Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 6

As a form of hangover of the outmoded idea that the filid were ‘Christian druids’, a phrase to guarantee so called experts to come out of the woodwork, there is a tendency to imagine that the order of professional poets and men of learning remained basically the same between the 6th and 11th Centuries. Scholars have demonstrated that this is not the case, and that the role of the learned poets within the literate landscape was always changing. In short, it is possible that while the filid did not believe that the Tuatha Dé were Gods, “though we enumerate them, we do not worship them”, from the middle of the 9th century they became increasingly attached to them as allegories, mnemonics, and images of that within their body of learning which was not shared ecclesiastical scholars (‘The Three Things required of a Poet’ J Carey). The Gods added to the aura of romantic antiquity which had become convenient for the filid to stress, and ‘Pagan@ supernatural tropes were invoked to underline their supposed roots in the ancient past and so assert their professional distinctiveness.

If this is so, then the potential ramifications are thought provoking. In the previous part, E Boyle has stressed that reading for non-literal levels of meaning was an essential part of training for the learned, and that it arose directly from the way the Bible was interpreted. She makes the case that the Irish men of learning wrote, on occasion, as they had been taught to read, by implanting layers of metaphorical meaning into vernacular texts. And if the Gods, once the religious framework of Irish Paganism faded, were available to the literati for recycling as a stock of metaphors and personifications, then we are faced with the fundamental problem that we have no way to guage how conservative or radical that process was for any particular Divinity (‘Abstract narrative in Ireland’ Snowcroft). In other words, the fact that some among the filid seem to have thought in terms of a “pantheon of skill”, including former Deities such as Brighid and Ogma, may not be a holdover from Irish Paganism. Instead, it might be a development entirely of medieval scholarship, and thus tell us literally nothing about these Gods had been envisioned in the pre-Christian era. Further research is needed, but this painstaking possibility must be taken seriously to be successful.

On the other hand, there is certainly evidence that there were different schools of thought about the Gods and their pedigrees among the filid, although this is difficult to say whether this was down to variation over time or between poetic authorities in different parts of Ireland. We find hints in two places that some filid thought in terms of a special group of 7 or 8 ‘skilled Gods’ with whom they were prone to identify, hinting at conceptual or metaphorical structures within the pantheon itself. Again, this is probably not ancient, as ‘Lebór Gabála’ is full of groups of eight, largely thanks to the Biblical tale of Noah in which 8 humans took refuge on the Ark from the Great flood (‘Leabhar Gabhála; Part 2’ Snowcroft). 7 is also an important number in the Bible, and in medieval Christianity, we have 7 days of creation, 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, 7 Sacraments, etc, etc.

In some versions  of Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’, the Tuatha Dé are said to have followed Bethach mac Iarbonél and ‘seven subsidiary leaders’. These are termed the seven sons of Ethliu/Ethlenn, normally the name of Lúgh’s maternal Fomór mother and this turns the genealogy into nonsense because the seven are revealed as not just Lúgh, but also the Dagda, Dian Cécht, Credne, Luchtaine, Núada, and Goibnenn/Goibniu. It is possible that the female name Ethlenn/Eithliu has become confused with Elatha, the father of the Dagda (‘Caith Maige Tuired’ EA Gray). The ‘seven sons of Elatha’ would still be unusual in terms of the normal family tree, but not outlandish (‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey).

This group of eight is reminiscent of one that occurs in ‘Lebór Bretnach’ or the British Book, a late 11th Century Irish translation of the Latin ‘Historia Brittonum’, which contains a crucial version of the invasions-schema. Dating to the early 9th Century, it attests to a time when the Tuatha Dé had not yet been integrated into its structure. When medieval scholars, perhaps Irish, but possibly Scottish, translated the Historia into Irish, they updated its version of the pseudohistory and inserted the Tuatha De into their conventional place (‘Scotland, the Nennian Recension of the Historia Brittonum and the Lebor Bretnach’ TO Clancy). Some versions of the ‘Lebór Bretnach’ attribute the translation to Gilla Cóemáin, one of the four master poets of the ‘Lebór Gabála’, but the version of the Tuatha Dé in the ‘Bretnach’ differs to the ‘Gabála’. It is either Cóemáin was not the translator, or his views changed.

