Tag Archives: myth

Hill of Tara Part 1, Ireland, 2015

I step off the large tour bus. Mom, very tired, stands to my left. In front of us the hill of Tara rises, and even closer than that, clumps of tourists, families and groups of friends, mill about. We are an odd blending of strangers and companions, all with stories of our own, dropped here from around the world to visit, for all our myriad of reasons, a part of our heritage.

It is a beautiful summer afternoon, the sun shines radiant but unobtrusively through the clear, blue sky, its rays dancing a compromise on the cool breeze, as if seeking, in midfall, to defer deferentially to already ensconced patches of shade.

A cacophony of conversation drifts up the hill over endless neatly mowed grass. Grass? At Tara? When did this happen? The question intrudes on my thoughts and I’m not sure who it’s from. All I know is that, when I was here before long ago, the place was mostly dirt, and grass in the form of neatly kept lawn was conspicuously absent.

To see the place once more, but without eyes, haunts me, taunts me with visions which will remain unconfirmed, cheating me out of an intimacy I once shared. I can walk but cannot trace the contours of the landscape with my eyes, and for a moment I am grief stricken, like someone who can behold but never touch the one she loves.

The metal gate would have been absent of course. so would the bus that dwarfed the distances I might have once traveled by foot. Would I recognize those footpaths now, or would they be permanently lost to me, covered over by time and transformation, deforestation, and fresh green grass? I have little time to ponder, for now the woman with the calm, high voice who will be our guide for the next hour issues us through the gate and we begin our ascent.

Part of me recognizes what I am doing as quite normal and routine, exactly the kind of sequence of events that occurs during a mass tour of an ancient site. And we had had no choice about the large tour group, either. Our trip to Tara is part of a larger tour of the Boinne Valley, including Newgrange, which we visited earlier. The neolithic stones are only accessible through booking a tour with the visitor’s center. What else might I have expected?

The answer comes unbidden to me, unannounced, almost a surprise. For we entered Tara without challenge or ordeal, no statements of pedigree, degree and right, status or reason for business. And I remembered, from somewhere deep within, how such a display of worthiness was required if a person wished to even remotely be considered for the welcoming. And here we are, without trial or travail. My surprise, I realize, is not at the details of the memory, but my unnerving feeling of culture shock.

And “Now watch your step,” warns our vigilant tour guide, in a tone of voice that conveys her desire to avoid a repeat of some prior mishap. “The grass is slippery and wet, and the ground is uneven.”

Of course it is, I think to myself. The first thing I notice, with a pang of sadness, is the absence of the great wall. The open grassland unsettles me, any trace of a protective embrace now long since eroded away. We walk past two stones, which our guide explains are all that remain of an ancient rite of kingship. It was said that these stones were placed a specific distance apart, and that a potential king would only be allowed onto further initiations if he could drive a chariot between the stones without touching them. I felt the two stones, the aspiring king would have had to be very skilled indeed to accomplish the challenge.

I am grateful when mom is too tired to walk with the rest of the group, and we fall behind. I need distance, and badly. Besides our feet upon the now grassy earth and the birds chattering in sporadic song, the occasional caught phrase from a fellow tourist up ahead, the wind whispering its opinion now and again in low, hushed tones – the place is silent, silent.

No one lives here. No horses whinny impatiently in a stable, no king’s servants hurry by with provisions, wash buckets, hay bundles, or cooking pots. No last minute commotion to repair a building. No children hollering and playing in the dirt. No pits for fires, no conclaves of brehons, no bards with their harps, no druids preparing the ceremonies of Samhain. No shouts from the now absent walls. No buildings in fact, except for a church, constructed in 1822.

