The Book of the Black Cow
Aosdan Mythology of the 2nd Aeon
by Maerista Lorneau in Dark Ages
For Etienne, Twila and Raeven True friends indeed
It has long seemed surprising to me that a part of our history which plays such a large part in our collective consciousness has been so little written about. I speak of course of the great Aosdan civilisation which was lost and rediscovered and lost again.
Until recently, our entire knowledge of Aosda has come via the oral tradition of the descendents of the Tuatha Dé Danaan (who found the Aosdan civilisation already in ruins when they arrived in Temuair from the North), and from the writings of Shamshiel, who shocked us all with his descriptions of the Aosdan attempts to control Dreamspace.
But Shamshiel lived and wrote of the time of the ending of the second Aeon and the beginning of the third. What of the period before this? What was life like for the Aosdans in the around the 10000th Grinneal?
During my last visit to our wonderful Library in Loures, I found Blaise in a state of near hysterical delight. During the recent tunneling in the Pravat Caves under the mountains between Mileth and Piet, a bound vellum of blackened cow hide was discovered and retrieved for Loures! Upon the skins are written what appears to be a poetic epic concerning the Aosdan discovery of the Earth-Sea gods. We have named this manuscript the Book of the Black Cow. It seems likely that this is the earliest Aosdan writing as yet discovered. Using their arts, our wizards have dated it at around 21000 years old - near the end of the 2nd Aeon. What magick could have preserved it this long! Did the gods always mean for it to be discovered now?
Blaise and I spent long hours attempting various translations of the texts, comparing and referencing unknown words with the writings of Shamshiel. I present here only a portion of the epic told within, which appears to concern events around the 10500th Grinneal. We cannot know of course whether this story is true or a traditionally exaggerated bardic tale of heroes. In many ways, it doesn't matter. We can still learn so much about the time and civilisation in which the author must have lived.
I present to you an epic of the Aosdan discovery of the Earth-Sea gods. May it bring wisdom. (This humble student's notes on the story are offered in italics where deemed appropriate)
The Joining of Breo and Bres
In the time of the seven kings of Aosda, Elathan (the eldest of the seven) saw that his power was beginning to wane and he feared for the future of himself and for his son, who was called Bres. He therefore called Bres to himself and set upon him a geas, that he should travel to the north to seek out the aid of the Mysteries of the Unspeakable Name [this appears to be a euphemism for Kadath]. Bres was greatly troubled, for he knew that many who had gone to the north had returned much changed in spirit, although it was undeniable that their powers had grown strong.
So Bres asked of his father that he might take one of Elathan's two silver spears, which never missed their target, and his golden sword, which no armour could withstand. "For if I cannot gain their power for myself, I shall surely destroy them," he said. Elathan felt saddened at his son's fierceness, for he himself was a man of peaceful means who would never raise arms against another unless his own life were threatened. But in the end he agreed to Bres' request, and gave him the spear and the sword, and Bres departed that same day, guided by a star of destiny.
In time, Bres came upon a village which nestled between two great hills. There he rested for two days and two nights. On the third day a young woman, dressed in raimant of blazing red and orange and secured with broaches of gold, came to him and declared that it had been prophesied that they would marry and always be together from this day on. Bres was greatly annoyed by this and ordered his servants to send the woman away, but she raised her arms and flaming arrows came forth from her to prevent any from getting close.
Seeing this, Bres addressed the woman, demanding to know her name. "My name is Breo Saighead," she answered [meaning 'Fiery Arrow or Power']. "Your name is apt my lady," Bres replied, "But unless you have some means to affect my mind, you will not see me again after this day."
Still Breo did not move from her position. "Then, sir, I propose a wager, " she began. "Bring forth ten bottles of fine wine and place them on that table there. If one of my arrows can shoot through all ten, you must agree to marry me. If not, then I will agree to be your servant for a hundred years from this day."
Bres considered the wager and realised that having such a person as Breo as his servant would be of great use to him. He did not, however, intend for the contest to be fair. When the wine arrived, instead of placing them on the table in a straight line, as Breo had implied, he spread them about, making it impossible for a single arrow to pass through all.
Breo Saighead looked anguished at this, but said nothing, instead removing her cloak and setting it beside her on the floor. Her true beauty thus revealed, Bres gasped in astonishment and immediately regretted making the task so difficult. He need not have worried though, for as Breo released the powers of fire at the bottles upon the table, it was clear he had underestimated her. The bolts of fire did change direction as they passed through each bottle, fire and wine mixing to create the effect of a thunderstorm in miniature.
Bres was so impressed with her that he gave oath to her there and then, and they were married on the following day in front of all the peoples of that village. And so from that day that place has been known as Comhal ["joining together"].
