The Barnacle Goose
While the average person in modern day Connecticut probably only thinks of geese as a messy and loud nuisance, geese have long been featured in the mythology of many cultures. And that makes sense—fossils of geese that resemble our modern species can be dated back 10-12 million years, while their outsized ancestors date back as much as 50 million years. Ancient Egyptians believed that geese were a representation of the soul, born from the primordial egg of the sun, and thus a messenger between heaven and earth. In Hindu mythology, a pair of divine geese lay a golden egg that the god of creation, Brahma, is born from (he’s even often depicted as riding a goose.) In both the ancient Roman and Nordic traditions, people were sometimes buried with a goose as a status symbol, as they represented holy goddesses. With over 30 species spread across every continent, it’s hard to find a culture that doesn’t in some way venerate the goose.
But Ireland’s mythology surrounding geese is just a little bit different. For as long as written record stands, every September thousands upon thousands of barnacle geese (or in Irish: Gé ghiúrainn) flock (pun intended) to the northern and western coasts of Ireland. The geese roost amongst remote sea-cliffs and islands all winter until the following April, when they depart again. These days, this makes perfect sense to us, right? They’re migrating! We now know that the barnacle goose spends its summer months in Greenland where they mate, nest, and raise their goslings before returning to Ireland for a much milder winter. But the ancient Irish, faced with this phenomenon and with no good explanation handy, came up with their own legends about these (at the time) mysterious creatures.
Can you guess? There’s almost no way your modern mind will come to the same conclusion as Giraldus Cambrensis from the 12th century, a traveling archdeacon and historian. He claimed to have seen the origin of the enigmatic barnacle geese first hand: “first they appear…on fir-logs…Then they hang by their beaks from what seems like sea-weed clinging to the log, while their bodies…are enclosed in shells. And so in the course of time, having put on a stout covering of feathers, they either slip into the water, or take themselves in flight to the freedom of the air.” And Giraldus (his friends called him Gerald of Wales) wasn’t the only one to claim to have seen this transfiguration occur--reports from an 1882 hunting manual and a 1940 book of ornithology both recall first hand accounts.
While this seems ridiculous to us now, take a look at the “goose barnacles” pictured to the right (as opposed to the “barnacle goose” that supposedly grows from them) and perhaps it’s just proof that the Irish of yore were extremely creative and observant (though we do think the above reports may have fudged just a little.) There are innumerable depictions of “barnacle goose trees” throughout historical texts, but why were the Irish paying so much attention to geese in the first place? Because they wanted to eat them during Lent!
Catholic Ireland held fast to the tradition that no meat should be consumed during the 40 days of Lent (excluding seafood.) As the barnacle goose was thought to be born from a spontaneously generated barnacle “fruit” (as it clung to logs,) it was thought by many (even some of the clergy) to be exempt from Lenten regulations. That’s right vegan friends, some in Ireland were so desperate for protein during the end of the winter that they decided that the barnacle goose wasn’t technically flesh (whether it was fish or fruit was up for further debate.) This myth was perpetuated well into the 20th century!
We now know all about migration and the truth of the barnacle goose, but that hasn’t stopped them from being an important part of Ireland’s fauna. In ancient times, barnacle geese weren’t only a source of meat/fish/fruit (?) during the long winter, but also an accurate predictor of the severity of that winter’s coming weather. The same is true today: scientists study barnacle geese—how many goslings there are, how early or late they migrate—to help see the effects of climate change! So while they might not be quite as magical and mythical as the Irish once believed, they’re still a pretty amazing part of winter in Ireland!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last Irish Mythology post, three spooky Samhain tales, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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