An Scéal a Trí Sliabh

A Tale of Three Mountains

“Some paths are easier than others, but if you take the mountain path you get a better view.”

Filtiarn the Druid.

Sliabh a hAon

I recently took up the challenge for cycling 300km within the month of July for Vision Sports which is a division of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. I completed it within 8 days and my final leg turned out to be a 102km loop from my house to Banteer, Mallow, and then back home to Cork City. I was told by a colleague at work that the trip to Banteer was a uphill gradient which is tough to cycle. He neglected to tell me one thing which I will come soon to.

Going uphill from Ballyshoneen to Banteer was very tiring and it was early in the morning with a soaking drizzle. You can imagine how sapping that is and it was also 15C which made it like a sauna inside my all-weather jacket (we are not used to this heat in Ireland). I was sorely tempted to turn around and give up a good few times, but then something happened. An adult fox and two cubs crossed the road just up in front of me. I forgot about everything and watched them zigzag around and finally disappear. I stopped for a breather and then looked to my left or rather down. I was looking down into a valley and realised that I was halfway up a mountain. I carried on more and I came across the Duhallow Trail which meant that on the other side was Knocknacoille and Johns Well where I normally conduct my decompressions. I could see the turnstile at the top which can be seen from the other side. This spurred me on and in no time I was freewheeling down towards Naad and onto Banteer. At this point I was midway on my journey and there was no way I was turning back. Was my experience on the mountain spiritual or psychological? That’s for you to decide for yourself but the end result was elation that carried me on to attaining my goal.

Sliabh a Dhó

I decided to make a pilgrimage to conduct a decompression as a means of gratitude and decided to make a day of it as it was the last few days of my holidays and take my little seoíge (síoge is the Irish word for faerie) along as she loves coming along on these trips. Instead of Knocknacoille, we travelled along the West Cork coast to the larger stone circle of Ardgroom. I hadn’t taken that road in over 10 years and had forgotten about what it was like (or how long it was). We took Healy’s Pass between Glengarrif and Ardgroom which is a series of hairpins up a narrow road along a mountain. The scenary was fantastic. Even the little one was jumping out of the car every so often just to look at the view. At the top, there is a monument depicting the Passion which is understandable for Christians to erect when you look at the surrounding beauty from atop. Once off Healy’s Pass, I took a little detour to a d-style stone circle that was signposted (Shronebirran). This took us along a narrow boreen nestled between the mountains. The stone circle is actually right next to a farmhouse where we were greeted by the owner who invited us to visit the ruins of a famine village that was 2km further down the road. I regretfully declined the offer for another time as time was getting on. Finally, we reached Ardgroom where I performed my deasghnáth buíochas and myself and my seoíge placed small offerings. Again, not only was the decompression a profound experience but the mountain journey.

Sliabh a Trí

At this stage time was getting on so I had to take the quicker route back to Cork City. Drove back to Kenmare and turned for Glengarrif/Bantry. The small one was getting tired as well to boot. Again we were going up the mountains and as we were going to Cath’s Pass we had to stop at Banane. There is a heritage park that has a large 14 stone circle, free standing series of menhirs as well as other monuments of interest. We got out at Radharc na Drugaí or Druids View. Again the views were spectacular and these were the valleys on the other side of the Paps of Anú. We carried on through the short mountain tunnel and back home. As I write this a few hours later, the seoíge is sleeping peacefully ( as would all kids after a 9 hour day of travelling and hiking through fields) and I have still this sense of elation and being awestruck with what I had experienced throughout the day.

When we journey on our individual paths to attain our goals in life, we do come across unexpected or forgotten mountains. We do get jaded with the effort put in and feel like quitting there and then. But we can stop and look back, see how far we have come. There are small but significant events that can occur to make us appreciate what we are doing or why we are doing it. It drives us forward. Enjoy the views. The crest is approaching.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama a léamh.

Seán Ó Tuama.

The Bards

Of all the roles in Celtic society we know most about the Bard. This is because Bardic schools continued in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland to the middle of the seventeenth century.

Julius Caesar mentions large schools run by druids for the youth of Celtic Gaul in the first century BCE. However, we know little or nothing about the education of poets and other men of learning in early Ireland before the eighth century CE.

Around this time, poets were graded according to their literacy levels. Before this, the ‘oral’ poets of traditions lived as travelling minstrels, with songs, poetry, accompanying harpists and legendary tales.

Higher grades of poet, the filid, used written Old Irish texts to study grammar, prose, genealogy and history. There were poets (fili), experts in Irish traditional history (senchae), and judges of customary law (brethem), who became clerics, or a teachers in church schools.

From the late tenth to the twelfth centuries, even higher levels appeared as we see from court poets, some of whose verses in praise of Irish kings still survive.

Many ancient Celtic tales have survived to this day, through patient translation by modern day Bards. It took many years of diligent study to become a Bard. However, we have schools today that teach us comprehension of literature, oral language, essays, grammar, poetry and stories.

Irish Mythology Sources

Page from book of Leinster

The three main manuscript sources for Irish mythology are: –

  • Late 11th/early 12th century Lebor na hUidre, meaning Book of the Dun Cow. Sadly only 76 pages remain
  • Book of Leinster compiled c. 1160 CE
  • Bodleian Library, also referred to as Book of Glendalough. The first part written c.1110 CE and the second compiled in the mid-12th century.

Despite the dates of these sources, examination of the language used date most of the material further back to the 8th century and may even go back to the 6th century from even earlier oral retellings. Other important sources are: –

  • The Yellow Book of Lecan (which contains the missing material from Lebor na hUidre) written in two parts in 1391 and 1401.
  • The Great Book of Lecan, written between 1397 and 1418 (which contains transcribed material from the Book of Leinster)
  • The Book of Ballymote transcribed 1390 or 1391 (a compilation of older works, loose manuscripts and valuable documents handed down from antiquity).

It has to be noted that most of the manuscripts were created by Christian monks (especially the later works), whose religious hostility to pagan beliefs resulted in some of the ancient stories being adapted and reworked to fit in with accepted Greek or Biblical genealogy (see Sean Twomey’s series of articles on Irish Pseudohistory and the Lore of the Master Poets for a more detailed study).

Welsh Mythology Sources

For most of us, Wales represents a beautiful country of mountains, hills, valleys and a majestic coastline. Ynys Môn, once connected by land, but now separated by the Menai straits, was once a holy Druid stronghold and numerous megalithic sites,
show that humans lived there since prehistory. It should be noted that the divisions of Wales, England and Scotland did not exist in early Celtic times and the earliest known title for Britain is Albion. In Scottish Gaelic Scotland still retains the name Alba.

Like Irish mythology, Welsh mythology and history was passed down orally by Bards and Druids. As invaders and settlers have arrived much of the oral record has been lost or altered. This needs to be borne in mind when looking at medieval Welsh manuscripts. However, the following still provide a treasure of Welsh Celtic legends and mythology: –

  • Llyfr Aneirin c. 1265. Believed to be a copy of an original manuscript, attributed to the late 6th century poet, Aneirin.
  • The Book of Taliesin dating from the first half of the 14th century, though many of the fifty-six poems are believed to originate in the 10th century or earlier.
  • The White Book of Rhydderch c. 1350 is the earliest collection of Welsh prose texts and poetry.
  • The Red Book of Hergest – written between 1382 and 1410 preserves a collection of Welsh prose and poetry, particularly the tales of the Mabinogion.

Other notable sources include: –

  • Historia Brittonum c. 828 – A history of the British (Brittonic) people.
  • Historia Regum Britanniae c. 1136 – A history of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Scottish Legends7

A lot of Irish mythology was imported to Scotland, and some was probably written in Scotland. The Ulster Cycle is a group of heroic stories centres around the Uliad, people from North East Ireland. The Ulaid had close links with Gaelic Scotland, where Cúchulainn is said to have learned the arts of war.

The myths and legends of Scotland reflect the nature and seasons of the land. For instance Beira, the Queen of Winter, who raises storms during January and February to delay the arrival of spring. Beira was a tough and brutal old woman who brought deep snow, overflowing rivers and created lochs and mountains. When it gets warmer, she steps aside for the Dual Lord and Lady who share equal power during the following season. Scottish deities were not glorified or widely worshipped, unlike those of other ancient cultures, but more linked with nature, being connected with specific rivers, wells and mountains, etc.

The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper 1912

Scotland, though, does have a wealth of mythical creatures such as selkies and kelpies. There are quite a few tales of Changelings, fairy folk, who stole babies from the crib and substituted them with another fairy. The Wulver, a creature with the body of a man and a wolf’s head was a benevolent creature, who enjoyed fishing. He left fish on the window-sill of the poor. In the present day Scotland is still full of legends, including the Loch Ness Monster.

The Hebrides are an isolated group of various sized (largely uninhabited) islands off the Western coast of Scotland. The surrounding sea is important to sustain the small communities on these remote islands and are abundant with stories of unusual and magical (especially sea) creatures. This is a list of the most well-known of these: –

  • Kelpies – shape-shifting water spirits that appears as a horse, but can adopt human form.
  • Blue men of the Minch (also known as Storm Kelpies) – inhabiting the sea between the Hebrides and mainland Scotland (known as the Minch). Although they are blue, they look human. They create storms and seek out unsuspecting vessels to sink. In fine weather sleep and float on the water.
  • Seonaidh (Shoney) was originally a Celtic Sea God (before Christianity relegated him to a water spirit), who took offerings of ale from the inhabitants of Lewis.
  • Merpeople – appear as human with the tale of a fish. Mermaids usually appear as unlucky omens, foretelling disaster and provoking it, even with murderous intent. Occasionally some teach humans how to cure certain diseases. Mermen are wilder creatures and ugly unlike Mermaids, but have no interest in humans.
  • Werewolves – a human that shapeshifts into a wolf. A family of werewolves occupied an island on Loch Langavat. If their graves are ever disturbed legend says they will rise from the dead.
  • Will-o’-the-wisp – strange lights that float around the sea when a local resident is about to pass. They are especially associated with Sandwick in the Shetland Islands.
  • Fairy hound – on the Isle of Harris a Cu Sith (fairy dog) leaves oversized paw prints on the sand which mysteriously vanish half way across the beach.

Cornish Legends

Cornish mythology consists partly of folk traditions developed in Cornwall and mythology shared with the Breton and Welsh peoples. Many ancient tales of the Bards, such as the Arthurian Cycle and tales from the Mabinogion take place in the ancient kingdom of Cornubia (Cornwall). The original kingdom of Dumnonia was centred in Devon and also included Cornwall and parts of Somerset. Cornubia was a sub-kingdom created around 443CE.

Legendary creatures from Cornish folklore include: –

  • The Bucca – a merman, connected with sea storms. It has suggested that originally Bucca was an ancient Celtic deity of the sea because fish food offerings were left on the beach by fisherman to appease him.
  • Piskies (Pixies) – Piskies are concentrated in the high moorland areas around Devon and Cornwall and are believed to inhabit ancient underground ancestor sites such as stone circles and barrows.
  • Giants – Many of the unusual features in Cornwall such as the granite rock on Bodmin Moor, the staggering sea cliffs seascape and St Michael’s Mount are explained as the work of Giants. Eighteenth century tales such as Jack the Giant Killer were probably based on much older oral folk tales.

King Arthur has a very strong connection with Cornwall and a lot of events associated with Arthurian legend happened in Cornwall: –

  • Tintagel – on North Cornish coast thought to be the birth place of Arthur. A ruined Norman castle on a steep, craggy hillside marks the original Celtic fortress where Uthyr’s famous son was born.
  • Dozmary Pool – thought to be the lake in which Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur to The Lady of the Lake.
  • The Tristan Stone – set beside the road leading to Fowey in Cornwall, marks the story of Arthur’s knight Tristan and his lover Iseult.

Legends of Brittany

From the third century, Celts from Wales and Cornwall began to emigrate to the area named Armorica during Roman occupation, but later named Brittany, in North East France.

Brittany was split between five Celtic tribes. Breton mythology is the collection of heroic tales originating in Brittany. The Bretons had many gods and mythical creatures associated with nature. This mythological background was accepted by Romans, but when Christianity arrived lots of grand epics were lost and pagan landmarks were either destroyed or Christianised.

