Cebhin Ó Briain


The Leabhar Mhéibhe 1 has been known by many names throughout history; Leabhar Mhéibhe is the academician name for this body of works. It is an ancient Irish book of Celtic and Mythos lore and magic. It is written in Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) and dates from sometime in the late Irish Iron Age. Copies are known to exist in university or private libraries throughout Europe and America.

The Book is structured into triplets, in imitation of the tripartation of Irish Celtic gods and heroes. The Celts of Ireland had a deep reverence for the number three, which is present throughout their culture. The Book is divided into three volumes, each of which is then divided into three "books", each of which is divided into three parts, each of which is divided into three chapters, each of which is divided into three sections, and so forth. The first volume deals with the life of Maeve, from her early years in prehistoric Ireland, through her wanderings around the world, to her final days as Queen of the province of Connaught. The second volume is a series of treatises on natural and supernatural beings, while the third volume is a grimoire describing magical rituals and devices based on druidic, sorcerous, and other supernatural arts. 2 The book served as the primary source for at least two other magical tomes, 3 and is believed to be one possible source of material for the Al-Azif (later known as the Necronomicon).

Like many ancient books, the history of the Leabhar Mhéibhe is really a history of references to individual books, followed by publication histories after Gutenburg. For this collection of works, each book or publication is called an "edition."


The complete history of the book is inextricably bound to folklore, myth, and legend, and cannot be adequately separated from it. Nonetheless, there are some clear historical records, and these will be described first, followed by legendary references. These and other details will be reconciled in the Chronology.

The Historical Record

The first verifiable historical reference to the book is in a letter dated 254 AD, written by then governor of Britainnia, Titus Desticius Juba, to the Senate of Rome. It describes how he sent a scouting expedition to Ireland to determine the feasibility of invading the island. Instead, the expedition was wiped out and a number of soldiers, including the tribune Rufio Silanus Piso, were taken prisoner. They were systematically tortured and sacrificed to the tribal gods except for Piso, who managed to escape with the help of a native woman. Together they stole a fishing boat and managed to make their way back to Britain. 4 In his report to Juba, which the governor forwarded on to Rome, Piso stated that the tribe possessed as a sacred object a stack of papers, like a scroll cut into pieces, bound between two pieces of pitch-black wood. This edition is known as the "Black Book of Piso."

In 525 AD, the bishopric at Armagh received as a gift from the king of Ulster a collection of papers bound between two pieces of carved black wood. The monks called it the Lebor Medba. 5 The book was placed in their library and catalogued year after year until 840 AD, when Armagh was attacked by Viking raiders. The bishopric was burned to the ground and the library ransacked; after that there is no mention of the Book again in the bishopric records. This edition is presumed to have been destroyed or stolen, assuming the monks did not hide it away somewhere that is now forgotten.

In 672 AD, the monastery at Cromcruach produced an illuminated manuscript based in part on the Lebor Medba (see the next section for more details). According to a contemporary account by Sean Mac Ilrét of Armagh, it was bound into a great book between pieces of leather-covered wood. The leather had been dyed to a deep black, 6 then elaborately decorated.

In 756 AD the Cromcruach edition was donated to the monastery at Kells, where it became known as the Leabhar Mhéibhe Banríon. 7 It served as the template for making other, less auspicious, copies for mass distribution. 8 The monks included it in their inventory of books every year until 795 AD, when the cataloging ceased. After that there is no record of the book anywhere in Ireland. Most likely it was destroyed or stolen during a Viking raid, but many of its copies are known to exist into modern times, including one in the library of Kilfenora, Ireland. 9 However, there is a rumor that the original now resides in a depository in Moscow, Russia.

In 852 AD an unnamed missionary from the monastery of Clonmacnois stopped over at the monastery of Luxeuil in Gaul, now France. There he delivered to the bishop a manuscript entitled simply the Leabhar Dubh 10 before going to Rome. This copy is now stored in Paris, France, and is known as "the Black Book of Luxeuil".

Finally, in 998 AD, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels was created and bound between beautifully carved, gilded, and bejeweled covers as a gift for the Pope in the Rome. Along with it was sent a number of other manuscripts, including a work called the Leabhar Dubh 11 bound in black cloth-covered wood. Only the Gospels and this edition survived the journey; both may now be found in the Vatican. It is called "the Black Book of Rome". This is the last known of the "individual book" editions.

