The Irish Crane Bag
The above bag was made for me by Kelsey Goodwin at StarLeather https://www.etsy.com/shop/StarLeather
She makes wonderful pouches/sporrans that are very affordable and she does custom work at a very fair price.
Since I was child I would often collect things I found and put them in a special bag. My magic pouch held rocks, twigs, roots, nuts, feathers, bones, shells, teeth and more. I had special names for each item, and I would on occasion talk to them, hold them and use them in an imaginative play of sorts. I still have a few of these items from early youth and today they hold a deeper meaning for many reasons. As the years have gone by this meaningful collection has waxed and waned as it should. Items have been lost and others were given away to those whom I felt were in benefit of a gift. It wasn't until I was around the age of eighteen that I heard the term 'Crane Bag' used for what I had always dubbed in childhood as my magical pouch. After almost twenty years in a Druid Order I came to understand this in a new way. Though there there still was a cloudiness, or a fog surrounding this Crane Bag of sorts. Many of us on the Pagan path use a Crane Bag simply to hold our items, but what do we really know about the bag? Let us briefly examine where this tradition comes from, and to what it may allude to.
Why is it called a Crane Bag?
If we look to Irish Mythology where this term originates; Corr Bolg (Crane Bag) we will glimpse a theme as to why the Crane Bag held such importance.
I have a question for thee, Caoilte, man of the interchanged weapons: to whom did the good Crane-bag belong that Cumhall son of Treanmhor had?
A crane that belonged to gentle Manannan — it was a treasure of power with many virtues — from its skin, strange thing to prize — from it was made the Crane-bag.
Tell us what was the crane, my Caoilte of many exploits, or, tell us, man, why its skin was put about the treasures.
Aoife, daughter of dear Dealbhaoth, sweetheart of Ilbhreac of many beauties — both she and luchra of comely hue fell in love with the man.
luchra, enraged, beguiled Aoife to come swimming, it was no happy visit: when she drove her fiercely forth in the form of a crane over the moorlands.
Aoife then demanded of the beautiful daughter of Abhartach: ’How long am I to be in this form, woman, beautiful breast-white luchra?’
‘The term I will fix will not be short for thee, Aoife of the slow-glancing eyes: thou shalt be two hundred white years in the noble house of Manannan.
‘Thou shalt be always in that house with everyone mocking thee, a crane that does not visit every land: thou shalt not reach any land.
‘A good vessel of treasures will be made of thy skin — no small event: its name shall be — I do not lie — in distant times the Crane-bag.’
Manannan made this of the skin when she died: afterwards in truth it held every precious thing he had.
The shirt of Manannan and his knife, and Goibhne’s girdle, altogether: a smith’s hook from the fierce man: were treasures that the Crane-bag held.
The King of Scotland’s shears full sure, and the King of Lochlainn’s helmet, these were in it to be told of, and the bones of Asal’s swine.
A girdle of the great whale’s back was in the shapely Crane-bag: I will tell thee without harm, it used to be carried in it.
When the sea was full, its treasures were visible in its middle: when the fierce sea was in ebb, the Crane-bag in turn was empty.
There thou hast it, noble Oisin, how this thing itself was made: and now I shall tell its faring, its happenings.
Long time the Crane-bag belonged to heroic Lugh Long-arm: till at last the king was slain by the sons of Cearmaid Honey-mouth.
To them next the Crane-bag belonged after him, till the three, though active, fell by the great sons of Mile.
Manannan came without weariness, carried off the Crane-bag again; he showed it to no man till the time of Conaire came.
Comely Conaire slept on the side of Tara of the plains: when the cunning well-made man awoke, the Crane-bag was found about his neck.
What can be said from this?
In the previous poem we learn that the Crane bag was made by Manannán ma Lir containing many personal treasures to him. Aífe was transformed into a crane by a jealous rival, luchra; she spends 200 years in the household of Manannán mac Lir. When she dies, he uses her skin to hold things precious to him. Though when she dies is she in crane form or a human? The personal items included are his knife, shirt, the king of Scotland's shears, the king of Lochlainn's helmet, the bones of Assal's swine, and the girdle of the great whale's back. Notice that at high tide the treasures are visible in the sea, but at ebb tide they vanish. To what does this allude? Should our Crane Bags wax and wane with the moon and tides each month?
There is a lot of speculation that the bag contained the letters of the Ogham alphabet. Perhaps it was a bag of Ogham lots carved or burnt on wood? Specifically here, we can suggest the last five letters of the Ogham are being mentioned through symbolism of the original twenty script, making it a twenty five basic script. One early form of Ogham divination was done by observing the legs of cranes. We also see that the bag went through various owners, including Lugh Lamhfada and Liath Luachra from whom it is obtained by Fionn ma Cumhaill.
