Mythic Powers Of The Gods

AS in most mythologies,the Celtic deities have powers which reflect those supposed to be possessed by medicine-men, as well as others peculiar to themselves. These were the subject of myths taught by the Druids, who knew many things concerning the might of the immortal gods.1 The gods were undying, and their abode was that of "the ever-living ones," where none ever died. Caoiite describes the Tuatha De Danann to St. Patrick as beings "who are unfading, and whose duration is perennial" in contrast with himself or men;2 or they are "fairies or sprites with corporeal forms, endowed with immortality." Yet immortality is said to have been given them by Manannan through their drinking Goibniu's immortal beer, so that "no disease nor sickness ever attacks them," nor "decay nor old age comes upon them." 3 The daughter of Bodb Dearg was asked by St. Patrick what it was which maintained the gods in form and comeliness, and her answer was, "All such of us as partook of Goibniu's banquet, nor pain nor sickness troubles them." 4 Elsewhere this immortality seems to be dependent upon the eating of certain fragrant berries, of which it is said that "no disease attacks those who eat them, but they feel the exhilaration of wine and old mead; and were it at the age of a century, they would return again to be thirty years old." Once the Tuatha De Danann had played a match with the Feinn and brought from the Land of Promise crimson nuts, catkin apples, and these fragrant berries; but one of them fell to earth, and from it grew a quicken (rowan) tree, whose berries possessed these virtues. The gods sent one of their people to guard the tree — a savage, one-eyed giant, Searbhan Loch-lannach, who could not be slain until struck with three blows of his iron club; and around the tree he made a wilderness, sleeping in it by night, and watching at its foot by day. Fionn demanded as eric, or fine, from two warriors either the head of Diarmaid or a handful of these berries; but Diarmaid overcame them, and then asked the giant for the berries. Searbhan refused them, but by skill and strength the hero seized his club and slew him.5

Yet, even in their own immortal land, gods are slain. Perhaps this was not altogether the result of the annalistic view of the gods, for myth may have told of their death, as it did of gods elsewhere — Dionysus, Attis, Balder, Osiris. The anal-istic view did not hinder the continuance of myths, and divinities whose death is recorded in the Annals are found to be alive long after, while gods and goddesses born in pagan times appear thousands of years later to persons living in the Christian period. In spite of this perennial duration, they remained youthful and beautiful. Yet while the gods' land was pictured as a deathless, peaceful place, men still gave it certain of the traits of human life. War, wounds, and death were there, according to some stories; gods might even be slain by men; and as gods have human passions, so they may also have human weaknesses. Such is always the inconsistency of myth.

Invisibility was another divine power, innate, or acquired by donning a mantle, or from Manannan's spell, Feth Fiada, which was known also to Druids, poets, and Christian saints, who by it became unseen or took other forms. When the sons of Midir, assisted by the Feinn, fought against Bodb, Midir's son and

Caoilte went to the sid of Oengus for a physician to heal Oscar's wounds; and then "there arose a Feth Fiada around us, so that we were invisible." In one passage Dagda is invisible, and Midir said, "We behold and are not beheld." When Manannan came to fetch his consort Fand, none saw him but the goddess, and when Lug arrived to assist Cuchulainn, he was unseen by m—5

the hero's foes. Divinities sometimes hid in a magic mist, as the Tuatha De Danann did on arriving in Ireland; they could appear to such mortals as they pleased, remaining unseen by others. Gods were probably not regarded as spiritual beings. Like the dead in Celtic belief, they had resplendent corporeal forms and ate and drank; but their bodily form differed from men's in that it could become invisible and was not subject to the laws of gravitation. The gods travelled through the air or appeared above men's heads.