Around 1250 AD (the date cannot be determined any more precisely), a manuscript called the Leabhar Dubh Banríona Méabh 12 was produced in Dublin. It was a very simple affair, but it was bound in black leather. It was mass produced and distributed around Europe. Copies may be found in libraries in Innisfree and Dublin in Ireland, Oxford in England, and Delasalle in Illinois.

The first printed edition was produced in Munich, Germany, in 1588. It was entitled the Keltische Schwarze Buch. 13 Copies may be found in Berlin in Germany, Oxford, Delasalle, and Cairnsford in Colorado.

A second printed edition was produced in Lyons, France, in 1836. It was entitled the Livre Noir, 14 but it is also known as the "Black Book of Lyons". Copies may be found in Paris, New Haven in Connecticut, Arkham in Massachusetts, and a seminary library in Budapest, Hungary.

A third printed edition was produced in Madrid, Spain, in 1904. It was entitled the Libro Negro del Celts. 15 Copies may be found in Barcelona in Spain, Oxford, New Haven, and Cairnsford.

A final printed edition was produced in Cairnsford in 1992. It was entitled The Book of Méabh. It started as a limited bound edition, but it has since been mass marketed as a paperback.

The Legendary References

The first reference to an edition of the Leabhar Mhéibhe, historical or otherwise, comes from one of the minor Irish myth cycles. According to this story, the book was written by Maeve, Queen of Connaught and nemesis of the great Irish hero Cú Chulainn. 16 It took two decades to write and it was completed in the year of a great forest fire. Archaeologists have found evidence of a fire that swept across much of Connaught and Ulster in 109 AD, so this has become the accepted date for the authorship of the first edition. However, the evidence has been disputed in some academic circles, and alternative dates as early as 25 BC and as late as 200 AD have been suggested. Even so, the consensus among modern scholars is that the Book is an authentic Iron Age document and thus must have been written sometime during the first or second century AD. Being as the story gives no title, it is referred to in academic circles as The First Edition. However, the story does describe it as a "black book of malevolent purpose," hence it is often referred to as "the Black Book of Maeve," or even just simply "the Black Book."

In the Leabhar na nGlórtha, 17 there is a tale of the monk Hugh Mac Seachábó, who in 701 AD went on a quest to the Holy Land to recover a religious artifact and return it to his monastery. As gifts for the bishopric in Antioch he brought a number of illuminated manuscripts, including one called simply "the Black Book." It is described as being a book of ancient mysteries bound in black leather. The tale does not say what happened to the book, but it does recount that the monk met the bishop and presented his gifts. There is no historical evidence that this work exists, nor is there any indication of where it might be now, assuming it survived into modern times. This hypothetical edition is called "the Black Book of Antioch." 18


The Leabhar Mhéibhe Banríon is the only edition for whom we know the author (or rather editor/redactor): his name was Caoimhín Chromcruaigh. 19 From his own notes, that were preserved and are now stored at the library in Kilfenora, Ireland, he had access not only to the Lebor Medba, but also apparently "the Black Book of Piso," or something much like it, as well as other earlier editions. Most of these were, however, incomplete, and each was organized in a very different way from the others. As a result, he did not simply transcribe one edition, but parts from each, as well as filling in the inevitable gaps with material from other sources, such as the Tain Bo Cuailgne 20 and the Saol Mhéibhe,21 as well as numerous other writings, creating what could be called the first modern complete edition. 22 He also reorganized the book into the form we are familiar with today. It was this edition that served as the template for all the editions that followed, and it was the edition that all the subsequent derivative tomes were based on.


All known editions are in Gaeilge, transcribed faithfully, if not completely or accurately, from earlier editions. There are no known translations extant. However, there have been four attempts to translate the book into English.

