I learned something devastating last week, and it was not what I wanted to hear.

There is no such thing as Irish Mythology. It doesn’t exist.

Me last week, when I found out the truth about Irish mythology...
Me last week, when I found out the truth about Irish mythology…

Truth hurts, right? I wanted to crawl into a hole and cry. I actually want there to be some possible reality in heroes like Cuchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhall; in great ancient kings like Cormac mac Airt and Nuada of the Silver Hand, and in powerful women like Medb. I want the tales of Druids and magic and battles and tragic love to be based on some elusive fact. Not only do they help me escape from the horrors and hardships of the modern day world, but in looking back, those stories give me hope for the future: they tell us that even in dark times, there is a light in humanity that still shines. And that elusive quality, like mist drifting over still water, is what draws me in… I lost myself in that mist, and drowned in that water, and it was like swimming in wine… my favourite white sparkly kind! 😋

So what do we have, then? Those stories must come from somewhere.

What we have is a bunch of texts written during the medieval ages. Whilst they may be masterpieces in themselves, and they truly are, there is no evidence that they are anything more than the fiction of talented and imaginative medieval writers.

Think about it: those stories were written down between six and nine hundred years after the events they tell were supposed to have taken place. What did medieval scribes know about the Iron age? They had no books or writings from the peoples of that time, no archaeology to give them an insight. All they had was their imaginations.

I know what you’re thinking; what about the oral tradition these stories were copied from?

We have no evidence that such an oral tradition existed. Even if it did, and non-literate societies all have an oral tradition, so more than likely it did exist, but even so, we still have no evidence. We can make assumptions, but assumptions are not reliable, they are just guesswork.

And, as my lecturer explained, anthropological studies in non-literate communities in Africa, for example, have shown how stories from the oral tradition are subject to change, not only from one re-telling to another, or embellished in the individual style of each storyteller, but altered in quite monumental ways, from one generation to the next. If you ever played the game of Chinese Whispers as a child, you will know exactly what this means; words that are not recorded in some physical way are subject to distortion. It’s inevitable.

We cannot assume that these medieval scribes were fixing these spoken words in ink on vellum. It is quite likely that they were, but there is no evidence of that. What we have are faded manuscripts written by medieval scribes collected into ancient books preserved by subsequent generations and interpreted as history.

Even as late as the 1980s and 1990s, scholars believed that these texts offered a ‘window on the Iron age’. No one looked at them critically. But since then, a new way of thinking has developed. Archaeologists’ findings do not support the view that these medieval texts are describing the Iron age, and this has made people look more closely at the medieval writings. What they found was that these texts actually reflect medieval society; more than likely, they are commenting on their own society, but setting events in what they believe, or imagine, the Iron age to be like.

But why? Why would they do this?

Perhaps it was safer to criticize society by displacing it, and setting it in an earlier, far distant time.  Perhaps it is pure imagination, or speculation. Perhaps they wondered what Ireland was like before Christianity and civilization came and saved it. Maybe they wanted to show how tough and dangerous life was then. Maybe they just wanted to tell a good story. We just don’t know.

Maybe I should close this blog, get my coat, and go home.

But all is not lost, for I am the Guardian of Irish Mythology, remember?

In Celtic and Irish Medieval Studies at the moment, we are reading the 1st rescension of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, probably the most famous and well scrutinized of all tales of Irish mythology. It’s crazy-mad stuff, and I love it! I do wonder if these scribes were high on magic mushrooms when they were writing… perhaps that’s something a few of us modern writers should try. LOL!

Anyway, as you will know if you have been following this blog, Queen Medb is made out to be something of an egotistical, battle-crazed, irrational harlot who goes to war over possession of a big brown bull, just to prove a point to her husband, which is that she is just as equal as he in terms of wealth.

This story does not show women, particularly powerful ones, in a very flattering light. Medb consistently makes irrational decisions and judgements throughout the story and is rescued each time by the logic of her male companions, such as her husband, Aillil, and her lover, Fergus.

