Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Of what Badb had in mind when she uttered this prophecy we have no record. But it was true. The twilight of the Irish gods was at hand. A new race was coming across the sea to dispute the ownership of Ireland with the people of the goddess Danu. And these new-corners were not divinities like themselves, but men like ourselves, ancestors of the Gaels.

This story of the conquest of the gods by mortals--which seems such a strange one to us--is typically Celtic. The Gaelic mythology is the only one which has preserved it in any detail; but the doctrine would seem to have been common at one time to all the Celts. It was, however, of less shame to the gods than would otherwise have been; for men were of as divine descent as themselves. The dogma of the Celts was that men were descended from the god of death, and first came from the Land of the Dead to take possession of the present world. 1 Caesar tells us, in his too short account of the Gauls, that they believed themselves to be

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sprung from Dis Pater, the god of the underworld. 1 In the Gaelic mythology Dis Pater was called Bilé, a name which has for root the syllable bel, meaning "to die". The god Beli in British mythology was no doubt the same person, while the same idea is expressed by the same root in the name of Balor, the terrible Fomor whose glance was death. 2

The post-Christian Irish chroniclers, seeking to reconcile Christian teachings with the still vital pagan mythology by changing the gods into ancient kings and incorporating them into the annals of the country, with appropriate dates, also disposed of the genuine early doctrine by substituting Spain for Hades, and giving a highly-fanciful account of the origin and wanderings of their ancestors. To use a Hibernicism, appropriate in this connection, the first Irishman was a Scythian called Fenius Farsa. Deprived of his own throne, he had settled in Egypt, where his son Niul married a daughter of the reigning Pharaoh. Her name was Scôta, and she had a son called Goidel, whose great-grandson was named Eber Scot, the whole genealogy being probably invented to explain the origin of the three names by which the Gaels called themselves--Finn, Scot, and Goidel. Fenius and his family and clan were turned out of Egypt for refusing to join in the persecution of the children of Israel, and sojourned in Africa for forty-two years. Their wanderings took them to "the altars of the Philistines, by the

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[paragraph continues] Lake of Osiers"; then, passing between Rusicada and the hilly country of Syria, they travelled through Mauretania as far as the Pillars of Hercules; and thence landed in Spain, where they lived many years, greatly increasing and multiplying. The same route is given by the twelfth-century British historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, as that taken by Brutus and the Trojans when they came to colonize Britain. 1 Its only connection with any kind of fact is that it corresponds fairly well with what ethnologists consider must have been the westward line of migration taken, not, curiously enough, by the Aryan Celts, but by the pre-Aryan Iberians.

It is sufficient for us to find the first men in Spain, remembering that "Spain" stood for the Celtic Hades, or Elysium. In this country Bregon, the father of two sons, Bilé and Ith, had built a watch-tower, from which, one winter's evening, Ith saw, far off over the seas, a land he had never noticed before. "It is on winter evenings, when the air is pure, that man's eyesight reaches farthest", remarks the old tract called the "Book of Invasions", 2 gravely accounting for the fact that Ith saw Ireland from Spain.

Wishing to examine it nearer, he set sail with thrice thirty warriors, and landed without mishap at the mouth of the River Scêné. 3 The country seemed to him to be uninhabited, and he marched with his

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men towards the north. At last he reached Aileach, near the present town of Londonderry.

Here he found the three reigning kings of the people of the goddess Danu, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Greiné, the sons of Ogma, and grandsons of the Dagda. These had succeeded Nuada the Silver-handed, killed in the battle with the Fomors; and had met, after burying their predecessor in a tumulus called Grianan Aileach, which still stands on the base of the Inishowen Peninsula, between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle, to divide his kingdom among them. Unable to arrive at any partition satisfactory to all, they appealed to the newcomer to arbitrate.

