Prionsias Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology (London: Hamlyn 1970) - ‘The Heroic Tradition’

Table of Contents
[ For full table of contents, see Introduction, supra. ]
The heroic tradition [97]: The Ulster Cycle [97]; The foretales: Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech [97]; The Feast of Briciu [99]; Cú Cuchulainn [101]; The Fionn Cycle [101]; The elopement of Diarmaid and Gráinne [110]; Fionn and Arthur [115].

The Ulster Cycle
Irish literature knows many heroes and many tales cast in the heroic mould, but it has only one clearly defined Heroic Age. This is assigned by learned tradition to a period about the birth of Christ and it concerns primarily the Ulaidh, who were once the dominant people in Ulster and from whom that province takes its name. The earliest written record of this tradition belongs to the seventh century, but there can be no doubt that it had already behind it several centuries of oral existence. It pictures an aristocratic warrior-society with a La Tène culture, which in Ireland – secure as she was from Roman civilisation – survived more or less intact until after the establishment of Christianity. The social conditions described in the Ulster cycle show many striking correspondences with those reported of independent Gaul.

During this heroic age the Ulaidh were ruled by Conchobhar mac Nessa, who had his royal court at Emhain Mhacha near the present city of Armagh. He was the focus of a society of heroes of whom the most celebrated, after Cú Chulainn, were Conall Cernach and Ferghus mac Roich. Other prominent members of this heroic company were the druid Cathbhadh, who sometimes took precedence over the king himself, the wise Sencha mac Ailella, ‘pacifier of the Ulster warriors’, who quelled dissension and combat by his gentle intervention, and Bricriu Nemhthenga, ‘Poison-tongue’, the inveterate mischief-maker of the cycle who was as eager to incite strife as was Sencha to allay it.

The primary concern of heroic literature is with heroic action, and in this the Ulster cycle runs true to type. Tribal warfare and individual prowess are its constant preoccupation, and its principal saga tells of a great conflict between the Ulstermen on the one hand and, on the other, Medhbh and the Connachtmen supported by the rest of Ireland. The object of Medhbh’s drive against Ulster was to seize possession of the great bull of Cuailnge, which, as we have seen, was of divine origin [viz., Donn]. But in this hour of danger the Ulstermen were prostrated by the strange illness to which they had been subjected by Macha’s curse, and for as long as their debility lasted, the defence of the province was maintained single-handed by the youthful Cú Chulainn. By engaging in a long series of single combats with heroes of the opposing army, Cú Chulainn contrived to hinder the Connacht advance until the men of Ulster recovered their strength. They then attacked and routed the Connacht forces in a mighty battle. The Brown Bull of Cuailnge had already been captured by the Connachtmen and was now taken with them on their retreat, and the tale ends with the tremendous encounter in which the bull of Cuailnge defeated and slew the Finnbhennach, the ‘white-horned’ bull of Connacht, before itself expiring from its great exertion.

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The foretales: Deirdre and the Sons of Uisnech
However, Táin Bó Cuailnge is only one, albeit the most important, of a numerous cycle of tales. Some of these are designated ‘foretales’ (remhscéla) and are in one sense or another prefatory to the main saga, but the majority are independent accounts of the deeds of the Ulstermen. Of the ‘foretales’ several purport to describe how Ailill and Medhbh contrived to win allies for their expedition against Ulster and to obtain cattle for the provisioning of their army during the campaign. Another, ‘The Revelation of Táin Bó Cuailnge’, concerns the history and provenance of the saga: by the seventh century, we are told, it had been largely forgotten and was only recovered when the filidh, having recourse to an enforcement procedure familiar to Irish and Indian law, fasted against Ferghus mac Roich until [97] the ancient hero arose from his grave and related the mighty deeds of which he himself had been a witness. Yet another, Longer mac nUisnigh, ‘The Exile of the Sons of Uisnech’, explains the strange circumstance that Ferghus and a number of other Ulster heroes are found, not among their fellow-Ulstermen, but in the entourage of Ailill and Medhbh during the events of Táin Bó Cuailnge. This explanation serves to anchor the tale within the context of the war between Ulster and Connacht, but otherwise it is rather peripheral to the theme of the tale: essentially, and notwithstanding its title, this is concerned primarily with the tragic fate of Deirdre.

