-cast of the top of the hill. At the bottom of the hill is a hollow called the Gordon’s How, to which Tam was carried wounded to death. Here, beside a spring of water, the Gordon died. The words of the rhyme show the wide extent of Tam o’ Rivven’s domains.
“When Dee and Don shall rin in one,
And Tweed shall rin in Tay,
The bonnie water of. Uric
Shall bear the Bass away.”
The Bass is a pretty artificial mound, perhaps a Hill of Justice, on the banks of the Urie, near Inverurie.
When a church was in the act of building at Deer, owing to some cause no one was wise enough to account for, no progress could be made. At last a voice was heard crying:–
“It is not here, it is not here,
That ye’re to big the kirk o’ Deer,
But on the tap o’ Tillery,
Where many a corpse shall after lie.”
“A church accordingly was built on a knoll or small mount, embraced by a semicircular bend of the Ugie, and, as was customary, a piece of ground was set apart for a burial-place, so that the weird is fully verified in the great numbers of interments that have taken place during the lapse of centuries in a wide and populous parish.”
Dandilieth, and Devey (Delvey),
Is the four bonniest haughs
On the banks o’ the Spey.”
“A mile o’ Don ‘s worth twa o’ Dee,
Except for salmon, stone, and tree.”
The following extract from “View of the Diocese of Aberdeen” explains this rhyme. “The banks of the Dee consist of a thin, dry soil, abounding with wood and stone, and overgrown frequently with heath; whereas those of Don consist of soil more deep and fat, affording good corn-fields. Some even go so far as to affirm that not only the corn, but also the men and beasts are taller and plumper on Don than on Dee.”
The Old Bridge of Don–the Brig o’ Balgownie–was, built five centuries and a half ago. Byron refers to it in “Don Juan” in the following lines:–
“As Auld Langsyne brings Scotland, one and all,
Scotch plaids, Scotch swords, the blue hills, and clear streams,
The Dee, the Don, Balgownie’s Brig’s black wall,
All my boy feelings, all my gentler dreams.”
He adds this note–”The Brig of Don, near the Auld town of Aberdeen, with its one arch and its black, deep, salmon-stream below, is in my memory as yesterday. I still remember, though perhaps I may misquote the awful proverb which made me to pause to cross it, and yet lean over it with childish delight, being an only son, at least by the mother side. The saying, as recollected by me, was this, but I have never heard nor seen it since I was nine years of age:–
“Brig o’ Balgownie, black’s yer wa’;
Wi’ a wife’s ae son, and a meer’s ae foal,
Doon ye shall fa’.”
Another version of the first line is:–
“Brig o’ Balgownie tho’ wicht be your wa’.”
The second line has another version.–
“Wi’ a mither’s ae son, and a mare’s ae foal.”
“Caul may the ween blaw
Aboot the yits o’ Eden.”
This saying relates to the old castle of Eden, a lonely keep in ruins, not far from the present mansion on the banks of the Deveron. The tradition is that a vassal of the laird of Eden had incurred his lord’s displeasure; he was condemned to die, and no entreaty of his wife was able to soften the lairds heart. When entreaty failed she uttered curses, and one of them was the words given above.
According to the following Fochabers must have enjoyed all unenviable notoriety:–
“Aw sing a sang, aw ming a mang,
A cyarlin an a kid;
The drunken wives of Fochabers
Is a’ rinnin wid.”
Of Fraserburgh, now the great centre of the herring fishing on the north-east coast, the rhyme is:–
“Aberdeen will be a green,
An Banff a borough’s toon,
But Fraserbroch ’ill be a broch
When a’ the brochs is deen.”
There are two versions of a “prophecy” about Fyvie Castle:–
“Fyvyns riggs and towers
Hapless shall your mesdames be,
When ye shall hae within your methes,
From harryit kirk’s land, stanes three–
Ane in Preston’s tower,
Ane in my lady’s bower,
And ane below the water-yett,
And it ye shall never get.”
“Fyvie, Fyvie, thou’se never thrive
As lang’s there’s in thee stanes three:
There’s ane intill the highest tower,
There’s ane intill the ladye’s bower,
There’s ane aneth the water-yett,
And thir three stanes ye’se never get.”
The tradition is as follows: The walls of Fyvie Castle stood wall-wide for seven years and a day waiting for the arrival of Thomas the Rhymer. At last he appeared before the walls, and a violent storm of wind and rain burst over the place; round the spot where Thomas stood, however, there was a dead calm as he spoke the fate of the castle. The tradition goes on to say that two of the stones have been found, but the one below the “water-yett,” that is, the gate leading to the Ythan, has as yet baffled search.
“If evyr maydenis malysone
Dyd licht upon drye lande,
Let nocht bee funde in Furvye’s glebys,
Bot thystl, bente, and sande.”
Furvie, or Forvie, was at one time a separate parish; it now forms part of the parish of Slains. Much, if not most of it, is now covered with sand. Tradition says that the proprietor to whom the parish belonged left three daughters as heirs of his fair lands; they were however bereft of their property, and thrown houseless on the world. On leaving their home they uttered the curse contained in the foregoing words. In course of no long time a storm, which lasted nine days, burst over the district, and turned the parish of Forvie into a desert of sand; this calamity is said to have fallen on the place about 1688.
A pair o’ new sheen,
Up the Gallowgate, doon the Green.”