The first was by Séan Ó Néill, who called himself John O'Neill to better collaborate with the English. In 1657 he was hired by the self-styled Earl of Kerry 23 to translate an Irish manuscript into English. Though his main source was a copy of the thirteenth century Leabhar Dubh Banríona Méabh, there is evidence that he also used a copy of the recently printed Keltische Schwarze Buch. Also, after translating a few randomly chosen sections, he began calling the work the "Irish Necronomicon" in his notes. This was because he believed that the book was itself based on the Greek Necronomicon. 24 Though this issue is controversial, it is now fairly certain that both the Leabhar Mhéibhe and the Necronomicon were based on an even earlier as yet unknown work. Even so, this does indicate that Ó Néill probably had access to a copy of Dr. John Dee's unpublished English translation of the Greek work. After having translated only a sixth of the book, however, his work was abruptly halted when he mysteriously vanished in 1660. 25

The second attempt was by Geoffrey Thorne in 1877. He was a minor light of the prevailing Romantic Movement, but for the most part he was simply a dilettante, a wealthy individual with too much time on his hands who performed literary scholarship as a hobby instead of a profession. Being of Irish ancestry he already knew about the book and the legends surrounding it when he acquired a copy of the recently published "Black Book of Lyons"; however, he also knew of Ó Néill's previous attempt, so he may have had access to the other's notes, or even one of his editions. Unfortunately, Thorne was killed in a duel in the same year, after translating only a tenth of the book.

The third attempt was by Oscar Montague of Cambridge University. He began in 1921, after seeing a copy of the Libro Negro del Celts. At some point he acquired a copy of the Leabhar Mhéibhe Banríon and began using that as his sole source. He continued until his death in 1933. He was only able to translate about a quarter of the book, and he never published any of his translations.

A fourth attempt was begun in 1985 by Cebhin Ó Briain of Garthyme University, Cairnsford, Colorado, after he acquired Montague's notes and book. It continues to this day, but so far no translations have been published. 26


109 AD The date accepted by academic consensus as when The First Edition was produced. It is based on an event described in a myth cycle that has been verified and dated by archaeological means. Author unknown, but traditionally attributed to Maeve, Queen of Connaught.

254 AD Titus Desticius Juba mentions the book in a letter sent to the Roman Senate advising them of his decision not to invade Ireland.

525 AD The King of Ulster presents a copy of the book to the Bishop of Armagh.

672 AD Caoimhín Chromcruaigh produces a beautiful and richly illuminated and decorated copy of the book.

701 AD According to legend, a monk named Hugh Mac Seachábó goes on a quest to the Holy Land. There he presents the Bishop of Antioch with a copy of the book.

756 AD The Cromcruach edition is donated to Kells, where it was used to produce less elaborate copies for distribution to monasteries and bishoprics throughout Ireland and Europe. This is the first mass produced edition of the Book.

795 AD The Cromcruach/Kells edition disappears.

840 AD The Armagh edition disappears.

852 AD A copy of the book is presented to the monastery at Luxeuil by an itinerant missionary.

998 AD A copy of the book is sent to Rome as a gift to the Pope.

1250 AD An Irish scholar, believed to be Hugh of Ulster, begins producing a very simple edition, which he calls Leabhar Dubh Banríona Méabh. Copies are distributed around the British Isles and Europe. This is the second mass produced edition of the book.

1588 AD Keltische Schwarze Buch is published in Munich, Germany. This is the first printed edition of the book.

1657 AD Séan Ó Néill is hired by Charles Darby to translate the book into English.

1660 AD Ó Néill disappears after Darby is killed when his castle collapses from an explosion and fire.

1836 AD Livre Noir, known as "the Black Book of Lyons", is published in Lyons, France. This is the second printed edition of the book.

1877 AD Geoffrey Thorne begins a translation of the book into English. He is killed in a duel this same year.

1904 AD Libro Negro del Celts is published in Madrid, Spain. This is the third printed edition of the book.

1921 AD Oscar Montague begins a translation of the book into English.

1933 AD Montague dies of a stroke in his university office. His source and his notes are packed away into faculty storage. He has not published any of his translations.

1985 AD The source and translation notes of Oscar Montague are offered for sale at auction at Cambridge University. They are purchased by Cebhin Ó Briain, who begins his own translation into English.

1992 AD The Book of Maeve is published in Cairnsford, Colorado. This is the fourth printed edition of the book.


The original edition had no title, but is commonly referred to as The First Edition. It is attributed to Maeve, Queen of Connaught; academic consensus accepts that it was written by 109 AD. According to myth it was handwritten on vellum or cloth sheets and bound between wood planks stained black. Unless this is the same edition as the Armagh Lebor Medba (see below), it must now be forever lost to history.

