The Heroic Myths


THE annalists gave a historic aspect and a specific date and ancestry to Fionn and his men, the Feinn, but they exist and are immortal because they sprang from the heroic ideals of the folk; if they were once men, it was in a period of which no written record remains. Their main story possesses a framework and certain outstanding facts, but whatever far distant actuality the epos has is thickly overlaid with fancy, so that we are in a world of exaggerated action, of magic, whenever we approach any story dealing with the Feinn. The annalistic scheme added nothing to the epos; rather is it as if to the vague personalities of folk-tale had been given a date, names, and a line of long descent, which may delight prosaic minds, though it spoils the folk-tale for the imaginative.

Traces of the annalistic scheme occur in the chronological poem of Gilla Caemhain (ob. 1072) and in the Annals of Tighernach (ob. 1088), which regarded the Feinn as a hireling militia defending Ireland, consisting of seven legions or Fianna (also Feinn, literally "troops"), each of three thousand men with a commander. The Feinn of Leinster and Meath comprised those of our epos — the clanna Baoisgne, its later chiefs being Cumhal, Goll (of the clanna Morna), and Fionn. We are told of their arms, dress, and privileges, and of the conditions of admission to their ranks — some almost superhuman;1 and we learn that their exactions became so heavy that king and people rose against them and routed them at Cnucha, where Cumhal, father of Fionn, fell. Later his opponent Goll became head of the Feinn, and then Fionn himself; but as a result of their new pretensions the Feinn were finally destroyed at Gabhra.

Many Feinn stories are coloured by this scheme, which was applied to them at an early period; yet alongside the oldest references to it we find stories or allusions which show that the imaginative aspect was as strong then as it was later, and that at an early date there was much Fionn literature so well known that mere reference to its persons or incidents sufficed.2

A recent writer suggests that Fionn was originally a hero of the subject race of the Galioin in North Leinster,3 who are constantly associated with Firbolgs and Fir Domnann. These appear to be remnants of a pre-Celtic population in Ireland,4 and are usually despised for evil qualities, though they have strong magical powers, just as conquerors often consider aboriginal races to be superior magicians, if inferior human beings. These races furnished military service for the Celtic kings of their district down to the rise of the dominant "Milesian" monarchs in the fifth century; and of these Fianna, Fionn (whose name means "white" and has nothing to do with fianna or feinn), whether he really existed or not, was regarded as chief. Mac Firbis, a seventeenth century author, quotes an earlier writer who says that Fionn was of the sept of the Ui Tarsig, part of the tribe of the Galioin. Cumhal, his father, of the clanna Baoisgne, is represented in the Boyish Deeds of Fionn {Macgnimartha Finn)5 — a story copied from the tenth century Psalter of Cashel into a later manuscript — as striving at Cnucha with Uirgreann and the clanna Luagni, aided by the clanna Morna, both subject tribes, for the chief Fiannship (Fiannuigeacht). Only in later accounts of the battle is Conn, the High King (.Ardri), introduced, and though the annalistic conception colours the introduction to this otherwise mythical tale, it appears to be based on recollections of clan feuds, especially as Fionn himself was later slain by members of the clanna Uirgreann. With growing popularity, he became a Leinster Irish hero, fighting against other Irish tribes, mainly those of Ulster; but it was not until the middle Irish period that the Fionn story, which had now spread through a great part of Ireland among the Celtic folk, with many local developments, was adopted by the literary class of the dominant tribes, as at an earlier period they had taken over the Cuchulainn saga from the Ulstermen. They were rewriting Irish history in the light of contemporary events and of their own ambitions; and accordingly they transfigured and remoulded the legend of Fionn, which afforded them an ever-growing literary structure. The forced service of the Fianna became that of a highly developed militia under imaginary high kings, whence the rise of tales in which Fionn is brought into relation with these rulers — Conn, Cormac, Art, and Cairbre — in the second and third centuries. The Fianna became defenders of Ireland against foreign invasion; they battled with Norsemen; they even went outside Ireland and conquered European or Asiatic kings.