Both the Gallowgate and the Green are in Aberdeen.
“The Grole o’ the Gehrie (Garioch),
The bowmen o’ Mar:
Upon the Hill o’ Benochie
The Grole wan the war.”
This seems to refer to some skirmish between the Marmen and the Garioch men that was fought out on Bennochie. Tradition has no voice in it.
“Fin a dyke gangs roon the Bog o’ Gicht,
The Gordon’s pride is at its hicht.”
Much of what now forms the beautiful policies of Gordon Castle was the “Bog of Gight,” and the common saying in years not very long gone past was, that the last Duke of Gordon died about the time the “Bog” was wholly inclosed.
“Twa men sat down on Ythan brae,
The ane did to the tither say,
‘An what sic men may the Gordons of Gight hae been?’”
The castle and the estate of Gight, in the parish of Fyvie, came about the year 1479 into the possession of William Gordon, third son of the second Earl of Huntly, by a sister of the Earl of Erroll. He was killed at the battle of Flodden in 1513.
“When the heron leaves the tree
The laird o’ Gight shall landless be.”
On the 12th May, 1785, Catherine Gordon of Gight married the Honourable John Byron. The estate was sold soon after the marriage. Tradition says that about the time of the marriage the falcons, which had built their nest for many a year in a fine tree near the castle, left and took up their abode in the woods of Haddo House.
Another prophecy was:–
“At Gight three men a violent death shall dee,
And after that the land shall lie in lea.”
In the year 1791 Lord Haddo fell from his horse on the “Green of Gight,” and was killed. Some years after a servant on the home farm met a violent death. The third violent death took place not many years ago. The home farm was to be turned into lea. Part of the house had to be pulled down. One of the men engaged in this work remarked that the prophecy had not come to pass. Shortly after, part of the wall fell upon him, and crushed him to death.
“The guile, the Gordon, an the hiddie-craw
Is the three worst things that Moray ever saw.”
“The guile” is the marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum), only too plentiful in some of the lighter sandy soils of Morayshire, and hinders in no small degree the crops. Pennant suggests that “the Gordon” may refer to the plundering expeditions of Lord Lewis Gordon, a son of the Marquis of Huntly, and the companion of Montrose in his wars.
“A misty May and a dropping June
Brings the bonny land of Moray aboon.”
Much of Morayshire is of a sandy nature, and the crops in May and June require a good deal of moisture, or else they become stunted.
Inverugie, in the parish of St. Fergus, was the seat of the Earl Marischal. Thomas the Rhymer had his saying against the family, which he uttered from a stone which stood near the castle:–
“Inverugie by the sea,
Lordless shall thy land be;
And underneath thy hearth-stane
The tod shall bring her birds hame.”
Concerning the stone the prophecy is:–
“As lang’s this stane stands on this craft
The name of Keith shall be alaft;
But when this stane begins t’ fa’
The name of Keith shall wear awa’.”
The stone was removed in 1763, and built into the church of St. Fergus, which was then in course of erection.
In 1715 the property of the Earl Marischal was attainted. The estate of St. Fergus was then bought from the Crown by the York Buildings Company. The trustees of this Company sold it in 1761 to George, Earl Marischal, son of the attainted earl. It was bought in 1764, the year after the stone was removed, by Lord Pitfour, one of the senators of the College of Justice, and it remains in the possession of that family.
“Fae Kilbirnie t’ the sea
Ye may stap fae tree till tree.”
Kilbirnie is not far from the Ord, a few miles to the west of Banff. The rhyme indicates a very different state of matters in by-gone days from what now exists. The tract of land at present between Kilbirnie and the sea is all under the plough, and few trees are growing to adorn the landscape.
“He (or she) is like the dogs o’ Keith, he’s aye on hoch.”
This saying is applied to one who is much given to going about in an idle way.
“Marna shall be claid in reed
An Mormond hill rin doon wi’ bleed,
An a’ the peace that ever’ll be
’Ill be atween Mormond an the sea.”
Marna lies in the parish of Strichen; and Mormond, partly in Strichen, and partly in Fraserburgh and Rathen.
“The four great landmarks on the sea
Is Mount Mar, Lochnagar, Clochnaben, and Bennochie.”
These are all hills in Aberdeenshire, and two of them are well known in poetry.
There is a shorter version of this saw which contains the names of but two hills. “The chief hill here (in Garioch) is that of Bennochie. It has seven heads, the chief of which, being a round peak, is called The Top; which, being seen afar off, and also affording a wide prospect to one who stands upon it, has given occasion to the name; for Bin-na-chie signifies The Hill of Light (though others expound it as The Hill of the Pap, because of the resemblance The Top bears to a nipple): and accordingly there is an old verse which says:–
“There are two landmarks off the sea,
Clochnabin and Bennochie.”
“Pit fae ye, Pitfodels,
There’s men i’ the Mearns.”
It is difficult to tell what is the meaning of those words.
“The Pot o’ Pittentyoul,
Fahr the deel gya the youl.”
The “Pot o’ Pittentyoul is a small but romantic rook pool in a little stream called the “Burn o’ the Riggins,” which flows past the village of Newmills of Keith. On the edge of the pool are some hollows worn away by the water and the small stones and sand carried down by the stream. These hollows, to a lively imagination, have the shape of a seat, and the story is, that the devil at some far-back time sat down on the edge of the pool, and left his mark.
