Monday, 25 July 2016

Two crosses

This is Sun's sunlight cross. It marks the transitional points on the sunlight cycle in the northern hemisphere:

1. Winter solstice - the shortest day and the longest night
2. Spring equinox - the equal day and night
3. Summer solstice - the longest day and shortest night
4. Autumn equinox - the equal day and night

This is Earth's, climate, vegetation cross. It marks the transitional points of the climatic, vegetative cycle in the northern hemisphere:

Celtic calendar:

1. Imbolc- the beginning of the spring
2. Bealtaine - the beginning of the summer
3. Lughnasa - the beginning of the autumn
4. Samhain - the beginning of the winter

Serbian calendar:

1. St Sava - the beginning of the spring
2. St George - the beginning of the summer
3. St Ilija - the beginning of the autumn
4. St Mitar - the beginning of the winter

As you can see the sun cross and earth cross are out of sync. The earth cross is rotated forward by 45 degrees and the earth circle cardinal points fall right in between the sun circle cardinal points. This is because the earth climatic, vegetative cycle lags behind the solar cycle. 

Winter solstice (21st of December) is the the shortest day. So we would expect that this is also the coldest day. We would also expect that from that day on, as the days start getting longer, the days also start getting warmer. But this is not the case. The days do get longer, but the earth continues to cool. It is only at the beginning of February that we start seeing the first signs of the earth warming up. This is why the beginning of spring is at the beginning of February (Imbolc, St Sava (27th of January, but probably a replacement for the old Imbolc which is celebrated on the 1st of February)). The actual mid point is 4th of February. 

Spring equinox (21st of March) is the moment when the day is as long as night. From that day the days are longer than nights. We would expect that this would mark the beginning of the summer. But the real heat does not start until the beginning of May. This is why the beginning of summer is at the beginning of May (Bealtaine, which is today celebrated on the 1st of May, but there are indications that it was once celebrated on the 6th of May just like St George's day). The actual mid point is 6th of May.

Summer solstice (21st of June) is the longest day of the year. We would expect that this would also be the hottest day of the year. We would also expect that from that day on, as the days get shorter, the days also get colder. But that is not the case. The days do get shorter, but earth continues to warm. It is only at the beginning of August that we start seeing first sings of earth cooling down. This is why the beginning of autumn is at the beginning of August (Lughnasa which is today celebrated on the 1st of August but was once probably celebrated on the, 2nd of August, just like , St Ilija's day). The actual mid point is 2nd of August.

Autumn equinox (21st of September) is the moment when the day is as long as night. From that day the days are shorter than nights. We would expect that this would mark the beginning of the winter. But the real cold does not start until the beginning of Novermber. This is why the beginning of winter is at the beginning of November (Samhain, St Mitar (8th of November, but probably the replacement for the old Samhain which is celebrated on the 31st of October)). The actual mid point is 5th of November. 

This last drawing is the diagram of transformation of Sun's sunlight cycle into Earth's climatic, vegetative cycle. 

The Sun cross transitions into the Earth cross. This transition is governed by the slow accumulation and release of the heat which is transferred from the Sun to the Earth through sunlight...

Does this golden cross which symbolizes this transition of light into heat into life energy remind you of anything?

This is the never ending wheel of life...

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Fulacht fiadh - a cooking pit?

fulacht fiadh or fulacht fian is a type of archaeological site found in Ireland. In England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man they are known as burnt mounds. They commonly survive as a low horseshoe-shaped mound of charcoal-enriched soil and heat shattered stone with a slight depression at its center showing the position of the pit.

Radiocarbon dating indicates that the majority of fulachta fiadh were constructed during the mid to late Bronze Age (c.1500- c. 500 BC), though some Neolithic examples are known. 
Originally it was thought that fulachta fiadh were still in use up to medieval times. But in the paper entitled “Medieval fulachtai fia in Ireland? An archaeological assessment” by Alan Hawkes, published in the Journal of Irish Archaeology, Hawkes concludes that it is unlikely that the burnt mound tradition continued into the medieval period. Fulachta fiadh are the most common archaeological sites in Ireland, with over 4,500 recorded examples, of which some 2,000 are found in County Cork. Permanent structures are rarely found near to fulachtaí fiadh, but small hut sites are common and it is unknown whether early sites were built by permanent settlements or nomadic hunters.

Fulachtaí fiadh generally consist of three main elements: a mound of stones, a hearth used to heat the stones, and a trough, often lined with wood or stone. Troughs may be cut into subsoil or, more rarely, into bedrock.