Before Deirdre’s birth it was prophesied by Cathbhadh the druid that she would be a woman of incomparable beauty but that she would also be the cause of much violence and suffering among the Ulstermen. Some thought that the child should be killed, but King Conchobhar ordered that she be brought up in seclusion until such time as he might take her for his wife. And so she was reared in a place apart until ‘she was by far the most beautiful girl who had ever been in Ireland’. One day as she watched her foster-father flaying a calf on the snow in winter, she saw a raven drinking the blood on the snow, and she said to Lebhorcham, the wise woman who was her companion: ‘Lovable would be the man on whom would be those three colours: his hair like the raven, his cheek like the blood, and his body like the snow.’ And Lebhorcham told her that there was such a man, namely Naoise son of Uisnech, and she resolved to see him. Once as he chanced to pass near by, she contrived to meet him on the road. ‘Fair is the heifer that goes past me’, said Naoise. ‘Heifers are wont to be big,’ she said, ‘where there are no bulls.’ ‘You have the bull of the province’, said he, ‘the king of the Ulaidh.’ ‘I would choosy between the two of you’, said Deirdre, ‘and I would take a young bull like you.’ But Naoise was conscious of Cathbhadh’s prophecy and would not be moved until Deirdre threatened him with shame and derision if he refused to take her with him. In this way she involved his personal honour—the supreme consideration to the heroic con science —and compelled him to violate the bonds of obligation and loyalty to his king.

Together with his brothers Arddn and Ainnle he eloped with Deirdre and the tale subsequently tells of their precarious existence in Ireland and Scotland, harassed by Conchobhar and imperilled by the fatal attraction of Deirdre’s beauty. In time, however, the Ulstermen relented and persuaded Conchobhar to invite the Sons of Uisnech home and to send Ferghus Mac Roich as surety for their safe conduct. But the shadow of Cathbhadh’s prophecy still hung over them, and when they finally arrived at Emhain Mhacha Naoise and his brothers were treacherously slain and Deirdre taken by Conchobhar. Enraged by this viola tion of his word Ferghus wrought havoc at Emhain before taking his followers to the court of Ailill and Medhbh of Connacht.

For a year Deirdre was with Conchobhar, mourning and cherishing the memory of Naoise and his brothers. And once when Conchobhar asked her what she most hated, she replied ‘You and Eoghan mac Durthacht’, for it was Eoghan who had murdered Naoise. ‘You shall be a year with Eoghan then’, replied Conchobhar. But next day as she travelled with them both to the assembly of Macha - ‘like a sheep between two rams’ jested Conchobhar she cast herself from the chariot and shattered her head against a stone. This was the tragic death of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisnech.

The theme of this story is a familiar one in Celtic literature: the categories of tales cultivated by the filidh included [98] one known as aitheda, ‘elopements’, and in most of these a youthful and vigorous lover is opposed to a mature and possessive husband. In addition Longes mac n Uisnigh embodies a mythological motif that is well attested both in literature and iconography, namely the union of a divine heroine with one of a closely bound trio of brothers. It does not necessarily follow, of course, that Deirdre herself was divine, and indeed the lack of place-names and of diffused traditions connected with her argues otherwise. But whether or not the literary character has a mythological past, the thematic content of her story and her dominant personality indicate clearly enough that she was conceived in the image of the divine femme fatale of Irish tradition.

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The Feast of Bricriu
Of the many Ulster tales not specifically related to Táin Bó Cuailnge one of the most important is Fledh Bhricrenn, ‘The Feast of Bricriu’. As the title suggests, the setting for this story, as for so many others in Irish literature, is the communal feast, an occasion of primary importance in all heroic societies. The prime mover here is Bricriu the troublemaker, the Irish counterpart of the Scandinavian Loki. He invites the Ulstermen to a great feast which has taken a year to prepare, but they are very willing, indeed anxious, to forgo the honour, knowing full well his propensity for setting his guests by the ears. He will not be put off, however, and promises stern retribution if they refuse: ‘I will stir up strife among the kings, leaders, heroes and lesser nobles, till they will slay one another... I will cause enmity beneath father and son so that they will kill each other. But if that be not possible, I will set mother and daughter at variance. And if that be not possible, I will cause strife between the two breasts of every woman in Ulster so that they will smite each other till they rot and putrefy.’ In the face of such a threat the Ulstermen cannot but acquiesce.

