The Aisling | Not so Sweet Dreams in Irish Mythology
Updated: May 12
In Irish mythology, Óengus Óg of the Tuatha de Danann is most famous for his dream. Granted, this dream changed his life. In fact, it almost killed him. It also went on a long time, a whole year in fact.
In it, he was visited every night by a beautiful young woman who played the harp for him before disappearing. He fell so deeply in love with her, that he refused to eat or take part in the every day activities of normal living. He lived only for the night, and the arrival of his mysterious dream maiden. So the life in him, which had been strong and bright and vital, began to fade. He was dying.
Do you think it is possible for a dream to have such an effect? Perhaps you think you never dream. Well here are some facts.
The scientific study of dreams (yes, there is such an ‘ology’, which shows just how important dreaming is to the human psyche) is called Oneirology. The average person will have between 3 and 5 dreams a night. That includes you, who never dream. 95% of dreams will not be remembered. Dreams take place during the sleep stage known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement, not the band, although they do tend to have that effect… on me, at least). Brain activity is at its peak during this stage of sleep, at a similar level as when awake. Dreams are usually only remembered if one is woken up during REM.
Nowadays, we believe that dreams are just the manifestations of an over-active mind attempting to process the events and experiences of our waking moments. In ancient times, however, they were generally seen as something far more significant, such as a way of communicating with the Gods or the ancestors (who were, perhaps, one and the same). They were thought to be messages containing predictions, revelations, or advice.
The ancient Egyptians believed they could communicate with their Gods through dreams. They had special temples where they could lie in a dream bed, and wait for the gift of dreams in which their Gods would show themselves and impart wisdom concerning healing, advice, success in love, or warnings of danger.
Similarly, the Greeks also believed in dream incubation, but they took it a stage further. They were said to have carried out rituals of sacrifice and gift-giving in order to please their Gods, and abstained from sex, eating flesh, and drinking wine in order to purify themselves in readiness to receive their dreams.
The early Christians associated dreams with divine inspiration, in fact, the Bible recounts many occasions when God passed on messages and instructions via dreams. It was only in Medieval times that dreams began to be seen as the work of the devil.
Some cultures, such as the Indians of Guiana, believed that when one sleeps the soul leaves the body and returns when one wakes. Similarly, the ancient Chinese thought that during sleep, the soul left the body to wander the land of the dead.
But where does this leave Óengus? From what I can gather, he seemed to have been awake not asleep when the maiden came to him. Her name was Caer Ibormeith (means ‘yewberry’). She was the daughter of a Connacht Sidhe chieftain, and had set her sights on Óengus, sending him dreams of herself. How do you make someone dream about you? Were they in the same dream at the same time? Was it a vision rather than a dream?
For most people, a dream is something they observe, or are a part of, but which is out of their control. Some, however, report experiencing lucid dreaming. This occurs when the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming, and may even be able to control to some extent the events of their dream. I know this can happen, as I have experienced it myself.
In Óengus’s dream, Caer Ibormeith stood beside his bed. When he reached out for her, she disappeared. Where they sharing a lucid dreaming experience? He reached for her, she realised she was dreaming and woke herself up?
In Irish mythology, dreams were often used as a means of seeking knowledge. In fact some of the practices utilised to achieve this share similarities with shamanic dreaming.
Imbas Forosnai is an ancient Irish ritual for looking into the future and seeking information through dreams. Imbas means ‘inspiration’, in particular the sacred poetic inspiration of the ancient Filidh, and forosnai means ‘illuminating’ or ‘that which illuminates’. According to a text named Cormac’s Glossary, it involved the use of sensory deprivation and the consumption of specific substances in order to pass into a trance or dream-like state. (You can read more about it here.)
The Tarbfheis, or bull feast, was a ceremony used to select the next High King. It involved the sacrifice of a white bull, after which the Druid, or poet, would ‘chew the flesh and drink the broth’. I’m assuming the meat was cooked, since broth was a component of the ceremony, however, the Imbas Forosnai was said to require the chewing of ‘red flesh’ ie raw, so perhaps it was required of the Tarbfheis too. Following this meal, the poet was wrapped in the bull’s raw hide to dream. If his dream was unsuccessful in identifying the new King, he faced death.
According to the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, on this occasion, the poet dreamed the future King would arrive in Tara naked and surrounded by birds. Young Conaire Mór was out hunting birds, when the leader of the flock suddenly threw off his feathers and revealed himself as the King of Birds, and Conaire’s true father. He advised Conaire of the details of the new prophecy, whereupon the young man immediately removed his clothes and set off for Tara accompanied by the Bird King and his flock. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled.
The Aisling is a dream or vision in which a poet meets a beautiful, magical woman, probably a woman of the Sidhe, symbolising spring, the bounty and beauty of nature, and love. During the troubles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Aisling developed into a patriotic poetic genre in Irish language poetry, in which the fairy woman became a Goddess representing Ireland’s sovereignty.
I also came across a reference to a rather curious practice of seeking knowledge which involved sleeping and dreaming beside the tomb of one’s ancestors. In the sixth century, poet Senchán Torpéist gathered all his poets to see which one of them could recite the whole of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, also known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, but none of them could. His son, Muirgen, was said to have gone to the grave of Fergus mac Róich (King of Ulster and Queen Medb’s ally and lover), where he fell asleep, and thus learned the true story in a dream from Fergus’s ghost.
I’m assuming this is a type of dream incubation, as practised by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In fact, Herodotus, a Greek historian from the fifth century BC claimed that an Egyptian tribe called the Nasamonians practised divination in exactly this manner, by sleeping in the graves of their ancestors.
As with Óengus, though, in the old stories, dreams are most often associated with love. Fionnbheara, King of the Munster Sidhe (don’t let them hear you calling them ‘fairies’) was so enamoured of a mortal woman named Eithne, that he cast a spell which sent her into a deep sleep. In her dreams, she was able to visit him in the Otherworld. This has implications of shamanism, in which the shaman enters the Otherworld through dream or vision in order to communicate with ancestors, the Gods, or other spirits.
Immram Bran mac Febail, also known as the ‘Voyage of Bran’, is an C8th tale in which Bran journeys to the Otherworld. He falls asleep after hearing fairy music, and in a dream he sees a beautiful woman of the Sidhe who tells him to seek her at the Isle of Women. He journeys across the sea for a long time, having many adventures before finally arriving at his destination, where he is reunited with the woman of his dreams.
This story bears many similarities with that of Óengus. Let me just tell you that, unusually for an Irish love myth, with regard to Óengus and Caer Ibormeith, all’s well that ends well.