“Fin the rumble comes fae Pittendrum,
The ill weather’s a’ t’ cum;
Fin the rumble comes fae Aberdour,
The ill weather’s a’ our.”
This is a saw respecting the weather sometimes heard repeated in the parish of Pitsligo. Pittendrum lies on the east side of the parish, and, when a storm is approaching from the east, the swell of the sea, which comes before the storm bursts, breaks on the beach not far from Pittendrum. Hence the noise. Aberdour lies to the west of the parish.
Rattrayhead is a ridge of rocks running out into the sea on the. coast of the parish of Crimond; it is dangerous to shipping, and has seen many a wreck. Its safeguard has been put into the following lines:–
“Keep Mormond Hill a handspike high,
And Rattray Brigs y’ill not come nigh.”
“The road t’ the Kirk o’ Rivven (Ruthven),
Fahr gangs mair dead nor livin.”
Ruthven, in Cairnie, had once a church, and the churchyard is still in existence.
“At two full times, and three half times,
Or threescore years and ten,
The ravens shall sit on the stanes o’ St. Brandon
And drink o’ the blood o’ the slain.”
The stones of St. Brandon, the patron saint of Banff, stood on a field about a mile to the west of Banff. Tradition has it that a battle between the Scots and the Danes was fought on this field. Near the same place is the Brandon How (pronounced locally Brangin How), where long ago St. Brandon’s Fair was held; this fair is now held in Banff. Rain, called “the Brangin sob,” is looked for about this time.
In the parish of Cruden, not far from the Hawklaw, There is a well dedicated to St. Olaus, whose virtues are set forth in the words:–
“St. Olav’s well, low by the sea,
Where pest nor plague shall never be.
“The Brig o’ Turra
’S half-wye atween Aberdeen and Murra.”
“The Brig o’ Turray
’S half-way between Aberdeen and Elgin in Murray.”
Turriff was noted for a skirmish between the Royalists and Covenanters.
“This infall (known afterwards commonly by the name of ‘the Trott o’ Turra,’ in derisione fell out May fourteenth, 1639, earlye in the morning.” “Weary fa’ the Trott o’ Turra” was for long on the lips of the folk as a kind of proverb.
The two streams that form the Ugie meet in the parish of Longside, on the Haughs of Rora.
“Little Ugie said to Muckle Ugie
‘Where shall we twa meet?’
‘Doon in the Haughs of Rora
When a’ man is asleep.’”
Another version of the first line is,
“Ugie said t’ Ugie.”
A meeting of the ways is the meeting of the Worlds; this world, and the land of Faery intersect out of time and place, in an undifferentiated “betwixt and between” state which eludes rigorous structure or classification – a state which is (as it were) in permanent transition or fluidity – hence the magical shape-shifting, as we shall see later. (Anthropologists such as Van Gennep and Victor Turner have pointed out the importance of such “betwixt and between” or “liminal” states in rites of passage, initiation, ritual, and so on. Remember the numerous incidents in Keltic Mythology where some character has to perform an action neither mounted nor on foot, neither on water nor on land, neither inside a house nor outside, etc.
According to some versions of the ballad, Janet, arriving at Miles Cross at midnight, has to cast a magic circle with holy water, the idea doubtless being that by staying within the circle she, and Tam Lin once she has pulled him from his horse, are protected from Fairy influences.
Then Janet pulls Tam Lin from his horse, he goes through a series of transformations in her arms as he / passes from one world to another, The exact transformations vary with the versions of the song, but an ask (water newt), a snake or adder; a lion, and a bear are usually included, and sometimes also a toad, eel, swan, dove, greyhound, black dog, Lailly WornT and others. Many of these animals have precise symbolic connotations in Keltic Lore,.
Finally, there is a transformation into a red-hot bar of iron. Wee know that iron was often used as a folk charm against unwanted fairy influences, and we might assume therefore that at this point Janet has won through her battle of holding Tam Lin tight in her arms through-out these frightening changes of shape :
Into an ask and an adder
But hold me fast, and fear not,
I am your bairn’s father. “
The physieal contact produced by this close embrace is a means of “earthing”, of promoting disenchantment. A more common motif found in many fairy stories and folk tales, also showing the importance of physical contact, is disenchantment by a kiss (the hideous hag, when kissed, turns into a beautiful lady, or the frog into a prince; although this motif also has other meanings, which cannot be gone into here).
In some versions the bar of iron is then transformed into a burning coal, but in either case, Janet has to plunge the red-hot, fiery iron or coal into water or milk – an important magical means of restoring someone or something to its original shape.
The fire metamorphosis is counteracted by the opposite element of water. Tam Lin is then transformed back into his human shape, naked, and Janet has to cast her green mantle over him. This is also significant, for green garments of various kinds are often the mark of fairy peoples or of mortals who have visited Faery, while mantles or robes are connected with magical transformations (compare the common motif of a cloak that makes the wearer invisible).
So Janet wins her lover, and the Fairy Queen, enraged, declares that had she known of this plan, she would have taken out Tam Lin’s eyes and heart, and replaced them with “twa een o’ tree” and a “heart o’ stane”.
Keltic folklore is replete with examples of people who, having once seen the fairies, have their sight taken away. Usually it is just the “inner sight” that is lost, the power to see the fairy people, but sometimes physical sight is lost as well.
