The Fionn Saga

By J. A. MacCulloch

The most prominent characters in the Fionn saga, after the death of Fionn’s father Cumal, are Fionn, his son Oisin, his grandson Oscar, his nephew Diarmaid with his ball-seire, or “beauty-spot,” which no woman could resist; Fergus famed for wisdom and eloquence; Caoilte mac Ronan, the swift; Conan, the comic character of the saga; Goll mac Morna, the slayer of Cumal, but later the devoted friend of Fionn, besides a host of less important personages. Their doings, like those of the heroes of saga and epos everywhere, are mainly hunting, fighting, and love-making.  They embody much of the Celtic character—vivacity, valor, kindness, tenderness, as well as boastfulness and fiery temper. Though dating from pagan times, the saga throws little light upon pagan beliefs, but reveals much concerning the manners of the period. Here, as always in early Celtdom, woman is more than a mere chattel, and occupies a comparatively high place. The various parts of the saga, like those of the Finnish Kalevala, always existed separately, never as one complete epos, though always bearing a certain relation to each other. Lonnrot, in Finland, was able, by adding a few connecting links of his own, to give unity to the Kalevala, and had MacPherson been content to do this for the Fionn saga, instead of inventing, transforming, and serving up the whole in the manner of the sentimental eighteenth century, what a boon would he have conferred on Celtic literature. The various parts of the saga belong to different centuries and come from different authors, all, however, imbued with the spirit of the Fionn tradition.

A date cannot be given to the beginnings of the saga, and additions have been made to it even down to the eighteenth century, Michael Comyn’s poem of Oisin in Tir na n-Og being as genuine a part of it as any of the earlier pieces. Its contents are in part written, but much more oral.  Much of it is in prose, and there is a large poetic literature of the ballad kind, as well as Maerchen of the universal stock made purely Celtic, with Fionn and the rest of the heroic band as protagonists. The saga embodies Celtic ideals and hopes; it was the literature of the Celtic folk on which was spent all the riches of the Celtic imagination; a world of dream and fancy into which they could enter at all times and disport themselves. Yet, in spite of its immense variety, the saga preserves a certain unity, and it is provided with a definite framework, recounting the origin of the heroes, the great events in which they were concerned, their deaths or final appearances, and the breaking up of the Fionn band.

The historic view of the Fians is taken by the annalists, by Keating, O’Curry, Dr. Joyce, and Dr. Douglas Hyde.[506] According to this view, they were a species of militia maintained by the Irish kings for the support of the throne and the defense of the country. From Samhain to Beltane they were quartered on the people, and from Beltane to Samhain they lived by hunting. How far the people welcomed this billeting, we are not told. Their method of cooking the game which they hunted was one well known to all primitive peoples. Holes were dug in the ground; in them red-hot stones were placed, and on the stones was laid venison wrapped in sedge. All was then covered over, and in due time the meat was done to a turn. Meanwhile the heroes engaged in an elaborate toilette before sitting down to eat. Their beds were composed of alternate layers of brushwood, moss, and rushes. The Fians were divided into Catha of three thousand men, each with its commander, and officers to each hundred, each fifty, and each nine, a system not unlike that of the ancient Peruvians. Each candidate for admission to the band had to undergo the most trying ordeals, rivaling in severity those of the American Indians, and not improbably genuine though exaggerated reminiscences of actual tests of endurance and agility. Once admitted he had to observe certain geasa or “taboos,” e.g. not to choose his wife for her dowry like other Celts, but solely for her good manners, not to offer violence to a woman, not to flee when attacked before less than nine warriors, and the like.

