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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 165

One of the most marked characteristics of the Celtic Elysium is its deathlessness. It is "the land of the living" or of "the Ever-Living Ones," and of eternal youth. Most primitive races believe that death is an accident befalling men who are naturally immortal; hence freedom from such an accident naturally characterises the people of the divine land. But, as in other mythologies, that immortality is more or less dependent on the eating or drinking of some {377} food or drink of immortality. Manannan had immortal swine, which, killed one day, came alive next day, and with their flesh he made the Tuatha Dé Danann immortal. Immortality was also conferred by the drinking of Goibniu's ale, which, either by itself or with the flesh of swine, formed his immortal feast. The food of Elysium was inexhaustible, and whoever ate it found it to possess that taste which he preferred. The fruit of certain trees in Elysium was also believed to confer immortality and other qualities. Laeg saw one hundred and fifty trees growing in Mag Mell; their nuts fed three hundred people. The apple given by the goddess to Connla was inexhaustible, and he was still eating it with her when Teigue, son of Cian, visited Elysium. "When once they had partaken of it, nor age nor dimness could affect them." Apples, crimson nuts, and rowan berries are specifically said to be the food of the gods in the tale of Diarmaid and Grainne. Through carelessness one of the berries was dropped on earth, and from it grew a tree, the berries of which had the effect of wine or mead, and three of them eaten by a man of a hundred years made him youthful. It was guarded by a giant. A similar tree growing on earth—a rowan guarded by a dragon, is found in the tale of Fraoch, who was bidden to bring a branch of it to Ailill. Its berries had the virtue of nine meals; they healed the wounded, and added a year to a man's life.1273 At the wells which were the source of Irish rivers were supposed to grow hazel-trees with crimson nuts, which fell into the water and were eaten by salmon.1274 If these were caught and eaten, the eater obtained wisdom and knowledge. These wells were in Erin, but in some instances {378} the well with its hazels and salmon is in the Other-world, and it is obvious that the crimson nuts are the same as the food of the gods in Diarmaid and Grainne.

Why should immortality be dependent on the eating of certain foods? Most of man's irrational ideas have some reason in them, and probably man's knowledge that without food life would come to an end, joined to his idea of deathlessness, led him to believe that there was a certain food which produced immortality just as ordinary food supported life. On it gods and deathless beings were fed. Similarly, as water cleansed and invigorated, it was thought that some special kind of water had these powers in a marvellous degree. Hence arose the tales of the Fountain of Youth and the belief in healing wells. From the knowledge of the nourishing power of food, sprang the idea that some food conferred the qualities inherent in it, e.g. the flesh of divine animals eaten sacramentally, and that gods obtained their immortality from eating or drinking. This idea is widespread. The Babylonian gods had food and water of Life; Egyptian myth spoke of the bread and beer of eternity which nourished the gods; the Hindus and Iranians knew of the divine


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