THE RELIGION OF THE ANCIENT CELTS
THE IRISH MYTHOLOGICAL
Three divine and heroic cycles of myths are
known in Ireland, one telling of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the others of Cúchulainn
and of the Fians. They are distinct in character and contents, but the gods of
the first cycle often help the heroes of the other groups, as the gods of Greece
and India assisted the heroes of the epics. We shall see that some of the
personages of these cycles may have been known in Gaul; they are remembered in
Wales, but, in the Highlands, where stories of Cúchulainn and Fionn are still
told, the Tuatha Dé Danann are less known now than in 1567, when Bishop
Carsewell lamented the love of the Highlanders for "idle, turbulent, lying,
worldly stories concerning the Tuatha Dédanans."1
As the new Achæan religion in Greece and
the Vedic sacred books of India regarded the aboriginal gods and heroes as
demons and goblins, so did Christianity in Ireland sometimes speak of the older
gods there. On the other hand, it was mainly Christian scribes who changed the
old mythology into history, and made the gods and heroes kings. Doubtless myths
already existed, telling of the descent of rulers and people from divinities,
just as the Gauls spoke of their descent from Dispater, or as the Incas of Peru,
the Mikados of Japan, and the kings of Uganda considered themselves offspring of
the gods. This is a universal practice, and made it the more easy for Christian
chroniclers to transmute myth into history. In Ireland, as elsewhere, myth
doubtless told of monstrous races inhabiting the land in earlier days, of the
strife of the aborigines and incomers, and of their gods, though the aboriginal
gods may in some cases have been identified with Celtic gods, or worshipped in
their own persons. Many mythical elements may therefore be looked for in the
euhemerised chronicles of ancient Ireland. But the chroniclers themselves were
but the continuers of a process which must have been at work as soon as the
influence of Christianity began to be felt.2 Their passion, however,
was to show the descent of the Irish and the older peoples from the old Biblical
personages, a process dear to the modern Anglo-Israelite, some of whose
arguments are based on the wild romancing of the chroniclers.
Various stories were told of the first
peopling of Ireland. Banba, with two other daughters of Cain, arrived with fifty
women and three men, only to die of the plague. Three fishermen next discovered
Ireland, and "of the island of Banba of Fair Women with hardihood they took
possession." Having gone to fetch their wives, they perished in the deluge
at Tuath Inba.3 A more popular account was that of the coming of
Cessair, Noah's granddaughter, with her father, husband, a third man, Ladru,
"the first dead man of Erin," and fifty damsels. Her coming was the
result of the advice of a laimh-dhia, or "hand-god," but their
ship was wrecked, and all save her husband, Finntain, who survived for
centuries, perished in the flood.4 Cessair's ship was less
serviceable than her grandparent's! Followed the race of Partholan, "no
wiser one than the other," who increased on the land until plague swept
them away, with the exception of Tuan mac Caraill, who, after many
transformations, told the story of Ireland to S. Finnen centuries after.5
The survival of Finntain and Tuan, doubles of each other, was an invention of
the chroniclers, to explain the survival of the history of colonists who had all
perished. Keating, on the other hand, rejecting the sole survivor theory as
contradictory to Scripture, suggests that "aerial demons," followers
of the invaders, revealed all to the chroniclers, unless indeed they found it
engraved with "an iron pen and lead in the rocks."6
Two hundred years before Partholan's
coming, the Fomorians had arrived,7 and they and their chief Cichol
Gricenchos fought Partholan at Mag Itha, where they were defeated. Cichol was
footless, and some of his host had but one arm and one leg.8 They
were demons, according to the chroniclers, and descendants of the luckless Ham.
