Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 3

When we turn to what the ‘Lebór Gabála’ actually says about the reign of the Tuatha Dé, the account of their soveignity over the Island falls into 3 sections. The 1st is of their invasion and defeat of the Fir Bolg (the first battle of Moytura). The 2nd provides a list of their kings, and the last comes an account of their genealogies. These 3 subsections look like that they were originally separate tracts., and this tells us about how the ‘Lebór Gabála’ was assembled. It suggests that the pseudohistorians scoured all available sources for information about the Tuatha Dé, including glossaries and miscellaneous scholarly texts,  and that they patched all this into their own design more or less wholesale.

The 1st section sets the Gods into the stage of Irish history. There is considerable variation in both detail and tone between the many recensions, although they all agree that the Tuatha Dé arrived and defeated the Fir Bolg at the 1st battle of Moytura. They arrive from the North (the most dark portentous direction of medieval thought). In some versions it is claimed that the sun and moon grew dark at their arrival, perhaps a disquieting vision of the Crucifixion, the pivotal disaster of biblical history (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). And whereas all previous races had reached Irish shores by ship, the Tuatha Dé had a grand entrance of arriving on clouds of dark vapour:

“The descendants of Bethach son Iarbonél the prophet son of Nemed 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. They are the Tuatha de Danann who came to Ireland.

It is this thus they came: in dark clouds. They landed on the mountains of Conmaicne Réin in Connaught and they put a darkness on the sun for 3 days and nights. Battle or kingship they demanded of the Fir Bolg. Battle was fought between them, the first battle of Moytura, in which a hundred thousand of the Fir Bolg fell. After that they took the kingship of Ireland”

(‘The Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey)

Conmaicne Réin, the landing site, is an area east of the Shannon and comprises parts of the Counties Leitrim and Longford (‘Onomasticon Goedelicum’ E Hogan). The Tuatha Dé were meant to be descendants of Nemed, like the Fir Bolg, but this tradition makes them the medieval equivalent of eerie technologically superior fallen angels (‘Etymologiae’ Isidore). Continuing in the same tone, the 2nd recension also adds that the had been in Greece, where they had put their knowledge into infusing demonic spirits into corpses in order to help their Athenian allies in war against the Philistines (‘Lebór Gabála Ereann’ various). Interestingly enough to our modern eyes, this actually strengthens the pseudohistorians’ attempt to classify the Tuatha Dé as human rather than divine Beings; that men and women might acquire the knowledge to force demons to do their will (shades of Solomon the King here) was the classical line of the medieval explanation for magic (‘Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval Romance’ C Saunders).

Other versions of ‘Lebór Gabála’ present their arrival in a more positive light, with them travelling in large sea vessels they burned in order to make it impossible to turn tail and flee with the clouds of inky vapour had been the smoke rising from the flames of their burning ships (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). Significantly, this rationalising version was secondary with the motif of the Tuatha Dé’s supernatural arrival seems to be the older of the two. We know this because something very similar appears in the text ‘Scél Tuáin meic Chairill’ which was composed in the late 9th Century. This tale provides an account of the various invasions as witnessed by the ancient Tuán (see part 1) and transcribed to the saint, Finnia of Moville, who was in the process of spreading the word of Christ to the people of Ulster (Patrick bedamned). This text is crucial because it gives us the picture of an intermediate stage in the integration of the Tuatha Dé into the pseudohistory. It shows that around the year 900, the Tuatha Dé were already thought of as in one of the sequence of invasions, but they had not yet been defined as human descendants of Nemed in the way they had become orthodox a century or two later. Tuán speculates uneasily:

“Beothecht son of Iordanen took this island from the people that were in it. Of them are the Gáilióin, and the Túatha Dé and Andé, whose origin the men of learning do not know; but they thought it likely that they are some of the exiles who came to them from heaven”.