The site may contain the remains of structures such as stone enclosures or even small buildings, and sometimes multiple hearths and additional, smaller pits. A number of the fulachtaí fiadh pits are approximately a meter wide by 2 meters long and maybe half a meter or more in depth. However, size can vary a great deal from site to site, from rather small pits lined with stones to pools conceivably large enough for people to bathe in.

The exact usage of these sites and even the exact meaning of the word fulacht is still debated. So lets see if I can help this debate in any way. 

The name

In "Lapidibus in igne calefactis coquebatur: the historical burnt mound ‘tradition’" which was written by John Ó Néill and printed in the Journal of Irish Archaeology Vol. XII/XIII, 79-85 we read that:

"Many commentators suggest that the Irish word "fulacht" denotes a pit used for cooking. "Fiadh" in Old Irish meant something like "wild", often relating to animals such as deer. However, all commentators acknowledge significant difficulties in deriving a genuine etymology for the word "fulacht". As some historical references clearly use the term "fulacht" to describe a cooking spit...the word probably carries a deliberate reference to the Irish words for blood (fuil) and meat (feoil)....Further corroborating evidence that in the Irish antiquity pits dug in the ground were used for cooking, is found in Geoffrey Keating’s early seventeenth century history of Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, which describes a pre-Christian tradition of hunters boiling meat in earthen pits, and a late medieval ecclesiastical biography of the Irish St. Munnu, describing the boiling of porridge on fire heated stones"

In the "Early Irish Farming: A Study Based Mainly on the Law-Texts of the 7th and 8th Centuries Ad" by  Fergus Kelly we read that:

"The early Irish literature also shows that the word fulacht is not only applied to a water filled pit for boiling meat but also to an outdoor cooking pit where meat was roasted on a spit or over an open fire"

The cooking

In legend, fulachta fiadh were the cooking place of the Fianna. As they were lead around the country by Fionn MacCumhal, the band of young warriors would feast on wild boar and deer. It had been suggested that the term ‘fulacht fiadh’ meant ‘cooking place of the Fianna’ and indeed on earlier maps the sites are sometimes called ‘fulachta Fian’. 

Now considering that fulacht fiadh consists of a through (a pit) and a mound of burned and cracked stones, archaeologists suggested that the cooking was done in the through, with the water being heated by hot stones which were heated in the hearth and then dropped into the through....

The Ballyvourney reconstruction of fulacht fiadh included successful attempts at heating the water and cooking meat in this manner. In the experiment it took about half an hour to bring 450 L of water to the boil and four hours to cook a 4.5 kg leg of mutton.

Impressive some would say. And the proof that fulacht fiadh were indeed used as cooking pits.

But one of the people who took part in these cooking experiments had this to say about it:

"..having used a fulacht fiadh for a day down in Wexford in the way it's described in the books in Ireland, I have no doubt that the books are wrong. It took a good few hours of constant work by a team of us to maintain the fire, keep the stones going into the water and maintain that boiling water for long enough to cook a joint of meat...So I don't think that fulachts were used for cooking. There are a lot of much easier ways to cook a joint of meat...".

The reason why pit boiling is extremely unlikely usage for fulacht fiadh is that its dimensions are all wrong for a cooking pit. They have much larger surface area compared to their dept. Now meat cooking requires reaching and maintaining a boiling temperature in the trough for the duration of cooking. But "the heat loss due to evaporation of water from a surface of an open tank is totally dominant at higher water temperatures". What this means is that at boiling temperature, it becomes extremely difficult to keep the water in the shallow through with the large surface boiling for long enough to actually cook the meat. You have to constantly feed the fire in order to heat the stones. You have to keep adding new heated stones into the trough and take the cooled ones out, while engulfed in a cloud of steam for 4 hours. Because of the wide surface and shallow dept the heat will try to escape straight up through the surface which means that you have to constantly stir the water in order to spread the heat. This is a lot of hard work for cooking some meat, and this is exactly what the above participant in the fulacht fiadh cooking experiment concluded after the "successful" fulacht fiadh cooking experiment. It is possible to use fulacht fiadh to cook, but why would anyone bother doing it when we know that there were other much easier ways of cooking large quantities of meat which were available to the Bronze Age builders of fulachta fiadh?

So what other easier procedures could the Bronze Age Irish use for cooking large quantities of meat? Well depends how they wanted to cook the meat.