"Black Book of Antioch". Transcriber attributed to be Hugh Mac Seachábó. 701 AD, place of publication unknown (possibly Kells). Hand printed (?), illustrated (?), and illuminated (?) on vellum (?) sheets bound in black leather. Legendary.

"Black Book of Luxeuil". Transcriber unknown. 852 AD, Kells. Hand printed, illustrated, and illuminated on vellum sheets bound in tooled black leather.

"Black Book of Piso". Transcriber unknown. 254 AD, place of publication unknown. Handwritten, with illustrations, on sheets of vellum (?) bound between wood planks stained or painted black. May be the same edition as the Armagh Lebor Medba. Presumed lost.

"Black Book of Rome". Transcriber unknown. 998 AD, Kells. Hand printed, illustrated, and illuminated on vellum sheets bound between softwood planks covered with black cloth.

Book of Maeve, The. Transcribed by Justin St. John Caldwell. 1992 AD, Cairnsford. Electronically printed text, with illustrations, bound in cloth with bookcover (hardback edition); electronically printed text and illustrations bound in paper (paperback edition). Still in print.

Keltische Schwarze Buch ("Celtic Black Book"). Transcribed by Gustaff von Schoenhoff. 1588 AD, Munich. Primitive printed text and woodcut illustrations on paper sheets bound in black cloth.

Leabhar Dubh Banríona Méabh ("Queen Maeve's Black Book"). Transcription attributed to Hugh of Ulster. c. 1250 AD, Dublin. Hand printed (no illustrations) on crude paper sheets bound in plain black leather.

Leabhar Mhéibhe Banríon ("Queen Maeve's Book"). Caoimhín Chromcruaigh. 672 AD, Cromcruach. Hand printed, illustrated, and illuminated on vellum sheets bound between (oak?) wood planks covered in elaborately decorated, black-stained leather (original); copies produced at Kells hand printed, illustrated, and illuminated on vellum sheets bound between softwood planks covered in plain leather stained black. Original presumed lost; copies extant.

Lebor Medba ("Book of Maeve"). Transcriber unknown. 525 AD, place of publication unknown. Handwritten, with illustrations, on vellum sheets bound between intricately carved hardwood planks stained black. May be the same edition as the "Black Book of Piso." Presumed lost.

Libro Negro del Celts ("Black Book of the Celts"). Transcribed by Fernando Quavar de Sugeinn. 1904 AD, Madrid. Printed text and engraved illustrations on paper bound in cloth with bookcover and slipcase.

Livre Noir ("Black Book"; the "Black Book of Lyons"). Transcribed by Henri Jacques de Marigny. 1836 AD, Lyons. Printed text and engraved illustrations on fine gilt-edged paper bound in fine padded embossed black leather.

Notes on editions. These are the known editions; naturally, there may be numerous unknown copies and printings. They are all in Gaeilge; there are no known translations extant. They have all been faithfully transcribed from previous editions, but the degree of accuracy of any edition cannot be guaranteed. Editions transcribed by people unfamiliar with Gaeilge tend to have numerous typographical errors when compared to earlier editions. However, editions transcribed by persons fluent in Gaeilge tend to have numerous spelling and grammatical errors, as well as mistranslations. 27 All modern printed editions are based on the thirteenth century edition, which is itself most likely based on a copy of the seventh century Cromcruach/Kells edition. Any errors in these bottleneck editions would thus have been passed on unintentionally. Finally, all versions after the seventh century are missing portions of text and certain illustrations, either because they were considered too shocking to pass on, or because the transcriber did not understand them or could not appreciate their worth.


These are libraries that are known to possess at least one copy of one of the editions in their collections. Some have open access to the copies, some restrict who may examine them, and some are in private collections, in which examination is by invitation only, if allowed at all.

Open Access These libraries will essentially allow anyone to examine their copies virtually without restriction. At best a patron may need to prove local residency. Even so, they may deny having the copy at the discretion of the librarian or the trustee.

