Gods Helping Mortals

IN Greek mythology the gods were represented as coming to man's help, and in Christian legend saints were seen hovering above an army in battle and giving it substantial aid. So in Celtic myth deities were often kindly disposed toward men or assisted them, sometimes for ends of their own.

Such a myth is associated with the historic King Mongan of Ulster in the sixth and seventh centuries. He is shown to be son of the god Manannan by a mortal mother, and as has been seen, he had powers of shape-shifting, and besides being brought up in the divine land, had free access to it. He was also regarded as a rebirth of the hero Fionn; hence the stories told of this king of the Christian historic period must already have been narrated of some far earlier mythic king or god, perhaps possessed of the same name. Two of these legends narrate how the god assisted Mongan's putative father out of desire for his wife. In the shorter story Fiachna, King of Ulster, had gone to help Aedan in Scotland against Saxon hosts who had with them a terrible warrior, and during the fight a noble stranger appeared to Fiachna's wife and asked her love. She refused him with scorn, but later relented in order to save her husband's life, which, said the visitant, was in danger from the terrible warrior. "Our son will be famous, and his name will be Mongan. I shall tell thy husband our adventures, and that thou didst send me to his help." This the stranger did, afterward slaying the warrior and giving victory to Fiachna; and when Mongan was born, he was known as Manannan's son, for Manannan had announced his name when leaving the Queen at dawn.1

In the longer version Fiachna had become security for the exchange of four kine offered by the King of Lochlann to a Black Hag for her cow, the flesh of which alone could cure his disease. Later the hag compelled Fiachna to fight with the King, who had broken his promise to her; but all went well until the King of Lochlann let xoose venomous sheep, before which Fiachna's men fell in hundreds. A warrior in a green cloak fastened by a silver brooch, with a circlet of gold on his head and golden sandals on his feet, appeared and asked what reward Fiachna would give him who would drive off the sheep. Fiachna replied that he would give anything he had, whereupon the warrior begged his ring "as a token for me when I go to Ireland to thy wife to sleep with her," to which the complacent Fiachna assented. The stranger — Manannan — announced that he would beget a glorious child, called Mongan Finn, or the "Fair"; "and I shall go there in thy shape, so that thy wife shall not be defiled by it." Fiachna would also become King of Lochlann. Taking a venomous hound from his cloak, Manannan launched it successfully at the sheep and then appeared to the Queen as Fiachna. On the night of Mon-gan's birth the Queen's attendant had a son, Mac an Daimh, while the wife of Fiachna's opponent, Fiachna the Black, bore a daughter, Dubh Lacha, these possibly also being children of the amorous god. When Mongan was three days old, Manannan took him to the Land of Promise and brought him back when he was sixteen. Meanwhile Fiachna Dub having killed the other Fiachna, the Ulstermen bargained that Mongan should retain half the province, with Dubh Lacha as his wife. One day when he and his Queen were playing together, "a dark, black-tufted little cleric" reproached Mongan for his inactivity and offered to help him to regain his land. Mongan went with him; they slew Fiachna; and all Ulster became Mongan's. The cleric was Manannan, though his transformation, in this as in the other version, is the result of the revision of the story by a Christian scribe. At a later time Mongan exchanged Dubh Lacha for the kine of the King of Leinster, but she, while living in the King's house, persuaded him to wait a year ere she was his.2 How Mongan regained her through his magic powers learned in the divine land has already been described. A prophecy about Mongan is put into Manannan's mouth in The Voyage of Bran, where he tells Bran how he will go to Fiachna's Queen, that by her he will have a son who will delight the folk of the sid, will make known secrets and take all forms — dragon, wolf, stag, salmon, seal — and how the god will place the valiant hero with princes and will be his tutor.

Apart from the Christian colouring in these tales, they are of pagan origin and reflect pagan ideas about semi-divine sons of gods and the help given by gods to men. The late Mr. Nutt maintained that the story of Mongan was one form of a Celtic myth which might be fitted to any real or imaginary hero — that of a wonder-child, born of a mortal mother and a supernatural father, gifted magically by him, associated with him in the divine land, and passing thence at death. He assumed that Mongan had finally gone there, basing this assumption on verses which mention Mongan's wandering with Manannan in "the land with living heart," and his coming thence to see St. Columba. Mongan was the hero of such a myth in Ulster; Fionn of another local myth, later popular all over Ireland; Arthur of a similar Brythonic myth.3