As my lecturer says, this story is designed to prove that women make bad leaders in battle, and bad Queens in general, that the female mind is incapable of strategy, logic, wisdom etc.

I don’t deny the story does this… it’s obvious. But I wonder why, in the Christian world of medieval Ireland, where women had been living a subservient and domestic role in society for hundreds of years, why was this message necessary? Women did not hold military power, and Queens were such in name only, usually through marriage. What was happening in the wider medieval period which necessitated the reinforcement of this message concerning a woman’s proper place?

Medb is given an inglorious death (click to read my post on 5 Weirdest Hero Deaths); she is killed by a cheese (yes, a cheese!) hitting her on the head while she is vulnerable and unprotected, just a weak and unaware woman bathing in a lake. A fitting end for the terrible Queen?

Could the Táin really have come from the tattered remains of a much older, perhaps popular, story after all, in which a Queen really did lead a battle? Was it taken and manipulated by medieval scribes to show that no; women make terrible leaders and should never be allowed such power? There is no evidence, so in my new guise as a student, I should not even be suggesting this. But I’m going to anyway.

The earlier part of my course focused on archaeology of the peoples labelled as ‘Celtic’ who lived in central Europe. We looked at the evidence of burials under huge mounds, particularly , at the most high status burials. Among them there are burials of women which clearly show they are of very high status indeed, equivalent to their male counterparts at the time; the burial of the ‘Princess’ at Vix, for example, and the chariot burials of women at Wetwang (video) in Yorkshire.

These are Iron age female burials, but they are not Irish Iron age female burials. However, they do indicate that some women could rise to power and hold as much wealth as men at that time.

I see no reason then to doubt that Ireland could have had its own powerful Queens during the Iron age, and if it did, undoubtedly there would have been stories circulating about her. Many of them may have been lost, perhaps deliberately, as they did not describe the ideal Christian woman. Others, such as the Táin, may have been retained, and ‘adapted’ to teach the true nature of a woman, and her proper place.

I’m just a newbie student at the beginning of my studies, but I think you know by now that I don’t just accept what I’m told, I question it. I’m quietly taking all this new information in, and digesting. The cogs are whirring, albeit loudly and rustily. I have no evidence to support that last paragraph, but I’m sure going to look for some.

By the way, scholars who believe that the medieval texts do in fact refer to the Iron age are called ‘nativists’; those who don’t are called ‘antinativists’. Apparently, people get quite passionate and heated during conferences and debates, even leading to fisticuffs! Who knew mild-mannered and studious bookish people and scholars could get so aggressive over their points of view? A little bit of the spirit of Cuchulainn still lives on in those who study him, I guess. 😂


 Want more mythology straight to your inbox? Sign up to my mailing list.

COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.

Or try one of these…

48 thoughts on “The Truth About Irish Mythology

  1. Ali dear, for some reason I am not getting your posts. It says I am following you and I’ve looked in the usual crappy places that friends end up (spam, trash, receipts) – but you’re not there. I will keep working on this!
    And PS, don’t give up. Questioning everything is good, but never question your gut and your brain!

    Like

  2. Well, Little Red Riding Hood as we know it doesn’t look or sounds like a prehistoric ritualisit rape, but that’s what a lot of scholars believe it to be. I don’t think they’re just morbid guessers.
    Tolkien said we are very concerned with what we have lost about the way fairy tales were told… when we would better concern ourselves a lot more with what has actually come down to us and WHY.

    I’ll say no more 😉

    Fantastic post as usual, Ali.

