Sunday 3 June 2012

Shannon Pot and the hunt for the Salmon of Knowledge

I was becoming intrigued by the Celtic tales of magical fish living in holy wells. My experience at the Pigeon Hole near Cong, on the border between County Galway and County Mayo in Ireland had only served to increase my fascination. There I had meditated and when I opened my eyes had actually seen the magic trout swimming in the water before me (see The Pigeon Hole and the Magic Trout )

My investigations led me deeper and deeper in Celtic mythology until inevitably I came across the most famous of all Celtic fish legends, the tale of the Salmon of Knowledge, said to live in a pool overhung by nine hazel trees who's nuts carried the source of all wisdom and poetry.

The stories start in mythological times when the fairy folk ruled Ireland, the Tuatha De Danann:

"And they had a well below the sea where the nine hazels of wisdom were growing; that is, the hazels of inspiration and of the knowledge of poetry. And their leaves and their blossoms would break out in the same hour, and would fall on the well in a shower that raised a purple wave. And then the five salmon that were waiting there would eat the nuts, and their colour would come out in the red spots of their skin, and any person that would eat one of those salmon would know all wisdom and all poetry. And there were seven streams of wisdom that sprang from that well and turned back to it again; and the people of many arts have all drank from that well."

Later in the mythological cycle we get the story of the hero Finn mac Cumhal:

"And then he said farewell to Crimall, and went on to learn poetry from Finegas, a poet that was living at the Boinn, for the poets thought it was always on the brink of water poetry was revealed to them. And he did not give him his own name, but he took the name of Deimne. Seven years, now, Finegas had stopped at the Boinn, watching the salmon, for it was in the prophecy that he would eat the salmon of knowledge that would come there, and that he would have all knowledge after. And when at the last the salmon of knowledge came, he brought it to where Finn was, and bade him to roast it, but he bade him not to eat any of it. And when Finn brought him the salmon after a while he said: "Did you eat any of it at all, boy?" "I did not," said Finn; "but I burned my thumb putting down a blister that rose on the skin, and after that, I put my thumb in my mouth." "What is your name, boy?" said Finegas. "Deimne," said he. "It is not, but it is Finn your name is, and it is to you and not to myself the salmon was given in the prophecy." With that he gave Finn the whole of the salmon, and from that time Finn had the knowledge that came from the nuts of the nine hazels of wisdom that grow beside the well that is below the sea."

And then we get this story which explains how the River Boyne was formed:

"Boand wife of Nechtán son of Labraid, went to the secret well which was in the green of Síd Nechtáin.  Now this was a magical well known only to the Sidhe and protected by Nechtán, Flesc, Lám and Luam the four cup-bearers and only they could withstand the powers of the well and return whole of limb.  For it was the source of all knowledge and inspiration.

Nine hazels grew over the well.  The purple hazels dropped their nuts into the fountain, and five salmon which were in the fountain severed them and sent their husks floating down the five streams.  These are the five streams of the senses through which knowledge is obtained.  And no one will have knowledge who drinks not a draught from out of the fountain itself and out of the streams.  The folk of many arts are those that drink them both.  These are the aois dána the poets who use inspiration.  This was the famous well in which the Salmon of Knowledge was spawned and swallowed the hazel nut of wisdom, and whom the bard Finegas finally caught but whose flesh was eaten by Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

Now Boand ignored all warnings and decided to see if she could test the power of the well because of her pride, declaring that it had no secret source which could shatter her form, and tempting fate she walked three times withershins (anti-clockwise) around the well.

At once a loud surging sound was heard which came from the navel of the earth and three waves rose out of the well, and one carried off her thigh, and one carried off her hand and the last carried off her eye.  Then thus disfigured, and fleeing her shame, she turned seaward, with the water roaring behind her until she reached the mouth of the Boyne ( Béal na Boinne) whereupon she was overcome by the force of the waves and was drowned, and thus was the end of Boand mother of Aengus the Young Son."

Nowadays the source of the River Boyne is said to be Trinity Well in the grounds of Newberry House, near Carbury in Country Kildare. Intrigued by the tales the next time I was in Ireland, in March 2012, I set off with my friend Leaf to go looking for this mysterious well.

Newberry House was not easy to find, and it was only by tracing the river back to its source on a map that eventually we were led to the right place. When we found the gates to the estate they were locked, we didn't fancy entering uninvited and wandering over the endless parkland randomly looking for a holy well so we opted instead to start where the stream crossed the road and simply to follow it upstream until we found its source.

We tramped through woodland past a ruined mill house before eventually coming to a large pond.