(Scél Tuáin meic Chairill’ J Carey){ the phrase Túatha Dé and Andé translates as Gods and non-Gods}

Here the Tuatha Dé are still identified as fallen angels. We can presume that the idea of exile from heaven has influenced the motif of landing from the sky. A century or so later, the pseudohistorian Eochaid ua Flainn was still batting the arguments like a tennis match:

“Their number was sufficient, whatever compelled them;

They alighted, with horror, in warlike manner,

In their cloud, evil wars of spectres,

Upon the mountains of Conmaicne in Connaught.

Without [? concealment they came] to skilful Ireland,

Without ships, a savage journey,

The truth concerning them was not known beneath the starry heaven,

Whether they were of heaven or of earth.

If from the demons, it is devils

That comprised the troop of……famous exiles,

A blaze [?] {drawn up] in ranks and hosts;

If from men, they were Betach’s offspring.”

(‘Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey)

This looks like ramblings, but it is a learned poet’s scrupulous settingout  of varying opinions, before allowing himself to reach his conclusion, and opposite that to the tale of Túan, he is quoted writing “they belong properly among mortals”. This is the first confirmed assertion in Irish tradition of the plain humanity of the former Divine Ones, and this was to become a standard pseudohistorical doctrine.

If the Tuatha Dé were to be mere mortals in pseudohistory, a question arises as how did they come to have divine powers nearly equating to those of Gods? Some versions of ‘Lebor Gabála’ add more details about their arrival, with some declaring that they had learned their magical arts at the feet of 4 sages in 4 mysterious cities found in the north of the world, from where they had brought 4 treasures to Ireland (‘Book of Leinster: Recension 1’ various). This famous passage should be worth quoting here:

“Four cities in which they used to learn knowledge and lore and devilry: these are their names, Falias and Goirias, and Findias and Muirias. From Falias was brought the stone of Fál which is in Tara, which used to cry out beneath every king who used to take control of Ireland. From Goirias was brought the spear which Lug had: a battle would never go against the man who had it in hand. From Findias was brought Núada’s sword: one might escape from it from the moment it was drawn from its battle scabbard, there was no resisting it, From Muisias was brought the Dagda’s cauldron: no group of people would go from it unsatisfied. Four sages in those cities: Mórfhesa, who was in Falias, Esrus who was in Goirias, Uiscias who was in Findias, Semias who was in Muirias. Those are the four poets {filidh}, with whom the Túatha Dé Danann used to learn knowledge and lore.”

(‘Book of Fermoy: Recension1’ Various).

This was to become a vital part of the body of lore associated with the Tuatha Dé, and it would capture the imagination of a number of writers who gave the Gods their Anglo-Irish afterlife. Those set on weaving Ireland’s traditions into western hermeticism ( WB Yeats was a major player) were forcibly struck by the apparent symbolism here, which seemed to evoke the 4 elements of natural philosophy and esoteric doctrine.

A reader may wonder whether the medieval texts themselves actually point to any particular symbolism. We cannot push back the date of this tradition much before circa 1100, for neither the 4 cities nor the 4 sages occur anywhere before ‘Lebor Gabála’, and only one of the 4 treasures, the stone of Fál, occurs in some earlier texts. While there is always the chance that the treasures, sages, and cities represent a sounding from oral tradition, it is more likely they are late 11th century creations by the pseudohistorical school, which had an urgent need to invest the Tuatha Dé with the trappings of hidden knowledge. This is because the power of the Tuatha Dé posed a problem in exact proportion to their humanity. The key to the anecdote therefore is to appreciate that it partially explains how the Tuatha Dé could have been human, as pseudohistorical doctrine had come to insist,  and yet exhibited the supernatural powers which tradition invariably accorded them (‘Early Christian Ireland’ TM Charles-Edwards). It is tellingly bound up with the Tuatha Dé’s experiences in the northern islands and descent from Nemed; there was no need for magical academies in the north when the Gods were regarded as indigenous to Ireland, nor were they seen as fallen angels, since magical expertise is part and parcel with demons. The pseudohistorians’ solution to this conundrum was one that was apt to comfort intellectuals: the assertion that knowledge itself is power.

