8. Origins: Pagan Tales in Christian Hands


by Francine Nicholson

Chapters 3 and 4 describe the origins of the Celts as revealed by archaeological, artistic and linguistic evidence, the environmental conditions they encountered, and the ways in which they used their environment in a respectful and sustainable manner. While it is important for us to understand what this evidence tells us about life in the Iron Age when Celtic culture first emerged, the Celts themselves were unaware of concepts such as climate change and the effects of forest clearance. They were, however, acutely aware of their own existence and of the environment in which they found themselves. Their stories had to do with how communities came to be, how landmarks came to exist, how tribes came to live in a certain place. Some of the lore, including ephemeral hints of origin stories, was recorded by Christian scribes who adapted the tales and made them acceptable to Christian standards. Keeping that fact in mind is crucial to understanding Celtic origin tales.

Recording the Tales

The scribes who recorded pre-Christian Celtic stories loved their native heritage, but they also cherished their Christianity. They, the Irish in particular, kept up a dialogue over the centuries as to what was acceptable in the native heritage and what should be discarded as paganus and unacceptable. As mentioned in the previous chapter, one version of the Táin Bó Cualgne has a blessing, in Old Irish, on those who memorised the story faithfully without modification. A later version, written by a scribe who was plainly not pleased with the task he had been assigned, has an adendum in Latin, no doubt using the language of Christian ritual to emphasize his point:

But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, others poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men.

These two colophons represent extremes of attitude but, over the centuries, the scribes ranged in opinion all along the spectrum. In the course of things, they toyed with different ideas, changed them, discarded some, tried others, and ultimately settled on a few. They depicted their saints conversing in a very civilized way with figures from the Otherworld about history and philosophy and salvation. Often the Otherworld figures-figures we can sometimes connect to earlier deities-agree to be baptized, lose their immortality, and die so that their souls may go to heaven. Similarly, the medieval Christian scribes "baptized" their heroes to make them acceptable.

Many monastic writings give clear indication that the monks often believed these immortal Otherworldly beings existed. They puzzled over how such beings fitted into their Christian cosmos, but most didn't deny their existence. Medieval Christianity was not modern Christianity with candles instead of electric lights. People thought differently in medieval times, they looked at the world around them differently, they reacted differently, often believed differently to their modern counterparts. They recited charms that invoked the Trinity and Dian Cecht in the same sentence. Attitudes changed and varied. The author of the Old Irish colophon from Táin Bó Cúalnge blessed those who preserved and passed on the story; the author of the Latin colophon said the whole thing was the ideas of demons. There wasn't a unified attitude that decreed everything from pagan days was evil; there were many attitudes and they kept changing with time and place. Early Christian belief and practice in Celtic-speaking lands was neither completely uniform nor was it unchanging.

It was in this shifting atmosphere that the lore was recorded, although not every myth was preserved. None of the words and actions associated with pre-Christian rituals was recorded. The only Celtic origin tales we have were written by Christian scribes who were anxious to create a new, blended, tradition that drew from both native and Christian sources but gave precedence to the Christian traditions. Thus, we need to be careful in using these origin tales to learn about the pre-Christian traditions.

Although the scribes were monastics, they grew up in local communities and were intimately familiar with the tales, genealogies, customs, placelore, laws, astronomy, and what today would be called magic. In those days, the lines between magic and miracles were not sharply drawn. The scribes didn't hesitate to adapt tradition or rework it to fit their new beliefs. Perhaps the biggest innovation, though, was that they abandoned their ancestors' methods of passing down tradition only by word of mouth. Literacy changes the way in which information is passed on. The interaction between storyteller-intonation, facial expression, gesture, different voices-is lost. The immediacy and exchange of interaction between teacher and student disappears when a book becomes the teacher. However, much lore that might otherwise have been lost was saved because the Celts of the medieval era became literate and chose to record so much.

The early Celtic Christians adopted literacy with enthusiasm. At first they recorded the business of the monasteries, deaths, important visits and alliances with other monasteries. Soon they began to record the lives of their founders and other figures meant to serve as inspirational models. Being voracious readers, the scribes of Ireland and Britain styled their writing on religious books written by European Christian scholars such as Orosius, a Spanish writer who had written an imaginative history of the Christianisation of Europe. Gradually, though, they began to record their lore. Although hagiographies and records of monastery business still predominated, political events, laws, charms for healing, and stories about secular heroes began to be recorded. A whole host of words, such as mac léigenn, literally, 'boy of reading' for 'student,' were contrived to describe the new roles and tasks.