The advice of Ith was moral rather than practical. "Act according to the laws of justice" was all that he would say to the claimants; and then he was indiscreet enough to burst into enthusiastic praises of Ireland for its temperate climate and its richness in fruit, honey, wheat, and fish. Such sentiments from a foreigner seemed to the Tuatha Dé Danann suggestive of a desire to take the country from them. They conspired together and treacherously killed Ith at a place since called "Ith's Plain". They, however, spared his followers, who returned to "Spain", taking their dead leader's body with them. The indignation there was great, and Milé, Bilé's son and Ith's nephew, determined to go to Ireland and get revenge.

Milé therefore sailed with his eight sons and their wives. Thirty-six chiefs, each with his shipful of warriors, accompanied him. By the magic arts

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of their druid, Amergin of the Fair Knee, they discovered the exact place at which Ith had landed before them, and put in to shore there. Two alone failed to reach it alive. The wife of Amergin died during the voyage, and Aranon, a son of Milé, on approaching the land, climbed to the top of the mast to obtain a better view, and, falling off, was drowned. The rest disembarked safely upon the first of May.

Amergin was the first to land. Planting his right foot on Irish soil, he burst into a poem preserved in both the Book of Lecan and the Book of Ballymote. 1 It is a good example of the pantheistic philosophy of the Celtic races, and a very close parallel to it is contained in an early Welsh poem, called the "Battle of the Trees", and attributed to the famous bard Taliesin. 2 "I am the wind that blows upon the sea," sang Amergin; "I am the ocean wave; I am the murmur of the surges; I am seven battalions; I am a strong bull; I am an eagle on a rock; I am a ray of the sun; I am the most beautiful of herbs; I am a courageous wild boar; I am a Salmon in the water; I am a lake upon a plain; I am a cunning artist; I am a gigantic, sword-wielding champion; I can shift my shape like a god. In what direction shall we go? Shall we hold our council in the valley or on the mountain-top? Where shall we make our home? What land is better than this island of the setting sun? Where

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shall we walk to and fro in peace and safety? Who can find you clear springs of water as I can? Who can tell you the age of the moon but I? Who can call the fish from the depths of the sea as I can? Who can cause them to come near the shore as I can? Who can change the shapes of the hills and headlands as I can? I am a bard who is called upon by seafarers to prophesy. Javelins shall be wielded to avenge our wrongs. I prophesy victory. I end my song by prophesying all other good things." 1

The Welsh bard Taliesin sings in the same strain as the druid Amergin his unity with, and therefore his power over, all nature, animate and inanimate. "I have been in many shapes", he says, "before I attained a congenial form. I have been a narrow blade of a sword; I have been a drop in the air; I have been a shining star; I have been a word in a book; I have been a book in the beginning; I have been a light in a lantern a year and a half; I have been a bridge for passing over threescore rivers; I have journeyed as an eagle; I have been a boat on the sea; I have been a director in battle; I have been a sword in the hand; I have been a shield in fight; I have been the string of a harp; I have been enchanted for a year in the foam of water. There is nothing in which I have not been." It is strange to find Gael and Briton combining to voice almost in the same words this doctrine of the mystical Celts, who, while still in a state of semi-barbarism,

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saw, with some of the greatest of ancient and modern philosophers, the One in the Many, and a single Essence in all the manifold forms of life.

The Milesians (for so, following the Irish annalists, it will be convenient to call the first Gaelic settlers in Ireland) began their march on Tara, which was the capital of the Tuatha Dé Danann, as it had been in earlier days the chief fortress of the Fir Bolgs, and would in later days be the dwelling of the high kings of Ireland. On their way they met with a goddess called Banba, the wife of Mac Cuill. She greeted Amergin. "If you have come to conquer Ireland," she said, "your cause is no just one." "Certainly it is to conquer it we have come," replied Amergin, without condescending to argue upon the abstract morality of the matter. "Then at least grant me one thing," she asked. "What is that?" replied Amergin. "That this island shall be called by my name." "It shall be," replied Amergin.

A little farther on, they met a second goddess, Fotla, the wife of Mac Cecht, who made the same request, and received the same answer from Amergin.