All this may represent some genuine tradition with respect to a warrior band, with many exaggerations in details and numbers. Some of its outstanding heroes may have had names derived from or corresponding to those of the heroes of an existing saga. But as time went on they became as unhistorical as their ideal prototypes; round their names crystallized floating myths and tales; things which had been told of the saga heroes were told of them; their names were given to the personages of existing folk-tales. This might explain the great divergence between the “historical” and the romantic aspects of the saga as it now exists.  Yet we cannot fail to see that what is claimed as historical is full of exaggeration, and, in spite of the pleading of Dr. Hyde and other patriots, little historic fact can be found in it. Even if this exists, it is the least important part of the saga. What is important is that part—nine-tenths of the whole—which “is not true because it cannot be true.” It belongs to the region of the supernatural and the unreal. But personages, nine-tenths of whose actions belong to this region, must bear the same character themselves, and for that reason are all the more interesting, especially when we remember that the Celts firmly believed in them and in their exploits. A Fionn myth arose as all myths do, increasing as time went on, and the historical nucleus, if it ever existed, was swamped and lost. Throughout the saga the Fians are more than mere mortals, even in those very parts which are claimed as historical. They are giants; their story “bristles with the supernatural”; they are the ideal figures of Celtic legend throwing their gigantic shadows upon the dim and misty background of the past. We must therefore be content to assume that whether personages called Fionn, Oisin, Diarmaid, or Conan, ever existed, what we know of them now is purely mythical.

Bearing in mind that they are the cherished heroes of popular fancy in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, we have now to inquire whether they were Celtic in origin. We have seen that the Celts were a conquering people in Ireland, bringing with them their own religion and mythology, their own sagas and tales reflected now in the mythological and Cuchulainn cycles, which found a local habitation in Ireland. Cuchulainn was the hero of a saga which flourished more among the aristocratic and lettered classes than among the folk, and there are few popular tales about him. But it is among the folk that the Fionn saga has always been popular, and for every peasant who could tell a story of Cuchulainn a thousand could tell one of Fionn. Conquerors often adopt beliefs, traditions, and customs of the aboriginal folk, after hostilities have ceased, and if the pre-Celtic people had a popular hero and a saga concerning him, it is possible that in time it was accepted by the Celts or by the lower classes among them. But in the process it must have been completely Celticised, like the aborigines themselves; to its heroes were given Celtic names, or they may have been associated with existing Celtic personages like Cumal, and the whole saga was in time adapted to the conceptions and legendary history of the Celts. Thus we might account for the fact that it has so largely remained without admixture with the mythological and Cuchulainn cycles, though its heroes are brought into relation with the older gods. Thus also we might account for its popularity as compared with the Cuchulainn saga among the peasantry in whose veins must flow so much of the aboriginal blood both in Ireland and the Highlands. In other words, it was the saga of a non-Celtic people occupying both Ireland and Scotland. If Celts from Western Europe occupied the west of Scotland at an early date, they may have been so few in number that their own saga or sagas died out. Or if the Celtic occupation of the West Highlands originated first from Ireland, the Irish may have been unable to impose their Cuchulainn saga there, or if they themselves had already adopted the Fionn saga and found it again in the Highlands, they would but be the more attached to what was already localized there. This would cut the ground from the theory that the Fionn saga was brought to Scotland from Ireland, and it would account for its popularity in the Highlands, as well as for the fact that many Fionn stories are attached to Highland as well as to Irish localities, while many place-names in both countries have a Fian origin. Finally, the theory would explain the existence of so many Maerchen about Fionn and his men, so few about Cuchulainn.

Returning to the theory of the historic aspect of the Fians, it should be noted that, while, when seen through the eyes of the annalists, the saga belongs to a definite historical period, when viewed by itself it belongs to a mythic age, and though the Fians are regarded as champions of Ireland, their foes are usually of a supernatural kind, and they themselves move in a magic atmosphere. They are also brought into connection with the unhistoric Tuatha De Danann; they fight with them or for them; they have amours with or wed their women; and some of the gods even become members of the Fian band. Diarmaid was the darling of the gods Oengus and Manannan, and in his direst straits was assisted by the former. In all this we are in the wonderland of myth, not the terra firma of history. There is a certain resemblance between the Cuchulainn and Fionn sagas, but no more than that which obtains between all sagas everywhere. Both contain similar incidents, but these are the stock episodes of universal saga belief, fitted to the personages of individual sagas. Hence we need not suppose with Professor Windisch that the mythic incidents of the Fionn saga are derived from the Cuchulainn cycle.

