The Irish Mythological Cycle

By J. A. MacCulloch.

Three divine and heroic cycles of myths are known in Ireland, one telling of the Tuatha De Danann, the others of Cuchulainn and of the Fians. They are distinct in character and contents, but the gods of the first cycle often help the heroes of the other groups, as the gods of Greece and India assisted the heroes of the epics. We shall see that some of the personages of these cycles may have been known in Gaul; they are remembered in Wales, but, in the Highlands, where stories of Cuchulainn and Fionn are still told, the Tuatha De Danann are less known now than in 1567, when Bishop Carsewell lamented the love of the Highlanders for “idle, turbulent, lying, worldly stories concerning the Tuatha Dedanans.”[153]

As the new Achaean religion in Greece and the Vedic sacred books of India regarded the aboriginal gods and heroes as demons and goblins, so did Christianity in Ireland sometimes speak of the older gods there. On the other hand, it was mainly Christian scribes who changed the old mythology into history, and made the gods and heroes kings. Doubtless myths already existed, telling of the descent of rulers and people from divinities, just as the Gauls spoke of their descent from Dispater, or as the Incas of Peru, the Mikados of Japan, and the kings of Uganda considered themselves offspring of the gods. This is a universal practice, and made it the more easy for Christian chroniclers to transmute myth into history. In Ireland, as elsewhere, myth doubtless told of monstrous races inhabiting the land in earlier days, of the strife of the aborigines and incomers, and of their gods, though the aboriginal gods may in some cases have been identified with Celtic gods, or worshipped in their own persons. Many mythical elements may therefore be looked for in the euhemerised chronicles of ancient Ireland. But the chroniclers themselves were but the continuers of a process which must have been at work as soon as the influence of Christianity began to be felt.[154] Their passion, however, was to show the descent of the Irish and the older peoples from the old Biblical personages, a process dear to the modern Anglo-Israelite, some of whose arguments are based on the wild romancing of the chroniclers.

Various stories were told of the first peopling of Ireland. Banba, with two other daughters of Cain, arrived with fifty women and three men, only to die of the plague. Three fishermen next discovered Ireland, and “of the island of Banba of Fair Women with hardihood they took possession.” Having gone to fetch their wives, they perished in the deluge at Tuath Inba.[155] A more popular account was that of the coming of Cessair, Noah’s granddaughter, with her father, husband, a third man, Ladru, “the first dead man of Erin,” and fifty damsels. Her coming was the result of the advice of a laimh-dhia, or “hand-god,” but their ship was wrecked, and all save her husband, Finntain, who survived for centuries, perished in the flood.[156] Cessair’s ship was less serviceable than her grandparent’s! Followed the race of Partholan, “no wiser one than the other,” who increased on the land until plague swept them away, with the exception of Tuan mac Caraill, who after many transformations, told the story of Ireland to S. Finnen centuries after.[157] The survival of Finntain and Tuan, doubles of each other, was an invention of the chroniclers, to explain the survival of the history of colonists who had all perished. Keating, on the other hand, rejecting the sole survivor theory as contradictory to Scripture, suggests that “aerial demons,” followers of the invaders, revealed all to the chroniclers, unless indeed they found it engraved with “an iron pen and lead in the rocks.”[158]