The heart has frequently been seen as the centre of the soul or self. Perhaps, then, the Fairy Queen means that she would wish to deprive Tam Lin of his power to see the fairy folk from then on, and furthermore to bind his soul by magical force. Perhaps on the other hand, she simply means that if she had known of this plan before hand, she would have taken out Tam Lin’s eyes so that he could not see Janet, and his heart so that his lack of human emotion would mean that he would have had no desire to return to her, and thus the Queen would have kept him in the Otherworld.
So what are we to make of the central theme of the song, the transformations that Tam Lin undergoes in Janet’s arms?
To begin with, it should be noted that shapeshifting, or magical transformation, is a general Otherworldly characteristic, and may signify different things in different instancea. The abil-ity to appear under different forms is a characteristic not only of fairy peoples, but also of certain magicians, gods, goddeáses, witshes, Druids, kings, great heroes, early Keltic Saints, and supernatural beings of all kinds.
Sometimes shape-shifting is connected with initiatory myth and ritual, as in the Welsh myth of Kerridwen and Gwion, of which another folksong, ‘The Coal-Blaek Smith” (also known as ‘The Two Magicians’) would appear to be a reflection. Sometimes it is connected with the natural cycles of the seasons.
Sometimes it is related to rebirth or reincarnation in animal form. In ‘Tam Lin’, however, it is connected with the winning of an Otherworld lover.
This connection can be found in other examples from Keltic myth, as well as in other traditions, for example in Greek Mythology (in the story of “Oenghus and Caer” Caer ohanges from a maiden to a swan, or vice versa, each Samhain,) we can also find a connection between shape-shifting and creation/conception, conception and birth being a form of creation on the micro-cosmic level, its analogue in the human being.
In Tam Lin’, Janet is with child, and wins her lover back from the Otherworld to be her child ‘s father. In the Welsh myth, Kerridwen pursues Gwion through many transformations until finally she, as a black hen, swallows him in the shape of a grain of wheat, and later bears him as the child who is to become the great Bard Taliesin.
In Irish mythology, Tuan, the last survivor of Partholons company, after successive animal transformations, is eaten in the form of a salmon by the wife of King Cairell and reborn of her .
Mongán, Pryderi,and Arthur are all conceived through the magical shape-shifting of their natural fathers, although here the change of shape is into another human form, and no animal transformations are involved.
In the Hindu tradition, a creation myth of the Erihadaranyaka Upanisad relates how all living beings are created from the successive animal transformations of the first male and first female, who were originally one androgynous self. She becomes a cow, he a bull; she becomes a mare, he a stallion, she a ewe, he a ramand so on. The Coal Black Smith too, while its main significance seems to be that of the transformations of initiatory ritual (as in the myth of Kerridwen and Gwion), contains also the theme of conception/creation in that the smith pursues a maiden with the intent of “gaining her maidenhead”. She becomes a fish, he an otter; she becomes a hare, he a dog; she becomes a fly, he a spider, and so on till the end of the chase.
Hare and hound, fish and otter, are also found in the transformatory chase of Gwion and Kerridwen, although here it is the Goddess that pursues the male hero, and many writers have argued that the earliest form of this mythical theme is the more matriarchal version, where the female pursues the male.
With the initiatory pattern, we can see the shape-shifting transformations as representing the trials, tests and degrees of initiation -the transformations which we all have to undergo in order to attain higher levels of consciousness.
Gwion undergoes his transformations after tasting of the Water of Inspiration from Kerridwen’s Cauldron, which was an essential part of initiatory ritual; and the various shape-shifting changes thereafter can be related to other parts of the ritual.
It is tempting to see ‘Tam Lin1 as containing vest iges of initiatory shape-changing too. After all, Tam Lin has spent seven years in the Otherworld – a time period often connected with initiaton» (Thomas the Rhymer spends seven years in Faery, and returns with the gift of composing rhyming prophecy) .
Initiatory myths and rituals also often contain the symbolism of fire and of water, by which the initiate is transformed and purified, and these could be compared to Tam Lin’s transformation into red-hot iron/coal and his inmersion in water/milk. (Cuchulainn, after his initiation as a warrior, is placed in three vats of cold water to extinguish his burning ardour, his inner fire», although this is not part of the actual initiation process itself.
But whether we see ‘Tam Lin’ as containing remnants of initiatory ritual, it is clear, at least, that shape-shifting results from contacts between this world and the Otherworld. It occurs in the context of initiatory myth, where the Otherworld is revealed to the candidate; and it occurs in ‘Tam Lin’ as the hero of our song makes his passage from one World to the other.
The transformations of Gwion and Kerridwen occur after Gwion has tasted of the draught from the Cauldron, that is, after he has penetrated the secrets of the Otherworld, which he later as Taliesin relays to the world of humanity. In many mythologies, when the hero has won the secrets of the Otherworld, he has to cross the threshold back to this world – as Tam Lin does – and magical shape-shifting results from a contact between the two worlds.
What we can say, at least, is that whether we see the shape-shifting of Tam Lin as connected with initiation, or with conception/creation, on either case the transformations into different shapes are an obvious and natural symbol of a change of state or form, while the underlying force or energy remains the same.
