Paganism And Christianity

PART from the occasional Christianizing of myths or

_ the interpolation of Christian passages in order to make the legends less objectionable, the Irish scribes frequently created new situations or invented tales in which mythical personages were brought into contact with saints and missionaries, as many examples have shown. In doing this they not only accepted the pagan stories or utilized their conceptions, but sometimes almost contrasted Christianity unfavorably with the older religion.

The idea of the immortality or rebirth of the gods survived with the tales in which it was embodied and was sometimes utilized for a definite purpose. The fable of the coming of Cessair, Noah's granddaughter, to Ireland before the flood was the invention of a Christian writer and contradicted those passages which said that no one had ever been in Ireland previous to the deluge. All her company perished save Finntain, and he was said to have survived until the sixth century of our era.1 The reason for imagining such a long-lived personage is obvious; in no other way could Cessair's coming, or that of Partholan and of the other folk who reached Ireland, have been known. Poems were ascribed to Finntain in which he recounted the events seen in his long life until at last he accepted the new faith.2

Even at this early period, however, there was a story of another long-lived personage with incidents derived from pagan myths. Long life, excessive as Finntain's was, might have been suggested from Genesis, but the successive trans-

formations of Tuan MacCairill could have their origin only in myth; and the wonder is that such a doctrine was accepted by Christian scribes. Tuan was Partholan's nephew and through centuries was the sole survivor of his race, which was tragically swept away by pestilence in one week for the sins of Partholan. Obtaining entrance to the fortress of a great warrior by the curious but infallible process of "fasting against" him, St. Finnen was told by his involuntary host that he was Tuan MacCairill and that he had been a witness of all events in Ireland since the days of Partholan. When he was old and decrepit, he found on awaking one morning that he had become a stag, full of youth and vigour; this was in the time of Nemed, and he described the coming of the Nemedians. He himself, as a stag, had been followed by innumerable stags which recognized him as their chief; but again he became old, and now after a night's sleep he awoke as a boar in youthful strength and became King of the boars. Similarly he became a vulture, then a salmon, in which form he was caught by fishers and taken to the house of King Caraill, whose wife ate him, so that from her he was reborn as a child. While in her womb he heard the conversations which went on, and knowing what was happening, he was a prophet when he grew up, and in St. Patrick's time was baptized, although he had professed knowledge of God while yet paganism alone existed in Ireland.3

The mythical données of this story are sufficiently obvious. Metamorphosis and rebirth have frequently been found in the myths already cited, and these were used by the inventors of Tuan MacCairill, the closest parallels to him being the two Swineherds and Gwion.4

The conversion of pagan heroes or euhemerized divinities to Christianity is sometimes related. When Oengus took Elcmar's sid* the latter's steward continued in his office; and his wife became the mother of a daughter Ethne, afterward attendant to Manannan's daughter Curcog, who was born at the same time as she. Ethne was found to be eating none of the divine pigs nor drinking Goibniu's beer, yet she remained in health; a grave insult had been offered to her by a god, and now she could not eat, but an angel sent from God kept her alive. Meanwhile Oengus and Manannan brought cows from India, and as their milk had none of the demoniac nature of the gods' immortal food, Ethne drank it and was nourished for fifteen hundred years until St. Patrick came to Ireland. One day she went bathing with Curcog and her companions, but she returned no more to the sid with them, for through the power of Christianity in the land she had laid aside with her garments the charm of invisibility, the Feth Fiada. She could now be seen by men and could no longer perceive her divine companions or the road to the invisible sid. Wandering in search of them, she found a monk seated by a church and to him she narrated her story, whereupon he took her to St. Patrick, who baptized her. One day, as she sat by the door of the church, she heard the cries of the invisible /{¿-folk searching for her and bewailing her; she fainted and now fell into a decline, dying with her head on the Saint's breast.6 In this tale the general Christian attitude to the gods obtrudes itself — although the conception of their immortality and invisibility is accepted, they are demons or attended by these; Ethne had a demon guardian who left her when the angel arrived and as a result of her chastity. Not unlike this story is that of Liban, daughter of Eochaid, whose family were drowned by the bursting of a well. Liban and her lap-dog were preserved for a year in the water, but then she was changed into a salmon, save her head, and her dog into an otter. After three hundred years she was caught by her own wish and was baptized by St. Comgall, dying thereafter.7

In the Cuchulainn saga Conchobar was born at the hour of Christ's Nativity, and Cathbad sang beforehand a prophecy of the two births, telling also how Conchobar would "find his death in avenging the suffering God," though the hero did not



The hammer-god, also shown on Plate XIII, here has five small mallets projecting from his great hammer. Found at Vienne, France.

