Myths Of Origins

SAVAGE and barbaric peoples possess many grotesque myths of the origin of various parts of nature. In recently existing Celtic folk-lore and in stories preserved mainly in the Dindsenchas conceptions not unlike these are found and doubtless were handed down from the pre-Christian period, whether Celtic or pre-Celtic, while in certain instances a saint takes the place of an older pagan personage. In Brittany and elsewhere in France natural features — rivers, lakes, hills, rocks — are associated in their origin with giants, fairies, witches, or the devil, just as in other Celtic regions and, indeed, in all parts of the world. Many traditions, however, connect them with the giant Gargantua, who was not a creation of Rabelais' brain, but was borrowed from popular belief. He may have been an old Celtic god or hero, popular and, therefore, easily surviving in folk-memory, and may also be the Gurgun-tius, son of Belinus, King of Britain, mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis. Many hills or isolated rocks or erratic boulders are described as his teeth, or as stones thrown, or vomited, or ejected by him; and rivers or lakes were formed from his blood or urine, numerous traditions regarding these being collected by Sebillot in his book on Gargantua.1

In Irish story similar traditions are found and are of a naive character. Manannan shed "three drops of grief" for his dead son, and these became three lochs, as in the Finnish Kalevala a mother's tears are changed into rivers. Again, a king's daughter died of shame when her lover saw her bathing, and her foster-mother's tears made Loch Gile. In other instances

lochs are formed by water pouring forth at the digging of a grave, e.g. that of Manannan, slain in battle, or that of Gar-man, son of Glas. Or a well is the source of a loch, because some one was drowned in it, or because its waters poured forth over intruders, or because of the breaking of a tabu connected with it, e.g. leaving its cover off. In two instances already cited the urine of a horse belonging to a god produced a loch;2 and more curious still is the myth of the woman Odras whom the Morrigan changed into a pool of water.3

An interesting story tells of the magic creation of a wood. Gaible, son of Nuada, stole a bundle of twigs which Ainge, daughter of Dagda, had gathered to make a tub, for Dagda had made one which dripped during flood-tide, and she wished for a better one. Gaible threw away the bundle, and it became a wood springing up in every direction.4 This is of a very primitive character and resembles the folk-tale incident of the Transformation Flight, in which a twig, comb, or reed thrown down by fugitives becomes a thick forest or bush impeding the pursuers.5 Curious, too, is the story of Codal, who on a hillock fed his fosterling Eriu, from whom is named Eriu's Island (Ireland). As she grew, the hillock increased with her, and had she not complained to Codal of the sun's heat and the cold wind, it would have grown until Ireland was filled with the mountain. Another story, recalling that of the Australian Bunjel's slicing earth with a knife into creeks and valleys, tells how Fergus, with Cuchulainn's sword, the calad-bolg out of the sid, sheared the tops of three mountains, which are now "Meath's three bare ones," while as a counter blow Cuchulainn did the same to three hills in Athlone.6 In another tale Fergus, irritated against Conchobar, struck three blows on the ground and thus caused three hills to arise which will endure for ever.7

The first occurrence of other things is often the subject of a tradition. Many myths exist about the origin of fire, and in Irish story the first camp-fire was made by Aidne for the Mile-

sians by wringing his hands together, when flashes as large as apples came from his knuckles, this resembling the legends of light or fire obtained from a saint's hand. At Nemnach, near the sid of Tara, rose a stream on which stood the first mill built in Ireland, but no myth describes its origin. On the other hand, the story of the first trap resembles that told of the guillotine and its inventor. Coba was trapper to Erem, son of Mile, and was the first to prepare a trap and pitfall in Erin, but having put his leg into it to test it, his shin-bone and arms were fractured, and he died. Brea, in the time of Partholan, was the first man to build a house or make a cauldron — that important vessel of Celtic myth and ritual;8 while the first smelting of gold was the work of Tigernmas, a mythic Irish king.9 The divine origin of ploughing with oxen has already been mentioned — an interesting agricultural myth.10 Brigit, goddess of poetry, when her son Ruadan died at Mag-Tured, bewailed him with the first "keening" heard in Ireland; and she also invented a whistle for night signalling.11 So also the first satire, with dire effects, was spoken by Corpre, poet of the gods.12 Another instrument, the harp, was discovered accidentally. All was discord in the time of the Firbolgs. Canola fled from her husband and by the shore heard a sweet murmur as the wind played through the sinews still clinging to a whale's skeleton. Listening, she fell asleep; and when her husband, finding her thus, learned that the sound had lulled her, he made a framework of wood for the sinews. On this he played, and the pair were reconciled.13 But the Irish could also look back to a golden age when, in the reign of Geide the Loud-Voiced, each one deemed the other's voice as sweet as strings of lutes would be, because of the greatness of the peace and friendship which every one had for the other;14 and, with the addition of plenty and prosperity, much the same is said of Conaire's reign, until Midir's vengeance overtook him.15 Prosperity was supposed to characterize every good king's reign in Ireland, perhaps pointing to earlier belief in his divinity and the dependence of fertility on him; but the result is precisely that which everywhere marked the golden age. As elsewhere, too, gods instituted festivals, one myth telling how Lug first celebrated that of Lugnasad, not in his own honour, but to the glory of his foster-mother.16

The mythic trees of Elysium were not unknown on earth, though there they were safely guarded; and another instance, besides those already described,17 is found in the oak of Mugna. "Berries to berries the Strong Upholder [a god?] put upon it. Three fruits upon it, viz. acorn, apple, and nut; and when the first fruit fell, another used to grow." Leaves were always on this useful tree, which stood until Ninine the poet cast it down.18 What is perhaps a debased myth of a world-tree like Yggdrasil is found in the story of the tree in Loch Guirr, seen once every seven years as the loch dried when its enchantment left it. A green cloth covered the tree, and a woman sat knitting under it; but once a man stole the cloth, whereupon the woman said: —

"Awake, thou silent tide; From the Dead Woman's Land a horseman rides, From my head the green cloth snatching."

At these words the waters pursued him and took half of his horse and the cloth from him.19

Few and fragmentary as these myths are, they, with the classical myths already cited,20 prove what a rich cosmogony the ancient Celts must have had.

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