However some Breton Celtic folklore has survived such as: –

  • Ankoù – a grim reaper type figure that collects the souls of the deceased. The
  • last person to die in a parish takes over the role of the Ankou. The Ankou appears as a tall, haggard skeleton with long white hair and a revolving head, enable to see in all directions, who drives a cart and stops at the house of someone who is about to die. It knocks on the door (sometimes heard by the living), before it takes away the dead in the cart with help from two ghostly companions.
  • Bugul Noz – a fairy spirit who lives in the woodlands of Brittany. He is the last of his kind, but his ugly appearance is so awful that woodland animals avoid him. He is kind and gentle, but always alone. He cries out to warn humans of his approach, so not to frighten them. In fact, some humans have instantly died on seeing him.
  • Cannard noz (“night ducks”) – three small, webbed feet washerwomen, dressed in green who go to the water’s edge at midnight to wash shrouds of those about to die.
  • Korrigan – water spirits that dance around fountains and wells. They are very beautiful at dusk or night with long flowing hair and the power to make men fall in love with them, but lure them to their death. However they avoid being seen during the day when their true appearance is as red-eyed, white-haired, wrinkled hags.

Many Arthurian legends also take place in Brittany. For example: –

  • Sir Lancelot spent his childhood in the forest of Brocéliande, Brittany.
  • Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan Le Fey, after being betrayed by her lover, put a spell on Le Val Sans Retour (“The Valley Without Return”), causing unfaithful lovers to be imprisoned in the valley.
  • Tristan married a Princess in Brittany, breaking the love enchantment put on him by Iseult.

The Bards of old would recount tales of old, in their own way. No doubt the tales varied, but the fact that the essence of the tales of legendary heroes has existed to modern times is a testimony to these ancient legends. Did these ancient heroes and deities exist or were they created?

We’re all stories in the end and we know that a lot of stories start out from actual events, that are embellished over the years. Robin Hood is a prime example of this. Godfrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian tales also differ greatly from accounts in the Book of Taliesin.

But whether we write songs poetry, or stories that entertain let us always remember the Bards of old. And remember stories work on many levels. A lot of Celtic tales were precautionary, warning of the consequences of our actions.

Bards would be skilled in the tales of old, but would also keep records of their tribes and create new tales. We have many storytellers who carry on this tradition today, transporting us into far, distant lands and times past, present and sometimes predicting the future.

Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 6

As a form of hangover of the outmoded idea that the filid were ‘Christian druids’, a phrase to guarantee so called experts to come out of the woodwork, there is a tendency to imagine that the order of professional poets and men of learning remained basically the same between the 6th and 11th Centuries. Scholars have demonstrated that this is not the case, and that the role of the learned poets within the literate landscape was always changing. In short, it is possible that while the filid did not believe that the Tuatha Dé were Gods, “though we enumerate them, we do not worship them”, from the middle of the 9th century they became increasingly attached to them as allegories, mnemonics, and images of that within their body of learning which was not shared ecclesiastical scholars (‘The Three Things required of a Poet’ J Carey). The Gods added to the aura of romantic antiquity which had become convenient for the filid to stress, and ‘Pagan@ supernatural tropes were invoked to underline their supposed roots in the ancient past and so assert their professional distinctiveness.

If this is so, then the potential ramifications are thought provoking. In the previous part, E Boyle has stressed that reading for non-literal levels of meaning was an essential part of training for the learned, and that it arose directly from the way the Bible was interpreted. She makes the case that the Irish men of learning wrote, on occasion, as they had been taught to read, by implanting layers of metaphorical meaning into vernacular texts. And if the Gods, once the religious framework of Irish Paganism faded, were available to the literati for recycling as a stock of metaphors and personifications, then we are faced with the fundamental problem that we have no way to guage how conservative or radical that process was for any particular Divinity (‘Abstract narrative in Ireland’ Snowcroft). In other words, the fact that some among the filid seem to have thought in terms of a “pantheon of skill”, including former Deities such as Brighid and Ogma, may not be a holdover from Irish Paganism. Instead, it might be a development entirely of medieval scholarship, and thus tell us literally nothing about these Gods had been envisioned in the pre-Christian era. Further research is needed, but this painstaking possibility must be taken seriously to be successful.

On the other hand, there is certainly evidence that there were different schools of thought about the Gods and their pedigrees among the filid, although this is difficult to say whether this was down to variation over time or between poetic authorities in different parts of Ireland. We find hints in two places that some filid thought in terms of a special group of 7 or 8 ‘skilled Gods’ with whom they were prone to identify, hinting at conceptual or metaphorical structures within the pantheon itself. Again, this is probably not ancient, as ‘Lebór Gabála’ is full of groups of eight, largely thanks to the Biblical tale of Noah in which 8 humans took refuge on the Ark from the Great flood (‘Leabhar Gabhála; Part 2’ Snowcroft). 7 is also an important number in the Bible, and in medieval Christianity, we have 7 days of creation, 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, 7 Sacraments, etc, etc.

In some versions  of Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’, the Tuatha Dé are said to have followed Bethach mac Iarbonél and ‘seven subsidiary leaders’. These are termed the seven sons of Ethliu/Ethlenn, normally the name of Lúgh’s maternal Fomór mother and this turns the genealogy into nonsense because the seven are revealed as not just Lúgh, but also the Dagda, Dian Cécht, Credne, Luchtaine, Núada, and Goibnenn/Goibniu. It is possible that the female name Ethlenn/Eithliu has become confused with Elatha, the father of the Dagda (‘Caith Maige Tuired’ EA Gray). The ‘seven sons of Elatha’ would still be unusual in terms of the normal family tree, but not outlandish (‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey).

This group of eight is reminiscent of one that occurs in ‘Lebór Bretnach’ or the British Book, a late 11th Century Irish translation of the Latin ‘Historia Brittonum’, which contains a crucial version of the invasions-schema. Dating to the early 9th Century, it attests to a time when the Tuatha Dé had not yet been integrated into its structure. When medieval scholars, perhaps Irish, but possibly Scottish, translated the Historia into Irish, they updated its version of the pseudohistory and inserted the Tuatha De into their conventional place (‘Scotland, the Nennian Recension of the Historia Brittonum and the Lebor Bretnach’ TO Clancy). Some versions of the ‘Lebór Bretnach’ attribute the translation to Gilla Cóemáin, one of the four master poets of the ‘Lebór Gabála’, but the version of the Tuatha Dé in the ‘Bretnach’ differs to the ‘Gabála’. It is either Cóemáin was not the translator, or his views changed.

The major oddity is that the ‘Bretnach’ focuses in a pared-down pantheon consisting only of seven prímelathnaig or chief-skilled ones among the Tuatha Dé. It should be noted that the word elathnaig is the plural for elathnach, which is derived from elatha or art, and we have seen this used as Elatha the father of the Dagda. Interestingly, the list differs slightly from that in Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’, comprising  Ogma, Etan, the Dagda, Dían Cécht, Credne, Luchtaine, Lúgh, and Goibnenn. Etan, the only female, has been added but Núada is not present. The passage is in a mixture of Latin and Irish, and is quoted because it is very rare to see Latin attributes added to the Gods:

“After that the plebes deorum [god-people], ie the Tuatha Dé Danann, conquered Ireland. Among them there were the chief skilled ones: Etan, Luchtaine Artifex [the artificer], Credne Figulus [the craftsman], Dían Medicus [the physician],-Etan moreover was filia eius [his daughter],ie the foster mother of the poets; Goibnenn Faber [the smith], Lúgh son of Eithne, who possessed all the arts, the great Dagda, son of Elatha, son of Delbaeth, the king, Ogma, the kings brother for it was he who invented the alphabet of the Irish.”

(‘Lebor Bretnach: The Irish version of the Historia Brittonum ascribed to Nennius’ AG van Hamel)

Putting this together, we can tentatively theorise that the filid were prone to identify the after-images of certain Gods as the patrons and personifications of the particular professional skills proper to the áes dána. Possibly, but by no means necessarily, they were building on genuinely ancient elements in particular cases. However, as their order increasingly risked complete assimilation into the ranks of the ecclesiastical literati, foregrounding the native Gods may have been a strategy to bolster their archaic mystique and distinct identity. By the mid 11th Century, and maybe much earlier, there are signs that this concept had developed into the idea of an exclusive club of seven or eight allegorical Gods who were specifically the prototypes and originators of the major áes dána professions (‘The Annals of Inisfallen’ MS Rawlinson). In Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’ the list of the seven Divinities is immediately followed by this statement:

“….they studied knowledge and the art of the filid, for every secret of skilful art, and every technique in medicine, and every trade secret in poetry- all indeed derive their origin from the Tuatha Dé Danann.”

(‘Lebor Gabála Eireann’ RA Macalister)

Effectively, these figures became cultural heroes for the filid on some level, the primordial investigators of human resource. This reflects the general obsession of Irish men of learning with accuracy regarding origin stories. The accounts we have betray the fact that we are looking at the lore of poets, and not the áes dána professions like physicians, specifically because poetic Divinities are to the fore. The ‘Lebor Bretnach’ octad, either written by or perhaps dedicated to Gilla Cóemáin, is bookended by two such Deities, Etan the female poet and Ogma the inventor of the ‘letters of the Irish’.

There may be a chance to have a glimpse at the outline of the filid’s cognitive ideology. It is striking that the 8 ‘Lebor Bretnach’ Divinities can be divided into 3 categories; those associated with the shaping of speech ie Etan, Ogma, and the Dagda; those associated with crafts ie Credne, Luchtaine and Goibnenn; and the one associated with medicine ie Dían Cécht (‘Early Irish Metrics’ G Murphy). One God, being the master of all arts, Lúgh rounds off the list as minister of portfolio (‘Mercantile Myth in Medieval Celtic Traditions’ JF Nagy). This precisely mirrors the division embodied by the 3 Brighid’s, daughters of the Dagda, in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’  being Brighid the female Poet, Brighid the female Smith, and Brighid the Physician. There is a specific resonance between Etan and Brighid as we see that in ‘Lebor Bretnach’, Etan is muime na filed or foster mother of the filid, and in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’, Brighid is “the Goddess whom the filid used to worship”. The glossary’s triple Brighid persona and ‘Lebor Bretnach’s  octet of Divinities both embody a division of the arts into 3 basic branches (‘Pagan Past and Christian presence in Early Irish Literature’ K McCone). Brighid and Etan, both Divine women, share a particular patronage for the filid, emerge as a central force within the enterprise.

This suggests that the same ideological elements recurred in different combinations, due to maybe regional variations among the filid. This may be reflected  in the quote mentioned above on Brighid from ‘Cormacs Glossary’, as it is important to remember that the Irish glossaries were mostly creations of the Munster province, and perhaps may reflect southern interpretations of the mythologies and mythological beings. Nowhere else is Brighid so richly described, and in the absence of independent evidence from other texts we cannot assume that the account of Her importance given there would have been universally recognised. The entry itself seems to implythe contrary, saying that almost all the Irish people recognised Brighid as a Goddess. This maybe a southern overstatement, but it might be that Brighid, who embodies the threefold division of the arts, but is the Patroness of the filid and sometimes the mother to “the 3 Gods of Art”, was to the poest of Munster what Etan (poetess, mother of Coibre the poet, and foster mother of the filid), daughter of Dían Cécht, was further north. Once again it is important to remember that in terms of medieval Irish writings, which we currently have is likely to be a fraction of what probably once existed, the possibility that our current understanding of the Gods is seriously askew by mere accidents of survival that must be always reckoned with (‘ Cath Maige Tuired’ EA Gray).

Among all these poetic allegories, one figure is absent, and He is another child of the Dagda, Óengus, the Mac Óc. While one would might expect him to be among the 7 (or 8) “primary skilled Ones”, or associated with Brighid, Brés, and Elathaas one of the filid’s pantheon of skill, he does not appear except for ‘The Annals of Innisfallen’. He is a noted personality in Irish literature especially in “The Wooing of Étaín” and is the central character of “Aislinge Óenguso” or the Dream of Óengus, composed possibly in the 8th Century (‘Knowledge and Power in Aislinge Óenguso’ T Ó Cathasaigh).

