“Three things I ask of the men of Erin, three most difficult things.”

The words of Queen Maeve echo across the ages.

“They must be brave, because I excel in fighting and it would be shameful if my warriors were less brave than their Queen.”

“They must be generous, because I am generous as you know, and it would be shameful if my kings and chiefs were less generous than me.”

“They must be free of jealousy, because I never had a lover in my bed but there was another waiting, for me to tire of him, or him of me.”

They are the remembered words of Ireland’s most famous queen, who lived beyond the reach of Rome. She is the original MorRigan, in Latin Morgana, the Great Queen whose memory has haunted the imagination of the peoples of the British Isles. She was the first and the greatest of those who bore that name.

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I was born a morning’s walk fromCruachan Ai (Crookhanee), the home and stronghold of the bright, the beautiful, the terrible Maeve. Nearby stands a monument to an ancient hero, Dathi, a leader of his people, whose name means ‘colourful’. Born around 360 AD, he reigned as High-King of Ireland at the time of the fall of Rome. His monument is unique because in a landscape of grey limestone it is made of red sandstone brought from far away. The colour is no coincidence. I have set out to tell his story and the story of the native Britons as they struggled to survive invasions and the fall of civilisation.

The story begins in the sacred oak forests of the West. Young men were brought there to be tested by Sheela-na-Geag [Sheela na Gig] and the Women of the Deep Woods. Not far from my birthplace stands an ancient cultic stone, in a land full of ancient stone monuments. The sacred forest is gone but the Turoe Stone is still there, weather-worn but covered in carvings of the La Téne style, the magical art language of the ancient Celts. It is part phallic lingam, part egg, the essence of both male and female. Here I have set the tests of the youthful Dathi’s courage, self-control, sexual energy and potential for leadership, witnessed by the female elders of his tribe the Í Fiacra (EeFee-acra) and of the Council of Druids of Erin. There is magical-sexual practice, initiation and healing, based on ancient ritual objects hiddenin embarrassed silence today in both parts of Christian Ireland, described in detail.

They did not feed him. Did this mean they were going to kill and eat him, and wanted his entrails empty?The cultists were arriving. Low voices buzzed, once a short laugh. Female, but not young.Some old voices. This was an assembly of female cultists. Were these the Sheela-na-Gigs, the feared Women of the Forest? Did they live with wolves? Probably, and mated with them, too, breeding werewolves. Tonight, under the full moon, they would turn into wolves themselves. Maybe they would eat him then. Nervously he sat, clutching and using the twig to ease his tension.

He was woken by hands that pulled him to his feet and led him out of the cave. There was the sound of a drum, voices singing, chanting. The drumming and the chanting swelled as he was led out. The fur was taken from him, leaving him naked but still masked, and after a short wait he was sat down on a bed of ferns. It was night, moonlight crept around the edges of the mask. A figure stood over him, the feet touched his ankles. It pushed him on to his back. The chanting increased, sped up in time with his heart. In places like this, on the night of the full moon, blood was spilt, he had heard. The blood of virgins, of others. He was a virgin – in obedience to the Old Queen’s command, he had never been with a woman. Now he was going to sacrifice to Sheela. Perhaps his manhood, perhaps his life.Fear rose into his throat, it was hard to breathe. He tried not to understand the chanting, but he could not help hearing the names of gods, Bríd (Breed), goddess of fertility, Niamh (Neev) the Radiant, goddess of eternal youth, Bábh (Baive), the Crow goddess of death, who had taken his mother. There was Danu the familiar Earth Goddess, Eqon the Tamer and Rider of horses, of men, others he did not know.

The figure knelt down over him, the unmistakable texture of female skin rested on his knees. He imagined a knife poised over him, or a set of canine teeth.