It’s a very interesting church, but while I am appreciating its existence and contribution to the long history of this place, I am left grappling with the elusive transience of uncertainty forged through the passage of time. Time and its remnants seem to emanate from this place from every age, from the stone age to the present, clambering for their own share of loyalty, of recognition, of honor. In the midst of the iconic passage tombs with their transparent mystery, the allure of the Christian era crossing the minds of those from the middle ages to modernity, casting its shadows over the past, Tara from the second century CE seems to have fallen into obscurity. To the hand or the eye mapping the surface, the time I walked this world as Mairin is almost forgotten, or else shrouded in the misunderstandings and messiness of myth.

We walk on. My feet take to the landscape almost effortlessly. True to our guide’s word, the ground is quite uneven and slippery. Mom stumbles, and instantly I catch her fall, perfectly poised on the ridge of a dip in the landscape. Farther on she trips again. Again, I compensate without thinking, immediately placing us solidly on the furrowed plane of the hill. “Don’t worry, this is what sighted guide is for,” I joke, grinning at her, “So that I can ensure you don’t lose your balance.”

We laugh. “You’re doing pretty well,” she admits and I wonder, should I tell her that I am fairly convinced that I know my way around?

I decide against it. Mom is pretty tired after all and I feel she might need a break from conversation: she’s been describing landscapes and standing stones to me all day. Besides, I don’t know where my brothers are, and if either of them overhear, I’ll be hard pressed for a decent explanation. In fact, I’ve yet to figure out an adequate explanation that satisfies myself, though I can feel myself teasing out the story from my bones, as if patiently completing a one thousand piece puzzle.

Just before we crest the top of the hill, it is plain to me that I do in fact have some sort of instinctual memory of the place. Toward the top is a very steep portion, and forgetting mom’s fatigue, I bound up the steep incline like a dear in the dark, slowing down only because I am still holding onto mom’s arm, and I can’t as well drag her with me.

I want, so badly want, to run, to race up the rest of the hill, then race down again, several times, until I’ve exhausted myself. But I don’t have Allegro or my cane with me, and I can’t run with a cane anyway, doing so is the equivalent of sprinting with a big stick, and that has other potentially hazardous consequences (usually for other people.)

So I do the next best thing, what I have always done when I long to be able to move gracefully in a world that doesn’t allow that without vision: I take a moment and imagine, in vivid sensory detail, what it would be like to move fast on my own. Then I let go of the desire. I’ve done all I can with it.

Mounds within mounds. Age packed onto age. Standing atop it all at the summit, where everyone with the eyes for it are looking out over three fourths of the whole country, history sings to me from far beyond who I was, far before who I am now. As I stand, the energy of this place captivates me, courses through me, a raw reverberation of remembrances. I am centered in their radiance. As if a tree, rooted, I pull up a current of change that seems to seap out of the ground through the soles of my shoes, traveling like sap through a tree trunk, until I am not sure where the soul of the land ends and my spirit begins. That is when I remember.

A Myth Retold

I will tell you of one among many origins of the story of Niamh, eyes like pearls, sea green, spun from the land of the young, that world which rendered our anguish and fight for survival well met in a peace that passes the understanding of mortal minds. I will tell you of the future time beyond my time when our tale was woven from tattered threads of what was left, fragments of tapestries of past to present, those same sung songs spilled inky black on page, to form the bounded shapes of words which history horded for itself and refused to relinquish completely to a culture we would neither recognize nor survive, had any of us really found ourselves transported, being all that we are, to that future time all of a sudden.

Long before the loamy clay of our sacred land was covered in the smog of exhaust from cars and the blasts from train horns and spotted with sprawling malls, paved with pebbles mixed with tar to muffle the mighty heartbeat of the earth, long before tales of a new god of the sky who tamed the wild hearts of those who dared be their own masters, the landscape breathed clean and clear, and the veil between the worlds came as near as the waves are to the shore. It was that a person could reach through the mist between in either direction, so that each could wander there, or here, and such journeys were to some extent expected, and understood.