There are important dimensions to ‘Aisling Óenguso’ that have not yet been fully understood, and this is a seperate examination for another time. For this rather long essay on pseudohistory and the poet creators, we are looking at how Óengus undergoes  an emotional transformation on one hand, but he is a crafty, verbally sly figure on the other. He is adept at getting both himself and others into as well as out of difficult situations. Homer’s adjective for his hero Odyssus, polutropos (of many twists and turns), would fit Óengus well. Two of the God’s schemes depend on play with literal and metaphorical meanings, which bring Him into the realm of the filid’s language and figuration. He wily gains the Bruig by insisting that ‘ day and a night’ means ‘all time’, because ‘it is in days and nights that the world is spent’ (‘Celtic Heroic Age’ J Carey). He also advises his father, the Dagda, on how to kill the parasitic Cridenbél, who has been demanding on a daily basis that the Dagda hand over to him ‘the three best bits’ of his dinner. Cridenbél expects bits of meat, but on Óengus’ advice the Dagda hides three gold coins in the food, his ‘best bits’ in a limited sense, which clog up Cridenbél’s stomach and eventually kill him (‘Cath Maige Tuired’ EA Gray).

Poetry involves play between surface and depth, or the literal and metaphorical, and Óengus appears at least in one story, maybe others I could have missed, as an allegorical personage connected with poetic art. This is blatant in a Middle Irish anecdote, ‘Bó Bithblicht meic Lonán’ or ‘The Son of Lonán’s Unyeilding Milking Cow’ (insert pun here) (‘A Story of Flann mac Lonáin’ O Bergin). In it Flann mac Lonáin, a distinguished historical poet, who was killed in 896, meets a crudish peasant to whom he ends up owing a cow (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston). The peasant will only be satisfied with a cow that gives endless milk, and after a year he turns up at Flann’s house with four cronies, all of them armed with woodcutting tools, to demand it. They are unpleasant guests, beating the households women, servants, and dogs. Flann asks the peasant his name, which he gives as Fidbadach son of Fid Rúscach (woodsman son of bark covered wood). In a panic, as he had no cow of such to give, Flann composed a poem reflecting his predicament. Before I continue, I must point out that churl originally means a rude peasant. And thus comes the inevitable final narrative:

“It was then the churl said: ‘That’s the cow always rich in milk that I sought- for poetry is always rich in milk, and I who have come to you am Óengus, son of Bóand, the Mac ÓC, and no churl am I’.”

(‘Bó Bithblicht’ edited and translated Clifford)

That Óengus is supposed to have some deep connection with poetry is clear in the text’s constant punning on the word fid or wood/tree, which can also mean a word (and I stress only one word) of the ogham alphabet, and also represents filidecht itself. The peasant’s or churl’s name, woodsman of bark covered wood, can equally be seen as ‘a man of the ogham letter, son of a poetic letter’ (see ‘Bó Bithblicht’ edited by Clifford again). Flann frets about his guest ‘destroying the trees’, for Óengus carries a small billhook, used for cutting small branches, but he does quite the opposite and is metaphorically a custodian of that letter. The lesson that Óengus imparts is about metaphor, ‘poetry is a cow that is never dry’, which embodies the God’s own speciality, namely the ability to use the gap between the literal and the figurative.

Óengus is never involved in creating verse in the sagas that survive, but there are points of similarity between his experiences in “The Dream of Óengus” and descriptions of poetic composition from the Gaelic world. In the story of Flann’s encounter with the God incognito, the poet is vexed by the time his unpleasant guest spends lounging abed, “…awful his lying in his bed…fierce his length of time in bed” (see ‘Bó Bithblicht’ again).  Likewise, in “The Dream of Óengus”, the God languishes in bed yearning for the love of a woman he has dreamed about. The is very late evidence from 18th Century Scottish sources that Gaelic poets composed in darkness out of habit, lying in their beds for extended periods (‘Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview’ JF Nagy). Evidence that this was customary of the filid in early Ireland is scarce, although JF Nagy points out that ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ describes a ritual which involves the filid (Cormac) awaiting inspiration by covering his face with his hands and laying down to sleep.

It is a possibility that the filid might have interpreted the depiction of the God’s suffering in “The Dream of Óengus” as a metaphor for the process of composing poetry itself. There are strong points of similarity. First, the saga gives us a fugitive vision which cannot be forced to return by an act of will, followed by an intermediary period of inarticulate, bedbound socht or stupor, plus consultation with authorities of greater knowledge. At the last comes exaltation, which is the God’s recovery of the woman from his vision and full possession of that which initially had been fleeting (‘Knowledge and Power’ Ó Cathasaigh). If the saga was not originally intended to be an allegory of poetic composition, it may have been irresistible to the poets of later centuries to be read as one. This would have helped to foster an image of Óengus as an archetype of the poetic profession.

Elusive but intriguing hints that Óengus was used by the filid to symbolise the the subjective experience of verse composition are found in other places. The best evidence comes from a famous anecdote in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’. It tells of a male ‘spirit of poetry’ appearing to the ardfili Senchán Torpéist, chief ollam of Ireland (‘Sanas Cormaic’ edited by Meyer). A mysterious youth, shouting at them from a beach, insists on accompanying Senchán and his troupe of filid and apprentice poets on their trip to the Isle of man. His appearance is not pleasant;

“He had a hideous shape, first of all, when he used to put his finger to his forehead a gush of foul pus would come from his ears down to his neck. There was suppuration [?] from the crown of his head to the gristle of his two shoulders. Everyone who saw him thought it was the upper layer of his brain that had broken through his skull. Each of his two eyeswere as round as a blackbirds egg, as black as death, as quick as a fox.” (‘The Prull Narrative’ M Ní Dhonnchadha)

As the whole company approach the island, they “see a great, old, grey haired woman upon the rock”, combing the beach for seaweed. Unknown to Senchán’s group, she is a long-lost Irish poet. Senchán is unable to best the riddling half-quatrain that the woman calls out to him, and instead the youth answers, telling the old woman that it is him, rather than Senchán, she should address. Thanks to the youths intervention, Senchán realises who the woman is and orders for her to be bathed and dressed in finery befitting her high status. But it is the end of the narrative that is most significant, as while all this happens the mishappen youth undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming “a youth with yellow golden hair, wavy as the scrollings on harps. He was clad in royal apparel, and had the finest appearance ever seen on any man” (‘Tromdám Guaire’ Late Middle Irish tale anon.). He then circles Senchán and his group clockwise and vanishes. “…..he has never appeared since that time. Thus there is no doubt that he was the spirit of poetry [poematis spiritus].”

There are obvious similarities between this anecdote and and the story of Flann’s encounter with Óengus. Both describe the manifestation of a loathsome man into a distinguished fili, in a way that makes life difficult for them. In both, the man is revealed as being supernatural and connected with poetry itself, though in either case it is not obvious to begin with. There is an achievement attained in both accounts where Flann composes one of his best poems and in the other, a lost poet is recognised and has her status recovered.

On the other hand, each story has one element that the other has not. Only the glossary anecdote indicates to us the central figures transformation from hideous to divine. Likewise, the story of Flann makes it explicit that the churl is Óengus, whereas in the Glossary anecdote the identification is only implicit. Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha also notes that half of the stories various versions actually identify the spirit of poetry as Christ. That said, in 1927, the English poet, scholar, Celtist, Anglo-Saxonist, and Irish language translator Robin Ernest William Flowers 1881 to 1946 (affectionately nicknamed Bláthín), made the connection between the two anecdotes and noted the similarity between the story of the Spirit and Modern Irish tales in which Óengus lends his aid in an initially disruptive or mischievous form ( ‘Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum’ R Flower). The Sirits great beauty, for which Óengus is famous for, also fits. In short, scholars have noted that in both these anecdotrs we are dealing with the mythopoetic aspects of poetry (‘ The Blind, the Dumb, and the Ugly; Aspects of Poets and their Craft in early Ireland’ PK Ford). It is physically trying until one reaches enlightenment; then it becomes divine. They are not just stories about poetry but how it feels to train to become a poet.

Taken together, these anecdotes may help to make sense of one of the most puzzling of all medieval Irish references to a native God. Under the year 1084, the normally laconic Annals of Tigernach contain an unusual entry, which reads with an almost similarity to the writing style of WB Yeats in ‘The Celtic Twilight’ (‘Archaeology and Celtic Myth :An Exploration’ J Waddell). In a serve from the usual annalistic focus on battles and deaths, we learn of:

“A great pestilence in this year, which killed a quarter of the men of Ireland. It began in the south, and spread throughout the four quarters of Ireland. This is the causa causans of that pestilence, namely demons that came out of the northern isles of the world, namely three battalions, and in each battalion there were three thousand and thirty, as Óengus mac ÓC, the son of the Dagda, related to Mac Gilla Lugáin, who used to frequent the síd-mound every year at Samain. And he himself beheld at Maistiu one battalion of them that were destroying Leinster. In the same way they were seen by Mac Gilla Lugáin’s son, and wherever their heat and fury reached, their venom was taken, for there was a sword of fire out of the gullet of each of them, and every one of themwas as high as the clouds of heaven, so that is the cause of this pestilence.” (‘The Annals of Tigernach’ translated W Stokes)

That a God should convey supernatural insight to a mortal was a staple of the earliest Irish narrative prose. But on the face of it Mac Gilla Lugáin’s interview with the Mac Óc seems to be accepted by the annalist as not only genuine occurrence, but as contemporary. It is also accepted that the Mac Óc’s intelligence is accurateas he does identify the cause of the plague, The implications of this passage are, at first glance, startling, and commentators have on the whole not known quite how to take it, given that it seems to confirm the persistence of Pagan practices in 11th Century Ireland. Edel Bhreathnach says this passage helps us to “begin to experience a ritual culture, replicated in so many other societies, that existed outside, and was feared by those who sought to control social and religious mores in early Irish society” (‘Ireland and the Medieval World’). The archaeologist John Waddell is impressed that Mac Gilla Lugáin “should still apparently be a regular and persistent visitor to the otherworld mound of Óengus at the great feast of Samhain, when he evidently communed with the son of the Dagda” (‘Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration’).

Should we take these enigmatic passages literally? It is unusual that a Clonmacnoise cleric should have unhesitatingly accepted that there were those among his cotemporaries who had spoken with Pagan Deities should be considered to be in some sense on our side. An alternative way to view this might be as follows. The evidence examined above tells us that it was entirely possible in the Middle Irish period ( circa 800-1200) to compose an anecdotein which a famous poet encountered, and was enlightened by, the God Óengus, probably reflecting a habit of using the Deity to allegorise the difficulties and rewards of the filid’s profession. Might Mac Gilla Lugáin , of whom nothing is known, have been a member of the fili? There is nothing in the annal entry to suggest this. On the other hand, the story depicts him as the possessor of supernatural vision (etymologically fili means seer), inherited by his son; the practise of filidecht ran in families. Furthermore, all of this takes place when among the professional poets were deliberately playing up their connections with the pre-Christian past. There is no reason to think that the names of every significant medieval Irish poet are known to us, and every reason to think that they are not. Therefore, it is tempting to suggest that Mac Gilla Lugáin was no half-pagan throwback, but an assertively secular fili who composed an account of contemporary travails within a demonstrably pre-existant subgenre which we can call “The Poets encounter with Óengus”. If there was once a text called “The Colloquy of Mac Gilla Lugáin and the Mac ÓC”, we will never know. Perhaps Mac Gilla Lugáin’s ostentatious innovation was composing an autobiography, whereas Senchán Torpéist and Flann mac Lonán, the stories of their supernatural encounters were the creations of later generations for whom they were revered figures. In short, this profoundly odd annal-entry may have more precise cultural context than has been recognised, and its affinities should be recognised as being fundamentally literary, not literal.

It is time to pull some strands of this argument together before continuing. As the story of Mac Gilla Lugáin suggests, it is important again to emphasise that using Divinites in this way as symbols, rhetorical personifications, and allegories was not Paganism. It might, in fact, have been a long way from Irish Paganism as it actually had once been. Instead it was a kind of meta-mythology for intellectuals, a local analogy to the myriad ways that the classical Deities were put to use by poets and thinkers throughout the Middle Ages, and beyond. Unquestionably devout Christian poets regulary used Greek and Roman Deities as figures of speech, allegores, or useful fictions, while scholars massaged Christian monotheism to finda place for the ancient Gods as beings of genuine power. Invoking Apollo or the Muses is a classic example of the former process; in the latter case, one thinks of the power medieval thinkers ascribed to the planetary Deities and to the Goddess natura, nature personified (‘God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages’ B Newman). Irish poets, I suggest, were more than capable of similarly sophisticated strategies with their own native Gods, although this measure of actual existence they accorded to Brighid, for example, is probably irrecoverable, and indeed may have varied between individuals.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.