Had we found it already? Was this the source of the Boyne where the hazel trees grew? We traced the edge of the pond but found that there was an inlet, clearly we had further to go. As we set out across the open parkland following the stream we were harassed by a large herd of very frisky cattle, who charged back and forth in huge stampedes before lining up threateningly to face us.

We quickly made our way upstream, following the river for a few hundred yards until eventually it left the estate again. If there was a well on the estate then clearly we had missed it, so we instead decided to head into the village of Carbury to ask some of the locals if they knew where the well was.

Down the local pub they were all very helpful, telling us not to worry about entering and walking over the estate and directing us to the location of the well. It seems like we had walked right past it! No doubt distracted by the stampeding cattle!

We returned for a second attempt and this time our perseverance paid off! The well sat just beside the stream on the far side, near to a bridge. How did we miss it!

I climbed inside the small well house and sat there a while to meditate.

The interior was decked with flowers and small, white angelic statues. The air was light and fragrant like a garden and the water was cool and crystal clear, but there didn't seem to be any visible inflow or outflow of water.

I sat inside the well house and soaked up the pleasant atmosphere before energising a quartz crystal and dropping it into the well. I could see its translucent form slowly drifting to the bottom before settling there comfortably.

The local people would come here on Trinity Sunday to take water from the well as they did every year in June, taking on the new energy imparted to the water by my crystal.

However, as the source of the Boyne and the home of the Salmon of Wisdom it seemed an unlikely spot. Where were the nine hazelnut trees overhanging it? And where were the underground caves where the salmon was said to lurk? Perhaps the pool we had spotted earlier was a more likely spot after all? The only correlation we could find was nine hawthorns growing next to the well.

The locals celebrated this well as the source of the Boyne but I was unconvinced. Further investigation would be required...

Boand, who's actions, legend says, caused the River Boyne to spring forth, was the wife of Nechtain, one of the Tuatha De Danann, the fairy people. Near to trinity well is a large mound known as Sidhe Nechtain, or Nechtain's Fairy Mound, so we decided to go there next and investigate.

We returned to the village and continued on down a lane up towards an old ruined castle. We asked one of the locals about Nechtain's mound and he directed us towards a low hill which sat near the castle.

It did indeed look like a magical place, and despite the early season it was covered in trees displaying a white blossom. Walking up the far side of the mound we found a magical looking fairy portal.

Stepping through it we entered their realm and continued on up to the top of the knoll. On the way I picked thirteen primroses and left them at the top as an offering before standing there in meditation.

I saw Faery noble dressed in silver silks approaching me. It was Nechtain, a lord of the Tuatha De Danann. He was pale and silvery with light coloured hair and in his hands he carried a circlet that appeared to be made of pure platinum. He placed the circlet on my head and a feeling came over me that somehow this man was my father! Nechtain, father of Aurvandil? He told me to do what I had come here for, so I raised my crystal tipped wand above my head and drew in the white energy from the sky, down through my wand and my body, and down into the knoll, filling it with light and energy. I then connected this energy to other similar places, helping to complete the grid of energy that covered the entire land.

On the way back we met a boy who took us to his father's house. He showed us some old maps of the area but could give us no further information about Nechtain and the Salmon of Knowledge. Was this Nechtain connected with the Celtic water god Nechtan, and through him with saint Nechtan of St. Nechtan's Glen in Cornwall? I felt like I had got some important leads but that this quest was far from over. Unfortunately I now had to return home to England, but I would be back to find out more, I was sure of that.


Back home in England I did some research. It seemed that Nechtain is also called Nodens or Nudd, both known as Celtic gods of the sea. Nudd was of course the father of the faery king Gwyn ap Nudd, who I had met at Castell Dinas Bran in Wales ( see Castell Dinas Bran - Gwyn ap Nudd ). There was also a connection with Manannan mac Lir, as Lir is another name for the Celtic sea god.
Deeper investigations into the folklore concerning the Salmon of Knowledge revealed that the story is not only related to the River Boyne but also to the River Shannon! Immediately I searched for the source of the River Shannon and what I found amazed me!

The traditional source of the Shannon river has always been regarded as Shannon Pot, an almost perfectly circular hole, 16 metres across, which is filled with water which flows out from deep underground caverns. The hole is overhung by many trees and has an outflow forming a small stream, the source of the Shannon river. Surely this was the perfect place to find the Salmon of Knowledge! The underwater caverns were said to be dangerous and unexplored, the water murky and mysterious...

A similar tale is linked the formation of the Shannon river to the formation of the Boyne river and the goddess Boand. 