The personages against whom Fionn and his men fight show the mythic nature of the saga. As champions of Leinster they fight the men of Ulster and Connaught, but they also war against oversea invaders—the Lochlanners. While Lochlann may mean any land beyond the sea, like the Welsh Llychlyn it probably meant “the fabulous land beneath the lakes or the waves of the sea,” or simply the abode of hostile, supernatural beings. Lochlanners would thus be counterparts of the Fomorians, and the conflicts of the Fians with them would reflect old myths. But with the Norse invasions, the Norsemen became the true Lochlanners, against whom Fionn and his men fight as Charlemagne fought Mohammedans—a sheer impossibility. Professor Zimmer, however, supposes that the Fionn saga took shape during the Norse occupation from the ninth century onwards.  Fionn is half Norse, half Irish, and equivalent to Caittil Find, who commanded the apostate Irish in the ninth century, while Oisin and Oscar are the Norse Asvin and Asgeirr. But it is difficult to understand why one who was half a Norseman should become the chosen hero of the Celts in the very age in which Norsemen were their bitter enemies, and why Fionn, if of Norse origin, fights against Lochlanners, i.e. Norsemen. It may also be inquired why the borrowing should have affected the saga only, not the myths of the gods. No other Celtic scholar has given the slightest support to this brilliant but audacious theory. On the other hand, if the saga has Norse affinities, and if it is, in origin, pre-Celtic, these may be sought in an earlier connection of Ireland with Scandinavia in the early Bronze Age. Ireland had a flourishing civilization then, and exported beautiful gold ornaments to Scandinavia, where they are still found in Bronze Age deposits.[507] This flourishing civilization was overwhelmed by the invasion of the Celtic barbarians.  But if the Scandinavians borrowed gold and artistic decorations from Ireland, and if the Fionn saga or part of it was already in existence, why should they not have borrowed some of its incidents, or why, on the other hand, should not some episodes have found their way from the north to Ireland? We should also consider, however, that similar incidents may have been evolved in both countries on similar lines and quite independently.

The various contents of the saga can only be alluded to in the briefest manner. Fionn’s birth-story belongs to the well-known “Expulsion and Return” formula, applied to so many heroes of saga and folk-tale, but highly elaborated in his case at the hands of the annalists. Thus his father Cumal, uncle of Conn the Hundred Fighter, 122-157 A.D., wished to wed Muirne, daughter of Conn’s chief druid, Tadg. Tadg refused, knowing that through this marriage he would lose his ancestral seat. Cumal seized Muirne and married her, and the king, on Tadg’s appeal, sent an army against him. Cumal was slain; Muirne fled to his sister, and gave birth to Demni, afterwards known as Fionn. Perhaps in accordance with old matriarchal usage, Fionn’s descent through his mother is emphasized, while he is related to the ancient gods, Tadg being son of Nuada. This at once points to the mythical aspect of the saga. Cumal may be identical with the god Camulos. In a short time, Fionn, now a marauder and an outlaw, appeared at Conn’s Court, and that same night slew one of the Tuatha Dea, who came yearly and destroyed the palace. For this he received his rightful heritage—the leadership of the Fians, formerly commanded by Cumal.[508] Another incident of Fionn’s youth tells how he obtained his “thumb of knowledge.” The eating of certain “salmon of knowledge” was believed to give inspiration, an idea perhaps derived from earlier totemistic beliefs. The bard Finneces, having caught one of the coveted salmon, set his pupil Fionn to cook it, forbidding him to taste it. But as he was turning the fish Fionn burnt his thumb and thrust it into his mouth, thus receiving the gift of inspiration.  Hereafter he had only to suck his thumb in order to obtain secret information.[509] In another story the inspiration is already in his thumb, as Samson’s strength was in his hair, but the power is also partly in his tooth, under which, after ritual preparation, he has to place his thumb and chew it.[510]

Fionn had many wives and sweethearts, one of them, Saar, being mother of Oisin. Saar was turned into a fawn by a Druid, and fled from Fionn’s house. Long after he found a beast-child in the forest and recognized him as his son. He nourished him until his beast nature disappeared, and called him Oisin, “little fawn.” Round this birth legend many stories sprang up—a sure sign of its popularity.[511] Oisin’s fame as a poet far excelled that of Fionn, and he became the ideal bard of the Gaels.