The next episode turns upon the notion of the curadhmhír, the ‘champion’s portion’, in other words the choicest joint of meat which was by tradition assigned at a feast to the supreme hero present. The antiquity of this custom among the Celts is evidenced by Posidonius, who writes in the first century B.C. that in former times it was usual for the bravest hero at a feast to take the thigh piece, and if any other laid claim to it then they both arose and engaged in single combat to the death. Another Ulster tale, the rumbustious and witty Scéla Mucce Maic Da Thó, [99] ‘ The Story of Mac Da Thó’s Pig’, is entirely constructed around this motif. Mac Da Thó, who no doubt is really the god who presides over the otherworld feast, acts as host to the companies of Connacht and Ulster and provides a prodigious pig for their regalement. The problem then is to decide whose privilege it will be to carve the pig (and naturally to favour himself and his fellows with the greater part). Contenders are thick on the ground and heroic boasts and counter-boasts fly fast and furious until Conall Cernach makes his entry and silences the opposition with incontrovertible evidence of his primacy: the head of Connacht’s most vaunted warrior at his belt. In the event, however, his carving fails to satisfy the touchy Connachtmen and the dispute finally explodes into a pitched battle.

Bricriu is quick to seize the opportunity presented by this heroic etiquette. He goes first to Loeghaire Buadhach, ‘The Triumphant’, then to Conall Cernach and finally to Cú Chulainn, and persuades each of them in turn to claim the ‘champion’s portion’ as his rightful privilege. The outcome, inevitably, is that the three heroes come to blows and the house becomes a seething tumult until Sencha intervenes to restore a tem porary peace. It is decided to submit the dispute to the arbitration of Ailill of Connacht. But Bricriu has a second string to his bow. Seeing the wives of the three heroes leave the banqueting hall, he takes each of them aside, waxes eloquent in praise of her excellence of person and character, and promises that she who enters the hall first will be queen over the women of Ulster. This has a highly comic sequel as the stately progress of the noble ladies, each dissembling her true purpose, gradually degenerates into a frenzied scramble for precedence. And as Loeghaire and Conall tear down pillars of the house to allow their wives access, Cú Chulainn simply raises his side of the building from the ground so that his wife and her companions may walk in unimpeded.

Eventually the heroes proceed to Connacht where they are tested by a fearsome ordeal and the primacy is awarded to Cu Chulainn. But the verdict is challenged by Loeghaire and Conall on their return to Emhain and they are then sent to Cu Roi mac Dáiri in the south-west of Ireland. Here after further trial of their valour Cú Roí also adjudges the ‘champion’s portion’ to Cú Chulainn, and again the other two deny the judgement once they reach Emhain. This stalemate is the prelude to what is doubtless the best-known episode in Fledh Bhricrenn. One evening as the Ulstermen were assembled at Emhain they beheld a huge and monstrously ugly churl or herdsman ( bachlach) enter the hall. He brought a singular challenge: he would allow one of their heroes to cut off his head on condition that they reverse roles on the following night, Loeghaire and Conall both accept and behead the giant, but when the time comes each shirks his own part of the bargain. Finally Cu Chulainn takes up the challenge and beheads the giant, who picks up his severed head and walks off. When he returns the next evening, Cú Chulainn places his neck on the block in readiness to receive the blow that is due, but the giant raises his mighty axe to the ridge-pole of the hall only to bring the blunt edge gently down upon his neck, saying: ‘Rise up, Cú Chulainn. Vain is it for any warrior of Ulster or Ireland to seek to contend with you in bravery and prowess and truth. Henceforth, to you shall belong the primacy of the warriors of Ireland and the “champion’s portion”’. The giant challenger is really the protean Cú Roí mac Dáiri come to vindicate his previous judgement.

Cú Roí is himself one of the most intriguing figures among the Irish divinities. He is portrayed as a master of sorcery and a habitual traveller whose martial conquests extend throughout the lands of the earth: from the age of [100] seven years, when he took up arms, un til he died, he had not reddened his sword in Ireland nor had the food of Ireland passed his lips. Each night, in whatever part of the world he might be, he chanted a magic spell so that his fortress in Kerry revolved as swiftly as a mill-stone and its entrance could never be found after sunset. In his guise of giant churl or herdsman he has a number of analogues or derivatives in the Arthurian cycle, and indeed the whole episode of the beheading test evidently passed from Ireland to Wales and thence to the Continent, to become part of several French and German romances as well as of the Middle English poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He evokes comparison with the Indian Pushan, the cowherd deity who surveys the universe, protect, cattle and other living creatures, acts as a guide to the otherworld and aids in the revolution of day and night.