In origin Fionn was the ideal hero of a subject, non-Celtic race, as Cumhal had been, and they were located at Almha — the Hill of Allen. They tended, however, to become historic figures, associated primarily with the forced service of such a race, then with the later mythic national militia; but despite this, a mythic aspect was theirs from first to last, while the cycle of legends was constantly being augmented. To Oisin, son of Fionn, are ascribed many poems about the Feinn: hence he must have been regarded traditionally as the poet of the band, rather than his father, who studied the art and ate the salmon of knowledge. Few excelled in bravery Oisin's son, Oscar. Caoilte mac Ronan, Fionn's nephew, was famed for fleetness; at full speed he appeared as three persons and could overtake the swift March wind, though it could not outstrip him. Diarmaid ui Duibhne, who "never knew weariness of foot, nor shortness of breath, nor, whether in going out or in coming in, ever flagged," possessed a "beauty-spot" (ball-seirc); and no woman who saw it could resist "the lightsome countenance" of "yellow-haired Diarmaid of the women." Göll of clanna Morna, Fionn's enemy, and then his friend, but with whom a feud arose which ended in his death, was probably the ideal warrior, prodigiously strong, noble, and brave, of a separate saga. Conan Maol was also of clanna Morna, and his father aided in slaying Cumhal at Cnucha, for which Fionn afterward put an eric, or fine, upon him. Although of the Feinn, he was continually rejoicing at their misfortunes in foul-mouthed language; and this Celtic Ther-sites, "wrecker and great disturber of the Feinn," was constantly in trouble through his boldness and reckless bravery — "claw for claw, and devil take the shortest nails, as Conan said to the devil." In later accounts he appears rather as a comic character. MacLugach of the Terrible Hand is also prominent; so, too, is Fergus True-Lips, the wise seer, interpreter of dreams, and poet. Others come and go, but round these circles all the breathless interest of this heroic epos. Their occupations were fighting on a vast scale, the records of which, like those of the Cüchulainn saga, are often tiresome and ghastly; mighty huntings, watched from some hill-top by Fionn, and described with zest and not a little romantic beauty as the hunt wends by forests, glens, watercourses, or smiling valleys; lastly, love-making, for these warriors could woo tenderly and with compelling power. Their vast strength and size — one of their skulls held a man seated — tend to remove them from the puny race of mere human beings; yet though of divine descent, they were not immortal, so that Caoilte says of a goddess: "She is of the Tuatha De Danann, who are unfading and whose duration is perennial; I am of the sons of Milesius, that are perishable and fade away."6

While the Cüchulainn legend had a definite number of tales and, after a certain date, remained complete, the Fionn cycle received continual additions. New stories were written, new incidents invented or borrowed from existing folk-tale or saga, until comparatively recent times. Again, unlike the Cuchulainn saga, the Fionn cycle contains numerous poems; while the former has fewer folk-tale versions of its literary stories than the latter.

The interest of Fionn's ancestral line begins with Cumhal. The Boyish Deeds shows him engaging in a clan feud with the clanna Luagni, assisted by the clanna of which Morna was chief. Morna's son Aodh took a leading part in the battle and was prominent afterward under the name Goll ("One-Eyed "), because he lost an eye there; Cumhal fell at his stroke.7 A different account of the battle is given in the Leabhar na hUidhre. In this, Tadg, a Druid, succeeded to Almha, the castle of his father Nuada, who also was a Druid; and Tadg's daughter Muirne was sought in marriage by Cumhal, but refused, because Tadg foresaw that he would lose Almha through him. Cumhal then abducted her, whereupon Tadg complained to the High King, Conn, who ordered Cumhal to give her up or leave the country. He refused, however, and collecting an army, fought Conn's men, including Uirgreann, Morna, and Goll, the latter of whom slew him, whence there was feud between Cumhal's descendants and Goll.8

