Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race
by Thomas Rolleston
Chapter III: The Irish Invasion Myths
The Celtic Cosmogony
AMONG those secret doctrines about the "nature of things" which, as Ciesar tells us, the Druida never would commit to writing, was there any-thing in the nature of a cosmogony, any account of the origin of the world and of man? There surely was.
It would be strange indeed if; alone among the races or the world, the Celts had no world-myth. The spectacle of the universe with all its vast and mysterious phenomena in heaven and on earth has aroused, first the imagination, afterwards the speculative reason, in every people which is capable of either. The Celts had both in abundance, yet, except for that one phrase about the "indestructibility" of the world handed down to us by Strabo, we know nothing of their early imaginings or their reasoning's on this subject. Ireland possesses a copious legendary literature.
All of this, no doubt, assumed its present form in Christian times; yet so much essential paganism has been allowed to remain in it that it would be strange if Christian infuences had led to the excision of everything in these ancient texts that pointed to a non-Christian conception of the origin of things - if Christian editors and transmitters had never given us even the least glimmer of the existence of such a conception. Yet the fact is that they do not give it; there is nothing in the most ancient legendary literature of the Irish Gaels, which is the oldest Celtic literature in existence, corresponding to the Babylonian conquest of Chaos, or the wild Norse myth of the making of Midgard out of the corpse of Ymir, or the Egyptian creation of the universe out of the primeval Water by Thoth, the Word of God, or even to the primitive folk-lore conceptions found in almost every savage tribe. That the Druids had some doctrine on this subject it is impossible to doubt.
But, by resolutely confining it to the initiated and forbidding all lay speculation on the subject, they seem to have completely stifled the myth-making instinct in regard to questions of cosmogony among the people at large, and ensured that when their own order perished, their teaching, whatever it was, should die with them.
In the early Irish accounts, therefore, of the beginnings of things, we find that it is not with the World that the narrators make their start-it is simply with their own country, with Ireland.
It was the practice, indeed, to prefix to these narratives of early invasions and colonisations the Scriptural account of the making of the world and man, and this shows that something of the kind was felt to be required; but what took the place of the Biblical narrative in pre-Christian days we do not know, and, unfortunately, are now never likely to know.
The Cycles of Irish Legend
Irish mythical and legendary literature, as we have it in the most ancient form, may be said to fall into four main divisions, and to these we shall adhere in our presentation of it in this volume. They are, in chronological order, the Mythological Cycle, or Cycle of the Invasions, the Ultonian or Conorian Cycle, the Ossianic or Fenian Cycle, and a multitude of miscellaneous tales and legends which it is hard to fit into any historical framework.
The Mythological Cycle
The Mythological Cycle comprises the following sections:
I. The coming of Partholan into Ireland.
2. The coming of Nemed into Ireland.
3. The coming of the Firbolgs into Ireland.
4. The invasion of the Tuatha De Danann, or People of the god Dana.
5. The invasion of the Milesians (Sons of Miled) from Spain) and their conquest of the People of Dana.
With the Milesians we begin to come into something resembling history - they represent, in Irish legend, the Celtic race; and from them the ruling families of Ireland are supposed to be descended. The People of Dana are evidently gods. The pre-Danaan settlers or invaders are huge phantom-like figures) which loom vaguely through the mists of tradition, and have little definite characterisation. The accounts which are given of them are many and conflicting, and out of these we can only give here the more ancient narratives.
The Coming of Partholan
The Celts, as we have learned from Caesar, believed themselves to be descended from the God of the Underworld, the God of the Dead.
Partholan by Arthur Rackham. c.1910
Partholan is said to have come into Ireland from the West, where beyond the vast, unsailed Atlantic Ocean the Irish Fairyland, the Land of the Living - i.e., the land of the Happy Dead - was placed. His father's name was Sera (the West?).
He came with his queen Dalny [Dealgnaid. I have been obliged here, as occasionally elsewhere; to modify the Irish names so as to make them pronounceable by English readers] and a number of companions of both sexes. Ireland - and this is an imaginative touch intended to suggest extreme antiquity-was then a different country, physically, from what it is now.
There were then but three lakes in Ireland) nine rivers, and only one plain. Others were added gradually during the reign of the Partholanians. One, Lake Rury, was said to have burst out as a grave was being dug for Rury, son of Partholan.
The Partholanians, it is said, had to do battle with a strange race, called the Fomorians, of whom we shall hear much in later sections of this book. They were a huge, misshapen, violent and cruel people, representing, we may believe, the powers of evil. One of these was surnamed Cenchos, which means The Footless, and thus appears to be related to Vitra, the God of Evil in Vedantic mythology, who had neither feet nor hands. With a host of these demons Partholan fought for the lordship of Ireland, and drove them out to the northern seas, whence they occasionally harried the country under its later rulers.
The end of the race of Partholan was that they were afflicted by pestilence, and having gathered together on the Old Plain (Senmag) for convenience of burying their dead, they all perished there; and Ireland once more lay empty for reoccupation.
The Legend of Tuan mac Carell
Who, then, told the tale? This brings us to the mention of a very curious and interesting legend - one of the numerous legendary narratives in which these tales of the Mythical Period have come down to us. It is found in the so called "Book of the Dun Cow," a manuscript of about the year A.D. 1100, and is entitled "The Legend of Tuan mac Carell."
St. Finnen, an Irish abbot of the sixth century, is said to have gone to seek hospitality from a chief named Tuan mac Carell, who dwelt not far from Finnen's monastery at Moville, Co. Donegal. Tuan refused him admittance. The saint sat down on the doorstep of the chief and fasted for a whole Sunday [see p. 48, note 1] upon which the surly pagan warrior opened the door to him. Good relations were established between them, and the saint returned to his monks.
"Tuan is an excellent man," said he to them; "he will come to you and comfort you, and tell you the old stories of Ireland." [I follow in this narrative R. I. Best's translation of the "Irish Mythological Cycle" of d'Arbois de Jubainville]
This humane interest in the old myths and legends of the country is, it may here be observed, a feature as constant as it is pleasant in the literature of early Irish Christianity.
Tuan came shortly afterwards to return the visit of the saint, and invited him and his disciples to his fortress. They asked him of his name and lineage, and he gave an astounding reply. "I am a man of Ulster," he said. "My name is Tuan son of Carell. But once I was called Tuan son of Starn, son of Sera, and my father, Starn, was the brother of Partholan."
"Tell us the history of Ireland," then said Finnen, and Tuan began. Partholan, he said, was the first of men to settle in Ireland. After the great pestilence already narrated he alone survived, "for there is never a slaughter that one man does not come out of it to tell the tale." Tuan was alone in the land, and he wandered about from one vacant fortress to another, from rock to rock, seeking shelter from the wolves. For twenty-two years he lived thus alone, dwelling in waste places, till at last he fell into extreme decrepitude and old age.
"Then Nemed son of Agnoman took possession of Ireland. He [Agnoman] was my father's brother. I saw him from the cliffs, and kept avoiding him. I was long-haired, clawed, decrepit, grey, naked, wretched, miserable. Then one evening I fell asleep, and when I woke again on the morrow I was changed into a stag. I was young again and glad of heart. Then I sang of the coming of Nermed and of his race, and of my own transformation. . . . 'I have put on a new form, a skin rough and grey. Victory and joy are easy to me; a little while ago I was weak and defenceless.
Tuan is then king of all the deer of Ireland, and so remained all the days of Nemed and his race.
He tells how the Nemedians sailed for Ireland in a fleet of thirty-two barks, in each bark thirty persons. They went astray on the sea for a year and a half, and most of them perished of hunger and thirst or of ship-wreck. Nine only escaped - Nemed himself, with four men and four women. These landed in Ireland, and increased their numbers in the course of time till they were 8060 men and women. Then all of them mysteriously died.
Again old age and decrepitude fell upon Tuan, but another transformation awaited him. "Once I was standing at the mouth of my cave - I still remember it - and l knew that my body changed into another form. I was a wild boar. And I sang this song about it:
" 'Today I am a boar. . . . Time was when I sat in the assembly that gave the judgments of Partholan. It was sung, and all praised the melody. How pleasant was the strain of my brilliant judgment ! How pleasant to the comely young women ! My chariot went along in majesty and beauty. My voice was grave and sweet. My step was swift and firm in battle. My face was full of charm. Today, lo ! I am changed into a black boar.'
"That is what I said. Yea, of a surety I was a wild boar. Then I became young again and I was glad. I was king of the boar-herds in Ireland; and, faithful to any custom, I went the rounds of my abode when I returned into the lands of Ulster, at the times old age and wretchedness came upon me. For it was always there that my transformations took place, and that is why I went back thither to await the renewal of my body."
Tuan then goes on to tell how Semion son of Stariat settled in Ireland, from whom descended the Firbolgs and two other tribes who persisted into historic times. Again old age comes on, his strength fails him, and he undergoes another transformation; he becomes "a great eagle of the sea, and once more rejoices in renewed youth and vigour. He then tells how the People of Dana came in, "gods and false gods from whom every one knows the Irish men of learning are sprung." After these came the Sons of Miled, who conquered the People of Dana. All this time Tuan kept the shape of the Sea-eagle, till one day, finding himself about to undergo another transformation, he fasted nine days; "then sleep fell upon me, and I was changed into a salmon." He rejoices in his new life, escaping for many years the snares of the fishermen, till at last he is captured by one of them and brought to the wife of Carell, chief of the country. "The woman desired me and ate me by herself, whole, so that I passed into her womb." He is born again, and passes for Tuan son of Carell; but the memory of his pre-existence and all his transformations and all the history of Ireland that he witnessed since the days of Partholan still abides with him, and he teaches all these things to the Christian monks, who carefully preserve them.