What is the most efficient way to boil water? When you heat water, the hot water rises. So if you heat the vessel containing water from the bottom, the bottom layer of water will be the hottest and will rise, while the cooler water layers from the top will sink only to be heated and to rise...This natural heat convection means that you don't have to stir the water to spread the heat. If your vessel is narrow but deep, this heat convection will create a powerful mixing flow which will result in very quick heating of the whole volume of water. Now remember that I said that the heat loss due to evaporation of water from a surface of an open tank is totally dominant at higher water temperatures. Major heat loss can be avoided only by covering the surface. And at the same time the heat loss through insulated walls can be almost neglected.

So if you want to quickly and efficiently bring to boil and keep boiling a large volume of water, you want to put it in a vessel which is the exact opposite of the fulacht fiadh through. You want something that is narrow, deep, and covered. Something like a cooking pot.

This is why cooking pots used for high temperature high volume cooking have been shaped in the same way since they were invented in late Mesolithic. They are deep and narrow, which minimizes the evaporation surface relative to the volume. This is a 15,000 year old pot from Jomon culture, an early acorn eating culture from Japan,

This is a 6000 year old cooking set from Europe. You can see that the shape of the pot is still the same.

And this is the same type of high temperature, high volume cooking pot still used for high volume cooking in Serbia today. You can see that the only addition to the original design is the heavy lid. These are extremely efficient cooking utensils which require a small amount of wood to cook large amount of food.

This is a great picture showing the size of  these pots relative to the human body. You can see that you can use them to cook over a hundred kilos of food, in this case sour kraut and smoked pork (Serbian bacon and cabbage).

We know that these types of pots existed in Ireland at the time when fulachta fiadh were made. Here are some burial pots found in Ireland dated to 1900-1300BC. They belong to the "food vessel" type funerary vessels found in Irish early bronze age Wedge Tombs and pit and stone cist burials like this one at Bunnamayne, County Donegal. If people were able to make these kind of pots for burials, they were surely able to make them for cooking too (hence the name "food vessels"). The one on the left looks particularly suitable for cooking and very similar to the above cooking pots from Serbia.

So in order to cook hundreds of kilos of meat and veg, in the pots like these, you need to chop the meed and veg and fat, put all in the pot, add water, herbs, salt (sea water), pile hot charcoals near the bottom edge of the pot, and then sit and wait until it is cooked....No hours of hard work necessary.

So why would anyone who was able to make these types of cooking pots torture themselves by cooking in fulachta fiadh? Well they probably didn't use fulacht fiadh throughs for cooking. 

The cooking hypothesis is rendered even less convincing by the near absolute lack of animal bone or plant material within the troughs. Moreover, the location of many burnt mounds on marshy upland terrain makes the notion of cooking somewhat unlikely: the prospect of carrying large quantities of food to such inconvenient areas seems unappealing. Proponents of this view have argued that the lack of animal material is likely due to preferential decay associated with elevated soil acidity, which is a key feature of burnt mound sites. Now in these marshy areas a hole dug into the ground would quickly fill with water. Acidic marshy water. A very very bad water for cooking food. No normal person would cook food in water like that. Imagine the taste of meat cooked in such water. Now if the fulacht fiadh through was cut into a bedrock or into a clay rich soil next to a clean stream, we could pour clean fresh water into it and use it for cooking (if we could be bothered going through the torture of the whole procedure), but then we would have had some traces of meat and plant residue, which again were not found. 

So I believe that we can safely discard fulacht fiadh through as a cooking pit. But there are other cooking pit types which are still used around the world, specifically for large ceremonial feasts where large amounts of meat need to be cooked at once. And they produce a lot of burned cracked stones.

Pit ovens

In wrote a whole article about pit ovens. In short, an earth oven or cooking pit is one of the simplest and longest used cooking structures. It is  also the oldest oven type used by people. The earliest ones were found in Central Europe, and dated to 29,000 BC. They were situated inside mammoth bone yurts and were used to cook mammoth meat.

So how do you make an earth pit oven?

At its simplest, an earth oven is a pit dug in the the ground. A fire is lit at the bottom of pit and let to burn until only hot coals are left behind. The pit walls and the stones placed in the fire absorb and then radiate the heat back towards the center of the pit. This heat is then used to bake, smoke, or steam food inside of the pit. To make the earth ovens more efficient you can line them with stones as they are much better at absorbing and radiating back heat than the ordinary dirt. The food is placed inside the pit, either directly, covered in clay, wrapped in grass or leaves and then the whole contraption is covered with dirt, sealing the heat inside the pit. The stones slowly release the heat and cook the food. after several hours, when the food is cooked, the food is uncovered and taken out of the pit. The cracked stones are discarded on the burned mound and the intact ones are reused. The type of stones used, granite and sandstone can on average be reheated few times before they crack and have to be discarded. If you want to cook a whole large animal like a deer you need to make a fairly large pit and use a big fire and a lot of stones. So if the same cooking pits were used year after year, and we know from ethnographic data the they were, they would relatively quickly produce big piles of burned cracked stones...

