Celestial Gaels: Wandering Planets
In the ‘Life of Columba’ written by a succeeding abbot of Iona, Adhamhnán (the name ‘Eunán’ is the modern version), at the end of the 7th
century, a number of extensive voyages by monks are recorded, which could not have been made without the druids’ accurate
astronomical data. It was therefore in Columcille’s interest to preserve that body of knowledge, and as Adhamhnán records,
he conferred with Colmán Mac Echdach, thought to have been Columbanus, before the latter went to the Continent. The problem, however,
has been to find where it came to be preserved in Ireland. Howlett remarks of the Latin works he has studied,
Biblical writers often made important points implicitly, by relying upon readers’ knowledge of the unquoted context of
their quotations and allusions. ... Recognition of it [the context] allows us to recover some of the irony and wit in the
works of writers who have been misread previously ...
Perhaps here is one reason why important astronomical and navigational data which was certainly present in 5th century Ireland could not
be found in writings of the 6th and 7th centuries. James Carney in his ‘The Problem of St Patrick’ for example, relies on MacNeill before him
The matter of whether an Irish skin-covered boat could sail from Wexford to Britany in three days is one upon which
I have not succeeded in getting an authoritive opinion. On such voyages the ship would remain hove to at night.
The notion that experienced sailors would stop for the night out in the middle of the ocean when a multitude of the most accurate of
navigational markers are made available in the sky above them, must surely deserve the same reaction the druids gave the Roman Easter cycle.
There should hardly be little doubt that the necessary knowledge was preserved considering the voyages Adhamhnán describes, both in his
‘Life of Columba’ and ‘De Locis Sanctis’ (Meehan, DIAS 1983), the direct evidence of voyages to Iceland from 795 AD from the Irish
monk Dicuil writing at the court of Charlemange the Great in 825 AD (‘Liber de Mensura Orbis Terrae’, Tierney, DIAS 1967). Successors
to these celibate monks were still in Iceland when the Vikings first arrived in 860 AD, testifying to continuous traffic over the period. It may
also be worth mentioning that Thorfinn Karlsefni of the Vinland Sagas was descended on his mother’s side from Carroll, king of Ossry
(Co Kilkenny), and the Vikings found evidence of Irish monks in Vinland before them. Further Irish/Viking/Vinland material is available
in ‘The Vinland Map and Tartar Relation’ (Yale 1965) - putting aside the controversy over forgery or otherwise of that Map itself.
Beginning at the end of the 7th century these same Irish monks started to write down stories in Irish, in Ireland, which have now come
under the generic name of ‘Imramha’ (meaning ‘rowing about’), such as ‘The Voyage of Bran’ and ‘The Voyage of Maelduin’, which
are the most well known of many. In addition they also wrote of voyages in the lives of various saints, and by mythological characters.
These stories are marked by strange visions and remarkable events, and also of visits by the navigators to druids and/or known stone
monuments immediately prior to embarkation.
In the context of Columcille’s visit to Columbanus, or Colmán mac Echdach (i.e. Colmán son of the Horseman), just prior to the latter’s
travels, the miraculous securing of wheels (=‘ruth’ in Irish) comes to mind. Richard Sharpe’s translation (Penguin 1995) of the incident
goes as follows;
Once, when Columba spent a number of days in Ireland, travelling in the interests of the church, it was necessary for
him to mount a chariot, which he first blessed. It was already hitched up, but by some extraordinary oversight
the necessary linchpins had not been fitted into the slots for them at the ends of the axles. That day the
chariot had been driven by Colmán mac Echdach, a saintly man who had founded the monastery of Slanore.
Though shaken about by a whole days driving over a long distance, the wheels did not separate from the axle
shoulders, nor did they slacken even though they were secured by no linchpins. But it was the Grace of God
which alone preserved the saint so that the chariot in which he sat kept on a straight course, safely without hindrance.
Cogitosus (or ‘Fear-Egna’) records a very similar incident in the first Life of St Bridget, who had been reared by a druid, and Dicuil’s use
of a similar quote from Priscian will be shown later on. If we are open to the suggestion that astronomical knowledge is disguised in
some of these early writings, we could see these descriptions of incidents as analagies for an unfixed ‘pole through the universe’
which Ptolomey uses, quoting Timaeus, to describe the axis of the stars. This description is also used by St Augustine in a 9th century
manuscript formally belonging to the monastery of Reichenau which was written and glossed by an Irishman;
... cuius legibus rotantur poli, cursús suos sidera1 peragunt.