Armitage Library, Miskatonic University, Arkham, Massachusetts, USA
  • Livre Noir
Boone Library, Keekishwa University, Delasalle, Illinois, USA
  • Keltische Schwarze Buch
Goya Depository, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
  • Libro Negro del Celts
Schweiben Institute, Berlin, Germany
  • Keltische Schwarze Buch
Restricted Access These libraries place heavy restrictions on who may have access to their copies. At the very least, the patron must be able to demonstrate that he or she is a published scholar, that he or she has a legitimate and serious reason for examining the copy, and he or she must provide three letters of recommendation. Additional restrictions can include proof of affiliation with an accredited university, being a full professor, a letter of introduction from a past patron, background and credit checks, being escorted by a local university or library employee who will vouch for the integrity of the patron, and so forth. These libraries will also as a matter of form tend to deny the existence of the copies they keep in response to what they feel is a casual or frivolous inquiry.

Cultural Center, Kilfenora, Ireland
  • Leabhar Mhéibhe Banríon (copy; original presumed lost)
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France
  • "Black Book of Luxeuil"
  • Livre Noir
Sorengaard Collection, Keekishwa University, Delasalle, Illinois, USA
  • Leabhar Dubh Banríona Méabh
Norlen Library, Garthyme University, Cairnsford, Colorado, USA
  • Leabhar Mhéibhe Banríon (copy; original presumed lost)
  • Keltische Schwarze Buch
  • Libro Negro del Celts
Sidhe Collection, Dublin University, Dublin, Ireland
  • Leabhar Dubh Banríona Méabh
St. Patrick Library, Innisfree Seminary College, Innisfree, Ireland
  • Leabhar Dubh Banríona Méabh
Private Collections These libraries allow virtually no access to their copies except by permission of the Chief Librarian, Head Trustee, or Owner. These libraries almost always deny the existence of their copies, assuming that one can even make an inquiry in the first place.

Caratacus Special Collection, Oxford University, Oxford, England
  • Keltische Schwarze Buch
  • Leabhar Dubh Banríona Méabh
  • Libro Negro del Celts
Joshua Forsyth Potter, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
  • Libro Negro del Celts
  • Livre Noir
Papal Archives, Vatican Library, Vatican City, Rome, Italy
  • "Black Book of Rome"
Seminary of St. Georges the Dragon Slayer, Budapest, Hungary
  • Livre Noir

Additionally, it is rumored that the original version of the Leabhar Mhéibhe Banríon is being stored in the Romanov Depository in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia.

The following editions are either legendary or are believed to be lost to history; as such, there is no known location where they may be found:

Send your comments to Kevin L. O'Brien



1 "Book of Maeve". The Gaeilge spelling for the name of Maeve has changed through time; this is the modern spelling. The Iron Age spelling was "Medb", while Medieval writers spelled it "Medhbh"; the spelling in modern Irish is "Méabh". [return]

2 I have no opinion on the authenticity of the claim that the magic described in the book is genuine. While I do not believe in magic per se, I do not as most of my colleagues do automatically reject the concept. I do believe that many ancient rituals can have a strong psychological effect on people, so in as much as this is true, magic may be real. [return]

3 The Book of Morgan le Fey and The Book of Merlin, though the latter is disputed by some authorities. [return]

4 As an historical footnote, Juba had the woman made a citizen of Rome and Piso married her when they returned to Italy. By all accounts they were quite happy, and had eleven children, many of whom would go on to have distinguishing careers (including the girls). [return]

5 "The Book of Maeve", as it would be rendered in Iron Age spelling; "Medba" is the genitive form of Medb. It is from this reference that the academic name for the book was adopted. [return]

6 It is from this point that the tradition of binding the book between black-colored covers began. [return]

7 "Queen Maeve's Book", as it would be rendered in modern spelling; "Mhéibhe" is the genitive form of Méabh. [return]