The Corruption of Bres
With Breo at his side to aid and comfort him, Bres made swift progress towards the Unspeakable Ones. Nothing could stand before the two of them; nothing mortal at least. But the dark tendrils of the Mysteries followed them around and about, tempting their minds with feats of even greater glory, such that they would rule all the land, if only they listened to the Dreams...
Breo, who had her own dreams and her own flame of inspiration, was unaffected at first, but Bres was immediately lost to the tempations of ruling the seven kingdoms for and by himself. In the night, when Breo lay with Bres and comforted him, he would begin to mutter incoherently to himself concerning the pleasures of inflicting pain and death upon his enemies.
Breo countered the effects with her own tales of hearth and home, or kindness and generosity, and love of friendship and romance. But over time the darkness weakened even her, and she withdrew into herself, to preserve her own sanity.
At last then, the darkness of the Mysteries of the North filled the mind of Bres, son of Elathan, and made with him a bargain. They promised him that if he did as they desired, no-one would ever again stand before his gaze and live. "And what would the payment be for this boon?" Bres asked of the voices within his mind. "A tiny thing," came the reply. "The soul of your wife, Breo Saighead."
Immediately, Bres in his madness saw that this was but a small price to pay for the chance to mould the whole land in his own image, and drawing his father's sword he attempted to smite his astonished lover who stood at his side. Breo, distracted as she was by the torment in her own mind, managed to step to one side and avoid the blow. Calling her favoured element to her aid, she raised a wall of fire between herself and her deranged husband. But Bres threw the silver spear through the fire, and true to its nature it found the heart of Breo Saighead and she fell into a deep slumber, a look of pain so terrible on her face that none who saw it could ever have known happiness thereafter.
Then did some sanity return briefly to Bres, and he became aware of what he had done and who he had become. A terrible rage consumed him, and raising the golden sword aloft he lashed at the darkness all about him. For seven days he fought in that place, but not once did the great sword make contact with an enemy - for the darkness was all within his mind and without corporeal form. Eventually he collapsed in exhaustion, and as he slept, the darkness entered him and touched his soul and his body. His limbs grew to twice their previous size and his arms doubled in number, and poison seeped into his eyesockets turning them such a baleful green that any who looked upon him would be petrified instantly.
The bargain complete, the dark Mysteries of the Unspeakable Name sent Bres away back to his homeland to conquer, rule and destroy it as he saw fit.
Unnoticed by the Darkness, however, Manannan mac Lir [Manannan Son of the Sea] had secretly taken the form of a wolf and with strong enchantments around himself, entered the place where Breo lay sleeping, sore wounded. It is said that Manannan was not of Aosda but a god of another magickal race, and had mysterious powers that he alone could call upon. Thus did he avoid the same fate as Bres. But he knew that eventually, if nothing was done, this Evil would reach his land too. And so he dragged Breo from that terrible place, and carried her away with him, still sleeping, to the place under the sea which is known as Mag Mell [meaning "Plain of Happiness"].
The Fall of Elathan
The monster that had been Bres arrived back home and immediately called out his father to do battle, thinking to take his kingship first before uniting all under his rule. But Manannan had called to Elathan already in a dream and warned him in advance of what had befallen Bres, and told him of that which Bres intended to do. Elathan was consumed with grief at what had transpired as a result of his desire for more power for his kingdom, and rode out to meet Bres alone, thinking to convince his son to set aside the darkness.
Seeing his Lord acting so rashly, Elathan's chief warrior, Setanta, took with him his finest company and rode swiftly beyond Elathan, to fall upon Bres and kill him. But the monster hewed around himself with four arms, each twice the length of a normal man. He wielded the golden sword of his father and the silver spear also, and two other swords which flashed in the sun. And wherever his dread gaze fell, men were petrified and became unable to move. Barely three of Setanta's company escaped with their lives. For this reason, from that day forth, Bres became known as Balor [meaning "of the many blows"].
Elathan arrived at that place upon his chariot to find Balor standing amid the bodies of Setanta's men, roaring a challenge to any who might hear him. Elathan called to his son to parley, but Balor turned his terrible gaze upon him, and the king became as stone. Then Setanta stood up from the bushes where he had concealed himself, and sang a trio of pure notes. Immediately the air was heavy with magick, and Elathan's golden sword flew from Balor's hand to Setanta's - for he had sung the Song of the Sword, which Elathan had taught him for such a moment as this.
Barely had Balor a chance to bring his other weapons to bear before Setanta had rushed forward under his defence, and chopped off one of the monster's arms. Even then, as the arm lay on the floor, it thrashed about, and Setanta was force to leap to one side to save himself. Then did Setanta fling a rock at Balor. It flew straight and true and struck Balor in the left eye, closing it forever. But Balor was far from defeated, and so Setanta carried Elathan's body to his chariot, and rode swiftly to the west, hoping to find safety. Balor's rage could always be heard as he pursued them, never far behind.