An example of cooking pits used for large-scale cooking producing large "burned-rock middens" can be found in Central Texas

Is this what the Irish histories meant when they talked about the "cooking pits"? Again this is much much easier way of cooking large amounts of meat than using stone heated large throughs. Possibly, but only on dry well drained grounds. On marshy waterlogged grounds these pit ovens suffer from the same problem that the cooking pits suffer from: seeping marsh water. The seeping water would quickly extinguish any fire lit up in the pit. But there other surface stone ovens, which can be used for cooking of large quantities of meat, which also produce burned mounds and which are not affected by the soil drainage. I will talk about these ovens in my post about stone ovens.

As for boiling using heated stones, don't get me wrong. Stone water heating was used for cooking all over the world, and particularly for porridge cooking, just as the biography of the Irish St. Munnu describes it. We know that from the ethnographic data collected in United States where hated stones were used for cooking acorn porridge. I wrote about this in my post about eating acorns.

Stone boiling was used when available cooking vessels were baskets or some other type of watertight but not fire resistant container, such as wooden bowls or containers. 

In California,the hot stone cooking was done in this way by the local Native American people. Hot rocks the size of tennis balls were heated by fire. Then, they were put into baskets or wooden bowls or containers filled with water and acorn meal. The stones were stirred in the baskets gently and slowly with a wooden paddle or looped stirrer. When the mixture began to boil it was cooked, exactly like when you make a cereal porridge. The stones were then removed from the basket with wooden tongs. 

There is an old story called "Stone Soup". The story involves a stranger coming to a village, building a hearth and placing a pot of water over it. He (or she) puts in stones and invites others to taste the stone soup. The stranger invites others to add an ingredient, and pretty soon, Stone Soup is a collaborative meal full of tasty things. Not to mention a stone or two. 

So stone cooking was used, and could have been one of the oldest cooking methods ever used. But look at the dimensions of the basket on the picture above. It is again narrow with the dept the same as the diameter, and relative size much closer to the size of the hot stones being dropped in. This means that the water in the basket will be heated to boil and kept boiling much easier then if the cooking vessel was a gigantic hundreds of liters fulacht fiadh through. O one other thing. This method of cooking was abandoned for cooking in earthen pots heated from the bottom whenever they were available because cooking with hot stones is much harder and time consuming.

Now remember that the early Irish literature also shows that the word fulacht is not only applied to a water filled pit for boiling meat but also to an outdoor cooking pit where meat was roasted on a spit or over an open fire. Cooking pits can also be used for spit roasting.

Cooking spits

In Serbia and in the rest of the Balkans, no major celebration can be imagined without a roasted pig or lamb on a spit. Where I come from, the roasting process always started with digging of a ditch, an oval shaped pit. The pit was then filled with slow burning hardwood which was burned and turned into a charcoal. Once the pit was full of the smoldering charcoal, the spit was put over the ditch and the roasting would start. Basically the pig was a spit roasted over a pit oven.

Again this is a very easy way to cook a very large amount of meat. Actually the easiest. In Serbia they roast whole cows on spits, so a deer or a wild boar wouldn't be very difficult to cook at all. No wonder this remained through the ages the most favorite method from cooking large quantities of meat.

So if fulacht fiadh or fulacht Fian really was a place where members of Fianna cooked their food using pits, spits and open fire, then pit ovens are the best match. Not only that you can use them for steaming (boiling) and roasting of large quantities of meat in the pit, but you can also use them to cook the same large quantities of meat on a spit positioned over the pit. And if the cooking is done in the pit, the pit ovens produce large quantities of burned cracked stones and particularly charcoal-enriched soil

So I think that we can safely say that fulachta fiadh were not used in the way the mainstream archaeology suggest they were used:  for cooking large amounts of meat in throughs full of water heated by hot stones. The Bronze Age people who built fulachta fiadh had much more efficient ways of cooking large quantities of meat at their disposal. But what about the throughs? Every fulachta fiadh had a through, so they must have been used for something. But if not for cooking, what were they used for? Particularly the ones built on the marshy boggy acidic terrain. I will talk about this in my next few posts.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Clay balls - Stone balls

Carved Stone Balls are petrospheres, usually round and rarely oval. They have from 3 to 160 protruding knobs on the surface. Their size is fairly uniform at around 2.75 inches or 7 cm across, they date from the late Neolithic to possibly as late as the Iron Age and are mainly found in Scotland, but also elsewhere in Britain and Ireland. They range from having no ornamentation (apart from the knobs) to extensive and highly varied engraved patterns. A wide range of theories have been produced to explain their use or significance, without any one gaining very wide acceptance. Carved Stone Balls are up to 5200 years old, coming from the late Neolithic to at least the Bronze Age.