Last of all, at Uisnech, the centre of Ireland, they came upon the third of the queens, Eriu, the wife of Mac Greiné. "Welcome, warriors," she cried. "To you who have come from afar this island shall henceforth belong, and from the setting to the rising sun there is no better land. And your race will be the most perfect the world has ever seen." "These are fair words and a good prophecy,"

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said Amergin. "It will be no thanks to you," broke in Donn, Milé's eldest son. "Whatever success we have we shall owe to our own strength." "That which I prophesy has no concern with you," retorted the goddess, "and neither you nor your descendants will live to enjoy this island." Then, turning to Amergin, she, too, asked that Ireland might be called after her. "It shall be its principal name," Amergin promised.

And so it has happened. Of the three ancient names of Ireland--Banba, Fotla, and Eriu--the last, in its genitive form of "Erinn", is the one that has survived.

The invaders came to Tara, then called Drumcain, that is, the "Beautiful Hill". Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Greiné met them, with all the host of the Gaelic gods. As was usual, they held a parley. The people of the goddess Danu complained that they had been taken by surprise, and the Milesians admitted that to invade a country without having first warned its inhabitants was not strictly according to the courtesies of chivalrous warfare. The Tuatha Dé Danann proposed to the invaders that they should leave the island for three days, during which they themselves would decide whether to fight for their kingdom or to surrender it; but the Milesians did not care for this, for they knew that, as soon as they were out of the island, the Tuatha Dé Danann would oppose them with druidical enchantments, so that they would not be able to make a fresh landing. In the end, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Greiné

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offered to submit the matter to the arbitration of Amergin, the Milesians' own lawgiver, with the express stipulation that, if he gave an obviously partial judgment, he was to suffer death at their hands. Donn asked his druid if he were prepared to accept this very delicate duty. Amergin replied that he was, and at once delivered the first judgment pronounced by the Milesians in Ireland.

"The men whom we found dwelling in the land, to them is possession due by right.
It is therefore your duty to set out to sea over nine green waves;
And if you shall be able to effect a landing again in spite of them,
You are to engage them in battle, and I adjudge to you the land in which you found them living.
I adjudge to you the land wherein you found them dwelling, by the right of battle.
But although you may desire the land which these people possess, yet yours is the duty to show them justice. I forbid you from injustice to those you have found in the land, however you may desire to obtain it." 1
[paragraph continues] This judgment was considered fair by both parties. The Milesians retired to their ships, and waited at a distance of nine waves' length from the land until the signal was given to attack, while the Tuatha Dé Danann, drawn up upon the beach, were ready with their druidical spells to oppose them.

The signal was given, and the Milesians bent to their oars. But they had hardly started before they discovered that a strong wind was blowing straight

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towards them from the shore, so that they could make no progress. At first they thought it might be a natural breeze, but Donn smelt magic in it. He sent a man to climb the mast of his ship, and see if the wind blew as strong at that height as it did at the level of the sea. The man returned, reporting that the air was quite still "up aloft". Evidently it was a druidical wind. But Amergin soon coped with it. Lifting up his voice, he invoked the Land of Ireland itself, a power higher than the gods it sheltered.

"I invoke the land of Eriu!
The shining, shining sea!
The fertile, fertile hill!
The wooded vale!
The river abundant, abundant in water!
The fishful, fishful lake!"
[paragraph continues] In such strain runs the original incantation, one of those magic formulas whose power was held by ancient, and still is held by savage races to reside in their exact consecrated wording rather than in their meaning. To us it sounds nonsense, and so no doubt it did to those who put the old Irish mythical traditions into literary shape; for a later version expands and explains it as follows: 1

"I implore that we may regain the land of Erin,
We who have come over the lofty waves, p. 129
This land whose mountains are great and extensive,
Whose streams are clear and numerous,
Whose woods abound with various fruit,
Its rivers and waterfalls are large and beautiful,
Its lakes are broad and widely spread,
It abounds with fountains on elevated grounds!
May we gain power and dominion over its tribes!
May we have kings of our own ruling at Tara!
May Tara be the regal residence of our many succeeding kings!
May the Milesians be the conquerors of its people!
May our ships anchor in its harbours!
May they trade along the coast of Erin!
May Eremon be its first ruling monarch!
May the descendants of Ir and Eber be mighty kings!
I implore that we may regain the land of Erin,
I implore!"
The incantation proved effectual. The Land of Ireland was pleased to be propitious, and the druidical wind dropped down.