We have seen that in the story of Bricriu’s Feast Cú Roí exalts Cú Chulainn, but there is another tale in which on the contrary he utterly humiliates him. On a raid upon the otherworld, here located in Scotland, Cú Chulainn and the Ulstermen encounter an uncouth-looking stranger who turns out to be Cú Roí and to whom they promise first choice of the booty in return for his help in storming the enemy stronghold. Largely through his might and prowess they succeed in carrying off the girl Bláthnad, ‘Little Flower’, together with a magic cauldron of plenty and three marvellous cows, but when it comes to the point they refuse to honour their promise to him. In no way disconcerted, Cú Roí seizes cows, cauldron and woman and, stow ing them in various parts of his huge person takes his leave. Of the.Ulstermer only Cú Chulainn attempts to hinder his departure and Cú Roí simply takes hold of him, thrusts him into the earth to his armpits and – final ignominy – shaves off his hair with his sword. Afterwards Cú Chulainn hides himself away from the Ulstermen for a year. Then, at the time of Samhain, he makes a tryst with Bláthnad, and she, like her near-namesake Blodeuwedd in Welsh, betrays her husband so that he is taken unawares by the Ulstermen and slain. But even then Cú Roí does not go unavenged: his poet Fercherdne, seeing Bldthnad standing close to the edge of the sheer cliff, rushes forward and, clasping his arms about her, plunges them both to their deaths on the strand below.

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Cú Chulainn
Cú Chulainn’s ungentle chastening by Cú Roí is not so much a depreciation of the hero as it is a manifestation of the deity’s incomparable might. In the company of mortal heroes Cú Chulainn has no peer, and the part assigned to him in the Táin reflects faithfully enough his role throughout the cycle: he is the invincible hero to whom fate ordained a short life with lasting glory. His birthtale (combert) makes him son of god Lugh and of Deichtine, daughter - or sister – of King Conchobhar, but it was also believed that Conchobhar himself begot him upon Deichtine. He was thus distinguished by a combination of two features which frequently mark the sacred birth of the hero: incest and procreation by a god. Another such feature is the motif of the congenital animals: certain animals are born at the same time as the hero – in the case of the Welsh Pryderi it is a foal, in that Cú Chulainn twin foals which later became his famed horses, the Grey of Macha and the Black of Saingliu.

The ‘Boyhood Deeds’ (Macghnímh artha) of Cú Chulainn constitute a separate narrative within the context of Táin Bó Cuailnge. His period of initiation into the heroic life begins when he makes his way to Emhain Mhacha and routs the the thrice fifty youths reared there under Conchobhar’s protection. Then follows [101] an episode in which his new status is marked by a change of name. When he is attacked by the savage hound that guards the land of Culann the smith, he hurls the ball he has been playing with down its gaping throat and, seizing the animal with his bare hands, dashes it to pieces against a pillar-stone. Culann complains bitterly of his loss and the boy undertakes to perform the hound’s function for as long as may be necessary. It is from this circumstance that he is henceforth named Cú Chulainn, ‘The Hound of Culann’, for until this time he was known as Sédanta. The next stage in his initiation is the taking of arms. Learning from Cathbhadh the druid that whoever takes up arms on this particular day will be famous forever, though short-lived, he goes immediately to seek arms of Conchobhar, saying: ‘Provided that my fame lives, I care not if I be on this earth but a single day’. He breaks fifteen sets of weapons that are offered to him before he is finally given those of the king.

