on the 29th of September Michaelmas la fhéile Mícheal arrives. Just before this the equinox when the sun rises due east and sets due west, the night and day at equal measure directing the Milky way as it stretches across the sky, creating a giant cross. The Sun’s movement inscribes the line of balance across the sky dividing things into exactly two equal parts. A moment of poise and then onwards. It’s a very liminal astrological time (though not so recognised by the Gaels).
This date is an interesting counterpoint to La Fheil Cailleach in March, in Autumn we celebrate the male figure, that of the archangel Michael at La Fhéile Mícheal or Michaelmas or the autumn equinox. It’s a time of feasting, processions, fairs, elections and dancing celebrating horses, carrots, with a slaying of a lamb in the name of Archangel Michael.
The Autumn Equinox – and its significance
Before we dig deeper into some of the customs associated with this day it has to be pointed out that this is not a Gaelic festival of the quarter days. It is, however, significant for us personally and historically.
It was known as Michaelmas and ‘riding day’ in some of the Hebridean islands where, on this day, a great race was held called the Oda. It was also a time for elections of magistrates, burgh officers, provost’s etc. Accounts were also settled at this time. Michaelmas fairs were also held where folks would advertise their skills for employment in the following months. It’s the time the year is split between light and dark astronomically in equal measure. There are some scholars and practitioners who think that Lunastal celebrations were moved to this date. It is quite possible especially with it link to horses and its inherent male qualities but also perhaps a date in its own right. St Michael was a very popular figure which may account for its popularity.
Personally, I don’t think it’s any coincidence we have a day dedicated to the Caillech at the spring equinox after her time has passed and we have a festival for the Archangel Michael after the summer has passed and the male time is coming to an end. I speculate the Arch Angel Micheal has links to the figure of the Bodach/Mannanan Mac Lir, perhaps through some Christian reimagining of this figure.
The Bodach is a counterpoint found in the landscape opposite the Cailleach in many places. The Bodach links to the figure of Mannanan Mac Lir through the tales of the Eachtra Bodach an Chóta Lachtna – “the Oldman in the grey coat”. The link to the Bodach via the tales of the grey magician are further strengthened by the Traveller Tales of “The Old Grey Magician”. This is a discussion for another time and threads I hope to weave into another tale of the Bodach soon.
The link to Micheal/Bodach to the counterpoint in the spring is further strengthened and perhaps illustrated, by some of the dances performed at this time. One example of this is the dance of the “Carlin of the Milldust” which I discuss in some detail below.
In short, the question remains. Is this time related to other figures in Celtic prehistory given a Christian gloss in the form of Archangel Micheal? Is it a shift in the practices of the Lunastal Festival to another date as suggested by some scholars? Does its represent a recognition of the liminal time of year astronomically speaking? Or is there an older tale behind it all? There’s a lot to consider about this and how it may impact on your own practice. I explore some of these main themes below which might help give you some ideas and inspiration.
Searching for the Archangel Micheal in Michaelmas
Archangel Micheal was often depicted as a warrior trampling over a dragon and it’s claimed that he drove the rebellious hosts from heaven and the conqueror of all evil powers. Interestingly he is slightly reminiscent of Lugh overcoming Crom Cruaich in this regard. He was also associated with the sea and the weighing of souls. In the Hebrides, he was called “Brian Micheal”, “God Micheal”, the “warrior of courage” and Banks suggests he became something like the “Neptune figure” to the Gaels. He is the patron saint of the sea, of maritime lands, of boats and boatmen of horses and the horseman. Temples can be found on the beaches wherever Celts lived dedicated to him. His statue can be seen depicted with a three-cornered shield and trident riding a white horse in Ard Micheal in the south and in Uist in the north. This, of course, are all associations with Mannanan Mac Lir, the role of the Psychopomp, the horses and the sea.
There is also another connection to Mannan Mac Lir in the story from the Hebrides and the Sith/Sidhe. Arch Angel Micheal was said to be intrinsic in the creation of the fairies. When the host of Lucifer was pursuing Micheal, God ordered the contest should stop and everything stay where it was at that moment, so those rebellious angels that fell onto the earth or on the rocks or into the pit stayed there and those that were falling through the sky remained there and those that fell into the sea stopped there. Campbell corroborates this idea writing: “those that were driven out of paradise were in three divisions, one became the fairies of the land, one the blue men in the sea and one the nimble men (i.e. the merry dancers or the Northern Streamers) in the sky”. Interestingly, Manannan Mac Lir was said to be the one who divided the Sidhe mounds between the Tuatha De Dannan and oversaw that everyone had the places they wanted and space in the otherworld which is a related and no so dissimilar role.
St Micheal is also associated with justice, as a holy warrior, a vanquisher of Satan and evil, similarly to Lugh and others. Lugh, of course, was Manannan’s foster son. St Micheal is also associated with places that have had their folk deity or spirit displaced. As a vanquisher of evil this is no surprise so areas named after St Micheal and others usually have an older less appropriated and Christian association just below the surface.
Michaelmas festival time has a very large Horse focus, with races processions and blessing of them in the sea (similar to Lunsatal here in my opinion). I won’t go into too much detail about these processions but they were amazing to watch. Especially the races called the Oda where bets were made on the skill of horse riders, riding with no helmets, saddles and reigns. Though interesting to note, I thought I would focus on some of the stranger customs folks might not be aware of such as the emphasis on Carrots.