Two hundred years before Partholan’s coming, the Fomorians had arrived,[159] and they and their chief Cichol Gricenchos fought Partholan at Mag Itha, where they were defeated. Cichol was footless, and some of his host had but one arm and one leg.[160] They were demons, according to the chroniclers, and descendants of the luckless Ham.  Nennius makes Partholan and his men the first Scots who came from Spain to Ireland. The next arrivals were the people of Nemed who returned to Spain, whence they came (Nennius), or died to a man (Tuan). They also were descendants of the inevitable Noah, and their sojourn in Ireland was much disturbed by the Fomorians who had recovered from their defeat, and finally overpowered the Nemedians after the death of Nemed.[161] From Tory Island the Fomorians ruled Ireland, and forced the Nemedians to pay them annually on the eve of Samhain (Nov. 1st) two-thirds of their corn and milk and of the children born during the year. If the Fomorians are gods of darkness, or, preferably, aboriginal deities, the tribute must be explained as a dim memory of sacrifice offered at the beginning of winter when the powers of darkness and blight are in the ascendant. The Fomorians had a tower of glass in Tory Island. This was one day seen by the Milesians, to whom appeared on its battlements what seemed to be men. A year after they attacked the tower and were overwhelmed in the sea.[162] From the survivors of a previously wrecked vessel of their fleet are descended the Irish. Another version makes the Nemedians the assailants. Thirty of them survived their defeat, some of them going to Scotland or Man (the Britons), some to Greece (to return as the Firbolgs), some to the north, where they learned magic and returned as the Tuatha De Danann.[163] The Firbolgs, “men of bags,” resenting their ignominious treatment by the Greeks, escaped to Ireland.  They included the Firbolgs proper, the Fir-Domnann, and the Galioin.[164] The Fomorians are called their gods, and this, with the contemptuous epithets bestowed on them, may point to the fact that the Firbolgs were the pre-Celtic folk of Ireland and the Fomorians their divinities, hostile to the gods of the Celts or regarded as dark deities. The Firbolgs are vassals of Ailill and Medb, and with the Fir Domnann and Galioin are hostile to Cuchulainn and his men,[165] just as Fomorians were to the Tuatha De Danann. The strifes of races and of their gods are inextricably confused.

The Tuatha De Danann arrived from heaven—an idea in keeping with their character as beneficent gods, but later legend told how they came from the north. They reached Ireland on Beltane, shrouded in a magic mist, and finally, after one or, in other accounts, two battles, defeated the Firbolgs and Fomorians at Magtured. The older story of one battle may be regarded as a euhemerised account of the seeming conflict of nature powers.[166] The first battle is described in a fifteenth to sixteenth century MS.,[167] and is referred to in a fifteenth century account of the second battle, full of archaic reminiscences, and composed from various earlier documents.[168] The Firbolgs, defeated in the first battle, join the Fomorians, after great losses. Meanwhile Nuada, leader of the Tuatha De Danann, lost his hand, and as no king with a blemish could sit on the throne, the crown was given to Bres, son of the Fomorian Elatha and his sister Eri, a woman of the Tuatha De Danann. One day Eri espied a silver boat speeding to her across the sea. From it stepped forth a magnificent hero, and without delay the pair, like the lovers in Theocritus, “rejoiced in their wedlock.” The hero, Elatha, foretold the birth of Eri’s son, so beautiful that he would be a standard by which to try all beautiful things. He gave her his ring, but she was to part with it only to one whose finger it should fit. This was her child Bres, and by this token he was later, as an exile, recognised by his father, and obtained his help against the Tuatha De Danann. Like other wonderful children, Bres grew twice as quickly as any other child until he was seven.[169] Though Elatha and Eri are brother and sister, she is among the Tuatha De Danann.[170] There is the usual inconsistency of myth here and in other accounts of Fomorian and Tuatha De Danann unions. The latter had just landed, but already had united in marriage with the Fomorians. This inconsistency escaped the chroniclers, but it points to the fact that both were divine not human, and that, though in conflict, they united in marriage as members of hostile tribes often do.

The second battle took place twenty-seven years after the first, on Samhain. It was fought like the first on the plain of Mag-tured, though later accounts made one battle take place at Mag-tured in Mayo, the other at Mag-tured in Sligo.[171] Inconsistently, the conquering Tuatha De Danann in the interval, while Bres is their king, must pay tribute imposed by the Fomorians. Obviously in older accounts this tribute must have been imposed before the first battle and have been its cause. But why should gods, like the Tuatha De Danann, ever have been in subjection? This remains to be seen, but the answer probably lies in parallel myths of the subjection or death of divinities like Ishtar, Adonis, Persephone, and Osiris. Bres having exacted a tribute of the milk of all hornless dun cows, the cows of Ireland were passed through fire and smeared with ashes—a myth based perhaps on the Beltane fire ritual.[172] The avaricious Bres was satirised, and “nought but decay was on him from that hour,”[173] and when Nuada, having recovered, claimed the throne, he went to collect an army of the Fomorians, who assembled against the Tuatha De Danann. In the battle Indech wounded Ogma, and Balor slew Nuada, but was mortally wounded by Lug. Thereupon the Fomorians fled to their own region.

