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Image: River Barrow, Craignamana Bridge, Ireland by Jeanne Smith from waterways.org.uk

Those of you who know me from my other blog have probably read my posts about Méche (probably pronounced MEEKheh, who I often spell Meche because it’s hard to type an accent on a computer keyboard). If you haven’t here is a brief description:

Méche: Also Méchi, or Meiche. The son of the Morrigan. He is described as both having three hearts in the shape of adders/containing adders within them(1,2), and being in the shape of a giant serpent himself(3). Méche was slain by Mac Cecht(1) or Dian Cecht(3) to prevent Méche himself, or the adders within Méche to consume/destroy everything in Ireland. Cecht cuts out these hearts, burns the hearts and the body and throws the ashes into a river, which boils and then stands still, causing all the fish within it to die, which is why the river is thenceforth called Berba “dumb water”.

1) The Bodleian Dindshenchas
2) The Rennes Dindshenchas
3) The Metrical Dindshenchas

The river Berba (also Bherbha) is now called Barrow, and is the second longest river in Ireland. The Barrow is one of the “Three Sisters”–a group of three rivers, the other two being the River Suir and the River Nore. The Three sisters finally all join together at Cumar na dTrí Uisce, “the confluence of the three waters” and flow into Waterford Harbor and into the Celtic Sea. It crosses six counties, including my ancestors’ homeland of Laois.

Wikipeida says that Barrow/Berba was possibly named for a river goddess, and I saw elsewhere that Berba was conflated with “Banba,” the first queen of Ireland according to the book of invasions. Banba is also called, or at least the identity of first queen’s is alternately  given as “Cessair”–who was allegedly Noah’s niece who decided to build her own damn boat during the time of the Deluge (Great Flood) because her own god[s] told her (or her father) that the flood waters would not submerge Ireland. While some scholars suggest this is largely a Christianization of the myth, I think that may not entirely be the case given the global, cross-cultural prevalence of the Flood Myth, and the fact that the Flood Myth predates the Tanakh (Hebrew scriptures) by a good long while, and the other parallels that can be drawn between ancient Irish and Mesopotamian cosmology.

But I digress, the Dindshenchas, literally “Place-Lore” of Ireland, which was recorded by actual medieval Irish historians says The Barrow was named so because of the slaying of Meche by Mac Cecht. I’m gonna go with medieval monks, who, you know, were actually alive in medieval Ireland, not some speculating “scholar” who believes every river in Ireland has to be named after a goddess because rivers are “feminine”. Sure, just throw out the careful recordings of Irish monks for your own sexist, Anglo-imperialist-influenced pet theory.

Anyway, back to Meche. Meche is, as Korrigan aptly put an “apocalypse dragon”. (One would expect the Morrigan to give birth to nothing less.) But apocalypse dragons are kind of a recurring theme in world mythology. In the Indo-European region we have: Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent; Apep, also known as Apophis; Leviathan, who is the Hebrew version of Lotan; Vritra of Vedic lore; Typhon could be included in this number, although he is portrayed more as a hydra-type creature. (I think there are some from Mesoamerican myth, but I am less familiar and the English-language sources are faulty, and often misrepresentative.) Based on the mythology itself, and my experiences with the deity thus far, I would say that John Shaw of the University of Edinburgh was right to assert that the serpent of Irish myth, Meche is one such deity. (Remember he is portrayed as a snake himself, or has three snakes living inside him.)

“…It [the serpent, Meche] would have wasted by its doings all the kine
Of the indolent hosts of ancient Erin.
There rude reason for clean destroying it,
For preventing it ever from wasting
Worse than any wolf-pack, from consuming it [Ireland] utterly…”
“and what they left alive in Ireland would have wasted away.
Therefore Diancecht slew it”
-The Metrical Dindshenchas translated by E. J. Gwynn
“Now if death had not befallen Meche the serpents in him would have grown,
-Rennes Dindshenchas translated by Whitley Stokes
“unless his death had occurred, the adders would have grown in his belly till they would not have left an animal alive in Ireland.”
-Bodleian Dinnshenchas translated by Whitley Stokes

I am also inclined to believe that this battle happens yearly, due to the connection of snakes with Imbolc. I had previously speculated with another devotee of the Morrigan that Meche’s holy day, or one of them at least, must fall around Imbolc, seeing as that is when snakes emerge from hibernation and as a European “slain grain god” archetype he is expected to “rise” from the underworld in the spring. Then last year a friend who works with Brigid was telling me that Imbolc is the day that Brigid “goes around and wakes the snakes up and coaxes them from their holes”. I’d never heard that before, so I looked it up.