    Like

  3. Just finished “Four Treasures” at your recommendation as a place to start to fill in the holes in my mythology knowledge about Ireland. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a more exciting adventure! I really enjoyed the story and was able to “dip my toe” into the pool of the myths and mythology.
    A friend encouraged me to order Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis, which looks formidable, but I intend to at least start it as one of two “study projects” I want to explore over the Christmas Break. If you have already read it, you might tell me if it is worth investing my study time in, if not, I may let you know the same thing. Ha ha!
    Rae

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow I am delighted to hear that, thank you so much! I dont really read modern interpretations of Irish myths, because modern writers try to make them fit with modern values and modern storytelling, and what modern readers want and expect from a narrative. For example, many of the stories have several versions, and modern writers pick and choose parts from these different versions and weld them together to try and make a more cohesive tale. I think we need to understand them in the context in which they were written, and not do the authors such a disservice as assume they didnt know their own craft. I cant criticise PBE because I havent read him. Instead I go to websites such as Celt, which is a Cork University website, and read the translations of each different version, which at least we know then is reputable. But… and its a big BUT… the language can be quite difficult to follow, as they were written in early medieval times. I also read Lady Gregory. Oh and actually I quite like Patricia Monaghan. All this stuff is free to read online. I would love to know your opinion so please do let me know when you have read it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So, Ellis may be my secondary source and vicariously through you and your research at Celt can be my primary source–works for me! Will let you know about the Ellis book. It came highly recommended. It may be too scholarly to keep my interest, however. Will let you know.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Haha! I know what you mean! Scholarly=dry and dusty!!! I am having to learn to write like that myself now I’m at uni and I’m getting really good at it! 😂😂😂 The medieval texts are far from dry and dusty though, if you can get past the language… I love them even more now that I am studying them! Why dont you try Celt yourself?

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I hope that they’re not trying to stamp out your gut feeling for the subject at hand in college, Ali! Myths endure for very good reason – the way people of all eras relate to them. And they don’t spring from a vacuum. I like to think they’re embellished versions of a very old truth. We could say something about religion…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I see that everyone has pretty much share exactly what I would’ve said. But I would really like to share my thoughts anyway. If it’s all right with you I think I will just write you separately. That’s a lot easier for me at the moment

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As a person of Continental Celtic ancestry who became an Irish anorak when she wrote her first novel, I say: a pox on your killjoy teacher. So what if Medb made mistakes? If I remember aright, Cuchulainn made a pretty big mistake, too. Big hairy deal.

    I’m still proud of the limericks I wrote about Queen Medb for a scene in “Irish Firebrands” (you can read them here: http://wp.me/p30cCH-7v), and I will continue to put Irish folklore, myths and legends into my writing.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

    Like

  7. Yep, everything’s made up, even my dinner. You believe what works for you and you’ll find a justification. Personally I doubt the magic in the stories but I get the human bits, the battles and jealousies and so on. And you are right to question everything, even my dinner…

    Like

  8. you are so off base in a lot of this. Yes the stories changed from telling to telling but there was still a rigid structure of things that would not change. You ignore a huge part of the nature of orality in this blog and certainly dont have to look to africa for oral tradition. We had a huge oral tradition in ireland up to the middle of the last century that is reflected in the national folklore collection. Medieval scribes certainly didnt make these stories on a whim and just pull them out of thin air. It most certainly came from somewhere. Yes they changed them and christianised them, that is to be expected.

    Like

    1. Hi Shane, I have no doubt that Ireland had a strong oral tradition before the Christians came along. In fact, it continued well into the seventeenth century, and still endures today. What I was saying in my post was that today’s scholars claim that there is no evidence of this, that there is no evidence to support the assumption that many of the stories contained within the Four Cycles are based on the earlier oral tradition. Linguistically, the stories don’t date to earlier than the seventh century. My lecturer, who is acclaimed in her field, said that they are most likely medieval fiction. That is her view, based on her knowledge and research. It shocked me. I had never questioned that they might not be based on earlier oral tales. However, I am only beginning my own studies, and I will make up my own mind based on what I discover. Personally, I would be very surprised if the majority of the medieval tales are not based on earlier oral ones, but like I say, there is no evidence to support that, or none that has yet been discovered. With reference to the folklore we have inherited, it is impossible to say at this stage whether they were derived from an oral tradition, or from listening to, or indeed reading, the later medieval written versions. I’m sorry if that upsets or angers you, but that is the situation we have inherited. With regard to the monks and saints Christianising them, well, they certainly adapted and adopted everything else pagan in their attempt to take control, and they did it very well, so why not the stories too? Thanks for taking the time to comment. ☺

