I am currently in Ireland so for today's blog I am offering an article I wrote for the February issue of Air n-Aithesc. If you enjoy it I highly recommend checking out other issues of the journal which is full of awesome material.
Reconstructing Iron Age Irish ritual Feasting Practices
“Ite teora feisa hErenn .i. feis Eamna, feis Temra, ocus feis Chruachna” – Cath Maige Rath
There are three feasts of Ireland, that is, the feast of Emhain [Macha], the feast of Tara, and the feast of Cruachan
Ritual feasting is one aspect of ancient Irish, and more generally Celtic, polytheism that can easily be carried forward into modern life. To do this we must understand both the importance of the feast in a ritual context and the animals that would have been consumed, as both the social aspects as well as the sacred need to be carried forward. Entire books have been written on the social significance of feasting so the main focus of this article will be limited to the main animals chosen for consumption and their significance.
Archaeological evidence points to the important role that seasonal ritual feasting played in Iron Age Ireland, specifically through faunal remains at known ritual centers like Dun Ailinne (Koch, 2005). Although it can be difficult to discern from such remains what the context of the animals use was generally in cases where ritual sites are being examined it is known that the site itself had a ritual purpose based on its design and the deposited bones show evidence of special disposal that is not consistent with ordinary domestic use, particularly wrapping and burial (McCormick, 2010). This hard evidence is supported by references in mythology to the great feasts held at these same sites on notable dates, particularly Samhain and Lunasa:
“…and that of every king in Ireland as well, for the purpose of holding Tara’s Feast: for a fortnight before samhain that is to say, On samhain-day itself, and for a fortnight after.” (Jones, n.d.)
“With the men of Ireland too it was general that out of all airts they should resort to Tara in order to the holding of Tara's Feast at samhaintide. For these were the two principal gatherings that they had: Tara's Feast at every samhain (that being the heathens' Easter); and at each Lughnasa, or' Lammas-tide,' the Convention of Taillte." (O’Grady, 1892).
Feasting on the holy days played a vital social role and one that was intrinsically tied to the agricultural calendar. As Nerys Patterson notes in ‘Cattle Lords and Clansmen’ the pagan festival dates survived after the religion itself was lost due to their connection to the seasonal turning points and rhythms of domestic animal husbandry (Patterson, 1994). Fergus Kelly in ‘Early Irish Farming’ discusses the increase in value of pigs and cows at specific holy days, including Samhain and Lunasa, indicating both the pivotal nature of these days and their intrinsic relationship to agricultural events (Kelly, 1997). Even as the religious overtones were lost the superstitions and appreciation of the cycles associated with the farming year remained, and these can be appreciated today for the hints they provide of the older pagan beliefs and practices.
Samhain was a period of both feasting and assemblies which especially featured the consumption of young pigs, called ‘banb samna1’ (Kelly, 1997). Faunal remains also indicate that the remains of cattle found at Iron Age ritual sites including Dún Ailinne were those of young cows, rather than of older animals (McCormick, 2010). McCormick in his paper ‘Ritual Feasting in Iron Age Ireland’ argues persuasively that the feasting which occurred at these times at these ritual sites would have been part of a larger event that included the sacrifice of the animal to the Gods being honored, their preparation, and then consumption by the community, a processes which was shared by other contemporary Indo-European cultures.
The animals featured in ritual feasts primarily included cows and pigs, with cows as the main sacrificial remains found at Dún Ailinne and Teamhair and pigs the main animal consumed at Emhain Macha (McCormick, 2010). This may reflect the local availability of the animals, or possibly the preferred animal may be based on the specific deity cults at each location. For example, Emhain Macha is most strongly associated with the goddess Macha and shows a high amount of faunal pig remains. Although pigs account for only about 35% of remains at Dún Ailinne and 22% at Teamhair, they represent nearly 60% of fragments found at Emhain Macha; in contrast only 30% of Emhain Macha remains are of cows, while they represent nearly 54% and 48% at Dún Ailinne and Teamhair respectively (McCormick, 2010). Such a significant difference in sacrificial and feast animal preference cannot be explained simply and is likely a reflection of multiple factors, including both economic as well as cultic preference.
Evidence suggests that the animals were killed immediately before consumption and then boiled rather than cooked in fire (McCormick, 2010). This could possibly indicate that formal ritual feasts may have often featured stewed dishes. In several myths the broth of a special or ritual meal is given cleansing or initiatory properties that are used to elevate a person’s social status or cleanse the person of existing social stigmas, including allowing someone to return from a wild state to a civilized one (McCone, 1990). If such stories are taken as mythic examples of a cultural understanding of the power of ritual food preparation and consumption, combined with faunal evidence of ritual animals being boiled, it is not unreasonable to suppose that eating the meat with a liquid was usual and held significance.