1inna þei file iteþ na ûeçt naiþndþeça iøé nime aûbeþtaþ and
... by whose polar rotating principle, they complete their own sidereal1 course
1the spaces that are between the seven planets, these are the heavens that are mentioned here
On another 9th century Irish manuscript in Carlsruhe of Bede’s astronomical portion of the text, ‘De Rerum Natura’,
De hinc inferius caelum non uniformi, sed multiplici motu solidauit
is glossed with,
iûé multiplex motuû inþiuø þetae inna aiþndþeøça contþaþium contþa ûé ý aþþiuø
this is the multiplex motion, the course it runs in it’s perceived opposite direction against itself, and their own
where the glossator clearly wants to distinguish between what is the apparent and what is the actual planetary orbit during the
phenomenon we now call their apparent ‘retrograde motion’. Like the wheels of Columcille’s chariot, the planets do not slacken, or
separate from the poles of their orbits, but always stay on their own course without any hindrance. As with the wheels on a
chariot’s single axle, there is only one pole in the solar system about which each of the planets’ single orbit rotates, and they are
not secured by a linchpin. This understanding of the universe conflicted with that of the Pythagoreans which was the convention
on the Continent at this time which had the planets departing to a different orbit to explain their apparent ‘retrograde motion’.
The Irish word for ‘the course’ is ‘in riuth’ which has the sense ‘the run’, and is often used in the circumnavigation tales describing
how sailors see Manannan Mac Lir approaching them, also in his chariot. Perhaps this allegory was the source for Columbanus’
affection for the wheel shaped precint at Les Fontaines des Salles dedicated to the god Taranis mentioned earlier. He would have
risked all had such a notion been suspected.
Cogitosus was the name given to the writer of Bridget’s Life in the 6th century. When Columcille was supposed to be driving in a
chariot with no linch-pins he travelling within 10 miles of the MasRuaidh district of Mágh Sleacht (Plain of Prostration) which had
come under the control of a man called ‘Fergna’, whom Mac Firbhisig says was named this by Columcille to mark a virtue as a
‘thoughtful man’, i.e. ‘fer-egna’, which has the same meaning as the name Cogitosus, and John O’Donovan’s ‘Vir Sapiens’.
The story of ‘How Diarmuid got his Love Spot’ in Lady Gregory’s ‘God’s and Fighting Men’ (1904) is translated from old Irish
manuscripts in the British Library. In the tale Diarmuid and his three Fianna comrades are out hunting, and about midnight they
find a small house with a light shining from it. The occupants are an old man, a young girl, a cat, and a wether tied up in one
corner. The old man feeds the four heroes, and during the meal the wether jumps up on the table. Each of the four wrestle in turn
with the wether to put him back in his place, but he overcomes each of them. Goll is the last of the four to try, and appears to
have greater success than the others at first, but he succumbs like his mates. The old man then instructs the cat to do what the
Fianna had failed to do, and the cat has no difficulty in succeeding. The old man compliments Goll above his three fellows and says,
‘The strength of the world is in the wether, but death will come to the world itself, and that is death’, showing them the cat.
O’Rahilly (EIHM) connects Goll with MugRuith and Simon and sees them all representing the Sun God with rays emanating from
the centre like a wheel.
The Fianna file into one room to sleep and are later joined by the girl, ‘and the light of her beauty was shining on the walls like as
if it was the light of a candle.’ Three of the four in turn make advances on the girl but she rejects them saying to each, ‘I belonged
to you once but I will never belong to you again.’ The last rejected was Diarmuid to whom she says, ‘I will put a love spot on you
that no woman will ever see without giving you her love.’ She puts her hand on his forehead and leaves her love spot there.
All of these activities find explanations in the apparent movements of the four outer planets, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus.