What is a Vate?

Vates is a Latin word denoting seers, prophets, soothsayers, diviners and fortune tellers. According to the Ancient Greek writers Strabo, Diodorus Siculus and Poseidonius, the Vates (οὐάτεις) were one of three classes of Celtic priesthood, the other two being the Druids and the Bards. As previously discussed, the Vates performed sacrifices under the authority of a Druid.

The word Vate means “to inspire” or “spiritually arouse”. In pagan Rome the Vates resided on the Vatican Hill, the Hill of the Vates. The Vatican Hill takes its name from the Latin word Vaticanus, in reference to the Vates, who delivered their messages on the Vatican Hill.

The Germanic god Wōđinaz (Woden in old English and Odin to the Norse) may be an early loanword based on the Celtic Vates.

Celtic Witches

If you look up witches, the word only seems to go back to the Anglo Saxon words Wicca and Wicce and dates from the eleventh century. However, if you look at the Vates they were indeed ancient versions of witches. Modern Bible translations use the term “witch of Endor” who could communicate with the dead prophet Samuel. Egyptians certainly used magic and even the Bible states that they were able to copy some of the feats of Aaron’s mystical rod.

Witches are from the dawn of time. As long as there has been magick, there have been witches. They are attuned to the spirit world and accounts show that Vates went into a trance like state and could not remember their utterances after speaking them. This is similar to the Shamans.

Shamanism was first recognized by Western observers working among traditional herding societies in central and northern Asia, and it is from the language of one of these societies, the Tungus speaking peoples of Siberia, that the term “shaman” is derived.

The earliest known depiction of a Siberian shaman, by the Dutch Nicolaes Witsen, 17th century. Nicolaes Witsen based this drawing from experience of a stay among the Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking indigenous peoples of Siberia.

However, because higher spirit beings can communicate with those who are gifted, shamans live wherever there are people. Some animals, such as wolves, dogs and cats also have a natural connection with spirit.

Sometimes staring at something we cannot see, these animals are observing spirit. All living beings are a container for spirit and when we die that spirit is released and for a time can be contacted through a natural or trained medium.

To be a Vate, you need to be gifted. Training will only bring out that divine gift which is present. Most of us, though, are gifted in some way, but a Vate is an expert with the gift. The gift is for sharing and that is why it has been bestowed. It presents evidence of the spiritual realm and their involvement in our lives.

It also explains why civilisations separated by thousands of miles, such as Native Americans, have similarities.

One of the gifts that can be shared and used, is the knowledge of herbs and
healing. Once a secret of the Vates, this knowledge is now widely available.

If you would like to learn more about Vates, or want to learn how to be a Vate, please check out our lessons.

Who Were The Druids?

“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree… A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.” Pliny the Elder, 1st century
Roman historian.

“The Druids are in charge of all religious matters, superintending public and private sacrifices, and explaining superstitions. A large crowd of young men, who flock to them for schooling, hold the Druids in great respect. For they have opinions to give on almost all disputes involving tribes or individuals, and if any crime is committed, any murder done, or if there is contention about a will or the boundaries of some property, they are the people who investigate the matter and establish rewards and punishments. There is one arch-druid of supreme power. On his death, he is succeeded either by someone outstanding among his fellows, or, if there are several of equal calibre, the
decision is reached by a vote of all the Druids. At a fixed time of year they assemble
at a holy place…Anyone with a grievance attends and obeys the decisions and judgments which the Druids give. The general view is that this religion originated in Britain and was imported into Gaul, which means that any keen student of Druidism now goes to Britain for information.” Julius Caesar, 54 BC

So, who were the ancient Druids and what do we know about them?

Firstly, Druids are magicians. Greek philosopher Diogenes Laërtius compares the
Druids to the Persian Magi, which is an equivalent Greek word to the Latin word
Caesar used to describe Druids as magicians. The Magi are Astronomers/ Astrologers belonging to the Zoroastrian religion.

Whilst it is part of the role of Vate was to perform rituals, it is the Druid role to conduct and oversee rituals. They explained the purpose of rituals, so those taking part understood the importance. There were both public and private rituals. These were special occasions and following sacrifice; they held a banqueting. We learn that
they closely followed the lunar cycles (cutting mistletoe on the sixth day of the moon)
and were expert timekeepers. The discovery of the lunisolar calendar in Coligny, France tells us a lot about the Druid calendar and times of rituals.

They looked at the moon as a healer and even had a branch of Astrologer concentrating purely on the moon. The mistletoe was collected from a hard-timbered oak, and the word Druid means “oak knower”. Since oak trees are connected with longevity and wisdom, this gives the impression of a Druid being a wise, old sage. This is borne out in Julius Caesar’s account of schooling young men. Although it appears from Caesar’s quotes that Druids was largely a male role, in Ireland at least, there were female Druids called bandruí (“woman-druid”), found in tales such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Caesar only had limited exposure to Britain, so only had limited information about the role of male and female Druids.

The Druids were in charge of religious matters, they were the High Priests of the Celts. People brought matters to their attention and they gave judgments after fully investigating a matter. In fact, in Ireland, the law of the Druids was written into what
is known as Brehon law. There was a democracy among Druids and an arch Druid was voted in from their number.

They were philosophers and wanted the best for their tribes and people. They were
envoys of peace. The role of Druid is a very important role, but comes with great
responsibility. Like the politicians of today, people looked at the words of the Druids and the role of Druid is that of a diplomat.

The practice of the Druids was first noted in two Greek works over two thousand years ago in around 200 BCE, although both works were since lost. In 50 BCE Julius Caesar wrote that Druids originated in Britain. Some claim that Druids could be found across much of Europe, from Ireland in the west to Turkey in the
east, however, modern scholars have concluded this is unlikely.

Druids were probably native just to the British Isles, Ireland and western Gaul
(now France). Although written accounts seem to have begun 2,200 years ago,
Druidry was probably in existence for a good deal of time before then, and Druids
evolved from earlier pre-Celtic cult practices.

On the Gower Peninsula, near Swansea, the Paviland caves have revealed one of the earliest magick religious sites in the world, where around
26,000 years ago a group of humans carefully interred a skeleton, wrapping the body in red cloth or rubbing it with red ochre and laying with it
mammoth-ivory rods, which may be the earliest magic wands ever found.

Red Lady of Paviland

17,000 years ago the Lascaux caves in France were decorated with paintings of animals which survive to this day. The caves were almost certainly used in ritualistic ways and many believed that they were representations of the constellations of the night sky, including an ancient Druid zodiac.

Thousands of years later a classical writer claimed that Druids met in caves, and today the symbolism of caves and of animals is still used by many modern Druids.

During this period of history, prior to the evolution of Druids, tribes were migrating across Western Europe. Some may have come from the areas now known as the black sea area of Russia, Turkey, or even from the Vinča civilisation. These brought their own religious customs and knowledge, which was animistic and shamanistic.

Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria, England

Around 6,500 years ago people were starting to build stone monuments in western Europe – particularly in Ireland, the British Isles, and in Brittany. The Druids have always been associated with stone circles such as Stonehenge. Academics,
however, until recently dismissed this idea. Historians used to say that the Druids couldn’t have used Stonehenge and all the other stone circles in Britain, because the Druids were the priests of the Celts, and the Celts only arrived in Britain around 500 BCE.

In the sixties many historians changed their minds. They realised that the origin of Celtic tribes was far more complex than originally presumed, and suggested instead that early Celts were probably in Britain as early as 2000 BCE, when the great stone monuments were still being built and that they became involved in their use or construction, integrating it into their practises.

We can, therefore, connect the Druids as the priests and priestesses of the stone circles, which is strengthened by the importance of ritual astronomy in the construction of these monuments, aligning stones with the Sun and moon at solstices and equinoxes.

We also know that Druids also held rituals in sacred groves that were clearings surrounded by sacred trees, including the Oak.

To learn more about Druids please check out our free lessons.

Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of Master Poets Part 5

Many of the Tuatha Dé bear names that explicity connect them with the arts with one very obvious example being Credne, the divine bronze-crafter, whose name etymologically means the ‘skilled one’ and is related to cerd meaning ‘art’, ‘skill’ and/or ‘artisan’ (‘Iddánach, Ildírech:A Festschrift for Proinsias Mac Cana’ JT Koch, J Carey & PY Lambert).

A tighter core of Divinities, however, seem to have been specifically associated with the filid’s own arts of language. Elatha, generally identified as the father of the Dagda, is also a noun meaning ‘skill’, ‘art’, ‘science’, and/or ‘branch of learning’ particularly associated with poetry. According to J Carey’s ‘Myth and Mythography’, Ogma, another of Elatha’s sons, was “associated with the literary lore of the native intelligentsia” as inventor of the ogham alphabet, supposedly named after him. Carey remarks of these figures that “Elatha is consistently associated with Bress, Ogmae, the Dagdae, and the more shadowy Delbaeth; he is evidently another figure in what we may call the ‘pantheon of skill’”. It is striking that the author of ‘The 2nd Battle of Moytura’ nonetheless felt able to radically rearrange this symbolic family, making Elatha a member of the Fomór for the tale’s purposes.

Within this poetic pantheon the Goddess Brighid, daughter of the Dagda and wife of Brés, was apparently of considerable significance. She is a paradoxical and unique figure in the mythology, characterised by bifurcations of identity. Even her name has two forms, Brighid and Bríg, and seems to be one entity and also a trio of sisters. Most famously of all she bears connection to her Christian counterpart, Brigit of Kildare, one of the islands most cherished saints. There is still also some evidence of a shadowy figure, Bríg, identified as a female judge but there is no certainty that she is imagined as having supernatural associations (‘A Guide to Early Irish Laws’ Kelly). The strange split in the Goddess is starkly visible in the sources. She makes one, and only one, appearance in an actual narrative, ‘The 2nd Battle of Moytura’, in which her role is to lament the killing of her son Rúadán. At the same time, ‘Cormacs Glossary’ lauds her divinity in the most exhalted and specific terms used of any Irish Goddess (‘A Tuatha Dé Miscelleny’ edited by J Carey). The most famous entry is quoted below but the original source contains both Irish and Latin sentences mixed together:

“Brigit,ie, a female poet, daughter of the Dagda, She is Brigit the sage of poetry , ie, Brigit a goddess whom the filid used to worship. For very great and very splendid was her application to the art. Therefore they used to call her goddess of poets, whose sisters were Brigit the female physician and Brigit woman of smithcraft, daughters of the Dagda, from whose names almost all the Irish used to call Brigit a goddess” (‘Sanas Cormaic’ edited by Meyer).

This rich description articulates a special imaginative connection between Brighid as a supremely skilled poet and the professional poets who ‘used’ to worship Her. The tense is significant: this bit of lore could only have come down to the compiler of the glossary from the filid themselves, and their devotion to Brighid the Goddess is clearly not meant to be a matter of contemporary custom in the literal sense. It is also important not to overestimate the narrator’s enthusiasm as two of the three explicit statements of Brighid’s divine status are couched in Latin, a shift of register which often indicates a desire on the part of the glossary compiler to put distance between himself and what is being said. It is tellingly similar to the famous entry on Manannán mac Lir, in which the opening description of Manannán’s skill at sea as a merchant is in Irish, while the assertion that the Irish and the Britons had called Him ‘God of the Sea’ in Latin (‘Early Irish History and Mythology’ TF O’Rahilly). It is also noteworthy to mention that in some versions of the ‘Glossary’ that Brighid derives from the Irish word breoshaigit or flaming arrow, but this is typical medieval etymology and not actually true; the real origin of the name is Brigantí meaning ‘Exhalted One’ (Andrew Gibbons, give yourself a bow).