... "island-valley of Avilion; Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard-lawns And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea"
Tennyson: Idylls of the King: The Passing of Authur
Soon Setanta did reach the sea and was unable to travel further, so he stepped out of the chariot and turned to face his pursuer one last time. Sure enough, Balor quickly came into view, still bleeding from his wounds, his enormous legs carrying him as swiftly as any horse.
Setanta looked about himself, but could see no escape. Suddenly a thunderous rush of sound seemed to grow from the very bowels of the sea behind him. A huge tidal wave rose up from the water's surface, and riding upon it were seven horses shining pure blinding white, and upon the horse called Splendid Mane sat Manannan mac Lir, dressed in plate armour of azure blue. Upon his head was a helmet adorned with two magick jewels, which shone as the sun.
So close to his domain, the power of this sea god was unsurpassed, and as the waves crashed over Setanta and Balor, they were taken below the sea to Mag Mell where Manannan ruled.[A note in the margin here indicates another name for this place: Hy-Breasail (Breasail's Island). Could this really be the same place as the wondrous Hy-Brasyl?] Once safely within these magick realms, the Dark Mysteries of the north could no longer touch Balor, and through the arts of Manannan his mind and body were restored. Balor's closed eye was opened and was no longer poisoned, but the other was beyond even the skill of the sea god, and so was his baleful eye kept shut lest it should destroy those around him.
Then did the fae queen Fand, wife of Manannan, come forth and by touching Elathan restored movement to his body. Setanta looked on in astonishment, for never had he seen one as fair as Fand, and he was lost in admiration for her.
Looking about himself, Elathan demanded to know what had transpired, and Manannan spoke to him. "Your civilisation is great oh king. But know that the poison of those of the Unspeakable Name will soon reach into the very heart of your lands and destroy you. The end of your people will come, do not doubt me."
Elathan looked grim, but nodded and said, "Such is clear to me, my lord. But surely something may be done?"
Manannan sighed deeply. "Alas there is no power in the earth, air or sea which can stand against this Darkness. But when the time comes I do offer you refuge here in my land so that some at least of your people may survive to rebuild your civilisation. I promise you the Darkess will not be able to reach here so long as I live."
Then Setanta did interject, demanding to know what payment the sea god would extract for this service. Manannan turned to the young warrior and said, "You are wise to ask sir. But I ask little in return. Only that my own people, the People of Craft, might be allowed to share this land with you and help you rebuild your civilisation." [Surely a reference to the Tuatha Dé Danaan?]
This seemed acceptable to Elathan so he nodded, "Then let it be so. May the praise of Manannan mac Lir go forth across our lands from this time." And so did the worship of another of the Earth-Sea gods grow strongly in Aosda.
Shortly thereafter, Elathan the king and his chief warrior Setanta departed from Mag Mell for their homeland. Something had passed between Setanta and Fand the fae queen, but he would not speak of it.
Balor, restored now completely to sanity, chose to keep his new name, lest he forget the destruction his weakness had caused. He was about to depart the land under the sea [Is this metaphorical, or literal? If this is indeed Hy-Brasyl, did it always reside beneath the waves? Or is the word "Hy" meaning "Island" more appropriate? Oral tradition speaks of the 'rise' and 'fall' of Hy-Brasyl. Perhaps that land literally rose from beneath the waves for a time?] when Manannan came to him and asked him to wait a moment. Then from between two great trees of oak strode forth Breo Saighead, resplendent in clothes of orange, red, and now with a touch of blue also. Balor cried in delight as his love was restored to him, and they embraced for a full day, not daring to release each other lest they be stolen apart once more.
"Come," said Balor, "Let us return to our land." But Breo looked sadly upon him. "I cannot my love. The magick that saved me was powerful indeed, but should I ever leave this place, I shall surely die." Balor replied, "Then shall I always stay here with you."
And so it was that Breo Saighead and Balor of the baleful eye were lost to Aosda. But it is said that their spirits roam the land even now, guiding and helping the people wherever they be welcomed.
[Could this indicate a possible beginning for the gods of Temuair? Indeed, Breo's nature as source of fire, inspiration and creativity does match very well with that of Deoch - and a change of gender is not unusual in our myths. And what if the warrior Setanta later returned to Mag Mell and became the one we know as Ceannlaidir? Does this shed any light on who the "seven beings that led the spirits of Aosda to Temuair" were, as written in our accepted histories? Could it be that ancient powers of Aosda are working among us even now to restore the damage they caused by their fascination with Kadath?]
Priestess of Deoch, 3rd Circle.
Summer, Deoch 7.