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Celtic Myths and Legends Neeson, Eoin

ISBN: 9781856352222

The stories have a literary merit and a style and character of their own, not dissimilar to the sophistication of the great tales of ancient Greece. Included in this collection are: The Children of Lir, The Wooing of Etain, Diarmuid and Grainne, The Combat at the Ford, The Children of Tuireann, The Sickbed of Cuchulain and Deirdre and the Sons of Usna.





Although the Irish are one of the oldest and most homogeneous people in the world, certainly in Europe, their origins are unclear. for the most part the oldest records of Celtic settlements in Ireland are found in compilations such as the Leabhar Gabhala (The Book of Invasions), and other works dating from the eighth century ad. these are evidently based on popular tradition, but probably also on earlier written accounts now lost.


Of those who preceded the Celts only their archaeological remains survive, some of them  like the Newgrange complex, predating (c.3,000 bc) the pyramids of Egypt, with which it shares many symbols and mathematical precision, are mysterious and awe-inspiring. Who these people were has not, so far, been decided. Ireland was peopled quite late, not before the ice receded after the last ice-age and the ice-bridge with Britain and the continent had melted or been inundated between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago. That the earliest people to reach Irelands shores were skilled and advanced in thought is clear, but as to who or what these pre Celtic people might have been is hidden by time. They were, it is believed, late mesolithic hunter-fishers (though there is some evidence of very early agricultural activity) and were capable of building boats that could cross the intervening sea and that could carry people, animals and supplies. they also already had a long tradition behind them. By becoming an island people they became essentially homogeneous. In contrast to their co-mingling Continental cousins this insularity also provided, for them and the Celts who followed, the circumstances essential to the development of enduring cultural characteristics.


According to M. A. Hutton, who devoted considerable time and study to the Celtic mythologies towards the end of the last century, the version of Cuchulains training found in the foghlaimh Conchulaind, an unedited tract at the time, gives in detail the story of his training which is presupposed in the versions contained in the Leabhar na h-Uidre and in the Book of Leinster, the accepted sources of the Cuailgne. In this work Cuchulain is trained by Scatha, the warrior-queenteacher, in Scythia and in Great Greece. The name Scythia occurs frequently in old Irish literature, Scythia being a vague term for a region extending from what is now Hungary, eastward far into Asia. In other words in what was utterly a Celtic country. That there should have been frequent intercourse between the Celts of Ireland and the Celts of Europe, and that young Irish nobles should have gone from Ireland to get warlike training among the Celts of the Continent, seems only what one might expect. In Kuno Meyers edited version of the Wooing of Emer by Cuchulain one finds that Cuchulain went to Scatha, fri Alpi allaanoir, eastward from the Alpi. This has been argued as meaning that he went to Albyn, in fact to the Isle of Skye, and that it was there that Scatha had her warlike school. But eastward from Alpi would not answer the position of Skye relative to Scotland; but it would very well answer the position of Scythia relative to the Alps. furthermore, the Book of Leinster refers to Cuchulains training in Armenia and to his wars with; significantly, perhaps in the light of the fact that his teacher was also a woman, the Cichloiste, or Amazons. There appears to be no reason why Amazons should otherwise find themselves in an Irish legend than that they came into contact with its hero. And there is one final point worthy of mention which is that the religion of the early Irish was neither pantheistic like that of later European neighbours, nor anthropomorphic like that of the Greeks, but was similar to that of the Asiatic Milesians and the Lydians, which was a rather harmonious and sophisticated blend of the two ... so far as any information is available on the subject at all. This might explain the ease with which Christianity established itself in Ireland in the fifth century.


Perhaps the most significant thing about the Irish myths for the student of letters is that they were written when the literatures of modern Europe had not yet been born and the literary energies of the ancient world were dead. These Irish legends are the connecting link between the two and were first written down in early Christian Ireland, which had not felt the direct influence of Rome, among a people for whom the tales were still vivid and who, perhaps, inherited a rudimentary literature drawn from ancient Celtic sources. At all events, now began to emerge men who, because of their work on these tales, became the earliest classical scholars in the modern world. It is maintained by a number of authorities that the influence of the literary works familiar to the Irish emigrant scholars of the sixth to the tenth centuries bore a singular influence on the development of the literatures of france, Germany and Italy. The form of the twelfth century French romance Aucassin and Nicolette, according to A. H. Leahy, is that of the chief Irish romances and may, he maintains, have been suggested by them.


It is as hard, he writes, to suppose that the beautiful literature of Ireland had absolutely no influence upon nations known to be in contact with it, as it would be to hold the belief that the ancient Cretan civilisation had no effect upon the literary development that culminated in the poems of Homer.


The Celtic mythological tales have a literary merit of their own, a style and character of their own, which would, surely, have been lost and dissipated in the process of constant mutation of the order implied by those who maintain that they have grown solely from the minds of bards. furthermore, the sophistication of the tales, like the sophistication of the great tales of Greece, is that of art brought to bear on ideas, however bald and ancient the idea itself. To take a classical illustration, which Leahy used in a similar context, the barbarity shown by Aeneas in Aeneid X in sacrificing four young men on the funeral pyre of Pallas was an act which, if it occurred in Virgils day, would have caused utter horror. Nor does it prove that there was an ancient tale of Pallas in which victims were sacrificed like that, nor even that such victims were sacrificed in Latium at that time. But it does suggest that virgil was familiar with the idea of such sacrifices, and his sense of drama impelled him to use it in the Pallas episode, for he would hardly have invented it. The tales given below are chosen for several reasons, but principally because they represent all that is best and different in the myths of Ireland.