Before examining the content of the tales, let us look at what origin tales are and what they are not. Most importantly, they should not be taken literally. Rather, as Ó Corráin says:

Origins, then, are not simply origins. In the world of early medieval Irish historiography, an origin is the demand the present makes upon the past, not knowledge of the past for its own sake-a much more recent historical pretence. To treat these texts literally as raw data reporting simple historical descent is to blinker oneself and, worse, to patronise as primitives the makers of the historical discourse.

In other words, origin tales do not tell us the facts of what actually happened. Rather, they tell us about the values of those who recorded the tales. Such stories may incorporate lore from the pre-Christian Celts who originated the tales but, if they do, it is within the context of much later, Christianized ideas and values. The task of distinguishing what is genuinely pre-Christian and what is not can be challenging.

Cosmic Origin Tales

When the monastic scribes of Ireland and Britain "rewrote" their history to incorporate Christian traditions, they were saying something very important. The new tradition was "true" for them, and literal accuracy when recording older traditions was of secondary importance. The scribes grafted their tradition onto that of a culture whose values they treasured at least as much and, in some ways, more than their own native ways. Consequently, if the ancient Celts had a common myth about the creation of this world and its people, the scribes chose not to preserve it. Such Celtic cosmic creation tales, if they once existed, have been lost to folklore too.

It is difficult to believe that the pre-Christian Celts did not speculate about the origin of the world and its inhabitants. We know that at least the learned classes spent time considering ways to describe and explain the world they observed. Greek and Roman writers relate repeatedly that one of the major functions of the Celtic religious leaders was to understand the nature and parts of the cosmos, how they came into being, and how they functioned. From this understanding came the rationale for ritual action and social structure. Therefore, it seems likely that the Celts must have had some stories about the origin of the world. If they did, the recorders chose to replace them with that recounted in the Bible, or they edited them to fit into the values and structures of Christian traditions. This notwithstanding, the scribes did preserve stories about how their society came into being and, thereby, traditions that tell us a great deal about what the medieval Celtic-speaking peoples thought about themselves and their ancestors.

Territorial Origin Tales

Like other ancient peoples, the surviving Celtic cultures have stories about how a people or kin-group originated or settled in an area. Some of these stories made their way into the works of classical historians. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing at the end of the first century BCE related a tale about how the Galatians (Celts from Gaul) came to settle in Anatolia. According to him, a very large, beautiful, strong Celtic woman of unidentified origin had declined the suits of her fellow Celts. However, when she met Herakles, whom Diodorus presents as a historical figure, she worked to attract his attention and a marriage was arranged. Their son, Galates, inherited Herakles' lands in the region of Anatolia and established a Celtic homeland there. In reality, however, a group of landless Gauls was hired as mercenaries by the rulers of Anatolia. With their families and herds, they settled and established the territory that became known as Galatia. If nothing else, this disparity between facts and Diodorus' story should give us a good idea of the caution to be used in evaluating evidence from classical writers.

Ammianus Marcellinus, quoting another Greek historian, Timagenes, wrote that the Gauls once told an origin tale about how they had settled in what became Gaul (modern France). Unlike Diodorus' tale of the Galatians, this tale seems to be factually credible:

The druids say that a part of the population was in fact autochthonous, but that others streamed in from remote islands and from the regions beyond the Rhine, driven from their homes by constant wars and the flooding of the tempestuous sea.

Among other origin stories that have survived are two tales about how Celtic peoples came to Ireland and Britain. These tales, too, describe successive settlements and floods, though the Christian scribes who recorded the stories have linked them into the stories of the Bible. For Ireland we have the Lebor Gabála Érenn and, for Britain, the earlier story, Nennius' Historia Brittonum. Written in the Christian era, these stories present native history grafted onto and thoroughly integrated with the stories in the Bible and accounts from continental writers such as Orosius. However, they may also build on earlier, native models.

Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum dates from the ninth century and was composed in Latin. It is attributed to Nennius, a British monk, and was probably composed at a time when the Celtic Britons had been pushed into the areas now known as Wales, southern Scotland, northern England, Cornwall, and Brittany. The author claims to draw his material

. . . partly from traditions of our ancestors, partly from writings and monuments of the ancient inhabitants of Britain, partly from the annals of the Romans, and the chronicles of the sacred fathers, Isidore, Hieronymus, Prosper, Eusebius, and from the histories of the Scots and Saxons, although our enemies.

One source, Nennius specifies, is a history of the ancient Britons edited by "Mark the anchorite and bishop." Elsewhere he says that he is telling "what the Irish scholars have related to me." Nennius also writes:

Many teachers and scribes have attempted to write this, but somehow or other have abandoned it from its difficulty, whether on account of frequent deaths, or the often recurring calamities of war.

Nennius begins history with Adam and then charts the history of Roman emperors alongside the Biblical eras from Adam to Jesus. According to Nennius, the Britons came from somewhere to the east, although he is unsure exactly where, and offers two possible origins. He first says that "the annals of Rome" give a history of the Britons with Greek and Roman roots, and thus he links the British both to Roman ruling families and to Aeneas. In the other version "from the ancient books of our ancestors," Nennius grafts the British onto the family of Noah through his son, Japheth. Then he describes how the Britons were defeated and ruled first by the Romans and later by the Saxons.

Nennius also relates how the Irish came to Ireland. He says that there were three invasions: one led by "Partholón," the second by "Nimeth," and the third by the sons of Miles Hispaniae, hundreds of years after Nennius' ancestors had settled in Britain. Only the third invasion was successful in peopling Ireland. He also provides an alternate tale, the one he claimed to have received from "Irish scholars," in which the people of Ireland were descended from a "Scythian noble" expelled from Egypt at the same time the Hebrews left and crossed the Red Sea. According to this account, Ireland was uninhabited at that time.

Considering what we know today about the linguistic and cultural connections between the Irish and British, it is notable that Nennius gives entirely different origins for the two groups. However, his accounts of the origins of the Irish do resemble parts of the principal surviving Irish origin tale, Lebor Gabála Érenn.

Lebor Gabála Érenn

John Carey dates the earliest recension of Lebor Gabála Érenn to the ninth century with the latest completed around 1050. The text describes six invasions into Ireland, some of which seem to correspond to Nennius' account. Each invading group plays a part in transforming Ireland from uninhabitable land to a place that could support people, crops, and domesticated animals.

The six invaders in Lebor Gabála Érenn are Cesair, granddaughter of Noah, the Partholonians, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg, the Túatha Dé Danann, and the sons of Mil of Spain. Living alongside all these peoples- apparently present before any of the invaders arrived-was another group, the Fomoire. As stated by Alwyn and Brinley Rees:

From a mythological point of view, nothing really exists until it has been formed, defined, and named, and in as much as Lebor Gabála Érenn is concerned with the origin of physical features, boundaries, and names, it retains some of the essentials of a cosmogonic myth.

Lebor Gabála Érenn also documents all the social aspects and functions that must be part of a successful community by ancient Celtic standards. Each invading group builds on the accomplishments and knowledge of its predecessors.

The first invasion, which does not appear in Nennius' account, is the only one led by women. According to the story, Cesair, a granddaughter of Noah, was denied a place on the Ark. So, before the flood, she sets off with her husband, father, and another man plus a large group of women to find a place safe from the impending Flood. After arriving in Ireland, the women divide into three groups, each corresponding to one of the three men, and attempt to populate the land. They do not try to transform the land for agriculture or establish the rule of law. Their focus is simply to procreate. Two of the men die and the third hides to avoid the exhausting sexual demands of the women, eventually transforming himself into a succession of animal shapes and surviving into the historical era as the mythological Fintan. In this episode, there was no confrontation with any existing inhabitants. When the Flood eventually arrived, the women had already died "of broken hearts." Whatever mark Cesair's company may have made on the land was obliterated by the Flood. The author seems to suggest that the settlement's failure was due, at least in part, to the lack of focus by the women on work such as clearing land, establishing social structures and government by law.

