The Ritual of the Crane Dance Curse in Irish Mythology
Updated: May 12
I was most intrigued when, researching the Mythological Cycle of Irish mythology, I came across the following reference to a strange rite performed by Lugh, God of Lightning, prior to the Second Battle of Moytura:
Lugh was heartening the men of Ireland that they should fight the battle fervently so that they should not be any longer in bondage. For it was better for them to find death in protecting their fatherland than to bide under bondage and tribute as they had been. Wherefore then Lugh sang this chant below, as he went round the men of Erin, on one foot and with one eye closed.
There he was, giving his men the great battle victory speech, when suddenly he starts hopping around them on one foot, chanting, with one eye closed… what was that about?
Here is a translation of the poem (known as a roscanna) which he is said to have recited. Note that there are various versions, and this is just one of them:
A frenzy of battle invites you to embrace death. Our hosting in this conflict will defeat the foreigners who have destroyed the prosperity of the land. Oh people of the Sídhe, defenders of the land, ravens will come upon our enemies with doom! May the foreigners be hindered, may fear be heard among them and be their shared torment! They are sad and doomed. Ninefold brightness is upon us! Victory or defeat! Faugh! Sod of Death! Death Measure! Rod of Aspen! Circling leftward I curse them! Oh you my glorious ones! The gods will sustain you from the clouds of the sky, in the beauty of the land, and through the powerful skills of Druids. My battle fire will not falter until the victory is won! What I ask of you is not the work of cowards, in the dealing of death to the enemy, in the burning fields of battle. The shadow of death has taken form. Death goes before us to the foe. Before the people of the Sídhe, Before Ogma I swear! Before the sky and the land and the sea, I swear! Before the Sun and the Moon and the stars, I swear! Oh warrior band, my host of battle, My troops here, the greatest of hosts like the sea, Mighty waves of golden, powerful, boiling fires, and battle lust Are created in each of you! May you seek out your foe upon the field, Embracing death in a frenzy of battle!
Stirring stuff, but I wondered what it could possibly mean. I ignored it at the time, and moved on; it seemed a bit unlikely, all that weird hopping on one foot and squinting through one eye stuff, a bit comical even, and there’s lots of wacky stuff in the old stories which makes no sense to us today.
But as I continued with my research, I came across other similarly strange behaviours; the cor deiseal, the imbas forosnai, the tarb-feis, and so on. I realised that Lugh’s strange behaviour must be some type of ritual.
And indeed it is, as I discovered recently. It is known in Irish as the corrghuineacht, and is a form of magic-working, the power of which is intensified when practised standing on one leg, with one arm outstretched, and with one eye closed.
The ritual position itself is known as glám dícenn (meaning ‘satire which destroys’). It was thought that the open eye was able to look directly into the magical Otherworld, whilst standing on only one leg indicated being present in neither one world or the other.
Corr is the Irish word for ‘crane’, a bird which features a great deal in Irish mythology, although it is not a native of Ireland. To our ancient ancestors, birds were seen very much as celestial messengers between the Otherworld and the physical world, with magic powers related to their own particular characteristics.
A similar bird which is native to Ireland, and which I have seen many of in the area in which I live, is the grey heron, also known in Irish as corr réisc. Perhaps it has been mis-translated over the years.
“Graureiher Grey Heron” by Andreas Trepte – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org
The grey heron lives in wetland areas, and feeds on fish, eels, frogs, small mammals and insects. It stands up to 1m tall, and can weigh between one and two kilos. It is known for standing still for long periods in an upright stance, often on a single leg, as it waits for its prey to wander within striking distance of it long, deadly bill.
The crane (or perhaps the grey heron) was thought to have associations with the moon, and was sacred to the Triple Goddess. It was thought to represent magic, shamanic travel, learning and keeping secrets, reaching deeper mysteries and truths. In later Christian times, it was believed that cranes were humans paying penance for wrong-doing during their lifetime.
This bird was revered by our early ancestors because it was seen to be equally at home in flight, on land, and in water, which made it a particularly magical creature. Due to the fact that it stood upright, it was associated with shape-shifting, usually in feminine form, and it was probably for this reason that the eating of its flesh was considered taboo.
In Irish mythology, Aoife, daughter of Daelbeth, and Luchra, daughter of Abhartach, both fell in love with Illbreac, who was a son of the great Sea God, Manannán mac Lir. Illbreac only had eyes for the beautiful Aoife, however.
In a fit of jealous rage, Luchra turned Aoife into a crane, whereupon she flew to the lands of Manannán and lived there for two hundred years. When she died, Manannán was so sad, he used her feathery skin to make the crane-skin bag in which he kept all his magical treasures.
I know this seems rather a gruesome thing to do, but these items were powerful sacred and magical objects, perhaps hard won by Manannán, and thus the use of her skin to protect them may have been seen as honourable.
This same bag later turned up in the possession of Cumhall, father of the legendary Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhall. Cumhall was killed by Goll mac Morna, and the craneskin bag was stolen and given into the care of Lia, chieftain of Luachar in the province of Connacht.
One of the first tasks undertaken by Fionn as an adult was to avenge his father’s death; he killed Lia and retrieved the treasured craneskin bag, returning it to his uncle for safekeeping. Clearly, it was considered a talisman of great importance.
Midir was a son of the Dagda of the Tuatha de Danann. In the ‘Guesting of Athirne’, (Aigidecht Aitherni in Irish) it is told that Athirne, a miserly poet, came to Midir’s house in Brí Léith and fasted against him.
This is a legal procedure mentioned in the Brehon Law were a complainant could sit outside a person’s house refusing food and drink, thus shaming him into putting right the complaint.
I don’t know how Midir wronged him, but in recompense he gave Athirne his three magical cranes which stood outside and guarded his house.
But what of the one-legged crane dance curse?
Lugh was not the only person to use this position (like the crane) in which to invoke magic. The Goddess Badb also assumed this stance when she cursed High King Conaire Mór for breaking his geisa (vows) in the story of the ‘Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ (Togail Bruidne Dá Derga in Irish).
The Morrigan assumes this position when she forecasts Cormac’s doom in Togail Bruidne Dá Choca.
Parthelon and his people invaded Ireland and fought a magical battle in which they were successful against the Fomori people which involved all the warriors standing in positions of power on one leg, with one arm behind their backs and one eye closed.
One last little nugget of interest: a new theory has been proposed for the use of an ancient style of bladed weapon known as the halberd. Archaeologists claim it looks to have been a weak and ineffective weapon, and now think it could have been used in ritualised dance. Why? Well, pretty much because it looks remarkably like the beak, head and neck of a crane.
The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan http://amayodruid.blogspot.ie/2010/09/animals-in-celtic-cultural-belief.html http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T301017A/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_heron http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/IrelandsBirds/GreyHeron/ http://bardmythologies.com/partholon2/ http://www.merciangathering.com/otherworld.htm http://www.mombu.com/religion/druid/t-corrghuineacht-lugha-god-esoteric-reality-prayers-aspects-18636569-new.html http://irisharchaeology.ie http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/T300011.html
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