Magic and superstition in early medieval Ireland – some thoughts

Aidan O’Sullivan

People’s lives in early medieval houses would have been bound around by customary practice, by social norms and conventions, by religious beliefs (such as the thin layer of belief provided by Christianity), but also by superstitions and even a belief in the magical properties of objects. This is hardly remarkable. Some early medieval Christian religious beliefs and practices essentially saw objects as having personality and power and an ability to shape people’s lives – one need only think of saint’s relics and their power.

Rather more tricky to identify are the beliefs and practices that people had in their daily lives, that seem to be distinct from early church doctrine. In the past, I have explored the ways in which the abandonment of houses seems to be marked by the deposition of domestic objects, such as rotary quernstones, wooden troughs and plough implements, in pits or wall slots (O’Sullivan and Kenny 2008, 9). These types of objects, used in the production and preparation of food, may have been practically and metaphorically associated with the household itself. DSCF3833

At Deer Park Farms, an oak trough (with a wooden shoe last inside it) seems to have been deliberately left behind on the floor of the smaller house (Structure Zeta) of a figure-of-eight house. This wooden trough—which early Irish literary sources would imply was a woman’s property and used for kneading dough or presenting food—was apparently over 150 years older than the house and must have been one of its cherished antiques so its deposition could hardly be accidental (Lynn and McDowell 2011, 130). One could envisage that upon the death of a grandmother, the trough was finally abandoned within a house that had also come to the end of its life.

Quernstones were used for preparing bread and cereals (an important aspect of the early medieval diet). In early Irish sources, food preparation was a woman’s task, so it is possible that these objects were associated with a grandmother or mother. At Leacanabuaile, broken rotary querns were placed in the walls of the Phase I round-house that was then subsequently replaced by a Phase II rectangular house. At Dressogagh, two figure-of-eight round-houses were placed on top of two earlier figure-of-eight round-houses, and the walls pulled down and rebuilt and the broken portions of a rotary quernstone were placed within the wall slots of House 1, before its replacement by House II. At the early medieval unenclosed settlement at ‘The Spectacles’, Co. Limerick, a broken quernstone was deposited on top of the paving, directly in front of the door of a round-house (Ó Ríordáin 1949, 106). At Rinnaraw, Co. Donegal, broken quernstones were left on the floor beside the door, while one fragment was also placed in the doorway threshold (Comber 2006, Fig. 24). At Drumaroad, Co. Down, two broken quernstones were deposited just south of the house doorway, alongside the paving (Waterman 1956, 86). At Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, a broken quernstone fragment was deposited in a pit within the floor of a round-house used by a metalworker, while other broken quernstones and an iron spear-head were left at the base of a drain outside its doorway (O’Kelly 1952, 25, 31-2).

Pl. 7.5 Early medieval houses Structure Zeta and western side of Structure x, from south. From here we can see the collapsed wattle wall of Structure Zeta to the left, and the bedding area (C1291) at the bottom right, inside Structure X.

Early medieval houses at Deer Park Farms.

Broken and smashed quernstones are also known from Lisnagun Ring fort, Co. Cork; Lagore Crannog, Co. Meath; Carraig Aille I and II, Co. Limerick; and in recent excavations at Derrinsallagh 3, Co. Laois, among numerous settlement sites (O’Sullivan and Kenny 2008, 10). In anthropological terms, deliberate or structured deposits often mark key events in the life of a house—or the people within it (e.g. the abandonment of the house or the death of a key household figure). In early medieval Ireland, we might imagine that when a house itself was being abandoned or rebuilt at the end of its life, it may have been a cultural practice to deliberately ‘kill’ the household’s quern and leave it behind in the ruins.

Neolithic stone axes, flint arrow-heads, scrapers and general flint debitage are also common finds from early medieval settlements and houses. In many cases, this could simply represent residual evidence, or the use of flint as strike-a-lights, and we should be wary about ascribing significance to one flint object, while ignoring the large number of flint debitage.

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In other cases, distinctive objects are found, and often in discrete occupation horizons suggesting actual use in the early Middle Ages. A flint scraper and a chert arrowhead was recovered from a house floor on Sroove crannog, Co. Sligo (Fredengren 2002, 231, Fig. 60), end-scrapers and a leaf-shaped arrowhead were found in occupation layers from Lough Faughan crannog, Co. Down (Collins 1955, 69-70) and at

Leacanabuaile, Co. Kerry, a prehistoric stone axe was found inside a house (Ó Ríordáin and Foy 1941, 95).

