Manannán’s Land Irish Myths of the Sea

Until I moved to Cavan eight years ago, I had always lived within sight or sound of the sea. Every summer I head down to Co Kerry for a few days with friends and the boys. There, we are surrounded by sea, and mountains. I love wide open spaces. Both the sea and the high places provide that.

Being a small island, peoples lives have been dominated by the sea. In mythology, the Danann, the Milesians, and various other races came to Ireland from the sea. According to legend, Ireland had two sea deities: Lir, and Manannán mac Lir, which means ‘son of Lir’, or ‘son of the sea’.

Little is known about Lir; there is a Lir who was father to the four children turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, but it is by no means certain that he is one and the same with the sea-god of the same name.

Even Manannán’s identity is uncertain, although he features far more in the stories and legends. According to the Yellow Book of Lecan (c. 1400 AD), there were four Manannáns: Manandán mac Alloit, a ‘druid of the Tuatha dé Danann’ whose ‘proper name was Oirbsen’; Manandán mac Lir, a renowned sailor and merchant; Manandán mac Cirp, king of the Isles and Mann; and Manandán mac Atgnai, who took in the sons of Uisnech.

Confused? Me too.

Manannan was guardian of the Otherworld. To get there, one had to sail west beyond the ninth wave. This was an island realm consisting of many different islets. It was sometimes known as the ‘Land under Sea’, although it is never specifically described as such. However, it could also be approached through water. It is unclear if this is the same land known as Tir na Nog, ‘Land of the Ever Young’.

Aonbharr
Aonbharr

His magical possessions included Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, a beautiful white horse that could travel over water as easily as land. Note that he was not winged, like Pegasus. He also had a boat named Wavesweeper; it had no sails or oars, but was directed by the thoughts of its occupants. He also he owned a cloak of mists that granted him invisibility, a flaming helmet, and a sword named Fragarach (meaning Answerer/ Retaliator) that could slice through any armour and when pointed at a target could make that target answer any question truthfully.

Although these items were precious, Manannán would sometimes loan them out, particularly to Lugh, who was said to have been his foster son, and whom benefited from the the boat, the sword and Aonbharr.

Of course Manannán and Lir weren’t the only deities associated with the sea: Cliodhna was his daughter, who left her father’s realm to be with her mortal lover, Ciabhán. She is lulled into an enchanted sleep upon the shore of Glandore harbour in Co Cork by the music of Fer I, Manannán’s harper, while her lover is off hunting. Her father sends a wave to bring her back home, but instead she is drowned. The tide there is still known as Tonn Chlíodhna, meaning ‘Clíodhna’s Wave’.

According to legend, the sea was inhabited by many strange and mystical creatures, including the Merrows. These were Ireland’s mer-people. The word ‘merrow’ comes from the Irish murúch, which is said to mean ‘sea singer’. They were a bit scary; as you can probably guess, they would lure sailors to their deaths by singing beautiful songs, then drown and devour them.

Mermaid
Mermaid

Like all mermaids, she was half human, half fish, very beautiful, with pale skin and webbing between her fingers. She was said to be gentle and benevolent (huh?). Sometimes, a mermaid would fall in love with a human, and leave the sea to be with him, but she would always long to return. In order to prevent this, her human husband would have to hide her cohuleen druith, a little magic hat. If she found it, she would be off like a shot, never to be seen again.

Lí Ban was a woman who was turned into a mermaid when a spring burst under her house to form Lough Neagh, named after her father, Eochaid mac Mairidh, who was drowned. Li Ban survived in an underwater chamber in the lake for one year, after which she shape-shifted into a mermaid form, half human and half salmon. After 300 years, she was captured by a monk who was in a boat fishing, and she agreed to come ashore. She was then baptised Muirgen, meaning sea-born’, but died immediately and ascended to heaven. This story is recorded in two ancient manuscripts, he Four Masters in an entry under year 558, and the Annals of Ulster in the year 571. So I guess it must be true! 😂

A legend made popular in recent years by movies such as Ondine and The Secret of Roan Inish is that of the Selkie, or Roanes/ Rón in Irish. By day, Selkies swim the seas as seals, but during the dark of night, they shed their skins and hide them carefully on the shore. Their human form is beautiful with dark hair and eyes and a creamy white skin. Humans are instantly enamoured of them and try to win their love. As with the Merrows and their little caps, however, the only way a human can keep a Selkie is to find their skin and hide it. A Selkie that is thus trapped on land will always long for the sea.

Of them all, though, my favourite sea legend is the story of Fergus and the fearful sea-dragon, Muirdris. Fergus mac Leti was a King of Ulster who fell asleep one day on the beach. Not a very safe thing to do in Irish mythology. Anyway, three little sprites called lúchorpáin (meaning ‘little bodies’) came up out of the water and tried to steal him away.

The coldness of the sea awoke him, and he lunged at the creatures, catching one in each hand and crushing the third to his chest. They promised to grant him one wish if he let them go, to which he agreed, and asked for the power to be able to swim deep under water without having to surface for air. They gave him magical herbs with which to plug his ears, but warned him not to swim under Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay).

