The meaning for the name Crom is "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 sléchtaim, meaning to prostrate, to go on your knees. Hence it is referred to as the Plain of Adoration.
The idol is 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 bent, 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.
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 'head' 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 otherworld 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 middle. 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 grace
There 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 made in the Brehon Laws of Ailche Adhartha or the Stones of Adoration. What I am really interested in here 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 Tighearnmas (whose name means 'lord' or 'noble') who, we are told, was responsible for introducing the worship of Crom Cruaich on Magh Slecht. 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. Tighearnmas 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... 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 born as tribute:
Milk and corn
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 harvest. 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 illustrates the more beneficent aspects of Crom Cruaich, as an earth fertility deity:
Mise a chothaíonn an gas, an
A bheathaíonn a bhfásann ar talamh
Ormsa ní thagann aon mheath
Is méan an dias throm, an ghéag aibidh
(It is I who nourish the shoot, the root
Who feed all that grows from the earth
I suffer no decay
I am the heavy ear of corn, the ripe branch).
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:
Nílim guagach, táim seasmhach
Chomh leanúnach le deilbh na ré
Is mé bithbhíogadh na talún
Atá lonnaithe go doimhin sa chré.
(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 born 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 theory 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, and from which, by hook or by crook he will not be forgotten!
in Squires, p.38
(2) Quoted in Rhys, p.200
(3) 'Black Humphy of the Hill'. The West Highland Free Press, 17 April 1992.
(4) From 'Tine Chnamh' by Liam O Muirthile, BAC 1984 (Translations provided here by Dennis King)
J.A. (1911) The Religion of the Ancient Celts
Rhys, J. (1898) The Hibbert Lectures
Squires, C. (1975) Celtic Myth and Legend
Link to Dalriada Archives - 1995 Lorraine MacDonald [Author]
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