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The first stories amongst the Celtic peoples were oral ones. They were most probably told around the campfires by warriors and old men. As with most stories, they reflected the world these people knew. These were tales of great battles, of the deeds of heroes and kings, and of places with which they were familiar. Some of these stories may have been personal memories, but others had certainly been passed down by word of mouth from one generation to another.
Storytelling was highly valued amongst the Celtic peoples: the stories that came down across the ages gave them their identity and distinctiveness. Professional storytellers and recounters of tales soon began to emerge amongst them. These were the Bards, a specific group within Celtic society charged with recording the deeds of kings and men of valor, as well as the remarkable events within their respective communities. These men (and women) enjoyed great status in their society, but with this came the daunting task of remembering and being able to recite the great tales that characterized their communities. Every three years or so, great festivals were held at which reciters recounted their tales and competed with each other in the complexity and vividness of their stories, many of which were in verse in order to aid memory. In Ireland, for instance, such a gathering was known as an Ard Feis. This festival also held political significance in that it combined recitations, feats of strength, and so on, with the swearing of loyalty by all sub-rulers and chieftains to the High King. Today, this tradition is carried on in Wales through the Eisteddfod, or the Gathering of the Bards. In order to outdo each other and to help their own memory, the Bards embellished their tales, adding to the basic structure with elements out of their own imaginations. So, centered around the basic incident of the story itself, the Bards wove a wonderful fantasy that enthralled and excited their listeners.
Such tales were recounted directly from memory—a great feat by any means, considering the length and complexity of the stories and that none of them were written down. This did not occur until much later, as Christianity began to spread across the Celtic world. Monks, the scholars of their day, slowly and systematically began to record some of these old stories in written form. They had probably heard these stories from local storytellers. At first, some of the legends were simply added to pad out more religious texts, such as an addition at the end of the life of a saint. Gradually, however, the monastic scribes began to write down collections of tales. Roughly around the 10th and 11th centuries, some of these anthologies began to circulate throughout the Celtic world, forming, in effect, some of the earliest corpus of legendary lore that we have in the West. These were the Great Myth Cycles: stories of legendary heroes and rulers who made war on each other and who transacted with supernatural entities and races, such as the Sidhe, and of strange places far beyond mortal knowledge.
Only part of this literature survives, and it only remains in fragmentary form. The main remnants of the Myth Cycles are to be found in Ireland and Wales, where such works as the Tain Bo Cuailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley") and the Mabinogion are still extant. However, much of the remaining literature is now lost. For instance, it is thought that Scotland once boasted a rich and vibrant mythological cycle, but that it was largely destroyed during the history of that turbulent country and during the Scottish Reformation. Other isolated fragments of the Myth Cycles appear in places such as Cornwall and the Isle of Man, but these are only small remnants of a once great storytelling tradition.
As we read some of the ancient tales, we must also remember that the monkish clerics who wrote and copied them down were not altogether unbiased. As with the pagan storytellers of old, they shaped the tales to their own perspective, introducing elements of morality and justice that perhaps some of the original stories lacked. And yet the pagan tradition shines through, giving a depth and undoubted antiquity to the tales. These are the earliest fantasies of the Celtic peoples, born in the dawn of their civilization and just as vivid and vibrant as when they were first told around the warrior campfires eons ago.
Cruachan: The Place of the Sidhe
For the early Celts, the land assumed an almost magical significance. They believed they had emerged from the land and that the land was a part of them. It gave them their sustenance and shaped their identity. And it was filled with spirits and forces that continually watched human beings—spirits that might aid or attack them if they so chose. Such forces inhabited rocks, trees, wells, and hills and had existed alongside mankind ever since the foundation of the world. These were the Sidhe, the "People of the Mounds," and their dwellings were sometimes characterized by the ancient tumuli and earthworks of former peoples who had lived on the land that the Celts now inhabited.
The Celtic peoples often sought to appease these forces so that they could count upon their goodwill, and so many ancient kings built their forts and strongholds close to the places where the Sidhe might be dwelling. This combined well with their strong sense of place and associated certain chieftains with areas that were magical or had some sort of supernatural connotation. It was hoped that the ancient powers of the site would somehow influence the powers of the chieftain and his clan. Places, therefore, held a special significance in the Celtic mind. These were the places of the fairies, the physical manifestations of those early and dangerous forces.
