When Saint Patrick came to Ireland with his sick new faith, it is recorded that he set about destroying all of the pagan idols. Chief among these was that of Crom Cruaich. This was a stone idol, encased in gold, surrounded by a circle of twelve other stone idols that stood on the plain of Magh Slecht in County Cavan. It was with Crom Cruaich that Saint Patrick engaged in a theological battle for supremacy. Despite being referred to as the "chief idol" in Ireland, worshipped right up until the coming of Saint Patrick, there is, in fact, little information recorded about this mysterious figure and his cult or his followers.
Certainly he does not appear in any of the legendary sagas. The main references that we have are to be found in Keating's History of Ireland, the Medieval manuscript of the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick, the Dindsenchus (place lore of Ireland) and Leabhar Laignech, the twelfth century Book of Leinster. None of these sources portray the idol in a very favorable light; in fact, it is quite striking to note the rhetoric used in all cases to describe the horrors of sacrifice that were allegedly carried out in his name:
Here used to be a high idol with many fights which was named the
Crom Cruaichlt made every tribe to be without peace.
To him without glory, they would kill their piteous, wretched offspring
with much wailing and peril to pour their blood around Crom Cruaich
I would like to offer some of my own interpretations as to who Crom Cruaich was, in the hope of clearing away some of the mystery that surrounds Crom, and to ascertain whether he really was the bad ogre he is made out to be!
Some of the most important clues to the identity of this unknown idol are to be found in his name. He is usually referred to as Crom Cruaich. Crom means bent or crooked; cruaich means a stack, heap or mound of some kind that has been artificially constructed (as opposed to a natural knoll or hill).
D'Arbois suggests an alternative for cruaich as "bloody," derived from the meaning blood. Hence he argues that Crom Cruaich means the "bloody crescent.” I am not convinced of his argument, but 1 do not entirely dismiss it given the nature of Crom; the word cruaich, might however, have been chosen as a deliberate pun to form an association between this god of the mound and the bloody rites that were supposedly carried out, thus helping to discredit his worship even further.
You may be wondering why this idol is referred to as Crom the Crooked One. It is said that he got this name after being dealt a magical blow by St Patrick, causing the stone idol to bend over towards the west, as if ready to topple. There is also quite possibly another association here, the misshapen beings of Irish mythology. Here is how the tale is told in the Tripartite Life:
"Thereafter went Patrick over the water to Mag Slecht, a place
wherein was the chief idol of Ireland, to wit, Crom Cruaich, covered
with gold and silver, and twelve other idols about it, covered in brass.
When Patrick saw the idol from the water....he raised his hand to put
Jesus' crazier upon it and did not reach it, but it bowed westwards to
turn on its right side... and the earth swallowed the twelve other images
as far as their heads...."
The symbolism of the earth swallowing up the stones is interesting, and I will be returning to this later.
There is, however, another meaning for crom, which is quite different: It also means a circle, while cromleac means an ancient standing stone. On Magh Slecht there were twelve such cromleacs, three groups of four, arranged in a circle, with the central thirteenth cromleac representing Crom himself.
The meaning of Magh Slecht is also interesting. Magh is a plain. Slecht comes from the Old Irish slechtaim, meaning to prostrate, to go on your knees.
Hence it is referred to as the Plain of Adoration.
The idol is also referred to in the Book of Leinster as crin, or withered: "He was their god, the withered Crom with many mists.” Crin refers to the withering and decay of vegetation at the beginning of winter, and also possibly to the powers of blight, which were greatly feared. It is recorded that tributes were paid to the Fomorians to avert blight on the crops.
The idea of halt, or stooping, also conveys the image of old age, something ancient, something with great knowledge or wisdom perhaps? It is interesting that crin (Old Irish) is very close to crinda meaning wise or prudent.