      Like

  9. Haven’t I heard you say before that some parts of society like to change and/or rewrite certain events because of their beliefs or simply because they don’t like what they are being told? I know you’ll keep believing, Ali, and so you should. Keep on writing and educating us all about Irish Mythology. You’ve an audience with a big appetite for it.

    Like

  10. I’m with you, Ali- these stories had to have come from somewhere. And there is plenty of evidence, both archaeological and historical, to suggest women held a lot more power before our current patriarchal society came into play. So take heart, you are the guardian of Irish mythology, as you say, and you’ll fight for these stories! Also, as an aside, I’ve read a bit about the origins of the Arthurian legends, much of which seems to have come from early Welsh stories preserved via the bards, which do talk a bit about the Irish – maybe there are some shared roots there?

    Like

    1. Hey, thought I recognised your name Helen. I’m just finishing up ‘One Thousand Rooms’ and wondering exactly which room will be Kate’s Heaven 🙂

      Anyway Ali, of course it’s right to debate all sides even though we might not like some of the assertions. I’m going to continue to touch on Irish mystery and fantasy in my writing never mind what some fusty old professor has to say.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Roy! Lovely to (virtually) meet you 🙂 Thank you so much for reading ATR – I hope you’re enjoying it, and I won’t spoil the ending by telling you where Katie ends up.
        And I agree – just because it can’t be agreed where myths come from, doesn’t mean I won’t still read them with wonder, or be inspired by their magic. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Everything is myth in one way or another. History, whether oral or written tends to be the truth of the ruling class and as such may or may not be accurate or even bear a relationship to events. Keep questioning and annoy as many tutors as you can… except the ones responsible for your final marks 🙂

    Like

  12. All mythology is ‘true’ in the sense that it contains truth. That’s why it survives the centuries – it speaks to us of universalities like courage and honour and evil and greed and love. It helps us understand ourselves better, as all great literature does. Stories are able to lead us along paths that aren’t accessible via other ways of knowing. You are a storyteller, Ali.

    Like

  13. Is it really true that in early Christian Ireland “women had been living a subservient and domestic role in society”? I was under the impression that women under Brehon law were better off than those under Norman rule.

    Like

  14. I struggle with this. You’re right that these things can’t be proven. And the way they were handled (and handed down through generations) may not be the most reliable. That said. Though everything that happened might not have happened exactly the way we imagine, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Did Odin ride Sleipnir? Is there a Tree of Life (Tree of Knowledge, Tree of Whatever)? Don’t know. But. I believe. I truly do. And I love reading your posts. Ali…please continue being our Guardian of Irish Mythology.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Several things,

    There were plenty of powerful women in medieval times, for example at around the time the stories were being written down England was being wracked by civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda, now she was a very powerful woman, if very unlikable.

    As for the writers telling the tales as a commentary on the present, consider the telling and retelling of the tales of King Arthur. In the first versions of the tales he is an early medieval monarch, turning into a late medieval king under Mallory. Both very different from the fragments of earlier tales that survive in very ancient sources.

    Some people seem to have an antagonism to the ‘Christian monks’ who wrote the tales down, as though they will have adapted the tales to fit some unspecified agenda. However if the tales are written versions of an oral tradition then they will have been told and retold by Christians for centuries before they were written down considering how long Ireland had been Christian by the time the first versions of the tales appear.