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pass away until he had believed in God, before the faith had yet rcachcd Erin. He is said to have been the first pagan who went thence to heaven, though not till after his soul had journeyed to hell, whence it was carried with other souls by Christ at the Harrowing of Hades, he having died just after the Crucifixion.8 Cuchulainn was a pagan to the last, but coincidentally with his passing thrice fifty queens who loved him saw his soul floating in his spirit-chariot over Emairi Macha, singing a song of Christ's coming, the arrival of Patrick and the shaven monks, and the Day of Doom.5 Loegairc, King of Erin, refused to accept the faith unless Patrick called up Cuchulainn in all his dignity, and next day Loegaire told how, after a piercing wind from hell preceding the hero's corning, while the air was full of birds — the sods thrown up by Cuchulainn's chariot-horses — he had appeared as of old. lie was in bodily form, more than a phantom, agreeably to the Celtic conception of immortality; and he was clad as a warrior, while his chariot was driven by Loeg and drawn by his famous steeds. Loegaire now desired that Cuchulainn should return and converse longer with him, whereupon he again appeared, performing in mid-air his supernatural feats and telling of his deeds. lie besought Patrick to bring him with his faithful ones to Paradise and advised Loegairc to accept the faith. The king now asked Cuchulainn to tell of his adventures, and he did so, finishing by describing the pain3 of hell, still urging Loegaire to become a Christian, and again begging the saint to bring him and his to Paradise. Then heaven was declared for Cuchulainn, and Loegaire believed.10

Some of the Feinn stories also show this kindly attitude toward the old paganism, especially The Colloquy with the Ancients, which dates from the thirteenth century.11 When Oisin had gone to the sid, Caoilte with eighteen others survived long enough to meet St. Patrick and his clerics. These were astonished at "the tall men with their huge wolf-dogs," but the saint sprinkled holy water upon them and dispersed into the hills the legions of demons who floated above them. At Patrick's desire Caoilte showed him a spring and told him stories of the Feinn, the saint interjecting the words, "Success and benediction, Caoilte, this is to me a lightening of spirit and mind," although he feared that it might be a destruction of devotion and prayer. During the night, however, his guardian angels bade him write down all the stories which Caoilte told; and next morning Caoilte and his friends were baptized. The hero gave Patrick a mass of gold — Fionn's last gift to him — as a fee for the rite and "for my soul's and my commander's soul's weal"; and the saint promised him eternal happiness and the benefit of his prayers.12 The Colloquy describes journeys taken by Patrick and his followers with the Feinn, while Caoilte tells stories of occurrences at various spots. He also relates how Fionn, through his thumb of knowledge, understood the truth about God, asserted his belief in Him, and foretold the coming of Christian missionaries to Ireland and the celebration of Mass there, adding that for this God would not suffer him to fall into eternal woe. The Feinn likewise understood of God's existence and of His rule over all because of certain dire events which befell many revellers in one night,13 a parallel to this being found in The Children of Ler, where, through their sorrows, these children are led to believe in God and in the solace which would come from Him; so that in the sequel they received baptism after they had resumed human form.14

Akin to these meetings of saint and heroes is one which is referred to in some verses from a fourteenth century manuscript and which concerns St. Columba and Mongan, either the pagan king of that name or his mythic prototype. Like Ma-nannan, whose son he was, he was associated with Elysium — "the Land with Living Heart"—and from that "flockabounding Land of Promise" he came to converse with the saint. Another poem gives Mongan's greeting to Columba on that occasion, and nothing could exceed the gracious terms in which he praises him; while a third poem tells how Mongan went to Heaven under the protection of the saint — "his head — great the profit! under Columcille's cowl." 15

Not the least interesting aspect of the reverence with which Christian scribes and editors regarded old mythic heroes is found in the prophecies of Christianity put into their mouths. Some instances of this have been referred to, but a notable example occurs in The Voyage of Bran, where the goddess who visits Bran tells how "a great birth will come in after ages ": —

"The son of a woman whose mate will not be known, He will seize the rule of many thousands.