The Crooked One also reminds me of the folktale of Am Figheadair Crotach (The Hunchbacked Weaver) which is well known throughout both Ireland and Scotland. It tells of how two hunchbacks each in turn go to the fairy mound, and the first one simply sits down to rest there, hears the faeries singing, and likes it so much that he sings along with than, adding a little of his own at the end. The faeries are so pleased at this, that they rewarded him by removing the hunch from his back. Meanwhile, the second hunchback, on hearing this, decided that he too would go to the mound and demand that the faeries do the same for him. However, when he heard their singing he only grew irritated at them, and the ending that he gave the tune displeased the faeries greatly. Instead of removing his hunch, they gave him the one that had been taken off the first. So, for his lack of due respect, he ended up in a far worse state than before!
Such tales illustrate the duality inherent in the natural world and the elements, the duality of constructive and destructive forces. The powers of growth in the summer give way to the powers of decay in the winter. This duality can be seen in the battle between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomoire, and in many other Indo-European religious mythologies.
It should come as no surprise to find this same symbolic duality being re-enacted in the battle for supremacy between Crom Cruaich and Saint Patrick, between the pagan and Christian religion. It was easy for the early Christians to see their first saints as engaging war on the 'dark forces'. If the representations of these forces could be portrayed in negative terms, so much the better. It would seem that Crom provided a perfect scapegoat.
Ronald Black notes a game of combat from the Isle of Barra known as Crom an Fhasaich (Crom of the Wilderness) which was printed in Tocher 28.
The game involves a contest of both wit and wrestling between two boys. The first would question 'Crom* saying: "Failt ort fhein a Chrom an Fhasaich, co as 'n do choisich thu an di- ugh?”
(Greetings to you, Crom of the Wilderness, where have you walked from today?).
Crom replies: "Choisich mi bho m' fhonn bho m* fhearann 's bho m’ fhasaich fhein"
(I have walked from my own territory and land and wilderness)
"De chuir fonn is fearann is fasach agadsa mise gun fhonn, gun fhearann, gun fhasach?"
(How did you get territory and land and wilderness, when I am without territory, and land and wilderness?)
Crom goes on to say that it was by his own toughness and swiftness and strength that he got it, to which the boy offers a challenge to put it to the test, and the wrestling would start.
Yet Crom also has another name - Ceann Cruaich, meaning the Head or Chief of the mound. Its equivalent in Welsh is Pen Crug (or Penn Cruc, the earlier version). The bead* would seem to be a title denoting authority and leadership and is probably connected with the cult of
mounds and hills as sacred places, associated with the ancestors and with the sidhe. Such
sidhe mounds were regarded as entrances to the Celtic other world lands, magical lands of perpetual youth, feasting and happiness. This is a far cry from the picture we are presented with in the ancient poems of Crom Cruaich.
In Wales, the gorsed was a gathering place on the top of sacred mounds or high places for the giving of judgements. The gorsed of Arberth, in South Wales, is mentioned in the ancient sagas of the Mabinogi. It is said that no-one ever ascended the hill without either
receiving wounds, or seeing a miracle, another reference to the duality of positive and negative found in mythology. The gorsed was held in the open air, around a circle of stones, with a larger stone in the mid- dle. The image of Crom and his stone idols comes to mind once again. This ancient tradition of gathering on hill summits was carried on well into Christian times, with Parliament hills or Law hills to be found all over Scotland. On the Isle of Man the Manx parliament still assembles every midsummer on Tynwald hill, to read out the laws of the land to the people. In Ireland, thousands of pilgrims climb to the summit of Croagh Padraig in Co. Mayo every year, out of respect for their saint.
In the poem from the Book of Leinster, we are told that:
” Since the rule of Herimon, the noble man of graceThere was worshipping
of stones Until the coming of good Patrick of Macha”
Folklore has much to say about this "worshipping of stones" and this
is a huge subject in its own right. Mention is mack in the Brehon
Laws of ‘Ailche Adhartha’ or the Stones of Adoration. What I am
really interested inhere is the mention of Herimon. His name is usually
written as Eremon, and he was one of the first sons of Mil who
came to Ireland, and took the kingship of the land thereafter. The fifth
Milesian king in succession from Eremon was Tigheammas (whose
name means lord' or 'noble*) who, we are told, was responsible for
introducing the worship of Crom Cruaich on Magh SlechL He was
also responsible, according to legend, for the first gold mining in
Ireland - the very metal that the stone idol of Crom was encased in.