Shape-shifting is a characteristic of that which is not fully manifest – of something which is in the process of becoming manifest or actual, something which is betwixt and between one World ( or level of being) and another. Things can only shift shape if they are not fully formed, if the energy which is their being is in a state of potential, creative, dynamic, unstructured free-flow. Tam Lin undergoes his transformations out of time, out of place, out of structure, between the Worlds – at Samhain, at midnight, at a crossroads.
Whilst he is undergoing them, he is neither one creature nor another. As Janet effects his disenchantment by the “earthing” of physical contact, the unstructured energy which is his being, which is manifesting under so many different forms, slowly takes on its original structure and is given stable form as he is restored to human shape.
Perhaps we can sea the fluid composite zoomorphic forms of Keltic Art as pointing to the same reality as do the animal transformations – the reality of the Otherworld, where things are fluid, boundaries and categories indistinct, dualities transcended. Of course, it is also worth considering the specific symbolism of each animal in any series of animal transformations, and the deity that any particular animal may be connected with.
It is characteristic of all true symbols that they are inexhaustible. They relate to many different layers of meaning at once, and their wealth cannot be exhausted in any article, but reveals itself ever deeper to us when a symbol is meditated upon and lived through.
There are many other questions that we can ask ourselves about the symbolism of’ ‘Tam Lin’. For example : Who is the Otherworld Lover? A god or goddess with whom we have a special relationship? Or another human being with whom we may find Spiritual fulfillment?
For different individuals, it can be any or all of these but whichever it is for us, we can be sure that, as in Tam Lin’s story, many deep transformations will have to be undergone to bring the relationship to its full flowering and to bring about the inner conception and birth/creation. And that in order to hold on tight through these transformations, we will need sometimes to step ouside our usual structures and classifications, our preconceived boundaries and categories, into another World.
When we read between the lines, they can be found to contain veiled references to esoteric teachings, no doubt only dimly remembered or half understood by many who have played a part in their transmission down the ages. Yet the very fact that the teachings are veiled, hidden under obscure layers of symbolism, means ühat they have survived where other more explicit wisdom would have fallen on prey to persecution. The inner kernel of truth is thus presierved for those in any age who can crack the shell.
I shall begin with some comments on the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin”, a moet interesting song which illustrates various magical and Otherworld beliefs of the ancient Kelts. The most important aspect of these beliefs shown in the song, is the transformatory shape-shifting which makes up the main body of the ballad, and which I will discuss in detail later.
First, though, it may be as well to summarize Tam Lin’s story for those who are not familiar with it, and to point out other magical elements found in the song. There are many variants of the song, and I shall take my references from a number of different versions so as to give the fullest possible synopsis.
“Tam Lin” tells the story of the winning of an Otherworld lover, a widespread theme in Keltic Mythology. The heroine, who in most versions is called Janet, is with child by her lover Tam Lin who has spent se ven years in the realm of Faery. She first meets him at Carterhaugh, a Fairy domain which can still be located today at Bowhill, near Selkirk; while Miles Cross, where Janet later has to pull Tam Lin from his horse, is nearby.
Folk tradition has preserved the belief that certain “Fairy Rings” upon the plain there were caused by the immersion of Tam Lin into milk or water, which will be discussed later.
When Janet first arrives at Garterhaugh she wanders about picking roses and/or red and green flowers (according to the version). This might seem insignificant enough, until we remember that mortals on their visits to the Otherworld are frequently warned not to pick or eat certain kinds of flowers or fruit (Thomas the Rhymer, another Otherworld traveller also from the Borders, is told by the Fairy Queen not to eat the apples of the Earthly Paradise); and indeed, Tam Lin immediately warns Janet not to continue plucking the flowers.
The rose is a highly symbolic flower with many inner meanings, and was sometimes also regarded as being under the protection of fairies; while red and green are both eolours symbolically associated with fairy peoples.
At about this point in the song, in some versions, we also discover Janet circumambulating (a widespread Keltic ritual practice) and trying to discover her lover’s “true name”, doubtless as a means of winning him back from the Otherworld :
Tae ask her true love’s name
But nothing heard, an’ nothing saw
An’ a’ the woods grew dim,”
Like the laidliest Worm of Ind
But she held him fast, let him not go
And cried aye ‘Young Tamlin”
He then tells her his “true name”, the name by which he is known in the Otherworld, and it is the knowledge of this name, amongst other things, that gives Janet the power to later win him back from Faery:
‘ he said, ‘And then they called me John,
But since I lived in the Fairy Court
Tamlin has been my name’ “
Filed under: Celtic Symbolism
Knot work was unknown before the Christian influence on the Celts and during that era the only known Celtic artwork consisted of geometrical patterns like key patterns, spirals, step patterns etc. It is suggested that the Celtic religion prevented the Celts from depicting the creators work in the form of designs like for example they were restricted from using designs that replicate animal, plants or humans. Celtic artwork was mainly restricted to geometrical patterns.
The use of interlace patterns had its origins in the artwork of the late Roman Empire. Knot patterns first appeared in the third and fourth centuries AD and can be seen in Roman floor mosaics of that time. Interesting developments in the artistic use of interlaced knot patterns are found in Byzantine architecture and book illumination, Coptic art, Celtic art, Islamic art, Medieval Russian book illumination, Ethiopian art, and European architecture and book illumination.