Therefore, it is possible that Brighid/Bríg and Brés were a highly significant pair of symbols to the filid, although evidence for this is indirect. It is necessary here to have read against the grain of the surviving material, in which Brighid is oddly fugitive and Brés seems to have been removed from his original role and refashioned as the tyrannical king archetype. Their importance is underlined by their children, a mysterious trio known as the trí dé dána or three Gods of skill. While the name is resonant, they are wavering and confused figures in the tradition as it has been handed down to us. Informed guesswork suggests that they began as a personification of the áes dána, and may originally have been identified as the 3 ultimate ‘craft-Gods’ being Goibhnú the blacksmith, Credne the bronze fashioner and Luchta/Luchtaine the wright (‘Cath Maige Tuired’ EA Gray). Later, various mix-ups seem to have got in the way. The term dána or of skill, was misunderstood as the name of a Goddess, so that the 3 Gods became Her sons instead of Brighid’s. They also became identified , in other texts outside of ‘Lebór Gabála’, with another infamous threesome known as Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, the sons of Tuirenn ( as mentioned earlier, this can be found in the Order of Celtic Wolves and Na Mhac Tire hEiru members facebook page under the 17th century Irish titled Oidhe Choinne Tuireann). It is this trio who conspire to murder Lugh’s father Cían, and are severely punished for this crime. In ‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey astutely states that “it is most reasonable to see Bríg and the trí dé as figures belonging to the elaborate repertoire of imagery employed by the poets…. Brés, closely linked to them… to be assigned to the same context”. Thus we can reconstruct a micro-pantheon of allegorical Gods associated with verbal skills, not as a survival of Paganism, but part of the literary lore of early Christian Irelands intellectual elite.

Two minor Tuatha Dé figures, Ollam and His son Aí, make the connection with poetry more overt. The name Ollam means most supreme and was also used  as a standard term for master-poet and remains today as the Irish term for professor. Aí means, quite simply, inspired poetry, from a root ‘*awe-‘, or ‘breath, wind,blow’, which has a very long history in Indo-European poetic vocabulary (‘How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics’ C Watkins). A Middle Irish birth tale about Aí provides an allegory for how the art of poetry came into existence in Ireland. Ollam, son of Delbaeth, is the brother of Fíachna, one of the Tuatha Dé kings of Ireland. One day as they sit together, a ‘great gust of wind’ blows all over the house. The king’s druid interprets this to mean that a ‘wonderful art’ equal in dignity to kingship will be born into Ireland, embodied in the king’s unborn nephew, Ollam’s son. The baby is born, and Fíachna tries to have him killed, but is prevented. The newborn infant then miraculously speaks, demanding that all the rights and rewards owed to poets by kings in the name of Fíachna’s honour;

“My territory, my couple,

A cauldron of provisions with a vat;

Let division of gifts be granted by the king of Mugna;

A vessel, a cup,

A chariot, an ivory-hilted sword,

Thirty cows, a quern of the

War bands of Fíachna.

‘It will be given’, said Fíachna. ‘What name will be given to the boy now?’ ‘Let him be called Aí’, said the druid. It was from this that aí airchetail or poetic craft was so called, that is, from Aí, son of Ollam. And that was the first poetic composition, spoken by Aí, son of Ollam.” (‘Celtic Heroic Age’ J Carey).

Only the filid can be responsible for this story, which underscores their high status and indispensable place within the social hierarchy. In the above story, Ollam is said to have half of the house and equal number of retainers to his royal brother, therefore poets are placed here on equal footing with kings. Once again this presents a clear example of personages in the mythic time of the Tyatha Dé being deployed to legitimise, explain, and personify elements of the poets’ profession and repertoire.

The father/son pairing of Ollam and Aí raises further questions about the purposes served by the genealogies in ‘Lebór Gabála’. These formed a part of the text likely to have been sourced from oral tradition among the filid, which suggests that the pedigrees of the Gods were memorised not only because the filid needed to be able to remember and recite stories about the Tuatha Dé, crucial though that was, but also because they found family trees useful for visualising the branches and interrelations of native learning. Because the filid placed so much weight on the importance of human inspiration, the figure of Aí is again illuminating. The story of Aí’s birth might be compared with a statement from an obscure Old Irish tract included within an 8th century law text, Bretha Nemed, that filidecht subdivides into séis (music), clúas (hearing), and guth (voice). These combine with ánal (breath) to give aí or inspired poetry (‘An Old Irish Tract on the Privileges and Responsibilities of Poets’ EJ Gwynn). This is an account of the origins of inspiration in a different vein, without personification, but it is easy to see how it could lend itself to being packaged in the form of a family tree. The implication is that metaphor, specifically personification, could allow grammatica to be figured as genealogy.

Further support is lent by an interesting work of the 9th Century, ‘Immacallan in dá Thúarad’  or ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’ (‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey and ‘Colloquy of the Two Sages’ translated by W Stokes). Composed for or by the filid, it seems to be a text that they to most pleasure (‘Literary and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston). It depicts a competition between Ferchertne, a seasoned poet, and his teenaged prodigy and rival, Néde (‘From Monks Jokes to Sages Wisdom: The Joca Monachorum Tradition and the Irish Immacallan in dá Thúarad’ m Garrison, AP Órban & M Mostert). It is a rich display of the ways in which the filid visualised their own repertoire in the period, because it presents two fictional filid showing off their command of the specialised jargon of their craft and profession (‘Obscure Styles in Medieval Ireland’ J Carey). Some of their exchange remains impenetrable, but the general impression is the ability to allude to lavishly elegant lore and penetrate mythological metaphors marked one out as a qualified member of the filid elite. Much of the lore in the text is metaphoric ie it is difficult poetry about how difficult poetry is.

The turning point of the tale comes when the young poet, Néde, is asked about his ancestry. He then recites a family tree for his professional mastery journeying back to the Tuatha Dé:

“I am a son of Poetry.

Poetry son of Scrutiny.

Scrutiny son of Meditation,

Meditation son of Great Knowledge,

Great Knowledge son of Enquiry,

Enquiry son of Investigation,

Investigation son of Great Knowledge,

Great Knowledge son of Great Sense,

Great Sense son of Understanding,

Understanding son of Wisdom,

Wisdom son of the Three Gods of Skill”

This passage can be read as an account of how learned poetry percolates through the mind, couched in a genealogical metaphor which interfaces with the Tuatha Dé, at the top of the pedigree. Earlier, we saw that the 3 Gods of Skill are Brés’s sons by Brighid, daughter of the Dagda, whom ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ described as the patron God of poets (‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey). In ‘Allegory, the aes dána and the Liberal Arts in Medieval Irish Literature’, Elizabeth Boyle emphasises the degree in which the interpretation of texts on a figurative level was instructed persistently by the mode of education shared by ecclesiastical scholars and secular men of learning up to the beginning of the 12th Century. This method of education may well have played a role in fostering a fondness of the use of mythological metaphors among the filid in the 9th and 10th Centuries, flowering as vivid personifications and morally instructive allegories or fables.

In the ‘Colloquy’ it is clear that Néde intends his poetic family tree to be taken metaphorically as it describes a concatenation of mental processes proper to a mind trained in filidecht and he is more than keen to make that clear ( There is a note that needs to be made here on the Irish habit of using the word mac/son of. When coupled with a noun it becomes something different as a description of a profession eg mac báis/son of death means plunderer and mac léiginn/son of reading means clerical student. This has given rise to so many mistakes in deciphering Irish in its three forms Old, Middle and Modern. An even bigger mistake is using Google or online translators as a tool as it only gives a literal translation not the expressed meaning . An fear dubh/ the black man is the personification of death whereas an fear gorm/ the blue man means a person of dark coloured skin). Other texts of a later date offer parallels. A good example from the 12th Century, ‘Echtra Cormaic I Tir Tairngiri’ or ‘Cormac’s Adventure in the Land of Promise’ provides an elaborate description of an otherworldly tobair/ well from which 5 streams flow. In this story, the God Manannán explains to Cormac that he is looking at the “fountain of knowledge”, and that the 5 streams are the 5 senses. This entails that human knowledge comes from either drinking from the streams or the well itself but only the learned elite can only drink from both. Here again, the workings of the trained human mind, being the processes of perception, cognition, and creativity, are being allegorised through extended mythological metaphors (‘Allegory, the áes dána and the Liberal Arts’ E Boyle).

The overall control and influence of the filid on the narrative Gods in Irish culture emerges clearly, and the ‘Lebór Gabála’ genealogies may allow us to catch an echo of the mnemonic devices which the filid employed to encode information. Certainly they remembered complex pedigrees for the Gods as they deployed them in allegories of native schemes of knowledge and they emphasised their order’s connection to the past in which these beings had been taken as divine, and they probably intended certain stories to be read figuratively. But it needs to be stressed that the filid were not atavistic semi-pagans. One poem ascribed to Eochaid ua Flainn makes this crystal clear via a long list of the Tuatha Dé’s major personages:

“It is clear that the one who wiped them from their land,

From the royal plain, was the son of God; I proclaim {it}

Despite the valour of their deeds in their bright division

Their race does not remain in Ireland.

It is Eochaid, without fury of enchantments {?},

Who arranges their fair divisions;

Apart from knowledge of the companies we declare,

Though we enumerate them, we do not worship them.”

(‘Celtic Heroic Age’ J Carey).

The filid’s habit of working individual Deities or chains of Deities into figurative or allegorical representations of knowledge may help to explain a well known oddity. In an earlier part of this series, we saw that in the late 9th Century tale of ‘ Tuán mac Cairell’ the arrival of the Tuatha Dé and andé is seen as an arrival of semi-demonic exiles from Heaven. As I explained in an earlier part, andé means nongods and they were áes trebtha or farming people whereas the áes dána were the Gods and a people of skill. Scholars have spilled a lot of ink over this, writing about two categories of Deity in ancient Irish Pagansim, one being a higher level of Gods associated with cultural aspects and a lower level associated with agriculture. A bit of force is added to this picture as it closely resembles Norse mythology, which also features two types of God, the higher Aesir and the lesser or earthly Vanir.

But there is no need to look back at a hypothetical past. What seems more likely is that this statement represents a doctrine of the filid, according to which the basic division of Irish society into the skilled professionals and those involved in farming has been couched in terms of one of their favourite metaphors being “to possess skill is to be godlike”. This has been retrofitted onto the Tuatha Dé, where the statement then comes that some of the Gods were not gods at all. Far from being a relic of Irish Paganism, the concept of Gods and nongods is probably a development of the early Christian period, reflecting the Gods’ shift from Divinities to members of a society imagined as similar to that of early Ireland.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.

Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 4

The second section of the Tuatha Dé interlude in the ‘Book of Invasions’ is a chronological list of their rulers/kings with the length of their reigns; Núada 7 years, Brés 7 years, Núada (2nd reign with silver arm) 20 years, Lugh 40 years, an Dagda 80 years, Delbaeth 10 years, Fíachu mac Delbaeth 10 years, and then the 3 grandsons of an Dagda (Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht and Mac Gréine) with a combined reign of 27 years (‘Lebór Gabála Ereann’ various).

This part of the text is not of major importance. The earliest version is sparse, though later ones weave in a brief listing of some of the Tuatha Dé’s more minor figures into the text (‘ A Tuatha Dé Miscellany’ J Carey). The regnal periods suggest symbolism: notably as the era of the Tuatha Dé reaches its peak, the kings reigns double in length, not once but twice: 20, 40, 80. Blatantly artificial though this is, we may still discern an echo here of an Dagda’s original mythical eminence as the ‘supreme father’; his sovereignty is the longest, after which things begin to fall away. It is also striking that the 3 longest reigns belong to figures who are all securely former Gods, while those of minor and shadowy figures such as Fíachu and Dalbaeth are shorter. The fundamental pseudohistorical doctrine that the Tuatha Dé’s sovereignty over Ireland was merely a phaseis underscored by this numerical pattern of increase, apogee and ebb.

The 3rd and final subsection before the story of the Gaedhil resumes consists of the genealogies of the Tuatha Dé, and it provides an inventory of the Tuatha Dé with their various attributes. This part of the ‘Lebór Gabála’ has long been a happy hunting ground for those feverishily bent on creating an Irish pantheon (see ‘The Irish Pantheon. Native or Imported Concept’ yours truly), because it contains some transparently old material and shows a clear relationship to the sagas. It is also fearsomely complex, and it is important to remember how fundamental the tracing of lineages was to the workings of power and hierarchy in early Ireland. There could be no nobility without the details of descent. Setting out the family-tree of the Tuatha Dé underlined their realness and provided a chain of relationships extending back into the mythical past. That said, the Gods are never identified as the ancestors of any group among the Irish- the role of forebear having been entirely usurped by the artificial figure of Míl Espáine -even though the idea that the Gaedhil and the Gods had intermarried had been implied by Máel Mura, and presumably represented the most ancient tradition (‘Celtic Mythology’ P Mac Cana).

