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The Lia Fail
by Michael Ragan
© 2000

Introduction / The Sacred Sword / The Sacred Spear / The Cauldron / The Lia Fail

 
gaelic text
 
"From Falias was brought Lia Fail which is in Temair,
and which is used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland."
Lebor Gabala Erenn


The sacred stone of the Tuatha de Danann, known as either the Lia Fail or the Cloch na Fail, remains an item of much controversy. In the last centuries, the primary disagreement has been its location. Some have it ferreted off to foreign shores to rest forever silent in a Christian Cathedral, others have it remaining stoically on a grassy slope in Tara. In truth, the real stone has yet to be found. Further, the purpose of the "stone" remains generally misunderstood and often overlooked. The answer, as it often does, lies in the language and the very words of its description.
       Turning again to the one stark reference to the sacred elements in the Book of Lecan, we can find considerable detail if we examine those ancient words in the full light of methodical inquiry. To begin with, how about the subject? What does the term "Lia Fail" mean? Contrary to many scholars, the words Lia and Cloch are not fully synonymous. The noun Cloch can refer to almost any stone. It is a broad term, but generally indicative of a stone found in its natural weather or water-worn shape. Examples would be missiles, sling-stones and construction material.
       The noun "Lia," on the other hand, indicates a more specific use. Further, it reflects processing and preparation for a purpose. It is a stone of singular import for its size and/or application and inscription. In other words, a "Lia" was often inscribed with symbols and characters. Thus a stone used for a boundary marker, monument, dolmen or cromlech is properly called Lia. It also has additional, intriguing meanings, which should not be ignored. For example, it indicates the color gray, age (and associated knowledge and wisdom), precious stone and many.
       Here the reference to knowledge is paramount. If we once again dig deeper into the language, we find that the word for knowledge is RU. Quin advises that ru falls into two categories. Common knowledge is rus. Knowledge of the sacred and mysterious is run. It is that which is kept secret from the outsiders.
       Lia also has more esoteric meanings, which are reflected in many of the recorded tales. Take for example the tale Ath Liac Find found in both the Book of Lecan and the Book of Ballymote. At one point, Find throws the "three edged stone" into the ford where great loss was inflicted on his opponents. Then the tale predicts the loss of the stone for a time until a fair Maiden of age and wisdom finds it. In this case, the three-edged stone refers to a powerful spell composed in a particular poetic form.
       The specific use of the Lia is identified by the adjective, in this case, "Fail." The word Fail means hedge, wall, bed, resting-place, hut, protection, act of guarding, a circle, fold or a legal barrier. Notice that each of these interpretations reflect a protected or guarded state. Also, note that except for the last two items, the ancient Rath (home place) is infered. Protected by the Thorn hedge, in it was found the places of resting and it which was inviolate under Brehon Law. Interpreting our term then, in the broader sense, can give us "a precious, prepared ancient stone (or number of stones) that has (have) been dressed and inscribed in such a manner as to be enclosed, guarded and protected from outside exposure and intrusion."
       Now a concept begins to emerge. Still, we cannot be sure of its purpose, so lets dig a little deeper. In the line "No geissidh fo cach rig no gebidh Erinn," MacAlister faced the old problem of a programmed mindset. Rightfully, he recognizes the utterance of the stone when associated with a potential rig (ruler). However, a couple of considerations were overlooked. First, let us look at the root word to geisidh. The root geis (variously geas) means a solemn injunction, a spell, and a prohibition, which can lead to misfortune and death. Geissidh means the expression of the geis. The translation of geissidh to shriek is therefor incomplete. In full, it signifies loud expression, which could be shriek. However, it also indicates the type of speaking, that is recognition, tribute and imperative instructions. Remember the many tales of the rulers who were given geis or restrictions with designated penalties for the period of their rulership. Remember also those who violated their imperative Geis to lose both life and leadership.
       To flesh out our picture a bit more then, we have a stone or stones of unique singular purpose and character. Our Lia speaks with a voice that is loud and unignorable. An ancient and wise oracle, it provided recognition and tribute for the potential leader and identified those acts, which were prohibited to the person and his or her rule.
       For the curious, lets take a quick look at rig. In Old Irish, the word was ri and of neuter gender. Under the patriarchal influence of first the Catholic Church and later the Norman invaders, it came to be considered masculine. In general usage, the word lost further of its definition when early Abbots were given the title "Ri." Thus you find a number of early clerics referred to as Bishop Kings, such as Cormac in the 10th century. However, under the proper and original context, a "Ri" (Righ) was the elected ruler of Clan or Tribe, male or female.
       In summation then, the Lia Fail, as the Sacred Symbol of the Tuatha de Danann, was an oracle and possessor of ancient wisdom. Carefully and deliberately protected, it was a thing of mystery. When it spoke, it spoke with purpose. It loudly recognized and proclaimed the rightful ruler. It gave its tribute followed by the imperatives of Geis, or prohibited acts for the Ruler to be successful. Then it gave the penalties for violation. In the physical sense, the Lia was indeed a stone or stones. It was specially inscribed in mystery and wisdom. Thus the Lia Fail was and remains run or sacred knowledge.
       Whether we consider the Lia Fail, and thus the Run, as either one stone or many, the basic considerations remain constant. It is one of the Sacred Symbols of the Tuatha de Danann, their sacred wisdom. It is carefully and deliberately protected. When it speaks, it speaks with purpose. It provides insight into both present and future. It also possesses great magical power that can not be denied.
       Consider then this last of the Four Sacred Elements with the first three. We came from the east with Illumination. From there we turned south to Inspiration and with application we turned to the west and the Cauldron of Creativity. In our natural progression then we have learned through Illumination, and by applying Inspiration we were able to Create. With that creation we find the Sacred Knowledge that must be protected from misuse.
       As you see, the rightful place for the Sacred Knowledge (Run) is the northern quadrant. We have completed our Deosil (clockwise) circle and now can turn once more to our point of origin. It is easy to see now why our ancient ancestors entered their sacred spaces from the north, then turned east to face the path of the Sun and their point of origin.
       There are many choices of Stone that you can use as your Sacred Symbol. Many use Crystal, some use "Sunstone,." Others use a "special" rock that has adopted them for a time. Whatever your choice, whenever you work within your Circle, remember all that it stands for. It can greatly enhance your devotions and workings.
 

 
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