Being a King, Fergus was used to doing as he liked, so of course he disregarded their advice, and encountered a massive, fearsome sea-serpent called Muirdris. His terror caused a facial disfigurement, which his people kept secret from him, as a king must be whole and perfectly formed.

One day, seven years later, a spiteful servant girl revealed the truth after he beat her unfairly. Shocked, Fergus decided to confront Muirdris once again. They battled for a night and a day, the sea turning red with blood about them, but Fergus emerged onto the shore victorious, bearing the great brute’s head. Fergus’s good looks were restored, but he immediately collapsed and dropped dead from his efforts. No happy ever after for him, then. Sigh.


The Land of the Ever Young Part Two

The Land of the Ever Young Part Two www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
The Land of the Ever Young Part Two
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

In my last post, The Land of the Ever Young Part One, we talked about Manannán’s Land, a mythical island kingdom of eternal summer and youth, a place of peace and joy and laughter, thought to be found in the oceans somewhere west of Ireland.

Today, we’re taking a look at Tir na n’Óg, the ‘Land of the Young/ Ever Young’.

When the Tuatha de Danann were defeated by the Milesians, a bargain was struck; the Milesians agreed to share the rule of Ireland equally. But they tricked the Danann; as the victors, they chose the half of Ireland which lay above ground, so the Danann were forced to retreat to their half below ground.

That’s mortals for you, they’re tricksy.

At least, that’s what people believed, because that’s what it looked like, but when the Danann entered through their Sidhe-mounds they were not going underground. Oh no! These Sidhe-mounds simply acted as gateways into the Otherworld, also known as Tir na n’Óg. Was it the land of the dead, heaven or hell, another dimension, or another planet?

Good question. It was forested, and like the Sea-God’s islands, perpetual summer. The Danann lived their lives there in much the same way as they had ‘above ground’ in Ireland.

There was one big difference, though; time was almost viscous, slowed down to such an extent that, as the tale of Oisin and Niamh shows, a year in the magical realm could amount to as many as three hundred in the mortal world. Thus the Danann appeared ever youthful and ageless to mortal man.

The Danann continued to interact with mankind, offering help or hindrance, taking lovers, making marriages, sport and battle with them, forming alliances and enemies, fostering mortal children. Eventually, as mankind moved on, the Danann became known as the Sidhe, named after the mounds they appeared to live in. They were thought of as fairies, or demons and their longevity and magic were mistrusted and feared.

Ireland is well known for its ragged mists and enveloping fog. According to legend, these vapours were said to be Manannán’s Cloak of invisibility and forgetting, the Faeth Fiadha. It was a gift given the Danann by the Sea-God at the time of their retreat. It shrouded their demise, and protected the borders of their land from unwanted attention. Humans knew better than to stray into the fog; they could end up wandering into the fairy domain, and never find their way home. At least, not within living memory.

Curiously, Manannán used his Cloak of Mists to save his marriage. When the Ulster warrior, Cuchulainn, came to visit, he had an affair with the Sea-God’s wife, Fand, even though he was already married to Emer. Manannán shook his cloak between Fand and her lover, that each might forget the other, and sent the amorous young man back to his extremely irate wife.

Water plays a part in the legends of Tir na nOg too, for the Otherword could be accessed not only over water, ie sailing west over the sea, but through water. It’s tempting to think that when ancient man looked into the surface of a still lake (and Ireland has very many of them), he saw the mountains and trees and skies reflected there, and thought it was another world.

But just remember, this is a people who could raise massive stone monuments with some unknown technology we still can’t figure out today; they could read the night sky as well as we can without telescopes and computers. They were not simple savages. They were complex and intelligent. I think they were capable of working out reflections.

So what does this ‘through water’ mean? Did it mean you had to drown to pass through that watery gate? The body was left behind and the soul went on into the Otherworld? Interesting, bearing in mind the bodies found in bogs, and the many votive offerings found in pools of water.

Boundaries were thought of as liminal places, neither belonging to one realm or the other; fog, as we’ve already seen, blurs the barrier between the physical and spiritual worlds. Water, particularly shore lines, whether sea or lake, does the same, giving way from the solid to the ethereal.

Even the humble doorstep bears the same function; Saint Brigid, for example was born on the doorstep of her family home, neither within nor yet without it. She was born at dawn, when it was not properly day or night.

These spaces are powerpoints where magic can happen; the margins between the physical and non-physical are thin, through which entities both solid and spirit can pass.

That is what I think ‘through water’ means. Perhaps it’s why Christians threw ‘witches’ into water. But that’s a post for another time.

Tir na nÓg, not surprisingly, has a few other names, among them, Ildathach ( the many coloured place), Mag Mór (the Great Plain), Mag Mon (the Plain of Sports), Mag Rein (the Plain of the Sea), and Emain Ablach, meaning ‘place of apples’. This is quite intriguing, given the talk of Avalon, the Isle of Apples, in the medieval tales of King Arthur. Wales also has its mysterious Isle of Apples, Ynys Afallach. Could these tales have derived from an earlier Irish tradition? (I think you already know my thoughts on this!)