How, then, did they appear when visible? Sometimes in the magnificence of divinity, yet still in anthropomorphic form. Sometimes they were of vast size, like the Morrigan or the Welsh Bran, while a goddess who sought the aid of Fionn was enormous compared even with the gigantic Feinn. Sometimes they appear merely as mortals and are not recognized as gods. Instances of this are found in the story of Cuchulainn's birth, where Lug is seen, as a mortal host in a mysterious house, and in that of Merlin's father; invisible to all but his mother, and later taking human shape. Sometimes a disguise was assumed. Oengus and Midir appeared to Rib and Eochaid in the shape of hospitallers, with a haltered pack-horse, and bade them begone. Gods also took the appearance of particular mortals, as when Midir appeared to Etain as her lover Ailill, or Manannan as Fiachna to the latter's wife, or as when Pwyll and Arawn exchanged forms.6

Animal forms were also assumed. Of these one favourite shape was that of birds. Morrigan appeared to Cuchulainn as a bird; so also do Devorgilla and her handmaid, the former being in love with the hero. Llew took the form of an eagle; Bude and his foster-brother that of birds when the former wished to visit his paramour, whose husband Nar slew them. Midir and Etain, Fand and Liban were seen as birds linked together. The gods, or side, appear as deer in one story. Again, the idea of divine shape-shifting, expressed, however, in the well-known folk-tale formula of the "Transformation Com-

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PLATE VII

Three-Headed God

This triple-headed divinity (cf. p. 8) may possibly be another form of Cernunnos (see Plate XVI). For another representation see Plate XII, and for a three-headed deity of the Elbe Slavs cf. pp. 284-85 and see Plate XXXIV, 3. From a block of stone found at Paris, now in the Musee Carnavalet in that city.

bat," is combined with the Celtic idea of rebirth in Welsh and Irish tales; and the Welsh story, Hanes Taliesin, a sixteenth century tale, is based on earlier poems in which this formula is already prefixed to the rebirth incident. Shape-shifting is so commonly ascribed to Taliesin that it is no wonder that the formula was attached to his story, as it also was to the Greek myth of Proteus and the Hindu story of Vikramaditya: In the poem Taliesin describes his transformations and adds,

"I have been a grain discovered Which grew on a hill . . . A hen received me With ruddy claws and parting comb. I rested nine nights In her womb a child." 7

The Hanes Taliesin represents earlier myths about the hero and Cerridwen, the latter being a Brythonic goddess. Cerrid-wen, who dwelt below a lake, became hostile to Gwion Bach because he obtained the inspiration which she had intended for her son. The goddess pursued him, but he changed himself to a hare, and she took the form of a greyhound, after which the pair successively became fish and otter, bird and hawk, grain of wheat and hen. Cerridwen as a hen swallowed the grain, and gave birth to a beautiful child, whom she cast into the sea, but he was rescued by Elphin and obtained the name of Taliesin.8 In most versions of the Transformation Combat the opponents are males, and therefore one cannot give birth to the other; but by an ingenious device the compiler of the Irish myth of The Two Swine-Herds (Cophur in da muccida), an introductory story to the Tain Bo Cualnge, surmounted this difficulty. The swine-herds were subordinate divinities — Friuch, herd of the god Bodb, king of the sid of Munster, and Rucht, herd of Ochall Oichni, king of the sid of Connaught. They could take any shape, and there was friendship between them. When there was mast in Munster, Rucht fed his swine there; and Friuch brought his herd to Connaught in the same way.

People stirred up a quarrel between them, however, and Friuch put spells on Rucht's swine so that they should not eat the mast of Munster, while Rucht did the same to Friuch's pigs. When the swine became thin, the gods took their office from the herds, and Friuch and Rucht turned themselves into ravens and for a year reviled each other in Connaught and for a year in Munster. Resuming their own shape, they announced that there would yet be many corpscs and much wailing because of them. Now they took the form of water-beasts and were seen for a year in the Suir and.for another in the Shannon, devouring each other, and appearing as large as hills, until they came ashore as men, telling Ochall that they must still take other shapes to test their strength. They became champions, one of Bodb's host, the other of Fergna, King of the sid of Nento-fo-hiuscne, their term in this form ending with a fight which lasted three days and nights, and in which they gave such wounds that their lungs were visible. Next they became demons, a third of the people dying with fright at seeing them; while in another version transformations into stags and dragons are added. Finally they became worms, one in a spring in Connaught, the other in the river Cruind in Ulster. Queen Medb came one day to the spring to draw water, and the little animal, speckled with all colors, jumped into her dish. She spoke to it, and it told her that it had been in many shapes, and bade her take Ailill as her husband, after which it returned into the spring. That day Fiachna washed in the river Cruind and was frightened at seeing a tiny beast which told him of the luck about to befall him, and how it was Bodb's swine-herd. It besought Fiachna to feed it for a year, as the other had begged of Medb, and later it told him of a future combat with the other beast. Next day one of Fiachna's cows would swallow it when ^drinking, as one of Medb's kine would swallow the other; and as a result Medb's cow bore Findbennach ("White-Horn"), and Fiachna's the Donn or Brown Bull of Cualnge. No bull dared bellow before either, and great war was caused in Ireland on their account.9 The Dind'senchas speaks of seven shapes which the swine-herds took, but describes five only — swine-herds, birds, wolves, trout, and worms — and it also tells how a bull-calf of the Donn's was killed by White-Horn.10