Nennius makes Partholan and his men the first Scots who came from Spain to
Ireland. The next arrivals were the people of Nemed who returned to Spain,
whence they came (Nennius), or died to a man (Tuan). They also were descendants
of the inevitable Noah, and their sojourn in Ireland was much disturbed by the
Fomorians who had recovered from their defeat, and finally overpowered the
Nemedians after the death of Nemed.9 From Tory Island the Fomorians
ruled Ireland, and forced the Nemedians to pay them annually on the eve of
Samhain (Nov. 1st) two-thirds of their corn and milk and of the children born
during the year. If the Fomorians are gods of darkness, or, preferably,
aboriginal deities, the tribute must be explained as a dim memory of sacrifice
offered at the beginning of winter when the powers of darkness and blight are in
the ascendant. The Fomorians had a tower of glass in Tory Island. This was one
day seen by the Milesians, to whom appeared on its battlements what seemed to be
men. A year after they attacked the tower and were overwhelmed in the sea.10
From the survivors of a previously wrecked vessel of their fleet are descended
the Irish. Another version makes the Nemedians the assailants. Thirty of them
survived their defeat, some of them going to Scotland or Man (the Britons), some
to Greece (to return as the Firbolgs), some to the north, where they learned
magic and returned as the Tuatha Dé Danann.11 The Firbolgs,
"men of bags," resenting their ignominious treatment by the Greeks,
escaped to Ireland. They included the Firbolgs proper, the Fir-Domnann, and the
Galioin.12 The Fomorians are called their gods, and this, with the
contemptuous epithets bestowed on them, may point to the fact that the Firbolgs
were the pre-Celtic folk of Ireland and the Fomorians their divinities, hostile
to the gods of the Celts or regarded as dark deities. The Firbolgs are vassals
of Ailill and Medb, and with the Fir Domnann and Galioin are hostile to Cúchulainn
and his men,13 just as Fomorians were to the Tuatha Dé Danann. The
strifes of races and of their gods are inextricably confused.
The Tuatha Dé Danann arrived from
heaven--an idea in keeping with their character as beneficent gods, but later
legend told how they came from the north. They reached Ireland on Beltane,
shrouded in a magic mist, and finally, after one or, in other accounts, two
battles, defeated the Firbolgs and Fomorians at Magtured. The older story of one
battle may be regarded as a euhemerised account of the seeming conflict of
nature powers.14 The first battle is described in a fifteenth to
sixteenth century MS.,15 and is referred to in a fifteenth century
account of the second battle, full of archaic reminiscences, and composed from
various earlier documents.16 The Firbolgs, defeated in the first
battle, join the Fomorians, after great losses. Meanwhile Nuada, leader of the
Tuatha Dé Danann, lost his hand, and as no king with a blemish could sit on the
throne, the crown was given to Bres, son of the Fomorian Elatha and his sister
Eri, a woman of the Tuatha Dé Danann. One day Eri espied a silver boat speeding
to her across the sea. From it stepped forth a magnificent hero, and without
delay the pair, like the lovers in Theocritus, "rejoiced in their
wedlock." The hero, Elatha, foretold the birth of Eri's son, so beautiful
that he would be a standard by which to try all beautiful things. He gave her
his ring, but she was to part with it only to one whose finger it should fit.
This was her child Bres, and by this token he was later, as an exile, recognised
by his father, and obtained his help against the Tuatha Dé Danann. Like other
wonderful children, Bres grew twice as quickly as any other child until he was
seven.17 Though Elatha and Eri are brother and sister, she is among
the Tuatha Dé Danann.18 There is the usual inconsistency of myth
here and in other accounts of Fomorian and Tuatha Dé Danann unions. The latter
had just landed, but already had united in marriage with the Fomorians. This
inconsistency escaped the chroniclers, but it points to the fact that both were
divine not human, and that, though in conflict, they united in marriage as
members of hostile tribes often do.
The second battle took place twenty-seven
years after the first, on Samhain. It was fought like the first on the plain of
Mag-tured, though later accounts made one battle take place at Mag-tured in
Mayo, the other at Mag-tured in Sligo.19 Inconsistently, the
conquering Tuatha Dé Danann in the interval, while Bres is their king, must pay
tribute imposed by the Fomorians. Obviously in older accounts this tribute must
have been imposed before the first battle and have been its cause. But why
should gods, like the Tuatha Dé Danann, ever have been in subjection? This
remains to be seen, but the answer probably lies in parallel myths of the
subjection or death of divinities like Ishtar, Adonis, Persephone, and Osiris.
Bres having exacted a tribute of the milk of all hornless dun cows, the cows of
Ireland were passed through fire and smeared with ashes--a myth based perhaps on
the Beltane fire ritual.20 The avaricious Bres was satirised, and
"nought but decay was on him from that hour"21 and when
Nuada, having recovered, claimed the throne, he went to collect an army of the
Fomorians, who assembled against the Tuatha Dé Danann. In the battle Indech
wounded Ogma, and Balor slew Nuada, but was mortally wounded by Lug. Thereupon
the Fomorians fled to their own region.