So what’s the big deal with this little round fruit? Well, in my post A Fire In the Head | The Shamanic Use of Amanita, we learned how the apple could have been used as an innocuous representation of the secret use of this magical red fungus to access the Otherworld. Which ties in nicely with the Otherworld aspect of the mysterious isle of apples.

But if it was an island, then it must surely have been part of Manannán’s Land, and he was indeed said to have kept an orchard of magic apples; his white horse Aonbharr fed on them, as did Cliodhna’s three little multi-coloured pet birds.

In the Echtra Cormaic mac Airt, the King is visited by Manannán in disguise, who gives him a gift of a silver bough on which three golden apples are found. He claims he has brought the branch from a land ‘where there is nothing but truth, and where there is neither age nor withering away, nor heaviness, nor sadness, nor jealousy, nor envy, nor pride’. When the branch is shaken, such beautiful music is heard that battle-wounded men, or women in childbed, or those who are sick, fall into restful sleep and are healed.

Interestingly, the apple branch was carried by poets, and denoted their status; the Ollamh, or chief poet, would carry an apple branch of gold, lower ranks would carry a branch of silver, and all the rest would carry a bronze branch. In this way, it came to be seen as a druidic symbol.

Patricia Monaghon in her Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology claims that one of the names for Tir na nOg was Mag Rein. I understood that it was one of the first places where the Danann made camp when they invaded Ireland; Magh Rein in the Red Hills of Breffni. 

Are you still with me? Cos this is where its about to get really interesting.

Last year, when I was researching Magh Slecht for a post on St Patrick, I discovered that bordering this area, there is a a townland called Magh Rein, in Leitrim. In Cavan, we also have a place called Redhills, and in ancient times, much of Cavan and Leitrim formed a Kingdom called Breffni.

So perhaps the Otherworld didn’t exist underground, or through water, or west across the sea at all; perhaps it’s been right here under our noses all along, our very own heaven on earth.


You can read The Land of the Ever Young Part One here.


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The Blade that Binds

The Blade that Binds www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
The Blade that Binds
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

There really is a sword in the stone, but it’s not Arthur’s Excalibur, or Caliburn, as it’s sometimes known. This weapon once belonged to a ruthless and violent Italian warrior of the C12th called Galgano.

The story goes that he repented his vicious ways after receiving two visions of the Archangel Michael. In one version, he planted his sword in the ground as a sign of the cross. The sword immediately became one with the ground and could not be removed.

Another version claims he was told to renounce material things. He said that would be as hard as splitting rocks, illustrating his point by attempting to do just that. The stone, however, is said to have yielded like butter.

It can still be seen in the stone today, at the Rotonda of Montesiepi, near the ruins of San Galgano Abbey. And according to Ancient Origins, recent research shows that, based on the style of the sword and its metallurgical composition, it really is genuine to the C12th.

The real sword in the stone? By Alexmar983 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Interestingly, it seems that Arthur’s sword could have been based on an ancient Irish weapon. Excalibur is known as Caladfwlch in Welsh, and Caladcholg in Irish. And Caladcholg was a famous sword belonging to Fergus mac Róich, a hero from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology.

It’s not the first similarity between Arthurian legend and Irish mythology; you can read why I think Arthur was based on the Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhall, in my post, In Single Combat – The Bear King V The Fenian King.

But back to the sword. Fergus mac Róich was the King of Ulster. His predecessor’s daughter, Ness, only agreed to marry him if he allowed her son, Conchobar, to rule as king for a year, so that her grandsons would be born the sons of a King. The things a man will do for love! He was duped, and never regained his throne.

When Naoise and his brothers run off with Deirdre, Conchobar’s intended bride, the King is at first furious, but eventually agrees to allow them to return. However, he secretly orders the three brothers to be killed, and this betrayal is the catalyst which sends Fergus to join Queen Medb of Connacht in her famous Cattle Raid of Cooley. He soon becomes Medb’s lover.

When Fergus and Conchobar come face to face in the battle, Fergus in his fury is ready to strike him down with three swings of his magical sword, but Conchobar’s son, Cormac, persuades him not to kill the King in anger;

Fergus grasped the Caladcholg in both hands and swung it back behind him so that its point touched the ground, and his intent was to strike three terrible and warlike blows on the Ulstermen…

“Turn your hand level” said Cormac Cond Longas, “and strike off the tops of the hills over the heads of the hosts and that will appease your anger”. “Tell Conchobor to come then into his battle-position”. Conchobor came to his place in the battle.

Now that sword, the sword of Fergus, was the sword of Leite from the elf-mounds. When one wished to strike with it, it was as big as a rainbow in the air.—Then Fergus turned his hand level above the heads of the hosts and cut off the tops of the three hills which are still there in the marshy plain as evidence. Those are the three Máela of Meath.

from  the Táin Bó Cúalnge, Book of Leinster, Author unknown.