From the Carmina Gadelica:
“Moch maduinn Bhride
Thig an nimhir as an toll.
Cha bhean mise ris an nimhir,
Cha bhean an nimhir rium.”
“On Bride’s morn,
The serpent will come out of the hole.
I will not harm the serpent,
Nor will the serpent harm me.”

From the Encyclopedia Mythica: “As the foundation for the American Groundhog Day, Brigid’s snake comes out of its mound in which it hibernates and its behavior is said to determine the length of the remaining Winter.

From brighid.org.uk: “In Scotland ‘Latha Féill’ Brighde’ was heralded by the emergence of snakes from their winter holes.”

So it would appear that Imbolc would be the day the Adder King Meche returns to the land. There are also some strong connections with European “slain gods” of agriculture/fertility, as well; John Barleycorn-type figures. My old Celtic History professor gave me a bunch of papers on the subject, but they are buried somewhere, so I can’t really quote them here.

Despite the story of Meche’s ashes rendering the Barrow toxic, it is clearly one of the most significant rivers in Ireland and quite fertile. Ash from cremated remains is also used as fertilizer, so I tend to interpret the poisoning of the Barrow as the land itself revolting against Cecht’s actions. Cecht is trying to prevent a prophecy about the end of the world from being fulfilled–a dangerous gamble. Meche was foretold to end the world, and according to the rules of Irish mythology he will because prophecy, geas, and other words of fate are taken to be final and unbreakable in Gaelic lore. If the end of the world is prophesied, then no actions taken against it can truly change it.  

This action of one (younger) god trying to “change the rules” may not just be about a battle between to gods, but a battle between worshippers–an idea familiar to those who have studied mythology from the Mediterranean in a college classroom. (Think Olympians vs the Titians.) It is not unlikely that there may have been two different cults or cultures fighting for dominance in Ireland long before the days of Saint Patrick. (Tuatha de Danann vs the Fomorians ringing any bells?) The worshippers of Cecht probably saw the customs of these dragon worshippers as being dark and primitive. Much like the tales of the destruction of the cult of Crom Cruach.

Now the word “cromm” can be translated into English as bent, crooked, twisted, curved, or coiled. “Cruach” means mound, also the hillfort of Cruachan is sometimes referred to as the “Cave of Cruacha” in some texts. So Crom Cruach is often taken to mean “Twisted one of the Mound”. He is often portrayed by artists as being a giant worm with an ugly lamprey mouth. A gross looking thing from nightmares of children. I’m here to argue that Crom is more of a snake, not some slimy, blind invertebrate. A wyrm, not a worm. Serpentine fertility gods are not uncommon, and Patrick did “drive the snakes from Ireland,” after all. (Yeah, I know that was a metaphorical phrase coined many years later by a British poet, but the quote is still apt.)

People even treat Crom with the same taboo, fear and disdain as the Morrigan. Actually, I think he’s even more maligned, since the fluffbunnies let Mo into their “universal triple mother goddess” club. Given Crom’s role as a god, and Meche’s description, I would argue that they may be one in the same: Meche son of Morrigan, Serpent King of the Mound. Has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Like I mentioned before, northern snakes do sleep in caves during the winter, perhaps he was charged with the task of guarding the mounds, and therefore the underworld, hence his title.

When Badb (one of The Morrigan) prophesied the end of the world in The Second Battle of Mag Tuired she said:

I shall not see a world that will be dear to me.

Summer without flowers,
Kine will be without milk,
Women without modesty,
Men without valour,
Captures without a king.

Woods without mast,
Sea without produce…

It makes one wonder if she was prophesying the return of Meche of whom it was prophesied would, in fact, end the world. Being that he is MacMorrigan, it is not likely he would stay “dead” any more than, say, his kinswoman Macha, who died in childbirth.

To the ancient Irish the necessity of destruction in the process of creation, and the idea of sacrifice being necessary for growth and renewal, would have been as normal as it was to any culture of that era. So they were not any more disturbed by his “death” at the hand of Cecht, then they were by his annual “resurrection” by Brighid.

Meiche was probably not originally thought of as a scapegoat/SourceOfAllEvil™ but the necessary, destructive, primal force of entropy and violence that is intrinsic to the land/nature itself, and by extension, each human individual.

But given the Christian practice of externalizing evil and personifying it as “the Devil”, that need for the scapegoat (עֲזָאזֵל) in order to be absolved of “sin”, it is doubtless the bishops, priests and monks saw Meche as a “Satanic” figure (which just shows how badly the Church understood Jewish theology and cosmology), especially given Meiche’s serpentine form. In the Metrical Dindshenchas they even call him “the old serpent” which is also a title given to the devil in the New Testament. Hence his very brief mention, despite being the son of a prominent deity[ies], and the utter obliteration of the cult of Crom Cruach.