The Gods; characters are basically consistent with their roles in the sagas, with a couple of striking exceptions. In contrast to ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ there is no evidence in ‘Lebór Gabála’ that Brés, son of Elatha, was thought to be Fomór, and his father is among the members of the Tuatha Dé. Another example of the closeness of this section to the world of the sagas is the fact that one early recension gives a summary of the story that we know from the late medieval tale ‘Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann’ or the ‘Tragic Deaths of the Children of Tuireann’ (can be found in the Order of Celtic Wolves blog section as well), in which Lugh punishes his fathers killers with inventive sadism.

The genealogies of the Tuatha Dé form the most unstable section of the text, incorporating more fluctuations of detail than any other. A sense of long-standing debate about the identities and family relations of the Gods is occasionally felt, as in the account of the divine physician, Dian Cécht:

“Dian Cécht had three sons, Cú and Cethen and Cian- and Miach was his fourth son, although many do not count him- plus his daughter Etan the poetess, and his other daughter Airmed the physician, and Coirpre the poet, son of Etan.” (‘Lebór Gabála Ereann’ various)

“Many do not count him”: how should variations of this sort be accounted for? This particular case strongly supports the argument that Miach, son of Dian Cécht, was an artificial invention of the author of the “Second Battle of Moytura”, and that it took time for him to be brought about into the tradition. In other cases it looks as though the various recensions of the text were drawing on at least two, probably more, separate soundings from oral tradition (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). Sometimes, the same bits of data of the like, that a and b, the son of x and y, was responsible for c and d, for example, pop up in different words in different parts of the text. This is what one would expect if the sources originate from oral tradition. To the compilers of the ‘Lebór Gabála’, the genealogies of the Gods were not like an antique vase that had been carefully passed down but rather they resembled a series of patterned fragments which could be assembled in different ways, using more or less a kind of obvious adhesive to hold it together. And while these blocks of oral material seem to have been broadly similar in outline, they clearly diverge in detail. All versions of the text, for example, agree that Coirpre the poet was the son of Dian Cécht’s daughter, Etan, but the identity of the father is varied (‘Caith Maige Tuiread’ EA Gray).

Thus the family tree of the Tuatha Dé was clearly in a certain amount of flux and small wonder, for the entire unwieldly edifice had very complex at this stage, with a host of secondary figures assembled around the former Divinities. New members of the Tuatha Dé could materialise from many sources, not at least the misinterpretation of names derived from geographical locations as personal names  many centuries later after the dying out of Irish Old religion. Two of the most famous, the Goddesses Eirú and Banba (both of whom give their names to Ireland itself) just might be of this type, as both names means ‘abundant land’ and ‘plain of low hills’ respectively, betraying no hint of divinity. Rather suspiciously for an ancient Irish Goddess, the name Banba itself seems to be a borrowing from a late form of British language evolving its way to becoming Welsh (A Note on the Name of Ireland in Irish and Welsh’ GR Isaac).

The densest growth was at the top of the family tree, at the artificial join where the pseudohistorians had been obliged to graft familiar figures like the Dadga into the kindred of the Neméd, and so on back to Noah. This scheme predated ‘Lebór Gabála’, which nevertheless sets it out clearly. The major grafting point was a shadowy figure called Tait son of Taburn, supposed to have lived seven generations after his forefather Neméd and to have been the last common ancestor of all the Tuatha Dé. From Tait there are still several generations before we arrive at any recognisable names. The core idea was that Tait’s son Aldue/Allae had sired 5 sons, and it is from these that the various subbranches of the Tuatha Dé descend. The Dagda was Aldue’s great-great-grandson, via Néit, Delbaeth, and Elatha; his brothers and children look like a self-contained and presumably very old unit, which groups most of the figures likely to be reflexes of genuinely preChristian Gods.

As I previously discussed, the pseudohistorians were most likely connecting blocks of orally sourced material here, which explains the blatant artificial quality of most of the figures. Genealogically speaking, figures like Tait and Aldui are there simply to connect A to B; they possess a merely notional existence and it seems unlikely that much in the way of narrative was ever attached to them. Nonetheless, the pseudohistorians deliberately borrowed names with mythological cachet in order to assemble the pedigree. This deliberate borrowing is most striking in the lineage of an Dagda, who is the most important member of the Tuatha Dé in terms of paternity; it may be that his line of descent back to Tait of Taburn is the earliest to be fabricated. His father, Elatha (poetic art), is not implausible as a proper name for a deity. His grandfather Delbaeth shares the same name as one of his brothers, and the name ( possibly ‘shaping’ or ‘shaping with fire’) sounds archaic, so that he may reflect some lost deity (‘Mater Deorum Hibernensium’ SP MacLeod).

Further back is Néit, the Dagda’s great-grandfather. A figure bearing this name is attested in ’Cormac’s Glossary’ as a war-god, consort of the Goddess Nemain, and also associated with an Morrigú. Mythological data in early glossaries cannot be necessarily taken at face value, but in this case the entry is revealing and may well be true:”Néit ,ie, a god of war among the pagan irish. Nemain uxor illius, ie, that one’s wife” (‘Sanas Cormaic’ ed Meyer). This is linguistically plausible, and there is no particular reason to doubt that an ancient Deity underlies the figure. Thw word can just mean ‘conflict, battel’ from the root word nanti or to be bold, aggressive (‘ Varia VI, Ériu’ FO Lindeman). However, the entry probably refers to another Néit in the family tree as the Dagda’s uncle. This younger Néit is depicted as the husband of the 3 war Goddesses whereas the older Néit looks therefore like an artificial duplication brought in to extend the family tree upwards and backwards. When hunting for the mythological core of the genealogies, doubling of names in this manner is a useful diagnostic sign of artificality; in the pedigree of Irish nobles, a small number of common names constantly recur, but for obvious reasons this should not be characteristic of divine names (‘Early Christian Ireland’ TM Charles-Edwards).

It is of the first significance for the Gods that the pseudohistorical doctrines were put into their authoritative form by poets. Much of the material about the Gods later in the ‘Lebór Gabála’ seems to have ultimately derived from the lore of the filid which reflects their methods and preoccupations (‘Literacy and Identity in early medieval Ireland’ E Johnston). We can see that the Gods can function as archetypes for the professions who made up the áes dána or people of talent such as the filid, as the most socially elevated of the áes dána, who seem to use the Gods to conceptualise aspects of their own profession in an especially rich manner (‘Poets and Poetry’ L Breatnach).

On the surface this might seem to entail a paradox. We can tell from this study that the professional poets had deeply identified with the Christian religion, and that historically that their order had derived from the fateful encounter between native schemes of learning and Christian literacy.  According to a legend, that is designed to serve a political agenda, Patrick came before the court of Lóegaire mac Néill, the Ard Rí of Tara, the only people to rise in respect before the saint were a poet and his pupil. The story tells us that the filid were concerned to represent themselves as an ancient order whose roots were in the deep past, and as an order whose members had instantly perceived the truth of Christianity and readily had capitulated to it (‘Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature’ K McCone).

The filid did more than simply recount fables about the Tuatha Dé in the secular storytelling for which they were responsible; rather they seem to have made them part of the way in which they imagined and transmitted their own schemes of knowledge (‘Filidecht and Coimgne’ S Mac Airt).To be a fili was to be a highly trained professional, marked out by a course of study which involved “oral knowledge, literate skills, and mnemonic training” (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Christian Ireland’ E Johnston). They were expert in the grammatical analysis of the Irish language, in the highly formulised rules of poetic composition, and in training the memory to encompass the vast body of historical and legendary story, precedent, and genealogy which it was their business to know (‘’Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’ L Breatnach).

In all these areas, both those to do with patronage and those to do with teaching academic and theological subjects, it is fairly easy to see how the native Gods could be of use to the filid. A swift overview is necessary here before we look at how specific divinities were deployed. First and most important, filidecht or the art of the fili, was fundamentally secular, and because the pagan Gods were by definition out of place in the ecclesiastical sphere, they could function as useful markers of secularity (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Christian Ireland’  E Johnston).

Secondly, it was essential to the filid’s identity to assert that their profession was an ancient , time hallowed aspect of native culture, though this was not literally true ( the native Irish tongue had undergone a dramatic change for the 500’s to medieval times so precise detail would have differed from the earlier periods).The venerable and the obscure was their stock and trade, and these were spheres associated with the Tuatha Dé, imagined to have ruled Ireland in the past. This is especially true in the realm of language, for the ability to speak in allusive and cryptic form of “poets Irish” marked someone out as a fili (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Christian Ireland’ E Johnston). A commentary on ‘The Scholars Primer’, a crucial compendium of early Irish grammatical studies, provides a telling example. Ireland’s various ancient peoples are said to have used different terminology for the grammatical genders of masculine, feminine and neutral. It is the most obscure terms, “moth”, “toth” and “traeth”, that are associated with the Tuatha Dé (‘ Moth, Toth and Traeth; Sex, Gender and the Early Irish Grammarian’ P Russel).

Thirdly, the art of the professional poet involved a degree of mental facility and verbal fluency that depended on well trained memory and long practise. Memory for medieval intellectuals was analogous to what we call the imagination today. It was not just rigorous cramming of facts, but a mode and precondition of artistic creativity (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Christian Ireland’ E Johnston). Professional mental training and poetic inspiration were inseparable, because their poetry was not primarily an individualistic expression of the poet, but, first and foremost, a display of repertoire and technique. Only when that technique had been thoroughly mastered could a kind of miraculous ease be attained, an ease which underpinned the individual poet’s claim to speak with authority.

It is an observable tendency for things involving inspiration to take on supernatural tropes and personifications, which is why even to this day that poets still speak of their muse. That intellectual and artistic facility which makes one godlike is a metaphor which the filid seem to have taken a long way; the name for one of the grades of their profession was ”deán” meaning godling (‘Uraicecht na Ríar; The Poetic Grades in Early Irish Law’ L Breatnach). Essentially, there is some evidence that the filid used the native Gods to symbolise the more mysterious dimensions of their art, and to mark it out as an esoteric and hoarded form of knowledge that defined learned poets as a separate and special group within early Irish society (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Christian Ireland’ E Johnston).

This discussion of the nature of filidecht is to make clear that it was a system of learning couched in terms defined by E Johnston as “ at once pragmatic and mythopoetic, especially at the intersection between learning and composition” (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Christian Ireland’). As storytellers, the filid were skilled at adapting stories of the native Irish Gods to new circumstances, it should be no surprise if they used vivid figures to encapsulate complex abstract ideas in concrete terms. Mythopoeia or the self-conscious of making myths, is a term for the filid’s use of the Gods. It is a framing of the scholarly in terms of the supernatural, enabled by medieval scholars’ intense and characteristic fondness for personification and allegory (‘The Cauldron of Poesy’ L Breatnach). The impression that emerges is that the professional poets of pre-Norman Ireland put versions of the native Gods of their ancestors to work as a kind of symbolic or allegorical pantheon.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.

Cultural Appreciation/ Appropriation

Before we discuss this controversial subject, let’s discuss what we mean by the two terms.

  1. Cultural Appreciation – appreciation is when you seek to understand and learn about other cultures in an effort to broaden your perspective and connect with others cross-culturally.
  2. Appropriation is when you take, adopt or invent aspects of a culture that is not your own and use it for your own personal interest.

It is the difference between a cultural exchange and stealing. One is a permission and the other is taking without consent.

Cultural appropriation though is far more complex and involves a lot more. Since we’re the Order of Celtic Wolves, let’s consider this from the Celtic aspect.

The Order was created to show appreciation for our ancestors and learn about their teachings and culture. This is appreciation, because it helps us understand the life that our ancestors led, the food they ate, the clothes they wore, their beliefs etc.

Also, others who can’t claim Celtic ancestry have joined our Order because they find the Celts a fascinating culture that they can learn from. These too are welcome. Also, the majority of the Celtic world has vanished and there are certainly not a continuation throughout history of practitioners, although certain customs have continued throughout time.

If anything, though, it was the Romans who introduced Celtic Appropriation because they did not come to appreciate the culture. They came to invade, pillage and take over the land.

Interpretatio romana refers to ancient Roman religion and myth being combined with another culture. An example is the formation of a distinctive Gallo-Roman religion. The Romans reinterpreted Gallic religious traditions in relation to their own and basically replaced them. They imposed their deities upon to the ancient Gauls and Celts. Gradually, during their long occupation and reign this became accepted, although it was initially forced.