Nearly all have been found in north-east Scotland, the majority in Aberdeenshire, the fertile land lying to the east of the Grampian Mountains. A similar distribution to that of Pictish symbols led to the early suggestion that Carved Stone Balls are Pictish artefacts.

Here are some examples of the so called "carved stone balls" from Scotland:

At least 1000 years earlier, in Serbia, people from Vinča culture made very very very similar objects from burned clay which they wore as amulets.

This one is from Vinča Beli Breg settlement near Belgrade

This one is from Vinča Jakovo Kormadin settlement near Belgrade

These amulets are from different localities, non published before they appeared in the publication entitled "Vinčanski amuleti" (Vinča amulets) by Ivana Pantović. 

This is extremely interesting and significant. It points to the possibility that the origin of the Scottish so called "stone carved balls" could be found in the clay amulets from Serbia. The fact that the Vinča artifacts were made of clay, whereas the Scottish artifacts were made from stone is also very interesting. This is not the only type of artifacts which were first found in Vinča cultural layers in the Balkans, small and made of burned clay, only to be found later in Britain much larger and made of stones. Progressively bigger and bigger stones. 

It looks like the British Megalithic culture could be in a way the continuation of the Vinča culture. Vinča culture which somehow got to Britain and there went Megalomaniac and Megalithic. 

I was just made aware of a very interesting discovery made under the Mound 1 at Knowth, in the Boyne Valley which adds support for my theory that this is an example of the Balkan - Britain cultural transfer in the late Neolithic. 

Two tiny beads, made from fired calcareous clay, were found there in 1981. This is the picture of one of the two miniature carved stone ball bead from Knowth. Maximum thickness: 14.3mm. (Photo by K. Williams for Excavations at Knowth 6: The Neolithic Archaeology of the Large Passage Tomb 1 at Knowth, Co. Meath, by G. Eogan)

They were published in 1986 (Eogan 1986, fig. 21) but their significance has not been appreciated until 2011 when professor Alison Sheridan, during her visit to Dublin, saw them and realized that they were miniature versions of a very distinctive type of artefact well known from Neolithic Scotland – the carved stone ball :) Professor Sheridan published a paper linking these clay ammulets from Knowth with Scottish carves stone balls under title "Little and large: the miniature ‘carved stone ball’ beads from the Eastern tomb at Knowth, Ireland, and their broader significance". This is very very very very very :) interesting...

What do you thing of all this?


"Vinčanski amuleti" (Vinča amulets) by Ivana Pantović 
"Life in Clay, Neolithic Art on the Territory of Belgrade" by Bisenija Petrović, Miloš Spasić

Wednesday, 29 June 2016


St Brendan and his "team"
Both Ireland and Northern Ireland have bombed out of the EURO 2016. But if you are Irish, there is another Irish team still in competition which you can support: Iceland.

"eee what?" I can hear you say... Let me explain:

If you have watched the EURO 2016, you must have seen Icelandic team and supporters doing their amazing "Viking battle chant". This is a great recording of it performed by the Iceland supporters after Iceland beat England 2:1.

This "Viking battle chant" which has become synonymous with the Icelandic fans at EURO 2016 has become quite a world sensation. But believe or not this chant has nothing to do with the Vikings. It originated in Scotland. Fans of Stjarnan, a Reykjavik based team, fell in love with the chant during a game they played in Motherwell in 2014. The chant has apparently been performed on the terraces at Motherwell Fir Park stadium for years. The Stjarnan supporters adopted the chant as their own and later it was also adopted by the Icelandic national team supporters. They started performing it during the EURO 2016 qualifying campaign and it has since became firmly associated with the Icelandic team. This is a great example of a cultural transfer. 

But this is not the only thing "Vikings" picked up in Scotland and Ireland and took with them to Iceland. 

