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THE STRIFE OF THE GODS
THE annalistic account of the groups of people who successively came to Ireland, some to perish utterly, others to remain as colonists, represents the unscientific historian's attempt to explain the different races existing there in his time, or of whom tradition spoke. He wrote, too, with an eye upon Biblical story, and connected the descendants of the patriarchs with the folk of Ireland. Three different groups of Noah's lineage arrived in successive waves. The first of these, headed by Noah's grand-daughter, Cessair, perished, with the exception of her husband. Then came the Fomorians, descendants of Ham; and finally the Nemedians, also of the stock of Noah, arrived. According to one tradition, they, like Cessair's people and another group unconnected with Noah—the race of Partholan (Bartholomew) —died to a man, although another legend says that they returned to Spain, whence they had come. Spain figures frequently in these annalistic stories, and a close connexion between it and Ireland is taken for granted. This may be a reminiscence of a link by way of trade between the two countries in prehistoric days, of which, indeed, archaeology presents some proof. Possibly, too, early Celtic colonists reached Ireland directly from Spain, rather than through Gaul and Britain. Still another tradition makes Nemedian survivors wander over the world, some of their descendants becoming the Britons, while others returned to Ireland as a new colonizing group— Firbolgs, Fir-Domnann, and Galioin. A third group of their descendants who had learned magic came to Ireland—the Tuatha Dé Danann. Finally the Milesians, the ancestors of the Irish, arrived and conquered the Tuatha Dé Danann, as these had defeated the Fomorians.
Little of this is actual history, but how much of it is invention, and how much is based on mythic traditions floating down from the past, is uncertain. What is certain is that the annalists, partly as a result of the euhemerizing process, partly through misunderstanding, mingled groups of gods with tribes or races of men and regarded them as more or less human. These various traditions are introductory to the story of the two battles of Mag-Tured, enlarged from an earlier tale of a single conflict. An interval of twenty-seven years elapsed between the two battles, and they were fought in different parts of Ireland bearing the same name, one in Mayo and the other in Sligo, the first battle being fought against the Firbolgs, and the second against the Fomorians, by the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Having reached Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann established themselves at Mag-Rein in Connaught. The Firbolgs sent a huge warrior, Sreng, to parley with them, and to him approached Bres, son of Elatha, of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The warriors gazed long upon each other; then they mutually admired their weapons, and finally exchanged them, Bres receiving the heavy, broad-pointed spears of the Firbolg, and Sreng the light, sharp-pointed lances of Bres. The demand of the invaders was surrender of the half of Ireland, but to this the Firbolgs would not agree. Meanwhile the Tuatha Dé Danann, terrified at the heavy Firbolg spears, retreated to Mag-Tured, Badb, Morrígan, and Macha, three of their women, producing frogs, rain of fire, and streams of blood against the Firbolgs. By mutual agreement an armistice was arranged for preparation, and some from each side even engaged in a hurling match. Such were the tactics of the time! Each party prepared a healing well for the wounded, in which medicinal herbs were placed. Dagda led the forces on the first day, when the Tuatha Dé Danann were defeated; but under the command of Ogma, Midir, Bodb Dearg, Diancecht, Aengaba of Norway, Badb, Macha, Morrígan, and Danann, they were successful on the second day. On the third day Dagda again led, "for in me you have an excellent god"; on the fourth day badba, bledlochtana, and amaite aidgill ("furies," "monsters," "hags of doom") cried aloud, and their voices resounded in the rocks, waterfalls, and hollows of the earth. Sreng severed the arm of Nuada, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann; Bres was slain by Eochaid, who, overpowered by thirst, sought water throughout Ireland, but the wizards of the Tuatha Dé Danann hid all streams from him, and he was slain. The Firbolgs, reduced to three hundred, were still prepared to fight, but when the Tuatha Dé Danann offered them peace and the province of Connaught, this was accepted.
As we shall see, the Tuatha Dé Danann were gods, and their strife against the Firbolgs, a non-Celtic group, is probably based on a tradition of war between incoming Celts and aborigines. Meanwhile the Tuatha Dé Danann made alliance with the Fomorians. Ethne, daughter of Balor, married Cian, son of Diancecht, her son being the famous Lug. Nuada's mutilation prevented his continuing as King, for no maimed person could reign; and the women insisted that the Fomorian Bres, their adopted son, should receive the throne, since he was son of Elatha, the Fomorian King. Eri, sister of Elatha, was counted of the Tuatha Dé Danann, perhaps because their mother was also of them, an instance of succession through the female line; and this would account for Bres becoming King, though these genealogies are doubtless inventions of the annalists. Bres was son of Elatha and Eri. Such unions of brother and sister (or half-sister) are common in mythology and were not unknown in royal houses, e. g. in Egypt and Peru, as a means of keeping the dynasty pure. One day Eri saw a silver boat approaching. A noble warrior with golden locks stepped ashore, clad in an embroidered mantle and wearing a jewelled golden brooch, and five golden torques round his neck. He carried two silvery pointed spears with bronze shafts, and a golden-hilted sword inlaid with silver. Eri was so overcome by his appearance that she easily surrendered to him and wept bitterly when he rose to leave her. Then he drew from his finger a golden ring and bade her not part with it save to one whose finger it should fit. Elatha was his name, and she would bear a son Eochaid Bres, or "the Beautiful." At seven years old Bres was as a boy of fourteen.
