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"The inhabitants of this island had an ancient custom to sacrifice to a sea god called Shony at hallow tide…..The inhabitants came round to the church of St Mulvay…every family furnished a Peck of Malt, and this was brewed into Ale: one of their number was picked out to wade into the sea up to their middle, and carrying a cup of ale in his hand, standing still in that posture, cried out with a loud voice saying,

'Shony I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you'll be so kind as to send us plenty of sea ware (seaweed), for enriching the ground the ensuing year.'

And so threw the cup of ale into the sea. This was performed at nightime… At his return to land they all went to church, where there was a candle burning upon the altar: and then standing silent for a little time, one of them gave a signal, at which the candle was put out, and immediately all of them went to the fields, where they fell a-drinking their ale, and spent the remainder of the night in dancing and singing."

Another similar account is from MacCulloch (1911) which describes a ceremony that was performed on Maundy Thursday (The Thursday before the Christian Easter):

“In the Hebrides a curious rite was performed on Maundy Thursday. After midnight a man walked into the sea, and poured ale or gruel on the waters, at the same time singing:

 

A Dhe na mara, cuir todhar 's an tarruinn

Chon tachair an talaimh, chon bailcidh dhuinn biadh

(O' God of the sea, put weed in the drawing wave, to enrich the ground, to shower on us food. )

Those on shore took up the strain in chorus. Thus the rite was described by one who took part in it a century ago."

 

We also know from another Gaelic source, Carmina Gadelica, (Carmichael 1992) what happens if you do not sacrify:

Toradh mara gu tìr; toradh tìre gu muir;

Neach nach dean 'na ìr, Crìon gum bi a chuid.

(Produce of sea to land; produce of land to sea; he who doeth not in time, scant shall his share be).

 

At the arrival of seaweed there was great rejoicing:

Thàine 's gun tàine feamainn

Thàine 's gun tàine brùchd,

Thàine buidheag 's thàine liaghag,

Thàine biadh mu'n iadh an stùc.

(Come and come is seaweed,

Come and come is red sea-ware

Come is yellow weed, come is tangle,

Come is food which the wave enwraps)

 

This seem at first glance to be "just" religious ceremonies, offerings to a deity in order to achieve some kind of return service, but, as is true for many religious actions, behind a somewhat strange behavior there exist often a scientific or historic explanation. So also in this case, it is well known that vitamins are important for the growth of seaweeds in culture; it is also known that microbial symbionts are in some cases very important for proper growth and morphology of seaweeds (Matsuo et al. 2005). The addition of beer to the sea would provide both potential microbial symbionts (the ale was not likely to have been pasteurized nor filtered) as well as vitamins, especially B vitamins, and would thus have increased the growth of seaweed, increasing the amount later cast ashore and available as fertilizers.

 

The report from MacCulloch (1911) interestingly means that the seaweed God had followers until early 19th century. This could thus be an explanation to the increased occurrence of green tides (occurrences of exponential growth of green macroalgae, for example Ulva spp) around Europe occurring during the 20th century. The reduced offerings of beer might have changed the ecological equilibrium among the seaweeds to favor green algae. This could have occurred by two mechanisms, firstly by the above rationale for locally adding growth promoting substances and beneficial organisms and secondly, as a reduction in direct supernatural interventions by Shony caused by the reduced numbers of followers. Thus, a possible method for reducing green tides, which are locally one of the large ecological problems, is offerings of beer to Shony. Offering to another deity of your choice might have the same results, but this has not been tested scientifically nor is it supported by age old cultural knowledge. In addition, some deities might even consider an offering of alcohol as less appropriate.

 

There is also a very recent example on religion and seaweed, this time from Nova Scotia, Canada, to a deity named "The Boss", possibly identical to Shony. In this case it concerns a species that is close to this authors heart, Chondrus crispus. This is part of the lyric from a song by Stompin' Tom Connors "The song of the Irish moss" published in 1971:

"For every man with a callous hand there is a blessing from the sea. ...

And we thank the Boss for the Irish Moss on old Prince Edward Isle"

In this case, no special offerings were suggested, but the general idea is the same: the need to please a god in order to achieve the richness that seaweeds can offer. Seeing that this worship is found on both side of the Atlantic, even if it mainly concerns the same cultural group, the big question is why is this God only known from the British Isles and its descendants? There are some reasons to suggest that the belief in the seaweed god also existed in the Nordic countries. It has been suggested (Henderson 1901) from primarily linguistic studies that Shony is equivalent to the Norse goddess Sjöfn. Sjöfn is described by Sturluson (1220):

 

"Sjaunda er Sjöfn, hon gætir mjök til at snúa hugum manna til ásta, kvenna ok karla, ok af hennar nafni er elskuginn kallaðr sjafni."

(The seventh (goddess) is Sjöfn, who delights in turning men's hearts and thoughts to love; both those of women and men, hence a wooer is called, from her name, sjafni.)

 

This means, and this is not by any means illogical, that the god or goddess of seaweeds is also the god of love, this could to a certain extent explain the otherwise rather strange attraction of seaweeds to me and some of my fellow researchers.

 

A recent example of an offering to Shony. It was fairly succesful and resulted in a accepted application on Chondrus crispus.

 

When you are close to hallow tide, nowadays better known as Halloween, maybe it is time to think about making offerings to Shony. Even if you are not dependent on seaweeds as fertilizers, it should reasonably increase the growth of your seaweeds, possibly help with your grant applications on macroalgae, and if Shony is the equivalent of Sjöfn, may even help your love life. This could certainly be worth a bottle of beer! And if you think that this is too large a sacrifice, maybe some gruel (thin porridge) may work. However, if I were Shony I would prefer some beer.

 

 

 

References

 

Carmichael A (1992) Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last Century. Edinburgh: Lindisfarne Press

 

Collén J (2006) An uncritical view of early uses of seaweeds. In: World Seaweed Resources. Eds: AT Critchley, M Ohno and DB Largo. University of Amsterdam

 

Henderson G (1901) The Norse Influence on Celtic Scotland (Glasgow)

 

Martin M (1703) A description of the Western Islands of Scotland (circa 1695).

 

MacCulloch JA (1911) The Religion of the Ancient Celts www.gutenberg.org

 

Matsuo Y, Imagawa H, Nishizawa M, Shizuri Y (2005) Isolation of an algal morphogenesis inducer from a marine bacterium. Science 307:1598

 

Sturluson S (1220) Edda (Reykavik) see also www.gutenberg.org/etext/14726

 



Senast uppdaterad 2010-01-04 18:35