At Deer Park Farms, as many as eighteen stone axes, a stone adze and a chisel were recovered from the early medieval settlement layers, mostly associated with house occupation deposits. One axe came from collapsed roofing material (McDowell 2011, 253-55), suggesting that it was suspended in some way from the roof timbers or perhaps was wedged into the thatch itself. It is likely that many of these objects were discovered accidentally during ploughing in the early medieval period and brought into houses as charms or ‘magical’ items to protect the house from fire or disaster.

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It is most unlikely that stone axes and arrow-heads were seen as ‘antiquities’ or objects associated with the past (a category recognition that only comes with the development of 18th century antiquarianism), but as thunderbolts or fairy darts that were often felt to have had talismanic or protective powers – as was the case across modern Europe (Carelli 1997). Flint arrow-heads were also seen in modern Irish folklore as ‘witch-stones’ having magical properties that could protect cattle, milk and butter. Estyn Evans, (1957, 300–3), noted that in recent times cattle that were not thriving were reckoned to have been ‘elf-shot’: a cow-doctor called to a stable would surreptitiously carry a few flint arrow-heads to whip out of the animal’s body at the strategic moment so as to ‘cure’ them. Calves could also be cured of various ailments such as the ‘coup’ by boiling a flint arrowhead in milk and feeding it to them. Kelly (1997, 174–5) notes that later medieval Irish manuscripts refer to the bewitching of cattle (mille ba), which may have been caused by elf-shot (urchar millte), so it seems likely that prehistoric flint arrow-heads found in early medieval dwellings represent evidence for magic and superstition.

A few weeks, I was in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and went to visit an object that has been intriguing me for the last year, since first I saw it. It’s in the charms and amulets section, and it’s an Early Bronze Age flint tanged arrowhead, with a tag that says it was collected in Antrim, where it had been used to cure cattle at about 1890 or so by heating a bucket of milk with the arrowhead in it, and then feeding the milk to them…Jope, in 1952 writing about porcellanite axes in Ulster writes about how he had to persuade one household to take the axe away, as they were most anxious about the fate of their house with it gone….

Anyway, these are musings for the moment – I have much more to do to develop the subject, not least look at the archaeological data more closely, but I’ve been threatening to write a paper about “Magic in Early Medieval Ireland’…this will get me started.

Aidan O’Sullivan

UCD School of Archaeology

 Some bibliographical references

Carelli, P. (1997) ‘Thunder and lightning, magical miracles. On the popular myth of thunderbolts and the presence of Stone Age artefacts in medieval deposits’, in H. Andersson, P. Carelli and L. Ersgård (eds), Visions of the past: trends and traditions in Swedish medieval archaeology (Lund, 1997), 393–417.

Comber, M. 2006 Tom Fanning’s excavations at Rinnaraw cashel, Portnablagh, Co. Donegal. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 106C, 67-124.

Collins, A. E. P. 1955 Excavations in Lough Faughan (Falcon) Crannog, Co Down, 1951-2. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 18, 45-81.

Evans, E. 1957, Irish folkways (London).

Fredengren, C. 2002a Crannogs: a study of people’s interaction with lakes, with particular reference to Lough Gara in the north-west of Ireland. Bray. Wordwell.

Kelly, F. 1997 Early Irish farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. Dublin. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Lynn, C.J. and McDowell, J.A. 2011 Deer Park Farms: The excavation of a Raised Rath in the Glenarm Valley, Co. Antrim. The Stationery Office, Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Norwich and Belfast.

O’Kelly, M. J. 1952 St Gobnet’s House, Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 57, 18-40.

Ó Ríordáin, S. P. 1949a Lough Gur excavations: Carrig Aille and the ‘Spectacles’. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 52C, 39-111.

Ó Ríordáin, S. P. and Foy, J. B. 1941 The excavation of Leacanabuile Stone Fort, near Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 46, 85-99

O’Sullivan, A. 2008 Early medieval houses in Ireland: social identity and dwelling places. Peritia 20, 226-56.

O’Sullivan, A. and Kenny, N. 2008. A matter of life and death. Archaeology Ireland, 22(4), 8–11.

O’Sullivan, A. and Nicholl, T. 2010 Early medieval settlement enclosures in Ireland: dwellings, daily life and social identity. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 111C, 59-90.

Waterman, D. M. 1956a The excavation of a house and Souterrain at White Fort, Drumaroad, Co. Down. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 19, 73-86.

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2 thoughts on “Magic and superstition in early medieval Ireland – some thoughts

  1. It’s always intriguing as to how superstitions come to be or why they become an abandoned superstition afterwards. I enjoy that weaponry is often considered magical in the medieval eras, I completely understand why they were when weapons held such power at the time. You’d think that if we kept that mindset, the nuke would be worshiped by now! Or guns would be held in awe. Thanks for the read, very entertaining!

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