Crom Cruach Idol

An idol set up on the plain of Magh Slécht, ‘Plain of Adoration’, near the present village of Ballymagauran, in County Cavan. It was created by King Tigernmas. Known as ‘Lord of Death’, Tigernmas is credited with the introduction of gold mining and of silverwork to Ireland. Some authorities have it that Tigernmas was a renegade Roman legion commander; this may be supported by the nature of the cult of Crom which has strong Eastern connections. Crom is notable in that children (‘first-born’) were sacrificed to him at Samhain, amidst general mayhem and orgiastic activities.  In a very old legend, found in the Dinnsenchus in the Book of Leinster, it is related that many centuries before the Christian era, King Tigerumas [Teernmas] and crowds of his people were destroyed in some mysterious way, as they were worshipping it on Samain Eve – the eve of the 1st November.

While Tigernmas himself was killed in one of these frenzies, his descendants are still with us in the form of the O’Conor family of Co. Roscommon who hold the title of O’Conor Don. ‘Domnach Crom Dubh’, (Black Crom’s Sunday) is a day formerly celebrated, especially in the West of Ireland, by visits to particular  wells and ancient sacred sites. Now Christianized, the most notable of these remaining pilgrimages is that to Croagh  Patrick in Co. Mayo. The routines of this pilgrimage, traversing wilderness, climbing mountain, and ritualistic encircling of stones while chanting, all these survive from the days of Crom worship.

Made of stone, Crom  was sheeted in gold and silver. Around him he had a circle of twelve little assistant idols, these sheeted in brass or bronze.. Gods with twelve assistants or ‘disciples’ are of course of considerable antiquity, their number being linked to astrological systems.

In the Dinnsenchus it is stated that, down to the time of St. Patrick, the Irish killed their children in sacrifice to Cromm Cruach in order to obtain from him plenty of milk, corn, and honey. But this statement is not supported by any other authority, though Cromm Cruach is mentioned often enough: it stands quite alone. In such an important matter the Dinnsenchus  is not a sufficient authority, for it is a comparatively late document, and the stories in it, of which this is one, are nearly all fabulous – invented to account for the names. Besides, St. Patrick knew all about this idol; and if children were sacrificed to it down to his time, it would be mentioned in some of the numerous Lives of him. It may then be taken as certain that the Dunsenchus statement is a pure invention, and that this horrid custom of direct human sacrifice to idols or gods, though practised by the Gauls, never reached Ireland.

When Saint Patrick came to Ireland with his new faith, it is recorded that he set about destroying all of the pagan idols. Chief among these, according to the Book of Leinster, was that of Crom Cruaich. It was with Crom Cruaich that Saint Patrick engaged in a druidical battle for supremacy. Despite being referred to as the “chief idol” in Ireland, worshipped right up until the coming of Saint Patrick, there is, in fact, surprisingly little information recorded about this mysterious figure, his cult or his followers. Certainly he does not appear in any of the legendary sagas. The main references that we have are to be found in Keating’s History of Ireland, the Medieval manuscript of the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick, the Dindsenchus (place lore of Ireland) and Leabhar Laignech, the twelfth century Book of Leinster. None of these sources portray the idol in a very favourable light. In fact, it is quite striking to note the rhetoric used in all cases to describe the horrors of sacrifice that were allegedly carried out in his name.

Some of the most important clues to the identity of this unknown idol are to be found in his name. He is usually referred to as Crom Cruaich. Crom means bent or crooked; cruaich means a stack, heap or mound of some kind that has been artificially constructed (as opposed to a natural knoll or hill). D’Arbois suggests an alternative for cruaich as “bloody”, derived from cru meaning blood. Hence he argues that Crom Cruaich means the “bloody crescent”. Given the nature of Crom, the word cruaich might have been chosen as a deliberate pun, to form an association between this god of the mound and the bloody rites that were supposedly carried out, thus helping to discredit his worship even further. It is said that Crom got this name after being dealt a magical blow by St. Patrick, causing the stone idol to bend over towards the west, as if ready to topple. There is also quite possibly a Fomorian association here, the misshapen beings of Irish mythology. Here is how the tale is told in the Tripartite Life:

“Thereafter went Patrick over the water to Mag Slecht, a place wherein was the chief idol of Ireland, to wit, Cenn Cruaich, covered with gold and silver, and twelve other idols about it, covered in brass. When Patrick saw the idol from the water….he raised his hand to put Jesus’ crozier upon it and did not reach it, but it bowed westwards to turn on its right side…and the earth swallowed the twelve other images as far as their heads….”

There is another meaning for crom, which is quite different. It also means a circle, while cromleac means an ancient standing stone. On Magh Slecht there were twelve such cromleacs, three groups of four, arranged in a circ le, with the central thirteenth cromleac representing Crom himself. The meaning of Magh Slecht is also interesting. Magh is a plain. Slecht comes from the Old Irish sléchtaim, meaning to prostrate, to go on your knees. Hence it is referred to as the Plain of Adoration.

The idol is also referred to in the Book of Leinster as crin, or withered:
“He was their god, the withered Crom with many mists”. Crin refers to the withering and decay of vegetation at the beginning of winter, and also possibly to the powers of blight, which were greatly feared. It is recorded that tributes were paid to the Fomorians to avert blight on the crops.

The idea of bent, or stooping, also conveys the image of old age, something ancient, something with great knowledge or wisdom perhaps? It is interesting that crin (Old Irish) is very close to crinda, meaning wise or prudent.

The Crooked One also reminds me of the folktale of Am Figheadair Crotach (The Hunchbacked Weaver) which is well known throughout both Ireland and Scotland. It tells of how two hunchbacks each in turn go to the fairy mound. The first one simply sits down to rest there, hears the faeries singing, and likes it so much that he sings along with them, adding a little of his own at the end. The faeries were so pleased at this, that they rewarded him by removing the hunch from his back.

Meanwhile, the second hunchback, on hearing this, decided that he too would go to the mound and demand that the faeries do the same for him. However, when he heard their singing he only grew irritated at them, and the ending that he gave the tune displeased the faeries greatly. Instead of removing his hunch, they gave him the one that had been taken off the first. So, for his lack of due respect, he ended up in a far worse state than before!