When the settlement of Iceland got underway some time around 800AD, it seems that there were a lot of Gaelic people among the original settlers. Genetic analysis has shown that a quarter of the men and up to half of the women among the founding population would have been of "Gaelic" origin. 

The study included 181 Icelanders, 233 Scandinavians and 283 "Gaels" from Ireland and Scotland. "Gaelic" was the preferred term in the study, given the fact that the Vikings in 800AD populated both eastern Ireland and also the Western Isles of Scotland. These territories were at that time settled and controlled by the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata

The study showed that between 20 and 25 per cent of Icelandic founding males had Gaelic ancestry, with the remainder having Norse ancestry. These findings match up with earlier study which looked at mitocondrial DNA in the women from the same population groups. The mitocondrial data showed that over a half of Iceland's founding females were of Gaelic ancestry.

What we don't know is who these Gaelic people were and how they ended up in Iceland. 

Even though in some cases, the whole established Viking family groups arrived and settled in Ireland and Scotland, most of the time the Vikings bands were ad hoc armies consisting of young men. It is not inconceivable that these young men who had come over from Scandinavia and lived for a time in the British Isles would have taken local wives, and even entered into alliances with their Gaelic in-laws. When for what ever reason some of these Vikings decided to leave the British isles around 800 AD and settle in Iceland, they took their wives with them. They could have even been joined by some of their Irish male in-laws and their families. 

However some of these Gaelic people who ended up in Iceland might have been taken away against their will as it is known that Vikings engaged in slave trade and took away a significant number of slaves from Gaelic territories in Ireland and Scotland. One of the most comprehensive works on the subject of the Irish in Iceland is Gaelic influence in Iceland by Gísli Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson suggests that slaves may have comprised as much as 30–40% of the population. 

But there is something very interesting about the Viking colonization of Iceland. 

Upon the demise of the Roman Empire and the subsequent spread of Christianity across Europe, monks and holy men increasingly undertook perilous sea voyages to remote uncharted waters. These expeditions could have been pilgrimages of sorts, to test their belief in the Lord.  Well that is one explanation. Another one was that the Irish Christian monks followed their kinsmen to the newly discovered lands....

The most famous of these reputed journeys is that of the legendary St Brendan. 

Saint Brendan of Clonfert (c. 484 – c. 577) called "the Navigator", "the Voyager", "the Anchorite", or "the Bold", is one of the early Irish monastic saints. He was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He is most famous for his legendary quest to the "Isle of the Blessed," also called Saint Brendan's Island. 

The first mention of Brendan occurs in Adamnan's Vita Sancti Columbae, written between 679 and 704. But the first notice of him as a seafarer appears in the ninth century Martyrology of Tallaght. The earliest full version of "The Voyage of Saint Brendan" was recorded around AD 900. In it we read that on the Kerry coast, he built a currach-like boat of wattle, covered it with hides tanned in oak bark softened with butter, set up a mast and a sail. He and a small group of monks fasted for forty days, and after a prayer upon the shore, embarked on their voyage to find the Isle of the Blessed. On their way they pass by the land where "great demons threw down lumps of fiery slag from an island with rivers of gold fire” and “great crystal pillars." Many now believe these to be references to the volcanic activity around Iceland, and to icebergs.[

While the story is often assumed to be a religious allegory, there has been considerable discussion as to whether the legends are based on actual events. Over the years there have been many interpretations of the possible geographical position of Saint Brendan's Island of the Blessed. Today the most popular theory is that St Brendan actually discovered America, sailing there via Iceland and Greenland. 

 The Voyage of Saint Brendan belongs to the type of Old Irish stories known as "immram" (Irish navigational story). An immram is a story concerning a hero's sea journey to the Otherworld (see Tír na nÓg and Mag Mell). They were all written in the Christian era. No surprise here as the Irish only had oral tradition before the Christian monks started writing it down. 

But how come it was the Irish who in the Early medieval time developed the "Sea navigation stories"? Well because at that time, the Irish ruled the north western seas. They invaded and settled Western Scotland and gave it its name. The name Scotland comes "Scoti" which was the old name for the Irish. They invaded and settled Northern Wales, giving the name to the Llŷn Peninsula which was named after one of the Irish tribes, the Laigin. 

You can't invade, settle and hold the coastal areas unless you are a maritime culture a maritime power. You can't sail the northern seas around the British isles unless you are an accomplished mariner in a very very good boat. And the Irish seem to have in the early Medieval time been accomplished mariners in very good boats. This explains why the maritime voyage stories were at that time very popular in Ireland. 