Bres was miserly and caused much murmuring among the Tuatha Dé Danann. "Their knives were not greased by him; and however often they visited him their breaths did not smell of ale." No poets, bards, or musicians were in his household, and no champions proved their prowess, save Ogma, who had the slavish daily task of carrying a load of fuel, two-thirds of which were swept from him by the sea, because he was weak through hunger. Bres claimed the milk of all brown, hairless cows, and when these proved to be few in number, he caused the kine of Munster to pass through a fire of bracken so that they might become hairless and brown, this tale being possibly connected with the ritual passing of cattle through fires at Beltane (May-Day). Another version of the tale, however, makes it less pleasant for Bres. He demanded a hundred men's drink from the milk of a hornless dun cow or a cow of some other colour from every house in Ireland; but by the advice of Lug and Findgoll, Nechtan, King of Munster, singed the kine in a fire of fern and smeared them with a porridge of flax-seed. Three hundred wooden cows with dark brown pails in lieu of udders were made, and the pails were dipped in black bog-stuff. When Bres inspected them, the bog-stuff was squeezed out like milk; but since he was under geis, or tabu, to drink whatever was milked, the result of his swallowing so much bog-stuff was a gradual wasting away, until he died when traversing Ireland to seek a cure. Stokes conjectures that Bres required the milk of one-coloured cows as a means of removing his wife's barrenness.
Another account of Bres's death tells how Corpre the poet came to his house. It was narrow, dark, and fireless, and for food the guest received only three small unbuttered cakes. Next morning, filled with a poet's scorn, he chanted a satire:
"Without food quickly on a dish,
Without a cow's milk whereon a calf grows,
Without a man's abode under the gloom of night,
Without paying a company of story-tellers,
Let that be the condition of Bres."
This was the first satire made in Ireland, but it had all the effect which later belief attributed to satire, and Bres declined from that hour. Surrendering his sovereignty and going to his mother, he asked whence was his origin; and when she tried the ring on his finger, she found that it fitted him. Bres and she then went to the Fomorians' land, where his father recognized the ring and upbraided Bres for leaving the kingdom. Bres acknowledged the injustice of his rule, but asked his father's help, whereupon Elatha sent him to Balor, grandson of Net, the Fomorian war-god, and to Indech, who assembled a huge force in order to impose their rule on the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Some curious incidents may be mentioned here. While Bres ruled, the Fomorian Kings, Indech, Elatha, and Tethra, bound tribute on Ireland and reduced some of the Tuatha Dé Danann to servitude. The Fomorians had formerly exacted tribute of the Nemedians, and it was collected by one of their women in an iron vessel—fifty fills of corn and milk, of butter, and of flour. This may be a memory of sacrifice. Ogma had to carry fuel, and even Dagda was obliged to become a builder of raths, or forts. In the house where he lived was a lampooner named Cridenbél who demanded from him the three best bits of his ration, and thus Dagda's health suffered; but Oengus, Dagda's son, hearing of this; gave him three gold coins to put into Cri-denbel's portion. These would cause his death, and Bres would be told that Dagda had poisoned him. Then he must tell the story to Bres, who would cause the lampooner's stomach to be opened; and if the gold were not found there, Dagda would have to die. In the sequel Oengus advised Dagda to ask as reward for his rath-building only a black-maned heifer; and although this seemed weakness to Bres, the astuteness of Oengus was seen when, after the second battle, the heifers lowing brought to Dagda the cattle exacted by the Fomorians.
This mythical story of Bres's sovereignty, and of the servitude of beings who are gods, is probably parallel to other myths of the temporary eclipse of deities, as when the Babylonian high gods were afraid of Timat and her brood, or cowered in terror before the flood. It may also represent an old nature dualism—the apparent paralysis of gods of sunshine and fruitfulness in the death and cold of winter; or it may hint at some temporary defeat of Celtic invaders, which even their gods seemed to share. Whatever the Fomorians be, their final defeat was at hand.