The following excerpt is taken from Lady Augusta Gregory's Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902). Lady Gregory (1832–1932), a contemporary and friend of W.B. Yeats, was a noted collector of popular and local folktales and stories from the great Irish Myth Cycles. Her stories of Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster, are amongst the best-collected examples of the ancient myths. The extract cited here tells of the enchanted royal place of Cruachan and the Hill of the Sidhe. The language used is rich in extravagant detail, typical of early Celtic poetic legend, and is an exceptionally fine example of the storyteller's art.
Excerpt From Cuchulain of Muirthemne
by Lady Augusta Gregory
Now as to Cruachan, the home of Ailell and Maeve it is on the plain of Magh Ai in the province of Connaught.
And this was the way that the plain came by its name. In the time long ago there was a king whose name was Conn that had the Druid power so that when the Sidhe themselves came against him, he was able to defend himself with enchantments as good as their own. And one time he went out against them and broke up their houses and carried away their cattle and then, to hinder them from following after him, he covered the whole province with a deep snow.
The Sidhe went then to consult with Dalach, the king's brother, that had the Druid knowledge even better than himself; and this is what he told them to do: to kill three hundred white cows with red ears and to spread out their livers on a certain plain. And when they had done this, he made spells on them, and the heat the livers gave out, melted the snow over the whole plain and the whole province and after that the plain was given the name of Magh Ai, the Plain of the Livers.
Ailell was the son of Ross Ruadh, king of Leinster and Maeve was the daughter of Eochaid, king of Ireland and her brothers were the Three Fair Twins that rose up against their father and fought against him at Druim Criadh. And they were beaten in the fight and went back over the Sionnan [Shannon] and they were overtaken and their heads were brought back to their father, and he fretted after them to the end of his life.
Seven sons Ailell and Maeve had and the name of every one of them was Maine. There was Maine Milscothach, like his mother, and Maine Athremail like his father, and Maine Mo Erpert, the Talker and Maine Milscothach, the Honey-Worded, and Maine Andoe the Quick, and Maine Mingor, the Gently Dutiful and Maine Morgar, the Very Dutiful. Their own people they had, and their own place of living.
This now was the appearance of Cruachan, the Royal house of Ailell and of Maeve that some called Cruachan of the Poets; there were seven divisions in the house with couches in them, from the hearth to the wall; a front of bronze to every division, and of red yew with carvings on it; and there were seven strips of bronze from the foundation to the roof of the house. The house was made of oak, and the roof was covered with oak shingles; sixteen windows with glass there were, and shutters of bronze on them, and a bar of bronze across every shutter. There was a raised place in the middle of the house for Ailell and Maeve, with silver fronts and strips of bronze around it, and four brass pillars on it, and a silver rod beside it, the way Ailell and Maeve could strike the middle beam and check their people.
And outside the royal house was the dun with the walls about it that was built by Brocc, son of Blar, and the great gate; and it is there the houses were for strangers to be lodged.
And besides this, there was at Cruachan, the Hill of the Sidhe, or as some called it, the Cave of Cruachan. It was there that Midhir brought Etain one time, and it is there that the people of the Sidhe lived; but it is seldom that any living person had the power to see them.
It is out of that hill a flock of white birds came one time, and everything they touched in all Ireland withered up until at last the men of Ulster killed them with their slings. And another time, enchanted pigs came out of the hill, and in every place they trod, neither corn nor grass nor leaf would sprout before the end of seven years and no sort of weapon would wound them. But if they were counted in any place, or if the people so much as tried to count them, they would not stop in that place but they would go on to another. But however often the people of the country tried to count them, no two people could ever make out the one number and one man would call out: "There are three pigs in it," and another "No there are seven" and another that it was eleven were in it, or thirteen and so the count would be lost. One time Maeve and Ailell themselves tried to count them on the plain but when they were doing it, one of the pigs made a leap over Maeve's chariot and she in it. Every one called out: "The pig has gone over you Maeve!"
"It has not," she said, and with that she caught hold of the pig by the shank, but if she did, its skin split open at the head and it made its escape. And it is from that the place was called Magh-mucrimha, the Plain of Swine-counting.
Another time, Fraech, son of Idath, of the men of Connaught, that was the son of Boann's sister Befind from the Sidhe, came to Cruachan. He was the most beautiful of the men of Ireland or of Alban but his life was not long. It was to ask Findabair for his wife he came, and before he set out his people said: "Send a message to your mother's people, the way that they will send you the clothing of the Sidhe." So he went to Broann that was in Magh Breagh and he brought away fifty blue cloaks with four black ears on each cloak and a brooch of red gold with each, and pale white shirts with looped beasts of gold around them; and fifty silver shields with edges; and a candle of the king's house in a hand of each of the men, knobs of carbuncle under them, and their points of precious stones. They used to light up the night as if they were the sun's rays.