By far the most passionate and tragic story of the saga is that of Diarmaid and Grainne, to whom Fionn was betrothed. Grainne put geasa upon Diarmaid to elope with her, and these he could not break. They fled, and for many days were pursued by Fionn, who at last overtook them, but was forced by the Fians to pardon the beloved hero. Meanwhile Fionn waited for his revenge. Knowing that it was one of Diarmaid’s geasa never to hunt a wild boar, he invited him to the chase of the boar of Gulban. Diarmaid slew it, and Fionn then bade him measure its length with his foot. A bristle pierced his heel, and he fell down in agony, beseeching Fionn to bring him water in his hand, for if he did this he would heal him. In spite of repeated appeals, Fionn, after bringing the water, let it drip from his hands. Diarmaid’s brave soul passed away, and on Fionn’s character this dire blot was fixed for ever.[512]

Other tales relate how several of the Fians were spirited away to the Land beyond the Seas, how they were rescued, how Diarmaid went to Land under Waves, and how Fionn and his men were entrapped in a Fairy Palace.  Of greater importance are those which tell the end of the Fian band.  This, according to the annalists, was the result of their exactions and demands. Fionn was told by his wife, a wise woman, never to drink out of a horn, but coming one day thirsty to a well, he forgot this taboo, and so brought the end near. He encountered the sons of Uirgrenn, whom he had slain, and in the fight with them he fell.[513] Soon after were fought several battles, culminating in that of Gabhra in which all but a few Fians perished. Among the survivors were Oisin and Caoilte, who lingered on until the coming of S. Patrick. Caoilte remained on earth, but Oisin, whose mother was of the sid folk, went to fairyland for a time, ultimately returning and joining S. Patrick’s company.[514] But a different version is given in the eighteenth century poem of Michael Comyn, undoubtedly based on popular tales. Oisin met the Queen of Tir na n-Og and went with her to fairyland, where time passed as a dream until one day he stood on a stone against which she had warned him. He saw his native land and was filled with home-sickness. The queen tried to dissuade him, but in vain. Then she gave him a horse, warning him not to set foot on Irish soil. He came to Ireland; and found it all changed.  Some puny people were trying in vain to raise a great stone, and begged the huge stranger to help them. He sprang from his horse and flung the stone from its resting-place. But when he turned, his horse was gone, and he had become a decrepit old man. Soon after he met S. Patrick and related the tale to him.

Of most of the tales preserved in twelfth to fifteenth century MSS. it may be said that in essence they come down to us from a remote antiquity, like stars pulsing their clear light out of the hidden depths of space. Many of them exist as folk-tales, often wild and weird in form, while some folk-tales have no literary parallels. Some are Maerchen with members of the Fian band as heroes, and of these there are many European parallels. But it is not unlikely that, as in the case of the Cuchulainn cycle, the folk versions may be truer to the original forms of the saga than the rounded and polished literary versions.  Whatever the Fians were in origin—gods, mythic heroes, or actual personages—it is probable that a short Heldensage was formed in early times. This slowly expanded, new tales were added, and existing Maerchen formulae were freely made use of by making their heroes the heroes of the saga. Then came the time when many of the tales were written down, while later they were adapted to a scheme of Irish history, the heroes becoming warriors of a definite historic period, or perhaps connected with such warriors. But these heroes belonged to a timeless world, whose margins are “the shore of old romance,” and it was as if they, who were not for an age but for all time, scorned to become the puppets of the page of history.

The earliest evidence of the attitude of the ecclesiastical world to these heroes is found in the Agallamh na Senorach, or “Colloquy of the Ancients.”[515] This may have been composed in the thirteenth century, and its author knew scores of Fionn legends. Making use of the tradition that Caoilte and Oisin had met S. Patrick, he makes Caoilte relate many of the tales, usually in connection with some place-name of Fian origin.  The saint and his followers are amazed at the huge stature of the Fians, but Patrick asperges them with holy water, and hosts of demons flee from them. At each tale which Caoilte tells, the saint says, “Success and benediction, Caoilte. All this is to us a recreation of spirit and of mind, were it only not a destruction of devotion and a dereliction of prayer.” But presently his guardian angel appears, and bids him not only listen to the tales but cause them to be written down. He and his attendant clerics now lend a willing ear to the recital and encourage the narrator with their applause. Finally, baptism is administered to Caoilte and his men, and by Patrick’s intercessions Caoilte’s relations and Fionn himself are brought out of hell. In this work the representatives of paganism are shown to be on terms of friendliness with the representatives of Christianity.

