Méadar an Mháistir (the Master’s Mether)

I had a sekrit project, it’s one of the reasons I went quiet here again despite being back in SCA circles, the other being that I’ve moved out of my old house and am currently in weird limbo waiting to be able to start work on my new home. That’s a story for another day though. For this story we need news that one of the best people in the Universe needed a scroll for their elevation to Pelican. A long way back – as proof that people do pay attention to what people say about such things – Aodh O’Siadhail said that he loved the idea of getting an artifact rather than a scroll. His Pelican, Dame Genevieve, was also paying attention, and suggested to me that I might like to take on making his scroll as a carved piece with ogham. I suggested a mether, my thinking being that an enormous part of Aodh’s being revolves around cooking food, campfires and being hospitable.

Methers were typically wooden vessels, two or four handled, used for drinking or storing food. It seems as if the two handled ones were most often the ones used for food storage. Bog butter has been discovered in such, for example. The four handled type were an excellent sharing vessel, they can be passed amoung people with exceptional stability and the four lipped corners were easy to drink from. They typically feature “a quadrangular mouth tapering to a narrower rounded base. The body and handles were hand-carved from a single piece of wood such as yew, alder or willow”. I saw a collection of methers in the Hunt Musuem in Limerick a few years ago, and it’s been in my head to make one since then, so it was great to have such a good reason.

Feasting was an integral part of medieval Irish society. Wine, ale, mead, broth and milk were consumed with the food. Under the king’s or chieftain’s direction the four handled mether was passed in a ‘full circuit’ of the banqueting hall and guests were expected to drink moderately so that the mether could complete the circuit before the contents were drained

(O’Sullivan, 2004, 88, via the National Musuem of Ireland, linked above).

So challenge the first. MY GOD it it is hard to get blocks of wood working timber of sufficient size in Ireland. It may even be hard everywhere right now. I had accepted that I might have to try the whole thing with green wood and try emergency drying to stave off as much cracking as possible with a couple of kilos of silica gel I obtained for the purpose. It was a teeny bit concerning, I’m not going to lie. My dad came to the rescue remembering the whereabouts of some yew, which turned out to be bog yew.

Yew is one of the traditional woods methers are made from, which might seem strange because it’s a poisonous wood. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (AD 77-79), stated that ‘even wine flasks for travellers made of its wood in Gaul are known to have caused death.’ The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew declared far more recently that “In the modern scientific literature, however, evidence for yew wood causing health problems is limited to a few cases of irritation or dermatitis.” I would be treating it carefully and making sure many layers of varnish were applied for peace of mind, however non period that might end up being.

Yew is extremely hard wearing, which is probably why such a high number of good quality wooden vessels of older medieval period found today are yew. It is a particularly attractive wood, and in the Brehon hierarchy of trees Yew is listed 4th of the ‘Nobles of the Wood’ after Oak, hazel and holly, earning its place for “its noble artefacts”. Workers in Yew (Ibar in Irish) were called the sai ibrorachta or “expert in yew-work” are a recognised and lauded category of craftsman. In later Brehon legal commentary this tree is described as int eochrann aicdide “the yew-tree of artefacts”. (Kelly, F Trees in Early Ireland) If Aodh wants an artefact, Aodh is going to get an Irish artefact. The treated wood is fine for use and as it turned out the petrification process of becoming bog yew started turning it from tree to earth anyway, a circumstance I felt might amuse him.

Then came all the cheating. The piece has seperate and attached arms because, well, if it was done the traditional way it would have been tiny given the block we had, and I wanted it to look like something when it was presented. My plan was to carve an ogham inscription on the arms and if anything was messed up it would present a smaller challenge to replace them. The big cheat … ahem, anacronism.. of course is that a modern lathe would have made a medieval woodworker’s eyes pop out of their head and as for modern sanders!? There was plenty of hand shaving and hand sanding as well, but I’m not going to lie, modern tools are amazing and the reason it got done while I was also trying to move house.

Decoration as Máistir Aodh desires may be added later, it was presented relatively plainly on the occasion of his elevation so as to highlight the three arms of all important ogham text indicating his new title.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. irishmansdiary says:

    That is very, very awesome! What do the ogham inscriptions say?

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