This wild tale, with its atmosphere of grey antiquity and of childlike wonder, reminds us of the transformations of the Welsh Taliessin, who also became an eagle, and points to that doctrine of the transmigration of the soul which as we have seen, haunted the imagination of the Celt.
We have now to add some details to the sketch of of the successive colonisations of Ireland outlined by Tuan mac Carell.
The Nemedians, as we have seen, were akin to the Partholanians. Both of them came from the mysterious regions of the dead, though later Irish accounts, which endeavoured to reconcile this mythical matter with Christianity, invented for them a descent from Scriptural patriarchs and an origin in earthly lands such as Spain or Scythia. Both of them had to do constant battle with the Fomorians, whom the later legends make out to be pirates from oversea, but who are doubtless divinities representing the powers of darkness and evil. There is no legend of the Fomorians coming into Ireland, nor were they regarded as at any time a regular portion of the population. They were coeval with the world itself. Nemed fought victoriously against them in four great battles, but shortly afterwards died of a plague which carried off 2000 of his people with him. The Fomorians were then enabled to establish their tyranny over Ireland. They had at this period two kings, Morc and Conann. The stronghold of the Formorian power was on Tory Island, which uplifts its wild cliffs and precipices in the Atlantic off the coast of Donegal - a fit home for this race of mystery and horror. They extracted a crushing tribute from the people of Ireland, two-thirds of all the milk and two-thirds of the children of the land. At last the Nemedians rise in revolt. Lead by three chiefs, they land on Tory Island, capture Conann's Tower, and Conann himself falls by the hand of the Nemedian chief, Fergus. But Morc at this moment comes into the battle with a fresh host, and utterly routs the Nemedians, who are all slain but thirty:
"The men of Erin were all at the battle,
After the Fomorians came
All of them the sea engulphed,
Save only three times ten."
Poem by Eochy O'Flann, circa. A.D. 960.
The thirty survivors leave Ireland in despair. According to the most ancient belief they perished utterly, leaving no descendants, but later accounts, which endeavour to make sober history out of all these myths, represent one family, that of the chief Britain, as settling in Great Britain and giving their name to that country, while two others returned to Ireland, after many wanderings, as the Firbolgs and People of Dana.
The Coming of the FirboIgs
Who were the Firbolgs, and what did they represent in Irish legend? The name appears to mean "Men of the Bags," and a legend was in later times invented to account for it. It was said that after settling in Greece they were oppressed by the people of that country, who set them to carry earth from the fertile valleys up to the rocky hills, so as to make arable ground of the latter. They did their task by means of leathern bags; but at last, growing weary of the oppression, they made boats or coracles out of their bags, and set sail in them for Ireland. Nennius, however, says they came from Spain, for according to him all the various races that inhabited Ireland came originally from Spain; and "Spain" with him is a rationalistic rendering of the Celtic words designating the Land of the Dead. [De Jubainville, "Irish Mythological Cycle," p. 75] They came in three groups, the Fir-Boig, the Fir-Domnan, and the Gailoin, who are all generally designated as Firbolgs. They play no great part in Irish mythical history, and a certain character of servility and inferiority appears to attach to them throughout.
One of their kings, Eochy [Pronounced "Yeo.hee"] mac Erc, took in marriage Taltiu, or Telta, daughter of the King of the "Great Plain" (the Land of the Dead). Telta had a palace at the palace now called after her, Telltown (properly Teltin). There she died, and there, even in medieval Ireland, a great annual assembly or fair was held in her honour.
The Coming of the People of Dana
We now come to by far the most interesting and important of the mythical invaders and colonisers of Ireland, the People of Dana. The name, Tuatha De Danann; means literally "the folk of the god whose mother is Dana." Dana also sometimes bears another name, that of Brigit, a goddess held in much honour by pagan Ireland, whose attributes are in a great measure transferred in legend to the Christian St. Brigit of the sixth century. Her name is also found in Gaulish inscriptions as "Brigindo," and occurs in several British inscriptions as "Brigantia." She was the daughter of the supreme head of the People of Dana, the god Dagda, "The Good." She had three sons, who are said to have had in common one only son, named Ecne that is to say, "Knowledge," or "Poetry." [The science of the Druids, as we have seen, was conveyed in verse, and the professional poets were a branch of the Druidic Order] Ecrie, then, may be said to be the god whose mother was Dana, and the race to whom she gave her name are the dearest representatives we have in Irish myths of the powers of Light and Knowledge. It will be remembered that alone among all these mythical races Tuan mac Carell gave to the People of Dana the name of "gods." Yet it is not as gods that they appear in the form in which Irish legends about them have now come down to us. Christian influences reduced them to the rank of fairies or identified them with the fallen angels. They were conquered by the Milesians, who are conceived as an entirely human race, and who had all sorts of relations of love and war with them until quite recent times. Yet even in the later legends a certain splendour and exaltation appears to invest the People of Dana, recalling the high estate from which they had been dethroned.
The Popular and the Bardic Conceptions
Nor must it be overlooked that the popular conception of the Danaan deities was probably at all times something different from the bardic and Druidic, or in other words the scholarly, conception. The latter, as we shall see, represents them as the presiding deities of science and poetry. This is not a popular idea; it is the product of the Celtic, the Aryan imagination, inspired by a strictly intellectual conception. The common people, who represented mainly the Megalithic element in the population, appear to have conceived their deities as earth-powers - dei terreni; as they are explicitly called in the eighth-century "Book of Armagh" [Mever and Nutt, "Voyage of Bran, ii. 197.] presiding, not over science and poetry, but rather agriculture, controlling the fecundity of the earth and water, and dwelling in hills, rivers, and lakes. In the bardic literature the Aryan idea is prominent; the other is to be found in innumerable folk-tales and popular observances; but of course in each case a considerable amount of interpenetration of the two conceptions is to met with - no sharp dividing line was drawn between them in ancient times, and none can be drawn now.
The Treasures of the Danaans
Tuan mac Carell says they came to Ireland "out of heaven." This is embroidered in later tradition into a narrative telling how they sprang from four great cities, whose very names breathe of fairydom and romance - Falias, Gorias, Finias, and Murias. Here they learned science and craftsmanship from great sages one of whom was enthroned in each city, and from each they brought with them a magical treasure. From Falias came the stone called the Lia Fail or Stone of Destiny, on which the High-Kings of Ireland stood when they were crowned, and which was supposed to confirm the election of a rightful monarch by roaring under him as he took his place on it. The actual stone which was so used at the inauguration of a reign did from immemorial times exist at Tara, and was sent thence to Scotland early in the sixth century for the crowning of Fergus the Great, son of Ere, who begged his brother Murtagh mac Erc, King of Ireland, for the loan of it. An ancient prophecy told that wherever this stone was, a king of the Scotic (i.e., Irish-Milesian) race should reign. This is the famous Stone of Scone, which never came back to Ireland, but was removed to England by Edward I. in 1297, and is now the Coronation Stone in Westminster Abbey. Nor has the old prophecy been falsified, since through the Stuarts and Fergus mac Erc the descent of the British royal family can be traced from the historic kings of Milesian ireland.
The second treasure of the Danaans was the invincible sword of Lugh of the Long Arm, of whom we shall hear later, and this sword came from the city of Gorias. From Finias came a magic spear, and from Murias the Cauldron of the Dagda, a vessel which had the property that it could feed a host of men without ever being emptied.
With these possession; according to the version given in the "Book of Invasions," the People of Dana came into Ireland.
The Danaans and the Firbolgs
They were wafted into the land in a magic cloud, making their first appearance in Western Connacht. When the cloud cleared away, the Firbolgs discovered them in a camp which they had already fortified at Moyrein.
The Firbolgs now sent out one of their warriors, named Sreng, to interview the mysterious newcomers; and the People of Dana, on their side, sent a warrior named Bres to represent them. The two ambassadors examined each other's weapons with great interest. The spears of the Danaans, we are told, were light and sharp-pointed; those of the Firbolgs were heavy and blunt. To contrast the power of science with that of brute force is here the evident intention of the legend, and we are reminded of the Greek myth of the struggle of the Olympian deities with the Titans.
Bres proposed to the Firbolg that the two races should divide Ireland equally between them, and join to defend it against all comers for the future. They then exchanged weapons and returned each to his own camp.