Tigheammas is said to have perished along with three quarters of his
people while worshipping this idol at Samhain:
"To him noble Gaels would prostrate themselves...” and later
"...they beat their palms, they pounded their bodies wailing to the
demon who enslaved them they shed falling showers of tears...”
This all sounds rather exaggerated for effect. We are not told how this 'demon' enslaved them, or why these worshippers should undergo such violent acts of self mutilation. What we are told is that it was the 'noble' Gaels that worshipped here, in other words, those with free status, those who held the Nemed under Brehon law, those upper echelons of society who were admitted to the public ceremonies held by the druids. These were no mere peasant farmers, but noblemen and women, and kings along with them. Crom certainly had quite an aristocratic following!
We are also told, in another part of the poem, the reasons for the prostration, and the offering of the first bom as tribute:
"Milk and com They would ask from him speedily in return for one
third of their healthy issue great was the horror and the scare of him."
The Nemedians were forced to offer such a tribute to the Fomorians,
and so too were the De Dananns. This would suggest that the
Fomorian gods were gods of fertility and of agriculture, to whom
appeasement had to be made so that they would continue to provide the
sustenance of the harvesL Popular folk belief still retains the idea of
leaving offerings out to the daoine maith, the good folk or sidhe, to
prevent them stealing the goodness of the milk. Another poem (4) illustrates
the more beneficent aspects of Crom Cruaich, as an earth fertility deity:
Mise a chothaxonn an gas, an phreamh A bheathaionn a bhfasann ar
talamh Ormsa ni thagann aon mheath Is mean an dias throm, an gheag
aibidh (It is I who nourish the shoot, the root Who feed all that grows
from the earth I suffer no decay f am the heavy ear of com, the ripe
Another verse points to further links with the earth, somewhat similar to the Dagda or Dis Pater, an ancestral god that dwells deep within the earth:
Nilim guagach, taim seasmhach Chomh leanunach le deilbh na re
Is me bithbhiogadh na talun Ala lonnailhe go doimhin sa chre.
(I do not vacillate, I am steadfast As faithful as the shape of the moon
I am the eternal trembling of the earth Deeply lodged in the clay).
All this points to Crom Cruaich being a Fomorian deity, connected with the earth and worshipped at the mounds of the ancestors. He was also a god of agriculture and fertility, to whom tributes were paid. I find it hard to imagine that this idol would have the following of the people if they had to sacrifice their first bom children. It is more probable that this involved some sacrifice or ritual killing of livestock, for the purposes of a public feast in which everyone would partake.
If Crom Cruaich was, in fact, a Fomorian deity in origin, why was he worshipped by the Milesian nobles? My own theoiy on this is that he was such a popular deity, with such a hold over the pre-Milesian peoples of Ireland, that his worship could not possibly be stamped out
Instead, the Milesians simply absorbed him into their own pantheon, and at the same time usurped his site as their own, with their own druids taking power and control over the ceremonial proceedings.
We can recall that after the battle with Saint Patrick, the twelve stone idols were said to have been swallowed up by the earth, as far as their heads. I feel this is more than simply a poetic description for the site falling into ruin and abandon. There is the connection between the earth and the reverence for sacred mounds as dwelling places of the ancestors, who are themselves guardians of the land, responsible for its fertility and the provision of food.
The symbolism may go even deeper than this. The swearing of an oath would be put to the test by something like: "If I swear false, may the seas rise up, may the sky fall on my head, may the earth swallow me up." Clearly, being swallowed up by the earth was something that filled any Celt with dread. If the earth had swallowed up Crom Cruaich and his idols, that might have been the end of it. And yet, the earth did not cover them completely, but left the heads, the most important part, exposed; the part which denotes authority, rulership, chieftainship - from which Cenn Cruaich, the Head of the Mound, takes his name, ami from which, "by hook or by crook" he will not be forgotten!