This forgotten Irish maritime culture was covered in a great TV series and book called "Atlantean Irish" made by Irish film maker Bob Quinn. The films and book proposed that the Irish, or at least some of the Irish, were part of a common 'Atlantean' maritime culture that includes the western seaboard of Europe and North Africa.

Official history tells us that there is no reliable evidence to indicate that Brendan ever reached Iceland, Greenland or America. But it is interesting that the route route Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland is the exact route which we know Vikings took in 10th century or maybe even in the 9th century when they discovered America

Is it possible that the Viking discovery of Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland was actually a rediscovery prompted by the stories about St. Brendan's voyage that the Vikings heard from their Irish wives and in-laws before 800 AD? Did Vikings then in the time of need decide to follow the described route and check for themselves what lies out west? 

Let's see. 

Around 800 AD Vikings with their Irish wives, in-laws and slaves sailed from Ireland to Iceland and colonized it. 

But, there is a popular story in Iceland which says that the first humans who set the foot on the shores and volcanic terrain of Iceland were Christian monks from the north-west of Ireland, in the eighth century. The story is based on one written source, the Islendingabok (‘Book of the Islanders’) by  Ari Þorgilsson, written between 1122 and 1133, about 250 years after the first Norse settlements. Even in such established works as The history of Iceland by Gunnar Karlsson the arrival of the monks has become accepted history. Apparently the monks, having initially discovered a stable sea route from Ireland to Iceland, made repeated return journeys over the course of several decades until the arrival of the first Norse settlers. 

There is little to suggest that these monks established any permanent settlements in Iceland. While conclusive archaeological evidence of the presence of monks has been unearthed on the remote Orkney and Shetland Islands, no such proof has ever been found in Iceland and so this story about the Irish monks being the first colonizers of Iceland remains under question. 

But it is interesting that the first mention of St. Brendan as the "Navigator" appears in the 9th century. The same century when the colonization of Iceland begins. The same century when the alleged discovery of Iceland by the Irish monks, which was described in the Icelandic saga, takes place. The first full description of St Brendan's "alleged" voyage to America, via Iceland and Greenland then appears in the manuscript published around 900 AD. And right after that Vikings from Iceland, who came from Ireland following St Brendan's route, sail westward, again following St Brendan's route, and "discover" Greenland and Newfoundland. 

Strange how it all fits together, don't you think?

Whatever about the uncertainties surrounding the Gaelic arrivals of the eighth century, their presence in the ninth century Iceland is beyond question. The presence of Gaelic people among the first arrivals in Iceland is confirmed by numerous written references in both the Book of Settlements and the Book of Icelanders. In the former is found a comprehensive list of 400 names, of which at least 60 are distinctly Gaelic. 

Those of Gaelic origin integrated quickly into what became essentially a Norse culture. So what, beyond genetics, is the legacy of the Gaelic presence in Iceland? 

Well, as I said already the archaeological evidence is pretty slim. The same could also be said in relation to the Icelandic language. According to Sigurdsson, the limited number of borrowed words may be explained by the fact that the "Gaels did not contribute any new work skills or crafts, carrying their own vocabulary into the mainly Norse controlled society", coupled with the fact that "the language of the slaves was probably not widely spoken by their masters". 

But this is a bit dismissive when we know that it is in the Icelandic literature where we find the most important Gaelic legacy in Iceland. 

Icelandic oral and written traditions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were completely unique development in the Nordic world. There have been many theories which aimed to explain this phenomenon, but the one accepted by most British and Irish historians, and indeed Sigurdsson himself, says that the influence of the Gaelic presence in Iceland is a more plausible explanation for the emergence of the Icelandic sagas tradition. In the Gaelic world, oral tradition and the writing of the sagas in the vernacular was highly developed. In fact, Iceland and Ireland were the only countries in Western Europe where sagas of this kind were written down. There are undeniably striking resemblances in the literary output of Iceland and Ireland during the 12th and 13th century not just in form but in content too. In both traditions we find leprechaun-like creatures, Gaelic team game of hurling and boy stalwart heroes like Cú Chulainn from Irish sagas, and Starkaðr (Strong man) from the Icelandic Fornaldarsogur sagas, popular in the early fourteenth century. Both characters in their respective sagas at one point lie naked in the snow searching their clothes for lice. 

The Gaelic influence is even more obvious when we look at the Icelandic family sagas. Sigurdsson claims that the sagas that come from the west of Island have a more powerful Gaelic element than others, which could be explained by the stronger Gaelic presence in this area. How come? The western area of Iceland would have been the exact place where a bout coming from Ireland would have landed. And if the Irish settled permanently on Iceland, that would have been the exact place where they would have done so...Interesting...

