As Ireland was never invaded by the Romans, the Celtic culture and religion flourished until the Christianization of the island at the beginning of the 5th c.64Unlike Gaulish and British mythology, of which there are no written sources, Celtic Irish tradition, myths and beliefs was preserved in written form by the Christian monks from the 7th c. AD. Although much of the material culture described in these sources was largely expurgated by the Church and comprises many Christian beliefs, the basically pagan, pre-Christian character of the mythology presented in this literature cannot be disputed.
Irish mythology, which reflects the various traditions, beliefs and customs of the Celtic Irish peoples, is a large corpus of divine and heroic tales, collected in manuscripts dating from the 11th to the 15th c., the earliest ones of which are Lebor na hUidre [‘The Book of the Dun Cow’], probably compiled at the end of the 11th c., Lebor Laignech [‘The Book of Leinster’], dating to c. 1150, and others, such as Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta [‘The Book of Ballymote’] and Lebor Buide Lecáin [‘The Yellow Book of Lecan’], compiled at the end of the 14th.65 In the codices, the legends are organized by theme. The Book of Leinster for instance contains 187 legends, classified in twelve themes, such as Togla (‘Stronghold Destructions’), Tána (‘Cattle Raids’), Tochmarca (‘Wooings’), Catha (‘Battles’), Uatha (‘Caves’), Imrama (‘Sea Voyages’), Fessa (‘Feasts’), Airgne (‘Massacres’), etc.66 The archaic character of the language of some texts clearly evidences the antiquity of the legends, which undeniably predated the compilation of the manuscripts. The earliest legends date from the 7th c. AD to the 9th c. Because of oral tradition, various versions of a same legend are known, which explains why it remains difficult to establish a reference text.
Irish mythology has been organized by modern scholars in four categories or ‘Cycles’. The first cycle, known as ‘Mythological Cycle’, is organized around three main legends: the Lebor Gabála Érenn [‘The Book of Invasions’], Cath Muige Tuired Cunga [‘The Battle of Moytirra of Cong’] and Cath Maige Tuired [‘The Second Battle of Moytirra’], which relate the mythical origins of Ireland and the stories of the various pagan gods and goddesses.67 The Lebor Gabála Érenn [‘The Book of Invasions’], composed at the beginning of the 12th c. and edited by Stewart Macalister (1938-1956), recounts the successive invasions of Ireland by six divine races: Cessair, Partholón, Nemed, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann (‘the Tribe of the Goddess Dana’), who, after being defeated at Sliabh Mis68 by the human sons of Míl, retreated beneath the earth and dwelt in ancient cairns and tumuli*. From that time on, the world was divided in two: human beings inhabited the surface of the earth, while gods and goddesses lived in the sídh or ‘Underworld’. The Tuatha Dé Danann are the main gods and goddesses of Ireland: the Dagda, an old and huge father-god, who resides at Brugh na Bóinne (Newgrange) in Co. Meath and has for attributes a cauldron of plenty and a staff, dispensing death on one side and restoring life on the other; Lug, a young and powerful leader-god, who is known as the Samhildánach (‘the one who possesses all the arts’); Nuadu, the King; Dían Cécht, the physician; Oghma, the champion; Goibhniu, the Smith; the Mórrígain, Badb and Macha, the three goddesses of war; Bóinn, the goddess of the river Boyne, wife of the Dagda and mother of Oengus, who is the god of youth and beauty; and Brigit, the poetess and daughter of the Dagda.
Cath Muige Tuired Cunga [‘The Battle of Moytirra of Cong’], edited and translated by J. Frazer in 1916, tells of the first divine battle which occurred at Cong, in Co. Mayo, between the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann, who after their victory, took possession of the island. The First Battle of Moytirra is a duplication of the famous Cath Maige Tuired [‘The Second Battle of Moytirra’], which relates the battle at Moytirra (Co. Sligo) between the Tuatha Dé Danann, led by the powerful Lug Lámhfhada (‘Long-Armed’), and the sinister race of the Fomhóire (‘Underworld Phantoms’), commanded by Lug’s grandfather, Balor of the Evil Eye. Lug defeated Balor and led his tribe to victory. There are two original independent narrative versions of the conflict, each represented by a single manuscript. The earlier full version, edited and translated by Gray, dates to the 11th century, but is based on earlier texts - pieces of which are found in the literature from the 8th c. onwards -, while the later version, edited by O’Cuiv in 1945, dates from about the 16th c. In this present work, only the earliest narrative will be referred to, for the second version is of late date and differs considerably from the first one in subject matter as well as in language: some passages have been omitted and new elements, which are found again in folk legends, have been added.69
The second cycle, known as ‘the Ulster Cycle’, recounts the prodigious deeds of the royal and warrior class of Ulster, including the renowned characters King Conchobhar mac Neasa, King Fearghus mac Róich, and the celebrated warrior Cú Chulainn (‘the Hound of Culann’).70 The central elementary story of the Ulster Cycle is an 11th-century saga, entitled Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’]. It narrates the cattle-raid launched by Queen Medb of Connachta against the Ulaidh of Ulster, led by King Conchobhar mac Neasa and protected by the young powerful hero Cú Chulainn, to gain Donn Cuailnge, the great bull of Cooley. This legend has been preserved in three different recensions. The reference text for this work is Recension I, the oldest manuscript version of the mythical epic tale, edited and translated by Cécile O’Rahilly in 1976.