But in Highland ballads collected in the sixteenth century by the Dean of Lismore, as well as in Irish ballads found in MSS. dating from the seventeenth century onwards, the saint is a sour and intolerant cleric, and the Fians are equally intolerant and blasphemous pagans. There is no attempt at compromise; the saint rejoices that the Fian band are in hell, and Oisin throws contempt on the God of the shaven priests. But sometimes this contempt is mingled with humor and pathos. Were the heroes of Oisin’s band now alive, scant work would be made of the monks’ bells, books, and psalm-singing. It is true that the saint gives the weary old man hospitality, but Oisin’s eyes are blinded with tears as he thinks of the departed glories of the Fians, and his ears are tormented “by jangling bells, droning psalms, and howling clerics.” These ballads probably represent one main aspect of the attitude of the Church to Celtic paganism. How, then, did the more generous Colloquy come into being? We must note first that some of the ballads have a milder tone.  Oisin is urged to accept the faith, and he prays for salvation. Probably these represent the beginning of a reaction in favor of the old heroes, dating from a time when the faith was well established. There was no danger of a pagan revival, and, provided the Fians were Christianized, it might be legitimate to represent them as heroic and noble. The Colloquy would represent the high-water mark of this reaction among the lettered classes, for among the folk, to judge by popular tales, the Fians had never been regarded in other than a favorable light. The Colloquy re-established the dignity of the Fian band in the eyes of official Christianity. They are baptized or released from hell, and in their own nature they are virtuous and follow lofty ideals. “Who or what was it that maintained you in life?” asks Patrick. And Caoilte gives the noble reply, “Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues.” Patrick says of Fionn: “He was a king, a seer, a poet, a lord with a manifold and great train; our magician, our knowledgeable one, our soothsayer; all whatsoever he said was sweet with him. Excessive, perchance, as ye deem my testimony of Fionn, although ye hold that which I say to be overstrained, nevertheless, and by the King that is above me, he was three times better still.” Not only so, but Caoilte maintains that Fionn and his men were aware of the existence of the true God. They possessed the anima naturaliter Christiana. The growing appreciation of a wider outlook on life, and possibly acquaintance with the romances of chivalry, made the composition of the Colloquy possible, but, again, it may represent a more generous conception of paganism existing from the time of the first encounter of Christianity with it in Ireland.

The strife of creeds in Ireland, the old order changing, giving place to new, had evidently impressed itself on the minds of Celtic poets and romancers. It suggested itself to them as providing an excellent “situation”; hence we constantly hear of the meeting of gods, demigods, or heroes with the saints of the new era. Frequently they bow before the Cross, they are baptized and receive the Christian verity, as in the Colloquy and in some documents of the Cuchulainn cycle. Probably no other European folk-literature so takes advantage of just this situation, this meeting of creeds, one old and ready to vanish away, the other with all the buoyant freshness of youth.