The mention of the elf-mounds indicate that the sword Caldcholg has magical origins and may have been made by the Sidhe. Another Fergus, son of Leite, is said to have brought it from the country of the Sidhe. Despite much searching, I am unable to bring you that story, which is very frustrating for me. But that’s research for you; it’s very elusive, and I know I’ll come across the story some day when I’m looking for something else entirely.

One of my favourite stories from Irish mythology centres on Fergus mac Leite. He was a king of Ulster, and he fought a sea-dragon called Muirdris. You can read about it in my post, The Serpent in Irish Mythology.

There are many named swords in Irish mythology. By that, I mean there are many swords which were believed to have held specific magical powers. Here are just a few, in no particular order…

  • Claoimh Solais. Without a doubt the most famous of Irish mythological weapons, the Sword of Light was said to have been brought to Ireland by King Nuada, who led the invasion of the Tuatha de Danann against the Fir Bolg. It is said that no one ever escaped from it once it was drawn from its sheath, and no one could resist it. You can read more about it in my post, The Sword of Light.
  • Orna. This sword belonged to the Fomori king, Tethra, but was taken in battle by Ogma, a warrior of the Danann said to have invented Ogham. This sword, when unsheathed, had the power to recount all the dread deeds done with it.
  • Mac an Luin. ‘Son of the Waves’, this was the sword belonging to legendary Irish hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall.
  • Ceard nan Gallan. This was the sword of Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhall, and its name means ‘Smith of the Branches’.
  • Cosgarach Mhor. Means ‘Great Triumphant One’. This sword belonged to Oscar, who was Oisin’s son. Oscar was said to be a fine and mighty warrior who lived for the battle.
  • Cruadh Chosgarath. ‘The Hard Destroying One’. This weapon belonged to Caoilte mac Ronain, Fionn mac Cumhall’s right-hand man.
  • Fragarach. ‘The Answerer/ Retaliater’. This was the Sea-God Manannán mac Lir’s sword. It was said that no man’s armour could withstand it, and that it gave it’s wielder the power to command the winds. When Manannán became Lugh’s foster father, he gave it into Lugh’s care.
  • Moraltach and Beagaltach. ‘The Great and Little Fury’. Two swords given to Diarmuid ua Duibhne by his foster father, Óengus of the Denann, god of love, youth and poetic inspiration. Moraltach was given to Óengus by Manannán mac Lir.
  • The Singing Sword of Conaire Mór. Conaire Mór was a high king of Ireland. His sword was reputed to have sung as it was taken into battle.

Looking at this list, I am struck by how the swords of these men have taken on the powers of their owners. All of these men were renowned for being great warriors, and it seems their weapons have assumed the essence of what made them so mighty in battle. So whereas one could assume that it is the weapon’s magic made the warrior so unbeatable, in fact, the reverse is true.

But what is so special about the sword, anyway? Well, apart from the fact that it was an effective means of defence as well as attack, there was a mystical quality too.

You have to remember that in ancient times, the art of the smith was held in great esteem. It was considered a powerful magic indeed to wield and master the element of fire, which was representative of the great Sun-God himself; to take the bones of the earth (said to be the very bones of the mother Goddess Eriu, remember) and transform them through the application of fire, strength, skill, secret knowledge and magic into the much revered and coveted bright shining metallic objects of tools, weapons and jewellery.

Also, how one got one’s sword was quite significant. Manannán, the Sea-God seems to have been quite generous in this regard. Receiving such a noble gift from a God must have been quite an honour. And Sidhe-made swords, particularly those forged by master smith Goibniu, were highly coveted.

This is how the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall’s renowned war-band, received their swords according to Lady Gregory, in her book on Irish mythology, Of Gods and Fighting Men;

The Fianna had swords that had names to them, Mac an Luin, Son of the Waves, that belonged to Finn; and Ceard-nan Gallan, the Smith of the Branches, that was Oisin’s; and Caoilte’s Cruadh-Chosgarach, the Hard Destroying One; and Diarmuid’s Liomhadoir, the Burnisher; and Osgar’s Cosgarach Mhor, the Great Triumphant One.

And it is the way they got those swords: there came one time to where Finn and Caoilte and some others of the Fianna were, a young man, very big and ugly, having but one foot and one eye; a cloak of black skins he had over his shoulders, and in his hand a blunt ploughshare that was turning to red. And he told them he was Lon, son of Liobhan, one of the three smiths of the Kings of Lochlann. And whether he thought to go away from the Fianna, or to bring them to his smithy, he started running, and they followed after him all through Ireland, to Slieve-na-Righ, and to Luimnech, and to Ath Luain, and by the right side of the Cruachan of Connacht, and to Ess Ruadh and to Beinn Edair, and so to the sea.

And wherever it was they found the smithy, they went into it, and there they found four smiths working, and every one of them having seven hands. And Finn and Caoilte and the rest stopped there watching them till the swords were made, and they brought them away with them then, and it is good use they made of them afterwards.