8 One point that has always puzzled scholars is why the book was copied by the Irish monks, or even transcribed in the first place, considering its malign reputation. Certainly the monks would have concurred in this; based on their written comments, they considered it to be a very dangerous book. What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that, unlike the Catholic Church, the Irish Church censored or suppressed nothing, no matter how pagan or dangerous. There is no doubt that many stories were edited to reflect Christian beliefs and values, but nonfiction was transcribed faithfully, even if the transcriber wrote glosses criticizing or even condemning the material he or she was copying, and the monks transcribed everything they could lay their hands on. What also should be kept in mind is that Ireland did not become completely Christianized until about 1000 CE; indeed, the province of Munster held out for centuries. Hence there were many pockets of pagan Celts following the old ways. The monks probably copied the book so that they might have knowledge of these ways and perhaps even the means to counter them if necessary. [return]

9 Oscar Montague of Cambridge University also possessed one of these copies among his private books. After he died it was placed in storage, then auctioned off, at which time I acquired it. I have since donated it to the Latham Special Document Section of the Norlen Library of Garthyme University, Cairnsford, Colorado. [return]

10 "The Dark Book". [return]

11 "The Black Book"; "dubh" means both dark and black. [return]

12 "Queen Maeve's Black Book". [return]

13 "Celtic Black Book". [return]

14 "Black Book". [return]

15 "Black Book of the Celts". [return]

16 It can never be proven whether Maeve actually wrote this book. In fact, her existence as a real historical figure is itself controversial, but given her reputation as a sorceress and her purported descendancy from the Tuatha Dé Danann, this would make her the ideal pseudonym for a book such as this. [return]

17 The "Book of Voices". This work is a collection of tales of certain members of the prominent Irish families. It is divided into sections called "Songs" (Amhráin), one for each family; the sections are then divided into stories, one for each member. [return]

18 Though the general consensus is now that it is unlikely, there is still a strong minority of scholars who believe that Abdul Alhazred used the Antioch edition as one of his sources for Al-Azif, upon which the Necronomicon is based. They argue that "Seachábó" is close enough to "Schacabao" in pronunciation that the two names could very well refer to the same person. They also point out that "Mac" and "Ibn" both mean "son of," thereby reinforcing the connection all the more. Additionally, there is no record that the monk ever returned home; as such, it is argued that he remained in Antioch and became a scholar of Arabic history and lore. [return]

19 Kevin of Cromcruagh. Cromcruagh was a monastery located in a region of County Clare known as Tír na Lofachta, the "Land of Decay". [return]

20 "Cattle Raid of Cooley". [return]

21 "Life of Maeve". [return]

22 Modern in the sense that it was probably the first complete edition after The First Edition, and because this would be the edition whose form and contents would be passed down to us in the modern age. [return]

23 Charles Darby, 1582 to 1660, an officer of Cromwell's parliamentarian army, who was given land confiscated from the MacCarthy Clan in 1653, which he added to through further confiscation over the next four years. He was known as the Black Earl because he dabbled in alchemy. It was widely rumored that he had sold his soul to the Devil for the secret of turning brass to gold. He was killed in a fire started by an explosion in his workshop. [return]

24 We now know that the Leabhar Mhéibhe is too old to be a translation of either the Necronomicon or the Al-Azif, though the Arab work could have used the "Black Book of Antioch" as a source, assuming the latter even existed. [return]

25 It was rumored that Darby had him walled up in the castle dungeon, or murdered him and then dumped his body into a sewage pit. I tend to believe, however, that he was killed in the same disaster that claimed his patron. More than likely the two bodies were blown apart and their remains scattered so that no one could tell that two had been killed instead of one. [return]

26 I have been informed that, according to legend, the Leabhar Mhéibhe can only be translated by "a true son of Ireland." Supposedly, according to this, Thorne and Montague were Englishmen at heart and Ó Néill was a traitor, which is why they ultimately failed. Whether I succeed remains to be seen, but the person who told me of the legend stated I would as long as I remained loyal to my heritage. [return]

27 Though none of the editions has ever been translated, transcribers fluent in Gaeilge have, consciously or otherwise, silently translate the text into their native language. Occasionally this will result in a "mistranslation", when the transcriber reads the Gaeilge original, translates it mentally into his own tongue, then retranslates it back into Gaeilge as he transcribes. Additionally, these same transcribers will "translate" the text into the contemporary style of Gaeilge they know. [return]

© 2006 Edward P. Berglund
"The History and Chronology of the Leabhar Mhéibhe" by Cebhin Ó Briain: © 2006 Kevin L. O'Brien. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1998-2006 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: October 28, 2006