And he had with him seven trumpeters with gold and silver trumpets, with many coloured clothing, with golden, silken heads of hair, with coloured cloaks; and three harpers with the appearance of a king on each of them; every harper having the white skin of a deer about him and a cloak of white linen, and a harp-bag of the skins of water-dogs.
The watchman saw them from the dun when they had come into the Plain of Cruachan.
"I see a great crowd," he said, "coming towards us. Since Aillel was king and Maeve was queen, there never came and there never will come a grander or more beautiful crowd than this one. It is like if I had my head in a vat of wine, with the breeze that goes over them."
Then Fraech's people let out their hounds, and the hounds found seven deer and seven foxes and seven hares and seven wild boars, and hunted them to Rath Cruachan, and there they were killed on the lawn of the dun.
Then did Ailell and Maeve give them a welcome and they were brought into the house, and while food was being made ready, Maeve sat down to play a game of chess with Fraech. It was a beautiful chessboard they had, all of white bronze, and the chessmen of gold and silver, and a candle of precious stones lighting them.
Then Ailell said, "Let your harpers play for us while the feast is being made ready."
"Let them play indeed," said Fraech.
So the harpers began to play, and it was much that the people of the house did not die with crying and with sadness. And the music they played was "The Three Cries of Uaithne." It was Uaithne, the harp of the Dagda, that first played those cries the time that Broann's were born. The first was a song of sorrow for the hardness of her pains and the second was a song of smiling and joy for the birth of her sons and the third was a sleeping song after the birth.
And with the music of the harpers, and with the light that shone from the precious stones in the house, they did not know that the night was on them, till at last Maeve started up and she said:
"We have done a great deed to keep these young men without food."
"It is more you think of chess-playing than of providing for them," said Ailell: "and now let them stop from the music," he said, "until the food is given out."
Then the food was divided. It was Lothar used to be sitting on the floor of the house, dividing the food with his cleaver, and he not eating himself, and from the time he began dividing the food, never failed under his hand.
After that Fraech was brought into the conversation of the house, and they asked him what it was he wanted.
"A visit to yourselves," said he, but said nothing of Findabair. So they told him he was welcome and he stopped with them for a while and every day they went out hunting and all the people of Connaught used to come and to be looking at them.
But all this time Fraech got no chance of speaking with Findabair, until one morning, he went down to the river for washing and Findabair and her young girls had gone there before him. And he took her hand and said: "Stay here and talk with me, for it is for your sake that I am come and would you go away with me secretly?"
"I will not go secretly," she said, "for I am the daughter of a king and of a queen."
So she went from him, but she left him a ring to remember her by. It was a ring her mother had given her.
Then Fraech went to the conversation-house to Ailell and to Maeve.
"Will you give your daughter to me?" he said.
"We will give her if you will give the marriage portion we ask," said Ailell, "and that is sixty black-grey horses with gold bits, and twelve milch cows and a white red-eared calf with each of them; and you to come with us with all your strength and all your musicians at whatever time we go to war in Ulster."
"I swear by my shield and my sword, I would not give that for Maeve herself," he said; and he went away out of the house.
But Ailell had taken notice of Findabair's ring with Fraech, and he said to Maeve:
"If he brings our daughter away with him, we will lose the help of many of the kings of Ireland. Let us go after him and make an end of him before he has time to harm us."
"That would be a pity," said Maeve, "and it would be a reproach on us."
"It will be no reproach on us, the way I will manage it," said he. And Maeve agreed to it for there was a vexation on her that it was Findabair that Fraech wanted and not herself. So they went into the palace and Ailell said: "Let us go and see the hounds hunting until mid-day." So they did so, and at mid-day they were tired, and they all went to bathe in the river. And Fraech was swimming in the river and Ailell said to him, "Do not come back until you bring me a branch of the rowan tree there beyond, with the beautiful berries." For he knew there was a prophecy that it was in a river that Fraech would get his death.
So he went and broke a branch off the tree and brought it back over the water, and it is beautiful he looked over the black water, his body without fault and his face so nice, and his eyes very grey and the branch with the red berries between the throat and the white face. And he threw the branch to them out of the water.
Excerpted from Celtic Lore & Legend by Bob Curran. Copyright © 2004 Dr. Bob Curran. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
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