Let us start picking this apart. We know that Manannan was the God of the sea, we have reference to objects that are seen and unseen through the timing of the tides within the bag. Objects like his shirt and his knife and thus a bag created out of a cane-woman. Did the bag hold water? Is there something special dealing with the moon maybe and the concept of these tides? If Manannan is the Sea God, then is he not responsible for the ebb and flow of the tides? Suggesting what could be visible and yet unseen would be within his control and not just that of the natural cycles. Something to consider if you have a personal Crane Bag. Who is allowed to see what, and which times we allow it. We are dealing with sight here, so the seen and unseen could be a light vs. darkness correlation. Could these following Ogham letters on the right hand side of the diagram below represent the items (treasures) listed from this poem? Do they not look like shears/sciccors, a helmet, etc? Was this suggested a form of a hidden language. Maybe language to be hidden from others through use of the Ogham? The Ogham was not a language of the masses in its earliest form as we know.
What of these treasures?The shirt of Manannán and his knife, what could possibly be the Sea Gods shirt? Since we are not talking about an actual tunic, maybe it's not even fabric at all. Maybe its the ocean itself or something of the ocean like sea weed? It could have been the knowledge of weaving even, maybe like the ebb and flow we could apply some sort of weaving pattern? This is seen possibly as the (AE) Ogham. The knife that he had belonged to Guibhne the Smith God, and it might be the knife like hook found in the Ogham (IO). Maybe it wasn't a knife at all but the knowledge of smith-craft? Maybe the knife is a Druids sickle or reaping hook, maybe its the crescent moon above the water? The King of Scotland's shears (Ui), A good question we may ask is what did the shears symbolize? Cutting, trimming, perhaps keeping up on hygiene or appearances. We do know the Celts were often manicured and took pride in appearances. The King of Lochlainn's helmet (OI) might also be found by their shape among the Ogham. What is a helmets job, protection of the head, what is in the head? The Celts thought that the head was the seat of the soul and it was highly venerated, and sometimes taken in battle. It could be that the helmet represented an attribute of protection of such things? The bones of Asal's swine, and a bone from the great whales back could be cross bones laid overlapping one another creating the (EA) ogham. Bones are symbols of our bodies death, though why the swine & the whale? Are stones of the earth the bones of the earth which many carved Ogham onto, who is to say. A much deeper study of all of these symbols should be considered. I feel these are possible suggestions of the corresponding attributes pertaining to these diphthongs. http://naturemeanings.blogspot.com/2013/02/irish-ogham-forfeda-additional-letters.html
We know that mythology gives us stories that are full of symbolism and metaphors, that things are never what they appear. We see that Aoife in her passions is punished by someone who has a jealous heart. He punishes her by transforming her form into that of a Crane. This theme can be found in a few myths where someone is punished by being transformed into an animal. It is only natural to assume that since she was transformed into a Crane that she should be in the presence then of Manannán with his very watery attributes. What we should mention is the transformation into an animal within a story was never seen as a punishment, the punishment was that they were forbidden to willingly on their own accord to transform back into human form until a given time. As all the tales tell us today, Aoife spent 200 years as a Crane in the company of Manannán. The theme of time within Celtic myths is not how we understand it in our culture, especially that of otherworldly time in the Sea Gods home none the less. From what we gather from the lore, a few moments in the other-world can be generations in our time, and sometimes the opposite where years over there can be but a few moments in our time. This is not suggesting that the Celts didn't understand time, simply that as pastoral and agricultural culture their concept of the seasons, of the light and dark half of the year was perhaps so 'organic and natural' that we are missing something from our own cultural understanding. We would have to live that lifestyle to understand it. I feel to accomplish any real understanding multiple generations would have to undergo living as they did to try and understand where their mindset originates. On a side note, have you ever been camping for a prolonged period of time, say a week or more with no technology, no watches, phones, no time; just sun up, sun down? It changes you, it resets your inner clock!
So, then how does a woman become transformed by jealousy? In good Celtic response I would say, 'not hard'. In a very real humanistic approach we need to try to apply this to what we know if we hope to learn from these stories. Ask yourself, how in your life has someone's jealousy and actions changed and transformed you? Aoife was banished to go live with Manannán. Would a jealous lover not cause you to be repelled or seek exile from their presence? Perhaps even to move away and be alone with only the Gods and the ocean. A place full of vast openness always considered to be the place of unknown and unpredictable; which could be be said of anyones future. The part of Aoife being punished is also a theme to explore. When one feels jealousy, they act out of betrayal and harshness. Have you ever been jealous yourself, how did you feel and act? Though any such punishment we may bestow upon those we feel wronged by is only a mask of sadness we wear, not anger. In the end we are only punishing ourselves.