Thus equipped he sets out upon his first warlike exploit. Ranging in his chariot beyond the southern boundaries of Ulster, he seeks out and slays the three fearsome sons of Nechta Scene, who have slaughtered as many Ulstermen as remain alive. On the way back he captures a great stag and shoots down a flock of swans without killing them, and it is thus he approaches Emhain Mhacha in the heat of his battle frenzy, with the stag running behind the chariot, the tethered swans flying above it and the severed heads of the sons of Nechta Scéne within. To ward off his fury, which does not discriminate between friend and foe, the Ulsterwomen, led by Mughain their queen, go forth naked to meet him. He hides his face in confusion and is immediately seized by the warriors and plunged successively into three vats of cold water. The first bursts asunder, the second seethes with great bubbles, and the third becomes warm. When he has been restored by this treatment to a state of reason, he is clothed by the queen in a blue cloak and admitted - a fledged hero - to the royal household.

The incidents in this sequence reflect substantially the scenario of heroic initiation as it is found throughout the world, though some details in it are more specifically Indo-European. Dumézil has suggested that the fight with the three sons of Nechta belongs to a recurrent Indo-European theme of the hero’s encounter with a trio of adversaries or with a three-headed monster. The intervention of the women has analogies in Celtic and other traditions and is evidently a ritual act here employed as a means of propitiation. The concept of the hero as one who is fired with an ardent fury belongs to a widespread notion that sacred power is marked by an intense accession of physical heat. Thus the hero’s battle ardour is essentially a magico-religious experience signalling his entry into the warrior class and his capacity to discharge its corporate function. In Cú Chulainn’s case it is accompanied by a temporary physical distortion (riastradh): his body revolves within his skin, his hair stands up stiff with as it were a spark of fire on the tip of every strand, one eye becomes as small as the eye of a needle and the other monstrously large, his mouth is distended as far as his ears, and the ‘warrior’s light’ arises from the crown of his head. By this startling transformation is his surge of martial vigour made manifest.

At a later stage Cú Chulainn goes abroad to be trained by the supernatural Scádthach and from her he acquires the warlike stratagems which render him invincible. During this same expedition he encounters the Amazonian Aife and begets a son upon her. This son is Conlai who later lands in Ulster, refuses to reveal his name when challenged, and is slain by his father, as Sohrab was slain by Rustum or Hadubrand by Hildebrand; evidently [105] we have to do here with an old Indo-European mytho-heroic theme.

The heroic quality of Cú Chulainn’s life is matched by the manner of his death. As so often in Irish literature the tragic finale is clearly foreshadowed in the preceding events, so that a sense of inescapable doom hangs over the whole narrative. In common with kings and with other heroic figures, Cú Chulainn is subject to a series of absolute prohibitions (geissi or gessa) whose violation involves certain disaster. Yet he now finds himself so placed that he is compelled to infringe these prohibitions one by one, and in the end he is overcome, not by the martial power of his enemies, but by their magic and treachery. Grievously wounded, he binds himself to a pillar-stone so that he may die standing, and it is only when the Morrighan and her sisters alight upon his shoulder in the form of hooded crows that his attackers dare to approach and to behead him.

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The Fionn Cycle
Here we enter upon another world to that of the Ulster tales. It is still a world of heroes, but one formed in a different mould and conditioned by a different temper of thought. The stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his companions seem always to have enjoyed popular favour and they remained prominent in the repertoire of Gaelic storytellers even to our own time. One of the commonest folk-names given to the dolmens which dot the Irish countryside is ‘The Bed of Diarmaid and Grdinne’, a striking testimony to the popularity of the tale which tells how Gráinne, Fionn’s betrothed, eloped with Diarmaid ua Duibhne of the ‘love-spot’. But, unlike the Ulster tales, they received scant recognition in the manuscript tradition until the twelfth century, after which time they progressively displaced the Ulster cycle from its pre-eminent position. This fact may help to explain the mood of retrospection which character ises the cycle: its most important single composition, the twelfth-century frame-story of Agallamh na Seanórach (‘The Colloquy of the Old Men’) is a nostalgic ‘récherche du temps perdu’ based upon the fiction that Oisin, the son of Fionn, and Caoilte son of Ronan survived into the Christian period, met St Patrick and accompanied him over a large part of Ireland, recounting to him their numberless adventures of old as they were called to mind by the natural landmarks of the countryside. Its mood of nostalgic recollection of past glories dominates the subsequent literature of the cycle, and to this day a common expression in the Irish language for one who has out lived [106] his contemporaries is Oisin i ndiaidh na Hinne, ‘Oisin after the Fian’.