Each of the outer planets takes longer to orbit the Sun than the Earth does. The Earth is faster in its orbit and catches up on the others
and overtakes them. We first see these planets as moving stars, travelling in the same general direction as the Sun. As we catch up
on them, they firstly appear to slow down. This is because the angle at which we are looking at them with respect to the background
of the more numerous and distant stars changes. When the Earth catches up on the straight line from the Sun through the Earth to
the planet, the planet appears stationary as a midnight star. When the Earth overtakes this line the planet appears to go back on its
track through the stars, gradually resuming its previous course. This loop-the-loop is the planets ‘retrograde motion’ which the
Pythagoreans explained by the planets taking up a new orbit. The rate at which it occurs with each planet depends on how near
that planet is to Earth, and how fast it is going relative to the Earth’s orbit. The nearer it is to us the greater the changes appear to be
and visa versa.
The four characters in the story see the light of the small house at midnight, and then they are thrown down by the wether. This is the
description of the four outer planets going into their retrograde motions after appearing as midnight stars. The wether, representing
the Earth, has least effect on Goll who must be Uranus which is most distant from us. The cat has greater power than all, and by a
miracle similar to Columcille and Bridget’s unsecured chariot wheels, manages to keep all in order.
The beautiful girl appears to be Venus which is one of the two planets nearest the Sun. As Venus comes out of the light of the Sun it
appears as an evening star, and increases in brilliance to its first maximum brilliance after 22 days. It then fades and goes behind the
Sun, to reappear as a morning star and again become brilliant. And this is how the girl appears in the story. Three of the planets also
appear to circle about Venus, but never, of course, make contact. Diarmuid however, gets a love spot from her, to be seen to us as
Jupiter’s giant Red Spot.
Uranus is so far away from Earth that the motions attributed to Goll could scarcely be seen in Uranus with the naked eye, but their
reflections in a basin of water could have been studied with a liquid lens as outlined later.
In another Fianna story, paraphrased from Lady Gregory, an old hag comes into the house where the Fianna are at about midnight
one cold winter night. She goes to Fionn’s and Oisin’s beds to get some warmth but is rejected. Diarmuid takes pity on her and
reluctantly takes her in to his. She tells him she is travelling over the sea and ocean over seven years and never got shelter until this
Seven years is 2,566.7 days. In this time Venus circuits from its point nearest to Earth (superior conjunction), around the Sun
and back to the same point four times, with 221 days over. In that 221 days it first appears as a dull evening star 39
days after superior conjunction, and moves out to one of its maximum elongations on day 221. This is an apparent position
farthest from the Sun when viewed from Earth. During the time from its first appearance to its arrival at this point it
continues to grow in brilliance.
So Diarmuid takes the hag under his covering, ‘but it was not long till he looked at her and what he saw was a beautiful young
woman.’ And his comrades remark that she is the most beautiful young woman they have ever seen.
By day 257 Venus achieves maximum brilliance before inferior conjunction, the point on its orbit farthest from Earth on the
other side of the Sun.
The woman offers to build a great house on a hill that he points to; the following day sees the great house on the hill being
admired by the Fianna. The beautiful woman invites Diarmuid to the house and they have everything that they could wish for.
They remain there for only three days as Diarmuid becomes restless.
Three days after Venus achieves maximum brilliance, Jupiter ends its retrograde motion, i.e. on day 260, and continues on
its apparent normal track through the stars.
Before he leaves the beautiful woman Diarmuid asks her to look after his greyhound bitch and her three pups.
Jupiter has up to sixteen moons but only four of the largest are visible with the naked eye, the largest being Ganymede. These
then are Diarmuid’s greyhound bitches and her pups.
Now as to the woman, she was outside the house for a while after Diarmuid going away and she saw Fionn coming towards her.
This describes Venus after inferior conjunction on day 292, and then appearing to us as a Morning Star on day 299.
Then Diarmuid returns that night and finds one of his pups missing and spends the night in the house.
Jupiter is an Evening Star from retrograde to day 379 when it fades and goes to superior conjunction on day 399.
On the morrow Diarmuid goes back to his comrades and the woman stays in the house. Oisin turns up and she gives him another of
Jupiter appears as a Morning Star on day 419 while Venus can not be seen from day 336 to day 623. Mars, coded as Oisin,
arrives at opposition on day 390, and another of Jupiter’s moons becomes visible.
Diarmuid comes back again that night and is met by the greyhound bitch only.
This is Jupiter arriving at opposition again with only Ganymede apparent on day 599.
The next day Diarmuid goes back to the Fianna and when he is away Caoilte is given another of his pups by the woman. And when
Diarmuid returns that night he sees that all of the pups are gone. He chastises the woman, and in that moment she is gone, and it
is on bare ground that he awakens in the following morning. He sets out to find the woman and meets a cowherd who tells him that
he ‘saw a woman early in the morning of yesterday.’
