Cursing Stones of Ireland: When Christianity and Pagans Pooled Their Sacred Water
Ireland is a country famed for its spectacular scenery and landscapes. Known to many as the Emerald Isle, the land is characterized by lush and verdant greenery. But the landscape is more than just rolling fields of green and the coastline in particular is rugged, with many mountains and cliffs.
Beyond the romance and beauty of the country lie some dark secrets – some of the boulders and rocks known as Bullán stones or cursing stones contribute to the stunning landscape and hold secrets that have largely been lost to time. But the huge number of these stones and their proximity to Christian religious sites help provide clues to their original significance and indicate just how important they were to the people of ancient Ireland.
Although much of Ireland is characterized by an abundance of rocks and boulders, there are some stones which manage to set themselves apart from all the others. Sites like the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim are known worldwide for their striking and unique characteristics, but less notably distinctive formations have enough distinguishing features for locals to set them apart from the other rocks in the area. This is a concept which is familiar enough to anyone who has lived in Ireland that the comedy series ‘Father Ted’ was able to parody the concept with a visit to the ‘Holy Stone of Clonrichert’, which was turned into a tourist attraction.
The Holy Stone of Clonrichert, one of the locations of Bullán stones also known as cursing stones, in Ireland. (Luchs Later / CC BY-SA 2.0)
One feature which occurs in a number of stones across Ireland is a notable depression in the rock, which is often pooled with water. These rocks are known as Bullán stones, a name which is taken from the Gaelic word for bowl. As well as collecting water, there are often smaller boulders or pebbles resting in the depressions of the stones. They are frequently a part of local folklore, with stories of how they were formed or the magical properties of the water that collects in their hollows.
While some of the Bullán stones are naturally formed, there are many more which were created by people as long ago as the Neolithic. It is not known what the original intended use of the stones was, so their creation is another aspect of ancient life destined to be categorized by archaeologists as ‘ritual behavior’ and to further the cliché - possibly linked to fertility rites.
However, while the original use of the Bullán stones may never be known, they were a distinctive and popular enough feature that subsequent generations chose to incorporate them into their religious practices. The Bullán stones, and in particular the water which was collected in them, were utilized by the Celtic pagans in their religious ceremonies.
As has been the case in many regions this practice was adopted by the early Christians, and in some cases the large fonts of Holy Water found on entry to a church are strikingly similar to Bullán stones. Even the origins of some Bullán stones were Christianized – St. Aid, a 6 th Century Irish Bishop, was said to have hit his head on a stone when he was born, leaving an indent. The water that collected in this newly formed Bullán stone was believed to cure all illnesses and ailments. It is not unreasonable to suspect the name and religion of the unlucky infant was modified after the Christianization of the region.
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Bullaun Stone at St. John's Point Church, Northern Ireland. (Ardfern / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The act of cursing a person, place, or thing is found in many cultures around the world. It is usually a ceremony which features words either spoken or written in conjunction with some sort of ritual item such as cursing tablets from Mesopotamia, carvings such inscription B257 of the Bryggen rune staves, or figures representing a victim (such as voodoo dolls and poppets) which are found in a multitude of cultures the world round.
Figures representing a victim such as voodoo dolls are placed on the cursing stones. (Anton Belovodchenko / Adobe)
Another frequent feature of these items is that they can be used for good or bad depending on the intentions of the person using them and while Bullán stones are sometimes used for blessing or to heal the sick, they have also been the center of rituals intended to do harm.
In many cases the same ritual used for a blessing is performed in reverse to modify it into a curse, and the surviving accounts of early Christian use of Bullán stones suggest that this was the case in this instance. Christians would make pilgrimages to Bullán stones and recite prayers while turning a rock in the depression clockwise to make a blessing. To curse someone, the stones would be turned counter clockwise.
It is bizarre that a practice which seems positively heathen to the uninitiated was practiced by Christians with no contemporary sources acknowledging how unchristian the ritual was.
The Killinagh Bullán Stone and St. Brigid
One of the most impressive surviving Bullán stones is the one at Killinagh, County Kerry, which is also known as St. Brigid’s Stone. The Killinagh Bullán is a large boulder with multiple man made depressions, and each socket still has a matching stone nestled into it. These stones are what would be turned to curse or cure someone. The Bullán lies beside a Medieval church, but it was probably in use for many centuries before the church was constructed at the site.
St. Brigid is one of the patron saints of Ireland and to many Christians she is as important as St Patrick. She is a wonderful example of Christianity extending a hand to Pagans to try and persuade them to convert.