Fionn and his followers were known as the Fian and each individual member as afeinnidh; their adventures were fianaigheacht or fian-lore. In the begin ning, however, the word fian was a common noun denoting a roving band of professional warriors, and, in point of fact, the literature mentions several other fiana besides, but these were evidently eclipsed at an early period by the fame of Fionn’s troop. They were bodies of warriors subject only to the authority of their own leaders and standing apart from and largely independent of normal society, but they were recognised by law and tradition as fulfilling a legitimate, even perhaps an essential, function. Many of the legends represent them as the defenders of the sovereignty of Ireland against external enemies, both natural and supernatural, and while these no doubt embody reminiscences of the historical struggles with the Viking invaders of the ninth century, nevertheless the underlying notion of Fionn and the Fian as protectors of the land seems to be much older.

Membership of the Fian was highly exclusive, but not hereditary: it could be acquired only by fulfilling certain conditions of admission and by undergoing initiatory ordeals as proof of exceptional dexterity and prowess The would-be feinnidh was armed with a shield and a hazel stick and placed standing up to his waist in a hole in the ground, and nine warriors cast their spears at him simultaneously. If he suffered hurt thereby he was not accepted into the Fian. Next his hair was braided and he was made to run through the woods of Ireland pursued at a brief interval by all the warriors. If he was overtaken and wounded he was not accepted. Moreover, if his weapons had quivered in his hand, if his hair had been disturbed by a hanging branch, or if a dead branch had cracked under his foot, then neither was he accepted. He had also to leap over a bough as high as his forehead while in full flight and pass under one as low as his knee, and he must be able to draw a thorn from his foot without slackening pace. Otherwise he was not admitted among the followers of Fionn.

The members of the Fian were hunters as well as fighters and this lends their adventures a greater mobility and freedom than is found in the Ulster tales. They move throughout the length and breadth of Ireland – and into Gaelic Scotland – in pursuit of their quarry, delighting in the exhilaration of the chase and in the endless variety of their natural surroundings. In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that their legends should have assimilated the genre of lyrical nature poetry that had grown up in Irish from about the ninth century – as in these lines spoken by Caoilte in praise of the isle of Arran off the coast of Scotland:

Arran of the many stags,
the sea laps against its shoulder;
island where companies are nourished,
ridge on which blue spears are reddened.

Skittish deer upon its peaks,
tender bilberries upon its thickets;
cool water in its rivers,
mast upon its brown oaks....

Gleaning of purple upon its rocks,
faultless grass upon its slopes,
a mossy cloak upon its crags,
gambolling fawns, trout leaping. …

Delightful it is when fair weather comes:
trout under the banks of its rivers;
seagulls answer each other round its white cliff;
delightful at all times is Arran.

This affinity with untamed nature and with the world beyond the bounds of organised society is epitomised in an episode from Agallamh na Seanórach. Swift-footed Caoilte tells the Christian [108] nobles of a later age of the division that was made of Ireland by the two sons of King Feradhach Fechtnach after their father’s death. One of them took her wealth and treasure, her herds of cattle, her settled dwellings and her fortresses, the other her cliffs and her estuaries, the fruits of her woods and of the sea, her salmon and her game. His listeners protest that this was no equitable division and that the former son had much the better part, to which Caoilte replied that the portion which they disparaged was the one he and his companions preferred.

Their freedom of movement is not confined to the actual land of Ireland, for one of the characteristics of their legend is the ease with which they pass from the natural world to the supernatural. Time after time they find themselves in pursuit of a magic stag or boar which leads them to a secluded dwelling where they encounter strange beings and undergo equally strange and often perilous experiences. In other ways too they maintain constant dialogue with the people of the sídh or subterranean otherworld. It is almost as if, living as they did outside the areas of organised society, they thereby enjoyed a closer sympathy with the supernatural and freer access to it. Certainly the stories of the Fian are more akin to the mythological [109] tales than are those of the Ulster cycle. Whereas the latter have preserved the heroic, quasi-historical tradition of the Celts, the Fionn-cycle belongs rather to that romantic-mythological tradition which eventually became part of European literature through the medium of Arthurian romance.