The First Battle of Moytura
The Firbolg, however, were not impressed with the the superiority of the Danaans and decided to refuse their offer. The battle was joined on the Plain of Moytura ["Moytura" means "The Plain of the Towers" - i.e. sepulchral monuments] in the south of Co. Mayo, near the spot now called Cong. The Firbolgs were Ied by their king, mac Erc, and the Danaans by Nuada of the Silver Hand, who got his name from an incident in this battle. His hand, it is said, was cut off in the fight, and one of the skilful artificers who abounded in the ranks of the Danaans made him a new one of silver. By their magical and healing arts the Danaans gained the victory, and the Firbolg king was slain. But a reasonable agreement followed : the Firbolgs were allotted the province of Connacht for their territory, while the Danaans took the rest of Ireland. So late as the seventeenth century the annalist Mac Firbis discovered that many of the inhabitants of Connacht traced their descent to these same Firbolgs. Probably they were a veritable historic race, and the conflict between them and the People of Dana may be a piece of actual history invested with some of the features of a myth.
The Expulsion of King Bres
Nuada of the Silver Hand should now have been ruler of the Danaans, but his mutilation forbade it, for no blemished man might be a king in Ireland. The Danaans therefore chose Bres, who was the son of a Danann woman named Eri, but whose father was unknown, to reign over them instead. This was another Bres, not the envoy who had treated with the Firbolgs and who was slain in the battle of Moytura. Now Bres, although strong and beautiful to look on, had no gift of kingship, for he not only allowed the enemy of Ireland, the Fomorians, to renew their oppression and taxation in the land, but he himself taxed his subjects heavily too; and was so niggardly that he gave no hospitality to chiefs and nobles and harpers. Lack of generosity and hospitality was always reckoned the worst of vices in an Irish prince. One day it is said that there came to his court the poet Corpry, who found himself housed in a small, dark chamber without fire or furniture, where, after long delay, he was served with three dry cakes and no ale. In revenge he composed a satirical quatrain on his churlish host :
"Without food quickly served,
Without a cow's milk, whereon a calf can grow,
Without a dwelling fit for a man under the gloomy night,
Without means to entertain a bardic company, -
Let such he the condition of Bres."
Poetic satire in Ireland was supposed to have a kind of magical power. Kings dreaded it; even rats could be exterminated by it. [Shakespeare alludes to this in "As You Like It." "I never was so be-rhymed," says Rosalind, "since Pythagoras' time, that I was an Irish rat-which I can hardly remember."] This quatrain of Corpry's was repeated with delight among the people, and Bres had to lay down his sovranty. This was said to be the first satire ever made in Ireland. Meantime, because Nuada had got his silver hand through the art of his physician Diancecht, or because, as some versions of the legend say, a still greater healer, the son of Diancecht, had made the veritable hand grow again to the stump, he was chosen to be king in place of Bres.
The latter now betook himself in wrath and resentment to his mother Eri, and begged her to give him counsel and to tell him of his lineage. Eri then declared to him that his father was Elatha, a king of the Fomorians, who had come to her secretly from over sea, and when he departed had given her a ring, bidding her never bestow it on any man save him whose finger it would fit. She now brought forth the ring, and it fitted the finger of Bres, who went down with her to the strand where the Fomorian lover had landed, and they sailed togethcr for his father's home.
The Tyranny of the Formorians
The Fomorians or the Powers of Evil Abroad in the World. John Duncan 1912
Elatha recognised the ring, and gave his son an army wherewith to reconquer Ireland, and also sent him to seek further aid from the greatest of the Fomorian kings, Balor.
Now Balor was surnamed "of the Evil Eye," because the gaze of his one eye could slay like a thunderbolt those on whom he looked in anger.
He was now, however, so old and feeble that the vast eyelid drooped over the death-dealing eye, and had to be lifted up by his men with ropes and pulleys when the time came to turn it on his foes.
Nuada could make no more head against him than Bres had done when king ; and the country still groaned under the oppression of the Fomorians and longed for a champion and redeemer.
The Coming of Lugh
A new figure now comes into the myth, no other than Lugh son of Kian, the Sun-god par excellance of all Celtica, whose name we can still identify in many historic sites on the Continent. [Lyons, Leyden, Laon were all in ancient times known as Lug-dunum, the Fortress of Lugh. Luguvallum was the name of a town near Hadrian's: Wall in Roman Britain.] To explain his appearance we must desert for a moment the ancient manuscript authorities, which are here incomplete, and have to be supplemented by a folk-tale which was fortunately discovered and taken down orally so late as the nineteenth century by the great Irish antiquary, O'Donovan. [It is given by him in a note to the " Four Master:," vol. i. P. 18, and is also reproduced by de Jubainville.]
In this folk-tale the names of Balor and his daughter Ethlinn (the latter in the form "Ethnea") are preserved, as well as those of some other mythical personages, but that of the father of Lugh is faintly echoed in MacKineely; Lugh's own name is forgotten, and the death of Balor is given in a manner inconsistent with the ancient myth. In the story as I give it here the antique names and mythical outline are preserved, but are supplemented where required from the folk-tale, omitting from the latter those modern features which are not reconcilable with the myth.
The story, then, goes that Balor, the Formorian king, heard in a Druidic prophecy that he would be slain by his grandson. His only child was an infant daughter named Ethlinn. To avert the doom he, like Acrisios, father of Danae, in the Greek myth, had her imprisoned in a high tower which he caused to be built on a precipitous headland, the Tor MMr, in Tory Island. He placed the girl in charge of twelve matrons, who were strictly charged to prevent her from ever seeing the face of man, or even learning that there were any beings of a different sex from her own. In this seclusion Ethlinn grew up as all sequestered princesses do - into a maiden of surpassing beauty.
Now it happened that there were on the mainland three brothers, namely, Kian, Sawan, and Goban the Smith, the great armourer and artificer of Irish myth, who corresponds to Wayland Smith in Germanic legend. Kian had a magical cow, whose milk was so abundant that every one longed to possess her, and he had to keep her strictly under protection.
Balor determined to possess himself of this cow. One day Kian and Sawan had come to the forge to have some weapons made for them, bringing fine steel for that purpose. Kian went into the forge, leaving Sawan in charge of the cow. Balor now appeared on the scene, taking on himself the form of a little red-headed boy, and told Sawan that he had overheard the brothers inside the forge concocting a plan for using all the fine steel for their own swords, leaving but common metal for that of Sawan. The latter, in a great rage, gave the cow's halter to the boy and rushed into the forge to put a stop to this nefarious scheme. Balor immediately carried off the cow, and dragged her across ,the sea to Tory Island.
Kian now determined to avenge himself on Balor, and to this end sought the advice of a Druidess named BirMg. Dressing himself in woman's garb, he was wafted by magical spells across the sea, where Birag, who accompanied him, represented to Ethlinn's guardians that they were two noble ladies cast upon the shore in escaping from an abductor, and begged for shelter. They were admitted; Kian found means to have access to the Princess Ethlinn while the matrons were laid by Birog under the spell of an enchanted slumber, and when they awoke Kian and the Druidess had vanished as they came. But Ethlinn had given Kian her love, arid soon her guardians found that she was with child. Fearing Balor's wrath, the matrons persuaded her that the whole transaction was but a dream, and said nothing about it; but in due time Ethlinn was delivered of three sons at a birth.
News of this event came to Balor, arid in anger and fear he commanded the three infants to be drowned in a whirlpool off the Irish coast. The messenger who was charged with this command rolled up the children in a sheet, but in carrying them to the appointed place the pin of the sheet came loose, and one of the children dropped out and fell into a little bay, called to this day Port na Delig, or the Haven of the Pin. The other two were duly drowned, and the servant reported his mission accomplished.
But the child who had fallen into the bay was guarded by the Druidess, who wafted it to the home of its father, Kian, and Kian gave it in fosterage to his brother the smith, who taught the child his own trade and made it skilled in every manner of craft and handiwork This child was Lugh. When he was grown to a youth the Danaans placed him in charge of Duach, "The Dark," king of the Great Plain (Fairyland, or the "Land of the Living," which is also the Land of the Dead), and here he dwelt till he reached manhood.
Lugh was, of course, the appointed redeemer of the Danann people from their servitude. His coming is narrated in a story which brings out the solar attributes of universal power, and shows him, like Apollo, as the presiding deity of all human knowledge and of all artistic and medicinal skill. He came, it is told, to take service with Nuada of the Silver Hand, and when the doorkeeper at the royal palace of Tara asked him what he could do, he answered that he was a carpenter -
"We are in no need of a carpenter," said the doorkeeper; "we have an excellent one in Luchta son Luchad." "I am a smith too," said Lugh. "We have a master-smith," said the doorkeeper, "already." "Then I am a warrior," said Lugh. "We do not need one," said the doorkeeper, "while we have Ogma." Lugh goes on to name all the occupations and arts he can think of - he is a poet, a harper, a man of science, a physician, a spencer, and so forth, always receiving the answer that a man of supreme accomplishment in that art is already installed at the court of Nuada/ "Then ask the King," said Lugh, "if he has in his service any one man who is accomplished in every one of these arts, and if he have, I shall stay here no longer, nor seek to enter his palace." Upon this Lugh is received, and the surname Ild‡nach is conferred upon him, meaning "The All-Craftsman," Prince of all the Sciences; while another name that he commonly bore was Lugh Lamfada, or Lugh of the Long Arm. We are reminded here, as de Jubainville points out, of the Gaulish god whom Caesar identifies with Mercury, inventor of all the arts," and to whom the Gauls put up many statues. The Irish myth supplements this information and tells us the Celtic name of this deity.