A curious custom to think of now was Carrot Sunday aroudn Michaelmas or Dòmhnach Curran in Gaelic. A small space is dug when the soil is hard in the shape of an equal sided triangle called Torcan which can be roughly translated as a cleft or sod. (it has links here to the sods of the riding of the marches fame) This Torcan is dug with a mattock (similar to a pitchfork) with three prongs. The Triangle you’ll notice is similar to the shield of Micheal and the mattock similar to his trident in his aspect as Saint of the sea. Perhaps it also represents the sacred three, who knows! So once this special hole is dug, which allows the women access to the roots of the Carrots they start gathering them whilst singing or intoning a rann (rune). Banks list one of these runes below:
“Cleft, fruitful, fruitful, fruitful,
Joy of carrots surpassing upon me.
Micheal the brave endowing me,
Bride the fair be aiding me
Progeny preeminent over every progeny
Progeny preeminent over every progeny
Progeny of my progeny.”
Should a woman find a forked carrot (her neighbours come round to admire her luck) and she sings:
“Fork, joyful, joyful, joyful etc. “
I wonder at the figure of a forked Carrot, is it because it so resembles a person and what might sit between those legs? The gathered carrots are tied up with three-ply scarlet thread and kept in a pit filled with sand until needed on Michaelmas day.
These carrots are presented by the ladies of the house to male visitors when they come and after the circuiting of the graveyards on horses with a similar rhyme. Given female to male always. And always with the same Rann around Progeny and prosperity.
Forgive me if I’m going for the straightforward relationship here but to me, this is all very reminiscent of fertility concerns. The carrot perhaps representing the phallus. I have a dirty mind, however, but it’s such a curious custom that all I can do is wonder about it. The rune sung is about fecundity and having the best children progeny one could have so to me it makes sense. If anyone else has any idea, I’d be happy to hear it!
The Michaelmas Lamb and the Struan.
The lamb is male without blemish which is slain on this day. Why a lamb? Well, the legend attests to Archangel Micheal, in the form of a bird, put his long bill into the mouth and down the throat of a lad, Lughnaidh (son of king Laoghaire, but notice the name LUGH-naidh, does this link to Lugh?) to remove food that he was choking on and so saved his life. The queen vowed to give a sheep out of her flock every year in honour of this act by Micheal to the poor in her district.
The Struan was made similar to a bannock but again ranns were sung over it for progeny and prosperity blessing the cake in its making and sacred woods used to cook it. There was a large Struan, known as a family Struan and smaller other ones made for each member of the family both living and dead and blessed through song individually. These smaller ones were usually triangle-shaped again mirroring the trinity significance and Micheals shield. Of course for this festival whisky was also involved and it was important to have a bottle in the house this day as it was for any wedding party. A sacrifice of the Struan was also made to the fire to the Donas (old hornie). I think this echoes back to a gift to the house spirit for protection and thanks now lost in a Christian gloss over as the folk devil. This is always traditional when giving any offerings I Scottish Folklore at festivals. There were parts saved for those in the other world.
Michaelmas Dancing – The Cailleach of the Milldust
Another fascinating custom, on the night of Michaelmas St Michaels day, a ball was held after all the Oda races and carrot giving had gone on. A place was chosen by the lead piper. Contributions were made to him if he was married to his family in forms of produce and grain. Extra pipers and fiddlers relieve each other through the night and any money made at the Oda races are spent at the ball so no one “retains the luck”. Carrots feature again, women carrying them around in their girdle bags. As they come in they say they have “the carrots, the treasure” singing lines such as “whoever he be that can win them from me” and the young men and young women exchange gifts.
Curious dances and curious scene would take place, some in the “characters of old”. Out of these character dances, one in particular, was performed called the Cailleach of the Mill Dust – Cailleach an Dudain that I think holds special significance. The two characters in the dance are a man and a woman. The man has a rod in his right hand which folk refer to as his “magic wand” (at least it’s not a carrot). The pair would dance around and around, gesticulating and posing before one another, crossing and re-crossing and exchanging places. The man flourishes the wand over himself and the women. As he touches the women she falls dead at his feet. He dances around her, bemoaning her, then lifts her head left hand to breathe upon it and touches it with is wand. As the limp hand now shows signs of life, the man rejoices and dances round the figure still lying on the floor. The right hand and both feet receive the same treatment in turn but the body remains inert. Till the man kneels over it and breathes into the mouth and touches the heart with his wand. The woman is now alive and alert and dances joyously with the man. Lots of other dances were performed, a lot now lost. I think it’s a great area to explore if you are looking to enhance your own practice in the area as these old dances hold some interesting ideas. (This is taken from Alexander Carmichael’s writings).
Some Final Thoughts
This one dance, in particular, is very interesting to me as it links the myth of St Michael, and the couple, of a man and women, engaged in a clear metaphor for death/rebirth about something and clearly pre-Christian to me, but what that represents we can only speculate. My interpretation is that it links the myths of St Michael at Michaelmas and this time of year to an older story. Perhaps to the figures of the Cailleach represented here as the old woman in the Milldust (such as the Cailleach doll from Lunsatal time) and the Bodach. She is the spirit in the grain being brought back to life here by the skill of her husband, the Bodach or the old grey magician. Both represented together on this feast day by Archangel Michael with his magic wand. It’s quite a leap to make from a dance mind you but an interesting one. How the carrots quite become involved in the stories is interesting. Maybe it’s their phallic connotations, but it does seem to signify relationships and fertility in some way. Who really knows for certain, but I find it such a curious custom. This would, however, colour the day with a focus on fertility and procreation above other things.
For us, Michaelmas simply a time to celebrate and give thanks to the Bodach, and associated outdoor activity, the last harvests, our male ancestors and summer. This lets us make way for the Cailleach and hunting times, winter, spirits and more home-based activity. There might even be carrot cake involved …