[Dead Ideas] “Geis I: The Medieval Irish Geis” by B. T. Newberg

This is the first installment of a new column. Jon Cleland Host was kind enough to invite me to share my latest project: a history-with-humor podcast. Since it’s no secret that we Pagans tend to enjoy history, we thought it would be appropriate. Enjoy.


Listen to more episodes at deadideas.net

Geis what?

Medieval Ireland, that’s what.

We Pagans have a crush on pretty much every culture out there, but if there’s one that’s excited more raging hard-ons than any other, it’s the Celts.

That’s why I’m pleased to announce that this January and February, the podcast Dead Ideas will go deep into the times and culture of medieval Ireland, focusing in particular on the idea of the geis.

What Is a Geis?

Here’s the tweet:

A geis is a soul-binding personal rule that kills you.

Remember when your sister jinxed you so you couldn’t talk till your mom said you could? It’s kinda like that, except there’s no mom to lift the jinx, and if you talk, you die. The powers of Fate and/or the Otherworld basically squash you like an ant. If you break your geis, that sets wheels in motion that brings about your grim demise. A geis is, in short, a jinx of doom.

The geis (plural geassa; various alternate spellings) comes from medieval Irish literature, which in turn weaves together lore from earlier tradition spanning back into the pre-Christian mists. It turns up in heroic epics like the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel). The Táin, for example, depicts the hero Cú Chulainn with a geis against eating dog meat, while the Togail shows King Conaire forbidden by geis to go deosil (sunwise/clockwise) around his capital city of Tara. In both cases, the two heroes meet their grim demise shortly after breaking their geassa.

While scholars tend to translate geis as “taboo”, it isn’t really so. Taboos tend to apply to everyone in a society, whereas geassa are personal and unique to each individual. They are placed on you by someone, and may have something to do with your nature, values, or circumstances. Cú Chulainn, whose name means “Culann’s dog”, had a geis against eating dog meat because doing so would be, symbolically at least, a form of kin-slaying. Likewise, King Conaire, who had an Otherworldly bird-man for a father, had a geis against killing birds. There are many other reasons behind geassa, some of them quite baffling to modern scholars, but suffice to say they are not exactly your typical taboos.

So, that is the short version of the medieval Irish geis. For much, much more, check out our podcast series on Dead Ideas.

An Epic Series

This series will be massive. Co-hosted by Andre Sólo (see his previous posts at HP) and yours truly, the weekly episodes span this January and February, for a total of 7 hours of content. They will immerse you in the world of medieval Ireland of 902 CE. Here’s what’s in store:

  • Part 1 Geis and the Irish Honor Culture
  • Part 2 Geis and the Social Structure of Medieval Ireland
  • Part 3 The Story of Diarmuid and Grainne
  • Part 4 The Story of Nede the Satire Poet, and the Story of Connla, son of Cú Chulainn
  • Part 5 The Position of Women in Medieval Ireland: Interview with Dr. Gillian Kenny of Trinity College, Dublin
  • Part 6 The Effect of the Viking Terror on Medieval Irish Culture: Interview with Fin Dwyer of the Irish History Podcast
  • Part 7 Grand Finale (topic: secret)

What Is Dead Ideas?

Dead Ideas is a new podcast started by myself and a few friends I’ve managed to rope into the project. It’s a history-with-humor show, where we explore ideas once believed to be true but no longer. Each series, we pick a dead idea to explore in all its juicy strangeness. Then we go deep into the times and culture of a people who believed it, until we can almost see how it might have made sense to them at the time. Ultimately, the show is about putting yourself in another culture’s shoes.

And sometimes those shoes are pretty damn entertaining.

Ideas and practices we’ve already explored include:

  • Reanimated Corpses: The Ajivika of Ancient India
  • Ginormous Stone Circles: Stonehenge Builders of Prehistoric Britain
  • Miasma: Plague and Mutated Air in Renaissance Italy
  • Anti-witches: The Benandante of Renaissance Italy
  • Hysteria: Women and Technology in Belle Époque France

You can find these episodes on iTunes, Stitcher, or other podcast apps, or at deadideas.net.

Get Your Portrait Drawn

We also draw portraits of our listeners in the time period and culture of their choosing. Check out our Patreon page for this and other great perks.

Here are just a few of the portraits we’ve done. Yours could be next. Thanks for listening!

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Image Credit: Rachel Westhoff

Dead Ideas is a podcast delivering history with humor. We explore ideas once believed to be true, but no longer. Each dead idea is explore in all its glorious eccentricity. Listen on iTunes, Stitcher, and other podcast apps, or at deadideas.net.

The Author

B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg:  Since the year 2000, B. T. has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective. He currently volunteers as Education Director for the Spiritual Naturalist Society, where he created and now teaches an online course in naturalistic spirituality (including Naturalistic Paganism!). His writings can also be found at Patheos and Pagan Square, as well as right here at HP.

He also hosts a podcast called Dead Ideas: The Podcast of Extinct Thoughts and Practices. It explores ideas once believed to be true, but no longer.

Professionally, he was an ESL teacher for 12 years and now works in customer service. After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea, he currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and cat.

After founding HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011 and serving as managing editor till 2013, he now serves as advising editor, and feels blessed to be a part of this community.

3 Comments on “[Dead Ideas] “Geis I: The Medieval Irish Geis” by B. T. Newberg

  1. A geiss doesn’t kill you, breaking it after it has been accepted does. Basically it is unbreakable in intent.

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