Although Tadg and Nuada are called Druids, Nuada is elsewhere one of the Tuatha De Danann, and he is probably the god Nuada who fought at Mag-Tured;9 while Tadg is also said to be from the sid of Almha, which is thus regarded both as a divine dwelling and as a fort. Hence Fionn is affiliated to the gods, and another tradition makes his mother's father Bracan, a warrior of the Tuatha De Danann.10 Cumhal has been identified with a god Camulos, known from inscriptions in Gaul and Scotland, whose name is also found in Camulodunum (? Colchester). As Camulos was equated with Alars, he was a warrior-god — a character in keeping with that of Cumhal, though if the latter was a non-Celtic hero, and if his name should be read Umall, the identification is excluded.11

Fionn, a posthumous child, was at first called Deimne. For safety's sake he was taken by Bodhmhall and the Liath Luchra and reared in the wilds, where, while still a child, he strangled a polecat and had other adventures.12 At ten years old he came to a fortress on the Liffey, where the boys were playing hurley, and beat them; and when they described him as "fair" to its owner, he said that his name should be Fionn ("Fair"), but that they must kill him if he returned. Nevertheless, next day he slew seven of them and a week later drowned nine more when they challenged him at swimming.13 While this incident resembles one in Cuchulainn's early career, in other, probably later, accounts, the match takes place in the presence of the High King, Conn, who called the boy "Fionn."14 In the Colloquy with the Ancients, however, another incident is found. Goll had been made chief of the Feinn after Cumhal's death; and when ten years old, Fionn came to Conn, announcing that he wished to be reconciled with him and to enter his service. Conn now offered his rightful heritage to him who would save Tara from being burnt by Aillen mac Midhna of the Tuatha De Danann, who yearly made every one sleep through his fairy music and then set fire to the fortress. Fionn did not succumb to the music, because of the magic power of a weapon given him by one of his father's comrades, and he also warded off with his mantle the flame from Aillen's mouth and succeeded in beheading him, so that he was given Goll's position, while Goll made friends with him rather than go into exile.15 In the account of Cumhal's death as given in the Leabhar na hUidhre, Conn advised Muirne to go to her sister Bodhmhall, at whose house Fionn was born. Later he challenged Tadg to single combat, or to fight him with many, or to pay a fine for Cumhal's death; and Tadg, appealing for a judgement, was forced to surrender Almha to Fionn. Peace was now made between Fionn and Goll.16

The story of Fionn's "thumb of knowledge" belongs in some versions to this period. To learn the art of poetry he went to Finneces, who for seven years sought to capture a salmon which would impart supernatural knowledge to him — the "salmon of knowledge"—and after he had caught it, he bade Fionn cook it, forbidding him to taste it. When Finneces inquired whether he had eaten any of it, Fionn replied, "No, but my thumb I burned, and I put it into my mouth after that"; whereupon Finneces gave him the name Fionn, since prophecy had announced that Fionn should eat the salmon. He ate it in fact, and ever after, on placing his thumb in his mouth, knowledge of things unknown came to him.17 This story, based on the universal idea that supernatural knowledge or acquaintance with the language of beasts comes from eating part of an animal, often a snake, is parallel to the story of Gwion's obtaining inspiration intended for Avagddu 18 and to that of the Norse Sigurd, who, roasting the heart of the dragon Fafnir, intended for the dwarf, burned his finger, placed it in his mouth, and so obtained supernatural wisdom. In German tales the animal is a Haselwurm, a snake found under a hazel, like the Celtic salmon which ate the nuts falling from the hazels of knowledge. As told of Fionn, the story is a folk-tale formula applied to him, but the conception ultimately rests upon the belief in beneficial results from the ritual eating of a sacred animal with knowledge superior to man's. Among American Indians, Maoris, Solomon Islanders, and others there are figured representations of a medicineman with a reptile whose tongue is attached to his own, and it is actually believed by the American Indians that the postulant magician catches a mysterious otter, takes its tongue, and hangs it round his neck in a bag, after which he understands the language of all creatures.19

When Fionn sought supernatural knowledge, he chewed his thumb or laid it on his tooth, to which it had given this clairvoyant gift; or, again, the knowledge is already in his

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