This isn’t new to the Romans, though. The Greeks did exactly the same, especially during their rule of Egypt and most Roman Gods have a Greek equivalent.

Pliny the Elder (a first century Roman author, naturalist and philosopher) expressed the “translatability” of deities as “different names to different peoples” (nomina alia aliis gentibus). This enabled the religious syncretism of the Hellenistic era and the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

What better way to take over a people has been used than taking over their religion and imposing yours upon it. The European empires of more recent centuries had the greater audacity of forcing Christianity upon cultures such as India, the Americas and tribal Africa. This is more of a cultural eradication.

Irish mythology, as you can see from our lessons so far, was blended in with Christianity. Deities were reduced to humans, like Brigid became a Saint and her story distorted. The myths were given a Biblical basis, with genealogy being given to add credibility to the connections between settlers in Ireland and mythological figures and people, like the Fir Bolg.

This kind of cultural appropriation continues today, even within pagan groups. You often hear people ask “who is the Celtic equivalent of Thor” or “Odin”. Let me be clear on my thoughts on this. Each culture has its own ancient deities and even though comparisons can be made, the Order of Celtic Wolves is about preservation of OUR deities. They are unique to us. Ogma is not the same as Hermes or Mercury, neither should he be.

Whilst we acknowledge such comparisons and promote healthy discuss, for us they are our deities and should be protected as much as possible.

Some types of appropriation is acceptable to different cultures. For example, most Indians don’t object to others wearing a Sari. Jewellery is also often acceptable. Thor’s hammer, for example, was often wore in defiance of the Crucifix. However, if we called it Taranis’ hammer that would be cultural appropriation, rather than appreciation.

One particular culture that is “used” more than most, is native American tradition. In fact, the term is a misnomer. Each tribe has its own individual deities, Teachings, totems, etc. Some tribes are also very protective and secretive about their beliefs and rarely let outsiders in, even to this day. This is probably in reaction to the way they were decimated and had Christian names forced upon them by the European invaders.

Not only this, but great profit is made by Capitalists exploiting native America. For example, some natives would trade dream catchers and make canoes that they would sell to make a living. Now dream catchers are mass produced in factories and carved canoes have been replaced by lightweight plastic versions. This kind of appropriation is damaging. Buying genuine native products from the source, however, is cultural appreciation.

Then we have “invented” appropriation. Fraudsters like Iolo Morgannwg have introduced their own teachings in the guise of ancient Celtic teachings and these are passed on by even some of the most respected Druid Orders. Teachings such as Nwyfre, the Pherllyt and the 21 lessons of Merlin have corrupted beliefs and teachings of our ancestors. Sadly it is difficult to distinguish between actual ancient Celtic teachings and those of the 18th and 19th century renaissance.

And no area had been more corrupted than Astrology. The earliest 6th century records of Celtic Astrology shows that there isn’t a vast difference between the Zodiac of our ancestors and that of the Greeks, with slight differences. Leo, for example, is represented by a Hound and Aries is a Hook. Ogham Tree Astrology is a modern invention promoted by Robert Graves in his controversial book, The White Goddess. Likewise, in American folklore full moons are given names that have become attributed to native Americans, but are largely a more recent invention.

Our responsibility

Think about the impact of cultural appropriation on the culture it is taken from. Is it something stolen, or is it a mutual exchange? It is a corruption or pure? We are probably all guilty of some appropriation, sometimes without realising. Let us always be learning and be prepared to unlearn things we might have previously accepted as fact.

Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 3

When we turn to what the ‘Lebór Gabála’ actually says about the reign of the Tuatha Dé, the account of their soveignity over the Island falls into 3 sections. The 1st is of their invasion and defeat of the Fir Bolg (the first battle of Moytura). The 2nd provides a list of their kings, and the last comes an account of their genealogies. These 3 subsections look like that they were originally separate tracts., and this tells us about how the ‘Lebór Gabála’ was assembled. It suggests that the pseudohistorians scoured all available sources for information about the Tuatha Dé, including glossaries and miscellaneous scholarly texts,  and that they patched all this into their own design more or less wholesale.

The 1st section sets the Gods into the stage of Irish history. There is considerable variation in both detail and tone between the many recensions, although they all agree that the Tuatha Dé arrived and defeated the Fir Bolg at the 1st battle of Moytura. They arrive from the North (the most dark portentous direction of medieval thought). In some versions it is claimed that the sun and moon grew dark at their arrival, perhaps a disquieting vision of the Crucifixion, the pivotal disaster of biblical history (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). And whereas all previous races had reached Irish shores by ship, the Tuatha Dé had a grand entrance of arriving on clouds of dark vapour:

“The descendants of Bethach son Iarbonél the prophet son of Nemed were in the northern islands of the world, learning magic and knowledge and sorcery and cunning, until they were pre-eminent in the arts of the heathen sages. They are the Tuatha de Danann who came to Ireland.

It is this thus they came: in dark clouds. They landed on the mountains of Conmaicne Réin in Connaught and they put a darkness on the sun for 3 days and nights. Battle or kingship they demanded of the Fir Bolg. Battle was fought between them, the first battle of Moytura, in which a hundred thousand of the Fir Bolg fell. After that they took the kingship of Ireland”

(‘The Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey)

Conmaicne Réin, the landing site, is an area east of the Shannon and comprises parts of the Counties Leitrim and Longford (‘Onomasticon Goedelicum’ E Hogan). The Tuatha Dé were meant to be descendants of Nemed, like the Fir Bolg, but this tradition makes them the medieval equivalent of eerie technologically superior fallen angels (‘Etymologiae’ Isidore). Continuing in the same tone, the 2nd recension also adds that the had been in Greece, where they had put their knowledge into infusing demonic spirits into corpses in order to help their Athenian allies in war against the Philistines (‘Lebór Gabála Ereann’ various). Interestingly enough to our modern eyes, this actually strengthens the pseudohistorians’ attempt to classify the Tuatha Dé as human rather than divine Beings; that men and women might acquire the knowledge to force demons to do their will (shades of Solomon the King here) was the classical line of the medieval explanation for magic (‘Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval Romance’ C Saunders).

Other versions of ‘Lebór Gabála’ present their arrival in a more positive light, with them travelling in large sea vessels they burned in order to make it impossible to turn tail and flee with the clouds of inky vapour had been the smoke rising from the flames of their burning ships (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). Significantly, this rationalising version was secondary with the motif of the Tuatha Dé’s supernatural arrival seems to be the older of the two. We know this because something very similar appears in the text ‘Scél Tuáin meic Chairill’ which was composed in the late 9th Century. This tale provides an account of the various invasions as witnessed by the ancient Tuán (see part 1) and transcribed to the saint, Finnia of Moville, who was in the process of spreading the word of Christ to the people of Ulster (Patrick bedamned). This text is crucial because it gives us the picture of an intermediate stage in the integration of the Tuatha Dé into the pseudohistory. It shows that around the year 900, the Tuatha Dé were already thought of as in one of the sequence of invasions, but they had not yet been defined as human descendants of Nemed in the way they had become orthodox a century or two later. Tuán speculates uneasily:

“Beothecht son of Iordanen took this island from the people that were in it. Of them are the Gáilióin, and the Túatha Dé and Andé, whose origin the men of learning do not know; but they thought it likely that they are some of the exiles who came to them from heaven”.

(Scél Tuáin meic Chairill’ J Carey){ the phrase Túatha Dé and Andé translates as Gods and non-Gods}

Here the Tuatha Dé are still identified as fallen angels. We can presume that the idea of exile from heaven has influenced the motif of landing from the sky. A century or so later, the pseudohistorian Eochaid ua Flainn was still batting the arguments like a tennis match:

“Their number was sufficient, whatever compelled them;

They alighted, with horror, in warlike manner,

In their cloud, evil wars of spectres,

Upon the mountains of Conmaicne in Connaught.

Without [? concealment they came] to skilful Ireland,

Without ships, a savage journey,

The truth concerning them was not known beneath the starry heaven,

Whether they were of heaven or of earth.

If from the demons, it is devils

That comprised the troop of……famous exiles,

A blaze [?] {drawn up] in ranks and hosts;

If from men, they were Betach’s offspring.”

(‘Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey)

This looks like ramblings, but it is a learned poet’s scrupulous settingout  of varying opinions, before allowing himself to reach his conclusion, and opposite that to the tale of Túan, he is quoted writing “they belong properly among mortals”. This is the first confirmed assertion in Irish tradition of the plain humanity of the former Divine Ones, and this was to become a standard pseudohistorical doctrine.

If the Tuatha Dé were to be mere mortals in pseudohistory, a question arises as how did they come to have divine powers nearly equating to those of Gods? Some versions of ‘Lebor Gabála’ add more details about their arrival, with some declaring that they had learned their magical arts at the feet of 4 sages in 4 mysterious cities found in the north of the world, from where they had brought 4 treasures to Ireland (‘Book of Leinster: Recension 1’ various). This famous passage should be worth quoting here:

“Four cities in which they used to learn knowledge and lore and devilry: these are their names, Falias and Goirias, and Findias and Muirias. From Falias was brought the stone of Fál which is in Tara, which used to cry out beneath every king who used to take control of Ireland. From Goirias was brought the spear which Lug had: a battle would never go against the man who had it in hand. From Findias was brought Núada’s sword: one might escape from it from the moment it was drawn from its battle scabbard, there was no resisting it, From Muisias was brought the Dagda’s cauldron: no group of people would go from it unsatisfied. Four sages in those cities: Mórfhesa, who was in Falias, Esrus who was in Goirias, Uiscias who was in Findias, Semias who was in Muirias. Those are the four poets {filidh}, with whom the Túatha Dé Danann used to learn knowledge and lore.”

(‘Book of Fermoy: Recension1’ Various).

This was to become a vital part of the body of lore associated with the Tuatha Dé, and it would capture the imagination of a number of writers who gave the Gods their Anglo-Irish afterlife. Those set on weaving Ireland’s traditions into western hermeticism ( WB Yeats was a major player) were forcibly struck by the apparent symbolism here, which seemed to evoke the 4 elements of natural philosophy and esoteric doctrine.

A reader may wonder whether the medieval texts themselves actually point to any particular symbolism. We cannot push back the date of this tradition much before circa 1100, for neither the 4 cities nor the 4 sages occur anywhere before ‘Lebor Gabála’, and only one of the 4 treasures, the stone of Fál, occurs in some earlier texts. While there is always the chance that the treasures, sages, and cities represent a sounding from oral tradition, it is more likely they are late 11th century creations by the pseudohistorical school, which had an urgent need to invest the Tuatha Dé with the trappings of hidden knowledge. This is because the power of the Tuatha Dé posed a problem in exact proportion to their humanity. The key to the anecdote therefore is to appreciate that it partially explains how the Tuatha Dé could have been human, as pseudohistorical doctrine had come to insist,  and yet exhibited the supernatural powers which tradition invariably accorded them (‘Early Christian Ireland’ TM Charles-Edwards). It is tellingly bound up with the Tuatha Dé’s experiences in the northern islands and descent from Nemed; there was no need for magical academies in the north when the Gods were regarded as indigenous to Ireland, nor were they seen as fallen angels, since magical expertise is part and parcel with demons. The pseudohistorians’ solution to this conundrum was one that was apt to comfort intellectuals: the assertion that knowledge itself is power.

One of the strongest arguments that the tradition is a late creation is the fact that the scenario of sages and cities closely resembles that of the educational structure of the 1tth Century Irish church.  Schools were located in different monastic towns, each headed by one of the learned scholars termed scribae or fir léginn in the Annals. The sages Uiscias, Semias, Esrus and Mórfhesa would thus be reflections in a distorting mirror of those responsible for @Lebor Gabála’ itself, the class of experts in biblical and native historic traditions. In some versions the sages are called filidh or learned poets, and other accounts use the word fissid meaning seer or druí meaning druid, emphasising that the Tuatha Dé had specifically pagan knowledge, and their curriculum, involving the so called black arts, is decidedly unwholesome (‘Cat Magh Tuired: Myth and Structure’ EA Gray). The miraculous treasures associated with each city look like demonic or opposites of venerated relics associated with major ecclesiastical foundations (‘A Tale of Two Ditties: Poet and Satirist in Cath Maige Tuired’ K McCone). This is a version of the non-historical idea, as attested as far back as Muirchú’s 7th Century ‘Life of Patrick’, that the Irish belief in the Old Religions had been Christianity’s evil twin, complete with unholy, seemingly scriptural books and a learned priesthood teaching diabolical doctrine (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston). It is possible that the “ias” endings of some of the names were concocted to echo the names inscribed on many an Ogham stone’ Learned medieval scholars were able to read these, and though in many cases the language would be difficult for them, they certainly would have recognised that they were looking at personal names of great historical value (‘Lebór Gabála Ereann’ RAS Macalister). Macalister also notes that “ias” was the characteristic ending of the singular of feminine in Old Irish. “ia” would be plural while “io” would be masculine. This was common on ogham inscriptions because “[the stone of] X son of Y” was the standard form for such inscriptions. Macalister also noted that biblical names ending with “iah” ended in “ias” in the Vulgate, so the names like Semias and Uiscias might have given an Old Testament combined with the all-important native Irish feel.