Anyway, the most prominent example of this trend is the saga of the people of Laxardal (Laxdæla saga). In this tale one of the characters, Hoskuldr, obtains a slave woman from Norway who turns out to be Melkorka, daughter of a prominent Irish king. Retaining her native Gaelic language, she secretly passes it on to her son Ólafr, who later travels to Ireland to renew family ties and, despite his lowly slave origins, marries well. His son Kjartan becomes the main male hero of the Laxdæla saga. Parallels with the character of Cú Chulainn are again in evidence in a number of the family sagas. Some of his boyhood deeds are mirrored by the character of Kafli in the Kjalnesing saga, and the character of Egil in Egil’s saga. Parts of these sagas, particularly in the case of Laxdæla saga, tend to have a more colourful, exaggerated style with greater attention to detail, perhaps reflecting the Gaelic predilection for such literary affectations.

Slaves alone could have hardly been able to exert such cultural influence. This points to these possibilities:

1. The Irish sailors who discovered Iceland during the early medieval time actually settled in the west of Iceland. They eventually mixed with the Norse settlers who came from the East and who settled the eastern coast of Iceland. 
2. The Viking gang that arrived to Iceland from Ireland around 800 AD was a mixed Norse Irish clan with possibly slaves from other Irish clans. Irish practiced slavery long before Norse arrived. Remember how they "obtained" St Patrick from Wales? Were Irish colonies still on Iceland at that time? Were these people joining their kin in Iceland, or reclaiming the ancestral land?

That kind of mix could have exerted the cultural influence we find in the development of the Icelandic sagas. 

So, let me recapitulate:

1. Iceland was discovered and first colonized by the Irish monks.
2. It was then settled by the mix of Norse and Irish
3. These Irish contributed greatly to the genetics and culture of Iceland 

And so, on Sunday, when Iceland go on the pitch to play France, Irish can stand up and proudly shout:

Come on I(r)celand !!!

Monday, 27 June 2016


South Eastern dialect of Serbian has a peculiar grammatical construct. It uses "na" meaning "on" to express belonging, possession. This construct using the word "na" exists (as far as I know) also in neighboring Macedonian and some Bulgarian dialects, all centered around southern Carpathian or Balkan mountains.

South Serbian:

Q: Na koga je ovo kuče - on whom is this hound (whose hound is this)? 

A: To je kuče na petra - this is the hound on Petar (of Peter)


A: Tova e kuče na Petar - this is the hound on Petar  (of Peter)


A: Toa e kuče na Petar - this is the hound on Petar  (of Peter)

This construct defines possession through physical contact which is the oldest known form of possession. What belongs to me is on me, within my boundary, within what i can grab, hold, wear, carry, protect...

Fernand Cormon, Cain, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
What is interesting is that the Irish language has the same construct. On the page about Hiberno-English (English dialect spoken in Ireland which is hugely influenced by the Irish grammar and vocabulary) we read:

There are some language forms in Hiberno-English that stem from the fact that there is no verb "to have" in Irish. Instead, possession is indicated in Irish by using the preposition at, (in Irish, ag.). To be more precise, Irish uses a prepositional pronoun that combines ag "at" and mé "me" to create agam which basically means "at me, on me". This is then reflected in Hiberno-English, where the verb "to have" is used, interchangeably with phrases "with me" or "on me" that derive from "tá … agam". This gives rise to the frequent:

"Do you have the book?" – "I have it with me."
"Have you change for the bus on you?"
"He will not shut up if he has drink taken."

My favorite Irish Gaelic expression using this construct is "Tá áthas orm" meaning "I am happy, I have happiness" but literally meaning "There is happiness on me" :)

So what language did this construct originate in: Irish or these south Slavic dialects? Remember that the Irish language only has this constrict to express possession. And that this part of the Balkans was once "Celtic central" and is the area where we still find "Celtic" village crosses, like this one from Crna Trava:

And how old is this construct? Is it possible that this is a true linguistic fossil, which comes to us from the time before settled communities and static property? 

And does a similar construct exists in any other language? 

Well it seems that it does. In Finnish of all languages. Finnish doesn't have a separate verb for "to have". Instead it uses a different sentence construction, centered around the verb "olla", "to be". It's interesting to note that the "minulla on" literally means"on me there is". 

Very interesting, because it shows the age of this construct.