One of the strongest arguments that the tradition is a late creation is the fact that the scenario of sages and cities closely resembles that of the educational structure of the 1tth Century Irish church.  Schools were located in different monastic towns, each headed by one of the learned scholars termed scribae or fir léginn in the Annals. The sages Uiscias, Semias, Esrus and Mórfhesa would thus be reflections in a distorting mirror of those responsible for @Lebor Gabála’ itself, the class of experts in biblical and native historic traditions. In some versions the sages are called filidh or learned poets, and other accounts use the word fissid meaning seer or druí meaning druid, emphasising that the Tuatha Dé had specifically pagan knowledge, and their curriculum, involving the so called black arts, is decidedly unwholesome (‘Cat Magh Tuired: Myth and Structure’ EA Gray). The miraculous treasures associated with each city look like demonic or opposites of venerated relics associated with major ecclesiastical foundations (‘A Tale of Two Ditties: Poet and Satirist in Cath Maige Tuired’ K McCone). This is a version of the non-historical idea, as attested as far back as Muirchú’s 7th Century ‘Life of Patrick’, that the Irish belief in the Old Religions had been Christianity’s evil twin, complete with unholy, seemingly scriptural books and a learned priesthood teaching diabolical doctrine (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston). It is possible that the “ias” endings of some of the names were concocted to echo the names inscribed on many an Ogham stone’ Learned medieval scholars were able to read these, and though in many cases the language would be difficult for them, they certainly would have recognised that they were looking at personal names of great historical value (‘Lebór Gabála Ereann’ RAS Macalister). Macalister also notes that “ias” was the characteristic ending of the singular of feminine in Old Irish. “ia” would be plural while “io” would be masculine. This was common on ogham inscriptions because “[the stone of] X son of Y” was the standard form for such inscriptions. Macalister also noted that biblical names ending with “iah” ended in “ias” in the Vulgate, so the names like Semias and Uiscias might have given an Old Testament combined with the all-important native Irish feel.

There is uncertainty behind the true meaning of the cities, sages and treasures. Due to them being invented none of the available interpretations are definite. At best one can guess the associations the words might have set up in the minds of contemporary readers. In theory, there is nothing intrinsically improbable about the four cities echoing the four elements, which formed part of mainstream medieval cosmology and were perfectly well known in Ireland (‘Understanding the Universe in 7th Century Ireland’ Woodbridge). “Warm”, and “marine” cities accompanied with a”watery” sage look promising for elemental correspondences, but “watery” Uiscias is not associated with the “marine” city of Muirias, and there are other difficulties in making these names fit.

City                                               Sage                                                               Treasure

Falias (fál means hedge)          Mórfhesa meaning greatness                   Stone of Fál

                                                                        Of wisdom

Goirias (gor means warmth)   Esrus meaning opportunity                       Spear of Lugh

Muirias (muir means sea)        Semias meaning transparent                    An Dagda’s cauldron

Findias (find means bright)      Uiscias meaning water (usice)                  Sword of Núada

(‘Irelands Immortals’ M Williams)

In all, the balance of probabilities is that the tradition of the Tuatha Dé’s cities, sages and treasures was a creation of the pseudohistorical movement itself, rather than an ancient, pre-Christian concept. The array of names seems to evoke and underscore the Tuatha Dé’s Heathen knowledge, as a strategy for explaining their God-like powers after they were humanised and historicised (‘Les Isles au Nord du Monde’ F LeRoux). It is also noteworthy that it accords with a demonstrable high medieval interest in the depiction of magical learning. The pseudohistorian Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mid 12th Century account of the magical Isle of Avalon is a classic example, and provides a feminine equivalent for the cities of the Tuatha Dé. He describes the island as a form of women’s college headed by Morgan le Fay, who teaches astrology to her 8 sisters, and who, similar to the Tuatha Dé, is able to fly through the air. As with Semias, Uiscias, Esrus, and Mórfhesa, Moggan’s sisters have names which sing of phoney Greek mythology when we read of Moronoe, Mazoe, Glitonea and so forth (‘Life of Merlin’ B Clarke). As often with Irish mythology, apparent relics of Heathan lore turn out to reflect intellectual and literary currents which were widespread in medieval Christendom.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.


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