In the western mystery traditions, the “apocalypse” is not always seen as “evil,” but rather a mass paradigm shift, and the end of an era, which is also heralded by war, famine and disaster. It often takes catastrophe for humans to realize something is inherently wrong with the status quo. And so the apocalypse is a necessary cycle, a beginning as well as an end. Like a snake shedding its skin, the world must renew itself. The end is the beginning, like the oroboros: the snake that eats its tail.

And once the the dust has settled, like Badb said:

“Peace up to heaven.
Heaven down to earth.
Earth beneath heaven,
Strength in each,
A cup very full,
Full of honey;
Mead in abundance.
Summer in winter…
Peace up to heaven…”

And so it begins again. The venom kills is the venom heals.

Now that you have read all of this and you have a general understanding of the type of god, er, dragon…no, dragon-god that Meche is we can actually get to what I really wanted to write about today.

There is an incantation, based loosely off the Book of Revelations in the New Testament that I thought had never heard spoken before til Josh moved in with me..til I recalled a song one of my exes used to sing. Because I’m weird, I find Enochian really beautiful, and my ex used to put incantations to song in order to commit them to memory, and I would ask him to sing them to me as I was falling asleep. This “serpent song” was mixed in with all the Enochian ones so many nights I would drift off to  “Hofiho’arkaasodrakasomaassoenkayaanhasoizah…” I have no idea how he came to that pronunciation, I’ve heard it at least 3 different ways since then and they don’t sound quite like that. Seeing it typed out the way he said it sure makes it looks like parseltongue though. Like, didn’t Paarthurnax say something like that to me in Skyrim? Come to think of it, that might have actually been his goal with that pronunciation. Huh.

skyrim

Anyway, Josh has this thing–a talisman, that is both a spirit and a spell, made from a piece of an alligator. In Nola you can buy alligator parts at every gift shop, but I never thought to try working necromancy on them. (Which is weird, like why did I never think of that?) Anyway, so this little gator servitor needs to be fed with booze and poetry much like any other spirit so Josh began to chant it this incantation he learned from Jason Miller:

HO OPHIS HO ARCHAIOS
(the Ancient Serpent)
HO DRAKON HO MEGAS
(the Great Dragon)
HO EN KAI HO ON KAI HO ZON
(the ONE,the BEING,the LIVING ONE)
IS TOUS AIONAS TON AIONON
(to the ages of the ages)
META TOU PNEYMATOS SOU
(may be with your/our spirit)

To which the baby gator spirit who was previously referred to as “Little Guy” responded “Can I be a dragon? I like to be called Dragon.” Which reminded me of something…

…sometime last year another blogger who is also one of my tarot clients came and visited me so we could do an evocation of a chthonic dragon-ish spirit that she wanted help with. Naturally, we went to a bar and picked up another practitioner and had him drive us out to the bayou after a stop at the liquor store for libations. Anyway, during the ritual in the swamp the alligators seemed to get particularly excited. It was almost as if they felt drawn to draconic energy of the ritual–themselves being big, watery reptiles that have not evolved since 55million BCE. Crocodilians are literally living dinosaurs.

Crocodilians are essentially dragons

So over a month ago when I was out on a full moon doing rougarou stuff I dragged Josh along with me and asked him to sing the Ho Ophis incantation to the alligators. They seemed interested in it. I don’t really know how to gauge a reptile’s enjoyment of poetry, but I saw some increase in the snout ripples in the water. The frogs seemed to like it too, their chirping increased as opposed to decreasing while Josh sang.

This gave me an idea: What if I somehow translated Ho Ophis into Irish (Gaeilge) and sung it to the serpent who rests in the Barrow? Meche is an apocalypse serpent like the dragon of Revelations, after all. I have also mentioned before how much of the imagery and phrases in The Book of Revelations seem to be borrowed directly from the exaltation of Inanna, penned 3000 years prior. These ancient roots would seem to carry the right kind of resonance for a long-forgotten dragon god.