The third cycle, called ‘Fianna Cycle’, is a large corpus of mythological and folk legends, dating from the 8th c. onwards, which describe the adventures of a band of warriors, called the Fianna, led by the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his son Oisín.71 Fionn mac Cumhaill is a warrior-seer who acquired the gift of imbas forosna (‘wisdom that illuminates’) by burning his thumb on the salmon of knowledge fished in the River Boyne. From that time on, each time Fionn would chew his thumb, mystical knowledge and foresight would be granted to him. Finally, the fourth cycle, called ‘Historical Cycle’ or ‘Cycle of the Kings’, tells of the lives of the legendary kings of Ireland at the royal sites of Emain Macha in Ulster, Cruachan in Connacht, Cashel in Leinster and Tara in Midhe, from the 3rd c. to the 7th c.72 The most celebrated of earlier kings, who is described as the first king to have seated at Tara from 227 to 266 AD, is certainly Cormac mac Art, the grandson of Conn Cétchathach (‘Conn of the Hundred Battles’), the 2nd-century mythical ancestor of Irish kings.73
Welsh medieval literature has often been compared to Irish literary tradition by modern scholars, for it has preserved some pieces of mythological material, but it is late, poorly documented and the legends were reshaped within a different context from Ireland.74 Britons, and particularly those who lived in the south of the country, were directly subjected to Roman culture from 43 AD and converted to Christianity in the 3rd c. AD.75 The ancient Welsh legends had thus undergone important distortions when they were written down from the 11th c. or 12th. The most relevant material, which relates the adventures of King Arthur and his companions and associates them to ancient mythological themes and characters, who sometimes bear names similar to those of the Irish deities, principally consists of Culhwch ac Olwen [‘The Tale of Culhwch and Olwen’] and the Mabinogi, composed of four branches entitled Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed; Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr; Manawydan, Son of Llŷr; and Math, Son of Mathonwy. For all these reasons, Welsh medieval literature will only be referred to occasionally in this work, notably in terms of divine name similarities between Irish goddesses and Welsh mythical characters.
Kruta, 2000, pp. 382-386 ; Kruta, 2001, pp. 255-268.
The Book of the Dun Cow was compiled at the abbey of Clonmacnoise (Co. Offaly) by, among others, the scribe Máel Muire mac Céileachair, who was murdered in the monastery in 1106. It is so called because the original vellum upon which it was written was supposedly taken from the hide of the famous cow of St. Ciarán of Clonmacnoise. It is currently housed in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. The Book of Leinster was formerly known as Lebor na Nuachongbála [‘The Book of Noughaval’] and was compiled by several scribes in Leinster, one of the five ancient provinces of Ireland. It is now divided between Trinity College and the Franciscan Library, Dublin. The Book of Ballymote was compiled in c. 1390 in Ballymote, Co. Sligo. It is currently housed at the Royal Irish Academy, in Dublin. The Yellow Book of Lecan was compiled at Lecán (now Lacken), near Inishcrone, in Co. Sligo, around 1390. It is housed today in Trinity College, Dublin. See Mackillop, 2004, pp. 48-49, 430 ; Lambert, 1981, pp. 21ff ; Dottin, 1924, pp. 5-26, 52-118.
D’Arbois de Jubainville, 1883, pp. 350-354.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 366-370, 478-481 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 340-341, 414-416.
Sliabh Mis is a mountain south of Tralee, in Co. Kerry.
Gray, 1982, p. 10 ; Ó Cuív, 1945, pp. 5-8.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 109-112, 137-146, 217-219, 488-492 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 99-100, 115-117, 216-217, 422-423 ; Green, 1992a, pp. 65-66, 70-72, 96-97.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 227-233, 238-249 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 221-222, 230-233 ; Green, 1992a, pp. 98-99.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 301-302 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 122-123.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 115-118, 121-129 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 101-102, 105-106.
Green, 1992a, pp. 20-21 ; Ross, 1996, pp. 42-44 ; Kruta, 2000, pp. 55-57.
Kruta, 2000, pp. 55-57.