A folk-tale analogy to this myth occurs in a West Irish collection. Two heroes at enmity fought until they were old men, then as puppies until they were old dogs, then as young bulls, as stallions, and as birds, until one was slain, his body falling on the other and killing him. The rebirth incident is lacking here.11

In the story which narrates how King Mongan recovered his wife from the King of Leinster his feats were originally those of a divine namesake. Taking the form of a cleric, he gave that of another cleric to his attendant and won entrance to the King's fort and to his wife. He kissed her, but when the attendant hag cried out, he sent a magic breath at her, and what s.he had seen was no longer clear in her mind, after which he shaped a sharp spike on which she fell and was killed. His attempt to recover his wife failed, however, and at a later time he took the guise of Aed, son of the King of Connaught, transforming a hag into the shape of Aed's beautiful wife, Ibhell. The King of Leinster fell in love with her.and exchanged Mon-gan's wife to the pretended Aed for her; but the pair escaped, and great was the King's disgust to find Ibhell in the form of a hag. Mongan also made a river with a bridge over it, where none had ever been before, and in it he set the two clerics whose shapes he had borrowed.12

The gods could likewise transform each other. Etain was changed by Fuamnach into an insect, as a preliminary to her rebirth, and we have seen how the children of Ler were transformed into swans by their jealous step-mother. Ler heard them singing, yet god though he was, he could not disenchant them, just as Manannan was unable to change Aoife from the shape of a crane into which the jealous Iuchra had turned her.13 The gods remained for three hundred years listening to the music of the swans, which caused happiness to all who heard it; and after many sufferings the birds met the sons of Bodb, who spoke to them of the divinities, while Fionnghula sang of her former happiness when she enjoyed the guileless teaching of Manannan, the convocations of Bodb, the voice of Oengus, and the sweetness of his kisses. We have seen how the children, after their disenchantment, died in the Christian faith. This old and touching myth has received a Christian ending: how it originally told the further fate of Ler's children is unknown.

The gods also transformed mortals. Morrigan brought a bull to a cow over which Odrus watched, and which followed the bull when Morrigan went into the cave of Cruachan. Odrus pursued through the cave to the sid within, but there she fell asleep, and the goddess awoke her, sang spells over her, and made of her a pool of water.14 This is partly paralleled by another story in which elves, or siabhra, transformed Aige into a fawn and sent her round Ireland. Later she was killed, and nothing remained of her but a bag of water which was thrown into a river, thenceforward named after her.15 A more curious transformation is that by which the god Oengus changed his four kisses into as many birds, in order that they might satirize the nobles of Erin, until a Druid by a stratagem stopped them.16 As has been seen, the kisses of Oengus were dear to Fionnghula. The souls of the righteous appear sometimes as white birds, and those of the wicked as ravens, in Christian documents — a conception which is probably of pagan origin.17

Finally, to show how the memory of the Tuatha De Danann and their powers survived into later centuries the story of O'DonneWs Kern may be cited. In this, Manannan appears as a kern, or serving-man, at the houses of historic personages of sixteenth century Ireland. He plays such music as never was heard, bewitching men to slumber; he is a marvellous conjuror, producing out of his bag hound, hare, dog-boy, and lady, who all climb a silken thread which he tosses upward to a cloud; he performs miracles of healing; he takes off a man's head and puts it on again; and from each place where he goes he suddenly disappears from human sight, none knowing whither he has vanished.18 Folk-memory thus preserved much of the old conception of the gods.

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