St. Bride Carried By Angels, an example of Christianity and pagan beliefs coming together. (Zacwill / Public Domain)
Her feast day is held on February 1 st – the date which traditionally marked Imbolc, a Pagan festival celebrating the coming of Spring and she shares her name and a with a pre-Christian Celtic goddess who was associated with Spring. Her supposed ability to turn water into beer probably meant the festival was originally as wild as our St Patrick’s Day festivities today.
The original pagan Brigid was one of the most important goddesses in the pantheon and it would not have been easy to persuade her lifelong devotees to turn their backs on her. Masking her in a veil of acceptability by turning her from goddess to saint was a palatable solution. St. Brigid was wildly popular among early converts - the place name Kilbride, meaning ‘church of Brigid’ is one of the most widely found names across Ireland even today. This clever rebranding helped Christianity spread throughout Ireland.
The fact the Killinagh Bullán stone is associated specifically with St. Brigid indicates it was probably an important site to pagans. If they were not willing to give up the rituals that took place at the site, St. Brigid gave it at least a veneer of Christianity.
As of 2008 there are 837 known Bullán stones in Ireland, and while they may not all have served the same purpose, the fact that many early churches are in close proximity to Bullán stones makes it clear this was a tactic that was used widely by the early missionaries to persuade people to join them.
The Cursing Stones at Innishmurray
The tiny island of Innishmurray is located 4 miles (7 kilometers) off the coast of Ireland near County Sligo. The island once had a small population, peaking at around 100 people in the 1880s, but the last remaining residents relocated to the mainland in the 1940s leaving a few buildings including fifteen houses and a school.
But along with these last remaining traces of a modern population are the ruins of a monastic settlement. The monastery was purportedly founded in the 6 th Century AD and it was attacked by the Vikings in the early 800s. The monastery was impressive in stature and consisted of a number of ecclesiastical buildings. Monks inhabited the island between the 6 th Century and the 12 th Century, and as well as the buildings they left behind altars, artwork, and some of the best preserved Early Christian engravings in Ireland.
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The ruins of the monastery at Inishmurray, Ireland. The site has a unique set of cursing stones. (AFBorchert / CC BY-SA 4.0)
But the monks were not the first group to visit the island – it was definitely visited and perhaps even settled during the Bronze Age, and possibly as early as the Neolithic. There is even evidence of an ancient burial site on the island. It may be the traditions formed by the earliest visitors that resulted in a unique set of cursing stones which made the monastery a place of pilgrimage.
There are three large altars constructed of stones within the walls of the monastery, and pilgrims would make their way from altar to altar, moving around the island in a clockwise direction. When they reached the Clocha Breaca (speckled stone) altar, they would partake in a ritual echoing those at the Bullán stones. A set of stones which rest on the altar were turned clockwise to cure or anti-clockwise to curse a person. But unlike the other surviving cursing stones, fourteen of the cursing stones on the Clocha Breaca are richly engraved.
The vast majority of the stones from the sockets of Bullán stones were destroyed by Christians in the 18 th and 19 th Centuries, in an attempt to erase evidence of the countries pagan past and put an end to the use of the cursing stones once and for all. The stones at Inishmurray were probably safe as they were not easily accessible from the mainland. It may seem irrational to destroy the stones so long after the last original pagan practitioners had passed away, but the last inhabitants of Inishmurray invoked the power of the Clocha Breaca cursing stones only a few years before they left in a bid to curse Adolf Hitler.
One of the best known and more salacious stories of Christianization is that of the conversion Iceland. The Icelanders agreed after deliberation at a summer meeting to adopt the new religion - on the condition they would be allowed to keep exposing infants, eating horseflesh, and worshiping and practicing their old religion discreetly.
The fact that the Christians who were attempting to convert the Icelanders were willing to give in to these rather demanding terms is evidence that they were willing to do what it took to get people on their side. We know they allowed the Icelanders to continue a practice as extreme as exposing infants, at least until they had a firmer grip, so permitting the use of cursing stones is not such a far-fetched idea.
While most of the concessions were outlawed as people started to devote themselves to Christianity the cursing stones were not doomed to the same fate. Christians not only accepted the continuation of pagan ceremonies but managed to incorporate it into their own ceremonies and turn the cursing stones into a Christian tradition - they are a testament to how a good rebranding campaign can work wonders.
Declan's Stone, one of the pagan cursing stones that was inducted in Christianity. (Matthew / Adobe)
Top image: Carlisle Cursing Stone, carved in 2000 and ensribed with a 16 th century curse. Source: CC BY-NC 2.0
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