Was MacPherson’s a genuine Celtic epic unearthed by him and by no one else? No mortal eye save his has ever seen the original, but no one who knows anything of the contents of the saga can deny that much of his work is based on materials collected by him. He knew some of the tales and ballads current among the folk, possibly also some of the Irish MS.  versions. He saw that there was a certain unity among them, and he saw that it was possible to make it more evident still. He fitted the floating incidents into an epic framework, adding, inventing, altering, and molding the whole into an English style of his own. Later he seems to have translated the whole into Gaelic. He gave his version to the world, and found himself famous, but he gave it as the genuine translation of a genuine Celtic epic. Here was his craft; here he was the “charlatan of genius.” His genius lay in producing an epic which people were willing to read, and in making them believe it to be not his work but that of the Celtic heroic age. Any one can write an epic, but few can write one which thousands will read, which men like Chateaubriand, Goethe, Napoleon, Byron, and Coleridge will admire and love, and which will, as it were, crystallize the aspirations of an age weary with classical formalism. MacPherson introduced his readers to a new world of heroic deeds, romantic adventure, deathless love, exquisite sentiments sentimentally expressed. He changed the rough warriors and beautiful but somewhat unabashed heroines of the saga into sentimental personages, who suited the taste of an age poised between the bewigged and powdered formalism of the eighteenth century, and the outburst of new ideals which was to follow. His Ossian is a cross between Pope’s Homer and Byron’s Childe Harold. His heroes and heroines are not on their native heath, and are uncertain whether to mince and strut with Pope or to follow nature with Rousseau’s noble savages and Saint Pierre’s Paul and Virginia. The time has gone when it was heresy to cast doubt upon the genuineness of MacPherson’s epic, but if any one is still doubtful, let him read it and then turn to the existing versions, ballads, and tales. He will find himself in a totally different atmosphere, and will recognize in the latter the true epic note—the warrior’s rage and the warrior’s generosity, dire cruelty yet infinite tenderness, wild lust yet also true love, a world of magic supernaturalism, but an exact copy of things as they were in that far-off age. The barbarism of the time is in these old tales—deeds which make one shiver, customs regarding the relations of the sexes now found only among savages, social and domestic arrangements which are somewhat lurid and disgusting. And yet, withal, the note of bravery, of passion, of authentic life is there; we are held in the grip of genuine manhood and womanhood. MacPherson gives a picture of the Ossianic age as he conceived it, an age of Celtic history that “never was on sea or land.” Even his ghosts are un-Celtic, misty and unsubstantial phantasms, unlike the embodied revenants of the saga which are in agreement with the Celtic belief that the soul assumed a body in the other world.

MacPherson makes Fionn invariably successful, but in the saga tales he is often defeated. He mingles the Cuchulainn and Ossianic cycles, but these, save in a few casual instances, are quite distinct in the old literature. Yet had not his poem been so great as it is, though so un-Celtic, it could not have influenced all European literature. But those who care for genuine Celtic literature, the product of a people who loved nature, romance, doughty deeds, the beauty of the world, the music of the sea and the birds, the mountains, valor in men, beauty in women, will find all these in the saga, whether in its literary or its popular forms. And through it all sounds the undertone of Celtic pathos and melancholy, the distant echo

“Of old unhappy, far-off things
And battles long ago.”



[506] See Joyce, OCR 447.

[507] Montelius, Les Temps Prehistoriques, 57, 151; Reinach, RC xxi. 8.

[508] The popular versions of this early part of the saga differ much in detail, but follow the main outlines in much the same way. See Curtin, HTI 204; Campbell, LF 33 f.; WHT iii. 348.

[509] In a widespread group of tales supernatural knowledge is obtained by eating part of some animal, usually a certain snake. In many of these tales the food is eaten by another person than he who obtained it, as in the case of Fionn. Cf. the Welsh story of Gwion, p. 116, and the Scandinavian of Sigurd, and other parallels in Miss Cox, Cinderella, 496; Frazer, Arch. Rev. i. 172 f. The story is thus a folk-tale formula applied to Fionn, doubtless because it harmonised with Celtic or pre-Celtic totemistic ideas. But it is based on ancient ideas regarding the supernatural knowledge possessed by reptiles or fish, and among American Indians, Maoris, Solomon Islanders, and others there are figured representations of a man holding such an animal, its tongue being attached to his tongue. He is a shaman, and American Indians believe that his inspiration comes from the tongue of a mysterious river otter, caught by him. See Dall, Bureau of Ethnol. 3rd report; and Miss Buckland, Jour. Anth. Inst. xxii. 29.

[510] TOS iv.; O’Curry, MS. Mat. 396; Joyce, OCR 194, 339.

[511] For ballad versions see Campbell, LF 198.

[512] Numerous ballad versions are given in Campbell LF 152 f. The tale is localised in various parts of Ireland and the Highlands, many dolmens in Ireland being known as Diarmaid and Grainne’s beds.

[513] For an account differing from this annalistic version, see ZCP i. 465.

[514] O’Grady, ii. 102. This, on the whole, agrees with the Highland ballad version, LF 198.

[515] IT iv.; O’Grady, Silva Gad. text and translation.




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The Fionn Saga