The Tuatha De Danann remained masters of Ireland until the coming of the Milesians, so named from an eponymous Mile, son of Bile. Ith, having been sent to reconnoitre, was slain, and the Milesians now invaded Ireland in force. In spite of a mist raised by the Druids, they landed, and, having met the three princes who slew Ith, demanded instant battle or surrender of the land. The princes agreed to abide by the decision of the Milesian poet Amairgen, who bade his friends re-embark and retire for the distance of nine waves. If they could then effect a landing, Ireland was theirs. A magic storm was raised, which wrecked many of their ships, but Amairgen recited verses, fragments, perhaps, of some old ritual, and overcame the dangers. After their defeat the survivors of the Tuatha De Danann retired into the hills to become a fairy folk, and the Milesians (the Goidels or Scots) became ancestors of the Irish.

Throughout the long story of the conquests of Ireland there are many reduplications, the same incidents being often ascribed to different personages.[174] Different versions of similar occurrences, based on older myths and traditions, may already have been in existence, and ritual practices, dimly remembered, required explanation. In the hands of the chroniclers, writing history with a purpose and combining their information with little regard to consistency, all this was reduced to a more or less connected narrative. At the hands of the prosaic chroniclers divinity passed from the gods, though traces of it still linger.

“Ye are gods, and, behold, ye shall die, and the waves be upon you at last.
In the darkness of time, in the deeps of the years, in the changes of things,
Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps, and the world shall forget you for kings.”

From the annalistic point of view the Fomorians are sea demons or pirates, their name being derived from muir, “sea,” while they are descended along with other monstrous beings from them. Professor Rhys, while connecting the name with Welsh foawr, “giant” (Gaelic famhair), derives the name from fo, “under,” and muir, and regards them as submarine beings.[175] Dr. MacBain connected them with the fierce powers of the western sea personified, like the Muireartach, a kind of sea hag, of a Fionn ballad.[176] But this association of the Fomorians with the ocean may be the result of a late folk-etymology, which wrongly derived their name from muir. The Celtic experience of the Lochlanners or Norsemen, with whom the Fomorians are associated,[177] would aid the conception of them as sea-pirates of a more or less demoniacal character. Dr. Stokes connects the second syllable mor with mare in “nightmare,” from moro, and regards them as subterranean as well as submarine.[178] But the more probable derivation is that of Zimmer and D’Arbois, from fo and morio (mor, “great”),[179] which would thus agree with the tradition which regarded them as giants. They were probably beneficent gods of the aborigines, whom the Celtic conquerors regarded as generally evil, perhaps equating them with the dark powers already known to them. They were still remembered as gods, and are called “champions of the sid,” like the Tuatha De Danann.[180] Thus King Bres sought to save his life by promising that the kine of Ireland would always be in milk, then that the men of Ireland would reap every quarter, and finally by revealing the lucky days for ploughing, sowing, and reaping.[181] Only an autochthonous god could know this, and the story is suggestive of the true nature of the Fomorians. The hostile character attributed to them is seen from the fact that they destroyed corn, milk, and fruit. But in Ireland, as elsewhere, this destructive power was deprecated by begging them not to destroy “corn nor milk in Erin beyond their fair tribute.”[182] Tribute was also paid to them on Samhain, the time when the powers of blight feared by men are in the ascendant. Again, the kingdom of Balor, their chief, is still described as the kingdom of cold.[183] But when we remember that a similar “tribute” was paid to Cromm Cruaich, a god of fertility, and that after the conquest of the Tuatha De Danann they also were regarded as hostile to agriculture,[184] we realise that the Fomorians must have been aboriginal gods of fertility whom the conquering Celts regarded as hostile to them and their gods. Similarly, in folk-belief the beneficent corn-spirit has sometimes a sinister and destructive aspect.[185] Thus the stories of “tribute” would be distorted reminiscences of the ritual of gods of the soil, differing little in character from that of the similar Celtic divinities. What makes it certain that the Fomorians were aboriginal gods is that they are found in Ireland before the coming of the early colonist Partholan. They were the gods of the pre-Celtic folk—Firbolgs, Fir Domnann, and Galioin[186]--all of them in Ireland before the Tuatha De Danaan arrived, and all of them regarded as slaves, spoken of with the utmost contempt. Another possibility, however, ought to be considered. As the Celtic gods were local in character, and as groups of tribes would frequently be hostile to other groups, the Fomorians may have been local gods of a group at enmity with another group, worshipping the Tuatha De Danaan.

