21 August 2009

3000-year-old butter in bog was "piseogary"

This morning Arbroath carried the story of an oak barrel full of 3000-year-old butter having been found in a bog. The report was published in the Leinster Leader:
An oak barrel, full of butter, estimated to be roughly 3,000 years old has been found in Gilltown bog, between Timahoe and Staplestown.

The amazing discovery of the barrel, which is being described by archaeology experts in the National Museum as a "really fine example" was found by two Bord na Mona workers.

The pair, John Fitzharris and Martin Lane, were harrowing the bog one day in late May when they noticed a distinctive white streak in the peat.

"We got down to have a look. We knelt down and felt something hard and started to dig it out with out bare hands," John explained.

"We could smell it. And it was attracting crows," he added. What they found was an oak barrel, cut out of a trunk, full of butter.
You can read the rest of the very interesting story at either of the links, but what also interested me was this comment:
It is thought that the butter was put in the bog for practical reasons, rather than ritual.

"There are accounts dating back to the 1850's with people used to wash their cattle once a year in the bog and then put some butter back into the bog. It was piseogary," Mr. Clancy explained, adding that the butter was usually "stolen by the following week!

That was a new word for me. All I have been able to find is a brief note at Webster's online: "piseog = Irish, superstition." There's nothing in Random House - or the OED!

Presumably neolithic peoples used to store butter in bogs to keep it cool just as my grandparents kept potatoes and carrots buried in sawdust in the cellar. Then in the 18th-19th century locals began finding lost butter stores when they harvested peat, and they developed the superstition that butter should be placed in the bog. But re the etymology of the word I can surmise nothing. The "closest" I can find is "pise" meaning "rammed earth," but it's likely totally irrelevant to "piseog." Perhaps someone at Language Log or The Centered Librarian will come up with more information if they happen to notice the story.

Addendum: Swift Loris found an alternate spelling - "pishogue(s)" - which led to some much more productive search results:
"The sheeogue is the true fairy; thivishes or thoushas (shadowy apparitions) are literally ghosts; and pisherogues, or pishogues, a term used both in the Irish manuscripts and in the vernacular, means properly witchcraft or enchantment.

"(pish-ogue) An Irish fairy spell, by which a man's senses are bemused, so that he sees things entirely different from what they are in actuality. The Fir Darrig is a master at pishogues, and the tale of the Fir Darrig in Donegal is a good example, but pishogues are thickly scattered through the Fenian legends. In English it is called Glamour, and examples of it are to be found in Malory and in many English folk-tales."

"What pishogues (an anglicized version of the Irish 'piseoga') were or are is vague; even as a part of speech the word is hard to define. Certain actions were deemed to be pishogues, but beliefs also were....If you said it was bad luck to come in and out of a house using the same door, someone would accuse you of believing in 'ol pishogues.'... A lot of pishogues surrounded cows and milk. If the cow wasn't inclined to give milk they believed someone had done pishogues. If the cream didn't turn into butter after you dashed it in the churn, that was pishogues, too; and if a woman was seen skimming the top of water from a pond on your land she was said to be doing pishogues, andit would have a bad effect on your cows..."
The third citation, from a book called Yesterday's Ireland, really seems to tie the term tightly to butter production. Very interesting.


  1. Not sure there's much more etymology to it than you've found--it's from the Middle Irish (10th-12th centures) piseoc, meaning the same thing, a spell or incantation. See here at Answers.com:


  2. Thanks, Swift! See the amended post.

  3. In current use, to describe something as a piseog is to describe it as a superstition - such as burying butter in a bog to pay it back for feeding the cow. To describe something as 'piseogary' is simply to add a flourish in a way that Irish people (including myself) and people from other cultures with a strong oral tradition often do.

  4. According to Mary Murray delaney in her book "Of Irish Way" (Kilkenny Press 1985), "Back in the early 19th century when superstitious practices were quite common in ireland, a young woman about to become a mother would consult the pishogue. A pishogue was the wise woman of the village, a purveyor of charms, old saws, and other rural incantations. For a feee, she would give the young woman something to keep the good people [evil fairies] out of her home for the first nine days" (p. 112). So, here a pishogue is a person.

  5. This may add a little depth regarding dairy-oriented pishogue superstitions:

    "Some months ago I was on a visit to some friends in the south of Ireland, and one morning when seated at breakfast a servant rushed into the room, screaming hysterically that the dairymaid has just found pishogue upon the dairy floor. Pishogue is a white, yellowish fungus made at the dead of night, after a solemn incantation of the devil, according to a secret rite which has been handed down from generation to generation. My host, a 'big' landlord, sprang to his feet and, followed by his wife and myself, ran hastily out of the house into the trim, cool dairy where, upon the posts of the door, I saw the daubs of pishogue. My host knocked it off quickly with a stick, and then, turning angrily to the weeping dairy maid told her it was nothing at all. But the next minute he informed me under his breath that he might expect bad luck with his dairy, as it was indeed the cursed pishogue. That very evening when his twenty splendid milch cows were driven into their stalls to be milked, a cry of consternation went up from the lips of the milkers; they were absolutely dry; and for months they remained so, while a tenant who lived close to the demesne, an absolutely drunken, impecunious, rascal, was noticed to give up his weekly attendance at Mass, in spite of which irreligious conduct his miserable dairy stock suddenly took the appearance of healthy, well-fed cattle, and every one knew he was the man who had put pishogue upon his master and robbed him of his good. It is a well-known fact that a dairy woman will go to churn as usual, when, to her terror, she will find pishogue daubed upon it. Let her churn for hours, she will make no butter, The usual remedy resorted to by terrified people is to get Mass said in their homes, and the places, cattle, or crops blessed on which the curse has fallen. But that often fails to bring back the good."

    from http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/osc/osc43.htm

  6. Thank you, Delon. For readers of this blog, I'll just note for the record that that report is dated 1909 (not that long ago, really...)

  7. This is a fascinating entry, both in terms of folklore and etymology. I found it because I Googled "pishogue" after seeing it in one of Brian Froud's books (which says it's "the Irish name for faery glamour"). Now I'm gonna have to check out the rest of your blog.

  8. Welcome on board, Lee. With your intellectual curiosity, I expect you'll find much of interest in the back pages here.


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