When Bres retired, Nuada was again made King because his hand was restored. Diancecht (a divinity of leechcraft), assisted by Creidne, god of smith-work, made for him a silver hand, but Miach, Diancecht's son, not content with this, obtained the mutilated hand and by means of such a spell as is common to many races—"joint to joint, sinew to sinew"—he set it to the stump, caused skin to grow, and restored the hand. In another version he made a new arm with a swine-herd's arm-bone. Through envy Diancecht struck Miach four blows, three of which Miach healed, but the fourth was fatal. His father buried him, and from his grave sprang as many herbs as he had joints and sinews. Airmed, his sister, separated them according to their properties, but Diancecht confused them so that none might know their right values. These incidents reflect beliefs about magico-medical skill, and the last may be a myth of divine jealousy at man's obtaining knowledge. Nuada now made a feast for the gods, and as they banqueted, a warrior, coming to the portal, bade the doorkeepers announce him as Lug, son of Cian, son of Diancecht, and of Ethne, Balor's daughter. He was also known as samildánach ("possessing many arts"), and when asked what he practised, he answered that he was a carpenter, only to hear the door-keeper reply, "Already we have a carpenter." In succession he declared himself smith, champion, harper, hero, poet, magician, leech, cup-bearer, and brazier, but the Tuatha Dé Danann possessed each one of these. Lug, however, because he knew all these arts, gained entrance and among other feats played the three magic harp-strains so often referred to in Irish texts—sleep-strain, wail-strain, and laughter-strain, which in turn caused slumber, mourning, and joy.
In another version of Lug's coming, from The Children of Tuirenn (Aided Chlainne Tuirenn), as he approached, "like the setting sun was the splendour of his countenance," and none could gaze on it. His army was the fairy cavalcade from the Land of Promise, and with them were his foster-brothers, Manannan's sons. Lug rode Manannan's steed, Enbarr, fleet as the spring wind, and on whose back no rider could be killed; he wore Manannan's lorica which preserved from wounds, his breastplate which no weapon could pierce, and his sword, the wound of which none survived, while the strength of all who faced it became weakness. When the Fomorians came for tribute, Lug killed some of them, whereupon Balor's wife, Céthlionn, told him that this was their grandson and that it had been prophesied that when he arrived, the power of the Fomorians would depart. As Lug went to meet the Fomorians, Bres was surprised that the sun seemed rising in the west, but his Druids said that this was the radiance from the face of Lug, who cast a spell on the cattle taken for tribute, so that they returned to the Tuatha Dé Danann. When his fairy cavalcade arrived, Bres begged his life on condition of bringing over the Fomorians, while he offered sun, moon, sea, and land as guarantees that he would not again fight; and to this Lug agreed. The guarantee points to an animistic view of nature, for it means that sun, etc., would punish Bres if he was unfaithful.
To return to the other account, Nuada gave Lug his throne, and for a year the gods remained in council, consulting the wizards, leeches, and smiths. Mathgen the wizard announced that the mountains would aid them and that he would cast them on the Fomorians; the cup-bearer said that through his power the Fomorians would find no water in lough or river; Figol the Druid promised to rain showers of fire on the foe and to remove from them two-thirds of their might, while increase of strength would come to the Tuatha Dé Danann, who would not be weary if they fought seven years; Dagda said that he would do more than all the others together. For seven years weapons were prepared under the charge of Lug.
At this point comes the episode of Dagda's assignation with the war-goddess Morrígan, who was washing in a river, one foot at Echumech in the north, the other at Loscuinn in the south. This enormous size is a token of divinity in Celtic myths, and the place where Dagda and Morrígan met was now known as "the couple's bed." She bade him summon the men of knowledge and to them she gave two handfuls of the blood of Indech's heart, of which she had deprived him, as well as valour from his kidneys. These men now chanted spells against the Fomorians—a practice invariably preceding battle among the Celts.
Another incident shows that the Celts, like other races, could recount irreverent stories about their gods. Dagda had been sent to spy out the Fomorians' camp and to ask a truce. Much porridge was made for him, boiled with goats, sheep, and swine, and the mess being poured into a hole in the ground, he was bidden to eat it under pain of death. Taking a ladle big enough for a man and woman to lie in, he began his meal and ate it all, after which sleep overcame him, and the Fomorians mocked his distended paunch. When he rose, uneasy was his movement, but he bravely bore his huge branched fork or club, dragging it till its track was like a boundary-ditch, so that men call that "the track of Dagda's club." An obscene story follows regarding his amour with Indech's daughter, who agreed to practise magic against her father's army.
Excerpted from CELTIC MYTHOLOGY by John Arnott MacCuloch. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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