There is uncertainty behind the true meaning of the cities, sages and treasures. Due to them being invented none of the available interpretations are definite. At best one can guess the associations the words might have set up in the minds of contemporary readers. In theory, there is nothing intrinsically improbable about the four cities echoing the four elements, which formed part of mainstream medieval cosmology and were perfectly well known in Ireland (‘Understanding the Universe in 7th Century Ireland’ Woodbridge). “Warm”, and “marine” cities accompanied with a”watery” sage look promising for elemental correspondences, but “watery” Uiscias is not associated with the “marine” city of Muirias, and there are other difficulties in making these names fit.

City                                               Sage                                                               Treasure

Falias (fál means hedge)          Mórfhesa meaning greatness                   Stone of Fál

                                                                        Of wisdom

Goirias (gor means warmth)   Esrus meaning opportunity                       Spear of Lugh

Muirias (muir means sea)        Semias meaning transparent                    An Dagda’s cauldron

Findias (find means bright)      Uiscias meaning water (usice)                  Sword of Núada

(‘Irelands Immortals’ M Williams)

In all, the balance of probabilities is that the tradition of the Tuatha Dé’s cities, sages and treasures was a creation of the pseudohistorical movement itself, rather than an ancient, pre-Christian concept. The array of names seems to evoke and underscore the Tuatha Dé’s Heathen knowledge, as a strategy for explaining their God-like powers after they were humanised and historicised (‘Les Isles au Nord du Monde’ F LeRoux). It is also noteworthy that it accords with a demonstrable high medieval interest in the depiction of magical learning. The pseudohistorian Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mid 12th Century account of the magical Isle of Avalon is a classic example, and provides a feminine equivalent for the cities of the Tuatha Dé. He describes the island as a form of women’s college headed by Morgan le Fay, who teaches astrology to her 8 sisters, and who, similar to the Tuatha Dé, is able to fly through the air. As with Semias, Uiscias, Esrus, and Mórfhesa, Moggan’s sisters have names which sing of phoney Greek mythology when we read of Moronoe, Mazoe, Glitonea and so forth (‘Life of Merlin’ B Clarke). As often with Irish mythology, apparent relics of Heathan lore turn out to reflect intellectual and literary currents which were widespread in medieval Christendom.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.

Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 2

The Irish pseudohistorical tradition is quite plainly a rat’s nest but, the stages of it’s growth can be reconstructed (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). The point may not need labouring, but the story of successive invasions is demonstrably not pre-Christian as it developed gradually in early Christian Ireland (‘Native Elements in Irish Pseudohistory’ J Carey and ‘Cultural Identity and Cultural Integration: Ireland and Europe in the Middle Ages’ D Edel). The very concept of a universal history ofthis kind belongs to medieval learning, not native tradition. But no race of people lacks a story about where they come from, and the original nucleus of the pseudohistory is the narrative of the coming of the Gaedhil ( ‘Early Christian Ireland’ TM Charles-Edwards). We know that material about the legendary ancestors of the Irish existed as early as the 7th Century, because early poetry associated with Leinster mentions Íbir, Éber, and Éremón, figures who appear lateramong the grandsons of Míl Espáine in the story of the Gaedhil takeover ( ‘The Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey). Míl himself, however, could not have entered the tradition before the late 7th Century, when, thanks to the writings of Isidore, the Irish first conceived of the Spanish-Irish connection, and so a good amount of knitting new material onto old was clearly going on (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston).

A rudimentary written account of the Gaedhil’s wanderings already existed by the 9th Century, at least 2 centuries before the composition of ‘Lebór Gabála’. This can be verified because of an importantfable style poem, known from its first lines as “Can a mbunadas na nGaedel” (whence did the Irish originate?), which cannot have been composed later than 887, when its author, Máel Mura Othna, died (‘In Search of Mael Mura Othna’ J Carey). While we know that the ‘Lebór Gabála’ compliers did not use this poem, minute details embedded about the wandering of the Gaedhil chime very close with it that a single source must ultimately have fed into both. This source must therefore have been in existence, in written form, before 887 (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2′ Snowcroft).

Crucially, “Whence Did the Irish Originate?” does mention the Tuatha Dé. It tells us that the Gaedhil, having travelled from Scythia via Spain, reached Ireland and found the Tuatha Dé already there. But there is no suggestion of any other existing or previous inhabitants. It also contains suggestions that the Tuatha Dé began by being less than friendly, and though the phrasing is obscure we are clearly told that the Tuatha Dé gave the men of the Gaedhil wives in exchange for keeping one half of the Island. The poem does not actually make explicit, as documented elsewhere, that this means the half that lies beneath the earths surface, but this seems likely (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft).

This is striking on two levels. First, it is broadly compatible with the representation of the Tuatha Dé in the Old Irish sagas, although it contains details of a primordial encounter between men and Gods, which the sagas do not. One strand of saga-tradition had depicted the Tuatha Dé as the Island’s antediluvian aboriginals, still in residence because free from original sin and therefore invisible and immortal; this is precisely the situation in the 3rd part of “The Wooing of Étaín”, for example. Secondly, there is no evidence in Máel Mura’s poem that the Tuatha Dé have shipped in from anywhere else: they are in their native land. This corresponds to the major mythological sagas like “The Second Battle of Moytura”, and certainly before the 9th Century there seems to be no assertion anywhere that the Tuatha Dé had been invaders (‘Notes on Cath Maige Tuired’ G Murphy).  This and the very idea of the mythological idea of inermarraige between the Gods and Gaedhil, was empathetically excluded from the tradition by the ‘Lebór Gabála’ compilers.

While the body of tradition about the migrations of the Gaedhil was clearly primary, by the mid 10th Century it had been gradually augmented by accounts of the preceding settlements or invasions. Traditions about the pre-Gaedhil settlements spread like suckers from the root story of the Gaedhil. Partholón seems to have been worked in first (Material of Íth is also found attached to Partholón, supposed to have lived thousand of years earlier. It is a strong suggestion that the story of Partholón may have budded from that of Míl). His name is the Irish version of Batholomew and learned Irishmen could read in Isidore that this is a Syriac name meaning “he who holds up the waters” (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft). Accordingly, Partholón became mac Sera “son of the Syrian”, and the first man to settle in Ireland after the waters of the Flood subsided (‘Irish National Origin-Legend’ J Carey). Nemed seems to have been added next as another doublet of Míl, which results in 3 different invasions; Partholón, Nemed, and the Gaedhil under Míl.

This scenario is precisely what appears in the ealist account of the Irish invasion stories to have survived. It is not an Irish text, but a Welsh one the ‘Historia Brittonum’(History of the Britons), composed in Latin by an unknown cleric circa 830 (‘Wales and the Britons’ TM Charles-Edwards). Its author devotes some time to the origins of the inhabitants of his neighbouring Island, and says that he has taken his information from “the most learned of the Irish” (‘Historia Brittonium’ Th Mommsen edition). His account is recognisably a kind of prototype of ‘Lebór Gabála’ and it is a crucial witness to the early development of the pseudohistory. For the author of the ‘Historia Brittonum’, there were only 3 sets of invaders of Ireland being “Partholomus”, “Nemedius”, and the “miles Hispaniae” (Míl Espáine), but later he does mention one “Builc”, having misunderstood the ‘bags’ of the Fir Bolg as a personal name.

The standard first settlement, Cessair and her entourage, is absent from the ‘Historia Brittonum’. Cessair’s settlement is a kind of stillbirth and seems to be a very late addition to the tradition and continued to be of doubtful canonicity for some time. It can be observed from Gilla Cóemán’s poems, that he changes his mind about Cessair, for example. It is interesting, therefore, that she may nonetheless be of some degree of antiquity. John Carey has plausibly suggested that she was a Leinster figure, perhaps a Goddess associated with the confluence of the 3 rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir near Waterford in Munster, which is one of the most impressive natural water features of Ireland (‘The Origin and Development of the Cessair Legend’ J Carey). If this is so, we can observe antique material being incorporated into the pseudohistory long after it assumed its basic shape. Also conspicuous by its absence in the ‘Historia Brittonum’ is the invasion of the Tuatha De. It is this absence that brings us at last to consideration of their position within the pseudohistory, and within ‘Lebór Gabála’ in particular.

It has been long clear to scholars that the Gods were the last major group to be incorporated into the pseudohistory, which is hardly surprising. Nemed and Partholón have no value outside pseudohistorical tradition, but there existed a substantial body of independent material about the Tuatha Dé that varied conspicuously in detail and tone, which made them awkward to assimilate.

There is both direct and indirect evidence for the process of integration. Direct evidence includes the absence of the Gods in the list of invasions in ‘Historia Brittonum’, circa 830, as just noted; significantly, they are also omitted in a 9th Century set of texts preserved in the ‘Book of Ballymote’ (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft). Further evidence is also visible within ‘Lebór Gabála’ itself, which carefully makes Ireland’s various invasions keep time with ‘world empires’ eg Assyrians, Persians, etc. The Tuatha Dé are the only race whose reign does not synchronise with such an empire, and this points to them having been belatedly spliced into the scheme.

Indirect evidence for the late integration of the Gods is provided by one of the notorious perversities of Irish mythology: confusingly, its Gods fight not one, but two “Battles of Moytura” (‘Notes on Cath Maige Tuired’ G Murphy). The first battle is the conflict between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg. The scholary consensus has long been that the second battle, because of its obviously archaic roots , is the original, while the first is merely an uninspired doublet. It seems that the idea of a battle between the Tuatha De and the Fir Bolg was a rationalising invention of the pseudohistorical school, intended to supplant the tradition of mythological conflict between the Gods and Fomór.. This may have been part and parcel of stripping the Tuatha Dé of their supernatural status, but it had been made necessary by the fact that the Tuatha Dé had been shoehorned into the narrative of successful invasions.  Instead of the Gaedhil defeating the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé, now edged between the two, had to play two roles, vanquishing the Fir Bolg on one hand before themselves falling before the incoming Gaedhil on the other. This mythological scenario is very odd for it has the ethnic Irish inflicting military defeat on their own Gods. But in retaining the ancient tradition of a Tuatha Dé victory at Moytura, while redefining the vanquished as the human Fir Bolg rather than the supernatural Fomór, the pseudohistorians no doubt felt that they had arrived at a tidy solution. Unfortunately for them ( but fortunate for students of mythology) the Fomór defeat by the Tuatha Dé was clearly tenacious in tradition an impossible to uproot (‘Anecdota from Irish Manuscripts’ O Bergin, RI Best, K Meyer & JG O’Keefe).

It seems that the initial integration of the Gods into the scheme of invasions probably took place late in the 9th Century, and indeed “The Second Battle of Moytura” may have been originally composed as a grand restatement of the traditional doctrine in the face of a fabricated mimic intended to supplant it (‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey). The 2nd battle was in turn absorbed into the structure of the pseudohistory during the 11th Century. The poems of Eochad ua Flann and Tanaide only mention the 1st battle, but Flann Mainistrech knew of both, significantly terming them the “first” and the “great” battles of Moytura, respectively (‘Leabhar Gabhála’ Snowcroft). Carey points outthat saga tradition added lustre to stretches of ‘Lebór Gabála’, for example, the narrative of the 2nd  or great battle is significantly less dry than the 1st. There is some evidence that the idea of the 1st battle against the Fir Bolg never really took off in Irish tradition outside the pseudohistorical school but a lacklustre Middle Irish saga on the subject appears to be an attempt to promnote the story in literary circles (‘Cath Maige Tuired Cunga’ {The Battle of Moytura at Cong} J Fraser).

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.