The strife of Fomorians and Tuatha De Danann suggests the dualism of all nature religions. Demons or giants or monsters strive with gods in Hindu, Greek, and Teutonic mythology, and in Persia the primitive dualism of beneficent and hurtful powers of nature became an ethical dualism—the eternal opposition of good and evil. The sun is vanquished by cloud and storm, but shines forth again in vigour. Vegetation dies, but undergoes a yearly renewal. So in myth the immortal gods are wounded and slain in strife. But we must not push too far the analogy of the apparent strife of the elements and the wars of the gods. The one suggested the other, especially where the gods were elemental powers.  But myth-making man easily developed the suggestion; gods were like men and “could never get eneuch o’ fechtin’.” The Celts knew of divine combats before their arrival in Ireland, and their own hostile powers were easily assimilated to the hostile gods of the aborigines.

The principal Fomorians are described as kings. Elatha was son of Net, described by Cormac as “a battle god of the heathen Gael,” i.e. he is one of the Tuatha De Danann, and has as wives two war-goddesses, Badb and Nemaind.[187] Thus he resembles the Fomorian Tethra whose wife is a badb or “battle-crow,” preying on the slain.[188] Elatha’s name, connected with words meaning “knowledge,” suggests that he was an aboriginal culture-god.[189] In the genealogies, Fomorians and Tuatha De Danann are inextricably mingled. Bres’s temporary position as king of the Tuatha Dea may reflect some myth of the occasional supremacy of the powers of blight. Want and niggardliness characterise his reign, and after his defeat a better state of things prevails. Bres’s consort was Brigit, and their son Ruadan, sent to spy on the Tuatha De Danann, was slain. His mother’s wailing for him was the first mourning wail ever heard in Erin.[190] Another god, Indech, was son of Dea Domnu, a Fomorian goddess of the deep, i.e. of the underworld and probably also of fertility, who may hold a position among the Fomorians similar to that of Danu among the Tuatha De Danann. Indech was slain by Ogma, who himself died of wounds received from his adversary.

Balor had a consort Cethlenn, whose venom killed Dagda. His one eye had become evil by contact with the poisonous fumes of a concoction which his father’s Druids were preparing. The eyelid required four men to raise it, when his evil eye destroyed all on whom its glance fell. In this way Balor would have slain Lug at Mag-tured, but the god at once struck the eye with a sling-stone and slew him.[191] Balor, like the Greek Medusa, is perhaps a personification of the evil eye, so much feared by the Celts. Healthful influences and magical charms avert it; hence Lug, a beneficent god, destroys Balor’s maleficence.

Tethra, with Balor and Elatha, ruled over Erin at the coming of the Tuatha De Danann. From a phrase used in the story of Connla’s visit to Elysium, “Thou art a hero of the men of Tethra,” M. D’Arbois assumes that Tethra was ruler of Elysium, which he makes one with the land of the dead. The passage, however, bears a different interpretation, and though a Fomorian, Tethra, a god of war, might be regarded as lord of all warriors.[192] Elysium was not the land of the dead, and when M.  D’Arbois equates Tethra with Kronos, who after his defeat became ruler of a land of dead heroes, the analogy, like other analogies with Greek mythology, is misleading. He also equates Bres, as temporary king of the Tuatha De Danann, with Kronos, king of heaven in the age of gold.  Kronos, again, slain by Zeus, is parallel to Balor slain by his grandson Lug. Tethra, Bres, and Balor are thus separate fragments of one god equivalent to Kronos.[193] Yet their personalities are quite distinct.  Each race works out its mythology for itself, and, while parallels are inevitable, we should not allow these to override the actual myths as they have come down to us.