The major oddity is that the ‘Bretnach’ focuses in a pared-down pantheon consisting only of seven prímelathnaig or chief-skilled ones among the Tuatha Dé. It should be noted that the word elathnaig is the plural for elathnach, which is derived from elatha or art, and we have seen this used as Elatha the father of the Dagda. Interestingly, the list differs slightly from that in Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’, comprising  Ogma, Etan, the Dagda, Dían Cécht, Credne, Luchtaine, Lúgh, and Goibnenn. Etan, the only female, has been added but Núada is not present. The passage is in a mixture of Latin and Irish, and is quoted because it is very rare to see Latin attributes added to the Gods:

“After that the plebes deorum [god-people], ie the Tuatha Dé Danann, conquered Ireland. Among them there were the chief skilled ones: Etan, Luchtaine Artifex [the artificer], Credne Figulus [the craftsman], Dían Medicus [the physician],-Etan moreover was filia eius [his daughter],ie the foster mother of the poets; Goibnenn Faber [the smith], Lúgh son of Eithne, who possessed all the arts, the great Dagda, son of Elatha, son of Delbaeth, the king, Ogma, the kings brother for it was he who invented the alphabet of the Irish.”

(‘Lebor Bretnach: The Irish version of the Historia Brittonum ascribed to Nennius’ AG van Hamel)

Putting this together, we can tentatively theorise that the filid were prone to identify the after-images of certain Gods as the patrons and personifications of the particular professional skills proper to the áes dána. Possibly, but by no means necessarily, they were building on genuinely ancient elements in particular cases. However, as their order increasingly risked complete assimilation into the ranks of the ecclesiastical literati, foregrounding the native Gods may have been a strategy to bolster their archaic mystique and distinct identity. By the mid 11th Century, and maybe much earlier, there are signs that this concept had developed into the idea of an exclusive club of seven or eight allegorical Gods who were specifically the prototypes and originators of the major áes dána professions (‘The Annals of Inisfallen’ MS Rawlinson). In Recension 2 of ‘Lebór Gabála’ the list of the seven Divinities is immediately followed by this statement:

“….they studied knowledge and the art of the filid, for every secret of skilful art, and every technique in medicine, and every trade secret in poetry- all indeed derive their origin from the Tuatha Dé Danann.”

(‘Lebor Gabála Eireann’ RA Macalister)

Effectively, these figures became cultural heroes for the filid on some level, the primordial investigators of human resource. This reflects the general obsession of Irish men of learning with accuracy regarding origin stories. The accounts we have betray the fact that we are looking at the lore of poets, and not the áes dána professions like physicians, specifically because poetic Divinities are to the fore. The ‘Lebor Bretnach’ octad, either written by or perhaps dedicated to Gilla Cóemáin, is bookended by two such Deities, Etan the female poet and Ogma the inventor of the ‘letters of the Irish’.

There may be a chance to have a glimpse at the outline of the filid’s cognitive ideology. It is striking that the 8 ‘Lebor Bretnach’ Divinities can be divided into 3 categories; those associated with the shaping of speech ie Etan, Ogma, and the Dagda; those associated with crafts ie Credne, Luchtaine and Goibnenn; and the one associated with medicine ie Dían Cécht (‘Early Irish Metrics’ G Murphy). One God, being the master of all arts, Lúgh rounds off the list as minister of portfolio (‘Mercantile Myth in Medieval Celtic Traditions’ JF Nagy). This precisely mirrors the division embodied by the 3 Brighid’s, daughters of the Dagda, in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’  being Brighid the female Poet, Brighid the female Smith, and Brighid the Physician. There is a specific resonance between Etan and Brighid as we see that in ‘Lebor Bretnach’, Etan is muime na filed or foster mother of the filid, and in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’, Brighid is “the Goddess whom the filid used to worship”. The glossary’s triple Brighid persona and ‘Lebor Bretnach’s  octet of Divinities both embody a division of the arts into 3 basic branches (‘Pagan Past and Christian presence in Early Irish Literature’ K McCone). Brighid and Etan, both Divine women, share a particular patronage for the filid, emerge as a central force within the enterprise.

