Session 78: Ystafell 6
Medieval Irish religious/astronomical texts

Chair: Kelly Fitzgerald

Making wildmen and faking werewolves: St(s). Rónán (and Rumon) in Ireland and Brittany (and Cornwall)

Phillip Bernhardt-House
Skagit Valley College

Two saints called Rónán are known from both Irish and (possibly pseudo-Irish) Breton tradition, with very little connecting them other than their shared names.  A third saint found in Cornish tradition is called Rumon, who is fundamentally the same in his extant hagiography as the Breton St. Rónán. This Breton Rónán and Rumon share an attribution that each was accused of being a werewolf after doing miracles involving wolves, but each of them proved they were not. The Irish St. Rónán dealt with in the present case is most famous for appearing in the medieval tale Buile Shuibhne, cursing Suibhne the king to become a geilt (“wildman”) after the king offends the saint. Across a variety of traditions, werewolves and wildmen share certain characteristics, and can perhaps be imagined (in at least some of their manifestations) as two potential ends of a spectrum involving human interaction with “battle-spirits,” in which these spirits either inspire battle fury (werewolves) or put people to flight to such an extent that it changes their mental state and even their nature (wildmen). But, what might these saints with similar names have which might connect them to either of these phenomena beyond the occurrence of these separate motifs in their literary appearances? Building upon Daniel F. Melia’s study “The Grande Troménie at Locronan: A Major Breton Lughnasa Celebration,” what can be demonstrated is that the dating of both the Irish and the Breton Rónán’s feast-days also connect with larger traditions related to canid-connected astrological events around the star Sirius and its related constellations.

The Sun illusion in a medieval Irish astronomical tract

Helen Elizabeth Ross
University of Stirling

The sun (or moon) illusion refers to the apparent enlargement of celestial bodies when near the horizon compared to higher in the sky, despite their constant image size. Many classical authors incorrectly ascribed the illusion to atmospheric refraction.  Other authors realised that it was a perceptual phenomenon, and proposed explanations based on apparent distance, relative size or the angle of regard. The refraction explanation persists in folk science.

The Irish Astronomical Tract is a 14C-15C Gaelic document, based mainly on a Latin translation of the Jewish astrologer Messahala (8C-9C ). The Irish text has been translated into English by Power (1914) and Williams (2002). The passage about the sun illusion occurs in chapter 7, entitled 'The rotundity of the earth and the knowledge of day and night'. Here the author denies that the change in size is caused by a change in the sun’s distance, and instead ascribes it to magnification by atmospheric vapours, likening it to the bending of light when looking from air to water or through glass spectacles. This section does not occur in the Latin version of Messahala. The Irish author may have based the vapour account on Aristotle, Ptolemy or Cleomedes. He seems to have been unaware of alternative perceptual explanations offered by these and other authors. The Tract does not tell us much about the state of late medieval Irish science, except that Irish scholars remained in touch with some aspects of mainstream science.

The external soul: waifs and strays in Irish tradition

Henar Velasco-López
Universidad de Salamanca

Several Irish stories display echoes of the ancient idea of an external soul. Analysis of variants, comparison between them combined with consideration of parallels in other cultures may help to deepen our understanding of the function and consequences of having an external soul. This study, therefore, can throw some light on different concepts: invulnerability, coeval, taboos and special circumstances relating to the death of heroes. All these ideas are crucial in order to reach a fuller comprehension of some Irish tales concerning Cú Raoi, Diarmaid, Cú Chulainn or Tadhg.