'Tis He that made the Heavens, Happy he that has a white heart, He will purify hosts under pure water, 'Tis He that will heal your sicknesses."

So, too, Manannan speaks of the Fall and prophesies how

"A noble salvation will come From the King who has created us, A white law will come over the seas, Besides being God, He will be man." 16

By such means, which recall the noble teaching of St. Clement and Origen, did Christian Celts make gods and heroes do homage to the new faith, while yet they recounted the mythic stories about them and preserved all "the tender grace of a day that is dead." Even more remarkable is one version of a story telling how the narrative of the Tain was recovered. It existed only in fragments until Fergus mac Roich, a hero of the Cuchulainn group, rose from his grave and recited it, appearing not only to the poets, but to saints of Erin who had met near his tomb, while no less a person than St. Ciaran wrote the story to his dictation. Among these saints were Columba, Brendan, and Caillin, and in company with Senchan and other poets they were fasting at the grave of Fergus so that he might appear, after which the tale was written down in Ciaran's book of cow-hide.17

The same charitable point of view is seen in the fact that the gods and heroes still have their own mystic world in the sid and are seldom placed in hell. Yet there are exceptions, for Cuchulainn came from hell, as we saw, but St. Patrick transferred him to heaven. Even in hell, however, he had still been the triumphant hero, and when the demons carried off his soul to "the red charcoal," he played his sword and his gai bolga on them, as Oscar did his flail,18 so that the devils suffered, even while they crushed him into the fire.19 Caoilte craved that his sister might be brought out of hell, and Patrick said that if this were good in God's sight, she and also his father, mother, and Fionn himself would be released.20 In other poems, however, the Feinn are and remain in hell, as has already been seen.

Thus, while the Church set its face against the old cults, so that only slight traces of these remain, or gave a Christian aspect to popular customs by connecting them with saints' days or sacred places, it was on the whole rather proud than otherwise of the heroes of the past and preserved their memory, together with much of the gracious aspect of the ancient gods. Exceptions to this exist and were bound to exist, e. g. in many Irish and Scots Ossianic ballads; and there was, too, a tendency to confuse Elysium with hell, more especially in Welsh legend, this being inevitable where myths of Elysium were still connected with a local cult. Gwyn was lord of Annwfn, which was located on Glastonbury Tor, or king of fairy-land, and here St. Collen was invited to meet him. Seeing a wonderful castle and a host of beautiful folk, he regarded them as devils, their splendid robes as flames of fire, their food as withered leaves; and when he threw holy water over them, everything vanished.21 Probably a cult of Gwyn existed on the hill. Gwyn was also thought to be a hunter of wicked souls, yet it is also said of him that God placed in him the force of the demons of Annwfn (here the equivalent of hell) in order to hinder them from destroying the people of this world.22

We owe much to the Christian scribes and poets of early mediaeval Ireland and Wales, who wrote down or re-edited the mythic tales, romantic legends, and poems of the pagan period, thus preserving them to us. These had still existed among the folk or were current in the literary class, and that they were saved from destruction is probably due to the fact that Ireland and Wales were never Romanized. Causes were at work in Gaul which killed the myths and tales so long transmitted in oral forms; and since they were never written down, they perished. Elsewhere these causes did not exist, or a type of Christianity flourished which was not altogether hostile to the stories of olden time, as when Irish paganism itself was described symbolically as desiring the dawn of a new day. The birds of Elysium were "the bird-flock of the Land of Promise," and in one story were brought into contact with St. Patrick, welcoming him, churning the water into milky whiteness, and calling, "O help of the Gaels, come, come, come, and come hither!"23

That is an exquisite fancy, more moving even than that which told how

"The lonely mountains o'er And the resounding shore, A voice of weeping heard and loud lament"

— the mournful cry, "Great Pan is dead," at the moment of Christ's Nativity. Celtic paganism, Goidelic and Brythonic, surely bestowed on Christianity much of its old glamour, for nowhere is the history of the Church more romantic than in those regions where Ninian and Columba and Kentigern and Patrick lived and laboured long ago.



professor of slavic literatures, bohemian university, prague with a chapter on baltic mythology by the editor

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