When Lugh came from the Land of the Living he brought with him many magical gifts. There was the Boat of Mananan, son of Lir the Sea God, which knew a man's thoughts and would travel whithersoever he would, and the Horse of Mananan, that could go alike over land and sea, and a terrible sword named Fragarach ("The Answerer"), that could cut through any mail. So equipped, he appeared one day before an assembly Of the Danaan chiefs who were met to pay their tribute to the envoys of the Formorian oppressors; and when the Danaans saw him, they felt, it is said, as if they beheld the rising of the sun on a dry summer's day. Instead of paying the tribute, they, under Lugh's leadership, attacked the Fomorians, all of whom were slain but nine men, and these were sent back to tell Balor that the Danaans defied him and would pay no tribute henceforward. Balor then made him ready for battle; and bade his captains, when they had subdued the Danaans, make fast the island by cables to their ships and tow it far northward to the Fomorian regions of ice and gloom, where it would trouble them no longer.
The Quest of the Sons of Turenn
Lugh, on his side, also prepared for the final combat; but to ensure victory certain magical instruments were still needed for him, and these had now to be obtained. The story of the quest of these objects, which incidentally tells us also of the end of Lugh's father, Kian, is one of the most valuable and curious in Irish legend, and formed one of a triad of mythical tales which were reckoned as the flower of Irish romance. [The other two were "The Fate of the Children of Lir" and "The Fate of the Sons of Usna." The stories of the Quest of the Sons of Turenn and that of the Children of Lir have been told in full by the author in his "High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances," and that of the "Sons of Usna" (the Deirdre Legend) by Miss Eleanor Hull in her "Cuchulain," both published by Harrap and Co.]
Kian, the story goes, was sent northward by Lugh to summon the fighting men of the Danaans in Ulster to the hosting against the Fomorians. On his way, as he crosses the Plain of Murthemney, near Dundalk, he meets with three brothers, Brian, luchar, and Iucharba, sons of Turenn, between whose house and that of Kian there was a blood-feud. He seeks to avoid them by changing into the form of a pig and joining a herd which is rooting in the plain, but the brothers detect him and Brian wounds him with a cast from a spear. Kian, knowing that his end is come, begs to be allowed to change back into human form be fore he is slain. "I had liefer kill a man than a pig," says Brian, who takes throughout the leading part in all the brothers' adventures. Kian then stands before them as a man, with the blood from Brian's spear trickling from his breast. "I have outwitted ye," he cries, "for if ye had slain a pig ye would have paid but the eric [blood fine] of a pig, but now ye shall pay the eric of a man; never was greater eric than that which ye shall pay; and the weapons ye slay me with shall tell the tale to. the avenger of blood."
"Then you shall be slain with no weapons at all," says Brian, and he and the brothers stone him to death and bury him in the ground as deep as the height of a man.
But when Lugh shortly afterwards passes that way the stones on the plain cry out and tell him of his brother's murder at the hands of the sons of Turenn. He uncovers the body, and, vowing vengeance, returns to Tara. Here he accuses the sons of Turenn before the High King, and is permitted to have them executed, or to name the eric he will accept in remission of that sentence. Lugh chooses to have the eric, and he names it as follows, concealing things of vast price, and involving unheard-of toils, under the names of common objects Three apples, the skin of a pig, a spear, a chariot with two horses, seven swine, a hound, a cooking-spit, and, finally, to give three shouts on a hill. The brothers bind themselves to pay the fine, and Lugh then declares the meaning of it. The three apples are those which grow in the Garden of the Sun the pig-skin is a magical skin which heals every wound arid sickness if it can be laid on the sufferer, and it is a possession of the King of Greece ; the spear is a magical weapon owned by the King of Persia (these names, of course, are mere fanciful appellations for places in the world of Faery) ; the seven swine belong to King Asal of the Golden Pillars, and may be killed and eaten every night and yet be found whole next day the spit belongs to the sea-nymphs of the sunken Island of Finchory; and the three shouts are to be given on the hill of a fierce warrior, Mochaen, who, with his sons, are under vows to prevent any man from raising his voice on that hill. To fulfil any one of these enterprises would be an all but impossible task, and the brothers must accomplish them all before they can clear them-selves of the guilt and penalty of Kian's death.
The story then goes on to tell how with infinite daring and resource the sons of Turenn accomplish one by one all their tasks, but when all are done save the capture of the cooking-spit and the three shouts on the Hill of Mochaen, Lugh, by magical arts, causes forgetfulness to fall upon them, and they return to Ireland with their treasures. These, especially the spear and the pig-skin, are just what Lugh needs to help him against the Fomorians; but his vengeance is not complete, and after receiving the treasures he reminds the brothers of what is yet to be won. They, in deep dejection, now begin to understand how they are played with, and go forth sadly to win, if they can, the rest of the eric. After long wandering they discover that the Island of Finchory is not above, but under the sea. Brian in a magical "water-dress" goes down to it, sees the thrice fifty nymphs in their palace, and seizes the golden spit from their hearth. The ordeal of the Hill of Mochaen is the last to be attempted. After a desperate combat which ends in the slaying of Mochaen and his sons, the brothers, mortally wounded, uplift their voices in three faint cries, and so the eric is fulfilled. The life is still in them, however, when they return to Ireland, and their aged father, Turenn, implores Lugh for the loan of the magic pig-skin to heal them; but the implacable Lugh refuses, and the brothers and their father die together. So ends the tale.
The Second Battle of Moytura
The Second Battle of Moytura took place on a plain in the north of Co. Sligo, which is remarkable for the number of sepulchral monuments still scattered over it. The first battle, of course, was that which the Danaans had waged with the Firbolgs, and the Moytura there referred to was much further south, in Co. Mayo.
The battle with the Fomorians is related with an astounding wealth of marvellous incident. The crafts-men of the Danaans, Goban the smith, CrednŽ the artificer (or goldsmith), and Luchta the carpenter, keep repairing the broken weapons of the Danaans with magical speed - three blows of Goban's hammer make a spear or sword, Luchta flings a handle at it and it sticks on at once, and CrednŽ jerks the rivets at it with his tongs as fast as he makes them and they fly into their places. The wounded are healed by the magical pig-skin The plain resounds with the clamour of battle:
"Fearful indeed was the thunder which rolled over the
battlefield; the shouts of the warriors, the breaking of the
shields, the flashing and clashing of the swords, of the
straight, ivory-hilted swords, the music and harmony of the
'belly-darts' and the sighing and winging of the spears and
[O'Curry's translation from the bardic tale, "The Battle of Moytura."]
The Death of Balor
The Fomonans bring on their champion, Balor, before the glance of whose terrible eye Nuada of the Silver Hand and others of the Danaans go down. But Lugh, seizing an opportunity when the eyelid drooped through weariness, approached close to Balor, and as it began to lift once more he hurled into the eye a great stone which sank into the brain, and Balor lay dead, as the prophecy had foretold, at the hand of his grandson. The Fomorians were then totally routed, and it is not recorded that they ever again gained any authority or committed any extensive depredations in Ireland. Lugh, the Ild‡nach, was then enthroned in place of Nuada, and the myth of the victory of the solar hero over the powers of darkness and brute force is complete.
The Harp of the Dagda
A curious little incident bearing on the power which the Danaans could exercise by the spell of music may here be inserted. The flying Fomorians, it is told, had made prisoner the harper of the Dagda and carried him off with them. Lugh, the Dagda, and the warrior Ogma followed them, and came unknown into the banqueting-hall of the Fomorian camp. There they saw the harp hanging on the wall. The Dagda called to it, and immediately it flew into his hands, killing nine men of the Fomorians on its way. The Dagda's invocation of the harp is very singular, and not a little puzzling:
"Come, apple-sweet murmurer,' he cries, "come, four-angled
frame of harmony, come, Summer, come, Winter, from the mouths of
harps and bags and pipes."
[O'Curry, "Manners and Customs," iii. 214.]
The allusion to summer and winter suggests the practice in Indian music of allotting certain musical modes to the different seasons of the year (and even to different times of day) and also an Egyptian legend referred to in Burney's "History of Music" where the three strings of the lyre were supposed to answer respectively to the three seasons, spring, summer, and winter. [The ancient Irish division of the year contained only these three seasons, including autumn in summer (O'Curry, "Manners and Customes," iii. 217.]
When the Dagda got possession of the harp, the tale goes on, he played on it the "three noble strains"
which every great master of the harp should command, namely, the Strain of Lament, which caused the hearers to weep, the Strain of Laughter, which made them merry, and the Strain of Slumber, or Lullaby, which plunged them all in a profound sleep. And under cover of that sleep the Danaan champion stole out and escaped. It may be observed that throughout the whole of the legendary literature of Ireland skill in music, the art whose influence most resembles that of a mysterious spell or gift of Faery, is the prerogative of the People of Dana and their descendants. Thus in the "Colloquy of the Ancients," a collection of tales made about the thirteenth or fourteenth century, St. Patrick is introduced to a minstrel, Cascorach, "a handsome, curly-headed, dark-browed youth," who plays so Sweet a strain that the saint and his retinue all fall asleep. Cascorach, we are told, was son of a minstrel of the Danaan folk. St. Patrick's scribe, Brogan, remarks, "A good cast of thine art is that thou gavest us."