The Tuatha Dé Danann remained masters of
Ireland until the coming of the Milesians, so named from an eponymous Mile, son
of Bile. Ith, having been sent to reconnoitre, was slain, and the Milesians now
invaded Ireland in force. In spite of a mist raised by the Druids, they landed,
and, having met the three princes who slew Ith, demanded instant battle or
surrender of the land. The princes agreed to abide by the decision of the
Milesian poet Amairgen, who bade his friends re-embark and retire for the
distance of nine waves. If they could then effect a landing, Ireland was theirs.
A magic storm was raised, which wrecked many of their ships, but Amairgen
recited verses, fragments, perhaps, of some old ritual, and overcame the
dangers. After their defeat the survivors of the Tuatha Dé Danann retired into
the hills to become a fairy folk, and the Milesians (the Goidels or Scots)
became ancestors of the Irish.
Throughout the long story of the conquests
of Ireland there are many reduplications, the same incidents being often
ascribed to different personages.22 Different versions of similar
occurrences, based on older myths and traditions, may already have been in
existence, and ritual practices, dimly remembered, required explanation. In the
hands of the chroniclers, writing history with a purpose and combining their
information with little regard to consistency, all this was reduced to a more or
less connected narrative. At the hands of the prosaic chroniclers divinity
passed from the gods, though traces of it still linger.
"Ye are gods, and, behold, ye shall
die, and the waves be upon you at last.
From the annalistic point of view the
Fomorians are sea demons or pirates, their name being derived from muir,
"sea," while they are descended along with other monstrous beings from
them. Professor Rhŷs, while connecting the name with Welsh foawr,
"giant" (Gaelic famhair), derives the name from fo,
"under," and muir, and regards them as submarine beings.23
Dr. MacBain connected them with the fierce powers of the western sea
personified, like the Muireartach, a kind of sea hag, of a Fionn ballad.24
But this association of the Fomorians with the ocean may be the result of a late
folk-etymology, which wrongly derived their name from muir. The Celtic
experience of the Lochlanners or Norsemen, with whom the Fomorians are
associated,25 would aid the conception of them as sea-pirates of a
more or less demoniacal character. Dr. Stokes connects the second syllable mor
with mare in "nightmare," from moro, and regards them as
subterranean as well as submarine.26 But the more probable derivation
is that of Zimmer and D'Arbois, from fo and morio (mor,
"great "),27 which would thus agree with the tradition
which regarded them as giants. They were probably beneficent gods of the
aborigines, whom the Celtic conquerors regarded as generally evil, perhaps
equating them with the dark powers already known to them. They were still
remembered as gods, and are called "champions of the síd,"
like the Tuatha Dé Danann.28 Thus King Bres sought to save his life
by promising that the kine of Ireland would always be in milk, then that the men
of Ireland would reap every quarter, and finally by revealing the lucky days for
ploughing, sowing, and reaping.29 Only an autochthonous god could
know this, and the story is suggestive of the true nature of the Fomorians. The
hostile character attributed to them is seen from the fact that they destroyed
corn, milk, and fruit. But in Ireland, as elsewhere, this destructive power was
deprecated by begging them not to destroy "corn nor milk in Erin beyond
their fair tribute."30 Tribute was also paid to them on Samhain,
the time when the powers of blight feared by men are in the ascendant. Again,
the kingdom of Balor, their chief, is still described as the kingdom of cold.31
But when we remember that a similar "tribute" was paid to Cromm
Cruaich, a god of fertility, and that after the conquest of the Tuatha Dé
Danann they also were regarded as hostile to agriculture,32 we
realise that the Fomorians must have been aboriginal gods of fertility whom the
conquering Celts regarded as hostile to them and their gods. Similarly, in
folk-belief the beneficent corn-spirit has sometimes a sinister and destructive
aspect.33 Thus the stories of "tribute" would be distorted
reminiscences of the ritual of gods of the soil, differing little in character
from that of the similar Celtic divinities. What makes it certain that the
Fomorians were aboriginal gods is that they are found in Ireland before the
coming of the early colonist Partholan. They were the gods of the pre-Celtic
folk--Firbolgs, Fir Domnann, and Galioin34 --all of them in Ireland
before the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived, and all of them regarded as slaves, spoken
of with the utmost contempt. Another possibility, however, ought to be
considered. As the Celtic gods were local in character, and as groups of tribes
would frequently be hostile to other groups, the Fomorians may have been local
gods of a group at enmity with another group, worshipping the Tuatha Dé Danann.