Sword making is an ancient and honourable craft which utilizes all the elements of the universe; Fire, Water, Air, and Earth are all brought together in the forging of a sword, thus representing unity, balance, totality and creativity.

The sword is seen as a highly symbolic tool. At a base level, the sword can be seen as phallic, with the sheath being yonic. Personally, I don’t believe that our ancient ancestors were as primitive and unsophisticated as this. We do seem to like to pigeon-hole very ancient find as phallic or ritualistic, for some reason, perhaps because it lends us a veneer of seeming more powerful, civilised and superior.

Nuada’s sword, as an example, represents the embodiment of justice by dealing the ultimate punishment to Ireland’s enemies; it cuts straight to the heart of a matter, thus symbolising the wielder’s power to dispense justice, truth and law. The aspect of light suggests illumination, in other words, wise and sacred knowledge. All qualities of a wise and noble king. If Nuada’s qualities are seen in his sword, then the handing down of his sword to his successor could be seen as bestowing those self-same qualities onto the next king. In such a way, the sword could come to represent the sovereignty of a tribe.

Although we no longer think of it in a literal sense, ‘the double-edged sword’ is a common saying still in use today; it describes the dualistic nature of the weapon. Not only is it a symbol of war and aggression, but also of resolution, liberation, and in fact, a guardian of peace.

But why the ‘blade which binds’? Rather than being a tool which severs heads from shoulders, limbs from trunks, I see it as a symbol of unity. It binds the clan together, whether in times of war, when warriors mass together to defend their liberty, their homeland, their loved ones; but also in times of peace, when it represents justice, fair-mindedness, knowledge and enlightenment.

Imramha | Searching for God

Imramha | Searching for God http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

The Voyage of Bran, as told by the Queen of the Isle of Women

The new priests came to Ireland, preaching their foreign stories of a single God, and we were curious, but not afraid. We did not see the danger in their words until it was too late. They blamed the women for all sin in the world, and the serpent for planting the seed of that sin in their heads.

That was how they sought to remove all power from us, and also from the Druids, for were they not known as serpents in symbolic terms?

I wondered if these men were more than men, if they were beyond the enticement and wiles of a woman of the Sidhe. So I tested them, and found they were not. I went to Bran, a Christian holy man in a dream. I told him of my beautiful home in the Otherworld, and I invited him there. The very next day, he set out  with a handful of companions in a frail coracle on his dangerous quest west across the sea to find me.

Find me he did. But on his return, the story he told differed much from mine. In truth, he acted of his own free will. But his tale tells of enchantment and deceit, and thus passed into common knowledge.

“It was not long thereafter when they reached the Land of Women. They saw the leader of the women at the port. Said the chief of the women: ‘Come hither on land; O Bran son of Febal! Welcome is thy advent!’ Bran did not venture to go on shore. The woman throws a ball of thread to Bran straight over his face. Bran put his hand on the ball, which clave to his palm. The thread of the ball was in the woman’s hand, and she pulled the coracle towards the port. Thereupon they went into a large house, in which was a bed for every couple, even thrice nine beds. The food that was put on every dish vanished not from them. It seemed a year to them that they were there,–it chanced  to be many years.”

quote from sacredtexts

He wronged me, and I wept tears enough to fill a lake. But Manannán said it was my own folly, and the inevitable reward which comes of consorting with mortals. Yet although they despised us, and preached against us, still through the ages they came seeking us.

*

Imramha. These are the sea voyages made by early Irish saints and holy men into the Otherworld. Imram (sing.) is an Old Irish word meaning, quite literally, ‘rowing about’. It should be noted that the Imramha focus on the journey, rather than what happens when they arrive. But it seems strange to me; why would the saints be at all interested in visiting the Otherworld, land of pagan Gods? Perhaps they sought to convert the very Gods themselves and build churches there. Were they looking for the Garden of Eden?

Imramha should not be confused with Echtrae, in which pagan heroes also travelled to the Otherworld, but which focus rather on the adventures which befall them once they arrive, instead of the actual journey itself. Again, what were they doing there? The Otherworld was associated with the Gods and the dead, according to popular current belief; were they attempting to defy death and cheat the Gods by venturing into their realm?

Not quite. The Otherworld was the realm of the Sidhe, a supernatural race descended from the Tuatha de Danann. To mortal men, who did not understand them, their strange powers seemed God-like. The Otherworld itself was ruled by Manannán, known as the Sea God, and thought to have been a deity who was around long before the Danann invasion. His kingdom consisted of many islands which lay somewhere out to sea, west of Ireland, ‘beyond the ninth wave’.

In Manannán’s land,  people were all impossibly beautiful, lived long lives of ease and plenty, never growing ill, and it was summertime all year round. This was certainly not a land of the dead, but of the ‘Ever Living Ones’.

According to legend, Bran was going about his business when he found a silver branch with white blossom. It’s music lulled him to sleep. He took it back to his hall, where a beautiful woman appeared and sang fifty quatrains (that’s a long song!) about her home in the Otherworld, and invited him to join her. Then she disappeared, taking the silver branch with her against his will.