"According to legend, the Shannon is named after Sionnan, who was the granddaughter of Manannán mac Lir, the god of the sea. She came to this spot to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which was planted by the Druids. As she began to eat it, the waters of the pool sprang up and overwhelmed her. She was drawn down into the pool and its water began to flow over the land, forming the River Shannon."

I would have to wait a couple of months before I could return to Ireland, but when I did I was determined to go and pay a visit to Shannon pot.

A couple of months later I returned to Ireland, for the third time this year! I went with Leaf and a couple of other friends to visit Shannon Pot and soon found its mysterious waters, overhung with lush summer greenery. Closer investigation revealed that the trees around the pool were willow and hawthorn, not hazel, but who knows what the passage of time has done to this place or to the tales that are linked to it? Some tales say the trees were rowan trees, and not hazel, and that it is the red berries of the rowan which give the salmon its spots, but why not the red berries of hawthorn instead?

As we sat by the pool we saw the occasional splash of a fish on the dark surface of the water, so there was certainly something in there! I climbed down into the small stream that flows out of the pot and put on my snorkel, determined to have a swim to see what was in there.

The water was icy cold and biting my skin! But I eased myself in and took a swim over its mysterious and murky depths. Looking down all I could see were rays of sunlight piercing the dark depths of the water stained dark with tannin. It was absolutely freezing, so after passing over a couple of times without seeing anything more I decided to get out and dry off in the sun.

Having passed over the emerging flow of water I now felt like I had experienced its energy and so now would better be able to tune in to it. I sat on a bench nearby and using a shamanic drumbeat on my iPod to cut out all interfering sound I drifted off into a meditation.

I saw myself sinking down and down into the watery depths of the pot, a female guide by my side, some kind of water spirit. At the very bottom of the pot was a small cave where a large salmon swam suspended in the current, the Salmon of Knowledge! Beside the salmon lay a silver coloured ring which was set with a light blue translucent gemstone. I peered at the gemstone and it grew larger and larger, until it was bigger than I was. I entered the stone and inside was another water spirit, some kind of mermaid. I didn't understand what it meant but I realised then that if I was to get any answers to the mystery of the Salmon of Knowledge then I must ask the salmon himself. I spoke to him and asked him:

"What is the Salmon of Knowledge?"

He replied to me like a was an innocent and foolish child, asking something that was clear and obvious to all and which I must surely already know the answer to. He explained to me that the Salmon of Knowledge sat at the entrance to the Otherworld, the spirit world of forms from which all of creation grows. All knowledge comes from the spirit world, and must therefore pass through him to reach us.

Suddenly the answer was clear and obvious! In the spirit world was the source of all knowledge, the place from which all wisdom and inspiration comes. The salmon simply represented this. The connection between our material world and the Celtic underworld of spirit, which in folklore is always seen as being in a submerged subterranean realm. This is the reason why in Celtic culture springs and holy wells are so revered, they are the places where the underworld emerges into our world, and so form a connection between the two. A manifestation of the divine.

My quest for Salmon of Knowledge had reached its end. I had met the salmon and he had imparted to me his wisdom. All knowledge comes from the Otherworld, if it is wisdom you seek, then you will find it there.


A few days earlier I had been to visit the burial place of Amergin the Bard, the first of the Milesian Celts to set foot on Ireland. His burial place consisted of a low mound in a farmer's field, with a curious alignment of four standing stones at one end of it.

The words of the famous "Song of Amergin" came back to me and suddenly I understood their true meaning:

"I am a wind across the sea
I am a flood across the plain
I am the roar of the tides
I am a stag of seven tines
I am a dewdrop let fall by the sun
I am the fierceness of boars
I am a hawk, my nest on a cliff
I am a height of magical poetry
I am the most beautiful among flowers
I am the salmon of wisdom
Who but I is both the tree and the lightning that strikes it
Who but I is the dark secret of the dolmen not yet hewn
I am the queen of every hive
I am the fire on every hill
I am the shield over every head
I am the spear of battle
I am the ninth wave of eternal return
I am the grave of every vain hope
Who but I knows the path of the sun or the periods of the moon"

The song is a riddle about the very force of creation, that mysterious force from the Otherworld that permeates every single aspect of our world and brings it into manifestation, the great mystery itself.


Rob Wildwood (Aurvandil) has now released a book containing hundreds of his own stunning full colour photos of many of the magical places he has visited in his travels. The images capture the magic and mystery of each place and are enhanced by extracts of local folklore that reveal the magical lore of each place and tempt deeper investigation. Every site listed has full directions and map grid references that can be checked online, so join Rob Wildwood as you discover Britain's magical places at