"Good indeed it were," said Patrick, "but for a twang of the fairy spell that infests it; barring which nothing could more nearly resemble heaven's harmony." [S. H. O'Grady, "Silva Gadelica,"
Some of the most beautiful of the antique Irish folk-medlodies, - e.g. the Coulin - are traditionally supposed to have been overheard by mortal harpers at the revels of the Fairy Folk.
Names and Characteristics of the Danaan Deities
I may conclude this narrative of the Danaan conquest some account of the principal Danaan gods and attributes, which will be useful to readers of the subsequent pages. The best with which I am acquainted is to be found in Mr. Standish O'Grady's "Critical History of Ireland." [Pp. 104 sqq., and passim] his work is no less remark-able for its critical insight - it was published in 1881, when scientific study of the Celtic mythology was little heard of - than for the true bardic imagination, kindred to that of the ancient myth-makers themselves, which recreates the dead forms of the past and dilates them with the breath of life. The broad outlines in which Mr. O'Grady has laid down the typical characteristics of the chief personages in the Danaan cycle hardly need any correction at this day, and have been of much use to me in the following summary of the subject.
The Dagda MMr was the father and chief of the People of Dana. A certain conception of vastness attaches to him and to his doings. In the Second Battle of Moytura his blows sweep down whole ranks of the enemy, and his spear, when he trails it on the march, draws a furrow in the ground like the fosse which marks the mearing of a province. An element of grotesque humour is present in some of the records about this deity. When the Fomorians give him food on his visit to their camp, the porridge and milk are poured into a great pit in the ground, and he eats it with a spoon big enough, it was said, for a man and a woman to lie together in it. With this spoon he scrapes the pit, when the porridge is done, and shovels earth and gravel unconcernedly down his throat. We have already seen that, like all the Danaans, he is a master of music, as well as of other magical endowments, and owns a harp which comes flying through the air at his call. "The tendency to attribute life to inanimate things is apparent in the Homeric literature, but exercises a very great influence in the mythology of this country. The living, fiery spear of Lugh; the magic ship of Mananan ; the sword of Conary MMr, which sang; Cuchulain's sword, which spoke; the Lia Fail, Stone of Destiny, which roared for joy beneath the feet of rightful kings; the waves of the ocean, roaring with rage and sorrow when such kings are in jeopardy ; the waters of the Avon Dia, holding back for fear at the mighty duel between Cuchulain and Ferdia, are but a few out of many examples." [O'Grady, loc. cit.] A legend of later times tells how once, at the death of a great scholar, all the books in Ireland fell from their shelves upon the floor.
Angus Og (Angus the Young), son of the Dagda, by Boanna (the river Boyne), was the Irish god of love. His palace was supposed to be at New Grange, on the Boyne. Four bright birds that ever hovered about his head were supposed to be his kisses taking shape in this lovely form, and at their singing love came springing up in the hearts of youths and maidens. Once he fell sick of love for a maiden whom he had seen in a dream. He told the cause of his sickness to his mother Boanna, who searched all Ireland for the girl, but could not find her. Then the Dagda was called in, but he too was at a loss, till he called to his aid Bōv the Red, king of the Danaans of Munster - the same whom we have met with in the tale of the Children of Lir, and who was skilled in all mysteries and enchantments. Bōv undertook the search, and after a year had gone by declared that he had found the visionary maiden at a lake called the Lake of the Dragon's Mouth.
Angus goes to Bōv, and, after being entertained by him three days, is brought to the lake shore, where he sees thrice fifty maidens walking in couples, each couple linked by a chain of gold, but one of them is taller than the rest by a head and shoulders. "That is she !" cries Angus. "Tell us by what name she is known." Bōv answers that her name is Caer, daughter of Ethal Anubal, a prince of the Danaans of Connacht. Angus laments that he is not strong enough to carry her off from her companions, but, on Bōv's advice, betakes himself to Ailell and Maev, the mortal King and Queen of Connacht, for assistance. The Dagda and Angus then both repair to the palace of Ailell, who feasts them for a week, and then asks the cause of their coming. When it is declared he answers, " We have no authority over Ethal Anubal." They send a message to him, however, asking for the hand of Caer for Angus, but Ethal refuses to give her up. In the end he is besieged by the combined forces of Ailell and the Dagda, and taken prisoner. When Caer is again demanded of him he declares that he cannot comply, "for she is more powerful than I." He explains that she lives alternately in the form of a maiden and of a swan year and year about, "and on the first of November next," he says, "you will see her with a hundred and fifty other swans at the Lake of the Dragon's Mouth."
Angus goes there at the appointed time, and cries to her, "Oh, come and speak to me !" "Who calls me?" asks Caer. Angus explains who he is, and then finds himself transformed into a swan. This is an indication of consent, and he plunges in to join his love in the lake. After that they fly together to the palace on the Boyne, uttering as they go a music so divine that all hearers are lulled to sleep for three days and nights.
Angus is the special deity and friend of beautiful youths and maidens. Dermot of the Love-spot, a follower of Finn mac Cumhal, and lover of Grania, of whom we shall hear later, was bred up with Angus in the palace on the Boyne. He was the typical lover of Irish legend. When he was slain by the wild boar of Ben Bulben, Angus revives him and carries him off to share his immortality in his fairy palace.
Lea of Killarney
Of Bōv the Red, brother of the Dagda, we have already heard. He had, it is said, a goldsmith named Len, who "gave their ancient name to the Lakes of Killarney, once known as Locha Lein, the Lakes of Len of the Many Hammers. Here by the lake he wrought, surrounded by rainbows and showers of fiery dew." [O'Grady, loc. cit.]
Lugh has already been described. [p. 112] He has more distinctly solar attributes than any other Celtic deity; and, as we know, his worship was spread widely over Continental Celtica. In the tale of the Quest of the Sons of Turenn we are told that Lugh approached the Fomorians from the west. Then Bres, son of Balor, arose and said: "I wonder that the sun is rising in the west today, and in the east every other day." "Would were so," said his Druids. "Why, what else but the sun is it?" said Bres. "It is the radiance of the of Lugh of the Long Arm," they replied.
Lugh was the father, by the Milesian maiden Dectera, of Cuchulain, the most heroic figure in Irish legend, in whose story there is evidently a strong element of the solar myth. [Miss Hull has described this subject fully in the introduction to her invaluable work, "The Cuchullin Saga."]
Midir the Proud
Midir the Proud is a son of the Dagda. His fairy palace is at Bri Leith, or Slieve CaIlary,in Co. Longford. He frequently appears in legends dealing partly with human, partly with Danaan personages, and is always represented as a type of splendour in his apparel and in personal beauty. When he appears to King Eochy on the Hill of Tara he is thus described : [See the tale of "Etain and Midir," in Chap. IV.]
"It chanced that Eochaid Airemm, the King of Tara, arose upon a certain fair day in the time of summer; and he ascended the high ground of Tara [The name of Tara is derived from an oblique case of the nominative Teamhair, meaning "the place of the wide prospect." It is now a broad grassy hill, in Co. Meath, covered with earthworks representing the sites of the ancient royal buildings, which can all be clearly located from ancient descriptions.] to behold the plain of Breg; beautiful was the colour of that plain, and there was upon it excellent blossom glowing with all hues that are known. And as the aforesaid Eochy looked about and around him, he saw a young strange warrior upon the high ground at his side. The tunic that the warrior wore was purple in colour, his hair was of a golden yellow, and of such length that it reached to the edge of his shoulders. The eyes of the young warrior were lustrous and grey; in the one hand he held a fine pointed spear, in the other a shield with a white central boss, and with gems of gold upon it. And Eochaid held his peace, for he knew that none such had been in Tara on the night before, and the gate that led ,into the Liss had not at that time been thrown open." [A.H. Leahy, "Heroic Romances," i. 27]
Lir and Mananan
Lir, as Mr. O'Grady remarks, "appears in two distinct forms. In the first he is a vast, impersonal presence commensurate with the sea; in fact, the Greek Oceanus. In the second, he is a separate person dwelling invisibly on Slieve Fuad," in Co. Armagh. We hear little of him in Irish legend, where the attributes of the sea-god are mostly conferred on his son, Mananan.
This deity is one of the most popular in Irish mythology. He was lord of the sea, beyond or under which the Land of Youth or Islands of the Dead were supposed to lie; he therefore was the guide of man to this country. He was master of tricks and illusions, and owned all kinds of magical possessions - the boat named Ocean-sweeper, which obeyed the thought of those who sailed in it and went without oar or sail, the steed Aonbarr, which could travel alike on sea or land, and the sword named The Answerer, which no armour could resist. White-crested waves were called the Horses of Mananan, and it was forbidden (tabu) for the solar hero, Cuchulain, to perceive them - this indicated the daily death of the sun at his setting in the western waves. Mananan wore a great cloak which was capable of taking on every kind of colour, like the widespread field of the sea as looked on from a height; and as the protector of the island of Erin it was said that when any hostile force invaded it they heard his thunderous tramp and the flapping of his mighty cloak as he marched angrily round and round their camp at night. The Isle of Man, seen dimIy from the Irish coast, was supposed to be the throne of Mananan, and to take its name from this deity.
The Goddess Dana
Dana by Stephen Reid. c.1908
The greatest of the Danaan goddesses was Dana, "mother of the Irish gods," as she is called in an early text.
