“It was a very big place and very grand, and a long table set out, but I didn’t want to stop there and I began crying to go home. And she touched me here in the breast with her stick, she was vexed to see me wanting to go away. They never brought me away since. Grand food they’d offer me and wine, but I never would touch it, and sometimes I’d have to give the breast to a child.” – Mrs. Sheridan as told to Lady Gregory (Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920)
The eleventh letter of the tree-Ogham is Muin, the Grape vine.
As previously established, the Grape was likely a later addition to the Ogham. The Grape vine does not grow naturally in Ireland and is difficult to cultivate. Muin also does not mean Grape or Vine literally. Most Ogham users now equate Muin to the Grape vine, however.
Robert Ellison states in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids that “the vine” was a general description for the letter. He does equate the letter to the Grape and to wine, however. Ellison believes that Muin represents “prophecy and inhibitions; or the lack of them.”
John Mathews interprets Muin’s word-Ogham within the Celtic Shaman. He equates the phrase “strongest of efforts” to simply being “effort.”
Caitlin Mathews’ divination system Ogham Wisdom Sticks leaves much more for us to interpret. Within her system, however, the common thread of meaning seems to be ‘a lessening of a load’ or burden. This interpretation is likely also taken from the word-Oghams[i].
The Grape does not appear very often within Celtic myth or legend. Wine, which was brought to the Isles by the Romans, on the other hand has a place. It does appear occasionally.
Muin is the first letter found within the tree-Ogham that is not a tree at all.
Wine has a strong connection to the Otherworld and to the Tuatha De Danaan directly. Wine, in Celtic myth, is also related to things that fly, such as birds or insects. In the time of the Celts, wine would have also demonstrated wealth and status as it was imported.
In Cuchulain of Muirthemne, by Lady Gregory, we are told that Cuchulain was given a “gold cup full of wine.” The inside of the cup had a “bird of precious stones” at the bottom. The wine here is listed as a part of the gift, illustrating its worth.
Within the same text, we learn that Cuchulain’s mother, Dechtire, had the course of her life altered when she drank a cup of wine.
One day the god Lugh turned himself into a mayfly and landed in Dechtire’s cup of wine. Unaware, she drank the wine and fell into a very deep sleep. This all turned out to be part of Lugh’s plan to steal her. Dechtire and her 50 handmaidens were then turned into a flock of birds and ordered to follow Lugh. When Dechtire is finally recovered, after a year’s period of time, she has a small boy with her. This turns out to be the great hero Cuchulain, son of Lugh.
There’s a likelihood it was the fly that impregnated Dechtire, due to the similarities between this tale and another Irish story. In Gods and Fighting Men, also by Lady Gregory, it is Etain who is turned into a fly by her husband’s other wife:
“And she turned her with Druid spells into a fly, and then she sent a blast of wind into the house, that swept her away through the window […] and for seven years Etain was blown to and fro through Ireland in great misery. And at last she came to the house of Etar, of Inver Cechmaine, where there was a feast going on, and she fell from a beam of the roof into the golden cup that was beside Etar’s wife. And Etar’s wife drank her down with the wine, and at the end of nine months she was born again as Etar’s daughter.”
There is a magical horn found within the same book. The horn is part of a dowry given by the Tuatha De Danaan to three brothers who wanted to join them. The horn was a gift from “a young man of the Tuatha De Danaan[ii].” The item has the power to turn salt water into wine.
Found within the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz are two more incidents in which water is turned into wine; suggesting more than a passing theme.
(Last Supper by Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret’s)
As the Tuatha De Danaan eventually became the fairies of folklore many things changed. Some things, however, remained the same. The fairies were said to value wine, for instance.
The Cluricaune found within Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland is one such example[iii]. He is a fairy-spirit similar to, or synonymous with, the leprechaun. The Claircaune is a spirit that likes to play tricks. He also likes to raid cellars and steals wine.
Similar stories concerning fairies stealing wine are found elsewhere. One such example can be found within Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland which is also by Lady Gregory. It is here that we also find an example regarding the offering of wine to the fairies:
“There was a room at Crags where things used to be thrown about, and everyone could hear the noises there. They had a right to clear it out and settle it the way they’d like it. You should do that in your own big house. Set a little room for them —with spring water in it always—and wine you might leave—no, not flowers—they wouldn’t want so much as that—but just what would show your good will.” – Mr. Saggerton as told to Lady Gregory.
Although wine is also used to describe things that are both sweet and beautiful it can have a darker side. There is an interesting story, for example, pertaining to Cuchulain in Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston:
“Then he bade farewell to his mother Dectera, and she gave him a goblet of wine to drink, but ere he could drink it the wine turned to blood, and he flung it away, saying, ” My life’s end is near ; this time I shall not return alive from the battle.” And Dectera and Cathbad besought him to await the coming of Conall of the Victories, who was away on a journey, but he would not.”
Within the Celtic stories it would seem that water can become wine, and wine can become blood. Water has often been described over the ages as being the life giving blood carrying arteries of the Earth.
Perhaps there is a connection there as well.
The most famous use of wine in ritual occurs within the rite of the Eucharist, or Communion. This ritual is performed within many branches of Christianity. It consists of kneeling before a priest and receiving small portions of wine and bread. The ritual honours the mortality of Jesus Christ; the ancestor who was also a god.
Within the rite of Communion, wine becomes representative of the blood of the Christ. Bread, or a cracker, will be used to represent his body. The ritual is usually observed as a form of worship or to receive a blessing from a priest. The rite of Communion uses these symbolic stand-ins instead of actual blood or flesh taken from his dead body. In this way the ritual can continue to be performed indefinitely; even without an actual body.
Blood-drinking and flesh eating were not uncommon practices amongst various pagan peoples[iv]. This drinking the blood of the dead was a practice that may seem strange to us, but that actually existed amongst the Celts. It was a way for them to honour the dead.
“The following occurs in a song composed by ‘ Nic Coiseam ‘ to her fosterson, ‘Mac Iain ‘ic Sheumais,’ the famous warrior-poet of the Macdonalds, after the battle of Carnish in iCOl – The blood of thy fragrant body was soaked through thy linen. I myself was sucking it until my breath became hoarse. I stanched thy wounds, and they all too numerous, and I drank thy red blood, more sweet to me than wine.” – Alexander Carmicheal (Carmina Gadelica vol. II)
Wine can be used in ritual[v], or left as an offering.
“It is now easy to understand why a savage should desire to partake of the flesh of an animal or man whom he regards as divine. By eating the body of the god he shares in the god’s attributes and powers. And when the god is a corn-god, the corn is his proper body; when he is a vine-god, the juice of the grape is his blood; and so by eating the bread and drinking the wine the worshipper partakes of the real body and blood of his god. Thus the drinking of wine in the rites of a vine-god like Dionysus is not an act of revelry, it is a solemn sacrament.”– Sir James Fraser (the Golden Bough)
[iii] Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825.
[iv] James Fraser. The Golden Bough.
[v] Also found within the Carmina Gadelica is a reference to wine that may be of interest in the context of ritual. The text states that water is feminine and wine is masculine; that moonlight is feminine and sunlight is masculine. What could this symbolise in a ‘water to wine’ context?