The heART of Ritual


Ancient Irish Star Lore: The Pleiades, Fairies and the Ancestral Dead

When it comes to ancient Ireland, star lore is conspicuous by its absence. There are some theories that the Celtic stories of Gods, Goddesses and cycles are astro-theological references to constellations and stars but there hasn’t been much deep research into this as of yet. However, in recent years many writers and researchers have discovered parallels between other ancient world mythologies and stellar observations.

Because Irish megalithic monuments and sites are almost all pre-Celtic, the deities and ancestors they may have been originally dedicated to, and built for, would obviously be different to the Gods and Goddesses we are familiar with from Irish mythology. That is, providing we accept that they were indeed built for such purposes.

Another interesting note is that Walter Evans-Wentz writes in his work, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, about the similarities of aspects of Asian star lore which seem to have parallels to Irish folklore. According to the pre-Buddhist beliefs of the people of Siam (now Thailand), the stars and constellations are the dwelling places of the Thevadas, who are spirits or gods very similar to the Tuatha De Danann.

Back in April I wrote about how both Bealtaine and Samhain were both associated with the Pleiades star cluster and in particular the upcoming date of November 21st. November is often called the month of the Pleiades because in this month the stars in this cluster are visible from dusk until dawn. The month of November and Samhain may have been a time when the midnight culmination of the Pleiades and the cross-quarter day were celebrated as simultaneous occurrences in ancient times.

Today, in 2021, the dates of Samhain and the Pleiades culmination are 3 weeks out of sync and the culmination occurs around November 21. The reason for this changing date is due to the perceived movement of the stars and the precession of the equinoxes.You can read about how that occurs here.

The Pleiades cluster features in many folklore anecdotes and myths relating to the dead and passing to and from the spirit world. In some traditions this middle place, veil, or Otherworld is the realm between the human world and the abode of the gods. It is a place where imagination, archetypes and the spirits all reside. You can understand why, for many, there is an overlap between fairies and the dead in this context.

Either way, November is a month dedicated to deceased loved ones, ancient ancestors and spirits in many cultures and traditions.

The ancient people commonly termed Celts saw the rising of the Pleiades at this time as signalling the entrance to the dark half of the year. It's fascinating to note the different opinions within Irish fairy folklore and magic regarding whether November is a good time or bad time to encounter the good people. For some, as this is a liminal time when the ancestors are close then surely it must be a good time. Others, though, feel that more contemporary traditions serve as evidence that this is a period of the year when we should stay away from places associated with fairies completely.

The custom of drawing ones own blood as a sacrifice on St. Martins Day, November 11th, may be a remnant of much more ancient warding and protective practices. Obviously, since the newer Christian overlay, many have forgotten why this may have been done. We do, though, have recorded accounts in the folklore archives of this day being specifically associated with protection against damaging spirits and influences.

The Pleiades are also very much part of ritual observances at this time of the year. There are also examples of pre-Celtic Irish traditions of recording the movement of the Pleiades. In the book, Harvesting the Stars: A Pagan Temple at Lismullin, Co. Meath, by Aidan O’Connell, the author examines the recent discovery and documentation of a Pleiades alignment in the Gabhra Valley, beneath the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath.

As well as this, the Dowth megalith named ‘Stone of the Seven Suns’ by Martin Brennan has been suggested to portray the Pleiades by Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland and the researcher Richard Moore. Anthony has also drawn attention to the Dowth legend relating to the king, Bresail Bó-Dibad (lacking in cattle), at the time of a great cattle famine in ancient times which left one bull and seven cows remaining in Ireland. This would seem to be a reference to Taurus and the seven 'sisters' of the Pleiades.

The Pleiades were frequently called The Stròilìn here in Ireland and people often timed their journeys by the position of these stars.

Interestingly, as well as being known as the seven sisters, the Pleiades also have a link to swans as the whooper swans arrive at Newgrange at this time of the year, as one example, and there is also an old tale of Orion chasing the seven sisters of the Pleiades across the sky before they turn into swans or doves. (C.) David Halpin. Image of Pleiades by Reimund Bertrams