This suggests that the same ideological elements recurred in different combinations, due to maybe regional variations among the filid. This may be reflected  in the quote mentioned above on Brighid from ‘Cormacs Glossary’, as it is important to remember that the Irish glossaries were mostly creations of the Munster province, and perhaps may reflect southern interpretations of the mythologies and mythological beings. Nowhere else is Brighid so richly described, and in the absence of independent evidence from other texts we cannot assume that the account of Her importance given there would have been universally recognised. The entry itself seems to implythe contrary, saying that almost all the Irish people recognised Brighid as a Goddess. This maybe a southern overstatement, but it might be that Brighid, who embodies the threefold division of the arts, but is the Patroness of the filid and sometimes the mother to “the 3 Gods of Art”, was to the poest of Munster what Etan (poetess, mother of Coibre the poet, and foster mother of the filid), daughter of Dían Cécht, was further north. Once again it is important to remember that in terms of medieval Irish writings, which we currently have is likely to be a fraction of what probably once existed, the possibility that our current understanding of the Gods is seriously askew by mere accidents of survival that must be always reckoned with (‘ Cath Maige Tuired’ EA Gray).

Among all these poetic allegories, one figure is absent, and He is another child of the Dagda, Óengus, the Mac Óc. While one would might expect him to be among the 7 (or 8) “primary skilled Ones”, or associated with Brighid, Brés, and Elathaas one of the filid’s pantheon of skill, he does not appear except for ‘The Annals of Innisfallen’. He is a noted personality in Irish literature especially in “The Wooing of Étaín” and is the central character of “Aislinge Óenguso” or the Dream of Óengus, composed possibly in the 8th Century (‘Knowledge and Power in Aislinge Óenguso’ T Ó Cathasaigh).

There are important dimensions to ‘Aisling Óenguso’ that have not yet been fully understood, and this is a seperate examination for another time. For this rather long essay on pseudohistory and the poet creators, we are looking at how Óengus undergoes  an emotional transformation on one hand, but he is a crafty, verbally sly figure on the other. He is adept at getting both himself and others into as well as out of difficult situations. Homer’s adjective for his hero Odyssus, polutropos (of many twists and turns), would fit Óengus well. Two of the God’s schemes depend on play with literal and metaphorical meanings, which bring Him into the realm of the filid’s language and figuration. He wily gains the Bruig by insisting that ‘ day and a night’ means ‘all time’, because ‘it is in days and nights that the world is spent’ (‘Celtic Heroic Age’ J Carey). He also advises his father, the Dagda, on how to kill the parasitic Cridenbél, who has been demanding on a daily basis that the Dagda hand over to him ‘the three best bits’ of his dinner. Cridenbél expects bits of meat, but on Óengus’ advice the Dagda hides three gold coins in the food, his ‘best bits’ in a limited sense, which clog up Cridenbél’s stomach and eventually kill him (‘Cath Maige Tuired’ EA Gray).

