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.

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