The next two groups seem to correspond to two of Nennius' three sets of invaders. Partholón leads a people who understand that the land must be worked to make agriculture possible, and they clear four plains. During Partholón's time, seven lakes erupt into the landscape, adding to the original three lakes and nine rivers of Ireland. However, these actions also stir up the anger of the Fomoire.

The Fomoire are not invaders. They are perhaps the most mysterious group of all those mentioned in Irish myth. In folklore, they are a race of sometimes monstrous beings very skilled at hostile magic, greedy to keep for themselves the largest part of the harvest, whether animals, crops, or newborn children. They are associated with water and thus with the Underworld. In one of the earliest versions of Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Fomoire are depicted as living by trapping birds and fish, rather than by farming the land. As Marie-Louise Sjoestedt commented, they are presented "as native powers constantly being driven back to the limits of the world controlled by the civilizing races, and always about to invade it and devour its produce." The Fomoire may retreat at times, but they "never lay down their arms. They are like the powers of Chaos, ever latent and hostile to cosmic order." Partholón holds them at bay but, after his death, a plague overwhelms his people and once more the Fomoire rule Ireland unopposed.

The next group to arrive are the Nemedians. They seem to correspond to the second group mentioned by Nennius. Said to originate in Scythia, the Nemedians lose all but one of their 34 ships on the way to Ireland. Nevertheless, they manage to defeat the Fomoire three times. During the lifetime of their leader Nemed, they clear twelve plains and construct several strongholds. Four more lakes erupt and the druids institute fire rites at the ritual center of Uisneach. The leader's name, Nemed, is the same term assigned to the upper classes of Irish society who bring the beginnings of Celtic-style social order to Ireland. The inhabitants are divided into nobles (the Nemedians), druids, and laborers (the Fomoire), but the model of "right" kingship is missing. Indeed, Nemed as king treats his laborers cruelly. Eventually, the Fomoire strike back, defeating the Nemedians and enslaving Nemed's descendants. When the Nemedians attempt a counter-rebellion, the Fomoire summon reinforcements from the sea to put down the rebels. Another flood follows. The few surviving Nemedians scatter to the winds, again leaving Ireland to the Fomoire.

A remnant of the Nemedians eventually returns to Ireland as the Fir Bolg. After an absence of several hundred years, they have learned how kings should rule and they live in peace with the Fomoire. The rule of one king, Eochaid, is particularly blessed with prosperity: "There was no rain, but only dew during that time; there was no year without mast." After the Fir Bolg, two sub-groups, the Gaileóin and Fir Domnann, assume the kingship before another set of foes arrives.

The Túatha Dé Danann, according to Lebor Gabála Érenn, were descended from the Nemedians but they had escaped and were "in the northern islands of the world, learning magic and knowledge and sorcery and cunning, until they were pre-eminent in the arts of the heathen sages." However, unlike the the other groups who arrived by sea, they come from the sky ". . . in dark clouds. They landed upon the mountains of Conmacne Rein in Connacht. They put a darkness upon the sun for three days and nights." They offer the Fir Bolg the choice of surrendering the kingship or battling for it. When the Fir Bolg choose battle, the Túatha Dé Danann handily defeat them. The Fir Bolg withdraw to the edges of Ireland and its islands.

The Túatha Dé Danann then have to deal with the Fomoire. When the king of the Túatha Dé Danann is physically disabled, they choose Bres, son of Elatha, a Fomoire nobleman, and Ériu, a Túatha Dé Danann, to be king. The Túatha Dé Danann soon learn to regret their choice for Bres shows none of the qualities expected in a Celtic king. For example, he is niggardly in sharing his wealth when poets and nobles visit. Also, he favors the Fomoire kin of his father over the welfare of the Túatha Dé Danann who chose him as king. When the Túatha Dé Danann engage the Fomoire in battle, they lose and become further enslaved. Later, under the leadership of their new battle leader, the half-Fomoire Lugh, they use their magical skills and superior battle knowledge to defeat the Fomoire in a battle for the harvest.

Lebor Gabála Érenn generally presents the Túatha Dé Danann as a race of "men of the flesh and blood of Adam" who had acquired extraordinary powers through long study. Today, however, scholars generally agree that the Túatha Dé Danann are an euhemerized version of the gods of the pre-Christian Irish. In other tales, and in folklore and placelore, the Túatha Dé Danann are closely identified with specific territories, landmarks, and tribes. However, in Lebor Gabála Érenn, they are defeated by the last group of invaders, the sons of Mil from Spain. The Túatha Dé Danann withdraw to the Otherworld.

In the last crucial invasion described in Lebor Gabála Érenn, the sons of Mil attempt to land in Ireland but are pushed back by the powers of three goddesses whose names are kennings for Ireland throughout the ages: Banba, Fotla, and Ériu. The leader of the invaders, Donn, refuses to deal with the goddesses. "We have our own gods," he sneers. But Amergen the poet understands that, unless peace is made with the land, no invasion will succeed. He promises the goddesses that their names will always be honored, and they bless the invasion. Donn's contempt earns him a curse and he is drowned in the sea before he can land in Ireland. Donn apparently did not realize that the power of the land can control the surrounding waves.

Amergen, law-keeper and lore-keeper, poet and ritual leader, knows better. He chants:

Fir torachta tuinide! Men, seeking a possession!

Dar nói tonna mara mun-glassa Over nine great green-shouldered waves,

Ni ragaid mani déib cumachtachaib Ye shall not go, unless with powerful gods!

Clandtar crib! Airlichter cath! Be it settled swiftly! Be battle permitted!

Lebor Gabála Érenn continues to attract a great deal of attention today, especially among neopagans who see it as a primary source of information about ancient Irish deities. However, such sources must be used with caution. They were written by Christian monks over five hundred years after Christianity became dominant in Ireland. While the monks were probably working from oft-told tales, they also were trying to reconcile often contradictory tales into a single tale, ignoring the local variations and traditions.

Political Origin Tales

Some tales represent an attempt to justify the present by giving it a past. Dozens of Irish tales relate how kin-groups or larger alliances came into being, and how ancestors received the kingship or acquired the sovereignty of specific territories. Often, the king is chosen by the deities or receives assistance from them to assume sovereignty. Other stories tell of similar achievements by the ancestor who founded the tribe, especially how he came to settle in that territory or take the kingship. Tribes are often named after such ancestors, although there also seems to have been a tradition whereby they were named for animals or trees. These stories look like authentic tales with all the earmarks of native tradition but most are much later tales that use old motifs to convey authenticity where none exists.

The story of Niall Noigiallach is a case in point. Though he is the youngest and least likely of his father's sons to succeed to kingship, Niall is granted the territorial goddess' approval when he sees her more clearly than his brothers. At first glance, the story looks like an authentic, old tale. In reality, the Uí Néill, a politically important tribe, needed a geneology to justify their rise to power, and they used the old motifs to create it. Scholars who have examined annals and other materials have found the inconsistencies and assembled the real history that underlies the Uí Néill version of taking the kingship. In fact, it was a long process of gradual take-over after much opposition. It is clear from this example that knowledge of history is essential to understanding the context and message of the myths and tales.

Classical Sources on Celtic Beliefs

At this point, we turn to the Continent to see what the sources there can tell us. They consist of comments from classical observers and inscriptions from archaeological finds, usually from the Romano-Celtic era. We need to keep in mind that the classical observers often misunderstood the people they were describing, or had agendas to push. Sometimes they depicted the Celtic tribes as threatening barbarians who needed Roman rule to make them civilized and productive. Occasionally the Celts were presented as quaint relics of a golden past, what is often called the "noble savage," someone to be admired at a distance, but certainly not someone a respectable Greek or Roman would want for a next-door neighbor.

Nevertheless, we learn some things from classical authors that appear to be confirmed by archaeological evidence. For example, Julius Caesar says, "The Gauls proclaim that they are all sprung from the same father, Dis, and they say this has been transmitted from the druids." Presumably 'Dis' is the ancestral and chthonic Roman god, Dis Pater. To equate the ancestral being with a god of the dead seems very much like the Irish tradition of Donn as both ancestor and lord of the island to which the Irish dead go.

Continental archaeological evidence suggests a pan-Celtic tradition in which each tribe had its patron deities, whether a male-female pair or a group of goddesses, or even a single deity. It is not clear where these deities came from, where they live, or how they are similar to or different from humans. The earliest evidence depicts figures in animal form or changing from one form to the other. Again, we find this tradition in Irish and Welsh myths.