Underneath a hawthorn tree yawns the black mouth of a cave. Is it the Gates of Hell? Or a portal to the Otherworld? In this article we descend into the ancient dark depths of Oweynagat Cave. From the earliest references to Oweynagat Cave in the 9th century Cath Maige Mucrama (as recorded in the 12th century Book of Leinster), there is a clear association between Oweynagat and the Otherworld. The Irish Otherworld appears in the various stories as a sort of parallel dimension, inhabited by the Tuatha dé Danann (sometimes known as fairies or the sídhe) who fled there from our world after their defeat by the Milesians. The two worlds sometimes intersect through the actions of humans or the sídhe, and that interaction was viewed as more likely, at particular places such as monuments or caves.
A story relating to Oweynagat comes from Echtra Nerai (the Adventures of Nera). Nera was a warrior from Connacht, who had a vision of an Otherworldly host emerging from the cave to destroy Queen Medb’s palace at Rathcroghan and slaughter all within, making a great pile of their heads. Nera bravely follows the ghostly host and descended into the cave to investigate, only to be captured. He was allowed to stay in the Otherworld, and even married a local. His wife explained to him that what he saw of the destruction and slaughter was just a vision of what will happen at the next Samhain. It would only come to pass if he did nothing about it. Hearing that, he managed to escape back to warn Queen Medb, bringing with him wild garlic, primroses and golden fern, to prove that he had been in the summery Otherworld, as it was still winter in the real world. The warriors of Connacht descended into the cave and won a great victory, though Nera chose to stay in the Otherworld with his wife, and is possibly still there to this day. The story being set at Samhain has led to the cave being claimed as the birthplace of Halloween.
Oweynagat Cave is also said to be the home of the Morrigan. She is portrayed as a goddess of battle and war, with the power to transform into crows or ravens. It is easy to see the connection between war and corvids (our battlefield scavengers). She features prominently in the Táin Bó Cuailgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley). First as a beautiful young woman who seeks to seduce the great warrior Cú Chulainn, and then after he rejected her, she sought to destroy him.
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