The Ordeal

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER V....continued

9. The Ordeal.

The use of the ordeal for determining truth or falsehood, guilt or innocence, was developed from prehistoric times in Ireland: but the germs were, no doubt, brought hither by the earliest colonists. The Irish had their own ordeals, in which were some peculiarities not found among other nations of Europe. Most originated in pagan times, but, as in England and elsewhere, the ordeal continued in use for many centuries after the general adoption of Christianity.

In the Book of Ballymote there is a list and description of twelve different kinds of ordeal used by the ancient Irish. Among these were the following:—"Morann's Collar," of which the common version of the legend is this:—The great brehon or judge, Morann, had a collar, which, if placed round his neck, or round the neck of any judge, contracted on his throat if he delivered a false or unjust judgment, and continued to press more tightly, ever till he delivered a righteous one. Placed on the neck of a witness, if he bore false testimony it acted similarly, until it forced him to acknowledge the truth.

"The Adze of Mochta": the metal head of an adze was made red-hot in a fire of blackthorn or of the quicken-tree, "and the [tongue of the accused] was passed over it: it would burn the person who had falsehood: but would not burn the person who was innocent."

The "Three Dark Stones": a bucket was filled with bog-dust, charcoal, and other kinds of black stuff, and three little stones, white, black, and speckled, were put into it, buried deep in the black mass, into which the accused thrust down his hand: if he drew the white stone, he was innocent: if the black one, he was guilty: and if he drew the speckled one, he was half guilty."

The "Caldron of truth" was a vessel of silver and gold. "Water was heated in it till it was boiling; into which the accused plunged his hand: if he was guilty, the hand was burned: if not, it was uninjured. "Lot-casting"—in several forms—was very common as an ordeal. "Luchta's iron": the druids having first uttered an incantation over a piece of iron, put it in a fire till it was red-hot. It was then placed in the hand of the accused: and "it would burn him if he had guilt: but would not injure him if innocent." "Waiting at an altar." The person was to go nine times round the [pagan] altar, and afterwards to drink water over which a druid's incantations had been uttered. "If the man was guilty, the sign of his transgression was made manifest in him [by some bodily disfigurement]: if innocent, he remained unharmed." Observe the striking resemblance of this last to the Jewish ordeal for a woman suspected of misconduct, as we read in the Book of Numbers, chapter v.

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