Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race
Page: 115In the Ultonian Cycle it will have been noticed that however extravagantly the supernatural element may be employed, the final significance of almost every tale, the end to which all the supernatural machinery is worked, is something real and human, something that has to do with the virtues or vices, the passions or the duties or men and women. In the Ossianic Cycle, broadly speaking, this is not so. The nobler vein of literature seems to have been exhausted, and we have now beauty for the sake of beauty, romance for the sake of romance, horror or mystery for the sake of the excitement they arouse. The Ossianic tales are, at their best,
They lack that something, found in the noblest art as in [pg 255] the noblest personalities, which has power “to warn, to comfort, and command.”
The Coming of Finn
King Cormac mac Art was certainly a historical character, which is more, perhaps, than we can say of Conor mac Nessa. Whether there is any real personage behind the glorious figure of his great captain, Finn, it is more difficult to say. But for our purpose it is not necessary to go into this question. He was a creation of the Celtic mind in one land and in one stage of its development, and our part here is to show what kind of character the Irish mind liked to idealise and make stories about.
Finn, like most of the Irish heroes, had a partly Danaan ancestry. His mother, Murna of the White Neck, was grand-daughter of Nuada of the Silver Hand, who had wedded that Ethlinn, daughter of Balor the Fomorian, who bore the Sun-god Lugh to Kian. Cumhal son of Trenmōr was Finn's father. He was chief of the Clan Bascna, who were contending with the Clan Morna for the leadership of the Fianna, and was overthrown and slain by these at the battle of Knock.
Among the Clan Morna was a man named Lia, the lord of Luachar in Connacht, who was Treasurer of the Fianna, and who kept the Treasure Bag, a bag made of crane's skin and having in it magic weapons and jewels of great price that had come down from the days of the Danaans. And he became Treasurer to the Clan Morna and still kept the bag at Rath Luachar.
Murna, after the defeat and death of Cumhal, took refuge in the forests of Slieve Bloom, and there she bore a man-child whom she named Demna. For fear [pg 256] that the Clan Morna would find him out and slay him, she gave him to be nurtured in the wildwood by two aged women, and she herself became wife to the King of Kerry. But Demna, when he grew up to be a lad, was called “Finn,” or the Fair One, on account of the whiteness of his skin and his golden hair, and by this name he was always known thereafter. His first deed was to slay Lia, who had the Treasure Bag of the Fianna, which he took from him. He then sought out his uncle Crimmal, who, with a few other old men, survivors of the chiefs of Clan Bascna, had escaped the sword at Castleknock, and were living in much penury and affliction in the recesses of the forests of Connacht. These he furnished with a retinue and guard from among a body of youths who followed his fortunes, and gave them the Treasure Bag. He himself went to learn the accomplishments of poetry and science from an ancient sage and Druid named Finegas, who dwelt on the river Boyne. Here, in a pool of this river, under boughs of hazel from which dropped the Nuts of Knowledge on the stream, lived Fintan the Salmon of Knowledge, which whoso ate of him would enjoy all the wisdom of the ages. Finegas had sought many a time to catch this salmon, but failed until Finn had come to be his pupil. Then one day he caught it, and gave it to Finn to cook, bidding him eat none of it himself, but to tell him when it was ready. When the lad brought the salmon, Finegas saw that his countenance was changed. “Hast thou eaten of the salmon?” he asked. “Nay,” said Finn, “but when I turned it on the spit my thumb was burnt, and I put it to my mouth.” “Take the Salmon of Knowledge and eat it,” then said Finegas, “for in thee the prophecy is come true. And now go hence, for I can teach thee no more.”