But success was not quite so easy as they had hoped. Manannán, son of the sea and lord of headlands, shook his magic mantle at them, and hurled a fresh tempest out over the deep. The galleys of the Milesians were tossed helplessly on the waves; many sank with their crews. Donn was among the lost, thus fulfilling Eriu's prophecy, and three other sons of Milé also perished. In the end, a broken remnant, after long beating about the coasts, came to shore at the mouth of the River Boyne. They landed; and Amergin, from the shore, invoked the aid of the sea as he had al-ready done that of the land.

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"Sea full of fish!
Fertile land!
Fish swarming up!
Fish there!
Under-wave bird!
Great fish!
Crab's hole!
Fish swarming up!
Sea full of fish!"
which, being interpreted like the preceding charm seems to have meant:

"May the fishes of the sea crowd in shoals to the land for our use!
May the waves of the sea drive forth to the shore abundance of fish!
May the salmon swim abundantly into our nets!
May all kinds of fish come plentifully to us from the sea!
May its flat-fishes also come in abundance!
This poem I compose at the sea-shore that fishes may swim in shoals to our coast."
[paragraph continues] Then, gathering their forces, they marched on the people of the goddess Danu.

Two battles were fought, the first in Glenn Faisi, a valley of the Slieve Mish Mountains, south of Tralee, and the second at Tailtiu, now called Telltown. In both, the gods were beaten. Their three kings were killed by the three surviving sons of Milé--Mac Cuill by Eber, Mac Cecht by Eremon, and Mac Greiné by the druid Amergin. Defeated and disheartened, they gave in, and, retiring beneath the earth, left the surface of the land to their conquerors.

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From this day begins the history of Ireland according to the annalists. Milé's eldest son, Donn, having perished, the kingdom fell by right to the second, Eremon. But Eber, the third son, backed by his followers, insisted upon a partition, and Ireland was divided into two equal parts. At the end of a year, however, war broke out between the brothers; Eber was killed in battle, and Eremon took the sole rule.


119:1 It may be noted that, according to Welsh legend, the ancestors of the Cymri came from Gwlâd yr Hâv, the "Land of Summer", i.e. the Celtic Other World.

120:1 De Bello Gallico, Book VI, chap. XVIII.

120:2 De Jubainville: Cycle Mythologique, chap. x. Rhys: Hibbert Lectures--"The Gaulish Pantheon".

121:1 Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Britonum, Book I, chap. II.

121:2 Contained in the Book of Leinster and other ancient manuscripts.

121:3 Now called the Kenmare River.

123:1 This poem and the three following ones, all attributed to Amergin, are said to be the oldest Irish literary records.

123:2 Book of Taliesin, poem VIII, in Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales, Vol. I, p. 276.

124:1 De Jubainville: Cycle Mythologique. See also the Transactions of the Ossianic Society, Vol. V.

127:1 Translated by Professor Owen Connellan in Vol. V of the Transactions of the Ossianic Society.

128:1 The original versions of this and the following charm are from De Jubainville: Cycle Mythologique Irlandais, the later from Professor Owen Connellan's translations in Vol. V of the Transactions of the Ossianic Society. "Some of these poems", explains the Professor, have been glossed by writers or commentators of the Middle Ages, without which it would be almost impossible now for any Irish scholar to interpret them; and it is proper to remark that the translation accompanying them is more in accordance with this gloss than with the original text."