Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Sea-Gods of Iona & Mull

The seas around Iona are no less mysterious than the island itself. According to Swire, "Iona, it would seem, first belonged to the ancient Earth-gods, but the primeval Sea-gods coveted the island and won it from them".

In Swire's 'The Inner Hebrides and their Legends' (1964) she tells that "Once, the bones of some huge and strange monster, obviously a dragon, were dug up in Iona - proof, it was felt, that the Sea-gods sacrificed creatures here that man never knew. "

In 'Iona' (1912) william Sharp writing as Fiona Macleod writes of Dun Mananain, and tells a story told by a Gaelic farmer named Macathur of a god of the sea named Manaun. "Whenever he willed he was like the sea, and that is not wonderful, for he was born of the sea. Thus his body was made of a green wave. His hair was of wrack and tangle, glistening with spray; his robe was of windy foam; his feet, of white sand. That is, when he was with his own, or when he willed; otherwise, he was as men are. He loved a woman of the south so beautiful that she was named Dear-sadh-na-Ghrene (Sunshine). He captured her and brought her to Iona in September, when it is the month of peace. For one month she was happy: when the wet gales from the west set in, she pined for her own land: yet in the dream-days of November, she smiled so often that Manaun hoped; but when Winter was come, her lover saw that she could not live. So he changed her into a seal. "You shall be a sleeping woman by day," he said, "and sleep in my dun here on Iona: and by night, when the dews fall, you shall be a seal, and shall hear me calling to you from a wave, and shall come out and meet me.""

McNeill describes in "An Iona Anthology" (1952) how "on Maundy Thursday people made offerings of Mead, ale or gruel to the sea in the belief that by sending the fruits of the land to the sea, the fruits of the sea - seaweed to be used as manure - would come to the land." and also adds that this custome was originally carried out on one of the old celtic quarter days.

Carmichael in 'Carmina Gadelica Vol 1 (1900) also mentions this offering, giving further detail that "as the day merged from Wednesday to Thursday a man walked to the waist into the sea and poured out whatever offering had been prepared, chanting in Gaelic:-

"O God of the Sea,
Put weed in the drawing wave
To enrich the ground
To shower on us food"

In 1860 the author conversed in Iona with a middle aged man whose father in his youth had taken part in this ceremony.

Swire's 'The Inner Hebrides and their Legends' (1964) also mentions Manannan, and tells of a tradition where once a white horse was brought to him every ninth year on Dun Manannan. The author questions if this was a payment of rent for his island, as the Isle of Man was also rented from Manannan by the first men who inhabited it.

In Mackenzie's 'Island Voices' (2002) she includes an interview with Peter Maclean of Dervaig who tells of an old custom at Treshnish point on Mull where in olden days they made a big pot of porrige near Easter and poured it over the cliffs into the sea in honour of Mana, God of the Sea. He said they did this in hope of getting lots of red tangle seaweed on the shores. The author tells of people on Iona living in 1840 who could remember porridge being poured into the sea to the God of the Ocean. Maclean's 'The Isle of Mull Placenames, Meanings and Stories' gives the location for this custom as Coir' A'Bhrochain, Corry of the porridge (NM338485), near Treshnish on Mull.

Macleod's 'Road to the Isles' (1927) names the Sea God as Lear, telling that the boys of the Isles were sent by their fathers down to the fishing rock to crush whelks and limpets to cast into the sea to lure the fish to the shore. This rock with a cup in it, the work of ancient human hands, was known as "The Mermaid's Quaich" and now and again "a boy of great faith will pour three palmfuls of salt water into the rock-cup and cry out loudly: 'May the fish of the sea follow the water of the sea to the rock of the shore.' Into that same rock-cup the boy's far-off ancestors poured, at the greying of night, a libation unto Lear, the Sea-God." The author then tells of a woman of the Isles who one evening went down to the fishing rock and sang her rune and "prayed that the King of the Seven Elements should smile upon herself and all waiting ones, children of the sea-doom. And, wonder of me! what dropped she into the rock-cup as an offering to Lear, the Sea-God, but her best and last treasure: a ringlet of yellow hair."

"Grey of Twilight in mine eye,
Ho lava he ho;
Though sea-doomed, this grace be mine:
Smile of earth and sea and sky.
Ho lava he ho."

