The Heroic Myths


THE Celts possessed many myths regarding ideal heroic figures or actual heroes who tended to become mythical. A kind of saga was formed about some of these, telling of their birth, their deeds, their amours, their procuring for men spoils from the gods' land, and their death or departure to Elysium; while round them were ranged other personages whose deeds are also recounted, and who may have been the subjects of separate sagas. Groups of tribes had each their hero, who occasionally attained wider popularity and was adopted by other tribes. To these heroes are ascribed magic and supernatural deeds. Some of them are of divine origin — sons of gods or reincarnations of gods — and they differ in many respects from ordinary men — in size, or appearance, or in power. In a sense they are divine and may have been at one time subjects of a cult, but in the myths they are represented as living and moving on earth, and to some of them a definite date is given. The three heroes best known, each the centre of a group, are Cuchulainn, Fionn, and Arthur. The stories concerning Cuchulainn, who is more prominent than his King, Conchobar, were current among the tribes of Ulster; those about Fionn were popular first in Leinster and Munster, then over all Ireland and the West Highlands; those about Arthur were found among the Brythons.

Cuchulainn is the chief figure about the court of Conchobar, alleged to have been King of Ulster at the beginning of the Christian era. The heroes were "champions of the Red

Branch," so called after a room in Conchobar's palace of Emain Macha; and three are more prominent and on some occasions rivals — Cucimlainn, Conall the Victorious, and Loegaire the Triumphant. Others of the group are Dechtire, Conchobar's sister, their father Cathbad the l,lnuid, Fergus mac Roich, Ferdia, Curoi mac Daire, and Bricriu, while Ailill and Medb of Connaught also enter into the saga. The stories about these are over a hundred in number, but reference can here be made only to those in which Cuchulainn figures prominently.

Some of the group are descended from the Tuatha X)e -— Danann, or their origin is supernatural. One story makes Conchobar a natural son of Nessa by Cathbad. Later King Fergus mac Roich wished to marry her, and she agreed, if he would resign the throne for a year to Conchobar; but when the year passed, Fergus was deposed, and the youth remained King with many privileges. He had the jui^rimae-nociis over every_girl in the province, and in whatever house he stayed the wife was at .his disposal; yet he was wisest of men, possessed of many gifts, and a great.hero.1 In another story Nessa was sent for water by Cathbad and brought it from the river Conchobar, whereupon Cathbad forced her to drink it because it contained two worms. She became pregnant after swallowing these, and at birth her child held a worm in each hand and was named after the river. Some, however, regarded him as son of Nessa's lover, Fachtna Fathach, King of Ulster.2 Thus three origins are ascribed to Conchobar — son of Cathbad, or of Fachtna, or of a river personalized or of a river-god who took the form of the worms. A similar origin is ascribed to Conall. His mother Findchoem, Cathbad's daughter, being bidden by a Druid to wash in and drink from a well over which he sang spells, swallowed a worm and became enc£inte, the worm lying in the child's hand in her womb.3

Cufhiilainn was son of the god Lug,4 and though he was also called son of Sualtam, Dechtire's husband, yet even here

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