Let us examine the Crane in Celtic lore. It can be said that the bird is associated with knowledge or wisdom. It has its ties to the Ogham language as people could read omens from the position of the Cranes feet while it stood still on one leg, or even in flight. In the Irish Book of Leinster Midhir has three cranes which guard his fortress. They had abilities like that of being able to steal away an attackers will to fight. There are three Cranes which are said to guard the entrance to Annwn the Welsh Underworld. Three cranes stand upon a bulls back in a Gaulish carving. Perhaps the Crane speaks of the Goddesses dark aspects? With its loud cry it became later associated with that of mean and unpleasant women in later folklore. Though before this we can see in tales the Crane is a good omen, where Fionn MacCumhail's Grandmother shape-shifts into a crane to save his fall from a cliff when he was a child. In our esoteric studies we learn of the Crane Pose. This is where the individual stands on one foot, closes one eye, with a rock in one hand and pointing with the other. They turn the stone in their hands over and over, recite a certain style of poetry with their backs to a Hawthorn tree as they return ill will to the sender. Powerful stuff.
What do we put into our Crane Bags and why?
It is agreed that within our bags the items that are contained are symbols for other things. The power they have is in our ability to attach meaning and memory to them. Just as in Manannán's bag with his the shirt, helmet, and bones. These items were no doubt symbols for things, and not the actual items mentioned. Your items could be sacred objects from locations or pilgrimages, things that represent deeds done, or rites of passages you've been through. Your items could represent anything from the people you know to specific types of energy you work with. A common practice is often that objects being so personal are not for the common view of others or even anyone at all depending on the individual. It is the practitioners microcosm of their magical world. We use these items upon our altars for certain work, we use them for personal divination, and healing, and sometimes in a sort of chess game allowing us to place desired items at certain points; thus actively shaping our unseen world in hopes for a desired outcome.
I make it a point to shape many (not all) of the items in my bag to form them into highly personalized items. For example a rock from a certain location may be altered by inscribing or carving a symbol upon it. This creates not only an object with a meaning and memory but one that has physical work put into it, forming it into something else entirely. I have two Crane Bags, one is my esoteric/magical bag, the other is a sort of modern Druid take on a EDC survival kit. To give you a good example of what is in my magical Crane Bag I will give you some of the basic items, without of course their private personal attributes:
Inside my Bag I have many small bags and some loose items. I have an Ogham set of the 20 trees each being from the corresponding tree. Many types rocks/minerals carved with various symbols. Teeth, bones, feathers, an owl and a hawk talon, rocks from many holy places in Ireland, Wales, England, a small piece of a castle in Scotland, turff from Ireland, a needle, thread and a thimble, a druids egg, a large carved piece of mandrake root, a hand carved pipe of Cernonnus, a broken harp string, a braid of hair, a boars tusk, carved figures on ice age antler, bog oak, bog yew, a rowan wand carved with ogham, a cloth for divination, old coins from over seas, sheep knuckles, Fidchell game pieces carved with ogham, a leather roll-out Fidchell game board, a promise ring cut in half! a seeing stone to magnify things, my sons umbilical cords, an effigy carved out of mistletoe, acorns, a sun dried Irish potato, an herbal smoking mixture, a salmons skull painted with woad, a flask of real Irish poitín, and various other things made from bone, stone, horn, antler, amber and wood. Sometimes I carry my Broze-Age replica Sickle, and my gold torc when not wearing it.
As you can see, you can put what ever you want in your Crane Bag, as long as each item is highly personal and personalized. Sometimes I only carry certain objects with me, other times my bag is full. Wax and wane. Much of the power of these objects comes from the memories and associations they symbolize to you. Your bag is not a catch all, you don't just gather items and toss them into your bag. They are carefully selected, worked on and added with great purpose. They are your 'world' in microcosm, ebbing and flowing at all times.
The question of why we hold certain objects with power or reverence could be looked at that in different ways. Perhaps the item does hold its own personal power, and that alone is enough. It can be a simple item like a feather or a river rock that just called out to you, and we didn't analyze it any further. We just knew where its home was; that being within our Crane bag. Another perspective is that you quested for an item, you might have been looking for an object to have in your bag designated for a certain individual like a grandparent, an ex, or even a child. Why do we gather such items? Why do some of them call to us? Why do we place value on them as important things to us? Maybe the more important question is, what do we do with them and how do we use them once we have them? That is not a topic I can address here, and is for the individual to find out for themselves. If you are interested in making a Crane Bag I would suggest some further reading on Celtic tales, meditation, and working with some inspiration to design your own. It need not be fancy, and might simply be a small cloth pouch worn on your belt, or even a sporran. Only you have these answers.