The very next day he assembled twenty seven companions and they set sail in a coracle to find the woman… sorry, I meant the silver branch, of course. This gave him the excuse… sorry, a valid reason to go after her.

After several adventures along the way, including meeting the great Manannán himself, he eventually found his way to the Isle of Women. Each of the men paired off with a woman, Bran with the women’s leader, and for a year they all lived there very happily, until one of them, Nechtan, began to feel homesick for Ireland and his family.

Eventually,  the sickness spread, and as the Irish always do, wherever in the world they are, they all began to long for home. Bran’s ‘wife’ was very sad to see them go, and warned that no part of them should touch Eire’s soil.

As they approached Ireland’s familiar shores, a crowd of people came to meet them. They were puzzled, for the only Bran they knew of existed only in their ancient legends. Nechtan jumped out of the coracle and was instantly turned to ash. Sadly, Bran told his story, and the company sailed away, never to be seen or heard of again.

So Bran’s desire for a woman from the Otherworld ended in tragedy and disaster. It bears a similarity with the story of Oisin, son of the mighty Fionn mac Cumhail.

Legend claims Oisin left Ireland for love of Niamh, and went with her to live in the magical realms. He thought he was there only three years, but on his return home, he found three hundred years had passed. Niamh had warned him not to dismount his horse, but he accidentally fell, instantly transforming into a very old man, and died.

There can be no doubt that to the early Christian monks, the pagan Otherworld must have sounded incredibly like they imagined the Garden of Eden, or maybe even heaven. As far as we can ascertain, the ancient Irish people believed that the Otherworld was real, and could be accessed through water (usually lakes), or over water by sailing west (the elusive Hy-Brasil being the most famous and most sought-after of these islands), or by entering via the doorway in the roots of certain magical hawthorn trees, or by wandering into fog (the Faeth Fiadha, created by Manannán’s magic cloak of invisibility).

A monk listening to these stories, which were regaled as fact, and believed in by the masses, might have been tempted to go see for himself if this mysterious land existed. Monks would often go on holy pilgrimages, looking for deserted islands on which to live a hermit’s life, and pray, and receive enlightenment. Bran’s voyage may simply have been an extension of that.

It is thought that originally, there were seven imramha tales, but only three of them now survive; The Voyage of Mael Dúin, The Voyage of the Uí Chorra, and The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riagla.  The Voyage of St. Brendan was written around AD 900, so it is later in origin than the other tales.

The Voyage of Bran is sometimes classed as an echtrae as well as an imram,  because it tells what happened when he reached his destination. Interestingly, Bran’s story seems to contain less Christian doctrine than the others, so perhaps it could be based on a much older pagan story from the oral tradition, now lost.

The much loved Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis is said to be a modern imram. Today’s fantasy novels usually involve a long journey for their protagonist, which is a modern take on this very ancient tradition, although most authors aren’t aware of it. Which just goes to show no story is truly original.

Irish Mythology | The Retreat of the Tuatha de Denann

Tree and reflection

For this week’s Monday Mythology, I have decided to give you a sneak peak into the opening of the third and final book of my Tir na Nog Trilogy, working title Conor Kelly and The Three Waves of Eirean.

This (unedited) extract is my telling of what happened after the Tuatha de Denann were defeated by the Milesians at the battle of Tailten, and were forced by trickery to retreat into their hollow hills. Although they still interacted with the mortal world well into Fionn mac Cumhall’s time (c C3rd AD), their time as Ireland’s rulers and Gods was over. For them, this was the beginning of the end, and the slippery slope of their decline into legend as the Sidhe.


Prologue – Denann’s Doom

four thousand years ago…

It was a wretched day. In the dark, blue-grey sky above, a shrieking wind tore water-sodden clouds apart, limb from limb. A long queue of people pressed slowly and dejectedly forward into the shadowy maw of a fissure in the mountain, clutching their few rescued possessions and the hands of their children. They consisted mostly of the very old and the very young, punctuated with the presence of the odd, injured warrior. The strong and able bodied were conspicuous by their absence. These were the pitiful remains of a people ravaged by war, defeated both in battle and in spirit. Recovery from such annihilation looked bleak.

Manannán stood and watched, his mouth pressed into a grim line of displeasure.

“I warned you mortals could not be trusted,” he muttered.

Beside him, Bodb Dearg, eldest son of the Dagda and newly elected High King, stirred from his silent reverie of sorrow and regret. “Aye, well that was long ago. Bridges were built and relationships formed since those dark days, connections strong and true that all thought unbreakable. None of us could have envisioned this.”

“You became complacent,” Manannán snapped, his eyes whorling alternately dark and light with anger, like the foamy-topped stormy seas of which he was Lord. “Humans have always envied and feared the Denann for their long life, their powers, their military prowess and grace, strength and beauty. It was a friendship doomed from the start.”