She was daughter of the Dagda, and, like him, associated with ideas of fertility and blessing. According to d'Arbois de Jubainville, she was identical with the goddess Brigit, who was so widely worshipped in Celtica.
Brian, luchar, and lucharba are said to have been her sons - these really represent but one person, in the usual Irish fashion of conceiving the divine power in triads.
The name of Brian, who takes the in all the exploits of the brethren, is a derivation from a more ancient form, Brenos, and under this form was the god to whom the Celts attributed their victories at the Allia and at Delphi, mistaken by Roman and Greek chroniclers for an earthly leader.
There was also an extraordinary goddess named the Morrigan, [I cannot agree with Mr. O' Grady's identifcation of this goddess with Dana, though the name appears to mean "The Great Queen"] who appears to embody all that is perverse and horrible among supernatural powers. She delighted in setting men at war, and fought among them herself, changing into many frightful shapes and often hovering above fighting armies in the aspect of a crow. She met Cuchulain once and proffered him her love in the guise of a human maid. He refused it, and she persecuted him thenceforward for the most of his life. Warring with him once in the middle of the stream, she turned herself into a water-serpent, and then into a mass of water-weeds, seeking to entangle and drown him. But he conquered and wounded her, and she afterwards became his friend. Before his last battle she passed through Emain Macha at night, and broke the pole of his chariot as a warning.
One of the most notable landmarks of Ireland was the Tonn Cliodhna, or "Wave of Cleena," on the seashore at Glandore Bay, in Co. Cork. The story about Cleena exists in several versions, which do not agree with each other except in so far as she seems to have been a Danaan maiden once living in Mananan's country, the Land of Youth beyond the sea. Escaping thence with a mortal lover, as one of the versions tells, she landed on the southern coast of Ireland, and her lover, Keevan of the Curling Locks, went off to hunt in the woods. Cleena, who remained on the beach, was lulled to sleep by fairy music played by a minstrel of Mananan, when a great wave of the sea swept up and carried her back to Fairyland, leaving her lover desolate. Hence the place was called the Strand of Cleena's Wave.
The Goddess Ainé
Another topical goddess was Ainé, the patroness of Munster, who is still venerated by the people of that county.
Aine by Evelyn Paul. c. 1900
She was the daughter of the Danaan Owel, a foster-son of Mananan and a Druid. She is in some sort a love-goddess, continually inspiring mortals with passion. She was ravished, it was said, by Ailill Olum, King of Munster, who was slain in consequence by her magic arts, and the story is reed in far later times about another mortal lover, who was not, however, slain, a Fitzgerald, to whom she the bore the famous wizard Earl. [Gerald, the fourth Earl of Desmond. He disappeared, it is said, in 1398, and the legend goes that he still lives beneath the waters of Loch Gur, and may be seen riding round its banks on his, white steed once every seven years.
He was surnamed a "Gerald the Poet" from the "witty and ingenious" verses he composed in Gaelic. Wizardry, poetry, and science were all united in one conception in the mind the ancient Irish] Many of the aristocratic families of Munster claimed descent from this union. His name still clings to the "Hill of Ainé" (Knockainey), near Loch Gur, in Munster. All the Danaan deities in the popular imagination were earth-god; dei terreni, associated with ideas of fertility and increase. AinŽ is not heard much of in the bardic literature, but she is very prominent in the folk-lore of the neighbourhood. At the bidding of her son, Earl Gerald, she planted all Knockainey with pease in a single night. She was, and perhaps still is, worshipped on Midsummer Eve by the peasantry, who carried torches of hay and straw, tied on poles and lighted, round her hill at night.
Afterwards they dispersed themselves among their cultivated fields and pastures, waving the torches over the crops and the cattle to bring luck and increase for the following year. On one night, as told by Mr. D. Fitzgerald, ["Popular Tales of Ireland." by D. Fitzgerald, in Revue Celtique," vol iv.] who has collected the local traditions about her, the ceremony was omitted owing to the death of one of the neighbours. Yet the peasantry at night saw the torches in greater number than ever circling the hill, and AinŽ herself in front, directing and ordering the procession.
"On another St. John's Night a number of girls had stayed late on the Hill watching the cliars (torches) and joining in the games. Suddenly AinŽ appeared among them, thanked them for the honour they had done he; but said she now wished them to go home, as they wanted the hill to themselves. She let them understand whom she meant by they, for calling some of the girls she made them look through a ring, when behold, the hill appeared crowded with people before invisible."
"Here," observed Mr. Alfred Nutt, "we have the antique ritual carried out on a spot hallowed to one of the antique powers, watched over and shared in by those powers themselves. Nowhere save in Gaeldom could be found such a pregnant illustration of the identity of the fairy class with the venerable powers to ensure whose goodwill rites and sacrifices, originally fierce and bloody, now a mere simulacrum of their pristine form, have been performed for countless ages." ["The Voyage of Bran," vol. Ii, p. 219]
Sinend and the Well of Knowledge
There is a singular myth which, while intended to account for the name of the river Shannon, expresses the Celtic veneration for poetry and science, combined with the warning that they may not be approached without danger. The goddess Sinend, it was said, daughter of Lodan son of Lir, went to a certain well named Connla's Well, which is under the sea - i.e., in the Land of Youth in Fairyland. "That is a well," says the bardic narrative, "at which are the hazels wisdom and inspirations, that is, the hazels of the science of poetry, and in the same hour their fruit and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and then fall upon the well in the same shower, which raises upon the water a royal surge of purple." When Sinend came to the well we are not told what rites or preparation she had omitted, but the angry waters broke and overwhelmed her, and washed her up on the Shannon shore, where she died, giving to the river its name. [In Irish, Sionnain.] This myth of the hazels of inspiration and knowledge and their association with springing water runs through all Irish legend, and has been finely treated by a living Irish poet, Mr. G. W. Russell, in the following verses:
"A cabin on the mountain-side hid in a grassy nook,
With door and window open wide, where friendly stars may look;
The rabbit shy may patter in, the winds may enter free
Who roam around the mountain throne in living ecstasy.
"And when the sun sets dimmed in eve, and purple fills the
I think the sacred hazel-tree is dropping berries there,
From starry fruitage, waved aloft where Connla's Well o'erflows
For sure, the immortal waters run through every wind that blows.
"I think when Night towers up aloft and shakes the trembling
How every high and lonely thought that thrills my spirit through
Is but a shining berry dropped down through the purple air,
And from the magic tree of life the fruit falls everywhere."
The Coming of the Milesians
After the Second Battle of Moytura the Danaans held rule in Ireland until the coming of the Milesians, the sons of Miled.
Milesius Sail To Avenge Ith. Stephen Reid 1910
These are conceived in Irish legend as an entirely human race, yet in their origin they, like the other invaders of Ireland, go back to a divine and mythical ancestry. Miled, whose name occurs as a god in a Celtic inscription from Hungary, is represented as a son of Bilé. Bilé, like Balor, is one of the names of the god of Death, i.e., of the Underworld. They come from "Spain "- the usual term employed by the later rationalising historians for the Land of the Dead.
The manner of their coming into Ireland was as follows: Ith, the grandfather of Miled, dwelt in a great tower which his father, Bregon, had built in "Spain." One clear winter's day, when looking out westwards from this lofty tower, he saw the coast of Ireland in the distance, and resolved to sail to the unknown land.
He embarked with ninety warriors, and took land at Corcadyna, in the south-west. In connexion with this episode I may quote a passage of great beauty and interest from de Jubainville's "Irish Mythological Cycle : [Translation by R. I. Best]
"According to an unknown writer cited by Plutarch, who died about the year 120 of the present era, and also by Procopius, who wrote in the sixth century A.D., 'the Land of the Dead' is the western extremity of Great Britain, separated from the eastern by an impassable wall. On the northern coast of Gaul, says the legend, is a populace of mariners whose business is to carry the dead across from the continent to their last abode in the island of Britain. The mariners, awakened in the night by the whisperings of some mysterious voice, arise and go down to the shore, where they find ships awaiting them which are not their own, [The solar vessels found in dolmen carvings. See Chap. II. Note that the Celtic spirits, though invisible, are material and have weight; not so those in Vergil and Dante.] and, in these, invisible beings, under whose weight the vessels sink almost to the gunwales.
They go on board, and with a single stroke of the oar, says one text, in one hour, says another, they arrive at their destination, though with their own vessels, aided by sails, it would taken them at least a day and a night to reach the coast of Britain. When they come to the other shore invisible passengers land, and at the same time the unloaded ships are seen to rise above the waves, and a is heard announcing the names of the new arrivals, who have just been added to the inhabitants of the of the Dead.
"One stroke of the oar, one hour's voyage at most, for the midnight journey which transfers the Dead from he Gaulish continent to their final abode. Some mysterious law, indeed, brings together in the night the great spaces which divide the domain of the living from that of the dead in daytime. It was the same law which enabled Ith one fine winter evening to perceive from the Tower of Bregon, in the Land of the Dead, the shores of Ireland, or the land of the living. The phenomenon took place in winter; for winter is a sort of night; winter, like night, lowers the barriers between the regions of Death and those of Life ; like night, winter gives to life the semblance of death, and suppresses, as it were, the dread abyss that lies between the two.''