Fionn himself was both seer and poet (as we have seen, these were but two aspects of the same function). According to some tales he acquired the gift of prophecy and supernatural knowledge by tasting of the otherworld liquor, but the commonest belief was that whenever he sought clairvoyance he had merely to chew his thumb, for with it he had once touched the Salmon of Wisdom which he was cooking for his master in poetic learning and magic. It is also said that he took up the craft of poetry as a protection against his hereditary enemies of the House of Morna (for the professional poet enjoyed a quasi-sacred immunity in early Irish society). This detail is found in the story of Fionn’s birth and youthful deeds, versions of which have remained popular with unlettered storytellers till our own day (and which, incidentally, was one of the ultimate sources of Perceval’s boyhood in Le Conte del Graal by the twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes).

Fionn’s father was slain by the Sons of Morna before he was born, and he was reared secretly in the forest by two women-warriors. But, in keeping with the normal pattern of the youth of a hero, Fionn soon showed his mettle in a series of precocious exploits which mark his initiation into the warrior con fraternity. Thus he was only in his eighth year when he performed the feat which won him the headship of the Fian. On coming to Tara for the first time the boy found the whole company anxiously awaiting the arrival of a malevolent being named Aillán mac Midhna who came each year at the feast of Samhain and burned down the royal court after lulling its defenders to sleep with magic music. Fionn, however, was able to resist the music by pressing the point of a magic spear against his forehead, and when Aillán approached breathing fire he drove him off and then beheaded him. This is one of several different tales which are evidently variants of a myth which pictured Fionn as the vanquisher of a supernatural one-eyed burner. Even within the Fian he has an arch- rival named Goll (’One-eyed’) mac Morna, otherwise known as Aodh (’Fire’).

There is here an obvious analogy with the myth of Lugh’s defeat of Balar of the evil eye and this analogy may be more than mere coincidence. For in point of fact there are considerable grounds for believing that Fionn was himself divine. He is probably to be equated with Gwynn ap Nudd who appears fleetingly in Welsh tradition as a magic warrior-huntsman’ and leader of the otherworld folk. Moreover, the Celtic form vindos, ‘white’, which gives Irish Fionn and Welsh Gwynn, is attested on the Continent in the deity-name Vindonnus and in a number of place-names (e.g. Vindobona) where it seems likely that it was used as a deity-name. The fact that the same basic theme appears to underlie several of the earli est tales of Fionn as is found in the myth of Lugh’s destruction of Balar seems to corroborate these indications. Indeed there are various other analogies between the traditions of Fionn, ‘The Fair One’, and Lugh, ‘The Bright One’, and it has been suggested — not implausibly — that Fionn may originally have been another name for the god Lugh.

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The Elopement of Diarmaid and Gráinne
Often, like his British counterpart Arthur, Fionn is represented as an aging leader attended by a group of younger lieutenants: his power and renown remain undimmed, but he tends now to [110] preside over the exploits of his followers rather than to take the lead in their execution. It is thus that he comes also to be cast in the role of the greying husband who loses his wife to a younger and more attractive rival. As Conchobhar loses Deirdre to Naoise and Arthur loses Gwenhwyfar to Medrawd (or to Melwas), so does Fionn lose Gráinne to Diarmaid ua Duibhne, ‘the master and charmer of women’. The tale is found only in a late text, but it is already mentioned as ‘The Elopement of Gráinne with Diarmaid’ in a tenth-century saga-list and was undoubtedly a proximate source of the famous romance of Tristan and Iseult. It tells of the betrothal of Gráinne to Fionn, who was at this time a widower. For Grádinne, however, it was no affair of the heart, and on the night of the wedding-feast she contrived to effect a more compatible union. First she administered a sleeping potion to all but a chosen few of the assembled company and then she laid Diarmaid under magic bonds (gessa) to elope with her. For Diarmaid the power of the gessa outweighed his reluctance to break faith with his leader and he brought her away with him.

They first took refuge in a wood in Connacht, and here Diarmaid cut a clearing with seven doors to it and within it he laid a bed of rushes and birch-tips for Grádinne. When Fionn and his men surrounded them, Diarmaid’s foster-father, the god Oenghus, came to their aid and spirited Gráinne away under his cloak, while Diarmaid with supreme agility leaped clear over the heads of the besiegers. Thereafter they continued to wander through Connacht and Munster, and for a long time Diarmaid remained loyal to Fionn and wherever they slept he left uncooked meat as a sign of their continence. But one day as they walked some muddy water splashed upon Gráinne’s leg and she taunted Diarmaid with the remark that the water was bolder than he. It was then he yielded to her persistence and they became lovers. Eventually, by the good offices of Oenghus peace was made between Fionn and Diarmaid, though in his heart Fionn still nursed hopes of vengeance.