His companion bit back his own furious retort and shrugged, allowing his anger to dissipate up into the ether. What was the point of arguing? What was the point of anything, anymore? Their druids, their poets, their warriors, all their skilled crafts folk, every man and woman capable of fighting, yes even the children big enough to lift a weapon had been pressed into action. Their desperation had failed them. They were all gone. What chance had they of rebuilding? The mysterious knowledge which had once nurtured and sustained them was lost, had died along with those who had protected its secrets so well.

As a young man, Bodb Dearg had dreamed of one day wearing the King’s torc. Now, here he was, High King of the Denann, or what was left of them; a king without a land, his people once again homeless and displaced.

Generations ago, Nuada had led the Denann into Eire. Now he, Bodb Dearg, was fated to lead them away from the only home many of them had had ever known, tricked by the sons of Mil into a life of darkness below the gentle green hills of Ireland. It was not how he wished to be remembered by posterity.

“It’s still not too late.” The words encroached softly upon him, like the whisper of warm wavelets lapping on a soft, sandy shore.

He squared his shoulders and lifted his head proudly. “The Denann have chosen,” he said. His expression belied the trembling and uncertainty which fired within him, his voice sounding resolute as the great grey stones which guarded the Underworld’s entrance. “Many of us have kin here among the mortals. This land has become our home. We have given our bravest warriors to its defence. Our blood has watered its soil, our sacrifice has nourished its soul, our anguish floats in its air like breath. We can no more abandon it than we can our precious children. We have no choice, can’t you see that?”

The Sea-God cursed, his vehemence whipped up by his frustration, crashing down around them with the turbulent power of the three waves of Eirean. “Then there is only one thing left I can do for you,” he roared. “After that, I wash my hands of the stubborn children of Danu! Those of your people that wish it, I will take with me to my lands west beyond the ninth wave. As for the rest of you, you have chosen your fate, and I warn you, your persistence will not go well with mankind. They will fear and persecute you. They will defame you, and slander you. You will not like what they do to your memory, or your beloved land.”

With that, Manannán shook out his Cloak of Concealment and whirled it through the air. Bodb Dearg felt the leap and rush of powerful magic so ancient, even the Denann did not know the way of it. On the edges of his vision, a fluttering of mist began to creep forward, slowly obliterating the lie of the land beneath its white flimsy velvet.

Bodb Dearg caught his breath, choking back deep sorrow as he took his last hungry view of these sacred hills and vales. Who knew when it would be safe to venture forth in the future?

Manannán had done so much for them already. He it was, who had come to them in the depths of their despair, rallying and calling them to action, urging them to choose a leader and decide their fate, when their existence lay in tatters on the battlefield at Tailten. When the conquering Milesian leaders had mocked Denann integrity by choosing to rule that half of Ireland which lay above ground, dooming the defeated to what remained, he had found for them all the wildest, the most secret hills and valleys, where they could be shielded from human interference. There, they had built their palaces beneath the domed hills, their entrances to the forbidden land that Manannán had given them, the place to which mortals in time would attribute the label of ‘Otherworld’.

Now, as his final parting gift, he shrouded them in the Faeth Fiadha, the Master of Mist which would form the border between the mortal world and the magical realm, a boundary through which mortals would stray at their peril.

Bodh Dearg knew this new home of his, Sidhe Femen, with its lake at the summit, was only one of a number of sites around Ireland sinking into the fog of obscurity as the chosen Duns of his people, a network of fairy forts lost to human vision but connected by magic threads invisible and unfelt by dull mortal senses.

The dominion of the Denann was over, but Bodb Dearg knew that in their own way, the magical folk would always prevail.

 

The Blacksmith in Irish Mythology

Range of Celtic weapons.
Range of Celtic weapons.

The most famous smith in Irish mythology is Goibniu (pronounced Gov-new). He was one of the Tuatha de Denann, contemporary with Nuada Argetlam and the Dagda. His name comes from Gobae, or Gobann, which is Old Irish for ‘smith’, although I would say that it is more likely that the reverse is true, and that the word for ‘smith’ was borrowed from his name.

There are conflicting tales about his parentage. Some say his father was Esarg, son of the war-god Néit, and thus related to Balor of the Fomori; others say that his father was Tuirbe Trágmar, the ‘axe-thrower’; it was said of him that he threw his axe onto the shore thus defying the encroaching tide, which obeyed his command, reaching up the sand on a level with, but not beyond the weapon. However, this was written in a C15th text, and it’s possible that the Gobánn referred to is in fact a C7th architect known as Gobann Saor.

Goibniu is often connected with Credne the silversmith and craftsman, and Luchtaine the carpenter. Together they form a triad known as the Trí de Dána, or the ‘Three Gods of Art’. Although these characters are spoken of in the mythology as three distinct persons, it is also possible that they represented the triple aspect of the God of Smithcraft, as was so popular in ancient Irish lore. We see this, for example, with Brigit, who was said to have two sisters also named Brigit, the three Queens of Eire, Banba, Fodla and Eriu, and the Morrigan, whose sisters were named Anann and Nemhain.