In the darkness of time, in the deeps of the years, in the changes of
Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps, and the world shall forget you for
The strife of Fomorians and Tuatha Dé
Danann suggests the dualism of all nature religions. Demons or giants or
monsters strive with gods in Hindu, Greek, and Teutonic mythology, and in Persia
the primitive dualism of beneficent and hurtful powers of nature became an
ethical dualism--the eternal opposition of good and evil. The sun is vanquished
by cloud and storm, but shines forth again in vigour. Vegetation dies, but
undergoes a yearly renewal. So in myth the immortal gods are wounded and slain
in strife. But we must not push too far the analogy of the apparent strife of
the elements and the wars of the gods. The one suggested the other, especially
where the gods were elemental powers. But myth-making man easily developed the
suggestion; gods were like men and "could never get eneuch o' fechtin'."
The Celts knew of divine combats before their arrival in Ireland, and their own
hostile powers were easily assimilated to the hostile gods of the aborigines.
The principal Fomorians are described as
kings. Elatha was son of Nét, described by Cormac as "a battle god of the
heathen Gael," i.e. he is one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and has as
wives two war-goddesses, Badb and Nemaind.35 Thus he resembles the
Fomorian Tethra whose wife is a badb or "battle-crow," preying
on the slain.36 Elatha's name, connected with words meaning
"knowledge," suggests that he was an aboriginal culture-god.37
In the genealogies, Fomorians and Tuatha Dé Danann are inextricably mingled.
Bres's temporary position as king of the Tuatha Déa may reflect some myth of
the occasional supremacy of the powers of blight. Want and niggardliness
characterise his reign, and after his defeat a better state of things prevails.
Bres's consort was Brigit, and their son Ruadan, sent to spy on the Tuatha Dé
Danann, was slain. His mother's wailing for him was the first mourning wail ever
heard in Erin.38 Another god, Indech, was son of Déa Domnu, a
Fomorian goddess of the deep, i.e. of the underworld and probably also of
fertility, who may hold a position among the Fomorians similar to that of Danu
among the Tuatha Dé Danann. Indech was slain by Ogma, who himself died of
wounds received from his adversary.
Balor had a consort Cethlenn, whose venom
killed Dagda. His one eye had become evil by contact with the poisonous fumes of
a concoction which his father's Druids were preparing. The eyelid required four
men to raise it, when his evil eye destroyed all on whom its glance fell. In
this way Balor would have slain Lug at Mag-tured, but the god at once struck the
eye with a sling-stone and slew him.39 Balor, like the Greek Medusa,
is perhaps a personification of the evil eye, so much feared by the Celts.
Healthful influences and magical charms avert it; hence Lug, a beneficent god,
destroys Balor's maleficence.
Tethra, with Balor and Elatha, ruled over
Erin at the coming of the Tuatha Dé Danann. From a phrase used in the story of
Connla's visit to Elysium, "Thou art a hero of the men of Tethra," M.
D'Arbois assumes that Tethra was ruler of Elysium, which he makes one with the
land of the dead. The passage, however, bears a different interpretation, and
though a Fomorian, Tethra, a god of war, might be regarded as lord of all
warriors.40 Elysium was not the land of the dead, and when M.
D'Arbois equates Tethra with Kronos, who after his defeat became ruler of a land
of dead heroes, the analogy, like other analogies with Greek mythology, is
misleading. He also equates Bres, as temporary king of the Tuatha Dé Danann,
with Kronos, king of heaven in the age of gold. Kronos, again, slain by Zeus, is
parallel to Balor slain by his grandson Lug Tethra, Bres, and Balor are thus
separate fragments of one god equivalent to Kronos.41 Yet their
personalities are quite distinct. Each race works out its mythology for itself,
and, while parallels are inevitable, we should not allow these to override the
actual myths as they have come down to us.