    Finally think about who the tales were written down for. They may have ended up in monastic libraries, but many were written originally for secular rulers. if a tale is written down as ancient history, showing that, for example, Ulster once conquered Munster, then the ruler of Ulster might use it to claim that he has precedence over that of Munster. This did happen, the pseudo history of Geoffrey of Monmouth was used by King Stephen to try and prove his claim to the throne of England, over that of Queen Matilda, when they appealed to the pope.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Keep questioning, Ali. Historians like to rewrite history to their own thinking, and it’s my opinion that these myths have some basis in fact. The Bible was written hundreds of years after the stories it tells, and yet people accept the stories and have found some basis for them. Just because it can’t be proved doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (a la Diana above). Just being religious requires faith! You go girl!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I doubt that the Medieval Monks would have had the nerve to write about women who were equal or higher in status than men, even if they’d had the imagination needed to come up with the stories.
    Fact – Women were held in high esteem in many of the ancient societies, ranging from pre-historic, through ‘civilised’ (e.g., Egyptian) and in the process of being reinstated in some modern societies (in spite of the Donald Trumps and certain extremist religious fundamentalists of the world).
    Like Diana, I believe most myths and legends have a basis in truth / facts and only changes / embellishments have obscured them.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. You must not worry in the slightest degree these days much of human history, especially early times is held in question. Take the story of Genesis just think of its influence on history and art yet it it held by most to be a myth. Scientists believe they have now found the position of the Garden of Eden with its four rivers two of which have dried up. The eating of the tree of knowledge was the transition from Hunter gather to crop growers . My personnel take is it was the depiction of the birth of the human conscience when we moved away from the animal kingdom and began to judge ourselves. So dry your tears and carry on just the same myth often contains more truth than reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Nothing that has transitted by way of Christianity is going to be the truth and nothing but the truth. But, I think you have put your finger on a very good point—since women in Christian Europe didn’t hold power prestige or much consideration, why bother doing them down? The Bible already does a pretty good job of that. We know that the early Irish monks were all excommunicated or at least demoted when the ‘real’ Christians returned when things settled down after the barbarian invasions and somebody remembered that Ireland existed. They were scandalised at the way the Irish clergy carried on, married with families, observing only the parts of doctrine that didn’t clash too much with the old beliefs and writing down the old stories as if they were God’s own truth. The Romanized monks might have been shocked and horrified, but did Rome really have enough willing volunteers to fill all the unruly monasteries and churches in Ireland? I bet they didn’t. I bet they sent over a few high rankers who tried to whip the local clergies back into the fold, ordinary clerics who might have decided it was easier to pay lip service to Rome and keep their jobs. These same monks, with the same respect for their past and their stories would have carried on writing them down and teaching them, but this time, with a Roman archbishop breathing down their necks, they would probably have ‘arranged’ them differently to keep him quiet. How’s that for a theory?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m flattered! I try to think logically, even if I go off the rails, but I’m convinced that the way people have changed over the centuries is mainly in the way they interact socially. The emotions, the sentiments, the motivations must always have been the same as ours. Which isn’t to say that some of them may have been suppressed because it wasn’t socially acceptable to admit to a particular emotion.

        Like

  20. Two opposing point of view, neither provable definitely after all this time mean there’s no reason you can’t share your view with us. Back then I’m sure there must have been rulers with exceptional reputations. Storytelling has always produced them, you’re merely giving us the opportunity to decide for ourselves the validity of stories that circulate. Keep it up.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  21. The spirit of Cuchulainn obviously doesn’t live in your lecturer. What a pity, Ali. You go to uni to learn something new and they tell you the whole subject doesn’t exist. But I think the lecturer was just looking for a clever way to stop you from asking so many questions 🙂 I was wondering why you went a bit quiet lately and this blog was a very good reason. You keep writing the stories and I’ll keep believing they are true.

    Like

    1. Colleen… I’ve just come across this comment! WP never showed it to me! So sorry! I think the reason they reflect so badly on women is because they were adapted and written by Christian monks, who did not seem to like women. I’ll have to share some of the early writings about women I have come across in my studies, you’d be amazed! It can’t have been any fun being a woman in those times.

      Liked by 1 person

Please feel free to join in the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s