Swire describes the ancient Sea-gods as "very old when the gods we do know of, such as the Tuatha de Danann and Manannan were young. They were of the primeval things, cruel and strong; fighting against both the new gods and men with storm and spell, their powers seemed to early man infinite. It is little wonder that a people who lived near the sea, whether in the islands or beside the sea-lochs, should fear them and credit them with supernatural powers beyond those of more ordinary gods." Swire credits them with raising the storms which the Men of Firbolg and also the Tuatha de Danann had to fight before they could land in Ireland, wrecking viking ships after the Battle of Largs, and destroying Spanish galleons at the time of the Armada. "There are those who believed that if the Germans had tried a landing in 1940-1 they too would have met the "blue men, breast high, with foam-grey faces"". The author comments that St Columba and his monks landed without hindrance on a day of perfect calm, and it was believed that through his mother he had the blood of the Sea-gods in his veins and came as a welcome guest.

Swire also writes that the green serpentine rocks known as Iona Stone, still found on the beachs of Iona, was said to preserve anyone who carried a piece from all danger at sea, and prevent the wearer from drowning as the stone is the congealed blood of the Sea-gods. I always wear my necklace of Iona Stone when at sea and so far it's protected me well!
A Sea-God named 'Shony' was also spoken of on Iona and around the Hebrides. In Martin's 'Description of the Western Isles' (1703) he mentions Shony in a section about the Isle of Lewis, describing how at Hallow-tide the inhabitants of Bragar would brew an ale  and "one of their number was picked to wade into the sea up to his middle, and carrying a cup of ale in his hand, standing still in that posture, cried out with a loud voice saying "Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you'll be so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware for enriching our ground for the ensuing year", and so threw the cup of ale into the sea". This was performed at night and on his return to land the people went to church and put out the candle burning on the altar, then went to the fields where they drank ale and spent the rest of the night dancing and singing.

William Sharp as Fiona Mcleod writes in 'Iona' (1912) of a Hebridean nurse telling the author of Shony, a mysterious Sea-God, and mentions "I was amused not long ago to hear a little girl singing, as she ran wading through the foam of a troubled sunlit sea, as it broke on those wonderful white sands of Iona:-

"Shanny, Shanny, Shanny,
Catch my feet and tickle my toes!
And if you can, Shanny, Shanny, Shanny,
I'll go with you where no one knows!"

The author has no doubt that this Shanny was Shony, "whose more terrifying way was to clutch boats by the keel and drown the sailors, and make a death necklace of their teeth. An evil Shony; for once he netted a young girl who was swimming in a loch, and when she would not give him her love he tied her to a rock, and to this day her long brown hair may be seen floating in the shallow green wave at the ebb of the tide. One need not name the place!"

Below are some photos taken on my visit to Iona last year:

Sources & Further Information
The Inner Hebrides and their Legends, Swire
Guide to Mysterious Iona and Staffa, Holder
The Sin-Eater: And Other Tales and Episodes, Macleod
Iona, Macleod
The Road to the Isles, Macleod
Island Voices, Mackenzie
An Iona Anthology, McNeill
carmina Gadelica Vol 1, Carmichael
The Isle of Mull Placenames, Meanings and Stories, Maclean
Temple of Manannan Mac Lir Website


HJ Blenkinsop said...

Fantastic post. It's interesting that Shony is the name of a sea God or spirit in the Highlands and Islands but according to Neil Arnold (Shadows on the sea) around the Northumbrian coast - Shony is the name of a sea monster! There is even a sighting of the Shony reported in the Sunderland Echo on August 17th 1906. I'd like to find out more about him.

The Faery Folklorist said...

That is interesting!! Wonder if the myth travelled down to Northumberland with someone emigrating! :D

Andrew Fladeboe said...

Hi! I'm loving your blog! I'm going to Scotland this summer for 3 months, and I want to do some traveling to fairy sites. Your blog will be super helpful. I was just wondering if you could recommend your 3 favorite places, that are particularly beautiful or that you got a strange feeling from. I'm an artist, and this trip is sort of location scouting to recreate these site in a Virtual World. I tried to find an email, but couldn't so I'm posting here... cheers!

The Faery Folklorist said...
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