Credne and Luchtaine were sometimes thought to be Gobniu’s brothers, but on occasions Dian-Cecht, the Denann physician, and Nuada and the Dagda are also given as his brothers.

As usual, Irish mythology is endearingly clear as mud!

His forge, known as the Cerdcha Ghaibhnenn, was thought to be located east of Mullaghmast Hill on the Kildare/ Wicklow border. Here in ancient times there was a plentiful supply of copper, yet the Denann were famous for their weapons and tools of iron, not copper or bronze. Another (unlikely) theory locates his smithy on the Beara peninsula in Co Cork.

When the Tuatha de Denann first arrived in Ireland, they were said to have camped out at Sliabh an Iarainn in Leitrim, also known as ‘the Iron Mountain’… I think the clue’s in the name, really, don’t you?

Iron and coal mining was carried out in the region for hundreds of years. Later, the Denann settled in Magh Rein, Breffni and ruled from Tara, so it is more likely that Gobniu’s forge was situated in a more central location. However, as war and battle was such a way of life, the smith had to bring his forge with him in order to repair weapons and make new ones, so it’s reasonable to suppose that the forge may not in fact have had a permanent location at all.

This short film shows how the iron-Age Celts made their forge. Although it takes place in Holland, it is not unlike how our Irish ancestors were reported to have constructed their smithies.

In ancient times, the art of the smith was held in great esteem. It was considered a powerful magic indeed to wield and master the element of fire, which was representative of the great Sun-God himself; to take the bones of the earth (said to be the very bones of the mother Goddess Eriu, remember) and transform them through the application of fire, strength, skill, secret knowledge and magic into the much revered and coveted bright shining metallic objects of tools, weapons and jewellery.

Goibniu was a very important member of the Denann community, and his name crops up in many of the stories. When Nuada had his sword arm struck off by Sreng of the Fir Bolg in the First Battle of Moytura, Goibniu worked closely with Dian-Cacht to craft a fully working replacement of silver for him. Could this have been the world’s first ever bionic arm? It’s without doubt a most intriguing story.

In the Second Battle of Moytura, Goibniu was working away in his forge when Ruadan approached and requested the making of a new spear. Unbeknown by the Denann, Ruadan, who was the son of Brigit and the tyrant ex-Denann King Bres, has been recruited by his father as a spy. His mission was to try and identify the secret of Goibniu’s magic, and the source of the healing power with which Dian-Cecht restored the Denann warriors at the end of a full day’s battling.

When Goibniu hands over the spear, Ruadan stabs him with it, but the smith is made of hardy stuff. He pulls out the spear from his body and casts it at Ruadan, so killing him. Dian-Cecht carries Goibniu into the enchanted restorative waters of the Well of Healing, and thus the smith recovers.

There is a curious tradition which links Goibniu with the brewing of a divine beverage said to bestow eternal youth and life on the drinker.

It is said that after the Denann were defeated by the Milesians, Manannán the Sea-God called a council for the remaining Denann leaders at Newgrange. There, Bodb Derg was appointed the new Ard Ri, or High King of the Sidhe. (You will read all about this in my new book… soon, but not just yet.) Manannán raised the Feath Fiadha to shield the Sidhe from the enemy, and Goibniu held a feast for the Sidhe to ‘ward off age and death’.

The C12th Acallamh na Sénórach, or ‘The Coloquy of The Old Men’ also mentions this brew. It claims a Sidhe woman told St Patrick that everyone who drank at the Feast of Goibniu suffered neither illness nor disease. Another passage in the same manuscript describes the warrior Caoilte (of the Fianna) saying he knows of a Sidhe woman who ‘has the drink of healing and curing of the Tuatha de Denann which survives from the Feast of Goibniu’.

It is interesting because this marvellous mythic potion features not just in Irish mythology; Greek mythology has a similar theme in the Ambrosia, or Nectar drunk by the Gods; Norse mythology mentions mead in this context, and Verdic mythology tells of a similar concoction known as Amrita. The common factor is that they were all fermented from honey.

Could this story just be a borrowing from other older traditions, or does it in fact corroborate an ancient world-wide pattern of belief? We’ll probably never know, but one thing’s for certain, I’d sure like to get my hands on some of that stuff.


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Irish Mythology |Faeth Fiadha, Manannán’s Cloak Of Concealment

misty

In Irish mythology, the Faeth Fiadha (pronounced feh fee-o-ha) is the name of the mysterious mantle of fairy mist which blurs the border between the world of the mortal, and the magical realm of the Sidhe, the Otherworld known as Tir na Nog. The term means ‘Lord/ Master of Mist’, but the Faeth Fiadha is also referred to as the ‘Cloak of Concealment’.

As God of the Sea, Manannán has always been associated with the Faeth Fiadha. He was said to have possessed several magical talismans, which he loaned out to others on occasion; a ship named ‘Wavesweeper’, that needed no sails; a helmet of flame; a sword named Fragarach, meaning ‘the Answerer’, which could pierce any armour; a white horse named Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, which could travel as easily over water as solid land, and ‘the Cloak of Concealment’. Continue reading