Professor Rhŷs makes Bile, ancestor of
the Milesians who came from Spain, a Goidelic counterpart of the Gaulish
Dispater, lord of the dead, from whom the Gauls claimed descent. But Bile,
neither a Fomorian nor of the Tuatha Dé Danann, is an imaginary and shadowy
creation. Bile is next equated with a Brythonic Beli, assumed to be consort of
whose family are equivalent to the Tuatha Dé Danann.42 Beli was a
mythic king whose reign was a kind of golden age, and if he was father of Dôn's
children, which is doubtful, Bile would then be father of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
But he is ancestor of the Milesians, their opponents according to the annalists.
Beli is also equated with Elatha, and since Dôn, reputed consort of Beli, was
grandmother of Llew, equated with Irish Lug, grandson of Balor, Balor is
equivalent to Beli, whose name is regarded by Professor Rhŷs as related
etymologically to Balor's.43 Bile, Balor, and Elatha are thus
Goidelic equivalents of the shadowy Beli. But they also are quite distinct
personalities, nor are they ever hinted at as ancestral gods of the Celts, or
gods of a gloomy underworld. In Celtic belief the underworld was probably a
fertile region and a place of light, nor were its gods harmful and evil, as
On the whole, the Fomorians came to be
regarded as the powers of nature in its hostile aspect. They personified blight,
winter, darkness, and death, before which men trembled, yet were not wholly cast
down, since the immortal gods of growth and light, rulers of the bright
other-world, were on their side, and fought against their enemies. Year by year
the gods suffered deadly harm, but returned as conquerors to renew the struggle
once more. Myth spoke of this as having happened once for all, but it went on
continuously.44 Gods were immortal and only seemed to die. The strife
was represented in ritual, since men believe that they can aid the gods by
magic, rite, or prayer. Why, then, do hostile Fomorians and Tuatha Dé Danann
intermarry? This happens in all mythologies, and it probably reflects, in the
divine sphere, what takes place among men. Hostile peoples carry off each the
other's women, or they have periods of friendliness and consequent
intermarriage. Man makes his gods in his own image, and the problem is best
explained by facts like these, exaggerated no doubt by the Irish annalists.
The Tuatha Dé Danann, in spite of their euhemerisation, are more than human. In the north where they learned magic, they
dwelt in four cities, from each of which they brought a magical treasure--the
stone of Fal, which "roared under every king," Lug's unconquerable
spear, Nuada's irresistible sword, the Dagda's inexhaustible cauldron. But they
are more than wizards or Druids. They are re-born as mortals; they have a divine
world of their own, they interfere in and influence human affairs. The
euhemerists did not go far enough, and more than once their divinity is
practically acknowledged. When the Fian Caoilte and a woman of the Tuatha Dé
Danann appear before S. Patrick, he asks, "Why is she youthful and
beautiful, while you are old and wrinkled?" And Caoilte replies, "She
is of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who are unfading and whose duration is perennial. I
am of the sons of Milesius, that are perishable and fade away."45
After their conversion, the Celts, sons of Milesius, thought that the gods still existed in the hollow hills, their former
dwellings and sanctuaries, or in far-off islands, still caring for their former
worshippers. This tradition had its place with that which made them a race of
men conquered by the Milesians--the victory of Christianity over paganism and
its gods having been transmuted into a strife of races by the euhemerists. The
new faith, not the people, conquered the old gods. The Tuatha Dé Danann became
the Daoine-sidhe, a fairy folk, still occasionally called by their old
name, just as individual fairy kings or queens bear the names of the ancient
gods. The euhemerists gave the Fomorians a monstrous and demoniac character,
which they did not always give to the Tuatha Dé Danann; in this continuing the
old tradition that Fomorians were hostile and the Tuatha Dé Danann beneficent
The mythological cycle is not a complete
"body of divinity"; its apparent completeness results from the
chronological order of the annalists. Fragments of other myths are found in the Dindsenchas;
others exist as romantic tales, and we have no reason to believe that all the
old myths have been preserved. But enough remains to show the true nature of the
Tuatha Dé Danann--their supernatural character, their powers, their divine and
unfailing food and drink, their mysterious and beautiful abode. In their
contents, their personages, in the actions that are described in them, the
materials of the "mythological cycle," show how widely it differs from
the Cúchulainn and Fionn cycles.46 "The white radiance of
eternity" suffuses it; the heroic cycles, magical and romantic as they are,
belong far more to earth and time.