At this time, it is said, Ireland was ruled by three Danaan kings, grandsons of the Dagda. Their names were MacCuill, MacCecht, and MacGrené, and their wives were named respectively Banba, Fohla, and Eriu. The Celtic habit of conceiving divine persons in triads is here illustrated. These triads represent one person each, and the mythical character of that personage is evident from the name of one of them, MacGrené, Son of the Sun. The names of the three goddesses have; each at different times been applied to Ireland, but that of the third, Eriu, has alone persisted, and in the dative form, Erinn, is a poetic name for the country to this day. That Eriu is the wife of MacGrenŽ means, as de Jubainville observes, that the Sun-god, the god of Day, Life, and Science, has wedded the land and is reigning over it.
Ith, on landing, finds that the Danaan king, Neit, has just been slain in a battle with the Fomorians, and the three sons, MacCuill and the others, are at the fortress of Aileach, in Co. Donegal, arranging for a division of the land among themselves. At first they welcome Ith, and ask him to settle their inheritance. Ith gives his judgment, but, in concluding, big admiration for the newly discovered country breaks out: "Act," he says, "according to the laws of justice, for the country you dwell in is a good one, it is rich in fruit and honey, in wheat and in fish; and in heat and cold it is temperate." From this panegyric the Danaans conclude that Ith has designs upon their land, and they seize him and put him to death. His companions, however, recover his body and hear it back with them in their ships to "Spain"; when the children of Miled resolve to take vengeance for the outrage and prepare to invade Ireland.
They were commanded by thirty-six chiefs, each having his own ship with his family and his followers. Two of the company are said to have perished on the way. One of the sons of Miled, having climbed to the masthead of his vessel to look out or the coast of Ireland, fell into the sea and was drowned. The other was Skena, wife of the poet Amergin, son of Miled, who died on the way. The Milesians buried her when they landed, and called the place "Inverskena" after her; this was the ancient name of the Kenmare River Co. Kerry.
"It was on a Thursday, the first of May, and the seventeenth day of the moon, that the sons of Miled arrived in Ireland. Partholan also landed in Ireland the first of May, but on a different day of the week of the moon ; and it was on the first day of May, that the pestilence came which in the space of one destroyed utterly his race. The first of May was sacred to BeltenŽ, one of the names of the god of Death, the god who gives life to men and takes it away from them again. Thus it was on the feast day of this god that the sons of Miled began their conquest of Ireland."
[De Jubainville, "Irish Mythological Cycle," p.136. BeltenŽ is the modern Irish name for the month of May, and is derived from an ancient root preserved in the Old Irish compound epelta, "dead".]
The Poet Amergin
When the poet Amergin set foot upon the soil of Ireland it is said that he chanted a strange and mystical lay:
I am the Wind that blows over the sea,
I am the Wave of the Ocean;
I am the Murmur of the billows;
lam the Ox ofthe Seven Combats;
lam the Vulture upon the rock;
I am a Ray of the Sun;
I am the fairest of Plants;
I am a Wild Boar in valour;
I am a Salmon in the Water;
I am a Lake in the plain;
lam the Craft of the artificer;
I am a Word of Science;
I am the Spear-point that gives battle;
I am the god that creates in the head of man the fire of thought.
Who is it that enlightens the assembly upon the mountain, if not I?
Who telleth the ages of the moon, if not I?
Who showeth the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?"
De Jubainville, whose translation I have in the main followed, observes upon this strange utterance:
"There is a lack of order in this composition, the ideas,
fundamental and subordinate, are jumbled together without method;
but there is no doubt as to the meaning: the filŽ
[poet] is the Word of Science, he is the god who gives to man the
fire of thought; and as science is not distinct from its object,
as God and Nature are but one, the being of the filŽ
is mingled with the winds and the waves, with the wild animals
and the warrior's arms."
["Irish Mythological Cycle," p. 138]
Two other poems are attributed to Amergin, in which he invokes the land and physical features of Ireland to aid him:
"I invoke the land of Ireland,
Shining, shining sea,
Fertile, fertile Mountain;
Gladed, gladed wood !
Abundant river, abundant in water !
[I have again followed de Jubainville's translation; but in connexion with this and the previous poems see also Ossianic Society's "Transactions," vol. V.]
The Judgment of Amergin
The Milesian host, after landing, advance to Tara, where they find the three kings of the Danaans awaiting them, and summon them to deliver up the island. The Danaans ask for three days' time to consider whether they shall quit Ireland, or submit, or give battle; and they propose to leave the decision, upon request, to Amergin. Amergin pronounces judgement - "the first judgment which was delivered in Ireland." He agrees that the Milesians must not take foes by surprise - they are to withdraw the length nine waves from the shore, and then return; if then conquer the Danaans the land is to be fairly by right of battle.
The Milesians submit to this decision and embark their ships. But no sooner have they drawn off for this mystical distance of the nine waves than a mist and storm are raised by the sorceries of the Danaan - the coast of Ireland is hidden from their sight, and they wander dispersed upon the ocean. To ascertain if it is a natural or a Druidic tempest which afflicts them, a man named Aranan is sent up to the masthead to see if the wind is blowing there also or not He is flung from the swaying mast, but as he falls to his death he cries his message to his shipmates: "There is no storm aloft." Amergin, who as poet - that is to say, Druid - takes the lead in all critical situations, thereupon chants his incantation to the land of Erin. The wind falls, and they turn their prows, rejoicing, towards the shore. But one of the Milesian lords, Eber Donn, exults in brutal rage at the prospect of putting all the dwellers in Ireland to the sword; the tempest immediately springs up again, and many of the Milesian ships founder, Eber Donn's being among them. At last a remnant of the Milesians find their way to shore, and land in the estuary of the Boyne.
The Defeat of the Danaans
A great battle with the Danaans at Telltown [Teltin; so named after the goddess Telta. See p. 103] then follows. The three kings and three queens of the Danaans, with many of their people, are slain, and the children of Miled - the last of the mythical invaders of Ireland - enter upon the sovranty of Ireland. But the People of Dana do not withdraw. By their magic art they cast over themselves a veil of invisibility, which they can put on or off as they choose. There are two Irelands henceforward, the spiritual and the earthly. The Danaans dwell in the spiritual Ireland, which is portioned out among them by their great overlord, the Dagda. Where the human eye can see but green mounds and ramparts, the relics of ruined fortresses or sepulchres, there rise the fairy palaces of the defeated divinities; there they hold their revels in eternal sun-shine, nourished by the magic meat and ale that give them undying youth and beauty ; and thence they come forth at times to mingle with mortal men in love or in war. The ancient mythical literature conceives them as heroic and splendid in strength and beauty. In later times, and as Christian influences grew stronger, they dwindle into fairies, the People of the Sidhe; [Pronounced "Shee". It means literally the People of the [Fairy] Mounds] but they have never wholly perished; to this day the Land of Youth and its inhabitants live in the imagination of the Irish peasant.
The Meaning of the Danaan Myth
All myths constructed by a primitive people are symbols, and if we can discover what it is that they symbolise, we have a valuable clue to the spiritual character and sometimes even to the history, of the people from whom they sprang. Now the meaning of the Danaan myth as it appears in the bardic literature, though it has undergone much distortion before it reached us, is perfectly clear. The Danaans represent the Celtic reverence for science, poetry, and artistic skill, blended, of course, with the earlier conception of the divinity of the powers of Light. In their combat with the Firbolgs the victory of the intellect over dullness and ignorance is plainly portrayed - the comparison of the heavy, blunt weapon of the Firbolgs with the light and penetrating spears of the People of Dana is an indication which it is impossible to mistake. Again, in their struggle with a far more powerful and dangerous enemy, the Fomorians, we are evidently to see the combat of the powers of Light with evil of a more positive kind than that represented by the Firbolgs. The Fomorians stand not for mere dullness or stupidity, but for the forces of tyranny, cruelty, and greed - for moral rather than for intellectual darkness.
The Meaning of the Milesian Myth
But the myth of the struggle of the Danaans with the sons of Miled is more difficult to interpret. How does it come that the lords of light and beauty, wielding all the powers of thought (represented by magic and sorcery), succumbed to a human race, and were dispossessed by them of their hard-won inheritance? What is the meaning of this shrinking of their powers which at once took place when the Milesians came on the scene? The Milesians were not on the side of the powers of darkness. They were guided by Amergin, a clear embodiment of the idea of poetry and thought. They were regarded with the utmost veneration, and the dominant families of Ireland all traced their descent to them. Was the Kingdom of Light, then, divided against itself? Or, if not, to what conception in the Irish mind are we to trace the myth of the Milesian invasion and victory?
The only answer I can see to this puzzling question is to suppose that the Milesian myth originated at a much later time than the others, and was, in its main features, the product of Christian influences. The People of Dana were in possession of the country, but they were pagan divinities they could not stand for the progenitors of a Christian Ireland. They had somehow or other to be got rid of, and a race of less embarrassing antecedents substituted for them. So the Milesians were fetched from "Spain" and endowed with the main characteristics, only more humanised, of the People of Dana. But the latter, in contradistinction to the usual attitude of early Christianity, are treated very tenderly in the story of their overthrow.