Professor Rhys makes Bile, ancestor of the Milesians who came from Spain, a Goidelic counterpart of the Gaulish Dispater, lord of the dead, from whom the Gauls claimed descent. But Bile, neither a Fomorian nor of the Tuatha De Danann, is an imaginary and shadowy creation. Bile is next equated with a Brythonic Beli, assumed to be consort of Don, whose family are equivalent to the Tuatha De Danann.[194] Beli was a mythic king whose reign was a kind of golden age, and if he was father of Don’s children, which is doubtful, Bile would then be father of the Tuatha De Danann. But he is ancestor of the Milesians, their opponents according to the annalists. Beli is also equated with Elatha, and since Don, reputed consort of Beli, was grandmother of Llew, equated with Irish Lug, grandson of Balor, Balor is equivalent to Beli, whose name is regarded by Professor Rhys as related etymologically to Balor’s.[195] Bile, Balor, and Elatha are thus Goidelic equivalents of the shadowy Beli. But they also are quite distinct personalities, nor are they ever hinted at as ancestral gods of the Celts, or gods of a gloomy underworld. In Celtic belief the underworld was probably a fertile region and a place of light, nor were its gods harmful and evil, as Balor was.

On the whole, the Fomorians came to be regarded as the powers of nature in its hostile aspect. They personified blight, winter, darkness, and death, before which men trembled, yet were not wholly cast down, since the immortal gods of growth and light, rulers of the bright other-world, were on their side and fought against their enemies. Year by year the gods suffered deadly harm, but returned as conquerors to renew the struggle once more. Myth spoke of this as having happened once for all, but it went on continuously.[196] Gods were immortal and only seemed to die. The strife was represented in ritual, since men believe that they can aid the gods by magic, rite, or prayer. Why, then, do hostile Fomorians and Tuatha De Danann intermarry? This happens in all mythologies, and it probably reflects, in the divine sphere, what takes place among men. Hostile peoples carry off each the other’s women, or they have periods of friendliness and consequent intermarriage. Man makes his gods in his own image, and the problem is best explained by facts like these, exaggerated no doubt by the Irish annalists.

The Tuatha De Danann, in spite of their euhemerisation, are more than human. In the north where they learned magic, they dwelt in four cities, from each of which they brought a magical treasure—the stone of Fal, which “roared under every king,” Lug’s unconquerable spear, Nuada’s irresistible sword, the Dagda’s inexhaustible cauldron. But they are more than wizards or Druids. They are re-born as mortals; they have a divine world of their own, they interfere in and influence human affairs. The euhemerists did not go far enough, and more than once their divinity is practically acknowledged. When the Fian Caoilte and a woman of the Tuatha De Danann appear before S. Patrick, he asks, “Why is she youthful and beautiful, while you are old and wrinkled?” And Caoilte replies, “She is of the Tuatha De Danann, who are unfading and whose duration is perennial. I am of the sons of Milesius, that are perishable and fade away.”[197]

After their conversion, the Celts, sons of Milesius, thought that the gods still existed in the hollow hills, their former dwellings and sanctuaries, or in far-off islands, still caring for their former worshippers. This tradition had its place with that which made them a race of men conquered by the Milesians—the victory of Christianity over paganism and its gods having been transmuted into a strife of races by the euhemerists. The new faith, not the people, conquered the old gods.  The Tuatha De Danann became the Daoine-sidhe, a fairy folk, still occasionally called by their old name, just as individual fairy kings or queens bear the names of the ancient gods. The euhemerists gave the Fomorians a monstrous and demoniac character, which they did not always give to the Tuatha De Danann; in this continuing the old tradition that Fomorians were hostile and the Tuatha De Danann beneficent and mild.

The mythological cycle is not a complete “body of divinity”; its apparent completeness results from the chronological order of the annalists. Fragments of other myths are found in the Dindsenchas; others exist as romantic tales, and we have no reason to believe that all the old myths have been preserved. But enough remains to show the true nature of the Tuatha De Danann—their supernatural character, their powers, their divine and unfailing food and drink, their mysterious and beautiful abode. In their contents, their personages, in the actions that are described in them, the materials of the “mythological cycle,” show how widely it differs from the Cuchulainn and Fionn cycles.[198] “The white radiance of eternity” suffuses it; the heroic cycles, magical and romantic as they are, belong far more to earth and time.