Spirals, step patterns, and key patterns are dominant motifs in Celtic art prior to the Christian influence on the Celts, which began around 450 A.D. These designs found their way into early Christian manuscripts and artwork with the addition of depictions from life, such as animals, plants and even humans. In the beginning, the patterns were intricate interwoven cords, called plaits, which can also be found in other areas of Europe, such as Italy, in the 6th century. A fragment of a Gospel Book, now in the Durham Cathedral library and created in northern Britain in the 7th century, contains the earliest example of true knotted designs in the Celtic manner.
Examples of plait work (a woven, unbroken cord design) predate knotwork designs in several cultures around the world, but the broken and reconnected plait work that is characteristic of true knotwork began in Northern Italy and Southern Gaul and spread to Ireland by the 7th century. The style is most commonly associated with the Celtic lands, but it was also practiced extensively in England and was exported to Europe by Irish and Northumbrian monastic activities on the continent. In modern times Celtic Art is popularly thought of in terms of national identity and therefore specifically Irish, Scottish or Welsh.
For example Celtic knots are alternating knots and are encoded by planar graphs with the same sign on each edge (say left). So if you want to draw a Celtic looking knot, follow these rules in order to reconstruct the knot diagram associated with it:
* Draw a planar graph, with edges of approximately the same length and angles not too obtuse or acute.
* Place a crossing at the middle of each edge.
* Connect each bit of thread to one another following a maze-like algorithm.
* Work out the over/under pattern.
The Celtic simple knot alone has several meanings. Some believe they were designed to defeat the forces of evil, the more interlaced knots were perceived to be more powerful in providing protection. Probably, the reason many earlier Irish flags carried a wide range of interlaced knots. Another belief attributed to the knots was the belief of never-ending life. That the cycle of life never ceases to exist and individual life is treated as a strand woven in the fabric of time and space. The interweaving of knots are associated with eternity and all that surrounds life; past, present and the future. Each loop believed to be an individual and is looped or interwoven into the whole, as in life with all dimensions.
Endless knots come as mystic/mythological symbols have developed independently in various cultures. It is an important cultural marker in places significantly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism such as Tibet, Mongolia, Tuva, Kalmykia, and Buryatia. It is also sometimes found in Chinese art and used in Chinese knots.
The endless knot has been described as “an ancient symbol representing the interweaving of the Spiritual path, the flowing of Time and Movement within That Which is Eternal. All existence, it says, is bound by time and change, yet ultimately rests serenely within the Divine and the Eternal.
Knot work is generally viewed as metaphor that explains the unique tapestry. In general, knots express the life on earth that is deeply interconnected. Celtic knots expressed the Biblical aphorism ‘We reap what we sow’, which is similar to the Eastern karmic thoughts.
It is true that knots hold specific meaning that relates to sacred geometry. Geometry defines nature like the shape of the earth, eyes, trunk of the trees, shape of the leaves etc. Same is the case with knots that use the circular pattern. Celtic knot work was highly influenced by the pagan Celtic sources. Plait work is one of the earliest forms of knot work, but it is not unique for the Celts. Knotwork patterns can be formed by reattaching the plaits and the first examples came to light during the early 700 AD in Italy.
Some believe that the knots did not denote specific symbols. Knots did not use specific patterns or concepts and knots were simply used to fill space. The symbolic connectedness and continuity seemed apparent to simply denote knotwork patterns.
Square knot motifs carry more stability and structure which is why buildings have a particular shape like a square foundation and numerology also plays a considerable part in the ancient culture. The number five represents the four directions and the center point or the five senses.
Oval knot work like the shape of an egg has something to do with generative creativity and birth. The elongated planetary path is also denoted in the form of oval and if you squeeze two oval figures together then you would get the lemniscates the symbol of infinity.
The Celtic Trinity Knot
The Celtic trinity knot is made using a single strand that is inter-weaved onto itself to form the three-dimensional singular design. According to the Christians, the Celtic trinity knot symbolized their faith of god being one with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To the Pagans, the triangle symbolized harmony and co-existence of the mind, body and spirit. According to modern belief, the triangle stressed upon the unity among many three elements in all aspects of life, like the past, present and future; land, sea and sky; mind, body, and soul, or the Eve connection shared by grandmother, mother and daughter.
Although, Celtic knot meanings have changed and evolved over the years, their basic tenet hasn’t. Today, most of these knots and Celtic knot symbols have been incorporated in designs that are modern yet bear the distinct influence of the Celt age.
For centuries, the Celtic Trinity Knot has endured, remaining a touching symbol of faith in God. For those of Celtic heritage, the Trinity Knot can be a potent reminder of the strong spiritual traditions of the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh people. Each point of the delicate, trefoil Trinity Knot design represents the Holy Trinity: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.
In the sixth century, The Insular Art Movement began in the British Isles, and Trinity Knots began to appear on stone monuments, metal artifacts, and illuminated texts. The Book Of Kells, one of Ireland’s most stunning national art treasures, depicts the Gospels with colorful illustrations that are often bordered in mystical, almost hypnotic Celtic interlace. Today, The Book Of Kells can be viewed at the Old Library of Trinity College, Dublin.
In time, the Irish became well known for their mastery in metal work, and they created timeless works of art, such as The Ardagh Chalice, with its bronze and gilt design, and the ornate Tara Brooch. These priceless pieces are often the inspiration for today’s Trinity Knot designs, which appear on wedding jewelry, artwork, and crafts.