The lovers settled down, Grádinne bore Diarmaid four sons and a daughter and they lived in happy prosperity until the fatal chase of the magic boar of Beann Ghulban in Co. Sligo. This boar had once been Diarmaid’s foster-brother by whom it had been prophesied that he would fall. But though his doom had thus been clearly prefigured, Diarmaid joined Fionn and the Fian in the great hunt and was grievously wounded before he slew the quarry. Only one thing could now save him: a draught of water from the hands of Fionn, who had the gift of healing. Much against his will Fionn was prevailed upon to go for water, but as he returned he remembered Gráinne and let if flow through his fingers. Twice he did this, and the third time, when he brought the water, Diarmaid was dead.

All three actors in this tale appear to be divine, at least in origin. Fionn we have seen to be almost certainly so, and in Gráinne’s case her name seems to imply as much: meaning literally ‘ugliness’ or ‘repulsiveness’, it suggests that Gráinne was once known as the loathsome hag who is transfigured into a being of incomparable beauty through marriage to her pre-ordained partner [see p.120]. Diarmaid is sometimes known as Diarmaid Donn, ‘Brown, Dark’, and sometimes as Diarmaid son of Donn, and there is a strong pre sumption that he was originally one with the god Donn who ruled over the Irish otherworld of the dead. But though it is reasonably clear that they were all three deities, one cannot with any confidence presume to interpret their story in terms of their mythological status, nor indeed can one entirely discount the possible effect of the distorting [113] lens of literary creativity. It may be noted that one of the few surviving traditions of Fionn’s British counterpart, Gwynn ap Nudd, assigns him the part of the lover rather than that of the husband and engages him in an everlasting fight for the hand of the heroine. The story has it that Creiddylad the daughter of Lludd Llaw Ereint had been given to Gwythyr son of Gwreidawl, but before the marriage had been consummated she was abducted by Gwynn ap Nudd. However, Arthur intervened to restore peace between the disputants, and the terms of the peace were that the maiden should remain in her father’s house and that Gwynn and Gwythyr should fight for her every May-day until Doomsday; the victor then should have Creiddylad.

The story of Diarmaid and Gráinne has been compared with that of Adonis and Aphrodite and with the exaltation of adulterous love and the worship of the goddess which were associated with the cult of Krishna in India. The analogies are unmistakable, but not so their significance. For the present let it suffice to say that the aithedha or ‘elopements’ to which the tale of Diarmaid and Grdinne belongs seem to continue an ancient theme concerning the rivalry of a younger and an older deity for possession of a goddess, and that at some stage in its development this theme assumed the character of a conflict between love and honour, a conflict which we find in the stories of Deirdre and Gráinne amongst others and one which was to receive its classical statement in the romances of Lancelot and Guinevere and of Tristan and Iseult.

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Fionn and Arthur
Fionn also reveals obvious similarities to the British hero Arthur. Both defend their countries against foreign enemies and overcome fearsome monsters. Both invade the otherworld and both are hunters: Culhwch and Olwen, in a narrative which has many analogues among the legends of the Fian, tells how Arthur and his followers hunted the Twrch Trwyd, a magic and venomous boar, through part of Ireland, south Wales and Cornwall. Both their legends circulated for centuries among the common people before they won acceptance – and the sanction of the written word – from the literati, and both in their time were acclaimed throughout Europe: the Arthurian cycle during the twelfth and subsequent centuries and the Fionn cycle in the eighteenth century when Macpherson’s fabrications made the legend of Ossian (the Irish Oisin) a fashionable cult in the courts and salons of the Continent. There are many other striking parallels between the two cycles, and even the title of dux bellorum which Nennius in the ninth century applies to Arthur is a tolerable Latin equivalent of Fionn’s title of ríghfhéinnidh, ‘king-féinnidh’. It is indeed possible that Arthur was a British leader of the late fifth century, as certain sources indicate, but if he was, it is nonetheless clear that the traditions which subsequently gathered about his name belonged to the same fund of insular mythology which gave rise to the legend of Fionn mac Cumhaill. [112]

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