Day 89: Irish Origin of Medicine



Stories about the origin of medicine or healing are common in a lot of folk traditions. We’ve already seen once such story from the Cherokee peoples. Today we’re going to look at a medicine story from the Irish. This story, although recorded by Christian monks, likely has a much older origin, and may well have been a part of a corpus of oral stories that the Irish held. The story is a short one, but packed full of symbols and themes that are important when looking at traditional Irish beliefs and folkways. Below is a translation of the story, featured in the larger story of the “Cath Maige Tuired” or “The Second Battle of Magh Turedh” translated by Elizabeth A. Gray:

“Now Nuadu was being treated, and Dian Cecht put a silver hand on him which had the movement of any other hand. But his son Miach did not like that. He went to the hand and said ‘joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew’; and he healed it in nine days and nights. The first three days he carried it against his side, and it became covered with skin. The second three days he carried it against his chest. The third three days he would cast white wisps of black bulrushes after they had been blackened in a fire.

“Dian Cecht did not like that cure. He hurled a sword at the crown of his son’s head and cut his skin to the flesh. The young man healed it by means of his skill. He struck him again and cut his flesh until he reached the bone. The young man healed it by the same means. He struck the third blow and reached the membrane of his brain. The young man healed this too by the same means. Then he struck the fourth blow and cut out the brain, so that Miach died; and Dian Cecht said that no physician could heal him of that blow.

“After that, Miach was buried by Dian Cecht, and three hundred and sixty-five herbs grew through the grave, corresponding to the number of his joints and sinews. Then Airmed spread her cloak and uprooted those herbs according to their properties. Dian Cecht came to her and mixed the herbs, so that no one knows their proper healing qualities unless the Holy Spirit taught them afterwards. And Dian Cecht said, ‘Though Miach no longer lives, Airmed shall remain.’”

A few notes on some of the themes we see in this story. First is the charm used by Miach; “Joint to joint of it, sinew to sinew of it.” This charm was actually fairly common around Europe in the Middle Ages. Examples of variations of the charm can be seen in Ireland, Britain, as well as on the Continent. We can see one such variation in “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Rabelais:

“Nevertheless Panurge gave him very good comfort, saying, If I do not heal him, I will be content to lose my head, which is a fool’s wager. Leave off, therefore, crying, and help me. Then cleansed he his neck very well with pure white wine, and, after that, took his head, and into it synapised some powder of diamerdis, which he always carried about him in one of his bags. Afterwards he anointed it with I know not what ointment, and set it on very just, vein against vein, sinew against sinew, and spondyle against spondyle, that he might not be wry-necked—for such people he mortally hated. This done, he gave it round about some fifteen or sixteen stitches with a needle that it might not fall off again; then, on all sides and everywhere, he put a little ointment on it, which he called resuscitative.” (translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty and Peter Antony Motteux, bolding is my own)

A variation also can be seen in the 9th century Merseburg Incantations (translation by Benjamin W. Fortson):

Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
And the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it.
And Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it.
And Wodan conjured it, as well he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
So joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
Joints to joints, so may they be mended.

It’s possible that the origin of the charm is in the Bible with similar verses like Ezekiel 37:6 “I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

It’s also possible the charm has a more secular origin in an early charm for a sprain that comes from the Irish Gaelic (shown below from “Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. XVIII”):

Christ went forth
In the early morn
And found the horses’ legs
Broken across,
He put bone to bone,
Sinew to sinew,
Flesh to flesh,
And skin to skin;
And as He healed that,
May I heal this.

And in a Scottish rhyming version from “Popular Rhymes of Scotland” by Robert Chambers:

The Lord rade,
And the foal slade;
He lighted,
And he righted.
Set joint to joint,
Bone to bone,
And sinew to sinew.
Heal in the Holy Ghost’s name!

The fact that the charm used by Miach bears resemblance to other charms floating around Europe in the Middle Ages is of no surprise. The Irish monks would have certainly been familiar with the charm, and when presented with a story about healing a person’s severed hand the charm would seem to fit perfectly into the tale.

This story gives more insight into early Irish medicine with the mentioning of the 365 plants for the 365 joints and sinews in the human body. This is of course not an accurate representation of human anatomy, but does point to the fact that early Irish doctors were attempting to examine and explore the human body with great detail.

This story, or variations of the story, would have likely influenced both Christian doctors and the Fairy doctors of Ireland in the Middle Ages. It’s the idea that there is a hidden knowledge that can only be accessed through a spiritual source, which in this case would be the sidhe for the Fairy doctors and the Holy Spirit for the Christian monks. The figure of Airmed stands as a keeper of that herbal knowledge. She managed to arrange all 365 plants by their properties and uses, so surely she would be able to help the doctor to see these properties again. Miach passed into shadow, but Airmed shall remain.

The image used above is taken from the Gundestrup Cauldron and shows, among other things, a figure dipping a person into a cauldron or pot which brings to mind another story of Dian Cecht the healer, where he makes a large cauldron of herbal broth that can heal all wounds.

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