Jupiter completes its retrograde motion on day 659, described as Diarmuid coming back that night, and goes on as an Evening
Star until fading on day 778. Venus fades as an Evening Star on day 869, but then on day 883 it has reappeared as a
Morning Star, and so becomes the woman seen by the cowherd on the previous morning. Meanwhile Jupiter has
moved out of close synchronisation with Venus. These observations have lasted from day 39 to day 883, or 844 days of far.
Diarmuid continues his search and finds the last greyhound dead. He carries him on his shoulders and meets a man who takes him
out over the sea in a boat, and then down below it. There he finds three drops of blood lost by his greyhounds and puts them in his
napkin. He meets a woman gathering rushes as if she has lost her wits who tells him he is in the land of Under Wave. The rushes are
for the daughter of the king of Under Wave who has been under enchantment for seven years.
Seven years is 2,556.7 days, and when this is added to the length of the Venus observations of 844 so far, we get 3400.9 days. In
the Irish Bede manuscript mentioned earlier,
Sunt autem sui cuique planetarum circuli quos Graeci apsidas1 in stellis vocant. ...
1nomem dunaib eþdomnaib imbí indócbál fþiûaþind abûidaiû .I. ciþculoû .I. fubíø
dongniat ceþcol ocondocbáil,
name for the preworlds wherein is the rising up to the constellation. Absidias, i.e. circulos, because
they make a circle in the rising.
So the land of Under Wave is below the horizon of the sea where the ‘pre-worlds’, ‘erdomnaib’, are.
To rid the woman of the seven year enchantment Diarmuid gives her the three drops of blood from his napkin, but further
he learns that three draughts from the cup of the king of the Plain of Wonder will be required. Diarmuid says, ‘tell me where
that cup is to be found, for there are not as many men as will keep it from me on the whole ridge of the world.’ That country
is not far from the boundary of my father’s country,’ she replies. to get the cup Diarmuid will have to cross a little river on a
boat with the wind behind him for a year and a day. When he gets to the river he meets a low-sized, redish man who brings him
across the river. They go on to the fort of the king of the Plain of Wonder, but instead of the cup being sent out there were
twice eight hundred fighting men, and in three hours there was not one of them left standing. Then twice nine hundred were sent
out, and within four hours these were also defeated. Thus Diarmuid wins the king’s cup, and returns to his own place with the aid
of the little red man who was again at the river before him.
The king of the Plain of Wonder I an appropriate description for Saturn, with its magnificent circular discs surrounding it. In a
section in the Bede manuscript on planetary orbits according to Pliny,
Inter caelum terrasque septem sidera pendent, certis discreta spatiis1 , quae vocantur errantia,
contrarium mundo agentia cirsum, ...
spatiis is glossed in Irish,
.I. hité ûpatia naþþee fil á teþþa uûque ad XII. ûigna hité ûoni . toni . comlana ý
þl. hité inteþvalla immuþgu defeþentiae nitiagat ûaidai sech Ûatuþn ûuaû,....
i.e. these are the spatia, the spaces which are a terra usque etc. These are soni, toni complete etc, ...
The river which Diarmuid has to cross is the space separating Jupiter from Saturn. The number of men put down in the last
part of the story is 3,400: in days that is just two before Saturn’s ninth superior conjunction. So here we have Diarmuid winning
the cup less than one day before the woman (or Venus) is released from enchantment, i.e. the 3,400.9 days mentioned already.
The little Red Man is Mercury who arrives at superior conjunction on day 3,364 for its 29th time after the initial conjunction
line-up, leaving 40 days to Saturn’s conjunction. Twice 9 plus twice 8 makes 34, and this when added to the 7 given in hours,
we get 41, which identifies the discrepancy to bring Mercury virtually into line on the day Diarmuid gets his cup. Mercury comes
back to superior conjunction again on day 3,480 to assist Diarmuid getting back to his own place.
