Tuesday, April 8, 2014

G Is for Giants & Gruagachs!

#7 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge

G: Gort, Ivy in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.

Ivy is a parasitic evergreen vine, much esteemed in tree lore. It symbolizes eternity as well as mortality (being found in graveyards), and emblematic of fidelity, which is why brides carry it in their bouquets. The Druids bound it around their brows for clarity of thought; perhaps this traveled back to Greece, where it was used by Dionysus’ followers in the hope of guarding against ill effects from drinking.
Some Celts, especially in Ireland, used it at Samhain (Hallowe’en) for both love and death divination. In herbal lore, the boiled leaves were used in poultices for skin infections; to remove sunburn, the boiled twigs would be swirled through butter and applied to the skin. When an ivy plant grows to sufficient age, its foot-thick stem is woody, and may be sliced to use as a filter with wine. Cows won’t eat it, but sheep and deer will in winter, and many birds nest in it and eat the berries in late winter/early spring. Unlike most plants, it blossoms in late fall.

I was always skeptical about the Giant in “Jack & the Beanstalk,” but thought as a child that perhaps the English had very thick clouds able to sustain his weight! I much preferred the Celtic tales about giants and gruagachean from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Britanny. 

Giants are not usually shapeshifters, but very, very large, often cruel, often stupid. They loved to throw around huge, heavy stones, and were constantly, ineptly, attempting to build walls and buildings but failing and giving up, hence a lot of monolithic stones, henges, etc., scattered around the isles. 

There are exceptions, of course; I think I was 7 or 8 when Granny told me what became one of my favorite Christmas stories about the giant family of Staffa. They may have originally been Irish and crossed the Giant’s Causeway made by Finn McCool to find a peaceful place to live, settled on Staffa, and used the famous cave as their front door. One stormy winter night, they hear a cry from the sea, and the father giant is just in time, wading out into the sea, to save a young monk from drowning. He is quite surprised when he awakens in their baby son’s cradle! He’d been fishing in a wee currach, was caught by the storm, and now cannot return. As he recovers, he tells them about his life as a monk and Bible stories. The longer he stays, the sadder he becomes, until the giant’s wife persuades him to tell them why. That night was Christmas Eve, and he laments that he cannot spend it with his brothers on Iona, the Holy Isle. The family decides to take him, riding on the giant’s shoulders, the baby in his mother’s arms, wading through the sea to the isle. When they arrive, St. Colmcille [pronounced Kolum-kill, in English Columba] meets them. After thanking them for their care of his young brother, he’s so kind they tell him they wish to be baptized and live there.

After receiving testimonies to their goodness from the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the seals, he tells them that if they can get through the door of the church, they will be welcomed. Easy to push the baby through; the wife has to kneel and squeeze through; her husband has to like down and inch through. On the other side, they are simply very tall humans, able to worship and join the community.

Gruagach stone on Colonsay
Are you wondering what a gruagach (plural: gruachean) is/are? Accounts differ! The word means “hair” and was often applied to a young lass, because their hair wasn’t covered until after marriage. Some accounts say that they were a sort of female brownie, particularly caring for herds of cattle and dairies; the herdsmen and dairymaids would pour milk into hollowed stones for them every night after milking. These stones, although not much is known about them, are of great antiquity, perhaps being part of Stone Age rites. Some scholars believe that gruachean were remnants of an ancient, mostly forgotten, goddess cult. Certainly some kinds of faery were originally gods, later entering lore as lesser but still powerful entities after Christianity replaced the Old Ones’ worship in Celtic lands. 

In the Irish Finn McCool legends, the gruachean he encounters are usually very hairy, gigantic hags. Under various names, they are linked with cattle, with worship and with  fertility from Breton lands to Wales to the Hebrides. Sometimes the terms gruagach, glaistig and gro’ach are used almost interchangeably. 

One glaistig (or gruagach) was angered by a herdsman who poured boiling milk onto her stone; cursing from her burned mouth, she determined to leave that place. Placing one foot on a crag, and the other on an island, she grazed her thigh on the top of a sailing ship’s mast, and fell into the water, where she drowned and was greatly mourned by the people.

May your love of these immortal Celtic tales become gigantic!


  1. Great to see your post.

    Beth Lapin

  2. I am a complete fangirl of Finn Mac Cool stories, both Irish and Scottish. Great post! :)

  3. Interesting and fun - thanks !


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