She was Lí Ban once, before the flooding of Lough Neagh.
She tended a sacred well, keeping the door to its enclosure locked to prevent the waters from rising. The well she guarded had been magically created by the hooves of a horse given to Eochaidh, her father, by Oengus mac ind Óg. Eochaidh had been warned that if the horse ever stopped moving, destruction was sure to follow, and Eochaidh knew that the well was dangerous because it flowed forth from where the horse had stopped.
The story says that Lí Ban one day forgot to lock the door, and the waters of the well rose and flooded the countryside, creating Lough Neagh and sweeping everyone away, killing almost everyone but Lí Ban herself, and her lapdog. She took shelter in the enclosure that had guarded the well and remained there for a year, safe beneath the waves. At the end of the year, and the end of her rope, Lí Ban uttered a wish that she might be a salmon, so that she could swim with the fish outside in the water; she was transformed into a salmon with a woman's head and shoulders, and her lapdog became an otter.
After three hundred years, Beoan, a disciple of St. Comgall, was traveling along the coast with his company and heard the voice of a woman chanting. He looked down from his boat into the water and asked who was singing and Lí Ban responded to him. They conversed and, after he returned from his sojourn in Rome, he brought boats and nets and raised Lí Ban from the waters. They kept her in a boat filled with water and took her around the countryside. During these travels, her lapdog was killed and she fell into despair.
At the church of Beoan, Lí Ban was told she could either live a very long life there, or die and immediately be taken up into heaven. Tired of life and still grieving, she chose death, and was given the name Muirgeilt. Some sources translate it as "sea-wanderer" but, as we have seen before in our explorations of the geilta here and in some of my other writing, it can equally be translated as "sea-mad one." A saint on the Irish calendar, her feast day is January 27th.
Like Suibhne, she is a poet, singing songs and chanting poems in her exile. Where Suibhne grew feathers during his years in the wilderness, Muirgeilt became part salmon, silver with scales. They were both profoundly alone in the world. None of her poems were recorded; we have only Beoan's report that she chanted and sang, the acts of a poet. She did not consume the salmon -- she became the salmon. She embodied wild wisdom, originating from a sacred well.
Lí Ban shares a name with the sister of Fand, who is the wife of Manannán mac Lir, the sea god and the keeper of mists. We find her in the tale The Sickbed of Cú Chulainn, where she and Fand bring the warrior into the Otherworld to fight a battle for them. This Lí Ban is not known for her poetry, but she, like Fand, is another shapeshifter, appearing as a seabird. The intense liminality of shapeshifting, of taking on the partial form of a bird or a fish, or of total transformation into another species, is deeply resonant of the place of the geilt in Irish society. They lurk at the edges of civilization, half-wild, steeped in creative power. They are unpredictable, taking on new shapes and redefining the human. They touch upon both human and animal nature, partaking of both.
Part of what I find fascinating about Muirgeilt is that, while her name contains the element geilt, she does not appear to be mad in the same sense that Suibhne is. They share an exile from their own people and the trauma of death all around them, but their isolation is different in quality. There is more desperation in Suibhne, and a certain sense of resignation in Muirgeilt. Both of them wander the wilderness -- his of the forest and hers of the sea. Both of them are poets, even if we never see an example of Muirgeilt's work. There is a sad erasure of women's words here, but we can imagine her sea-songs and laments. We can imagine the wisdom she must have possessed. We can reclaim her salmon-human flesh from Christian sainthood and take her as a teacher from beyond the ninth wave.
I write about her today because of a friend's dream, where I showed up dressed in a feathered cloak that was shaped like a salmon, talking to him about the significance of the ogam letter coll -- the hazel -- and a cauldron filled with coals. He was unaware of the multiple layers of resonance that the image had for me. The feathered cloak is the tugen, the mark of the fili's vocation. The geilta, after twenty years in the wilderness, begin growing feathers in a bird-transformation that bestows the tugen upon them by suffering rather than study.
The salmon shape of the cloak reminded me of Muirgeilt, and also of the strong presence of the salmon as a powerful spirit, who embodies wisdom ingested through the nuts that fall from the hazels that grow over the well of wisdom. The hazels themselves, as the subject of the dream-Erynn's discussion, are the root and source of wisdom and are a massively multi-layered symbol all on their own. They are one of the nine traditional woods used for sacred fires, and fire is also a symbol of wisdom as imbas, the fire in the head of the poet.
The three cauldrons found within the body, discussed in the Cauldron of Poesy text, are echoed by the cauldron in the dream. My friend's cauldron contained embers that he could not allow to go out, an apt metaphor for some of the things happening in his life at the moment. In the dream, I instructed him to ask a mutual friend about the use of the cauldron. The image is a striking one and I will be trying to catch up with him for a chai to talk about the whole thing.
May your dreams be intriguing.