The first, and one of the oldest, is set in the earliest period, that closest to the Hellenic fatherland, it may be, and is one of the Three Great Tragedies of the Gael, The fate of the Children of Tuireann. Its similarity to the story of Jason and the Argonauts is too obvious to need much comment. The other two tragedies of the Gael are, of course, The Children of Lir, and Deirdre and the Sons of Usna which is one of the finest stories of its kind in the world. It is as great and as moving in concept, both of incident and of character, as the Iliad; the story is fast moving and is told with a great deal of deliberate art, for example in the restraint shown in the tragic death of Deirdre and in the remarkable and well-sustained lament of hers before she is killed.


The Wooing of Etain, with its strong supernatural flavour, its observation of nature and its insistence on the idea of regeneration, its mystical quality, is an important story.* The Combat at the ford is perhaps the finest example of the genre that has survived to us.


The Children of Lir is a fanciful, half other world, tale that besides great poignancy and considerable literary merit demonstrates a linking of the old tradition with Christianity. But it has been debased by being used as a childrens fairy tale for generations. There is also the great epic of the Fenian cycle, Diarmuid and Graine, which is to its time and place what Deirdre and the Sons of Usna is to the Red Branch cycle and what Helen and Paris is to the Iliad. The fenian cycle is of considerably later date than the Red Branch tales and deals, one is well-satisfied, with undisputedly historical characters.


The stories, while transcending human limitations in many respects, cling tenaciously-almost self-consciously- to an everyday context and exaggeratedly recognisable human traits. To draw an extreme example the difference between the two cycles is, to me at any rate, as if one had been written under the influence of a strict, all-powerful, but fatherly monarchical society in which all the noble virtues (and all the noble vices) played a large and intrinsic part, and the other written by the same people some hundreds of years later after they had come under the influence of a considerably, and consciously, more socialised community in which the voice of the lesser blood (not, perhaps, that exactly of the common people, but certainly that of the un-aristocratic middle-class) was loud and powerful. The time element alone hardly seems reason enough for such a profound change in approach and it may be that the fenian cycle was, indeed, the product of some revolutionary change in the social system which required a body of literature of its own. Like many of the myths and legends of both cycles, the story of Diarmuid and Graine has more than one version, but the principal source is the Book of Leinster.


The Sickbed of Cuchulain comes also from the Red Branch cycle and is another tale about its great hero, Cuchulain, probably the greatest symbol of heroism associated with Ireland. However, in this particular venture, his honour (as the word would probably be interpreted today; but notions of honour, whatever about honourableness, like notions of fashion change with the passage of time and what is acceptable today may be scandalous tomorrow) in this story emerges today in a doubtful light because of the manner in which he treats the women who love him. The one, his wife, he lies to blandly; and the other, his mistress, he abandons, albeit with a show of profound grief. However, it is the man and not the women who is of importance in this story. Nevertheless, in common with other tales from the same cycle, the sophisticated concepts of human behaviour painted with such skill and acute observations are far ahead of their time in Western Europe.


Again, of course, there are several versions of the tale to choose from and there is a discrepancy in the two principal versions, that of the eleventh century Leabhar na h-Uidri which has been taken from the earlier and lost Yellow Book of Slane which, in turn, had two versions to draw on; and a fifteenth century manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin. The versions differ in many respects. The eleventh century version, for example appears to begin abruptly after the story had already advanced considerably, while the other version does not supply a full conclusion to the tale. The significance, to my mind, of these discrepancies and of the variety of versions of many of these legends lies not in any scholarly detection in trying to trace the true original; but in the fact that so early, which is yet quite late in the literary traditions associated with the tales (we are given to understand), there were many versions, clearly indicating that there must have been several oral versions at an even earlier date. The inference to be drawn from this within the context of my argument is that it supports, not the retelling of an artificial composition (so much less likely than literary mutation), but the transmitting of something far more personal, and in which the listeners could be far more personally involved, the histories of their ancestors. In the telling and retelling of something believed, or half believed, and based on fact the room for expansion; for glorification; for heroic dimension is clearly far more readily available than in the case of mere fiction. Any parent knows that a slip in the retelling of a favourite fairy tale, be it just a matter of a word, and all hell breaks loose; but the tendency to aggrandise the feats and stature of our ancestors is inherent in all of us, and the more of us there are telling the stories about them, the more variations of the stories there will be. In The Sickbed of Cuchulain, the row of asterisks signifies the point at which the two versions coincide in the tale.


However, the principal purpose of these myths and legends is enjoyment and enrichment and, I hope, some little additional knowledge into the lives and customs of the people who lived in Ireland between four and one thousand years ago. Apart from the Greek and Roman myths there is not a literature in Europe so old on which to draw, nor one nearly as old which is the product of so advanced a society barbaric though that society may appear to us in many respects now.



ISBN 9781856352222


  • Celtic Myths and Legends