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…..is 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.

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