Apparently I was not the first or only person to have this idea. A couple days ago Josh was digging around in the archives of Rune Soup and found that apparently back in 2013, Gordon White “bowled up to two hot Welsh chicks in a bar” and got them to translate the poem into Welsh for him to chant at Dinas Emrys  in Wales to wake the dragon[s] that sleep within. (You can read more about it on his blog.) In case you are interested, here is the Welsh version:

O Sarff Hynafol
(Oh Sarf Hinarvol)
Oh Ancient Serpent

O Ddraig Nerthol
(Oh Dry-g nearthol)
Oh Great Dragon

Pwy oedd a pwy sydd
(Pool oyth a pool sith)
Who was and who is

Trwy’r amseroedd
(True-ir am-ser-oyth)
Throughout the Aions

Bydd gyda ein ysbryd
(Beeth gerdah ayn ers-breed)
Be thou with our spirit

Scrolling through the comments I found another interesting tidbit. Alyster Austin mentioned a fictional spell that is spoken in Irish by Merlin in the movie Excalibur, a scene that I then recalled that my Celtic History and Mythology professor made us watch in class. In this scene, as Alyster says “Merlin chants a Charm of Making to summon the Dragon that is the land and all that is in it.”

Mary Jones’s Celtic Encyclopedia even has an entry on it:

Here is the Charm of Making, as it appears in the film Excaliber:

Phonetic: anal nathrak, uthvas bethud, do che-ol di-enve.

Old Irish (these are possible spellings for what is being said, as Gaelic is a very strange language when it comes to spelling): Anal nathrach, orth’ bhais’s bethad, do che’l de’nmha.

OR: Anáil nathrach orth bhais betha, do cheol déanta.

Modern English: Serpent’s breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making.

My translations: Anáil nathrach, ortha bhas betha, do cheol déanta.
Breath of the serpent, spell of life, the song for the maker.
Breath of serpent, spell of death and life, your song of making.

I have read elsewhere that the movie pronunciation of the pseudo-Old Irish seems a bit off. If anyone has a more accurate spelling and pronunciation, please let me know.

This also brings me to my current conundrum: Ignoring the mess that is my finances and how and when I will be in Ireland again, I need a solid Old Irish translation and pronunciation of the Ho Ophis incantation. But the even bigger problem is that I also need some vague idea of where the place once called Mag Luadat or Muigh Lúathad (maybe even transliterated to Lodot) is or what it might be called now. Obviously it’s somewhere on the banks of the River Barrow in Ireland, probably somewhere in what was the Kingdom of Ossory…but the Barrow is not a small river, it’s 92 km (119 mi) That’s a lot of potential area, and unfortunately the Dindshenchas do not go in depth and describe the location. I mean, in theory I could follow along the river using some sort of form of divination until I find the right spot, but it seems like something some monk or historian would have documented, and I would like to have the location and ritual planned out ahead of time.

So if you know anyone who specializes in Old Irish and/or medieval Irish geography, please let me know. I have a dragon-summoning trip to plan.

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3 thoughts on “Serpent’s Breath and Songs of Making

  1. So these are my translations into modern Irish and Old Irish.

    Modern Irish

    An nathair ársa
    An dragún mór
    An té atá is a bhí *
    Go deo agus i gcónaí
    Go dtugair d’anam duinn.

    The ancient serpent
    The great dragon
    The one who is and who was
    Forever and always
    May you bring your spirit to us.

    And in Old Irish (which I am marginally less confident in)

    In nathair arsaid
    In ollphíast mór **
    In t-é attó ocus bá
    Tre bithu, de betha ***
    Go robá do ainim do-sinni

    The ancient serpent
    The great dragon
    The one who is and was
    Through the ages, of the ages
    May your spirit be with us.

    * “An té atá, a bhí agus atá le teacht” via Revelations 1:8 in An Bíobla Naofa. “Atá le teacht” corresponds to “who is to come” in English translations so I didn’t include it, but Banshee apparently prefers it.

    ** I kind of made up the word ollphíast, on evidence of two things: the modern Irish word ollphéist, which literally means “great beast” but evidently has the connotation of “dragon,” and the Old Irish form of the péist part of that word, a borrowing from the Latin bēstia.

    *** The phrase “tre bithu” came from Immram Brain, (http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/ietexts/iri/iri-7-X.html) where it is translated as “throughout the ages.” Literally, though, it means “through worlds,” which is something I, personally, find to be a rather poetic double meaning in this particular context. “De betha” is the corresponding phrase that is not sourced, I just formed it myself in the genitive, “of worlds.”

    1. I’m just now noticing that I made, not one, but two mistakes at the same time. Not only is “do-sinni” shortened to dúnn, that’s also just the wrong preposition. I used the same preposition as the modern Irish version even though the meaning is slightly different.

      So the last line of the Old Irish translation should read:

      Go robá do ainimm linn (or possibly lenn/leinn. Honestly it’s basically the same pronunciation either way; it’s “le sinni” which means “with us”).

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