Another story from the Diarmuid and Gráinne repertoire is that of the Green Champions. Diarmuid and Gráinne are in flight from Fionn,
and have the character Muadhan help them escape. They cross the river Shannon and hide in a cave. Muadhan catches three
salmon which he divides out, giving Diarmuid the largest share, Gráinne the next, and himself the least. They spend the night in
the cave and Diarmuid rises early next morning to see a great fleet of ships coming from the west. When they come to land, nine times
nine of the chief men of the ships come ashore and Diarmuid greets them. They have brought twenty hundred good fighting men
with them, and every one of them a match for one hundred. Diarmuid avoids admitting to his name, and asks them to bring a large keg
of wine from their ships, and with this he does a trick. When the wine is drunk he brings the keg up to the top of a hill and then back
down again, and returns to the top of the hill with himself on top of it all the way. He does this trick three times. Fifty are killed trying
to copy him before the champions give up. Diarmuid goes back to where he left Gráinne, and Muadhan kills three more salmon which
are eaten that night.
Early next morning Diarmuid goes out and sees the three strangers again. He does another trick by putting his spear into the ground
with the point uppermost. He leaps on top of the spear and ‘lit on the point as a bird and came down off it again without a wound.’
When one of the Green Champions tries the trick he comes down on the point of the spear and is killed.
Again the next morning Diarmuid comes out and does another trick. He puts two forked poles in the ground with the forks uppermost,
and puts his sword across the points on its edge. Then he raises himself lightly over it and walks on the edge three times from the hilt
to the point, and when another of the Green Champions tries this he is cut in half. Diarmuid goes back again to where Gráinne is and
Muadhan kills a further three salmon for their meal that night.
Early next morning Diarmuid rises and bids Gráinne keep watch for Muadhan. When he goes out he meets the Green Champions again,
and this time he does battle. Only three of the kings and a few of their people make their escape. Diarmuid returns to where Muadhan
and Gráinne are and spends the night there. The following morning he goes out again and meets the three remaining kings, whom he
wrestles with and puts in bonds.
The number of strangers killed is 2.000 less the three last kings and a couple of their people, making 1,995, which is the number of days it
takes Jupiter to go from superior conjunction and return five times. And the story so far has taken five of Diarmuid’s days.
He has also done a number of tricks. The first of these were rolling the keg up the hill, back down again and up to the top again. In the
fourth trick he leaps to the top of his spear and down again; and in the fifth he walks on his sword over and back again. These five
tricks represent Jupiter going into its retrograde motion on each of the five times the Earth overtakes the opposition line. Muadhan
is Mercury. Mercury arrives at inferior conjunction three times between Jupiter appearing as a Morning Star and fading as an Evening Star.
These are represented by the three salmon he catches on each of the five days. He also stays close to Venus (which is Gráinne).
The kings in this case are Mars, Saturn, and Uranus.
All the events in the story can be shown related to the planetary Synodic Events in the order in which they actually occur, as seen
in the following table.
The explanation for the ‘nine times nine’ of the chief men of the ships who come ashore can be found in the relationship between
Saturn and the next more distant planet, Uranus. It takes Uranus 84 years to orbit the Sun, and that is just 81 times 378 days which
is the length of time it takes Saturn to be seen to go from superior conjunction and return. And when Diarmuid is doing his wine keg
trick one young man was crushed before getting up on it to copy him, and 50 others were killed before the Green Champions gave up.
These figures are explained in the following formula;
Saturn’s orbit (29.5 years) X Mar’s orbit (1.881 years) = 50.9
Jupiter’s conj period(1.09 Years) Earth’s orbit
Uranus was not rediscovered until Sir William Herschel found it in 1781.
And so to the question of how the ancient Irish managed to find and record these heavenly bodies which can not be seen by the naked eye.
Diarmuid nearly meets his end one day when a hag finds him by using a ‘drowned leaf having a hole in it like the quern of a mill.’
Every good boy scout knows that you can construct a magnifying convex lens by making a small round hole in a leaf and suspending
a droplet of water in the hole. Such a leaf with its liquid lens could have been used to study Uranus, Saturn’s rings, and
Jupiter’s moons. Archaeologists have also found numerous beads at the megalithic tumuli which were fired to harden them before
having holes drilled in them. It would have been much easier to drill the holes first if the beads were just to be put on a string for
decoration. These holes were bevelled out on each side as these examples from Herrity’s ‘Passage Graves’ show.
These liquid lenses would be able to magnify images of stars or planets reflected on the surface of the basins of clear water found
in the tumuli and referred to in the stories.