1. For some Highland references to the gods
in saga and Märchen, see Book of the Dean of Lismore, 10;
Campbell, WHT ii. 77. The sea-god Lir is probably the Liur of Ossianic
ballads (Campbell, LF 100, 125), and his son Manannan is perhaps
"the Son of the Sea" in a Gaelic song (Carmichael, CG ii. 122).
Manannan and his daughters are also known (Campbell, Witchcraft, 83).
2. The euhemerising process is first seen
in tenth century poems by Eochaid hua Flainn, but was largely the work of Flainn
Manistrech, ob. 1056. It is found fully fledged in the Book of
3. Keating, 105-106.
4. Keating, 107; LL 4b. Cf. RC
5. LL 5.
6. Keating, 111. Giraldus Cambrensis, Hist.
Irel. c. 2, makes Roanus survive and tell the tale of Partholan to S.
Patrick. He is the Caoilte mac Ronan of other tales, a survivor of the Fians,
who held many racy dialogues with the Saint. Keating abuses Giraldus for
equating Roanus with Finntain in his "lying history," and for calling
him Roanus instead of Ronanus, a mistake in which he, "the guide bull of
the herd," is followed by others.
7. Keating, 164.
8. LL 5a.
9. Keating, 121; LL 6a; RC
10. Nennius, Hist. Brit. 13.
11. LL 6, 8b.
12. LL 6b, 127a; IT
iii. 381; RC xvi. 81.
13. LL 9b, 11a.
14. See Cormac, s.v. "Nescoit,"
15. Harl. MSS. 2, 17, pp. 90-99. Cf.
fragment from Book of Invasions in LL 8.
16. Harl. MS. 5280, translated in RC
xii. 59 f.
17. RC xii. 60; D'Arbois, v. 405 f.
18. For Celtic brother-sister unions.
19. O'Donovan, Annals,
20. RC xv. 439.
21. RC xii. 71.
22. Professor Rhŷs thinks the
Partholan story is the aboriginal, the Nemedian the Celtic version of the same
event. Partholan, with initial p cannot be Goidelic (Scottish Review,
1890, "Myth. Treatment of Celtic Ethnology").
23. HL 591.
24. CM ix. 130; Campbell LF
25. RC xii. 75.
26. US 211.
27. D'Arbois, ii. 52; RC xii. 476.
28. RC xii. 73.
29. RC xii. 105.
30. RC xxii. 195.
31. Larminie, "Kian, son of Kontje."
32. LL 245b.
33. Mannhardt, Mythol. Forsch. 310
34. "Fir Domnann," "men of
Domna," a goddess (Rhŷs, HL 597), or a god (D'Arbois, ii. 130).
"Domna" is connected with Irish words meaning "deep" (Windisch,
IT i. 498; Stokes, US 153). Domna, or Domnu, may therefore have
been a goddess of the deep, not the sea so much as the underworld, and so
perhaps an Earth-mother from whom the Fir Domnann traced their descent.
35. Cormac, s.v. "Neith";
D'Arbois, v. 400; RC xii. 61.
36. LU 50. Tethra is glossed badb
(IT i. 820).
37. IT i. 521; Rhŷs, HL
38. RC xii. 95.
39. RC xii. 101.
40. See p. 374.
41. D'Arbois, ii. 198, 375.
42. HL 90-91.
43. HL 21-4, 319, 643. For Beli, see
p. 112, infra.
44. Whatever the signification of the
battle of Mag-tured may be, the place at which it was localised is crowded with
Neolithic megaliths, dolmens, etc. To later fancy these were the graves of
warriors slain in a great battle fought there, and that battle became the fight
between Fomorians and Tuatha Dé Dananns. Mag-tured may have been the scene of a
battle between their respective worshippers.
45. O'Grady, ii. 203.
46. It should be observed that, as in the
Vedas, the Odyssey, the Japanese Ko-ji-ki, as well as in barbaric and
savage mythologies, Märchen formulæ abound in the Irish mythological