One of them has the honour of giving her name to the island, the brutality of one of the conquerors towards them is punished with death, and while dispossessed Of the lordship of the soil they still enjoy life in the fair world which by their magic art they have made invisible to mortals. They are no longer gods, but they are more than human, and frequent instances occur in which they are shown as coming forth from their fairy world, being embraced in the Christian fold, and entering into heavenly bliss. With two cases of this redemption of the Danaans we shall close this chapter on the Invasion Myths of Ireland.
The first is the strange and beautiful tale of the Transformation of the Children of Lir.
The Children of Lir
Lir was a Danaan divinity, the father of the sea-god Mananan who continually occurs in magical tales of the Milesian cycle. He had married in succession two sisters, the second of whom was named Aoife. [Pronounced "Eefa"] She was childless, but the former wife of Lir had left him four children, a girl named Fionuala [This name means "The Maid of the Fair Shoulder"] and three boys.
The intense love of Lir for the children made the step-mother jealous, and she ultimately resolved on their destruction. It will be observed, by the way, that the ;People of Dana, though conceived as unaffected by time, and naturally immortal, are nevertheless subject to violent death either at the hands of each other or even of mortals.
With her guilty object in view, Aoife goes on a journey to a neighbouring Danaan king, Bov the Red, taking the four children with her. Arriving at a lonely place by Lake Derryvaragh, in Westmeath, she orders her attendants to slay the children. They refuse, and rebuke her. Then she resolves to do it herself; but, says the legend, "her womanhood overcame her," and instead of killing the children she transforms them by spells of sorcery into four white swans, and lays on them the following doom: three hundred years they are to spend on the waters of Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred on the Straits of Moyle (between Ireland and Scotland), and three hundred on the Atlantic by Erris and Inishglory. After that, "when the woman of the South is mated with the man of the North," the enchantment is to have an end.
When the children fail to arrive with Aoife at the palace of Bov her guilt is discovered, and Bov changes her into "a demon of the air." She flies forth shrieking, and is heard of no more in the tale. But Lir and Bov seek out the swan-children, and find that they have not only human speech, but have preserved the characteristic Danaan gift of making wonderful music. From all parts of the island companies of the Danaan folk resort to Lake Derryvaragh to hear this wondrous music and to converse with the swans, and during that time a great peace and gentleness seemed to pervade the land.
But at last the day came for them to leave the fellowship of their kind and take up their life by the wild cliffs and ever angry sea of the northern coast. Here they knew the worst of loneliness, cold, and storm. Forbidden to land, their feathers froze to the rocks in the winter nights, and they were often buffeted and driven apart by storms. As Fionuala sings:
Lir's Children. John Duncan 1912
Cruel to us was Aoife
Who played her magic upon us,
And drove us out on the water -
Four wonderful snow-white swans.
"Our bath is the frothing brine,
In bays by red rocks guarded;
For mead at our father's table
We drink of the salt, blue sea.
Three sons and a single daughter,
In clefts of the cold rocks dwelling,
The hard rocks, cruel to mortals -
We are full of keening to-night."
Fionuala, the eldest of the four, takes the lead in all their doings, and mothers the younger children most tenderly, wrapping her plumage round them on nights of frost.
At last the time comes to enter on the third and last period of their doom, and they take flight for the western shores of Mayo. Here too they suffer much hardship; but the Milesians have now come into the land, and a young farmer named Evric, dwelling on the shores of Erris Bay, finds out who and what the swans are, and befriends them. To him they tell their story, and through him it is supposed to have been preserved and handed down. When the final period of their suffering is close at hand they resolve to fly towards the palace of their father Lir, who dwells, we are told, at the Hill of the White Field, in Armagh, to see how things have fared with him.
[ See: The Story of the Children of Lir ]
They do so; but not knowing what has happened on the coming of the Milesians, they are shocked and bewildered to find nothing but green mounds and whin-bushes and nettles where once stood - and still stands, only that they cannot see it - the palace of their father. Their eyes are holden, we are to understand, because a higher destiny was in Store for them than to return to the Land of Youth.
On Erris Bay they hear for the first time the sound of a Christian beIl It comes from the chapel of a hermit who has established himself there. The swans are at first startled and terrified by the "thin, dreadful sound," but afterwards approach and make themselves known to the hermit, who instructs them in the faith, and they join him in singing the offices of the Church.
Now it happens that a princess of Munster, Deoca, (the "woman of the South") became betrothed to a Connacht chief named Lairgnen, and begged him as wedding gift to procure for her the four wonderful singing swans whose fame had come to her. He asks them of the hermit, who refuses to give them up, where-upon the "man of the North" seizes them violently by the silver chains with which the hermit had coupled them, and drags them off to Deoca. This is their last trial. Arrived in her presence, an awful transformation befalls them. The swan plumage falls off; and reveals, not, indeed, the radiant forms of the Danaan divinities, but four withered, snowy-haired, and miserable human beings, shrunken in the decrepitude of their vast old age. Lairgnen flies from the place in horror, but the hermit prepares to administer baptism at once, as death is rapidly approaching them. "Lay us in one grave, says Fionuala, "and place Conn at my right hand and Fiachra at my left, and Hugh before my face, for there they were wont to be when I sheltered them many a winter night upon the seas of Moyle." And so it was done, and they went to heaven; but the hermit, it is said, sorrowed for them to the end of his earthly days. [The story here summarised is given in full in the writer's "High Deeds of Finn" (Harrap and Co.]
In all Celtic legend there is no more tender and beautiful tale than this of the Children of Lir.
The Tale of Ethné
But the imagination of the Celtic bard always played with delight on the subjects of these transition tales, where the reconciling of the pagan order with the Christian was the theme. The same conception is embodied in the tale of Ethné, which we have now to tell.
Ethné Disturbed By Voices. Stephen Reid. 1910
It is said that Mananan mac Lir had a daughter who was given in fosterage to the Danaan prince Angus, whose fairy palace was at Brugh na Boyna. This is the great sepulchral tumulus now called New Grange, on the Boyne. At the same time the steward of Angus had a daughter born to him whose name was Ethné, and who was allotted to the young princess as her handmaiden.
Ethné grew up into a lovely and gentle maiden, but it was discovered one day that she took no nourishment of any kind, although the rest of the household fed as usual on the magic swine of Mananan, which might be eaten to-day and were alive again for the feast to-morrow. Mananan was called in to penetrate the mystery, and the following curious story came to light. One of the chieftains of the Danaans who had been on a visit with Angus, smitten by the girl's beauty, had endeavoured to possess her by force. This woke in Ethné's pure spirit the moral nature which is proper to man, and which the Danaan divinities know not. As the tale says, her "guardian demon " left her, and an angel of the true God took its place. After that event she abstained altogether from the food of Faery, and was miraculously nourished by the will of God. After a time, however, Mananan and Angus, who had been on a voyage to the East, brought back thence two cows whose milk never ran dry, and as they were supposed to have come from a sacred land EthnŽ lived on their milk thenceforward.
All this is supposed to have happened during the reign of Eremon, the first Milesian king of all Ireland, who was contemporary with King David. At the time of the coming of St. Patrick, therefore, EthnŽ would have been about fifteen hundred years of age. The Danaan folk grow up from childhood to maturity, but then they abide unaffected by the lapse of time.
Now it happened one summer day that the Danaan princess whose handmaid Ethné was went down with all her maidens to bathe in the river Boyne. When arraying themselves afterwards Ethné discovered, to her dismay -and this incident was, of course, an instance of divine interest in her destiny - that she had lost the Veil of Invisibility, conceived here as a magic charm worn on the person, which gave her the entrance to the Danaan fairyland and hid her from mortal eyes. She could not find her way back to the palace of Angus, and wandered up and down the banks of the river seeking in vain for her companions and her home. At last she came to a walled garden, and, looking through the gate, saw inside a stone house of strange appearance and a man in a long brown robe. The man was a Christian monk, and the house was a little church or oratory. He beckoned her in, and when she had told her story to him he brought her to St. Patrick, who completed her adoption into the human family by giving her the rite of baptism.
Now comes in a strangely pathetic episode which reveals the tenderness, almost the regret, with which early Irish Christianity looked back on the lost world of paganism. As Ethné was one day praying in the little church by the Boyne she heard suddenly a rushing sound in the air, and innumerable voices, as it seemed from a great distance, lamenting and calling her name. It was her Danaan kindred, who were still seeking for her in vain. She sprang up to reply, but was so overcome with emotion that she fell in a swoon on the floor. She recovered her senses after a while, but from that day she was struck with a mortal sickness, and in no long time she died, with her head upon the breast of St. Patrick, who administered to her the last rites, and ordained that the church should be named after her, Kill Ethné - a name doubtless borne, at the time the story was composed, by some real church on the banks of Boyne. [It may be mentioned that the syllable "Kill," which enters into so many Irish place-names (Kilkenny, Killiney, Kilcooley, &c.), usually represents the Latin cella, a monastic cell, shrine, or church.]
Christianity and Paganism in Ireland
These, taken together with numerous other legendary incidents which might be quoted, illustrate well the attitude of the early Celtic Christians, in Ireland at least, towards the divinities of the older faith. They seem to preclude the idea that at the time of the conversion of Ireland the pagan religion was associated with cruel and barbarous practices, on which the national memory would look back with horror and detestation.