Poetry involves play between surface and depth, or the literal and metaphorical, and Óengus appears at least in one story, maybe others I could have missed, as an allegorical personage connected with poetic art. This is blatant in a Middle Irish anecdote, ‘Bó Bithblicht meic Lonán’ or ‘The Son of Lonán’s Unyeilding Milking Cow’ (insert pun here) (‘A Story of Flann mac Lonáin’ O Bergin). In it Flann mac Lonáin, a distinguished historical poet, who was killed in 896, meets a crudish peasant to whom he ends up owing a cow (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston). The peasant will only be satisfied with a cow that gives endless milk, and after a year he turns up at Flann’s house with four cronies, all of them armed with woodcutting tools, to demand it. They are unpleasant guests, beating the households women, servants, and dogs. Flann asks the peasant his name, which he gives as Fidbadach son of Fid Rúscach (woodsman son of bark covered wood). In a panic, as he had no cow of such to give, Flann composed a poem reflecting his predicament. Before I continue, I must point out that churl originally means a rude peasant. And thus comes the inevitable final narrative:

“It was then the churl said: ‘That’s the cow always rich in milk that I sought- for poetry is always rich in milk, and I who have come to you am Óengus, son of Bóand, the Mac ÓC, and no churl am I’.”

(‘Bó Bithblicht’ edited and translated Clifford)

That Óengus is supposed to have some deep connection with poetry is clear in the text’s constant punning on the word fid or wood/tree, which can also mean a word (and I stress only one word) of the ogham alphabet, and also represents filidecht itself. The peasant’s or churl’s name, woodsman of bark covered wood, can equally be seen as ‘a man of the ogham letter, son of a poetic letter’ (see ‘Bó Bithblicht’ edited by Clifford again). Flann frets about his guest ‘destroying the trees’, for Óengus carries a small billhook, used for cutting small branches, but he does quite the opposite and is metaphorically a custodian of that letter. The lesson that Óengus imparts is about metaphor, ‘poetry is a cow that is never dry’, which embodies the God’s own speciality, namely the ability to use the gap between the literal and the figurative.

Óengus is never involved in creating verse in the sagas that survive, but there are points of similarity between his experiences in “The Dream of Óengus” and descriptions of poetic composition from the Gaelic world. In the story of Flann’s encounter with the God incognito, the poet is vexed by the time his unpleasant guest spends lounging abed, “…awful his lying in his bed…fierce his length of time in bed” (see ‘Bó Bithblicht’ again).  Likewise, in “The Dream of Óengus”, the God languishes in bed yearning for the love of a woman he has dreamed about. The is very late evidence from 18th Century Scottish sources that Gaelic poets composed in darkness out of habit, lying in their beds for extended periods (‘Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview’ JF Nagy). Evidence that this was customary of the filid in early Ireland is scarce, although JF Nagy points out that ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ describes a ritual which involves the filid (Cormac) awaiting inspiration by covering his face with his hands and laying down to sleep.

It is a possibility that the filid might have interpreted the depiction of the God’s suffering in “The Dream of Óengus” as a metaphor for the process of composing poetry itself. There are strong points of similarity. First, the saga gives us a fugitive vision which cannot be forced to return by an act of will, followed by an intermediary period of inarticulate, bedbound socht or stupor, plus consultation with authorities of greater knowledge. At the last comes exaltation, which is the God’s recovery of the woman from his vision and full possession of that which initially had been fleeting (‘Knowledge and Power’ Ó Cathasaigh). If the saga was not originally intended to be an allegory of poetic composition, it may have been irresistible to the poets of later centuries to be read as one. This would have helped to foster an image of Óengus as an archetype of the poetic profession.