Certain animals were consumed in exceptional cases, including horses, dogs, wolves, foxes, and a monkey. The remains of these animals are very unusual in faunal deposits and so seem to be associated only with rare circumstances. The monkey appears to have been imported from Africa and its remains, indicating the presence of a single animal, were found at Emhain Macha (McCormick, 2010). This supposition is based on its presence with other faunal remains at the site, and the fact that the species of monkey is normally found in northern regions of Africa. The monkey represents 1% of the total animal remains found at Emhain Macha; similarly horse, dog, and wolf remains from single animals were also found at that site each representing a single percent of total remains recovered (McCormick, 2010). The primary animals used at Emhain Macha were very clearly pigs and cows, with the numbers and amounts of remains being reversed at the other two sites, placing cows as the primary animals and pigs as secondary. It is clear however that these two animals formed the bulk of sacrifices by far. Monkey and wolf were not found at all at Teamhair or Dún Ailinne and Dún Ailinne had no fox remains either; Teamhair has the lowest number of remains recovered in total but by far the highest percentage of both dog and horse, at 10% and 5% respectively (McCormick, 2010).
It is also crucial to remember that the Irish had a system of personal and familial food taboos often related to a specific animal that would have prohibited someone from eating that particular animal. This was usually manifested in the form of a geis. In the Ulster cycle Cu Chulainn had such a prohibition against eating dog, and in Togail Bruidne Da Derga Conaire had one against killing birds, in both stories when the geis was broken it eventually resulted in the person’s death. There were also certain animals which were almost always not eaten due to societal taboos2. For example although horses were used as food animals in Viking Dublin they were generally considered forbidden to eat by the Irish, and drinking mare’s milk was not permitted (Waddell, 2014). We find literary references to this prohibition in sources such as the Tochmarc Emire where it says “A foal is the ruin of a chariot to the end of three weeks….and there is a gess on a chariot to the end of three weeks for any man to enter it after having last eaten horse-flesh. For it is the horse that sustains the chariot.3” (Meyer, 1890). This is supported by the extremely low number of faunal remains of horses found at both ritual sites and domestic sites and with later legal prohibitions against consuming horses; both horse and dog meat were seen as having no value (Kelly, 1997).
Looking at the total of the evidence it can be concluded that feasting at holy days such as Samhain and Lunasa would primarily have featured meals of pork and beef, likely cooked by boiling, preferably meat from younger animals. In a modern context this can be carried forward with the use of these two types of meat as the centerpiece of rituals feasts. Although many people today cannot or prefer not to raise and butcher their own animals the aspect of the ritual feast for those who do still choose to eat meat can be kept through the choice of meat used and its preparation.
1 Banb samna – literally ‘young pig of Samhain’. Pigs were especially associated with Samhain and are repeatedly listed as the main animal to be used for the feast at this time (Kelly, 1997; Patterson, 1994).
2 There has long been supposition that horses were sacrificed and consumed at royal inaugurations, but this appears to have been an extremely rare exception to what was otherwise a fairly widespread social avoidance of the horse as a food animal.
3‘An fulacht asrubart-sai for ro fonad dun lurcaire (.i. serrach) ann sen, iss e is coul carbaid co cend teorai nomad fo bit fo rigaib ocus as geis do a combairge .i. geis dien carbod co cend teurai nomad ier n-ithe feulai eich duine de doul ind; fodaigh ar is each folloing an carpait.’ – Tochmarc Emire
My translation: "The cooking hearth I said, on it was cooked a foal (that is a colt) in there, it is a violation [of] a chariot to the end of 27 days* under a land under kings and a geis* for their protection, that is a geis on a chariot to the end of 27 days against a man from entering it for the eating of horse-flesh; because a horse rules the chariot."
*literally three nomads, with a nomad being a period of nine days and nights
*geis - ritual prohibition
McCormick, F., (2010). Ritual Feasting in Iron Age Ireland
Koch, J., (2005) Celtic Culture
Jones, M., (n.d.) The Battle of Crinna http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/cathcrinna.html
O’Grady, S., (1892) Silva Gadelica
Kelly, F., (1997). Early Irish Farming
Patterson, N., (1994). Cattle Lords and Clansmen; The social structure of early Ireland
Waddell, J., (2014). Archaeology and Celtic Myth
Meyer, K., (1890). The Wooing of Emer
McCone, K., (1990). Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature