Double Trouble | Twins in Irish Mythology

 

 

There are lots of famous twins in world mythology, but in Ireland’s legends we hear more about the triple aspect of our ancient gods and goddesses. The Trí de Dana, for instance, also known as the Three Gods of Art, comprised Goibniu the Smith, Luchtaine the Carpenter and Credne the Goldsmith. The Morrígán was composed of the three sisters of war, life and death, Macha, Bodb and Nemain/ Anann.

There were also twins though. Early legend speaks of the eternal battle between the Holly King and his twin brother, the Oak King. This constant struggle signifies the wax and wane of the seasons; for one half of the year the Oak King is winning, and the world is dressed in summer green finery, the air warmed by the sun, the earth blessed with fruitfulness. But then the Holly King gains control of the battle, and the world slips into the dark half of the year as winter strips heat and light from the land, and life withers and dies.

It was often perceived that the birth of twins was a supernatural affair, which some cultures revered, and some punished. Twins were thought to be the result of two fathers, usually one divine and one mortal; this is called superfetatation (isn’t there always a posh long word for everything?). As such they often embodied polarised characteristics; one would be a child of light, the other of darkness, always battling for mastery of the other. Such siblings are known as Divine Twins.

Whilst the above example would corroborate this, in Irish lore, it wasn’t always the case.

Bran and Sceolán were twin hounds belonging to Irish mythological hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill. Unbeknown to Fionn, these two faithful companions were actually the offspring of his aunt, Tuireann. She had been kidnapped and transformed into a wolfhound by Uchtdealb, a woman of the Sidhe who was jealous of Iollan‘s love for her.

Uchtdealb gave the hound Tuireann, who was already pregnant by this time, to a chieftain who was notorious for his dislike of dogs. She hunted well for him and gained his admiration, and when her time came, she gave birth to twin pups.

Tuireann was eventually restored to her human form, but the pups, who had not been born human, were forced to live out their lives as hounds. The chieftain gave them to Fionn. Their human-like intelligence coupled with their animal instinct and prowess soon led them to became great hunters and fighters, and they were renowned and admired the length and breadth of the land.

The Curse of Macha is a tragic story. Macha, the daughter of Aodh Ruad, was forced to run a race against the King of Ulster’s chariot horses, even though she was heavily pregnant. She won the race, but went into labour and collapsed on the finish line, where she gave birth to twin sons, Fedach and Fomfor.

Most versions of the story claim that she died, and that with her dying breath, she cursed the men of Ulster so that they would all suffer with the pangs of labour, and thus be rendered unable to fight. This was to  have a dire effect later on in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, when the warriors were forced to wait several days for the pains to fade before they were fit to ride into battle.

It’s also quite amusing to me that a woman could run a race and win it whilst in labour, but that the men lay in their beds unable to accomplish anything.

Another version of the story I came across recently, however, claims that after giving birth and making her curse, Macha went on to rule as High Queen of Ireland for twenty five years of glory and prosperity. The place where she built her home is still known as Emain Macha, which means ‘twins of Macha’, although it also known by the more modern name of Navan Fort.

Most people know Macha as one of the triad sisters of the Morrígán. She was the wife of Danann king, Nuada Argetlamh, and is also thought to have links with horses. In any case, it is she who gave Irish hero Cúchulainn the gift of his famous chariot horses, the twins Liath Macha, which means ‘the grey of Macha’, and Dub Sainglend, meaning ‘black of Saingliu’. Cúchullain leapt onto their backs and rode them all around Ireland until they were finally tamed.

In Cúchulainn’s final battle, Liath Macha was injured by a spear thrown by Lugaid mac Con Roí. He returned to the pool of Linn Liaith in the mountains of Sliab Fuait, where Cúchulainn had originally found him, presumably for healing.

Dub Sainglend continued to pull the chariot alone, but Lugaid’s next spear hit Cúchulainn. Dub Sainglend didn’t stop, and Liath Macha returned to protect him, killing fifty of the enemy with his teeth and another thirty with each of his hooves.

Some schools of thought perceive Amergin and Donn of the Milesians as divine twins in some kind of pagan creation story. As a poet, Amergin is seen as the child of light and inspiration, while Donn, who died on board before the battle for Ireland had even commenced, is thought to be the self-sacrificing dark lord of the dead. As far as I know, there was no battle for dominance between them. And of course there is a wealth of lore about prior inhabitants of Eire, including the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danann, so I’m guessing the world had pretty much already been created.

Amergin’s surviving brothers, however, tell a different story. After their victory over the Tuatha de Danann, the land was divided between Eber and Eremon. Eremon took the north, and the younger brother, Eber took the south. They ruled their respective areas peaceably for a year, but Eber was not satisfied; he wanted it all. The two brothers fought a battle, and Eremon won, becoming High King over all of Ireland.

In Ireland today, the Tánaiste is the deputy prime minister. In ancient times, and into the C17th, actually, kings and chieftains were elected from the righdamhna, meaning ‘kingly material’. The táinaiste was chosen from the same group as assistant, or second in command following the kings death, until a new chieftain was chosen. He was selected for his talent and strength and other personal attributes, rather than lineage or prestige.

Cormac mac Airt, for example, had his eldest son as his Tánaiste, but when the young man was killed, another roydammna, Eochaid Gonnat was selected as his replacement.

It is thought that this tradition could have derived from the Celtic belief of the power of twins, and that this power could be accessed even when the twinning was symbolic.

Over here, children who are born within a year of each other are known as Irish twins. My sister and I were born twelve months and three weeks apart,  and we were always being mistaken for each other when we were younger.

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29 thoughts on “Double Trouble | Twins in Irish Mythology

  1. I honestly don’t know where to start to comment on that post, it was captivating from start to finish, the mythology is captivating in the story’s they depict, you certainly have done research, the comparisons of twins in Irish history was great reading, one believed to be mortal and the other divine.
    Thoroughly enjoyed that reading.

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  2. I’ve never met that many Twins in my life but of those I have met I was always intrigued by the way some of them would turn their heads, pick up the same piece of food, say the same thing, laugh, cry…at the same time. Some say that even when apart they know if something is wrong with the other twin. It’s a feeling (or message) they get which some of us who do not have a twin have also said they get (not many though).

    Great reading Ali, and I’m still trying to work out how a heavily pregnant woman could win a running race against two horses, but I guess it’s a little like the tortoise and the hare story?

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    1. Yeah its such a strange one! I cant work out what the actual message is of that story. Normally you can grasp skmething but this one is very confusing, at least to our modrn way of thinking. Ive heard the same thing about the connection between twins. Weird, isnt it? But also kind of nice…

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      1. Depends on the Twins. I met a really spooky pair (and still occasional do) who scare the living daylights out of me. Yes, me – the one who likes to scare you all with his short stories. I try and avoid them all I can but they’ll always come and sit next to me. I think they can sense the fear 🙂

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  3. Love this post, Ali. Proper fascinating. I also had a right giggle about Macha, I mean of course women can do anything, including running a race heavily pregnant! :p hehehehe. hmmm…. twins… conor…. ruary… hmmm…. must get back to your book…

    Mrs. Black and her sister are 3 days less than a year apart… and their mother is Irish!

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  4. Superfetation is a marvel of nature; medically, though rare, it creates twins conceived at different times within same uterus, either of same or different progenitors; in the cultural plane, superfetation of ideas happens in the minds of sages and savants, giving rise to mythologies teeming with fascinating characters, gods and goddesses in myriad forms, epitomising forces of good and evil. The Vedic scriptures speak of over 330 million gods and goddesses, in multifarious forms ranging from half human-half animal to those with several heads and hands. Twins in mythology signify the dualistic nature of the universe, like Holly and Oak kings, Yama and Yami, Apollo and Artemis, Kuat and Lae, Ahriman and Ahura Mazda, respectively in Irish, Indian, Greek, Xingu and Zoroastrian mythologies. Twins are often seen to represent two halves of the whole, and as partners in hunting expeditions and adventures. Enjoyed reading your article, Ali, into frontiers of Irish mythology…best wishes.. Raj.

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    1. Thank you, Raj! Well, I only touched on a tiny fraction of all this, and I am in no way an academic, I just enjoy the stories and want to share them. I don’t know how you contain so much information in your head, mine would burst! Although that would never happen, as I am extremely forgetful, so there is always room for new stories lol! Thank you for your fascinating comment, I’m sure I am going to learn a lot from you.

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  5. I’ve always thought the idea of twins odd; why would two children gestate together and then come out potentially so different? The only twins I’ve known have been very different, possibly deliberately so. I can quite understand why myth and ancient tales would set such store by them.

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  6. Robert Graves in his “Greek Myths” has a lot to say about the divine twins in Greek mythology. According to Graves, the King was sacrificed at the winter solstice and replaced by his twin so that spring would return, and Graves also uses the term “tanist.” Graves incorporates a lot of Celtic lore in his interpretations. Two famous sets of twins in Greek myth were Castor and Polydeuces and Idas and Lynceus, who were rivals of Castor and Polydeuces. Hercules (engendered by the Sky King) also has a twin, Iphicles, who is human on both sides. In my termite retellings of Greek myth, I make use of all three sets of twins. Ki’shto’ba and A’zhu’lo are Hercules and Iphicles while Ti’a’toig’a and Ti’a’gwol’a are Castor and Polydeuces. Idas and Lynceus don’t appear until the sequel volume, which I’m writing right now. And my Yo’sho’zei (the Ancient Ones, stand-ins for the Centaurs) have a saying, “The Twin is always reborn in the other.”

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  7. Fascinating as always Ali, You never fail to portray these ancient tales in an interesting and readable format. As you know well the texts these stories were recorded in dont make for great reading and can be quite hard to figure out at times.
    Did you ever consider a redo of the Invasions of Ireland?

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  8. Thank you for introducing me to a lovely, posh, long word (superfetatation). My mom is a twin. A non-identical one; in fact, she’s her sister’s polar opposite.

    On another note, I had the weirdest dream last night, as you and I had met up and were chatting – what about, I have no idea. As this is the first time I dream of anyone from my blogosphere, I thought you should know 🙂

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  9. Entertaining as always, Ali. There is some paranormal activity going on with your blog, I swear. I saw this post in my inbox first thing this morning, walked the dog before it gets too hot, and when I came back to read it, it had gone. Not a trace of it. Weird. It was this one about the twins, so I’m not confusing it with an older one. That’s not the first time I’ve been certain that I’d seen the post and not been able to find it in the inbox again.

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      1. Only with yours! Most posts I get are quick read posts and I read those straight away. Yours is one of those that I keep for when I’ve got a few minutes to read it properly, so I notice if it’s gone. None of the others disappear.

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          1. Nope. I have a horror of deleting anything just in case I delete the wrong thing by accident. No, I registered your post as I scrolled through my mail and made a mental note to go back and read it—didn’t even click on the link.
            Your posts are never too long. If anything, they could be longer. But then you’re getting into the realms of academic articles!

            Liked by 1 person

        1. Lol! Wow, that must have been hard work. I had 3 children under the age of 4 and that was bad enough! Still, its great as they get older. And you get all the baby years out of the way at once… bonus! 😊

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  10. Twins have been looked upon as magical in cultures around the world, after all what is stranger than identical twins. you can see they are two people, but they are the same. The tales about twins span the world, I was recently reading one tale in a nineteenth century collection of Indian folk tales and realised that it was the same as one in Grimm’s collection. Where did that one start, Europe, Asia or somewhere in between.

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  11. Fascinating reading Ali.I didn’t realise there was such significance placed on twins in ancient legend. Even more surprised to hear there might be someone else as beautiful as you in Ireland.
    Have a Great Week
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

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