Aboriginal races, so called, have from remote antiquity honoured the serpent. All over Africa, the vast regions of Tartary and China, the hills and plains of India, the whole extent of America, the Isles of the Pacific, alike in sweltering tropics and ice-bound coasts, is the same tale told.
India, however, is down to our time the high seat of Ophiolatreia.
The Maruts, Rudras, and Pitris are esteemed “Fiery dragons of wisdom,” as magicians and Druids were of old. Abulfazl states that there are seven hundred localities where carved figures of snakes are objects of adoration. There are tribes in the Punjaub that will not kill a snake. Vishnu is associated with the reptile in various ways. Sesha, the serpent king, with one hundred heads, holds up the earth. The Nagas are given up to this peculiar worship. The Buddhist poem Nagananda relates the contest between Garuda, king of the birds, and the prince of the Naga or snake deities.
India beyond the Ganges has, as in Cambodia, magnificent temples in its honour. The soul of a tree in Siam may appear as a serpent. “In every ancient language,” writes Madame Blavatski, “the word Dragon signified what it now does in Chinese, i.e. the being who excels in intelligence.” The brazen serpent is in the East the Divine Healer. Æsculapius cannot do without his serpent. In the Hell of the Persians, says Hyde, “The snake ascends in vast rolls from this dark gulf, and the inside is full of scorpions and serpents.” In the poem Voluspa of the Edda we read–”I know there is in Nastzande (Hell) an abode remote from the sun, the gates of which look towards the
Rome carried forth the serpent in war, since one of its standards was the serpent on a pole. Long after, in the church processions on Palm Sunday, the serpent figured, mounted on a pole. Scandinavia had its Midgard, encircling the globe with its body. The Norse serpent Jormungandr had a giantess for mother, and the evil Loki for father. Muscovites and Lithuanians had serpent gods, while Livonia bowed to the dragon. Olaus Magnus records serpents being kept in sacred buildings of the North, and fed on milk. Thor was able to kill a serpentine embodiment of evil, by striking it with his tau, or hammer. In pagan Russia the serpent was the protector of brides. St. Hilarion, of Ragusa, got rid of the dangerous snake Boas by lighting a great fire, and commanding the reptile to go on the top to be burnt. One of the symbols of both Hercules and the Celtic Hu was a serpent. The German white serpent gave wisdom to the eater of it.
In Gaul it was reverenced. Nathair was a serpent god. Priests, Druidical or otherwise, had a caduceus of two serpents embracing one another. A Gaulish goddess had, in like manner, two snakes about its legs and body. Druids kept live serpents for pious purposes. A French writer notices one twisted round a lingam, as can be seen now, also, in Pompeii. Gaulish coins represent a serpent under or over a horse, the sun emblem.
France was not without its snake destroyers. In Brittany St. Suliac, watching the emergence of a great serpent from its cave, put his stole round its neck and cast it into the sea. Up to 1793, a procession of the clergy of St. Suliac annually took place, when a Silver cross was lowered into the serpent cavern of La Guivre.
All readers of Welsh Druidism are aware of the pail played therein by this creeping creature It was the Celtic dragon Draig. It was the gliding god. Ceridwen is associated with a car and serpent. Abury, gives us the serpent of the sun. The Glain neidr, or serpent’s egg, was a great mystery of the Druids.
Serpent worship has been taken up to the heavens where constellations have been named after the creeping silent creature. There is the Hydra killed by Hercules but not till it had poisoned him by its venom. There an the voluminous folds of Draco. There is that one held by Ophiuchus, which sought to devour the child of Virgo There is the seven-headed Draco, each head forming a star in the Little Bear. Thus we may exclaim with Herschel “The heavens are scribbled over with innumerable snakes.’
What is the meaning of it all?
Betham mentions the fact that the Celtic word for a serpent is expressive of its wisdom. The same meaning is in other languages, and the legends are of various nations. A knowing man, one versed in the mysteries, was called a serpent. Was it the silence which distinguished it in the animal creation that brought this reputation, and made it a fitting emblem of the esoteric system?
It was the symbol of productive energy, and was ever associated with the egg, symbol of the progressive elements of nature. The male was the Great Father; the female, the Great Mother.
O’Brien, and others, see a close connection between Solar, Phallic, and Serpent worship, the author of The Round Towers of Ireland, saying, “If all these be identical, where is the occasion of a surprise at our meeting the sun, phallus, and serpent, the constituent symbols of each, occurring in combination, embossed upon the same table, and grouped under the same architrave?”
The connection of the serpent with the starry host has been observed. Its scales resemble revolving stars. Like them, it moves swiftly, but noiselessly. The zodiacal girdle appeared like a serpent devouring its own tail, and it was always deemed of a fiery nature.
Some have supposed the stories of monstrous reptiles–the object of dread and conflict–to have originated from traditional records of gigantic and fearful-looking Saurians or serpents that once lived on earth, and some lingering specimens,, of which might have been seen by early tribes of mankind. The Atlanto-Saurusimmanis was a hundred feet long, with a femur two yards in diameter.
The serpent was certainly the token or symbol of an ancient race celebrated for wisdom, giving rise to the naming of the learned after dragons or serpents. The Druid of the Welsh Triads exclaims, “I am a serpent.”