It was on such a journey that she Manannán’s daughter, sea born, radiant bright, bridged from shore to shore the two worlds by her love and called out a name of an age, through which ran our wild ones in the flash of a moment, so that the fierce and fragile lessons in our living of it might withstand the test of time. For there was nothing then forgotten, and the tide had yet to turn.

And as Taliesin crossed the sea like a wise salmon to cradle the land in the soul’s own songs, so too would I, Oisín, one mortal soul, a representative of a passing age, forge at the turning of every opposite a steadfast bond between my world and hers of the golden hair, land and sea, heart and will, man and woman, time and eternity. For my name does not matter, and could have been any name, any one. I am the centuries and the song, I am the bones shaped from the marrow of time, enthralled with the breathtaking beauty of every world.

As Rhiannon speeds her horse across the sky to guide the sun, uniting the middle world with the land of stars, so does Niamh speed her white mare over the clouds of billowing sea, her golden tresses trailing behind her, whipped by the wind, leading the cycles of light that brighten the way between ending and becoming. It was said that the earth heard her calling, and in the fog I heard whispered my own name, and there I was leaping up behind her, the child of sea itself, and we thought we could stride together across centuries, and see the gaps between our worlds disappear.

But many people began to turn their eyes away from the rocks and the trees, and the sea and the sky, stranded where they used to belong, unsure whether home lay in the land or the heavens. They lost track of the way their footsteps matched the rhythm of the seasons, and forgot how to move lightly across the land, forgot that the earth held them in her arms and could provide all they needed if only they had respect, could remember who they are. And the more that was forgotten of the old ways, the harder it became to hold another from another world, and I, who was of the physical world, built from it, born from it, knew that soon the time would come, when not I, nor anyone after me, would walk between the worlds unaided, as sure as I knew waves could never break without a sea strand.

Of the love that Niamh and I shared, a bond between worlds, it would not survive such a separation. Nothing, no one can. Had we but known we would soon be separated, love torn from love, not even to have a glimpse of one another’s faces across the wasteland of the forgotten, would we have done any differently? Who among us in the midst of living out loud their majestic, wondrous spark of being, could honestly predict the keening of souls parted from their origins, ignorant during life of that truth of rebirth that quells the fear of death and loss.

And afterward, when my story was told, pulled into the generations where saints saved all but the gods, it was said I died an ancient one, aged by more than two hundred years since I crossed over. It was the age itself that died, that which was carried by the people of my time, our beliefs, our ways, unintelligible to some, threatening to others.

Now the landscape was blind, it no longer kept watch quietly in the night like a mother for her children. No more was earth dynamic and alive but inanimate, decreed so by the new god believed to have dominion over the earth, and later generations adopted this sense of power for themselves. The hills were just hills, and the pool beneath the nine hazel trees no longer held the same mystery to those who passed it by.

It is from our sorrows, not our joys, that the story is usually told. But now, the tide turns again. Again I travel past the ninth wave, passed the reckoning of the spinners of dreams, through the watery caves of the unborn, and the last current of change carries us toward the dawn on the horizon ahead.

Within each of us stands the door of the otherworld, the only wild frontier left to dare, hidden in the landscape of bone, the last undying love out of whose arms we cannot be borne away or uprooted and torn, or undone like the ruins of the ancestors’ dwelling places. Up to each of us, too, to gather the fragile memories, and piece by piece, gently, carefully, fervently, bridge a new way, until the worlds are brought together whole. Then take up again the threads, child of the land and sea and stars, for once more our worlds are merging, and a new story must be told, with which to sunder separation, overrunning its torrents of terror like a landscape finally left to flourish in its own way, wild and unruly, untamed, unforgotten, cherished and shining, a song like the one not sung for over a thousand years, the chords rewandered, the words rewoven, shimmering through a life you spin of many moments into the future, to live full out and make your own.
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This was, at least initially, inspired by Damh the Bard’s song, “Iron From Stone,” though the song is about a totally different story.
Iron From Stone Lyrics by Damh the Bard