[153] For some Highland references to the gods in saga and Maerchen, see Book of the Dean of Lismore, 10; Campbell, WHT ii. 77. The sea-god Lir is probably the Liur of Ossianic ballads (Campbell, LF 100, 125), and his son Manannan is perhaps “the Son of the Sea” in a Gaelic song (Carmichael, CG ii. 122). Manannan and his daughters are also known (Campbell, witchcraft, 83).

[154] The euhemerising process is first seen in tenth century poems by Eochaid hua Flainn, but was largely the work of Flainn Manistrech, ob. 1056. It is found fully fledged in the Book of Invasions.

[155] Keating, 105-106.

[156] Keating, 107; LL 4b. Cf. RC xvi. 155.

[157] LL 5.

[158] Keating, 111. Giraldus Cambrensis, Hist. Irel. c. 2, makes Roanus survive and tell the tale of Partholan to S. Patrick. He is the Caoilte mac Ronan of other tales, a survivor of the Fians, who held many racy dialogues with the Saint. Keating abuses Giraldus for equating Roanus with Finntain in his “lying history,” and for calling him Roanus instead of Ronanus, a mistake in which he, “the guide bull of the herd,” is followed by others.

[159] Keating, 164.

[160] LL 5a.

[161] Keating, 121; LL 6a; RC xvi. 161.

[162] Nennius, Hist. Brit. 13.

[163] LL 6, 8b.

[164] LL 6b, 127a; IT iii. 381; RC xvi. 81.

[165] LL 9b, 11a.

[166] See Cormac, s.v. “Nescoit,” LU 51.

[167] Harl. MSS. 2, 17, pp. 90-99. Cf. fragment from Book of Invasions in LL 8.

[168] Harl. MS. 5280, translated in RC xii. 59 f.

[169] RC xii. 60; D’Arbois, v. 405 f.

[170] For Celtic brother-sister unions see p. 224.

[171] O’Donovan, Annals, i. 16.

[172] RC xv. 439.

[173] RC xii. 71.

[174] Professor Rhys thinks the Partholan story is the aboriginal, the median the Celtic version of the same event. Partholan, with initial p cannot be Goidelic (Scottish Review, 1890, “Myth. Treatment of Celtic Ethnology”).

[175] HL 591.

[176] CM ix. 130; Campbell LF 68.

[177] RC xii. 75.

[178] US 211.

[179] D’Arbois, ii. 52; RC xii. 476.

[180] RC xii. 73.

[181] RC xii. 105.

[182] RC xxii. 195.

[183] Larmime, “Kian, son of Kontje.”

[184] See p. 78; LL 245b.

[185] Mannhardt, Mythol. Forsch. 310 f.

[186] “Fir Domnann,” “men of Domna,” a goddess (Rhys, HL 597), or a god (D’Arbois, ii. 130). “Domna” is connected with Irish-words meaning “deep” (Windisch, IT i. 498; Stokes, US 153). Domna, or Domnu, may therefore have been a goddess of the deep, not the sea so much as the underworld, and so perhaps an Earth-mother from whom the Fir Domnann traced their descent.

[187] Cormac, s.v. “Neith”; D’Arbois, v. 400; RC xii. 61.

[188] LU 50. Tethra is glossed badb (IT i. 820).

[189] IT i. 521; Rhys, HL 274 f.

[190] RC xii. 95.

[191] RC xii. 101.

[192] See p. 374.

[193] D’Arbois, ii. 198, 375.

[194] HL 90-91.

[195] HL 274, 319, 643. For Beli, see p. 112, infra.

[196] Whatever the signification of the battle of Mag-tured may be, the place which it was localised is crowded with Neolithic megaliths, dolmens, etc. To later fancy these were the graves of warriors slain in a great battle fought there, and that battle became the fight between Fomorians and Tuatha De Dananns. Mag-tured may have been the scene of a battle between their respective worshippers.

[197] O’Grady, ii. 203.

[198] It should be observed that, as in the Vedas, the Odyssey, the Japanese Ko-ji-ki, as well as in barbaric and savage mythologies, Maerchen formulae abound in the Irish mythological cycle.


This is taken from Religion of the Celts.





Copyright © World Spirituality · All Rights Reserved