Elusive but intriguing hints that Óengus was used by the filid to symbolise the the subjective experience of verse composition are found in other places. The best evidence comes from a famous anecdote in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’. It tells of a male ‘spirit of poetry’ appearing to the ardfili Senchán Torpéist, chief ollam of Ireland (‘Sanas Cormaic’ edited by Meyer). A mysterious youth, shouting at them from a beach, insists on accompanying Senchán and his troupe of filid and apprentice poets on their trip to the Isle of man. His appearance is not pleasant;

“He had a hideous shape, first of all, when he used to put his finger to his forehead a gush of foul pus would come from his ears down to his neck. There was suppuration [?] from the crown of his head to the gristle of his two shoulders. Everyone who saw him thought it was the upper layer of his brain that had broken through his skull. Each of his two eyeswere as round as a blackbirds egg, as black as death, as quick as a fox.” (‘The Prull Narrative’ M Ní Dhonnchadha)

As the whole company approach the island, they “see a great, old, grey haired woman upon the rock”, combing the beach for seaweed. Unknown to Senchán’s group, she is a long-lost Irish poet. Senchán is unable to best the riddling half-quatrain that the woman calls out to him, and instead the youth answers, telling the old woman that it is him, rather than Senchán, she should address. Thanks to the youths intervention, Senchán realises who the woman is and orders for her to be bathed and dressed in finery befitting her high status. But it is the end of the narrative that is most significant, as while all this happens the mishappen youth undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming “a youth with yellow golden hair, wavy as the scrollings on harps. He was clad in royal apparel, and had the finest appearance ever seen on any man” (‘Tromdám Guaire’ Late Middle Irish tale anon.). He then circles Senchán and his group clockwise and vanishes. “…..he has never appeared since that time. Thus there is no doubt that he was the spirit of poetry [poematis spiritus].”

There are obvious similarities between this anecdote and and the story of Flann’s encounter with Óengus. Both describe the manifestation of a loathsome man into a distinguished fili, in a way that makes life difficult for them. In both, the man is revealed as being supernatural and connected with poetry itself, though in either case it is not obvious to begin with. There is an achievement attained in both accounts where Flann composes one of his best poems and in the other, a lost poet is recognised and has her status recovered.

On the other hand, each story has one element that the other has not. Only the glossary anecdote indicates to us the central figures transformation from hideous to divine. Likewise, the story of Flann makes it explicit that the churl is Óengus, whereas in the Glossary anecdote the identification is only implicit. Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha also notes that half of the stories various versions actually identify the spirit of poetry as Christ. That said, in 1927, the English poet, scholar, Celtist, Anglo-Saxonist, and Irish language translator Robin Ernest William Flowers 1881 to 1946 (affectionately nicknamed Bláthín), made the connection between the two anecdotes and noted the similarity between the story of the Spirit and Modern Irish tales in which Óengus lends his aid in an initially disruptive or mischievous form ( ‘Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum’ R Flower). The Sirits great beauty, for which Óengus is famous for, also fits. In short, scholars have noted that in both these anecdotrs we are dealing with the mythopoetic aspects of poetry (‘ The Blind, the Dumb, and the Ugly; Aspects of Poets and their Craft in early Ireland’ PK Ford). It is physically trying until one reaches enlightenment; then it becomes divine. They are not just stories about poetry but how it feels to train to become a poet.

Taken together, these anecdotes may help to make sense of one of the most puzzling of all medieval Irish references to a native God. Under the year 1084, the normally laconic Annals of Tigernach contain an unusual entry, which reads with an almost similarity to the writing style of WB Yeats in ‘The Celtic Twilight’ (‘Archaeology and Celtic Myth :An Exploration’ J Waddell). In a serve from the usual annalistic focus on battles and deaths, we learn of:

“A great pestilence in this year, which killed a quarter of the men of Ireland. It began in the south, and spread throughout the four quarters of Ireland. This is the causa causans of that pestilence, namely demons that came out of the northern isles of the world, namely three battalions, and in each battalion there were three thousand and thirty, as Óengus mac ÓC, the son of the Dagda, related to Mac Gilla Lugáin, who used to frequent the síd-mound every year at Samain. And he himself beheld at Maistiu one battalion of them that were destroying Leinster. In the same way they were seen by Mac Gilla Lugáin’s son, and wherever their heat and fury reached, their venom was taken, for there was a sword of fire out of the gullet of each of them, and every one of themwas as high as the clouds of heaven, so that is the cause of this pestilence.” (‘The Annals of Tigernach’ translated W Stokes)

