He was their god, the wizened Cromm, hidden by many mists: as for the folk that believed in him, the eternal Kingdom beyond every haven shall not be theirs.
For him ingloriously they slew their hapless firstborn with much wailing and peril, to pour their blood round Cromm Cruach."
You might recognize this quote as the opener of the second novel in my Three Wells series, The Salamander's Smile. So who or what was this Crom Cruach and what does it have to do with my story?(Warning: spoiler alert if you have not read The Salamander's Smile. May I suggest you do?)
People always ask, "Where do you get your wild ideas?" I borrow them from the past. Like Crom Cruach, aka Crom Dubh or Cenn Cruach. According to one of the oldest records in Ireland, the Annals of the Four Masters, Crom Cruach was a god worshipped by the Milesians, a tribe of invading Celts that came from Spain and arrived in Ireland in the early Iron Age. What is interesting to note is that all the "gods and goddesses" we associate with the early Irish, Morrigan, Lugh, Brigid . . . were never called gods as such in the old texts. They were called heroes of legend, colored by the Christian monks who first wrote down the old stories. The one and only name that is labeled as a god is Crom Cruach. That goes for all of the early texts.
This is rather interesting coming from Christian writers. Maybe it was to set up the fable that St. Patrick struck the stone idol of Crom Cruach with his staff and broke it, releasing the spirit of a demon which he cast into hell. This story does not appear until much later, however, so I argue that is not the reason. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
What is Crom Cruach? The name is variously interpreted. Crom means twisted or bent or crooked. Cruach can mean things like bloody, gory, mound, stack of corn. But cenn definitely means head. So you could say it is associated with a bloody head or a severed head. Or a severed sheaf of wheat, conversely. In many Irish and Welsh legends severed heads are kept and brought to council, they chat it up and give advice. The taking and preserving of heads is a very old in the practice in Celtic cultures. All the evidence points that they believed the soul resides in the head.
Physically, Crom Cruach has been identified as a round stone in the shape of a head which once sat in the middle of a stone circle in an area of County Cavan known as Magh Slecht, the Plain of Prostrations or the Plain of Slaughter. They actually have the stone! It was found in an excavation. It had been removed from its position in a ring of standing stones (Derryragh) nearby, broken and buried. It is known locally as the Killycluggin stone and has always been associated with Crom Cruach through local legend. It had indeed been smashed to pieces and buried outside of the stone circle as if to break its power. So someone broke the idol, which was described as being covered in gold. We see incisions of swirls and grooves in the stone, common in the Le Tene or early Celtic art traditions. It might have been gilded, but that has not been determined. A replica has been placed at a crossroads near where it was excavated, not back inside the stone circle (see photo above.) But the pieces of the true stone are kept in the Irish National Museum. (See drawing of the pieces below.)
According to the old texts, first born children were sacrificed here, their blood sprinkled over the stone. This was to assure the family fair crops and fat cows. But something terrible befell one ancient king.
Tigernmas, alternately spelled Tiernmas, was a devout worshipper of Crom. On one Samhain eve, he and his army of men had bowed before the stone in worship and were struck dead. There is no explanation of the event other than that, but the plain itself is named for the event, Plain of Prostrations. Perhaps they were set upon by another army and killed, we don't know. Using Tiernmas as one of main characters, I chose the battle -- more believable not to mention dramatic.
Part of the backstory of my novels involves the battle for the Five Quarters between the invading Ildana and the Old Blood who ruled before them. Fought a thousand years before Lyleth and Connor's time, you could say the Ildana represent the Milesians and the Old Blood stand in for the magical Tuatha de Danaan of Irish legend. I have chosen to make Tiernmas the king of the Old Blood as it serves my story better. As the Ildana fight the Old Blood on the Plain of Slaughter, King Tiernmas is captured and beheaded, the head encased in stone by Lyleth's earlier self. The stone is guarded by the twelve standing stones, the Knights of the Stony Ring, who are charged with keeping him there. Inside the stone, the head of King Tiernmas awaits the breaking of the stone, for the coming of the Child of Death to free him.
The photo you see at the top is a reconstruction of Crom Cruach from the pieces found many years ago. I say it looks like a head sticking out of the ground. Indeed some references in the old texts speak of kings being buried with just their heads showing. But the Celts in mainland Europe were known to worship severed heads . . .