The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 160

A brief résumé of the principal Elysium tales is necessary as a preliminary to a discussion of the problems which they involve, though it can give but little idea of the beauty and romanticism of the tales themselves. These, if not actually composed in pagan times, are based upon story-germs current before the coming of Christianity to Ireland.

1. The síd Elysium.—In the story of Etain, when Mider discovered her in her rebirth, he described the land whither he would carry her, its music and its fair people, its warm streams, its choice mead and wine. There is eternal youth, and love is blameless. It is within Mider's síd, and Etain accompanies him there. In the sequel King Eochaid's Druid discovers the síd, which is captured by the king, who then regains Etain. Other tales refer to the síd in similar terms, and describe its treasures, its food and drink better than those of earth. It is in most respects similar to the island Elysium, save that it is localised on earth.

2. The island Elysium.—The story of the voyage of Bran is found fragmentarily in the eleventh century LU, and complete in the fourteenth and sixteenth century MSS. It tells how Bran heard mysterious music when asleep. On waking he found a silver branch with blossoms, and next day there appeared a mysterious woman singing the glory of the land overseas, its music, its wonderful tree, its freedom from pain and death. It is one of thrice fifty islands to the west of Erin, and there she dwells with thousands of "motley women." Before she disappears the branch leaps into her hand. Bran {364} set sail with his comrades and met Manannan crossing the sea in his chariot. The god told him that the sea was a flowery plain, Mag Mell, and that all around, unseen to Bran, were people playing and drinking "without sin." He bade him sail on to the Land of Women. Then the voyagers went on and reached the Isle of Joy, where one of their number remained behind. At last they came to the Land of Women, and we hear of their welcome, the dreamlike lapse of time, the food and drink which had for each the taste he desired. Finally the tale recounts their home-sickness, the warning they received not to set foot on Erin, how one of their number leaped ashore and turned to ashes, how Bran from his boat told of his wanderings and then disappeared for ever.1234

Another story tells how Connla was visited by a goddess from Mag Mell. Her people dwell in a síd and are called "men of the síd." She invites him to go to the immortal land, and departs, leaving him an apple, which supports him for a month without growing less. Then she reappears and tells Connla that "the Ever-Living Ones" desire him to join them. She bids him come with her to the Land of Joy where there are only women. He steps into her crystal boat and vanishes from his father and the Druid who has vainly tried to exercise his spells against her.1235 In this tale there is a confusion between the síd and the island Elysium.

The eighteenth century poem of Oisin in Tír na n-Og is probably based on old legends, and describes how Niam, daughter of the king of Tír na n-Og, placed geasa on Oisin to accompany her to that land of immortal youth and beauty. He mounted on her steed, which plunged forwards across the sea, and brought them to the land where Oisin spent three {365} hundred years before returning to Ireland, and there suffering, as has been seen, from the breaking of the tabu not to set foot on the soil of Erin.1236

In Serglige Conculaind, "Cúchulainn's Sickness," the goddess Fand, deserted by Manannan, offers herself to the hero if he will help her sister's husband Labraid against his enemies in Mag Mell. Labraid lives in an island frequented by troops of women, and possessing an inexhaustible vat of mead and trees with magic fruit. It is reached with marvellous speed in a boat of bronze. After a preliminary visit by his charioteer Laeg, Cúchulainn goes thither, vanquishes Labraid's foes, and remains a month with Fand. He returns to Ireland, and now we hear of the struggle for him between his wife Emer and Fand. But Manannan suddenly appears, reawakens Fand's love, and she departs with him. The god shakes his cloak between her and Cúchulainn to prevent their ever meeting again. In this story Labraid, Fand, and Liban, Fand's sister, though dwellers on an island Elysium, are called síd-folk. The two regions are partially confused, but not wholly, since Manannan is described as coming from his own land (Elysium) to woo Fand. Apparently Labraid of the Swift Hand on the Sword (who, though called "chief of the síde", is certainly a war-god) is at enmity with Manannan's hosts, and it is these with whom Cúchulainn has to fight.1238

In an Ossianic tale several of the Fians were carried off to the Land of Promise. After many adventures, Fionn, Diarmaid, and others discover them, and threaten to destroy the land if they are not restored. Its king, Avarta, agrees to the restoration, and with fifteen of his men carries the Fians to Erin on one {366} horse. Having reached there, he bids them look at a certain field, and while they are doing so, he and his men disappear.1239

3. Land under Waves.—Fiachna, of the men of the síd, appeared to the men of Connaught, and begged their help against Goll, who had abducted his wife. Loegaire and his men dive with Fiachna into Loch Naneane, and reach a wonderful land, with marvellous music and where the rain is ale. They and the síd-folk attack the fort of Mag Mell and defeat Goll. Each then obtains a woman of the síde, but at the end of a year they become homesick. They are warned not to descend from horseback in Erin. Arrived among their own people, they describe the marvels of Tír fa Tonn, and then return there, and are no more seen. Here, again, the síd Elysium and Land under Waves are confused, and the divine tribes are at war, as in the story of Cúchulainn.

In a section of the Ossianic tale just cited, Fionn and his men arrive on an island, where Diarmaid reaches a beautiful country at the bottom of a well. This is Tír fa Tonn, and Diarmaid fights its king who has usurped his nephew's inheritance, and thus recovers it for him.1241