That a God should convey supernatural insight to a mortal was a staple of the earliest Irish narrative prose. But on the face of it Mac Gilla Lugáin’s interview with the Mac Óc seems to be accepted by the annalist as not only genuine occurrence, but as contemporary. It is also accepted that the Mac Óc’s intelligence is accurateas he does identify the cause of the plague, The implications of this passage are, at first glance, startling, and commentators have on the whole not known quite how to take it, given that it seems to confirm the persistence of Pagan practices in 11th Century Ireland. Edel Bhreathnach says this passage helps us to “begin to experience a ritual culture, replicated in so many other societies, that existed outside, and was feared by those who sought to control social and religious mores in early Irish society” (‘Ireland and the Medieval World’). The archaeologist John Waddell is impressed that Mac Gilla Lugáin “should still apparently be a regular and persistent visitor to the otherworld mound of Óengus at the great feast of Samhain, when he evidently communed with the son of the Dagda” (‘Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration’).

Should we take these enigmatic passages literally? It is unusual that a Clonmacnoise cleric should have unhesitatingly accepted that there were those among his cotemporaries who had spoken with Pagan Deities should be considered to be in some sense on our side. An alternative way to view this might be as follows. The evidence examined above tells us that it was entirely possible in the Middle Irish period ( circa 800-1200) to compose an anecdotein which a famous poet encountered, and was enlightened by, the God Óengus, probably reflecting a habit of using the Deity to allegorise the difficulties and rewards of the filid’s profession. Might Mac Gilla Lugáin , of whom nothing is known, have been a member of the fili? There is nothing in the annal entry to suggest this. On the other hand, the story depicts him as the possessor of supernatural vision (etymologically fili means seer), inherited by his son; the practise of filidecht ran in families. Furthermore, all of this takes place when among the professional poets were deliberately playing up their connections with the pre-Christian past. There is no reason to think that the names of every significant medieval Irish poet are known to us, and every reason to think that they are not. Therefore, it is tempting to suggest that Mac Gilla Lugáin was no half-pagan throwback, but an assertively secular fili who composed an account of contemporary travails within a demonstrably pre-existant subgenre which we can call “The Poets encounter with Óengus”. If there was once a text called “The Colloquy of Mac Gilla Lugáin and the Mac ÓC”, we will never know. Perhaps Mac Gilla Lugáin’s ostentatious innovation was composing an autobiography, whereas Senchán Torpéist and Flann mac Lonán, the stories of their supernatural encounters were the creations of later generations for whom they were revered figures. In short, this profoundly odd annal-entry may have more precise cultural context than has been recognised, and its affinities should be recognised as being fundamentally literary, not literal.

It is time to pull some strands of this argument together before continuing. As the story of Mac Gilla Lugáin suggests, it is important again to emphasise that using Divinites in this way as symbols, rhetorical personifications, and allegories was not Paganism. It might, in fact, have been a long way from Irish Paganism as it actually had once been. Instead it was a kind of meta-mythology for intellectuals, a local analogy to the myriad ways that the classical Deities were put to use by poets and thinkers throughout the Middle Ages, and beyond. Unquestionably devout Christian poets regulary used Greek and Roman Deities as figures of speech, allegores, or useful fictions, while scholars massaged Christian monotheism to finda place for the ancient Gods as beings of genuine power. Invoking Apollo or the Muses is a classic example of the former process; in the latter case, one thinks of the power medieval thinkers ascribed to the planetary Deities and to the Goddess natura, nature personified (‘God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages’ B Newman). Irish poets, I suggest, were more than capable of similarly sophisticated strategies with their own native Gods, although this measure of actual existence they accorded to Brighid, for example, is probably irrecoverable, and indeed may have varied between individuals.

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

Seán Ó Tuama.


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