The myth of the help given by gods to mortals is seen again in the story of Cuchulainn, son of the god Lug, who assists him in time of need. Cuchulainn stood alone against Medb's hosts, because she invaded Ulster when its men were in their periodic sickness.4 He had slain hundreds of them and was now distorted with fury and in sore distress, when Loeg, his charioteer, announced that he saw a warrior approaching, fair, tall, with yellow hair, clad in a green mantle with a silver brooch. Shield, five-pointed spear, and javelin were in his hands. He plied these as he came, but "no one attacks him and he attacks no one," for he was invisible to Medb's warriors. Cuchulainn cried that this must be one of his friends of the side coming to his aid, and so it turned out, for the warrior was his father Lug from the sid. "My wounds are heavy," said Cuchulainn, "it is time they were healed." Lug bade him sleep for three days while he himself fought the hosts; and as he sang a charm, the hero slept. Lug not only battled for him, but as he had claimed the power of healing in the story of the battle of Mag-Tured, so now he cured his son's wounds with medicinal herbs; and when Cuchulainn awoke, he was refreshed and strong. The god, however, would not stay to help him further, lest the fame of the deeds wrought by both should accrue to Cuchulainn; and the hero now donned a dress of invisibility given him by Manannan, a precious garment of the Land of Promise. Manannan is also called his foster-father in Druidism or wizardry,5 and Cuchulainn's "friends of the side" may be compared with the leannan sighe, fairies who befriend mortals when human powers fail them.6 His opponent, Ferdia, reproached him for not telling him how his friends of the side came to his aid when he thought of them, but Cuchulainn replied that since the Feth fiada was shown to all by the sons of Mile, the Tuatha De Danann could not use invisibility or work magic.7 This passage, however, from the Stowe manuscript of the Tain Bo Cualnge is, in its final statement, inconsistent with the incidents of the other manuscripts.

Other heroes were helped by Manannan. In The Tragic Death of the Sons of Usnech (Longes mac nUsnig) Naisi has a sword given to him by the god, its virtue being that it leaves no trace of stroke or blow behind it;8 and some of his weapons were possessed by the Feinn. Diarmaid had his crann buidhe — a yellow-shafted spear — but its properties were less powerful than another magic spear with a red shaft, the gai dearg. It could do nothing against the boar which slew Diarmaid, and he lamented that he had not taken with him the gai dearg, as Grainne advised. With the shafts of these spears he twice leaped beyond the ring of his surrounding enemies and escaped them, and he also used "Manannan's magic staves" on another occasion to leap up a precipice. Besides these he possessed the moralltach, the sword of Manannan or of Oengus.9

Of Diarmaid it is said that "with most potent Manannan mac Ler thou studiedst and wast brought up in the Land of Promise and in the bay-indented coasts; with Oengus too, the Dagda's son, thou wast most accurately taught."10 Oengus freely helped Diarmaid when he and Grainne were pursued by Fionn. Oengus learned that they were surrounded in a wood, and passing through the foe, unknown to the Feinn, he bade the eloping pair come under his mantle, when he would remove them without their pursuer's knowledge. Diarmaid refused to go, but asked the god to take Grainne, which Oengus did, reaching a distant wood unseen. There Diarmaid came to them and found a fire and a meal prepared by Oengus, who ere he left them warned Diarmaid of the places into which he must not go. When Diarmaid and Grainne took refuge in the quicken-tree of Dubhros, Oengus came invisibly as before, but now as each warrior in succession climbed the tree to take Diarmaid's head, he gave them the hero's form as he threw them down. When the Feinn cut the heads off, however, their true form was restored, and the ruse was discovered. Oengus would fain have carried both away, but again had to be satisfied with taking Grainne, bearing her invisibly in his magic cloak to the Brug na Boinne, where Diarmaid joined them, carrying the head of the witch whom Fionn had sent against him. Oengus now made peace between Diarmaid and Fionn, arranging the conditions which his foster-son demanded. Finally, when Diarmaid's death was caused by Fionn's craft, the latter advised that he and the others should escape lest Oengus and the Tuatha De Danann should capture them. Oengus, aware of the tragedy, arrived with the swiftness of the wind, and seeing the body, cried: "There has never been one night, sincc I took thee with me to the Brug na Boinne, at the age of nine months, that I did not watch thee and carefully keep thee against thy foes, until last night, O Diarmaid; and alas for the treachery that Fionn hath done thee, for all that thou wast at peace with him." Then he sang a lament, and bearing the body to his Brug, he said, " Since I cannot restore him to life, I will send a soul into him, so that he may talk to me each day." 11 Oengus has less power than savage medicinemen or gods in myth, who bring the dead back to life, or than Demeter, who gave life to Dionysos after he was dismembered by the Titans. But the story is an almost unparalleled example of a god's love for a mortal. Fionn himself bears witness to the love which Oengus had for Diarmaid as a child in his Brug, and how when spells were put upon a boar that it should have the same length of life as he, the god conjured him never to hunt a boar.12

Another interesting instance is found in the story of F]raoch, whose mother was a goddess. When he killed a dragon, women of the std came and carried him there, curing him of his wounds; and so, too, when he was slain at a ford by Cuchulainn, those divine women, clad in green, came and lamented over him and carried his body into the std. Fraoch should not have gone near water, for this was dangerous for him, and his mother's sister, the goddess Boann, had said, "Let him not swim Black Water, for in it he will shed his blood." 13 In another story the goddess Morrigan helped Tulchainde, Conaire's Druid, who wished Dil, daughter of Lugmannair, to elope with him from the Isle of Falga — the Isle of Man regarded as the divine land. Dil loved an ox born at the same time as herself and insisted that Tulchainde should take it with her; and the Morrigan was friendly to him and at his wish brought it to Mag mBreg.14 The Morrigan was both hostile and friendly to Cuchulainn, thus resembling that supernatural but ambiguous personage, the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian tradition, now helping, now opposing.

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