According to J. H. Baecker–”The three, five, seven, or nine-headed snake is the totem of a race of rulers, who presided over the Aryan Hindus.–The Snake race was that of the first primæval seafarers.–The faring-wise serpent race became at the earliest stage of tradition rulers and civilizers.” And Ovid sang–
“As an old serpent casts his scaly vest,
Wreaths in the sun, in youthful glory dress’d,
So when Alcides’ mortal mould resigned,
His better part enlarged, and grew refined.”
It must be remembered that even traditions bear testimony to a variety of races in the Island. The Celts were among the later visitors, coming, certainly, after the Iberian, whose type remains in south-west Ireland. One of these early tribes brought the knowledge from afar; or, what may rather be conjectured, some shipmen from the East found a temporary sojourn there.
Dr. Phené justly remarks–”The absence of such reptiles in Ireland is remarkable, but their absence could certainly not have originated a serpent worship through terror; while everything artistic or religious in old Irish designs from the wonderful illuminations in the Book of Kells to the old Celtic gold ornaments, represent the serpent, and’ indicate, therefore, some very strong religious idea being always uppermost in connection with it.”
A Cyprus amulet gives a goddess, nude and winged, having serpents for legs. A Typhon has been seen, with its extremities two twisted snakes. A Buddha has been indicated with two twisted snakes for appendages. The Greek poet also describes the “divine stubborn-hearted Echidna (mother of Cerberus) half nymph, with dark eyes and fair cheeks, and half a serpent.” The mother of an ancient Scythian hero was a serpent maiden. A story was told, in 1520, of a Swiss man being in an enchanted cave, and meeting with a beautiful woman, whose lower part was a serpent, and who tempted him to kiss her.
As recently reported from France, a lady has there a familiar in the form of a serpent, able to answer her questions, and cleverly writing down replies with the point of its tail. There is no saying how this marvellous creature may enter into future theological controversies.
A book published in the reign of Charles I. had this story–”Ireland, since its first inhabitation, was pestered with a triple plague, to wit, with great abundance of venemous beastes, copious store of Diuells visiblely appearing, and infinit multitudes of magitians.”
The Saint’s share in the trouble is thus described–Patrick, taking the staffe or wand of Jesus with his sacred hand, and eleuating it after a threatning manner, as also by the favourable assistance of Angels, he gathered together in one place all the venemous beastes that were in Ireland, after he draue them up before him to a most high mountaine hung ouer the sea, called then Cruachanailge, and now Cruach Padraig, that is St. Patricks mountaine, and from thence he cast them downe in that steepe precipice to be swallowed up by the sea.”
The Druids, or Tuaths, or other troublers, fared nearly as badly as the snakes; as the author affirmed–”Of the magitians, he conuerted and reclaimed very many, and such as persisted incorrigible, he routed them out from the face of the earth.”
From the Book of Leinster we gather the intelligence that three serpents were found in the heart of Mechi, son of the great queen. After they had been killed by Diancecht, their bodies were burnt, and the ashes were thrown into the river Barrow, “which so boiled that it dissolved every animal in it.”
As tradition avows, St. Kevin, when he killed one a the remaining serpents, threw the creature into the lake at Glendalough, which got the name of Lochnapiast, or serpent loch. Among the sculptures on impost moulding at Glendalough is one of a dog devouring a serpent. Snake-stones have been found, consisting of small ring of glass. The ammonite fossil is known as the snake stone.
Windele, of Kilkenny, shows the persistence of ancient ideas in the wilder parts of Ireland. “Even as late as the eleventh century,” says he, “we have evidence of the prevalence of the old religion in the remoter districts, and in many of the islands on our western coasts.–Many of the secondary doctrines of Druidism hold their ground at this very day as articles of faith.–Connected with these practice (belteine, &c.), is the vivid memory still retained of one universal Ophiolatreia, or serpent worship; and the attributing of supernatural powers and virtues to particular animal such as the bull, the white and red cow, the boar, the horse, the dog, &c., the memory of which has been perpetuated in our topographical denominations.”
The Irish early Christians long continued the custom entwining their old serpent god around the cross. One has said, “The ancient Irish crosses are alive with serpents Their green god-snake was Gad-el-glas. The word Tirda-glas meant the tower of the green god. The old Milesian standard, of a snake twisted round a rod, may seem to indicate a Phallic connection with the Sabh.
The Book of Lismore asserts the same distinguished power of serpent expulsion on behalf of St. Columba, as others have done for St. Patrick, or any other Saint; saying, “Then he turned his face westward, and said, ‘May the Lord bless the Island, with its indwellers.’ And he banished toads and snakes out of it.”
Thus have we seen that Ireland, above most countries of the earth, retained a vivid conception of ancient serpent worship, though some of the myths were naturally and gratefully associated with the reputed founders of a purer faith.
“Search where we will,” says Kennersley Lewis, “the nuptial tree, round which coils the serpent, is connected with time and with life as a necessary condition; and with knowledge–the knowledge of a scientific priesthood, inheriting records and traditions hoary, perhaps, with the snows of a glacial epoch.”
Source: “Irish Druids And Old Irish Religions” by James Bonwick – London: Griffith, Farran  – Original redaction by Phillip J. Brown, http://www.belinus.co.uk – Reformatted, pagination, and proofreading at sacred-texts.com, November 2002. J.B. Hare, redactor.
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